Ruth in 1925; a gut-punch to the Yankees

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Tuesday, June 23, 1925, Senators/Yankees at Griffith Stadium, Washington, DC. The Babe in action, as he advances to third on a flyout by Bob Meusel in the 4th inning after lashing a double off the right field wall, and would eventually score on a sac fly to tie the game at 1-1 (Ossie Bluege is the Sens’ third sacker). Unfortunately for the Yanks and Ruth, it was only the Babe’s 21st game of the season, and with the Yankees 1925 campaign already nearing the midpoint, and the Bombers sitting at 10 games under .500 and in 7th place as the day began (with only the lowly Red Sox behind them), the season was virtually already over, and in reality, Ruth really only had himself to blame.

After rising to prominence in the AL in 1921-22-23, the Yankees slipped to second in 1924, but just barely – after a neck-and-neck race for much of the second half, the Yanks were 2 games back of Washington with two to play, but the Nats split their last two, and a final day doubleheader for the Yankees at Shibe against the Phillies was washed out and eventually cancelled as the Senators mathematically clinched. But the spring of 1925 brought more gloomy skies: Ruth, who seemed to suffer a variety of ailments throughout the spring, shockingly collapsed unconscious coming off a train on April 7, a week before Opening Day (click graphic at right for full article).

ruth25aa.JPGThe Babe, experiencing marital problems, really amped up his wanton ways that off-season, and showed up in Hot Springs, Arkansas in February (a yearly pre-spring training regimen) at anywhere from 243 to 256 pounds, depending on the source. Being overweight and out of shape was not unusual for Ruth, but coupled with a bout of the flu, and suffering a back ailment just after arriving in Arkansas, it was a long road back to playing shape. Then a groin injury in Atlanta in late March, culminating in sever chills added to his trouble – there is much speculation that his groin was the actual location of the malady, either “self-inflicted” or otherwise (he suffered a groin injury in playing that day), but as such things were not press-worthy at the time, the “Bellyache Heard ‘Round The World” was alluded to instead.

Being rushed to New York for examination, and even suffering a blow to the head on the train en route to arrive at Penn Station again unconscious, allowed the press around the world to speculate wildly on his condition (curse those fried potatoes!).

babe-ruth-hospitalizedThe London Times went so far as to announce that the great Ruth had in fact died, reported from rumors that were allowed to circulate unchecked due to the length of the Babe’s long train ride north. While he was far from death, he was more ill than Ruth’s handlers would admit, as they chalked it up to “influenza” and “severe indigestion”, despite needing an operation to treat an “abscess” on April 17.  In fact, many newspapers relayed his numerous severe convulsions upon his arrival in New York (further feeding the private speculation of syphilis), and one of his personal physicians offered some insight into his plight when asked if the Babe kept late hours or slowed down his social life in the off-season – “he’s very careless”, he said with a laugh.

As Ruth’s hospital stay continued to lengthen, the press started to speculate about its effect on the team – “Unless the bats of Ben Paschal and Bob Meusel are tuned to home run pitch, the result of the Babe’s absence may be disastrous”, and they were right. Without a Ruthian bat in the middle of the lineup, the Yankees stumbled out of the gate, going 4-7 in April, and then when it was announced on April 29 that Ruth would not play until June at the earliest, lost their first four in May as the season started to slip away.

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Ruth’s physical therapy was certainly one from another era – on May 20th, and some days afterward, he motored to Yankee Stadium with his chauffeur and members of the Yankees’ staff and would don the Yankee uniform and take BP, with no hospital personnel in sight. It seemed to have helped, as Ruth was finally discharged from the hospital on May 27th, almost 7 weeks since arriving.

ruth25cBy the time Ruth finally returned to the Yankee lineup on June 1 against Washington at the Stadium, the Yanks were 15-25, in 7th place, 13 1/2 games behind the Philadelphia A’s, and 10 1/2 behind the Senators. And while Ruth made a fine catch in right, his presence alone wasn’t enough to stir his teammates to victory, a scenario that would continue to be repeated as the season continued.

Which brings us to June 23 and the contest against the Senators in Washington, as shown in the top photo(s). It turns out this particular game may have had an effect on further developments later in this lost Yankee season.

While Ruth’s line shot off the right field wall set up the tying run in the 4th inning, it was the developments in the 8th inning that would reverberate for a while. With the Yankees down 2 runs in the 8th and the bases loaded, Ruth stepped up against Fred “Firpo” Marberry, who “looked Babe right in the eye and then threw three straight strikes over the plate. Ruth swung, but he did not see.”

After the disappointing at bat, and also beginning to suffer ankle pain that day, Yankee manager Miller Huggins announced the next morning that Ruth would be given a few days off, and perhaps “may play only at intervals this season”. “I am not going to take a chance of ruining Ruth as a player simply because he is a great box office asset,” stated Huggins. Although it appeared that the manager had the Babe’s best interests in mind, Ruth did not appear to take it as such, and was seen “brooding gloomily in a dark corner of the dug-out” that afternoon. While Ruth returned to the lineup on June 27, and again on the 30th, whether it was his disappointment regarding his inability to perform to a high level, or the continued lack of success of the team, he wasn’t a happy camper, and Huggins’ drastic measures didn’t appear to sit well with the Babe.

Ruth did play regularly throughout the summer, but as the team continued to languish, and after a 1-0 loss to the Browns in St. Louis on Friday, August 29th to run a current road trip to a 3-10 mark, it all came to a head.

ruth25dWhen the Yankees took the field on Saturday, Ruth was not present, and initial reports were that Ruth simply deserted the club and had left for New York, but when confronted with this information, manager Huggins disclosed that he had fined (a then record $5000) and suspended the Babe indefinitely, for misconduct “off the field”. “No use putting on that uniform.” he had told Ruth when informing him of the fine and suspension, who promptly left the park.

“Of course it means drinking – and it means a lot of other things besides,” relayed Huggins to the press. “There are various kinds of misconduct. Patience has ceased to be a virtue. I have tried to overlook Ruth’s behavior for a while, but I have decided to take summary action to bring the big fellow to his senses…when he started playing the first of June he was on probation more or less, bound to take care of himself physically and live up to the rules of club discipline. He has forgotten all about these restrictions on this trip, hence the fine and suspension.”

Word was that Ruth was keeping time at a St. Louis house of ill repute each night that week, and Huggins had had enough.

Ruth lashed out at his manager in the press the following day. “If Huggins is manager, I am through with the Yankees. I will not play for him. Either he quits or I quit.”

“Huggins is making me the ‘goat’ for the rotten showing of the team,” Ruth continued. “…he has been laying for a chance to get me and I gave it to him by staying out until 2:30 Saturday morning in St. Louis.As for the drinking charge, he’s all wrong…The truth of the matter is that Huggins is incompetent…last year he lost the pennant to Washington when we could have won by 15 games.”

However, after Yankees owner Colonel Ruppert backed his manager, Ruth had no choice but to swallow his words a few days later. “I made a fool of myself. I don’t know what made me talk about Huggins the way I did.” said Ruth.

In light of the Babe’s attack against his superior, the press and fans alike were forced to examine the blind adulation that was given sports stars and famous figures without compromise. In an editorial, the New York Times, for one, was pretty clear in their changing opinion of the once-untouchable Ruth:

“Ruth…is emerging in a less favorable light. The man…can hardly be viewed as an heroic figure in any argument. …The vitriolic remarks he was quoted as making…were the utterances of a man in a violent temper. Moreover, the Babe…had twice failed to follow orders in a game…and Ruth, in attempting to defend his impromptu tactics on the grounds of good baseball, made out a bad case for himself. The ring of authority and discipline is growing tighter around the playboy of baseball.

He returned to the lineup on September 7, but by that time, the Yankees were a dismal 54-72, still in the now-familiar 7th place, 27 1/2 games behind the Senators, and the season that could be called the Mess That Ruth Built (whether purposely or not) was for all intents and purposes, over.

Of course, Ruth and the Yankees rebounded splendidly, and the Yankees’ long-standing dominance of the American League would begin in earnest in 1926, with Ruth hitting 47 clouts for the AL Pennant winners, and then of course his long-standing record of 60 in 1927 for one of the best teams of all time, by which point his off-field exploits were likely again tolerated or outright ignored, and perhaps content of character again took a back seat to unbridled success. And maybe with good reason – the Yankees themselves would not have another losing season for another 40 years.

Lost in all the Ruth-induced drama of 1925 was the emergence of a young Yankee first baseman from nearby Columbia University who finally came north with the club, and on June 1, the same day as the Babe’s first game of the season, pinch-hit for Pee Wee Wanninger in the 8th inning, and never came out – it was officially Game #1 of 2,130 straight for Lou Gehrig (box score below). And, like Ruth, Mr. Gehrig would also be the subject of a well-publicized illness of his own that would dramatically play out in the press many years later. Unlike Ruth, however, Gehrig’s struggle would be seen in a somewhat more empathetic, albeit tragic, light.

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Pastime Portraiture, #3

Okay, last one for now. Two for the price of one, Sunday, August 18, 1957, Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron wait their turn at the cage prior to a game against the Cardinals. Actually, they played two that day – Mathews hit a home run in the first inning of the first game during a 3-9 day, but Aaron went an uncharacteristic 1-9, as the Braves dropped both games against the second place Cardinals (Stan Musial won the first game in the 10th with a 2-run blast). Milwaukee certainly earned a pass though, coming off an 18-3 stretch going into the day, picking up 8 games on St. Louis in the process, and after the double defeat the Braves still had a commanding 6 1/2 game lead, and would take the NL pennant by 8 games over St. Louis; they would go on to win Milwaukee’s only baseball championship to date.

Yet another great Hy Peskin shot, check out his site and buy a classic photo or two:

Hy Peskin Collection – Baseball

Pastime Portraiture, #2

Another in a series of great baseball portraits that almost no one knows. Mantle, Yankee Stadium, May 14, 1955. He went 2-4 against the Tigers that day, including a triple, and a single with 2 outs in the 9th to continue the game-winning rally as the Yanks scored 3 in the final frame to win it, 7-6, Mantle scoring the winning run. Just a day’s work for the consummate modern-day Yankee slugger.

This was the shot used on the June 18, 1956 Sports Illustrated cover, but with restrained color. Here’s the photo in it’s pre-magazine-processed glory; be sure to click through for a somewhat larger version.

Yet another great Hy Peskin shot, check out his site and buy a classic photo or two:

Hy Peskin Collection – Baseball

 

Pastime Portraiture, #1

“Going over the hitters it was decided that we should pitch Frank Robinson underground.”
– Jim Bouton

How about a series of classic baseball portraits? I come across many wonderful photos that really don’t have an elaborate story behind them, except the perfect capture of subject and era, and should be shared. The wildly popular choices aside (Ruth at Yankee Stadium in 1948, Gehrig leaning against the batting cage with a smirk, we all know them), there are many that haven’t been properly exposed to the masses and desserve to be recognized, so let’s do just that.

First up, this may be my favorite baseball photo of all time, or at least my current favorite – taken Sunday, August 12, 1956, in County Stadium in Milwaukee by renowned photographer Hy Peskin, a 20-year old Frank Robinson in all his Redleg glory, in the midst of his record-setting rookie season (ROY, then home-run record 38 round-trippers for a rookie, and even led the league in HBP due to his fearless crowding-the-plate batting style), on the cusp of one of the most impressive baseball careers of all time. That said, I would love to report of his offensive heroics that day, but he went a rare 0-4 against Braves’ star hurler Lew Burdette as the Reds lost 8-2, but rebounded nicely to go 4-4 with a HR the following night in the final game of the series.

It’s all there: the serious determination and confidence, rare in a rookie player in any sport; the classic sleeveless uniform design complete with the high stirrups of the day, and even Mr. Red himself, the only year that he would appear on the front of a Reds’ uniform.

So here’s to you, Mr. Robinson, a definitive representation of a classic era of the grandest of games.

Yet another great Hy Peskin shot, check out his site and buy a classic photo or two:

Hy Peskin Collection – Baseball

A Moment In Time – 4/15/58

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This particular “Moment In Time” is actually one of the seminal moments in the history of the game. Tuesday, April 15, 1958, at Seals Stadium in San Francisco, at 1:34 pm, Ruben Gomez of the Giants fires one to Gino Cimoli of the Dodgers as Valmy Thomas frames the pitch, and major league baseball in California (and the western United States) is born.

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Ruben Gomez

Ruben Gomez was a long time Giant and one of the earliest latino pitching stars in the majors, going 17-9 in his second season in 1954, and being the first Puerto Rican player to win a World Series game and eventually the first to win a ring, in the New York Giants’ final championship season. He was chosen by manager Bill Rigney to start this first game on the west coast not only because of his superb screwball, but also because he was right-handed, as the Dodgers were righty-heavy with Hodges, Furillo and even Cimoli. It would be Gomez’s first Opening Day, and although he pitched a complete game gem as SF defeated LA 8-o, it would also be his last. Gomez would have a subpar year for the Giants in ’58, and his decline from there was rapid – he was traded to the Phillies in ’59, sporting an E.R.A. over 6, then a spot reliever by 1960, and on to the Mexican League by 1963.

Regardless, Gomez would always carry the honor of being the first winning pitcher on the west coast, but had some help that day by fellow countrymen – Valmy Thomas, catching due to an injury by first-stringer Bob Schmidt late in spring-training, was also born in Puerto Rico, although was in fact the first major league player from the Virgin Islands, where he was raised and returned to after his baseball career. Thomas followed Gomez to Philadelphia in 1959 as a part-time catcher, and was out of baseball by 1962.

This first game also featured a 20-year-old rookie making his major league debut, with 13 assists at first base, not to mention a home run that day – another Puerto Rican fellow by the name of Orlando Cepeda.

Gino Cimoli in 1958

As for Gino Cimoli, he was home. He was born in San Francisco, was a star at local Galileo High School, and was purposely inserted at the top of the lineup by manager Walter Alston since he was a local legend and the only native San Franciscan on either roster. In fact, Cimoli had a knack for being in the right place at the right time – he bookended Brooklyn’s final season in 1957 by hitting a game-winning homer off Philadelphia’s Robin Roberts in the 12th inning of the season opener, then scored the Dodgers’ final run in Brooklyn in the last game at Ebbets Field, and their final run of the final game as well, in Philly, both in late September. And after his Dodger days, for good measure, as a Pirate he pinch-hit for Elroy Face to lead off the bottom of the 8th of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, igniting the improbable 5-run rally to pull ahead of the Yankees and eventually win the World Series an inning later. Unfortunately, Cimoli’s historic at-bat this day was less dramatic: he struck out.

Cimoli’s return to his west coast roots would be less than triumphant, and after his average slipped almost 50 points for the Los Angeles version of the Dodgers, was traded to St. Louis in 1959. He would kick around the NL for while, before experiencing a short resurgence with the Kansas City A’s in 1962-1963, retiring in 1965.

Cimoli would return to San Francisco after his playing days and live in the greater SF area for the rest of his life – and become a Giants fan, of the San Francisco variety.