Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Second Look at the Illustrations in "Our National Game"

In early 1887, Liebenroth, Von Auw & Company, publishers of blank books, produced what is now one of the most sought-after of 19th-century baseball collectibles, a scrapbook titled “Our National Game.”

The earliest notice of the scrapbook can be found in the March 3, 1887 issue of “The American Stationer.”

The book was apparently produced in two different sizes, 11" × 14" and 12" × 15", and contained around two dozen blank pages. The title page features an illustration of a baseball club, and interspersed throughout the rest of the scrapbook are five additional color lithographs depicting baseball action. Each drawing bears its own title: “Home Run, “Foul Ball,” “Wild Pitch,” “Caught Between Bases,” and “Fly Ball.”

On April 17, 1887, the day after both the National League and American Association celebrated their season openers, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle made note of the scrapbook:

A New York publishing firm have [sic] just published a pretty base ball scrap book containing pictures of the base ball grounds at St. George, Staten Island and Washington Park. It is well adapted for baseball picture collections.
The suggestion that the pictures in “Our National Game” depicted actual ballparks was news to me, so I thought I’d take a closer look at the images to see if they really do match up with these ball parks.

St. George Grounds, Staten Island

The St. George Grounds on Staten Island (not to be confused with St. George’s Cricket Grounds in Hoboken, New Jersey) was home to the Metropolitan Club of the old American Association in 1886 and 1887, and was the site of nearly two dozen games for the National League’s New York Giants during the 1889 season. I am aware of only two images of the park. The first is a woodcut published in Harper’s Weekly of May 15, 1886:

The second image of the park is an advertisement promoting the park's “Fairyland” concerts, water fireworks, and illuminated geysers for the summer of 1886.

Not only is this latter image simply gorgeous, but in the background one can distinctly see the Statue of Liberty, which would not be officially dedicated until October 28, 1886.

Washington Park, Brooklyn

I discuss Washington Park (the first of a number of ballparks of the same name) in my blog post titled “There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here - Washington Park.” Home to big league baseball in Brooklyn from 1884 to 1890, the park had a number of distinctive features, two of which are worth pointing out here. One is that the park was located in a deep basin such that the ground just inside the outfield walls sloped up drastically towards the fences at ground level. This unique characteristic can be clearly seen in this illustration from an 1886 baseball board game:

The other feature of note is that a large archway is visible at the back of the stands, behind and just to the first base side of home plate. It can be seen in the background of this illustration published in the January 24, 1884, issue of Harper's Weekly:

... and in this photograph taken at the park on May 30, 1887:

Comparing Pictures

Notice that the scrapbook images titled “Home Run,” “Foul Ball,” and “Wild Pitch” all show ballparks with sloped outfield grounds topped by tall fences. These match quite well with what is seen in the board game illustration of Washington Park. Furthermore, the distinctive arch of Washington Park can be seen in the background of the scrapbook picture titled “Fly Ball.” Clearly these four scrapbook illustrations were based upon Washington Park, though the hills and buildings beyond the fences are assuredly the result of artistic license.

The scrapbook picture titled “Caught Between Bases” does not show the ground sloping up toward an outfield fence. Instead, there appear to be fans gathered behind a low fence in the outfield. Beyond the low fence there appears to be a stone wall topped by a taller fence. This outfield configuration does not match what we see in the board game illustration of Washington Park. Perhaps, as suggested by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, this picture shows the outfield at St. George Grounds? With no known images of the outfield configuration at that park, it is hard to make this claim with any certainty.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Did Babe Ruth Ever Bat Right-Handed?

There have long been rumors that Babe Ruth, one of the greatest left-handed batters of all time, sometimes batted right-handed. Are those stories true? Let’s take a look at the various claims.

What Babe Ruth might have looked like as a right-handed batter.

May 21, 1930

Marshall Smelser, in his 1971 biography of Ruth titled “The Life That Ruth Built,” recounted a story of the Babe batting right-handed on May 21, 1930. As described by the author, the event purportedly took place in the first game of a double-header against the Athletics at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park:

For the first time in a regular season game he hit three home runs in one game ... and he still had one more time at bat .... When Ruth came up in the ninth he faced the right-handed spitball pitcher Jack Quinn. Outraging reason, Ruth decided to bat right-handed against a right-hander. He took two called strikes in this unfamiliar batter's box, then crossed over to bat left-handed—and struck out.

Jack Quinn

Alas, the story doesn’t add up.

First, Jack Quinn didn’t pitch in the ninth inning that day.

Second, Ruth did not strike out that day, against Quinn or any other pitcher.

Third, Ruth’s first two homers came in his first two at bats. But his third homer came in his fourth and final at bat, a ninth-inning blast off Lefty Grove. Only in his third at bat (this one occurring against Jack Quinn) did Ruth fail to homer, and according to he flied out to right field.

Fourth, if Ruth were to bat right-handed, it would make the most sense to do so off a lefty, but of the three pitchers that Ruth faced that day, only the final pitcher (Lefty Grove) was a southpaw. Ruth homered of Grove and there is no mention of him blasting it as a right-handed batter.

Conclusion: False. There is no contemporary evidence that Ruth batted right-handed for any of his at bats that day.

Facing Coveleski

Another story of Ruth batting from the opposite side was retold by Detroit Tigers manager Steve O’Neill in the May 20, 1947, issue of the Boston Globe. “I remember Coveleskie [sic] once giving Babe Ruth four walks in a row in a game. Ruth batted right-handed the last time up, and Coveleskie still walked him.”

Harry Coveleski

Stan Coveleski

It is unclear if O’Neill was referring to Harry Coveleski or (more likely) his younger brother Stan, but while Ruth notched four walks in a game a total of 18 times during his career (including once in the 1926 World Series), none involved either of the pitching Coveleski brothers.

Conclusion: False. This claim simply doesn’t add up.

Spring Training of 1918

In his book “Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox,” author Allan Wood states that Ruth batted right-handed against noted southpaw Rube Marquard during a 1918 spring training game between the Red Sox and the Brooklyn Dodgers in Dallas. I contacted Allan and he generously tracked down his research notes which revealed that, according to the Boston Herald-Journal of April 3, 1918, Ruth batted right-handed in his second of three at bats that day.

I researched this story further and found in numerous contemporaneous sources that Ruth did indeed face Marquard in his first two at bats that day, striking out on both occasions. Furthermore, in the Boston Globe of April 3, 1918, sportswriter Edward Martin reported that “Ruth was not very much in the limelight today, whiffing three times, batting left-handed the second time he took the ozone route.”

Rube Marquard

Besides the fact that the phrase “took the ozone route” is now officially my favorite euphemism for striking out, Martin’s sentence left me a bit confused. Why call out that Ruth batted left-handed his second time up when he was a natural left-handed batter? Indeed, this implies Ruth batted right-handed in his first and third at bats. But if that were the case, it would make more sense to call out Ruth’s right-handed bats: Ruth ... “batting right-handed the first and third times he took the ozone route.” No, I find it much more likely that Martin made a simple mistake and accidentally wrote “left-handed” when he actually meant “right-handed.”

Conclusion: Likely true. Though I’d prefer to have another independent source confirm this claim, I’m inclined to believe that in this spring training game, Ruth did indeed bat right-handed once.

August of 1923

During NBC’s telecast of the 1983 All-Star Game, broadcaster Vin Scully noted that “when Mike Schmidt was a junior in college he batted left-handed and he can still hit balls out of sight left-handed in batting practice, but he has never played a game or swung [left-handed] in a real game.” Scully quickly followed up this anecdote by mentioning “You know, I found out in a trivia book that in 1923 Babe Ruth hit right-handed several times.”

I tried to track down the trivia book to which Vin Scully was referring, but I couldn’t manage to find it. However, by consulting newspaper accounts of the day, I was able to determine the following:

On August 1, 1923, the Yankees hosted Cleveland at the newly opened Yankee Stadium. With the visitors leading 5-1 entering the bottom of the ninth, Cleveland lefty Sherry Smith looked to notch his sixth complete game of the season. With one out and New York’s Whitey Witt on second base, Ruth stepped to the plate having gone 0-for-2 with two walks against Smith already that day. Instead of heading to the left-hand batter’s box, however, Ruth decided to switch things up. As reported in the Pittsburgh Daily Post the following day, “His last time up, Babe introduced a new one. He became a right-handed hitter for a moment. He looked over one while standing on the left of the plate, that one a strike. Then he switched back to the trances of his childhood and biffed the first one.” In other words, Ruth took strike one as a right-handed batter, then switched back to the left side and promptly hit a home run.

Sherry Smith

On August 4, numerous newspapers carried a syndicated column under Ruth’s by-line (but undoubtedly penned by a ghost writer) in which the Bambino stated:

Bases on balls are like so much poison. When Sherrod Smith passed me twice a few days ago when I had an opportunity to get out in front of Harry Heilman [sic] and lead the American league hitters, I did something I had been thinking of ever since [George] Uhle crossed me at Cleveland.

That’s why I batted right-handed against Smith last week. I wanted him and [Indians manger Tris] Speaker to know exactly how I felt. I’ll never forget what happened as long as I live. It was in the ninth inning. Smith looked at me and stepped out of the pitching box. He thought I was just kidding, but I stayed at the plate as though I would hit right-handed and the Cleveland outfield switches around to play me for a left-field hitter, instead of as they always do.
Then Smith cuts loose with the first good one he gave me all day—and I let it go. It was a strike and I moved over to the other side of the plate to hit left-handed. Smith was a little upset and the Cleveland outfield moves back toward right field. It was a funny sight. Then Smith gives me another good ball. I don’t know whether it was an accident or not. Anyhow, I hit one of the longest homers I’ve made at our new stadium. And I haven’t stopped laughing yet.
Four days after Ruth’s shenanigans versus Sherry Smith, the Yankees hosted the St. Louis Browns. Ruth got off to a fast start, homering in both the first and sixth innings. With two outs in the bottom of the 11th, runners on first and second, and the score knotted at eight runs apiece, Ruth came to the plate and batted right-handed against Browns right-hander Elam Vangilder. No matter, the Browns intentionally walked Ruth to load the bases. The Browns ploy worked, as Bob Meusel followed the free pass by striking out. Two innings later, the Browns and Vangilder once again found themselves in the exact same situation: Yankees on first and second, two outs, and Ruth at the plate. Again Ruth batted right-handed in an effort to entice St. Louis to pitch to him, but the Browns stuck to their game plan and again gave him an intentional pass. This time, however, the ploy backfired. Meusel singled with the bases full, driving in the winning run and giving the Yankees a 9-8 victory. As the New York Daily News reported the next day, “Babe is getting so weary of walking that he’ll try anything to make the opposition pitch to him. Some day we expect to see him go to bat with the stick in his teeth.”

Elam Vangilder

Conclusion: True. Ruth dabbled with batting right-handed a few times in early August of 1923. In a ninth-inning at bat on August 1st he began as a righty, then promptly switched to the left side before homering. And on August 5th, the Babe batted right-handed twice in extra innings, in each instance taking an intentional pass.

June 24, 1927

I can find only one other confirmed instance in which Ruth batted from the right-handed box. It came during an in-season exhibition game on June 24th, 1927, when the Yankees faced Springfield of the Eastern League. As reported in the New York Times the following day, Ruth “was troubled by a lame ankle, which was caused when he ran out a double in the seventh inning. Incidentally, Babe got his two-bagger while batting right-handed.”

Phil Page

The opposing pitcher was likely southpaw Phil Page. The bigger story that day, however, was that the Ruth's favorite bat had been stolen during the contest. The next day the bat was located and soon returned to the Babe.

Conclusion: Likely true. While I’d like further confirmation, the very direct statement in the New York Times makes it probable that Ruth batted right-handed in an exhibition game on June 24, 1927.

If you know of any other contemporary references to Babe Ruth batting right-handed (either in a regular season or exhibition game), please alert me by commenting below.