Babe Ruth: Big hit in Spa City
March event to reveal ‘astounding feat’ from 1918
HOT SPRINGS — Here are two intersecting histories that never fail to be fun and fresh, no matter the passage of time — those of Babe Ruth and Hot Springs.
The Sultan of Swat, the Colossus, whose larger-than-life personality ran as far afield as his dingers, spent spring training in Hot Springs with the Boston Red Sox from 1915 to 1918. As a New York Yankee in the 1920s and early ’30s, he was a regular off-season visitor to the Spa City.
For Ruth, Hot Springs had it all: gambling, both cards and horses; booze, even in Prohibition; women, footloose and uncommitted; and the healing waters, ablution for body and soul.
And the city? Aside from being a popular haven for generations of interstate bandits, from Jesse James to John Dillinger, resident baseball researcher Mike Dugan says the arrival of the Chicago White Stockings (later, Cubs) in 1886 marked the first reported instance of a professional ball team traveling for spring training.
As any storied resort community will, Hot Springs doesn’t just memorialize famous characters from its past for posterity — it markets them, for prosperity.
The Hilltop Manor Bed & Breakfast once boarded Jesse James and Al Capone, and wouldn’t you like to follow in their footsteps? BubbaLu’s Bodacious Burgers, arguably the most mouth-watering burgers in town, features photos and news clippings and a signed letter from “Bubba” (Bill Clinton) himself — though it’s not even named for him.
Now, nearly a century after Ruth
arrived in the big leagues, the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau says it has unearthed an “astounding feat” about Ruth. Bureau chief Steve Arrison says the story will be offered as part of the festivities for “the First-Ever Eighth Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” For now, he’ll say only that it took place during the Red Sox’s 1918 spring training.
What follows is a series of our best guesses, in the order that we tracked them down.
STRIKE 1: HE STARTED HIS FIRST GAME AS A POSITION PLAYER Babe Ruth was a stellar left-handed pitcher at the start of his career.
A 23-year-old when the Red Sox arrived in Hot Springs in 1918, he had yet to start a regular-season game except on the mound. His pitching record in three-plus seasons was 67 wins and 34 losses, with a superb 2.07 earned run average.
“What do you do when your best hitter is your best pitcher?” asked one newspaper writer at the time.
Ed Barrow, the team’s new manager in 1918, labored mightily over that question before initially siding with the era’s conventional wisdom — that, talents being equal, a good pitcher is worth more than a good hitter.
“I’d be the laughingstock of baseball if I changed the best left-hander in the game into an outfielder,” Barrow once said, as recounted in Robert W. Creamer’s book Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.
When the Sox began spring training on St. Patrick’s Day, 1918, Ruth was officially still a pitcher. But since the exhibition season was just starting, and Ruth wasn’t scheduled to pitch that day, Barrow batted him fifth in the lineup and tucked him into the softest position on the field — first base.
Ruth roped two home runs in an 11-1 rout of the Brooklyn Robins. The second drive fell into the Arkansas Alligator Farm.
“‘That’s 10 bucks in balls you’ve cost me,’” the Red Sox owner barked at Ruth, according to Leigh Montville’s book The Big Bam.
“‘I can’t help it. They ought to make these f****** parks bigger,’” Babe said.
On May 6, three years to the day after he’d hit his first big-league home run, Ruth appeared at a position other than pitcher in a regular-season game.
So perhaps Ruth’s spring training breakthrough was his first as a position player? Nope. He’d made that debut in spring training, 1914, as a shortstop.
BALL 1: HE INSPIRED THE WORST SPORTS NEWS LEDE EVER The day after a close 43 victory at Camp Pike in North Little Rock on March 30, 1918, an unnamed sportswriter for the Arkansas Gazette — newspaper reporters weren’t given bylines back then — tried to communicate his wonder at Ruth’s performance as a pitcher and hitter the day before.
“There is absolutely one way to win a ball game. Ever since the beginning of baseball the victor has been the side with the most runs, and it will always be that the only way to win is to bat in more runs than the other fellows.” It gets worse. “George (Babe) Ruth, the homeliest southpaw pitcher in the whole big world, is very well informed on that point.”
So, perhaps Ruth inspired the world’s worst sports news lede?
But earning that distinction would face a host of other contenders over the years.
STRIKE 2: WAIT, IT’S NOT BASEBALL AT ALL! “Well, if I had to guess, I would say either a drinking or an eating record,” says Bill Valentine.
Valentine made a career in professional baseball, as a major-league umpire and then as the longtime face of the Arkansas Travelers. And his guess is a reasonable one. Ruth’s mealtime excesses may be familiar even to those outside baseball fandom.
Fellow legend Ty Cobb once recalled, “I’ve seen him at midnight, propped up in bed, order six club sandwiches, a platter of pigs’ knuckles and a pitcher of beer. He’d down all that while smoking a big black cigar. Next day, if he hit a homer, he’d trot around the bases complaining about gas pains and a bellyache.”
If it is something Ruth ate, not hit — or hit, not threw — or threw, not gambled on and won, hit or ate — it’s not in the Gazette accounts from the time, nor any biography. The Sentinel-Record’s archives at the Garland County Library don’t start until 1923. LONG FOUL BALL: HIS HITTING STATS FOR THE 1918 SPRING ARE THE BEST EVER The Bambino’s final batting statistics from the spring of 1918 are flabbergasting. He took 21 at-bats and hit safely 9 times, 4 of which were home runs. That’s a dazzling .429 batting average with a nearly 1-in-5 home run ratio.
How good is that? Note that Wally Pipp claimed the American League home run title in 1917 with 9 home runs for the year, in 587 at bats.
During batting practice in Little Rock, on March 23, Ruth christened the newly built Camp Pike field by driving five baseballs over the fence. The game was eventually rained out, but the soldiers at the park got their money’s worth.
So, maybe Ruth’s hitting that spring was unlike anything previously seen at the plate?
Bill Jenkinson is primary historical consultant for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore. Unfortunately, Arrison got to him first.
“Steve Arrison is bringing me down in March at great expense to make an appearance there,” Jenkinson said. “I can’t give away the farm at this point.
“I can tell you this, in my recent book [Baseball’s Ultimate Power: Ranking the AllTime Greatest Distance Home Run Hitters] ... I included the guys that go back to the very beginning. I have a feel for how things were, and rounding this back to your specific question, it’s possible, it’s possible. I don’t know, but I would say that it’s possible that what Ruth did in Arkansas in the spring of 1918 was record-setting.” Still, that’s not it. This is —
HOME RUN: THE ST. PATRICK’S
DAY SHOT “It is one of those events like many in baseball history where there’s probably a bit of myth surrounding it, maybe a large bit, but uh, there’s also enough documentation out there to prove that something significant did happen that day,” Dugan says.
Dugan is a lifelong Hot Springs resident and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.
That “something significant,” Dugan says, is the second home run at the very start of the exhibition season. The one into the alligator farm. The one that prompted Ruth to suggest they maybe make the parks bigger.
The one that, according to Dugan and Arrison and current alligator farm owner Jack Bridges, landed 585 feet from home plate at Whittington Park, St. Patrick’s Day, 1918.
A shot like that one would have stupefied the fans in attendance, and maybe even the pea-brained alligators, for it might be the farthest home run ever recorded.
Because, despite all the supposed reports that Mickey Mantle drove several 650-foot home runs, Jenkinson, in a piece written for The Home Run Encyclopedia, says a mere 500-foot drive is so rare as to be “historic.”
Old recorded distances were often speculative. Consider that IBM implemented a computerized measuring system in most major league ballparks during a period between 1982 and the mid1990s, and only one slugger, Detroit’s Cecil Fielder, hit a ball more than 500 feet by those measurements.
“It’s just a bit of fun,” Dugan says. “There’s a little bit of guesstimation, a little bit of mythology, and, hopefully, a good dose of fact in there.”
He’s earnest when he says that, by all available information, 585 feet is the distance they’ve come up with. (Bridges contends it’s 10 feet farther still.)
Jenkinson’s willing to back it, too. He’ll be at the ceremony March 15, at Arrison’s request, and dime.
Whether or not the St. Patrick’s Day shot really sailed 585 feet, Jenkinson says it’s the second most important home run in baseball history, behind Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ’ Round the World,” because this drive convinced owner and manager alike that Ruth must be in the lineup daily.
As a pitcher, the Babe was very good. As a hitter, he changed the game forever and became baseball’s most enduring legend. The parade along 98-foot-long Bridge Street begins promptly at 6:30 p.m. St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. The Ruth ceremony is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. March 15 at Whittington Park, Arrison said. For details, call the bureau, (510) 321-2835.