by Robert A. Waters
On the evening of May 3, 1933, a cloudburst opened up over Passaic, New Jersey. Rocked by thunderous flashes of lightning, the Passaic Home and Orphan Asylum stood at the center of the storm. Six boys, worried that their makeshift baseball field might wash away, observed the gale from the asylum’s windows. Called “inmates,” the boys were: Jacob Merinizek, 12; Johnny Murdock, 11; Douglas Fleming, 14; Rudolph Borsche, 15; Frank Mazzola, 14; and Michael Mazzola, 11.
Baseball was their passion, and Babe Ruth their hero. They were disappointed that the day before, their beloved New York Yankees had lost to the Detroit Tigers 3-2 and Ruth went hitless in three attempts.
Founded by members of the Presbyterian Church, Passaic Home and Orphan Asylum was located on 238 River Drive. It “provided residential care for 47 orphan and deserted white and Negro children, age 4-14,” according to a 1933 and 1934 state census.
Time magazine reported that as the deluge continued, the six orphans “cunningly approached their matron. Didn't she want to know if the rain had damaged her garden? She did. She said they might go out if they were careful to put on raincoats and rubbers.”
After determining that the garden had no damage, the boys checked their ball diamond. To their relief, it was fine, too.
Then they glanced over at the nearby Erie Rail Road. Perhaps with dreams of riding the rails, each boy knew the schedule of every train that passed. A commuter train from Jersey City was due in just a few minutes, at 8:10 p.m.
The newspapers never reported which of the boys first spotted the damaged railway. But someone saw that “a washout had completely carried away the ballast from under a section of track.” About fifty feet of rails and ties dangled in the air.
The boys never hesitated—they rushed toward the track. Ahead, they spied the train’s spotlight coming through darkness. Waving their raincoats, the boys shouted for the train to stop. They heard the squeal of metal on metal, the grinding brakes, and noticed a trail of sparks cutting away from the wheels. The heavy engine shook the earth as it ground to a halt.
It was only then that Engineer John McGlin realized the disaster that had been averted. Had the train traveled a few more feet, the 500 passengers on board may have been killed.
The story of the “orphan heroes” was written up in newspapers across the country, and the baseball boys were recognized as heroes.
Erie Rail Road officials gave each of the boys medals and a Lionel Train set. Time reported that “Passaic's small heroes met some of their big heroes at the circus in Manhattan. Clyde Beatty, tamer of lions and tigers, shook their hands and gave autographs. Hugo Zacchini, the human cannonball, greeted them. [Boxer] Gene Tunney came over to say hello. [Heavyweight Champion] Max Schmeling invited them to his training camp at Oak Ridge, N. J.”
Later, Babe Ruth (himself an orphan) wrote of meeting the heroic boys: “Remember those kids in that Passaic orphan asylum over in New Jersey three years ago? Looking out of their windows early on that May evening, the flashes of lightning showed them that, with rain falling in torrents, the railroad was washing away. Then one of them remembered that the express out of Jersey City was due any minute. It didn't take Johnny Murdock and his pals more than a second to figure out that there would be a real wreck if that express came through. But there was no trackwalker around and there wasn't time to phone ahead to stop the train. And there was the roadbed washed away from underneath the rails.
“You remember the story. While the lady in charge telephoned for help, the six kids—Johnny Murdock, Jacob Melinizak, Rudolph Borsche, Douglas Fleming, Frank Mazzola and his brother Michael—ran down the track a quarter mile waving their raincoats, refusing to budge from the track, risking their lives to convince the engineer that he either had to stop or run over them.
“It was a real act of quick-thinking heroism. Without question, they saved lives. Remember what Johnny Murdock and his pals said that night when the railroad officials told them they could have almost anything they wanted as a reward?
“They said, ‘We don't want anything special as a reward. But could you please let Babe Ruth know what we did? That's what we'd rather have than anything. We have a ball team here and we'd like him to know that we did something worthwhile, even if we're not great ballplayers. Perhaps we could even meet him.’
“The Yankees, as I recall it, were out in Cleveland. A telegram telling me about the boys and their great stunt woke me up early in the morning out there. I sent them a telegram and wrote them letters, and when we got back into New York, they came over to the Yankee Stadium. I posed for pictures with them and autographed balls and we became real friends. If you could have seen what that meant to them, you'd have a little idea of what I mean. And don't forget that kids all over the country read that story in the newspapers.”
NOTE: John K. Hubbard, son of orphan hero Johnny Hubbard, emailed me with some additional information about his father and graciously gave me permission to publish it.
I came across the above referenced article on your blog of 5/14. I am the son of "Johnny Murdock" in the article. My father passed away in 2010, and as far as I know, all the other boys are dead as well. I have the autographed baseball from Babe Ruth, and the original telegram that was sent to my father. Also have a CD of a 2 minute news reel from when the boys were taken to Yankee Stadium by Babe Ruth. I also have a copy of the NY Times from the day after the event with the story on the front page.
Your presentation of the story is accurate except for one detail. As my father told the story, the train engineer jumped out of the locomotive after he stopped the train an began yelling and swearing at the boys for making him stop the train. When the boys pointed to the collapsed track just ahead, the engineer dropped to his knees and thanked them for what they did.
In a second email, Hubbard continues:
I forgot to mention that the railroad company also sent the boys to the Chicago Worlds Fair and gave them each a savings bond for around $2000.00, a tidy sum for the early 30's. Attached is a copy of the telegraph from Babe Ruth.
You have my permission to publish any of the information I have given you.
When my father was old enough to leave the orphanage, he lived with his older sister for a while and then joined the Navy during WW2. He met my mom while stationed in Chicago, got married, and came back to N.J. after the war. The rest is non eventful...He and my mom raised 4 kids in Wayne and we all lived happily ever after...Well sort of.
John K. Murdock