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The Day Babe Ruth Played in Vancouver's Rain

'If these people can take the weather, so can we,' Ruth told his all-stars. 'We're gonna give 'em a ball game.'

Tom Hawthorn 21 Oct 2014TheTyee.ca

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria writer and a frequent contributor to The Tyee. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.

It rained the day Babe Ruth came to town. It was not a misty rain, or even a shower, but a pounding, drenching, rainforest downfall. It was not a day to play baseball.

Ruth lounged in his suite at the Hotel Vancouver, where he was joined by his second wife, Claire Hodgson Ruth, a former showgirl, and his 18-year-old stepdaughter, Julia, whom he had adopted when he married her mother five years earlier.

Down in the lobby, boys armed with papers and pens and pencils scurried from elevator to entrance in search of other famous guests. The players of the Orillia Terriers championship lacrosse team were staying at the grand hotel, as was former world heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney, who was in Vancouver to check on his holdings in the British Columbia mining industry.

Ruth was not only the ball player at the inn. "Mighty Bambino Heads Baseball's Greats in Town," stated a front-page headline in The Province. An all-star team of American League greats had been organized to play a tour of Japan. Gathering in Chicago, the group barnstormed across the western half of the continent, playing exhibition games on the prairies and along the coast.

Eighty years ago, on Oct. 20, 1934, the greatest collection of baseball talent ever assembled in Vancouver boarded the sleek Empress of Japan for a transoceanic journey. They counted among their numbers eight future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as a backup catcher who has entered baseball lore as a spy.

Before they set sail, the team, known as the All-Americans, was scheduled to play an exhibition game at Athletic Park, an intimate ball park built of wood on an escarpment overlooking False Creek. With home plate near the corner of Fifth Avenue and Hemlock Street, the park's right field ended abruptly at Sixth Avenue, where houses on the south side of the street offered rooftop views of the action within. The diamond was set within a rectangular Vancouver block, so left field stretched as far as Birch Street, an endless, rolling expanse of scrubby wild grass.

The day's deluge turned the outfield into a rice paddy and the dirt infield into a mud pit.

The game seemed certain to be cancelled. At the hotel, Cornelius McGillicuddy, Sr., the owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics and better known as Connie Mack, decided the weather was so poor he might take in a movie at the theatre. Word eventually reached the hotel about the scene at the ball park. The stands were filling up and people were lining up to buy tickets to get in. In an age before television, when the farthest western reach of major-league baseball was St. Louis, it was a rare opportunity for fans to see the stars in the flesh. Gods do not often visit diamonds in far-off seaports. The players had to put on a show in spite of the terrible weather.

Wisecracks and beanball

The trip across the continent had not been without incident.

On Oct. 8, a squad led by Earle Mack, a former player who was Connie Mack's son, stopped in Winnipeg to play a doubleheader against a team billing itself as the North Dakota All-Stars. The Dakota team featured local minor leaguers and Negro Leagues players. A mixed race team was forbidden in Organized Baseball, but these offseason exhibitions afforded a rare chance for the best white and black players to play against one another.

The major leaguers cruised through the first game, winning 9-0, and were leading 14-2 in the second game in Winnipeg before the Dakotans rallied with late runs before losing 15-10.

While Dick Porter of the Boston Red Sox hit three home runs in the games and left-handed teammate Rube Walberg, who had gone to high school in Seattle, gave up no runs in eight innings of solid pitching, the star of the day was a former player who now coached and moonlighted as a baseball clown, an early version of the San Diego Chicken.

Al Schacht "stole the show," reported the Winnipeg Free Press. "The Washington coach had the crowd in an uproar before the games with his antics and wisecracks."

Almost as an afterthought, the correspondent noted Jimmie Foxx hit one of his trademark moonshots over the clubhouse of Sherburn Park for a home run before suffering "a slight injury." The Free Press offered no details, but the Philadelphia Athletics slugger had taken a pitch by Barney Brown to the head. Foxx was knocked out at home plate. The unconscious player was taken from the field to Winnipeg General Hospital, where he spent four days recuperating before catching a train to join the team in Seattle, where he stepped on the field for an exhibition game with a bandage wrapped around his head, still groggy from his concussion.

'Come on, boys, let's go'

The conditions in Vancouver were treacherous. The players kept their sweaters and jackets on as they half-heartedly warmed up along the third-base line. Across the infield, a young collection of local semiprofessionals looked in awe on players they had only seen on newsreels and in the newspaper.

"We were overwhelmed when we saw Ruth and these fellers," Billy Adshead, an infielder, told me 20 years ago on the 60th anniversary of the game. "All of us wanted to be big league ball players and here they were in the flesh right in our own park."

Ruth gave up great comfort to make it to the park. He had been photographed in striped pajamas and a garish nightgown as he lounged in the sitting room of his suite at the hotel. He had been spotted smoking a pipe, enjoying a roast duck dinner, and getting a shave for which he tipped a grand 25 cents.

In the pouring rain, he stepped towards the packed wooden grandstand. "Shall we start?" he bellowed, and a crowd of 3,000 roared in approval.

"Come on, boys, let's go," Ruth said to his teammates. "If these people can take the weather, so can we. We're gonna give 'em a ball game." His enthusiasm was quenched a bit by the third inning, when he sloshed off the field before ringing his ball cap in the dugout. "If anyone ever told me that I'd do this," he said, "I'd have told them I'd have to be crazy first."

Ruth tried to swat one of his trademark homers, but only managed two long foul balls, though one was struck so deep down Hemlock it was said in the next day's report to have been sent on its way south to Marpole.

The local all-stars tried hard, but the professionals did not take the exhibition seriously.

"They hammed it up to beat all hell," the sports writer Don Tyerman, who covered the event, once told me. "There was nothing serious about the game. I sat back in the stands and enjoyed it."

On the field, Al Schacht, the baseball clown, used a megaphone to imitate a radio broadcaster calling the game while wearing his trademark "swallow-tailed coast and crushed silk hat which poured water from the brim every time he bent over."

Wet hall-of-famers

In the next day's newspaper, first baseman Lou Gehrig would be portrayed playing first base in boots while holding an umbrella in his throwing hand. The other stars included second baseman Charlie Gehringer, outfielders Earl (The Earl of Snohomish) Averill and Heinie Manush, pitcher Lefty (Goofy) Gomez. Foxx, his head still aching, skipped the game. Those six would join Ruth and Mack as inductees in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Another player at the game was a converted pitcher who became a slugger named Lefty O'Doul, who was making a return trip to Japan. "If it hadn't been for the Babe none of us would be here, you can bet your wet shirt on that," he said in the dugout. "Say, this Vancouver is some kind of ball town, isn't it?" Twenty-two years later, O'Doul would become the first manager of the storied Vancouver Mounties.

A far less accomplished athlete on the trip was catcher Moe Berg, a Princeton graduate and an odd character who refused to read a newspaper that had been opened by anyone else. A teammate once noted Berg could speak seven languages but was unable to hit in any of them.

(The home movies Berg took of the Tokyo skyline in 1934 were used eight years later to help guide the bombers in the famous Doolittle raid. During the Second World War, Berg served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. He was the subject of Nicholas Dawidoff's terrific 1994 biography, "The Catcher was a Spy.")

The Vancouver game ended on an odd, run-scoring double play involving two runners caught in hot-box rundowns. The double play was completed in unorthodox fashion -- shortstop to third to catcher to pitcher to first. (That's 6-5-2-1-3 if you're scoring at home.) With that play in the bottom of the ninth, with Schacht the clown on the mound, the game ended as a 2-2- draw. No one had the appetite for extra innings in a downpour.

On to Japan

The next day, the players boarded the liner on the Vancouver waterfront for the 12-day voyage to Yokohama. Newsreel operators and still photographers gathered on the decks to capture the moment. Ruth posed with his wife and daughter. He also posed next to Connie Mack, the Bambino swapping his newsboy's cap for Mack's distinguished bowler.

It was to be a rare holiday for Ruth, who was always in demand. His respite would be short-lived, as the liner docked a short time later at Victoria's Rithet Pier (site today of the Coast Guard station). "WELCOME BIG LEAGUERS," the Daily Colonist trumpeted on the front page.

"Boys of all sizes and ages, yes, and of several colours, followed the big leaguers from the ship to the dock and back again, the latter good-naturedly acceding to all requests, making the youngsters pretty happy," the newspaper reported. "Nor was the autograph hunting confined to the 'teen-age citizens of the city. Young men and women were just as eager when they saw how easy the small boys were getting away with the racket."

The 581 passengers included the players and several wives, pulp-and-paper manufacturers, an ambassador's daughter, the editor of a Berlin newspaper, and a Salvation Army commissioner, who was given a rousing dockside sendoff by a Salvationist band. After just 90 minutes in Victoria, the Empress set sail for Japan, where the All-Americans would go undefeated in 16 games on their tour. (In one game, 18-year-old schoolboy Eiji Sawamura became a national hero for striking out Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx in a row. He died eight years later when his troop ship was struck by a torpedo.)

Before retiring to his three-room, first-class cabin, which cost a princely $3,000, Ruth was asked how he expected to do against Japanese pitching.

"I've been knocking baseballs around for 21 years," he said, "and I guess I'll knock a few more in Japan."

He did so, and was celebrated by baseball-mad Japanese, though the cry of "To hell with Babe Ruth!" would be heard during the war. On the news of the sneak attack of Pearl Harbor, Ruth threw his souvenirs from the tour into the garbage.

No one yet knew it, but the 39-year-old outfielder had played his final game in Yankees pinstripes. He would finish his playing career by hitting just six more home runs with the Boston Braves in 1935 for 714 in total. He died of cancer in 1948.

Athletic Park lasted only a few more years than the Babe. It was torn down to be replaced by an on-ramp for the Granville Street Bridge in the early 1950s.

Ruth's daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, was given the honour in 2008 of throwing out the ceremonial opening pitch in the final game at old Yankee Stadium, known as the House that Ruth Built. Earlier this year, she threw out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game. The man we all know as Babe she still calls Daddy. She is 98, a last living witness to Ruth's visit to Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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