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:


  1. Very cool - interesting how the lettering on the sign in the 1918 photo is different in later photos.

  2. Fantastic post Tom!

  3. I have this same real photo postcard and four others taken on the same day in Hot Springs. The "attractive young lady" on the right of Helen Ruth is my great aunt, Edna Bancroft, and the photos were taken by my great uncle David J. Bancroft!