“Owww, ya &$&# $&%& #$%#!”
– Blessing by shade tree mechanic in Peoria, Ill., after the wrench slipped and said mechanic busted his knuckles. Mechanic was arrested for obscenity.
“Owww, ya mutha rue!”
– Blessing by shade tree mechanic in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, after the wrench slipped and said mechanic busted his knuckles. Mechanic wasn’t arrested but was met with an offer of assistance from a friend: “Where y’at, Ant’ny? Need some help wid dat?”
You don’t hear it as much anymore, but there was a time when few New Orleanians could get by without the expletive, “mutha rue!”
It is time to give Melvin Leslie Rue his due for having imbued the lingua franca of our fair city with a generous share of gentility and grace that has been passed down, with little fanfare, through the years.
Perhaps, without even knowing it, Rue was – and has been for generations now – a major contributor to the Pygmalion aspirations of the moms of the children of the Garden District, longshoremen and cabbies alike.
Most amazingly, Rue accomplished this linguistic miracle without having to resort to the pretentious sesquipedalian tortures of Professor Henry Higgins.
“I have to admit, I get upset sometimes,” says Bush Ferguson, a longtime denizen of Uptown and who, as an ex-Marine, has learned a few choice words of his own along the way. “But when I’ve been in mixed company, I use ‘mutha rue’. Some of the ladies appreciate that! All these years, I never knew where that word came from! I use that as much as I use ‘where y’at’ or ‘wasshapp’nin’!”
Truth is, the fount of this graceful swear word flows from the 5-foot-6-inch (“I used to be 5-foot-8, but I’m 83 years old and you shrink with age”) Rue, the former shortstop for the long defunct New Orleans Pelicans Class AA baseball team was also called (among other things), “Charlie Hustle,” long before Pete Rose ever made it to the Cincinnati Reds.
“There was this big blondish woman used to sit down the third base line,” Rue recalls. “She’d come with a friend of hers and she used to really let me have it. I really don’t know why. She just zeroed in on me and yelled, ‘Ya mutha rue!’ all the time. Well, one night she got hit with a wicked line drive foul ball right in the chest. They had to stop the game for a while. She was OK but she never came back to a Pelicans’ game as far as I know.”
Still, the origin of the phrase may go back further than that big blonde at the now long gone Pelican Stadium on the corner of South Carrollton and Tulane avenues. Rue scrunches up his face and rubs his chin.
“I grew up in the 3rd Ward,” he says. “Banks Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway. Everybody in the neighborhood loved baseball and we used to play on that huge neutral ground on Jeff Davis. I never weighed more than 130 pounds, and the guys always called me ‘Runt’ and ‘Mouse.’ I didn’t mind. I just made up for what I lacked in size with hustle. I had a friend named Billy Fitzpatrick – he’s gone now – but I remember doing something and Billy yelled, ‘Ya mutha rue!’ That phrase kinda stuck and it spread. Next thing I know I’m with the Pelicans and I’m hearing it at Pelican Stadium.”
And back in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when all pasta was still called “spaghetti” and a French fried potato poor boy from Martin Bros. Restaurant was considered gourmand fare, “mutha rue” entered New Orleans’ lexicon forever.
That was when Mel Rue, a tiny kid at S.J. Peters High School, was convinced by George Digby, then-baseball coach at Holy Cross, to cross the Industrial Canal and play for the Tigers. Digby was hooked by the “hustle” he saw in Rue. Years later, as a scout for the Boston Red Sox and on his way to becoming a scouting legend, Digby would love the hustle he saw in another player he signed – Wade Boggs.
Hustle or no hustle, there was one hangup with Rue playing for Holy Cross – he would have to sit out a year.
“I just didn’t want to do that,” Rue says. “I had already lost a year because of illness. I decided all I would need in life was math and English and I already had learned enough of those two subjects. At 17, I went to a tryout put on by the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was at Pelican Stadium.”
Wid Matthews, another scouting legend who was known as having “a Ph.D in baseball” couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw this mousey kid who had already been cut by two high school baseball teams take the field. Matthews’ mouth dropped open at the persistence and precise defensive performance put on by Rue and assigned him to the Dodgers farm team in Olean, N.Y. By the next baseball season, Rue had moved up to the Pelicans – playing back where it all started.
“I loved being back in New Orleans doing what I did best – playing baseball,” Rue says. “I’d see people I knew and grew up with. They were always slapping me on the back. It was wonderful. I loved baseball season.”
One reason Rue loved “baseball season” was because at that time of year he didn’t have to worry about the blackouts that hit him during the cold, rainy winters.
Rue spent six years as a fixture with the Pelicans and over his career made stops in Memphis; Indianapolis; Reading, Penn; Macon, Ga.; and Lincoln, Neb. Memphis is memorable only in that it was at that stop that Rue tore the cartilage in his right knee. “I played on that knee for four years,” Rue says. “It hurt like hell but I kept going. Still, as time went on I knew then that I had lost a step and this could be the beginning of the end if not the end,” Rue says. “I didn’t want to just hang around if I couldn’t give it everything I had. I was always known for my hustle but now I just couldn’t hustle as much. I was playing in Lincoln. I’m on first and our guy hits a line drive to the score board. I was thrown out at second by one full stride. That’s the stride I had lost. I knew it was time. There were only 30 days left in the 1954 season at the time, and I knew I had to wrap it up. That’s the way it ended.”
As with most professional athletes, the end came hard for Mel Rue. “Mel the Hustler,” 5-feet-8-inches and 130 pounds, beat tremendous odds and lived life his way and never gave the game he loved less than 100 percent of his efforts, and himself.
“When I was at Olean for a year, I remember something I had heard from Branch Rickey,” Rue says. “I never forgot that. He said, ‘Remember, this game owes you nothing. You’ll take from it exactly what you put into it.’”
Rue never made it to the big leagues, but where he played, he gave his all. Over 13 seasons he had a .256 batting average and a .943 fielding percentage. He played in every Pelicans game during the teams’ fabulous 1947 season when they drew more than 400,000 fans and lost the league championship by mere percentage points.
After he retired, Rue took his watchmaker brother’s advice and set up shop repairing timepieces in his home. He now lives comfortably in a townhouse with, Dottie, his wife of 63 years.
“It all went by so fast,” he says. “I remember so many of those guys. Those were such good times.”
Rue lounges back in his chair and a slight smile crosses his face. In an instant, he’s back on “The Greens” – the wide neutral ground on Jefferson Davis Parkway. He is playing against the likes of Lenny Yochim, Zeke Bonura and George “Bo” Strickland. He talks about being coached by Jake Pitler, who nurtured such Dodger talents as Carl Furillo and Peewee Reese and of Luke Appling, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays – all future stars back then.
“I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” Mel Rue says.
And so do we.
On Christmas Eve, when your next door neighbor is high on a ladder putting together that swing set in the backyard and the wrench slips and he busts his knuckles and yells out, “mutha rue!,” a simple, “Thank you, Mel!” will suffice.