Claire Merritt pulled up her deep Northeast Georgia roots in the early 1920s, went to New York and married legendary baseball star Babe Ruth.
She became a celebrity herself as the wife of the most famous New York Yankee, but kinfolk back home always had some questions about some of the stories they’d heard about her.
Northeast Georgia relatives, some of them Banks County Rylees, cleared up much of that mystery recently with a reunion of sorts with Claire’s grandson, Tom Stevens. They met with him over lunch at Lake Lanier Islands. Stevens was visiting a son, Britt, who lives in North Atlanta.
Brothers Jerry and Jack Rylee of Gillsville were among those who attended and had some of their questions answered. Kelly Williams, another relative who lives in Forsyth County, had found Stevens, a civil engineer who has built bridges all over the world, on an internet search.
The Merritts at one time lived on Asbestos Road in White County. Claire’s father was Jim Merritt, who practiced law in Gainesville. They also lived in Jefferson for a time. Her mother was Carrie Rylee Merritt. One of Jim Merritt’s clients was another famous baseball player, Ty Cobb of nearby Royston. The story goes that because Claire was so attractive even at a young age, while trying a case her father would seat her on the front row of the courtroom to distract an all-male jury while the opposing lawyers argued their side.
She was such a striking beauty that she married Frank Hodgson of Athens, a man twice her age, and she had his child, Julia, at age 16. The marriage didn’t work out, and his uncle gave her $100 to start a new life in New York. One hundred dollars went further than it would today, and she carried her mother, two uncles and daughter Julia with her.
Stories circulated for years that Claire worked in an Athens bank and slipped money to her mother, who sewed it up in a mattress for the New York trip. Illogical and unlikely, as Tom Stevens confirmed. Another story he said was untrue was that his grandmother was robbed of the $100 on the train trip. Nor did Claire Merritt join the Ziegfeld Follies because she wasn’t tall enough, Stevens said. Rather, she became a model and “a three- or four-line actress.”
Babe Ruth had been separated from his first wife, Helen Woodford. They hadn’t divorced supposedly because Babe had been raised in a Catholic reform school. The director of the play “Oklahoma!”, in which Claire played a minor role, introduced Babe to her in 1923. They began a relationship, eventually marrying in 1929 after his first wife died in a fire.
Ruth was known for leading a wild lifestyle, careless with his money and with drinking. Claire is said to have settled him down somewhat, getting him out of bars and managing his finances.
He adopted Claire’s daughter Julia in 1930, and she adopted his daughter, Dorothy, by his first wife.
Babe Ruth died in 1948 at age 53. Claire Merritt Ruth never remarried, mainly because she was proud of being Ruth’s widow and didn’t want to change her name. She continued to participate in New York Yankee and other baseball events long after her husband’s death.
Claire died in 1976. Her daughter, Julia Merritt Ruth Stevens, is now 98 years old and lives between homes in Las Vegas and New Hampshire.
Jerry Rylee, retired Hall County State Court solicitor and second cousin to Claire Merritt Ruth, says the Rylees also are kin to another baseball legend, the late Johnny Mize of Demorest. His grandmother was Emma Rylee Mize, sister of James Madison Rylee, Claire Merritt Ruth’s uncle. Emma Mize is buried in Gillsville Cemetery. Jerry Rylee said Emma Mize of Demorest was visiting relatives in Gillsville when she died. Because it was winter, and roads were bad, they decided to bury her in the Rylee plot in Gillsville Cemetery. When her husband Frank died, they buried him at the foot of her grave, but with no marker. Jack Rylee later provided a tombstone.
Kelly Williams, a Claire Merritt Ruth relative, who put together the gathering with Claire’s grandson, Tom Stevens, also is kin to baseball legend Ty Cobb.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.