Friday, January 24, 2014

Babe Ruth at Happy Hollow

Babe Ruth is one of the most photographed athletes of his era ... or any era. He was, of course, an immensely popular celebrity, but he was also genuinely fond of having his photo taken. This combination means that today there is a wealth of images of the Bambino.

Some of my favorite pictures of Ruth are less-than-obvious shots: pictures taken away from the park, in unfamiliar settings. (As an example, see my post titled "A Majestic Mystery.") Here's a photograph of Ruth that I found especially intriguing:

Robert Edward Auctions

This real photo postcard was made available at Robert Edward Auction back in 2006 and sold for $696. The lot description reads:
Unique real-photo postcard of Babe Ruth with two attractive young ladies and a very interesting story. The family from which this postcard originates claims that their grandmother operated a "house of ill-repute" in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the late 'teens and early 1920s, which catered to ballplayers who visited the area for spring training. One of the women in this photograph is allegedly the grandmother of this family, and this souvenir photograph of Babe Ruth at his most dapper was found among her effects. A sign identifies the location as "Hot Springs." The Red Sox went to Hot Springs for spring training in Ruth's early years. Judging from Ruth's slim physique, this photograph appears to date from Ruth's days with the Red Sox, though Ruth enjoyed Hot Springs SO much that it is well documented that he continued to visit Hot Springs for "pre-spring training" in the 1920s even after joining the Yankees, who practiced spring training in Florida. It is interesting to note that Ruth would often get sick in Hot Springs, though it is not clear if this was due to hard living or the steam baths which made him more susceptible to illness. In any event, he certainly looks to be in good spirits in this postcard. As Ruth's stardom grew, he took great pride in his appearance and became well known for his grand style of dress. This real-photo postcard, in addition to being accompanied by a very unusual story, displays Ruth's personality and style off the field in a very unusual setting which certainly relates to his larger-than-life legend.
I decided to delve further into the story. First, let's take a look at the reverse of the postcard to see what can be learned:

A canceled postage stamp would have been helpful in dating the postcard, but the pre-printed information on the reverse can still be helpful. According to numerous real photo postcard dating guides on the Web (for example, check out this one at, a "PLACE STAMP HERE" stamp box surrounded by the letters "AZO" featuring two triangles pointing up and two pointing down has a date range of 1918 to 1930.

Now let's take another look at the front of the card. The sign below Ruth's hand clearly says "HOT SPRINGS" and, below that, while difficult to discern, are the words "WATER WAGON." In the upper left-hand corner of the picture, the letters "OME" are visible on what appears to be the corner of a faux log cabin. Given this information, it seems safe to say that the picture was taken in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The lot description notes that Boston "went to Hot Springs for spring training in Ruth's early years." Indeed, during Ruth's tenure with the club (1914-1919), the Red Sox trained at Hot Springs in each season except for 1919, when they trained in Tampa, Florida. Thus, it would seem likely that the postcard dates from 1918, as the lot description suggests. However, another possibility is that the photo was taken the following decade, while Ruth was with the Yankees. As noted in "A Majestic Mystery," Ruth (and some other Yankees) often participated in pre-spring training workouts at Hot Springs in the early 1920s.

The lot description also notes that Ruth is shown with "two attractive young ladies." And goes on to note that one of these two "operated a 'house of ill-repute' in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the late 'teens and early 1920s." The clear implication is that the photo is somehow related to this "house of ill-repute," but this seems quite unlikely.

First, beginning in 1917, the Red Sox not only allowed players' wives to come to spring training, but they actually encouraged the practice. According to a note in the February 17, 1917, issue of Sporting Life, "President Frazee, of the Red Sox, is adopting a new plan to get his players in line. He will invite the wives of all players to Hot Springs as his guests, providing hubby signs a contract at once."

Second, though I cannot state it as a certainty, the woman just to the right of Ruth appears to be none other than Ruth's wife, Helen. Here's a photo of Ruth with Helen for comparison:

Where in Hot Springs was this "Water Wagon" photo taken? Given that the scenery in the picture appears to be created as a "photo op," I figured that other people may have had there photograph taken at the same spot. Indeed, that appears to be the case.

Research on the Web has revealed that there were other incarnations of the "water wagon." Here's one:

... and another:

Harvard Art Museums

And here's a picture that shows the same building as seen in the Ruth photograph:


We now can see that the "OME" in the Ruth version of the "photo op" is the far right portion of "OUR SUMMER HOME" as seen in the above picture.

And here's a photograph of the same scene that features one James Hackett (far left), a mobster who had twice been kidnapped by the College Kidnappers:

Blue Island Bang-Up

Each of these photographs was taken at Happy Hollow, also known as McLeod’s Amusement Park, located in Hot Springs, the spring training home to numerous big league clubs over the years, not just the Red Sox. No doubt Ruth was one of many ball players who eventually made their way to this local attraction ... one that certainly had nothing to do with a "house of ill-repute."

In fact, here's another shot taken at Happy Hollow years earlier, showing three Red Sox players on horseback. Left to right: Jack Thoney, Bill Carrigan and Pat Donahue.

Happy Hollow in Hot Springs

In summary, the real photo postcard of Ruth was taken at Happy Hollow in Hot Springs, most likely in 1918 with his wife Helen.

Update of May 6, 2018:

My friend John Thorn, the Official Historian for Major League Baseball, recently alerted me to this postcard:

It features the same two women in the same dresses as our mystery photo above. There is little doubt that the two photos were taken on the same day as one another. According to the auction, the other women are Helen (which we already know) and Edna Bancroft, wife of Phillies great Dave Bancroft. Indeed, as commented below, Edna's grand niece alerted me to this latter identification back in 2014.

As it turns out, I've found out that there are actually a few other photos of the three visitors to Happy Hollow. Here they are:

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Majestic Mystery

Nearly two years ago, Paul Lukas at Uni Watch made note of a wonderful photograph of Babe Ruth with Al Devormer, both wearing natty Yankees sweaters. (For those unfamiliar with Devormer, Bill Nowlin has written an excellent biography of him as part of the SABR Baseball Biography Project. For those unfamiliar with Ruth ... uhmm... really?)

Legendary Auctions

The print was made available at Legendary Auctions in March of 2012 and ultimately sold for just over $500. Beyond the identifications of the two ball players, there was no other information about the photograph. I thought it would be fun to research the image, but it wasn't until recently that I had a chance to do so.

The Ruth/Devormer photo can be found at various locations on the web, the best version I could find being this one from @BSmile:

The Real BSmile

Back in 1992, Megacards issued a 165-baseball card set called "The Babe Ruth Collection" with card #123 featuring a detail from the photograph:

Zeprock - Herb Pennock Gallery

Alas, the card misidentifies Devormer as Herb Pennock. As it turns out, handwriting on the reverse of the auctioned photograph suggests that this may have been a common mistake:

Legendary Auctions

So what can we learn from this photograph?

First, a quick check at tells us that Ruth and Devormer played together for the Yankees during 1921 and 1922. Of course, there is also the strong possibility that the photograph was not taken during the regular season, so spring training or post-season barnstorming tours may also be possibilities. No matter the location, it seems quite likely the photo was taken in either 1921 or 1922.

Second, as noted by Paul Lukas, the sweaters are wonderful. Exactly when the Yankees first adopted this particular style of sweater is unclear, though they were certainly in use by 1923. In fact, Ruth (at left) and his teammates can be seen wearing them in this photograph taken at Opening Day of Yankee Stadium, April 18, 1923:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,  LC-DIG-ggbain-35768

Paul also pointed out the sign above Ruth's head:

It features the logo of AT&T, first adopted by the company at the turn of the century:

Bell System Memorial

This particular version of the company's logo was phased out in 1921, though the old logo would continue to be used on existing signage for years. Thus, this sign does little to help determine a date or location for the photograph.

The license plate seen on the car at right provides another enticing clue:

Though specific details are difficult to discern, we can see that the plate features dark-colored numbers on a light-colored (but not white) background, and the first two digits appear to be slightly separated from the latter digits. How many license plates from the early 1920s had this design/color scheme? Well, thanks to the License Plates of the United States of America web site and a good deal of "grunt work," just a few matches for states and years emerged as possible matches:

  • Arkansas - 1922
  • Kansas - 1921
  • Minnesota - 1923
  • Missouri - 1920
  • North Carolina - 1920
  • North Dakota - 1922

While it's certainly possible that the automobile may have had out-of-state plates, it is more likely that the plates correspond to the location of the picture.

Note that New York is not on the list, as the Empire State's license plates from the early 1920s always featured white lettering on a dark background. In fact, other than Missouri, where two clubs played in St. Louis, the home state of each of the sixteen major league clubs had license plates that did not match the above design elements. Was the shot taken in St. Louis, when the Yankees were in town to play the Browns? If so, the plate is a year out of date, because we've already determined the photograph was taken in either 1921 or 1922.

What about spring training? In 1921, the Yankees held spring training in Shreveport (LA) and the following year in New Orleans (LA). But, Louisiana's plates did not use a numbering scheme that featured the first two digits separated from the rest of the numbers.

The license plate clues seem to eliminate the most likely locations ... except for one. In 1921 and 1922, in the weeks prior to the Yankees' spring training in Louisiana, the club held special "preliminary workouts" in Hot Springs, Arkansas. This pre-pre-season venue is often overlooked, but the Boston Globe of February 21, 1921, noted that "Babe Ruth left snow-covered New York today for Hot Springs, Ark., where he will start training for another attack on his home run record." And the New York Times of February 16, 1922, stated "Babe Ruth informed the Yankees yesterday that he will leave for Hot Springs next Monday to join the small squad of players there for preliminary workouts."

While Ruth attended both the 1921 and 1922 sessions at Hot Springs, Devormer did not. We know this, because the Los Angeles Times of February 26, 1921 noted that "Al Devormer ... has been sent to the New York Americans, and will join them in Shreveport." But the following year, the New York Times of February 20 stated "[Waite] Hoyt ... will begin preliminary work at Hot Springs on Wednesday. They will join Everett Scot and Al Devormer, who already have made their appearance at the Arkansas resort."

So we have established that both Devormer and Ruth were in Hot Springs prior to spring training in 1922. Additionally, our photograph shows a license plate with design elements consistent with those used in Arkansas that same year. These leads are promising, but can we determine with certainty that the location is indeed Hot Springs?

In February of 1922, Ruth went to Hot Springs as a hold out. He spent most of his time playing golf and relaxing in the rejuvenating waters on Bathhouse Row. In an effort to ink the Bambino's name to a contract, Colonel Tillinghast Huston, part-owner of the Yankees, traveled to Hot Springs, staying at the Eastman Hotel. The Binghamton Press of March 4 gave further details:

The Colonel was anxious to rehash the negotiations that the pair had gone into several days ago, negotiations that undoubtedly had not met the approval of [the other Yankees part-owner] Colonel Ruppert in New York. A wire received from his partner the day before had forcibly enlightened Colonel Huston as to that.

As for divulging the contents of the Ruppert message, again he was a stone image. Huston couldn't hide his displeasure nor his concern over the new turn of affairs in the case of Ruth vs. 1922's stipend.

The waters boiled some more when Ruth repeated the silent rebuff of Monday by golfing while the Colonel fretted in his den. Huston has been steaming some---quite some. Unable to bear watching and waiting last night, Huston sought Ruth at the latter's hotel. Ruth with most of the other Yankees, was attending a very late dance.

Huston had no sooner left the Majestic hotel when baseball's leading man came through the front door.
So Huston was staying at the Eastman Hotel, while Ruth (and other Yankees) were at the Majestic. Pictures of the Eastman Hotel do not show features similar to those seen in our photograph, but take a close look at this image of the Majestic from 1910:

Hot Springs Arkansas Historical Baseball Trail - The Majestic Hotel

Note the various columns in the highlighted version of the Ruth /Devormer photograph below:

The green arrows (1, 2, 3, 4) point to columns near the hotel building and (A and B) near the street. Note that only a small portion of the base of column A is visible in the photo. Note also that arrow 1 is actually pointing to a pair of columns that are situated close to one another, as is the case with arrow B. It is unclear in this photo if the other columns are also actually "doubles." (Those are street lights behind Devormer, not weight-bearing columns.) The red arrow points to a dark patch on the lower portion of column B. (Another similar patch can be seen on the building-side of column 1.)

Now compare these features with those seen in the highlighted version of the Majestic photo:

Both images show the same arrangement of columns 1-4 and A-B (all of which we can now see are "doubles"). And both images show the dark patch on column B, as pointed out by the red arrow. Clearly the images are showing the same building. The blue arrow in the lower photo points to the exact spot where Babe Ruth and Al Devormer are seen standing in the upper photo. (The street lights are missing from the earlier Majestic photo, but no doubt those were added afterwards.)

According to the Racine (WI) Journal-News of February 22, "Babe Ruth will arrive here Wednesday [February 22]. Al Devormer, of the Yankees, and Cecil Causey, Bill Ryan and Earl Smith of the Giants, arrived here Saturday [February 18]." And the Bradford (PA) Era of March 8, 1922, reported that "Mike McNally, Al Devormer and J. Franklin 'Home Run' Baker broke camp here today [story dated March 7] and started for New Orleans to join the main squad of the New York Americans. Babe Ruth, Waite Hoyt, Carl Mays and the other Yankees in training here had set no definite time for their departure." Thus, Devormer and Ruth were together in Hot Springs from February 22 through March 7, 1922.

Finally, a check through some newspapers from this time frame revealed the following undated image published in the New York Tribune of March 5, 1922, and found under the headline "Snapshots of Giant and Yankee Players at Hot Springs Training Camp":

So, thanks to the presence of a blurry license plate and a few uniquely placed columns, we've determined that the photo of Babe Ruth and Al Devormer was taken in front of the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in late February or early March of 1922.