“Return of the King” – 16 x 20 in. – Oil on Linen – 2012
Return of the King
NEW YORK – Twelve years after he had last been there, the aging slugger returned to the place he had known all too well. It was here that he hit his first home run in 1915. It was here that he changed the game of baseball with his Herculean blasts in 1920. It was here that he brought the once-moribund New York American Leaguers to their first pennants in 1921 and 1922.
It was also here that from right field he watched a young shortstop, Ray Chapman, get beaned by a Carl Mays fastball in 1920, ultimately leading to the popular Cleveland player’s death one day later. It was also here that he threw dirt in an umpire’s face and nearly caused a riot in the stands during a June game in 1922.
Yes, George Herman Ruth and the Polo Grounds had quite a history together. But on April 23, 1935, perhaps the oddest chapter of that tale was written. Now over 40 and well past his prime, the Babe strolled into the old hallow at Coogan’s Bluff as a member of the inept Boston Braves. As a National League player. No more did he have Harry Hooper and Stuffy McInnes, or Lou Gehrig and Bob Meusel surrounding him in the lineup. No longer did he have Carl Mays and ‘Bullet’ Joe Bush, or Herb Pennock and Urban Shocker defending his runs from the mound. No more would he contend for a World Series bid, and no longer could he hit 60 home runs.
But, despite his ‘shortcomings,’ he was still Babe Ruth. He was still loved by millions. And he had come back to where he made his legend.
47,009 fans filed into the Polo Grounds that cold Tuesday afternoon to make the 3:15 first pitch. It was the largest throng to ever see a National League inaugural up to that point. To say that they made their way to Harlem to view the most unusual spectacle that was to be the return of baseball’s biggest drawing card was fair.
Both men and women stormed the gates of the ballpark from the time that they opened until the first ball was pitched. In-between, were the traditional opening day ceremonies.
The American flag was raised to the top of its perch in deep center field, all the while the Seventy First Regiment Band played the National Anthem. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had returned to the city that morning fresh from his vacation in Arizona, ready to throw out the first ball. Also notable in the crowd were New Jersey Governor Harold G. Hoffman, Yankee owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert, Ed Barrow, and Mrs. John McGraw.
Under overcast skies and with nary a soul in their seat, the New York faithful saw their hometown boys take control of the game early. Boston’s starter, Walter ‘Huck’ Betts, gave up a single to leadoff man Jo-Jo Moore. He touched home plate soon after, as the ever-reliable Dick Bartell would slam a pitch into the upper right field stands.
It took until the third inning for Giant starter Freddie Fitzsimmons to relinquish a hit. And that first one was a doozie – a homer into the left field stands. Though two more hits were given up, Fitzsimmons was able to escape further damage. In the Giant half-inning, fan-favorite Bill Terry laced a drive that sailed over Ruth’s head and into the stands in right field.
New York recorded one more run in the fourth, with catcher Gus Mancuso doubling, and then trotting home after a single by “Fat” Freddie. By then, a dejected Betts was driven off of the mound and to the showers.
In the fifth, Ruth profited from his experience in playing at the Polo Grounds for so long, making a spectacular one-handed catch against the far corner of the right field wall on a ball smashed by Terry.
In Boston’s sixth, he also contributed in receiving a base on balls, and then was driven home by third baseman ‘Pinky’ Whitney’s homer. The Giants answered back promptly with one more run in their part of the inning.
In the ninth, things got interesting. ‘Buck’ Jordan hit the first pitch he saw into the stands, driving home Tommy Thompson. The Braves had fought their way back to tie the score against rightie Allyn Stout, who had come in to relieve Fitzsimmons two innings earlier.
Brought in to see what he could do after the damage had been done, Dolf Luque escaped the ninth inning without incident. In the tenth that performance continued, though giving up a single and issuing a pass. He continued to toy with the Braves in the eleventh, leaving them helpless.
In the eleventh, Luque smashed a single to start things off right. The New York crowd, expectant of Joe Moore and Dick Bartell to end the day’s game, only witnessed a pop up and a fly to right from the Giant stalwarts. With Luque stationed at first, Manager Terry worked rightie Bob Smith for a pass, advancing the Cuban veteran. George Davis was called in to run for Luque, who heard nothing but love from the crowd as he made his way off of the field.
After one more crack of the bat, the contest was over – Mel Ott was the supplier of the punch that the home team needed. The 27-year old blasted a single into right, out of the reach of both Baxter Jordan and Les Mallon, both of whom dove and caught nothing but air. Davis scampered home with the run that broke the 5-all deadlock, giving New York the victory. The crowd erupted in an outburst of approval and jubilantly showered the field with hats, programs, and torn papers.
Ruth went hitless that day and left the field after eight innings. Amidst the action on the field, the crowd and photographers were always focused on him, from the moment he arrived to take batting practice until he trotted back into the clubhouse about two hours later, under then sunny skies. Though eager to play the hero role, he was demoralized and unbalanced against the Giant attack.
But still, the crowd at the Polo Grounds left satisfied that day – they got to see that golden smile of the game’s biggest hero one more time.