One Denverite's Encounter with the Great Bambino

Sportswriter Tommy Holmes once said of Babe Ruth, “I stopped talking about the Babe for the simple reason that I realized that those who had never seen him didn’t believe me.” This sentiment holds true today. Most know the name Babe Ruth, but many don’t fully understand the fascination and awe that he inspired as a player—even after his retirement from the game in June of 1935.

Babe Ruth shaking hands with James Capillupo

Denver Post photo from 1927 of Babe Ruth shaking hands with James Capillupo.

Courtesy the Capillupo family.

Ruth was the most celebrated athlete of his time and the first great slugger to play the game. After six years with the Red Socks (1914–19), he played for the Yankees from 1920 to 1934, leading that team to seven American League pennants and four World Series titles. He retired from the Boston Braves after one last season.

After 22 years in the major leagues, Ruth’s stats included: 2,873 hits, 714 home runs (including 60 in 1927 alone, a record that would stand until Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961), 506 doubles, 2,174 runs, 2,213 RBI, a .342 batting average, a .474 on-base percentage and a .690 slugging percentage.

Impressive stats, raw talent, power and a larger-than-life personality drew massive crowds when the Babe played. In Colorado he made the news often. In 1927 the Longmont Daily Times reported fans traveling to Denver to see Babe Ruth (and Lou Gehrig) in action. Advertisers used his name to promote products and services—a 1926 Longmont National Bank ad asked readers, “What if ‘Babe’ Ruth does earn more than the President?” The bank went on to tell them to be grateful they lived in a country where a baseball hero could become a millionaire overnight, so they should start saving! Did the Babe earn a million overnight? Well, no, but he did earn $52,000 in 1926 for playing ball, plus $100,000 for his vaudeville appearances that year.

Special appearances and exhibition games proved key sources of income. Perhaps the most famous Ruth off-season event was the 1927 barnstorming tour right after the Yankees swept the Pirates in the World Series. Ruth’s barnstorming team, the “Bustin’ Babes,” consisted mostly of local amateurs and minor leaguers. His team and Lou Gehrig’s, the “Larrupin’ Lous,” played 21 exhibition games in nine states. Ruth and Gehrig traveled 8,000 miles, played before 220,000 fans and—according to a November 11 article in the Times of Munster, Indiana, anyway—autographed 5,000 baseballs.

To see the Babe play was memorable; to meet him, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Denver native James Capillupo did meet the baseball legend, after winning a Denver Post homerun contest in October of 1927 as an 18-year-old. Born in Sheridan, Wyoming, Capillupo was an avid baseball player who won the contest after hitting several home runs at the exhibition game attended by Ruth and sponsored by the Post. Capillupo not only met Babe Ruth, he got an autographed baseball signed by the Great Bambino himself!

James Capillupo

James Capillupo, Denver North High Yearbook, 1928.

The son of Francesco “Frank” and Caterina Granato Capillupo, James had settled with his family in Colorado around 1920. By 1930, Frank was working in Denver as a street cleaner and James as a packer in a dry goods store. The family lived on West 32nd Avenue in Denver’s Little Italy. In 1936, James married Ruby Rotola. The couple had seven children.

In 1954, James and his brother-in-law, Albert Rotola, opened the Wazee Supper Club on 15th and Wazee Streets. From its historic 1880s building that once housed a saloon, the club offered downtown workers comfort food and a friendly atmosphere. Rotola and Capillupo ran the club until 1974, when they sold it to the Karagas Brothers, the owners of My Brother’s Bar. James Capillupo died in Denver in 2002 at the age of 93.

The author thanks James Bullock and Lenora Capillupo Bullock for their assistance in writing this post.

The Play Ball! exhibit at History Colorado Center includes a few items that once belonged to “The Great Bambino” including a glove and a handprint taken by a palm reader. Visit by January 6, 2019 to have your own encounter with the legendary Babe Ruth!