A new documentary about a truly, iconic and heroic story is now available – “I’ll Knock a Homer for You: The Timeless Story of Johnny Sylvester and Babe Ruth.” It is written, directed and produced by Sylvester’s great-nephew, Andrew Lilley. Lilley summarizes the story as follows:
“During the World Series of 1926, one of the most enduring baseball legends occurred that has been shrouded in mystique for almost a century. Babe Ruth, at the height of his popularity, promised to hit a home run during Game 4 for an ailing boy named Johnny Sylvester. Ruth delivered on his promise, and one of the most famous human-interest stories was given life. To this day, the story of Babe and Johnny has reached mythic proportions in America’s popular culture. Johnny Sylvester was my great-uncle, and my documentary is the first one ever made on this special story. Through rare interviews with Johnny himself and people familiar with the events, my film will shed light on the promise that became a legend.”
The film elaborates on the story by noting that the famous baseball on which the promise was made still exists. Players from both World Series teams signed the ball for little Johnny who had been kicked in the head in a horse riding accident. The prognosis was not good for Johnny. Yet, under his signature, Babe Ruth committed to knocking a home run for Johnny in Wednesday’s game. Not only did Babe knock a home run, he hit three of them that day. Per Lilley, his great-uncle began to get better. A unique twist occurred later when Ruth was diagnosed with cancer after his playing days were done, none other Johnny Sylvester came to see him to improve his spirits.
I used to believe this was a Hollywood story, yet the heroic promise and delivery was in fact true. Seeing the baseball with its definitive commitment is an amazing thing to behold. You need not be a baseball fan to be moved by this story. For those who do not know a lot about Babe Ruth, know that he grew up in Baltimore at an orphanage. He had a soft spot for kids in need and was a frequent visitor to the children’s wings of hospitals. He is also arguably one of the most gifted athletes of any sport.
As baseball integrated, players got better over time and talent was more pervasive, there are now (and maybe then in the Negro Leagues as they were called) players who are more gifted physically. Yet, when you measure talent, it has to be in terms of the context of the day – his or her competition. When the Babe played, he was both a great pitcher and hitter. He still holds the record as a pitcher for the most consecutive shut out innings in a World Series. He stopped being a pitcher as his hitting skills and results were significantly better than anyone else on the field. He changed the game of baseball, as a result. He was like Wayne Gretzky was to hockey, Wilt Chamberlain was to basketball (with no slight to Michael Jordan, Chamberlain had greater daylight between himself and others when he played) or Jack Nicklaus and later Tiger Woods were to golf. In their hey day, the latter two dwarfed the competition.
So, of all players, the Babe was the best bet to make good on a promise to little Johnny. Yet, hitting a baseball is hard, even if you are Babe Ruth. The hand-eye coordination and anticipation on type of pitch being thrown by someone adept makes it difficult. To hit a baseball well enough to leave the playing field is even harder. But, the Babe hit three home runs that day. And, the better part of the story, Johnny’s health improved and he was there for the Babe later in life. Johnny believed in the Babe and when the Babe delivered on his promise three-fold, the miracle of good spirits took over. There is evidence that shows a person’s attitude toward recovery makes a difference. Johnny wanted to recover against odds and did.