It seems that no matter where you travel in New Jersey, just about every town has a bar that has a tale to tell about baseball great Babe Ruth having stopped in for a drink at one time or another in the saloon’s history. Ruth’s fondness for alcohol is almost as legendary for his batting prowess at the ballpark. An avid sportsman both on and off the field, Ruth spent much of his free time in the upper reaches of New Jersey hunting, fishing and golfing. And no matter where he went, he always seemed to find a lot of friends to drink with and a local tavern where he felt right at home.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Jr. (1895–1948), spent 22 seasons in baseball’s Major Leagues. Throughout his long career, Ruth set records for home runs, batting average, and runs batted in. His slugging would help win the New York Yankees seven pennants and four World Series titles.
Ruth dominated the era in which he played, helping the popularity of the game to explode during the 1920s. His charismatic personality made him a larger than life figure in the Roaring Twenties, and he was the first true American sports celebrity superstar whose fame transcended baseball. Off the field, he was famous for his charity, but also was noted for his flamboyant and sometimes reckless lifestyle.
In 1934, Ruth played his last complete season. By this time, years of high living were starting to catch up with him. But while his running and fielding skills may have suffered, he could still handle a bat, and continued to hit balls out of the park. He finally retired in 1935, and in the following year became one of the first five players to be elected into the National Baseball Hall Of Fame.
Babe In The Woods…And In The Bars
Babe Ruth had been visiting northern New Jersey and just over the state line in Greenwood Lake, NY, throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, to relax, hunt, fish, golf, gamble…and drink. He continued to do so into his retirement years and all around the area there are bars, taverns, saloons and roadhouses that have a story of Babe Ruth to tell.
Greenwood Lake lore tells of the Babe enjoying many happy years visiting the lakeside hotel, the New Continental, where he always stayed in Room 3 (his team number while playing for the Yankees). He kept his boat docked at Anton’s On The Lake, a country inn and marina located at 7 Waterstone Road.
The Stanhope House in Stanhope, NJ was also a place where the Babe was known to imbibe. The club’s booking agent, Michael “Sweets” Ambrose, told Bar Time, “We do have evidence that it [The Stanhope House] was a speakeasy. We found booze buried in the dirt floor in the basement. We had an elderly gentleman come in just looking around one day, and he told us a story about how his father used to come here and bring him. This was in the 1920s or the 1930s. His father used to come in on vacations, and sitting at the bar would be Babe Ruth. We also know that Babe Ruth used to lead the Stanhope Memorial Day Parade and he would apparently pop in here, in the heyday.”
The stories of the speakeasy, the liquor in the basement, and Babe Ruth’s presence can all be confirmed by a single Prohibition era photo that depicts a smiling Babe standing in the Stanhope House basement, holding a baseball bat in one hand and leaning on it as if it were a cane. In his other hand the Bambino holds a bottle of beer.
Pals Cabin, the 81-year-old West Orange landmark restaurant, which closed earlier this year and has since been demolished, was another favorite Jersey haunt of Ruth’s. Pals opened in 1932, when ‘pals’ Marty Horn and Roy Sale teamed up to open a tiny 10-by-12-foot hot dog stand at the corner of Prospect and Eagle Rock Avenues. During the Great Depression they sold dogs for a dime. Ruth would sometimes visit to scarf down some franks and a few beers after a round of golf at the nearby Crestmont Country Club.
The “Sultan Of Swat” In Sussex
In the quiet hamlets of Sussex County, the Babe’s recreational activities were the stuff of legend back in the days when resorts like the Culvermere once dotted the rural countryside. One of the Babe’s favorite hangouts in the northwest corner of the state was a place called McKeown’s, a bar and restaurant located at Culver Lake on Route 206 in Branchville. He visited regularly to toss back a few cold ones and enjoy the house specialty, duck dinners. McKeown’s remained in operation until 2005 when it was purchased by the current owners, Dino Vlachos and Pete Dorizas, who changed the name to the Blue Ribbon, where you can still find photos of the Babe proudly displayed just inside the front door.
But perhaps the Babe’s very favorite Jersey watering hole of all was a modest waterfront tavern on the shores of Lake Kittatinny called Gyp’s. It’s located just a little ways up Route 206 from the Blue Ribbon on the fringes of Stokes State Forest. Established in 1943, Gyp’s is a small rustic log cabin bar, nothing fancy, and certainly not the kind of place you’d expect to walk into and find one of the most famous celebrities of his day sitting and drinking beer. But the Babe was there, and there’s a display case full of photos of him in the bar to prove it. One of the pictures, an 8×10 portrait of Ruth in his Yankee uniform, is autographed to the then owner of the tavern, which reads, “To Pal Gyp, Sincerely Babe Ruth.” Ruth had befriended the owner of the bar and the two men enjoyed many hunting and fishing trips together when Babe visited the area. Other photos in the display case show Gyp and Babe turkey hunting and partying together.
Prior to 1943, George “Gyp” Roselli owned a bar right next door to the present day Gyp’s, which is now the location of the Stokes Forest Sport Shop. Gyp once adorned the walls behind the bar with large photos of himself and the Babe fishing at the nearby Flatbrook River. It’s rumored that the local game wardens made sure to stock the stream with extra trout just prior to Babe’s arrival.
Bob Edwards, the current owner of Gyp’s, purchased the bar from George Roselli’s widow after Gyp passed away in 1971. Bar Time paid Gyp’s Tavern a visit earlier this year, and spoke with Bob over a beer about the history of the bar and its most famous patron.
Bob, had you been coming to Gyp’s prior to purchasing the place in 1974?
Yeah, I lived in Franklin, which is only about 15 miles from here, and I used to come over here hunting and fishing with my dad. We’d stop here and have lunch––he’d have a “lunch” and I’d have a regular lunch. I met Gyp quite a few times, because I started coming here when I was 10 years old, and I’m 72 now, so that was about 1951.
Almost all of these bars were closed up during the winter, except for Gyp’s and the Layton Hotel, which stayed open all year. McKeown’s would close right after Labor Day.
Is the Layton Hotel where Babe stayed when he visited the area?
No, I believe he stayed at the Hercules Gun Club in Walpack.
What other bars do you think he might have visited that were around back then?
Probably the Hainesville Inn in Sandyston, there was another place called the Lucky Strike, I would imagine he went to the Culvermere, because they were bringing up music from down around the city, big band music and that. But they’re not open anymore. Almost all of those places are gone now.
You have to remember, back then it took maybe two, two and a half hours to get up here. So when he got here, he’d hunt and fish and spend a lot of time here. He spent a lot of time in Walpack too, that’s where a lot of these photos were taken.
Do you get many people stopping in to see the photos in your collection?
Oh, absolutely, tons. People loved him. He gave a lot of stuff to the kids, baseballs and gifts. He took care of the kids pretty much up here, from what I’ve been told over the years. You know, there were a lot of things always said about him; about his drinking and all that stuff, but from what I’ve always heard about him, he did a lot for the kids in the area.
In the early 1940s, Babe Ruth’s health began to deteriorate and doctors cautioned him to take better care of himself. He grudgingly limiting his drinking and travel, but still continued to make regular trips to his usual haunts in Sussex County. Then in 1946, he began experiencing severe pain over his left eye, and had difficulty swallowing. In November 1946, tests revealed that he had an inoperable malignant tumor at the base of his skull and in his neck. He was discharged from the hospital in February, having lost 80 pounds.
On August 16, 1948 at 8:01 p.m., Babe Ruth died in his sleep at the age of 53. Instead of a wake at a funeral home, his casket was taken to Yankee Stadium, “The House That Ruth Built,” where it remained for two days. 77,000 people filed past to pay their respects. Babe Ruth has since become widely regarded as perhaps the greatest baseball player who ever played the game and one of the most legendary sports heroes in American culture. He loved drinking and living it up on the Jersey side, and New Jersey’s bar owners and patrons loved him right back.
(Photo via the Bettmann Archive)