Joe Guzzardi, 4/13/2018 [Archive]

Ruth Comes to Pittsburgh, Then Goes to Sing Sing

Ruth Comes to Pittsburgh, Then Goes to Sing Sing

By Joe Guzzardi


Since Babe Ruth played his last major league game more than 50 years before MLB enacted inter-league baseball, the Bambino faced National League teams only during World Series competition.

In the 1927 series, Ruth and his New York Yankee Murderers' Row teammates - Lou Gehrig, Earl Combs, and Bob Meusel - swept the pitching and hitting-overmatched Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0. With his .400 batting average, his two home runs, Ruth's performance wowed awe-struck Pirates' fans.

No one questioned that the Yankees were the vastly superior team. As Washington Senators first baseman Joe Judge said after the Yankees dominated in an Independence Day double-header 11-1 and 21-1: "Those fellows not only beat you, but they tear your hearts out." The Bambino went five-for-seven in the July 4th double-dip.

Two years later and in an unintentional word play, the Murderers' Row took their act to Ossining, New York and the Sing Sing Correctional Facility where the state housed its most violent criminals, many of whom had a fateful date with Old Sparky.

The Yankees came to Sing Sing to play an exhibition against the Ossining Orioles, the Mutual Welfare League's prison nine. Appropriately-named Warden Lewis E. Lawes had developed a baseball program, and put into place other recreational activities to boost morale.

Under six armed guards' watchful eyes, the game began. The guards, after watching Ruth in his second at bat drive a long one out of sight, put down their machine guns to applaud. Ruth followed up with more four-baggers in the third and fifth innings. Commenting on the first Ruth blast, an inmate wistfully muttered: "Gee! I wish I was riding out on that one."

The Yankees, behind Ruth's three-home run day, beat the Orioles 15-3, 16-3 or 17-3, "as if it mattered" quipped a journalist. After the last out, the inmates surrounded Ruth, anxious to get as close to him as possible before he forever vanished from their lives. Opposing pitcher Red Conklin to the Babe: "Come again, any time. We're always home."

Ruth never did go back to Sing Sing, but he did, at his career's end, overweight, out of shape, and age 40, return to Pittsburgh, this time as a Boston Braves. Babe, discarded by the Yankees in 1935 after 15 stellar Hall of Fame seasons, and after brewing potentate owner Jacob Ruppert refused to make him the team's manager - Ruth's long-time goal -joined the Boston Braves. The perennially cellar-dwelling Braves, who ended the 1935 season 38-115, the worst record in modern era National League history, offered Ruth a vaguely worded contract that appointed him Assistant Manager and Vice President who would play part-time. The carrot: the possibility that Ruth might eventually become the Braves manager.

The mutual gamble that Ruth and the Braves took on their respective futures failed colossally. In 28 games, Ruth hit .181 with six home runs. But before he officially retired June 2, 1935, at Forbes Field on May 25, the Ruth that Pittsburgh loved treated Pirates' fans to a day that they would always remember.

In each of the first and third innings, Ruth hit two-run shots. Then, in the seventh inning, Ruth blasted his third homer. Sandwiched in between in the fifth inning, Ruth's single drove in a run. For the day, Ruth went four for four with three homers and six runs batted in.

Ruth's third four-bagger of the day, his career 714th, was his last-ever home run and final hit. Interviewed after the game, Guy Bush, a victimized Pirates' pitcher, said that even though Ruth was "fat and old," the homer he hit "was probably still going." Observers compared seeing Ruth's homers sail over the fence to watching homing pigeons being released.

In retirement, Ruth was restless. While waiting for the phone call with an offer to manage that never came, he bowled, fished and played golf, often scoring near par. During World War II, Ruth raised money for the Red Cross and was active in other charities. Gradually, however, he began to lose frightening amounts of weight - eighty pounds. Doctors misdiagnosed the throat cancer that would soon take his life.

He struggled to attend Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium in April 1948 that drew 60,000 fans. A few months later, at age 53 the "Sultan of Swat" died. In his eulogy, Ruth's Hall of Fame teammate Waite Hoyt described the Babe as compassionate "beyond belief."

More than 70 years have passed since Ruth's death. But in baseball fans' hearts and minds, Ruth will live forever. As Ruth once said: "Legends never die."

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Joe Guzzardi lives in Pittsburgh and is a Society for American Baseball Reseacher member. Contact him at guzzjoe@ahoo.com. A version of his column first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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