The Pitch That Killed Cleveland Indian Ray Chapman in 1920

Here, from the New York Times’ game account, is a description of the pitch by Yankee Carl Mays that hit Indians’ shortstop Ray Chapman in a game on August 16, 1920, at the Polo Grounds:

Cleveland’s victory [4-3] was accompanied by a severe blow to their pennant chances, however, for in the fifth inning, Ray Chapman, the star of their infield combination, was hit on the side of the head by a swiftly pitched ball by Carl Mays and was so badly injured that it isn’t likely that he will be able to play again this season. He suffered a severe fracture of the skull and an operation was performed at midnight.

The Indians’ shortstop was the first batsman to face Mays in the fifth, and he was leaning over in a crouching position when Mays let one of his underhanded shoots loose. The ball hit Chapman on the left side of the head. The crack of the ball could be heard all over the stand and spectators gasped as they turned their heads away. The injured player dropped unconscious and a doctor was summoned to his aid. The player was partially revived after a time and attempted to walk to the club house with the aid of two of his clubmates. But his legs doubled up under him again and he was carried to the club house and afterwards taken to St. Lawrence Hospital at 457 West 163d Street.

May Hurt Indians’ Chances.

The loss of Chapman may be a severe blow to Speaker’s club, for he has been one of the most brilliant performers in the club’s dash for the pennant. The only reserve infielders Speaker has are Lunte, an inexperienced youngster who finished the game yesterday, and Evans, who is not a shortstop. . . . [Chapman’s] injury was much the same as that which happened to Chick Fewster of the Yanks, who was hit by Ed Pfeffer of the Dodgers in Florida last March.

The Times’ writer went on, after the game account, to describe Chapman’s condition:

The second part:

Here’s the headlines:

And the box score:

Note the lack of sustained focus on Chapman’s injury in the headlines. The account also devoted almost as much space, three paragraphs, to the three-run Yankee rally in the bottom of the ninth as it did to the beaning.

Published in: on August 23, 2012 at 8:50 am  Comments (2)  
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Lou Gehrig’s Prep Career and Yankees Debut

One of the strong threads on this blog has been looking up the amateur and early pro careers of some of the great baseball players, hopefully not just to answer some trivia questions but to shed some light on who the players were and how they became great. Lou Gehrig appeared in the New York Times on Nov. 3, 1920, when the paper headlined an article: “Commerce Defeats Morris High, 16-7″ The high school had won the Manhattan-Bronx public school football title the previous day.

The Times said, “Bunny Bunora, Commerce captain, and Lou Gehrig, ‘the Babe Ruth of the school,’ contributed the plays which brought Commerce victory. These two players, figuring in practically every action on the field, carried the brunt of the Commerce attack and led their team in defensive work.”

See the box score for this game, played when Gehrig was 17:

That is, Gehrig, playing at left halfback, ran for a touchdown and kicked a field goal. On April 28, 1923, the Times ran this headline of an inter-city  baseball game:

On June 12, 1923, the Times wrote that Gehrig, a “Columbia pitcher, first baseman and outfielder, called by Coach Carris of Pennsylvania and other critics the ‘best college player since George Sisler,'” had signed a contract with the Yankees. The paper added:

It took only until June 15, 1923 for Gehrig to make his MLB debut in a Yankees win, 10-0, over the Browns. The Times: “Miller Huggins sent Lou Gehrig, the Columbia University slugger, to first base in the ninth, and Lou conducted himself in faultless fashion. He had little to do, but did it well and seemed to know something about playing first base. His only chance was an easy grounder by Tobin which Lou snapped up and then stepped on first base for the final putout of the game.”

Wally Pipp, starting at first, went 2-4 with a double. Gehrig was just shy of 20 in mid-June 1923. This post, by the way, is a bookend for a post on this blog from a while ago, covering Gehrig’s famous 1939 farewell speech.

Published in: on August 4, 2012 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Celebrating Baseball Old-Timer Lena Blackburne

In February I started a project on this blog of asking people to name their favorite obscure baseball figure: it can be a player, manager, umpire, or anyone else employed by pro baseball. My choice is Lena Blackburne, for several reasons. His rubbing mud is the industry standard; his endearing nickname (his real name was Russell Aubrey Blackburne); him getting the White Sox’s first two hits at the real, original Comiskey Park, him pitching for the first and only time in the majors at age 42: that was his last game, in 1929. He hit a single to win a 1927 game when he was 40 and the temporary White Sox manager in place of an ejected Ray Schalk; he died on Leap Day 1968 at 81; he was a baseball lifer, who worked for the Philadelphia and Kansas City A’s, into his 70s, as a scout for the A’s. Lena covered practically the full spectrum of baseball jobs: infielder, pitcher, coach, manager, scout, entrepreneur. He was a baseball man, one of the old-timers who help keep MLB together, and he was also apparently a strong-minded, proud, tough man, which is a nice contradiction of his feminine nickname.

Here’s what Jim Bintliff, who now runs the Baseball Rubbing Mud enterprise Lena started in about 1939, had to say about his character:

“Having only met Lena as a young boy I don’t know a lot of his history. I do know he was a hard nosed German man. Proud and fair, and could be as gentle as he could be tough.

“I was told a story about him walking in a snowstorm one night to get medicine for a sick player on his minor league roster while he was a manager. But I also heard that he sent one player packing for not reacting to every pitch while playing left field. He was a die hard American Leaguer, not even offering to let the National League have his mud until the late 40’s early 50’s. I know he had the first official hit in Cominsky Park.”

A Look at Ty Cobb in 1924

Back in 1994, the Washington Times reprinted its 1924 profile of Cobb to commemorate the 1924 Senators, the last Washington team to win a World Series. It appeared sometime in the late summer of 1924. Here it is:

At 6 feet 1, he looked to be about 175 pounds. His face, once lean and tight, was round and a bit jowly. His hairline stood back a good ways from his forehead, and there were deep lines around his eyes and mouth. His face, neck and hands were baked hard by the sun.

When he had finished with the papers, he turned his attention to an interviewer. After 19 years in Detroit, his voice still has a Georgia twang. His manner was friendly. Away from the field, Cobb can be engaging. He’s keen-witted and a good conversationalist.

“I remember we were the first team Walter Johnson ever pitched against us,” he said with a smile. “It was Aug. 2, 1907, and we ragged the rube [Johnson was raised on a farm in Kansas] as the game started, mooing like cows and yelling, `Get the pitchfork ready – the hayseed’s on his way back to the barn.’ But then we saw him throw. It was the most threatening sight I ever saw on a ballfield.

“We managed to beat Walter that day only because we bunted on him and he couldn’t field them. Afterward, several Tigers went to club officials and urged them to buy Johnson. I told [owner] Frank Navin, ‘Even if it costs $25,000, get him.’ They didn’t listen to us.”

The question of his retirement came up. Cobb will be 38 in December. His personal fortune is estimated at between $5 million and $7 million, the result of shrewd dealings in the commodities market and investments in Coca-Cola and automobile manufacturers. He has won about every honor there is to win in baseball.

“I can see the finish, and it’s not far off,” he said. “Frankly, my eyes are not what they used to be. I’ve had to remodel my stance to see better. But where I’ve reached the end of my rope is my nervous system. I get tired and stale. I no longer have the energy to do the things I used to do. The old energy is gone.”

It was a remarkable statement, though similar to ones he’s made in recent years. Since taking over as manager of the Tigers in 1921 and continuing as a full-time player, Cobb often has talked of retirement. Managing has been hard on him. He’s been criticized for trades he has made and for his inability to handle players, particularly pitchers.

“He lacks the patience to make allowances for men who don’t think as fast as he does or have his mechanical ability,” a knowledgeable baseball man said. “Like so many other great performers, he is impatient with stupidity, lack of ambition and lack of what he considers normal baseball ability.”

But to see him on the field, at bat or running the bases, is to wonder if the man ever will lose that “old energy” and truly grow old.

Currently, he is hitting .355 and again challenging for the American League batting title. Though not the base stealer that he once was, Cobb continues as a great base runner.

“The standing rule in baseball is to throw the ball one base ahead of Ty,” said second baseman Eddie Collins of the Chicago White Sox. “It’s no joke.”

And Cobb is every bit as intense and controversial as ever.

This season he’s being accused of ordering his pitchers to throw at the heads of opposing batters, a charge he denies.

The New York Yankees blame Cobb for a near-riot in Detroit last month after Bob Meusel was hit by a pitch. They insist Cobb ordered the beaning from his position in center field, another charge Cobb denies.

In Philadelphia in May, Cobb punched a stadium attendant after words were exchanged.

It seems every month there’s a new story or accusation. It has been that way since 1905, his first year with Detroit: Cobb punches someone, Cobb spikes someone, Cobb feuds with teammates.

“I don’t take any pride in the popular picture of me as a spike-slashing demon with a wide streak of cruelty in him,” Cobb said. “The fights I’ve been in have been slanted to put me in the wrong. I’ve never looked for trouble.”

He hasn’t had to. Trouble has been a constant companion, attracted no doubt by his fanatic drive to excel and a playing style that approaches viciousness.

For all his accomplishments – 12 batting titles, three seasons over .400, 18 consecutive years over .300, eight 200-hit season, to name a few – Cobb is, and probably will continue to be known as much for his personality as for his abilities.

“He behaves as if he was fighting the Second Battle of Bull Run,” is the way one writer characterized him.

Cobb does not deny or make excuses for his aggressive behavior. He insists, however, that the characterization of him as some sort of monster is incorrect and blames the press.

“The charges that I’m a dirty player, that I wage war in the guise of sport come from those anointed with press cards,” he said.

The evidence suggests otherwise, though. A few examples:

* During the tight pennant race of 1909, Cobb spiked Philadelphia Athletics third baseman Frank Baker, opening a 10-stitch cut in Baker’s leg. During a series in Philadelphia, Cobb required a police escort to and from the park because of threats on his life.

* St. Louis Browns third baseman Jimmy Austin once tagged Cobb out at third by knocking his foot from the base after a slide. Cobb lay on the ground, looked up at Austin and said, “Mister, don’t you ever dare do that no more.”

* After one game, Cobb fought umpire Billy Evans under the stands. According to a witness to the episode, teammates had to pry Cobb’s fingers from Evans’ throat.

* Two of his more famous off-field incidents involved slashing a waiter with a knife in a Cleveland restaurant and beating up a delivery boy who had brought groceries to his home.

Through it all, Cobb insists that his actions have been justified.

“I do retaliate, that I freely admit,” he said. “If any player takes unfair advantage of me, my thought is to strike back as quickly and effectively as I can and put the fear of God into him. Let the other fellow fire the first shot. I’ll go looking for him. And when I find him, he’ll regret his act and rarely repeat it.”

Published in: on July 23, 2010 at 6:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Dazzy Vance No-Hitter (Nearly Back-to-Back No-Hitters) in 1925

Dazzy Vance of the Brooklyn Dodgers (or Robins, as they were then called), pitched a no-hitter on September 13, 1925. The New York Times’ Richards Vidmer noted: “Reaching back behind him were seven more hitless innings left over from last Tuesday, when he held the same [Philadelphia] Phils to one lone hit.” Vance nearly pitched back-to-back no-hitters, the feat Johnny Vander Meer is known for, but the Phillies’ Chicken Hawks had “ruined an otherwise perfect game for Vance last week” with a second-inning hit. Vidmer added a bold prediction: “Almost as sure as daylight follows dawn he will some day turn in a perfect performance and take his place with those other immortals, Addie Joss, Cy Young, and Charlie Robertson, the only three in modern times who have accomplished the feat.”

The only thing I have to add to Vidmer’s account is that the discounting of pro baseball in the 1800s as pre-modern and not quite fully valid was already in place before the 20th century was even one-fourth of the way through. The perfect games by John Ward and John Richmond in June 1880 did not even warrant a mention by Vidmer.

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 3:36 am  Leave a Comment  

J.D. Salinger and Baseball

If you’re a devoted Salinger fan, you probably know about his apparent appreciation for baseball. With the news of his death, I thought I’d mention that his “The Laughing Man” story in Nine Stories is primarily set on a baseball field in Central Park. The Chief (aka John Gedsudski) was “most cordially invited to try out for the New York Giants’ baseball team” before becoming, in 1928, the leader of the Comanche Club: in other words, the afternoon caretaker of 25 boys about 10 years old. The Chief, who’s 22 or 23, and attending NYU’s law school, has a girlfriend, Mary Hudson. One day in March Mary comes down to New York City and takes up a centerfield position in the Club’s ball game at the Park.

Salinger says that in her first at-bat (ninth in the order), Mary “swung mightily at the first ball pitched to her and hit it over the left fielder’s head. It was good for an ordinary double, but Mary Hudson got to third on it–standing up.”

He adds: “The rest of the game, she got on base every time she came to bat. For some reason, she seemed to hate first base; there was no holding her there. At least three times, she stole second.

“Her fielding couldn’t have been worse, but we were piling up too many runs to take serious notice of it. I think it would have improved if she’d gone after flies with almost anything except a catcher’s mitt. She wouldn’t take it off, though. She said it was cute.”

Pete Rose Being Banned From Baseball in 1989

Here’s the statement of Pete Rose on being banished from organized baseball in August 1989: I’d like to apologize for this controversy lingering on into the ’89 season. I hope it didn’t detract from the championship season of the 12 teams in the National League and I hope it didn’t detract from the All-Star Game. I know now it won’t detract from the upcoming playoffs and the showcase of baseball, the World Series.

I made some mistakes and I think I’m being punished for those mistakes. However, the settlement is fair – especially the wording that says they have no finding that I bet on baseball. It’s something I told the commissioner back in February and I’ve told you people the last four months.

My only regret up to this time is I will not have the opportunity to tell my side of the story. However, I would add, I will tell my side of the story in the very near future.

I’d like to thank you people, as members of the media, for understanding me as a player, for trying to understand me as a manager. I’m hoping that you would give the guy that replaces me the benefit of the doubt as he takes over a very young, banged up baseball team.

My life is baseball. I hope to get back into baseball as soon as I possibly can. I’m looking forward to that. I’ve never looked forward to a birthday like I’m looking forward to my new daughter’s birthday, ’cause two days after that is when I can apply for reinstatement.

And here’s the statement of Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti:

The banishment for life of Pete Rose from baseball is the sad end of a sorry episode. One of the game’s greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts. By choosing not to come to a hearing before me, and by choosing not to proffer any testimony or evidence contrary to the evidence and information contained in the report of the Special Counsel to the Commissioner, Mr. Rose has accepted baseball’s ultimate sanction, lifetime ineligibiliy.

This sorry episode began last February when baseball received firm allegations that Mr. Rose bet on baseball games and on the Reds’ games. Such grave charges could not and must never be ignored. Accordingly, I engaged and Mr. Ueberroth appointed John Dowd as Special Counsel to investigate these and any other allegations that might arise and to pursue the truth wherever it took him. I believed then and believe now that such a process, whereby an experienced professional inquires on behalf of the Commissioner as the Commissioner’s agent, is fair and appropriate. To pretend that serious charges of any kind can be responsibly examined by a Commissioner alone fails to recognize the necessity to bring professionalism and fairness to any examination and the complexity a private entity encounters when, without judicial or legal powers, it pursues allegations in the complex, real world.

Baseball had never before undertaken such a process because there had not been such grave allegations since the time of Landis. If one is responsible for protecting the integrity of the game of baseball – that is, the game’s authenticity, honesty and coherence – then the process one uses to protect the integrity of baseball must itself embody that integrity. I sought by means of a Special Counsel of proven professionalism and integrity, who was obliged to keep the subject of the investigation and his representatives informed about key information, to create a mechanism whereby the integrity we sought to protect was itself never violated. Similarly, in writing to Mr. Rose on May 11, I designed, as is my responsibility, a set of procedures for a hearing that would have afforded him every opportunity to present statements or testimony of witnesses or any other evidence he saw fit to answer the information and evidence presented in the Report of the Special Counsel and its accompanying materials.

That Mr. Rose and his counsel chose to pursue a course in the courts rather than appear at hearings scheduled for May 25 and then June 26, and then chose to come forward with a stated desire to settle this matter is now well known to all. My purpose in recounting the process and the procedures animating that process is to make two points that the American public deserves to know:

First, that the integrity of the game cannot be defended except by a process that itself embodies integrity and fairness; Second, should any other occasion arise where charges are made or acts are said to be committed that are contrary to the interests of the game or that undermine the integrity of baseball, I fully intend to use such a process and procedure to get to the truth and, if need be, to root out offending behavior. I intend to use, in short, every lawful and ethical means to defend and protect the game.

I say this so that there may be no doubt about where I stand or why I stand there. I believe baseball is a beautiful and exciting game, loved by millions – I among them -and I believe baseball is an important, enduring American institution. It must assert and aspire to the highest principles – of integrity, of professionalism of performance, of fair play within its rules. It will come as no surprise that like any institution composed of human beings, this institution will not always fulfill its highest aspirations. I know of no earthly institution that does. But this one, because it is so much a part of our history as a people and because it has such a purchase on our national soul, has an obligation to the people for whom it is played – to its fans and well-wishers – to strive for excellence in all things and to promote the highest ideals.

I will be told that I am an idealist. I hope so. I will continue to locate ideals I hold for myself and for my country in the national game as well as in other of our national institutions. And while there will be debate and dissent about this or that or another occurrence on or off the field, and while the game’s nobler parts will always be enmeshed in the human frailties of those who, whatever their role, have stewardship of this game, let there be no doubt or dissent about our goals for baseball or our dedication to it. Nor about our vigilance and vigor – and patience – in protecting the game from blemish or stain or disgrace.

The matter of Mr. Rose is now closed. It will be debated and discussed. Let no one think that it did not hurt baseball. That hurt will pass, however, as the great glory of the game asserts itself and a resilient institution goes forward. Let it also be clear that no individual is superior to the game.

Published in: on September 21, 2009 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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An Obituary for Cool Papa Bell

James (Cool Papa) Bell, the sharp-eyed batter and blazing base runner who was widely regarded as the fastest man ever to play baseball, died Thursday night (March 7, 1991) in St. Louis University Hospital, where he had been treated after suffering a heart attack last Saturday. He was 87 years old and after his retirement as a player in 1946 spent 21 years as custodian and nightwatchman at St. Louis City Hall. He never played in the major leagues because of baseball’s ban on black players, but he became one of the most adored and acclaimed legends of the game after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell played baseball professionally from 1922 to 1946 for the St. Louis Stars, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Detroit Wolves, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Chicago American Giants, the Memphis Red Sox and the inappropriately named Homestead Grays, who rattled around Pittsburgh for a number of pitiful seasons before wandering to Washington.He also served several winter teams throughout Latin America and a variety of barnstorming assemblages trailing county fairs and passing the hat. In the Negro leagues, teams never played more than three games a day. Pitchers seldom registered over 30 starts a month. Cool Papa was a pitcher for a time, then a center fielder.

In the company of Smoky Joe Williams, Cannonball Dick Redding, Steel Arm Dicky, Mule Suttles, Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson and Satchel Paige, monikers were practically mandatory. Cool Papa earned his at 19 with just the trace of a smile, looking in for the sign, before striking out old Oscar Charleston in the clutch. “He’s taking it cool,” whispered someone on the bench. Manager Bill Gatewood eventually added “Papa” for panache.

To the white sportswriters who frequently dropped in on Bell during the 1980s, whenever St. Louis was in the World Series, Cool Papa retold his legend without bluster in a tidy house in a crumbling neighborhood about half as dire as some of the descriptions. Well into his 70s, he listed a trifle to one side. But he jangled gently as he moved, just as Paige had always prescribed, taking care to pacify the stomach with cool thoughts.

“Cool Papa,” Satchel used to say, “why, he was so fast he could turn out the light and jump in bed before the room got dark.” Sometimes, speeding between first and second, Bell had to be careful not to run into his own line drives. And he might score on his own bunt. Once, in Birmingham, where a catcher named Perkins had “Thou Shalt Not Steal” stenciled across his chest protector, Cool Papa took off from first with a laugh. Just as Perkins’s peg reached second base, Cool Papa slid into third.

Cool Papa patrolled so near to second base that he frequently tiptoed in for pickoff attempts. Overthrowing third one time in Memphis, he ran to the base, caught the carom off the dugout roof and completed the only “8-8″ putout in history. “A few guys living today saw it,” he said modestly.

Cool Papa batted over .400 twice: his first season and his last. Never did he hit under .300. Creaky with arthritis near the end, he was just a plate appearance or two shy of qualifying for the batting title at 43, but sat out the season’s final game so Monte Irvin could win it. Jackie Robinson was coming and Irvin was young enough to follow him. “That’s the way we thought back then,” Cool Papa said. “When one made it to the major leagues, we all did.”

The title he gave up would have meant $ 200 in a prearranged bonus. Deluding himself that a black owner should understand, Cool Papa expected the money anyway. But the owner coughed and said: “Well look, Cool, Irvin won it, didn’t he?” Cool Papa smiled that little smile again. “Owners is owners,” he said, “whether they blue or green.”

Gibson was “the black Babe Ruth,” Leonard “the black Lou Gehrig.” But Cool Papa was a prototype. One day in the ’60s, years before he entered the Hall of Fame through its side door, he went to a Cardinals game and waited at the visitors’ gate for Maury Wills. When the Los Angeles shortstop arrived, Cool Papa introduced himself.

“Maybe you heard of me, Mr. Wills, maybe not; it don’t matter,” he said. “But I’d like to help you. When you’re on base, get your hitters to stand as deep as they can in the box. That’ll push the catcher back a bit. It’ll get you another half-step at least.”

Wills was stunned. “I would never have thought of it,” he muttered as Cool Papa waved and walked away. That was the year Wills broke the base-stealing record.

Cool Papa was a custodian at St. Louis City Hall for nine years, the night watchman for 12 more. Then he retired with Clara, organizing their plain life around an annual trip to Cooperstown to cheer the Willie Stargells and Joe Morgans. In recent years, collectors flimflammed the Bells out of most of their mementos, although a few photographs were saved.

Lou Brock said yesterday that every base-stealer should be measured not against him or Rickey Henderson, but against the Negro Leagues legend James “Cool Papa” Bell. “And he was no one-dimensional player,” said Brock, a pallbearer at the funeral in St. Louis for Bell, a fellow Hall of Famer.

“This guy was a .400 hitter and his dream got deferred. I just hope that somewhere in history his performance gets accurately recorded.”

Published in: on September 6, 2009 at 6:09 pm  Comments (3)  

Jimmy Cooney’s Unassisted Triple Play

On July 27, 1994, the Montreal Gazette was inspired to track Jimmy Cooney’s son for a talk about his dad’s unassisted triple play:

When Boston Red Sox shortstop John Valentin made the 10th unassisted triple play in major-league history earlier this month, it brought back a flood of fond memories for 67-year-old Magog resident Bob Cooney.

Cooney’s father, Jimmy (Scoops) Cooney, completed the fifth unassisted triple play in the majors while playing shortstop for the Chicago Cubs in 1927.

“I believe it happened the same way as it did in Boston the other day,” Cooney recalled in a recent interview. “There were runners on first and second and it was a hit-and-run situation.”
Cooney’s triple play came in the fourth inning of a game in Pittsburgh on May 30, 1927. Cooney caught Paul Waner’s liner, stepped on second to retire Lloyd Waner, then tagged Clyde Barnhart off first.

The day after Cooney’s triple play, the Detroit Tigers’ John Neun completed an even rarer unassisted triple play by a first baseman.

“He caught a line drive, stepped on first and the runner from second was already rounding third,” Bob Cooney recalled. “He decided that he could outrace the SOB back to second for the unassisted triple play rather than throwing it. He later admitted that he had read in the paper that day about Dad’s triple play and that’s why he did it.

“The two of them never met,” Cooney added, “but around seven years ago Sports Illustrated put them together on a telephone line for a story.”

Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 5:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Babe Ruth, Movie Actor

Many baseball fans already know about how Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season, apparently to fund his production of the play My Lady Friends in 1920, which became Frazee’s musical, No, No, Nanette, in 1925. But the superstar he sold did some acting of his own. I don’t know when Babe Ruth first appeared on stage or before the movie cameras, but sometime between the end of the 1919 World Series and the start of the 1920 season he had the starring turn in a movie called Headin’ Home. (Strangely enough, in January 1920 the New York Times reported him only playing golf in the Los Angeles area, and said “he has not yet gone into the movies, as reported,” which is just more proof that newspapers aren’t the final arbiters of truth.) This silent movie was released in September 1920, in time for the Babe to have fueled anticipation for it with his massive hitting displays at New York’s Polo Grounds.

I came across Headin’ Home about a month ago, as the feature item in a two-DVD set of early baseball movies called Reel Baseball. It’s 73 minutes long, and the plot is both folkloric and bewildering: Babe is living in Haverlock, a made-up small town, with his elderly mother and a young foster sister named Pigtails. He lives to play baseball and win the heart of Mildred Tobin, the daughter of town banker Cyrus Tobin. Tobin has hired a young pitcher named Harry Knight to pitch for the Haverlock team and work for his bank. There’s a love triangle between Babe, Knight, and Mildred, with her father preferring Knight to Babe. Knight is secretly embezzling money from the old man’s bank, making him the villainous counter to the virtuous but hapless Babe. When the day of the big game with Haverlock’s rival, Highland, arrives, Knight convinces Cyrus to keep Babe off the team, so the Highland manager hires Babe as the replacement for his pitcher, who’s in a drunken stupor and can’t pitch. Babe hits the game-winning homer for Highland, brings Cyrus’s prodigal son, John, back home, saves Mildred from the vicious Knight, and, at the end of the movie, is starring with the Yankees in real 1920 game footage from the Polo Grounds.

In Headin’ Home, Ruth plays a small-town boy, a hick from the countryside; he doesn’t recreate his real-life childhood as a rough Baltimore kid. He’s naïve, pure-hearted, and innocent: at one point, he actually takes a stick of hickory from the forest and whittles it down to make his bat. Despite his game-winning performance, at first the Babe “can’t play ball—until he gets mad one day and knocks his first home run, through a church window five blocks away,” as the New York Times put it in its review.

Interestingly, the character of Harry Knight includes cheating at dice as well as stealing from the bank: he’s portrayed as a grasping, faithless scoundrel without scruples. Knight would clearly throw a game if given the chance, and his character reminded me that the Black Sox scandal unfolded in September 1920, just as Headin’ Home was coming to the screen. In fact, it opened a week-long run at Madison Square Garden on the 19th to a 10,000-strong audience, and on the 28th, Shoeless Joe Jackson confessed to throwing the 1919 World Series. I don’t know to what degree the myth that the Babe saved baseball after the Black Sox scandal is true, but it’s uncanny how this folkloric movie showing him as a plain-hearted hero from the countryside was released the same month that the Sox players were confessing to the corruption of the national sport.

Along with being virtuous, the Babe Ruth of Headin’ Home is also pretty silly and boyish much of the time, and even though the movie’s technically a melodrama, the subtitles furnished by Bugs Baer, a sports humorist of the day, relentlessly undercut any sense of pompousness. Some samples: “Almira Worters thought Babe wuz the handsomest man in town. Haverlock ain’t a big town.”; “Love makes you go through fire and water. Marriage throws water on the fire”; “Babe stayed in Hillsdale long enough to get out. He rose to fame like a comet with two tails.”

In real life, the Babe was, of course, not innocent. He was promised $50,000 for the movie from producers Kessel and Bauman, got $15,000, and went to court to collect the missing $35,000. Boxing promoter Tex Rickard was said to pay $35,000 to screen Headin’ Home at Madison Square Garden. And, in its review of Headin’ Home, Variety (it called the movie “atrocious”) noted that everything “from Babe Ruth phonograph records to the Babe Ruth song, ‘Oh You Babe Ruth,’ which . . . accompanied the picture” was for sale at the Garden. It was apparently the first and, so far as I know, last time Madison Square Garden has been used as a movie venue.

Previously, at the end of August 1920, Ruth had filed another lawsuit and obtained an injunction against a company that was illicitly showing him in game action for a film called Over the Fence. The Babe, who obviously wanted to clear the way for his upcoming movie, asked for $1 million in damages and claimed that as “the greatest home-run batter known to the baseball profession” he was now a public character like the President or a war hero. He lost that lawsuit the next February.

The modern-day equivalent of Headin’ Home might be a movie with Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez emerging from the slums of the Dominican Republic to become a star, win financial security for his extended family, and display his virtue and heroism in the process, all while serving as the foil for continuing jokes. The fact that such a movie is practically unimaginable reminds us of how much has changed in the last 90 years. You can take a look at the Babe, with his rounded face and baggy uniform, choking up on the bat and starring in the first full-length baseball movie I know of to feature an actual player, here:

Published in: on August 13, 2009 at 5:46 pm  Comments (1)  
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