‘Babe Ruth Slept Here’ and Other Yankee Yarns
Slugger Babe Ruth, the Iron Horse Lou Gehrig, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio and… best-selling author Dennis Lehane. Three are Yankees and the fourth is “a Yankee.” All are part of the Old Northeast lore of colorful characters and notable people who’ve passed through the neighborhood. However, separating fact from fiction is tricky.
The Great Bambino is referenced so often HONNA could sell signs saying “Babe Ruth Slept Here.” It might be a real moneymaker, given the number of places he’s said to have hung his cap over the course of fifteen springs in St. Pete. From the Flori de Leon Apartments (where he and Gehrig rented dualling penthouses) to the Jungle Country Club Hotel to the Snell Isle Apartments, the Babe got around. One house he rented is undergoing a renovation of Ruthian proportions.
In a 1969 St. Petersburg Times article, Harry Woods recalls renting the home at 346 16th Ave NE to Ruth, his wife Clair, and his stepdaughter Dorothy. While doing some work on the house Woods found a whiskey bottle under the floor that he could only attribute to the Babe. In the current real estate boom, the modest home might have been a tear-down if not for its history with the Sultan of Swat. Instead, the House that Ruth Rented should perhaps become known as the House that Maureen Stafford Rebuilt.
Stafford bought the house two years ago. She has been renovating historic homes for four decades, but the amount of work this rehab has entailed surprised even her. To see it underway is to see a house being built within a house. Termite damage was so extensive that nearly everything except the front wall, the roof rafters and substrate has been replaced. Stafford is reinstalling east-facing windows that were removed, and she is converting the garage into living space. A prior owner who put in a deep pool saved money by spreading the excavated dirt around the property, choking the air circulation under the house, and creating drainage issues.
Don’t mistake Stafford for a “flipper” looking to make a quick buck. The “Babe Ruth House” will undergo over two years of work in an area where an empty lot can cost as much as seven figures.
“When it’s done, I need to get close to $2 million to come out ahead,” Stafford says. It’s a tall order for a cozy three-bedroom house, even in a market that remains hot despite rising interest rates. Whoever buys it can trust the quality of the work, as Stafford is known for hiring excellent craftsmen. She recounted a piece of advice she got from Barry Flaherty, a contractor who’s worked on many historic St. Pete buildings. “He told me early on: ‘Build relationships. That’s what you rely on in this business.’” Gesturing to the carpenters installing fresh wood siding, she said, “I couldn’t do it without the wonderful work of excellent craftsmen who can solve problems as we go.”
It was the fact that Babe Ruth was a spring tenant that drew her to the project. She knew she was probably the only chance the home had to be saved. “I’m either a saint or a fool,” she said with a laugh.
Another nearby Yankee haunt is only a memory. Until 2004, a log cabin stood on a large lot at 746 14th Ave NE. The cabin was an oddity in the neighborhood, erected in 1936 during the Great Depression, when home building in St. Pete was slow. Newspaper accounts from when it was removed say that it was owned by a Yankee fan named Chester G. Myers who turned it over to the team each spring to be used as a clubhouse during the era of Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.
In 2004, the property went up for sale and the owner offered the cabin for free to anyone who would take it away and preserve the piece of history. A gentleman stepped forward with plans to reassemble the cabin near Thonotosassa. Whether this ever happened is doubtful. A 2006 Tampa Tribune article said the logs were sitting in shipping containers and the owner hoping for a historic designation that would get him around modern building codes. Google Street View of a property associated with the owner reveals no cabin. Attempts to reach him on social media went unanswered.
Not All Yankees Play Ball
Two and a half blocks away, another house that may or may not rest in its original location hosted plenty of Yankees, but probably not the pinstripe variety. The home at 1330 Cherry Street was the subject of a 2007 article in this paper that speculated the house was actually older than the 1919 date listed in property records and was a fishing lodge originally located somewhere along Beach Drive. Unnamed old-timers speculated that it was moved to its present location after the hurricane of 1921 to get away from the next flood. The story is bolstered by phrases like “legend has it” and cites – but does not name – an 81-year-old gentleman who heard these stories from his father.
The further we get from the events in question, the harder it becomes to find the answers. If this home was moved, there’s no evidence on the property card. Rumors of a fire or flood that destroyed property records are likely greatly exaggerated. A hard look at early Sanborn maps doesn’t reveal any structures that might have been relocated, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, as homes were moved without fanfare in those days. Old newspaper ads reveal that the home was once divided into rooms to be rented, and the chance that anglers were among its visitors is likely. Its 1919 construction date certainly explains the high ceilings and transom windows that are less common in the many 1925 homes in the Old Northeast.
What the writer of that 2007 story didn’t know was that the home’s next owner would be a bestselling author whose books have been made into major films. Boston native, Eckerd College graduate, and frequent visiting instructor Dennis Lehane bought the home in 2007 and lived there for several years before moving to 20th Avenue and ultimately leaving for Southern California. Lehane is known for Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone, Live by Night (set in Ybor City), and many others that didn’t make it to the silver screen.
Tiffany McAlister is the Realtor handling the home’s market listing. She pointed out the back porch, built on a slant. Is it to drain fish guts from the cleaning of the daily catch? Or was it just meant to handle a mundane rainstorm? It probably doesn’t matter, because the house’s decorative windows, large screened front porch, quirky upstairs bedroom space, swimming pool, and features designed to battle Florida’s warm weather make it a truly special home that has received the right care for more than a century. But did Babe Ruth clean a tarpon on the back porch? Maybe!