John Dale "Johnny" Sylvester (April 5, 1915 – January 8, 1990) was an American packing machinery company executive who was best known for a promise made to him by Babe Ruth during the 1926 World Series. Sylvester was seriously ill and hospitalized. Ruth said he would hit a home run on his behalf, which was followed by what was widely reported at the time as Sylvester's miraculous recovery.
Sylvester was born on April 5, 1915, in Caldwell, New Jersey. His father, Horace Clapp Sylvester, Jr., was a banker who by 1926 was a vice president at National City Bank and served as head of its municipal department. Sylvester grew up in Caldwell and moved with his family to a large house in Essex Fells, New Jersey in 1921. At Essex Fells Grammar School, his baseball skills led to his nickname as the "Babe Ruth Kid" and he was a diehard fan of the New York Yankees and its star player, Babe Ruth.1
While at a rented house on the Jersey Shore in Bay Head, New Jersey during the summer of 1926, Sylvester was horseback riding when he was thrown to the ground along with his horse, after the horse had stepped into a hole. The horse tried to stand up and kicked Sylvester in the head. The injury progressed over the summer and by September he had been diagnosed with osteomyelitis in his skull, a condition that is caused by an infection that leads to bone deterioration. Doctors thought that his condition could lead to his death.1 The condition was only one of several that Sylvester was said to be ailing from at the time, which was also variously ascribed to a back problem, blood poisoning, a sinus condition, and either a spinal infection or spinal fusion. The confusion as to the condition affecting Sylvester has led to claims that the entire incident was a hoax.2
Urgent telegrams were sent to Ruth, who was then with the Yankees playing the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1926 World Series. It has been unclear if Sylvester initiated the request himself, or if it had been the idea of his father or uncle as an effort to lift his spirits. Ruth sent back from St. Louis a package that included two balls, one autographed by members of the Yankees and the other by players from the Cardinals. Included was a note from Ruth that read "I'll knock a homer for you on Wednesday", in Game 4 of the series.2
After Ruth hit three home runs in Game 4 on Wednesday, October 6, newspapers reported that Sylvester's condition had miraculously improved. After the Yankees lost the series in seven games, Ruth visited Sylvester at his home in Essex Fells, with Sylvester telling Ruth "I'm sorry the Yanks lost".2
The incident was featured in the 1948 biopic The Babe Ruth Story, but the film took liberties with important facts. First, the film portrayed Ruth visiting Sylvester during the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs rather than the factual 1926 World Series vs the Cardinals. Second, the film has Ruth visiting the Sylvester home in Gary, Indiana in person and shows Ruth in the boy's bedroom telling Johnny that he will hit a home run if Johnny hangs in there rather than the factual account of sending autographed baseballs and a note to Johnny in New Jersey.2 In the 1942 movie The Pride of the Yankees, Gary Cooper portrays Lou Gehrig, who promises a sick youth named Billy that he would hit two home runs at the World Series for the kid.3
Sylvester graduated from Princeton University in 1937 and later served in the United States Navy during World War II, where he reached the rank of lieutenant. He was the president of the Long Island City, Queens-based company Amscomatic Inc., which manufactured packing machinery.2
A new documentary entitled 'I'll Knock a Homer for You: The Timeless Story of Johnny Sylvester and Babe Ruth' sheds light on the famous story of Johnny and the Babe. Made by filmmaker Andrew Lilley, the premiere broadcast aired on NJTV in late 2013.4
- Charlie Poekel, Julia Beth Stevens "Babe & the Kid", p. 33, The History Press, 2007. ISBN 1-59629-267-9. Accessed June 28, 2009.
- Thomas, Robert McG., Jr. "Johnny Sylvester, the Inspiration For Babe Ruth Heroics, Is Dead", The New York Times, January 11, 1990. Accessed June 28, 2009.
- Liebenson, Donald. "Idol worship Why `fan' is short for `fanatic'", The Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1991. Accessed October 23, 2011. "The price of fame is fans. At their best, they can be inspiring, like Little Billy in the hospital in "Pride of the Yankees," for whom Lou Gehrig hits two home runs in the World Series."