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Julia Ruth Stevens, daughter of baseball great Babe Ruth, dies at 102

Julia Ruth Stevens, right, with her mother, Claire Hodgson Ruth and her adoptive father, Babe Ruth, aboard a cruise ship in the 1930s. (AP)

Julia Ruth Stevens, the adopted daughter of Babe Ruth who became her father’s tireless ambassador and a living link to the larger-than-life baseball slugger often considered the greatest player of all time, died March 9 at an assisted living facility in Henderson, Nev. She was 102.

The cause was a pulmonary embolism, said her son, Tom Stevens.

Mrs. Stevens was 7 when her mother, model and actress Claire Hodgson, met Ruth in 1923. The New York Yankees slugger was then at his peak, setting home run records and transforming the sport of baseball with his power and his buoyant personality.

At the time, Ruth was estranged from his first wife, Helen, but they did not get a divorce because of his Catholic faith. (They had adopted a daughter, Dorothy.)

After Helen died in 1929, Ruth and Claire were married. He adopted 13-year-old Julia soon afterward, and she took his last name. The rest of the country knew her father as the Bambino or the Sultan of Swat, but she remembered him as a strict but fun-loving father who enjoyed cooking breakfast and decorating the family Christmas tree.

“It was wonderful growing up with Daddy, but you have to remember, to me he wasn’t Babe Ruth the ballplayer, he was just Daddy,” she told the Boston Globe in 1998. “He taught me to bowl, to dance — he was a such a beautiful dancer, he really was — but no, he never played catch with me.”

Mrs. Stevens often said that Ruth’s popular image as a vulgar, woman-chasing lout who packed away immense quantities of food and liquor, was nothing like the man she knew — except for the food, that is.

“They portray him as something I didn’t know,” she told the Globe in 1993. “I mean, they’re talking about somebody else; they’re not talking about my father. He was kind, he was caring, and of course, Mother wouldn’t let him, but whatever I would have asked for, he would have given to me.”

As a high school graduation gift in 1934, he treated his daughter to a round-the-world trip, beginning with a sea voyage to Japan, where Ruth was playing in exhibition games.

A year later, Ruth retired from baseball at the age of 40, having hit 714 home runs in his career — a record finally broken in 1974 by Hank Aaron. When Barry Bonds surpassed Ruth’s total in 2006, Mrs. Stevens declined to participate in the official ceremonies, in a quiet protest against Bonds’s suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs.

After his baseball career, Ruth was upset that he was not offered a job as a major league manager, effectively shutting him out of the sport he redefined. Team executives asked, “How can he manage other men when he can’t manage himself?” Mrs. Stevens recalled.

“It was the biggest disappointment of his life,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “He’d come home and ask Mother, ‘Did anyone call?’ meaning anyone interested in him becoming a manager.”

The call never came.

Babe Ruth died in 1948 at age 53. Mrs. Stevens’s mother died in 1976, and her sister, Dorothy Ruth Pirone, died in 1989.

From then on, Mrs. Stevens made it her mission to champion her father and his legacy. She published three books, which included hundreds of family snapshots, and participated in the commercial licensing of Ruth’s name and image. She presented championship trophies at youth baseball tournaments of the Babe Ruth League and often appeared at commemorations of her father at ballparks around the country.

“It seems like it doesn’t make any difference where you go,” she said in 2006. “If you say the name Babe Ruth, people know who he is. I never dreamed his name would be as big today, in many ways bigger, than when he was alive.”

On Sept. 21, 2008, she threw out the first pitch for the final game at the original Yankee Stadium — dubbed the House That Ruth Built, when it opened in 1923, the year she met the man who became her father.

Julia Marshall Hodgson was born July 17, 1916, in Athens, Ga. Her father died when she was a young girl, and she moved with her mother to New York in the early 1920s. Her mother and Ruth lived together for several years before they were married. They had no other children.

In the early 1940s, Julia accompanied Ruth on a golfing trip to North Conway, N.H., where she met her first husband, Richard Flanders. They operated a mountain lodge together until his death in 1949. Her second marriage, to Grant Meloon, ended in divorce.

At different times, she ran a general store and post office in New Hampshire, worked in retail shops, and delivered eggs. Her third husband, poultry farmer Brent Stevens, died in 2004 after 49 years of marriage.

Survivors include a son from her second marriage, Tom Stevens (who was adopted by her third husband) of Henderson; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Stevens divided her time between Conway, N.H., and Sun City, Ariz., for many years. She followed baseball closely and made her final public appearance at Boston’s Fenway Park on her 100th birthday in 2016.

She knew Ruth’s records by heart — including his pitching statistics with the Boston Red Sox before he was sold to the Yankees in 1920. That transaction by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee became known as the “Curse of the Bambino.”

After Ruth pitched the Red Sox to victory in the 1918 World Series, the team seemed haunted for decades. Mrs. Stevens and other Red Sox saw the curse lifted in 2004, when Boston won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. In 2018, President Trump posthumously awarded Ruth the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“I miss him even to this day,” Mrs. Stevens said of her father in 2014. “I miss him so much. But his spirit seems to hover over the baseball field.”

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