Friday, September 5, 2014

Babe Ruth's First (and Only) Minor League Home Run

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   It was a sunny first Saturday in September in the bustling city of Toronto.  The year was 1914.  Across the ocean, Gavrilo Princip had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in late July.  Tensions had been building across Europe for months, and when Britain entered World War 1 a week later, there was little doubt that Canada would join her.  Said Prime Minister Robert Borden:

   "It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country."

   As the fledgling nation was hastily assembling an ill-prepared expeditionary force to fight the Axis powers overseas, crowds were gathering at the ferry docks at the foot of Bay Street to head over to Toronto Islands, long a place of relaxation and amusement for citizens of the young city. Generations of Torontonians had escaped the city for the peace and tranquility of the Islands, first by horse and buggy when they were connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of land, and then by ferry for over 50 years after a storm had washed the spit away.  The Islands housed summer homes for the well-to-do, resorts, yacht clubs, and amusement parks.  In the late 1800s, as baseball and lacrosse became popular spectator sports in the city, playing fields were built on Hanlan's Point, roughly about where planes take off and land at Billy Bishop Airport today.
   The first baseball stadium, home to the International League's Toronto Maple Leafs, was built in 1897, but was destroyed by fire a few years later, as was a second stadium.  A concrete structure was opened in 1910, and with a capacity of 17000, was one of the largest parks in the minor leagues.

   The minor leagues by 1914 did not resemble the minors of today.  All teams acted and operated as independent entities, but by a series of events over the previous 40 years had assembled themselves into something of a hierarchy, with the International League at the top, hosting the larger cities that did not have a team in the National or American Leagues.  Minor League teams were in direct competition with the big league teams for players, as well as fans.  The "major league" teams, for their part, had loose and often informal agreements with minor league teams on the sale and loan of players.  Over the next three decades, the minors became increasingly dependent on the majors for their continued existence, and lost their independence by a series of steps as major league teams assembled the "farm systems" that we know today.
   One of the stronger International League franchises was located in Baltimore.  Under Manager Jack Dunn, the Orioles would hold their own in exhibition games against major league teams into the 1920s.
1914 was a difficult year for the Orioles, however.  The Federal League had been established the year before in an attempt to become a third major league, and had awarded Baltimore a franchise, the Terrapins.  The Terps played in a more spacious and modern stadium than the O's, who saw their box office revenues quickly decline in the face of this new competition.  Dunn was forced to sell his most popular and valuable player, a local lad signed out of a Baltimore Reform School earlier that spring by the name of George Ruth.  A fireballing lefthanded pitcher, Ruth was only 19 years old (one of Dunn's "Young Babes," according to local media), but more than held his own against the older and more advanced competition.  With the Orioles locked in a battle for survival, however Dunn had no choice but to sell Ruth to the Red Sox, for whom he made his big league debut on July 11th.

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   The Red Sox had a loaded roster.  With pitchers like Smokey Joe Wood, Rube Foster, Dutch Leonard, and Ernie Shore ahead of Ruth on the Sox depth chart, there wasn't a great deal of playing time for Ruth (in a day and age when most pitchers finished what they started, bullpens did not have the importance-or size- they have today).  The Red Sox loaned Ruth to the Orioles' rival Providence Grays, likely much to the O's chagrin.
   Ruth teamed up with Carl Mays (who would go on to infamy several years later after his fatal beaning of the Indians Ray Chapman) to give the Grays a potent 1-2 combination at the top of their rotation, and heading into the league's final weekend, the Grays held a 3 game lead over both Rochester and Buffalo for first place in the eight team league.  Toronto was 16 games back, and out of playoff contention, but had a respectable three games above .500 record.
   Hanlan's Point was also the site of Toronto's first amusement park, and the crowds departing across the hazy harbour on the ferry that day were probably headed there in a number equal to those going to the ball park for a double header between the Grays and the Maple Leafs.  A wooden roller coaster, called "The Big Scream," ringed the ballpark and lacrosse grounds.


   Ruth was scheduled to start the first game of the double header.  He limited the Maple Leafs to one hit in tossing a complete game shutout, and in the sixth inning hit a prodigious blast which cleared the right field wall, and landed in the waters of Lake Ontario just a few feet beyond.  It was his first- and last - minor league home run. Providence took the second game in a contest that was shortened to 7 innings in order to allow the Grays to catch the last train out of Toronto.
   The International League season ended two days later, and the Grays ultimately won the league title.  Ruth returned to the Red Sox rotation the next year, and the rest, as they say, is history.
  His one and only minor league home run ball sat at the bottom of the Lake's murky waters, apparently, until the 1920s, when it was supposedly found, and many years later was put on display at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, which at the time was housed at Ontario Place.  In 1987, the display was broken into by two youths, Chased by security, the youths allegedly left the museum, and tossed the ball back into the Lake.  Frogmen searched, but found no ball, which also apparently had been signed by Ruth in 1925.
  We have great difficulty believing that the ball on display was actually Ruth's, but we do like a good story, and don't want to spoil it.  Toronto was a good minor league city for almost a century.  When a new stadium was built at the end of Bathurst St in the 1920s, crowds continued to flock to it, and the city had an International League franchise until 1967.  Ruth's story adds to the colourful lore of minor league baseball in the city.
   A plaque marks the spot near where the stadium once stood:


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