On New Year’s Day, St. Petersburg celebrated the centennial of the World’s First Airline. Now there is a second centennial to celebrate, the 100th anniversary of Major League Baseball. Major League Spring Training began in St. Pete on February 27, 1914 with the St. Louis Browns (now the Orioles). While the Browns were here only a year, St. Petersburg was host to eight other Major League teams over the next one hundred years. Among these teams was the New York Yankees who held spring training in St. Pete for 30 years beginning in 1925 and ending in 1961, with a few gaps in between. That team included Babe Ruth, generally regarded the greatest player ever.
Ruth first came to St. Pete with the Yankees in 1925 and continued with them until 1934, returning to St. Pete the following year for an encore as a member of the Boston Braves. George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Jr., nicknamed “the Bambino” and “the Sultan of Swat, was known for his hitting brilliance, setting career records in his time for home runs, slugging, RBIs, and bases on balls. He helped the Yankees win seven pennants and four World Series titles. Ruth, who batted left, was the first player to hit 60 home runs in one season (1927). This mark was not surpassed until another Yankee right fielder, Roger Maris, hit 61 in 1961. (Maris had the advantage of a season with 10 more games and 50 more at-bats.) Ruth was a great pitcher as well as slugger, and some of his pitching records still hold to this day. 2014 is also the “100th Year of Babe in Baseball.” Babe first played Major League baseball with the Boston Red Sox in 1914.
In 1919, Ruth was a member of the Boston Red Sox when they held spring training in Tampa. Ruth may have made his first excursion to St. Pete at that time, but no record of that has been found. During the 1919 spring training season, while playing against the New York Giants in Tampa, Ruth hit a home run. For years this was considered Ruth’s longest home run and was probably longer than any other hit by a player during Ruth’s time. The feat is commemorated on a plaque near Tampa’s Plant Field at the University of Tampa. Baseball historian Bill Jenkinson believes Ruth’s hit traveled 552 feet in the air. While the home run’s exact distance may be debatable, it was definitely impressive. Giant’s manager John McGraw stated at the time, “I believe it’s the longest hit I ever saw.” Coincidentally, St. Petersburg mayor Al Lang was in Tampa to lobby the Giants to relocate to St. Petersburg for future spring trainings when Ruth hit his impressive homer. This inspired the mayor to push to get Ruth and the Yankees, rather than the Giants, to come to St. Pete.
For many years now, there has been speculation that Ruth hit an even longer homer in St. Pete from Water-front Park, which was a little north of today’s Al Lang Stadium, to the old West Coast Inn, approximately on the site of today’s Hilton Hotel. However documentation for this was lacking. Recent research has better confirmed this claim. Ruth appears to have hit a ball to the West Coast Inn during batting practice in 1925. But the question is did he do this in an exhibition Major League game? Historian Bill Jenkinson has identified HISTORY Continued from page 115 home runs hit by Ruth over the course of his career during Major League exhibition games at Waterfront Park, and he identifies only seven of these as having any chance of landing near the West Coast Inn. An actual recorded reference to the West Coast Inn has been found in only two of these games, one in 1933 and one in 1934. The 1933 home run was reported as “bounding almost to the West Coast Inn.” But the best candidate for Ruth’s record-breaking hit occurred in 1934.
In 1934, Ruth was coming to the end of his career. That year was his last with the Yankees. His salary was down from a high of $80,000 in 1930 to $35,000. He still could bat and hit home runs with exceptional frequency, but his running and fielding had badly deteriorated. He would continue in baseball one additional year as a member of the Boston Braves. His last year with the Yankees did not start out well. Prior to annual spring training in St. Pete, he came down with the flu and lost 16 pounds. He usually arrived in St. Pete in January to enjoy the warm weather and recreation prior to beginning training in March. But because of the flu, he had to delay his departure and also his annual birthday party at the Jungle County Club Hotel on Park Street, now the Admiral Farragut Academy. Celebrating his 40th birthday in New York, he received a mammoth golf bag from his wife Claire and his daughters Julia and Dorothy. He finally reached St. Pete on February 9th, and fifteen minutes after arriving at the Jungle Hotel was on the links. A day later he hit a massive 250-yard drive with an iron (not a driver) followed by a second 220-yard shot, and scores the first-ever double eagle at the Jungle Club’s 17th hole. Ruth said he played golf to keep his weight down, as well as for enjoyment. “I am depending on golf to help me regain my top-notch physical condition.” At a delayed birthday party given to him by City publicity agent John Lodwick, Ruth said, “They have been saying that this would be my last year as an active player in the big leagues, but I’m not certain about that. Since I came south, I have been feeling fine and my legs feel strong. Whether I play after this year depends on the success I have this season.”
Once spring training started, Ruth made some changes in his routine. He used a 38-ounce bat – lighter than usual. He changed his grip a little, maybe a cue from golf. He was feeling better, fully recovered from the flu. And it began to show. The Yankees were practicing at Miller Huggins Field at Crescent Lake. “Babe Fools Experts by Fast Start,” reads the subtitle of an article in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent by Jeff Moshier. “Ruth is up to his old tricks – hitting home runs at a record-breaking clip, and confounding not only the experts but probably himself…Today, at 40, the Babe admits himself that he is all but through. He hopes to play in 100 games for the Yankees this season but finally agrees with the boys that his days as a player are numbered… In the face of all this, Ruth is enjoying probably the greatest spring of his 20-year career in the majors. He has cracked out six home runs in seven games, driving in 16 runs and scored 10. His batting average is .390, a mark he hasn’t scored since 1923.”
Ruth himself at first attributes his energetic spring start to a new type of ball. A 1934 New York Times article quoted Ruth saying, “Boy, when you hit that new ball we’re going to play with this year, it sure does take a ride. I’ve just been hitting them high and far, like no other ball I’ve ever swung at. You certainly can send it on a long journey.” The article goes on to say that “the Bambino was referring to some terrific drives which cracked off his bat, mostly to the far right field, among the pines fringing Crescent Lake.” But as it turns out, there was really not a new ball. The Yankees were in the American League, and the National League adopted the American League ball that Ruth had been playing with all along in 1934. There were only slight differences between the two balls anyway. A major change in ball composition had not been made since 1931. This change resulted in an average reduction in scores and home runs per game, and logically shorter home runs.
Moshier continued to write, “Usually Ruth starts slowly in the spring and has found it difficult to find the right field range with any degree of consistency in the exhibition games… His home runs at Waterfront Park in the ten years of training here can be counted on two hands. The Babe’s start this spring is great encouragement for the Yankees, whose pennant hopes may rest on his aging shoulders. If he is able to play 100 games and push his batting average well above the .300 mark, with 30 or more home runs tossed in for good measure, the Yankees will make it hot for the rest of the league and may confound the experts by battling right down to the wire for the pennant. Always a great showman and the one to do the unexpected, Ruth evidently is intent on closing out his major league career in a blaze of glory if his showing this spring is an indication of what to expect from him this summer.”
Ruth finished the spring season with a .429 batting average with hits hard and long. He led the team in runs batted in (RBIs). The Yankees indeed did “make it hot” for the rest of the league in the regular season finishing in second place, but seven games back of the Tigers. While Ruth’s batting average dropped to .288, he hit 22 home runs, second behind fellow teammate Lou Gehrig with 49. (Gehrig received the Triple Crown for leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in.)
On March 17, 1934, the Times reported Ruth “hit a whistling line drive over the canvas screen in the right field for the first homer of the season… The King, who is playing spring baseball with a much more serious mein [sic] than in other years, appeared deter-mined to smack one of [pitcher] Bob Smith’s offerings out of the park…” While this was described as “one of Ruth’s hardest hit spring homers” there was no mention of the West Coast Inn.
But two days later, on March 25, 1934, that Ruth appeared to hit his long-neglected record-breaking home run at Waterfront Park. The best account of the event found to date comes from the Boston Herald and was written by Burt Whitman under the partial headline “Ruth Lashes Out 6th Circuit Clout.” It was an exhibition game between the Yankees and the Boston Braves. The weather was hot – ninety degrees in the shade. Ruth’s first threat was in the third inning when he hit one of his famous high altitude balls. “The Bambino lashed a pitch off Huck Betts so high into the air that you’d excuse the Rabbit [the Boston shortstop’s nick name, also called the “Springfield kid”] for getting a stiff neck and missing the catch. For him, to scamper backwards, head up and straight back and then catch this towering drive was a miracle, when you recall the way he catches them at his belt line. You’d hardly be surprised to the fifth when he hit one of his longest home runs over the right field fence.” Beyond these accounts the details get fuzzy. Some old timers are quoted in the press years later as seeing a ball bounce on the front porch of the hotel. One said it was the second balcony of the hotel. “[Ruth] once hit a ball onto the second balcony of the West Coast Inn. Must have traveled 500 feet. Man, how it shook up the people sitting on the porch.” Unfortunately, none of these recollections can be tied to a specific game date.
The “500 feet” recollection would have been an understatement. While see the force of that falling ball, like a meteor, bury the Springfield kid several yards in the Florida sand.”
But Ruth was back again in the fifth inning. Whitman continued, “The crowd of 1200 got the customary home run treat from Babe Ruth. He socked a Betts pitch 10,000 leagues to right field… far over the canvas and almost into the West Coast Inn [SW corner of 3rd Ave. and 1st St.], where the Braves live between games. It was George’s sixth of the season.” St. Pete Times sports writer Pete Norris recorded under the headline “Ruth’s Blast Over Right Field Fence Gives Sunday Crowd a Thrill,” “Babe Ruth tied the score in it is debatable whether the ball hit short of the hotel and then rolled to it, took a bounce in front of the hotel up to the balcony, or actually hit a balcony directly, it has been established that the ball traveled a measured 624 feet plus some inches. The distance was surveyed and verified by the George F. Young Company in 2008, measuring from the old home plate location at Waterfront Park to the closest part of the now demolished West Coast Inn. Many previous home run records in Major League Baseball recently have been reassessed. According to Tim Reid of the Committee to Commemorate Babe Ruth, the West Coast Inn home run is now believed to be perhaps the longest hit ever off Major League pitching. Reid, an engineer, estimates the actual distance in the air as no less than 610 feet. Bill Jenkinson, author of Baseball’s Ultimate Power: Ranking the All-Time Great Distance Home Run Hitters (2010) in a recent communication states “Babe Ruth’s ‘West Coast Inn Home Run’ on March 25, 1934 likely ranks as the longest drive ever hit against Major League pitching. It flew far beyond 500 feet, and may have reached the forbidden distance of 600 feet. For many years, I have steadfastly believed that no human being could hit a baseball 600 feet, but, based upon new research on this blow, I admit I was probably mistaken.” No record has been found of Ruth himself commenting on the homer at the time it was hit. But when Ruth was sick with oral cancer and making a last hurrah tour in 1948, he returned to the site of St. Pete’s downtown Waterfront Park Stadium. Asked what his greatest accomplishment there was, he replied “The day I hit the…ball against that… hotel!” He did not say “near” the hotel but “against” the hotel. In 1935, Ruth joined the Boston Braves. Maybe at least a part of the decision-making that went into bringing Ruth on at the age of 41, aside from his world-famous reputation, was the West Coast Inn homer.
According to Bill Jenkinson, a discussion of Babe Ruth’s home runs “defies rational analysis.” “Not only did he set distance records in every major league ballpark (including National League stadiums where he played only infrequently), he also set similar standards in hundreds of other fields, where he made exhibition and barnstorming appearances. Amazingly, many of those records remain unequaled, which is to say that Ruth is a true athletic anachronism. In virtually every other field of endeavor in which physical performance can be measured, there are no Ruthian equivalents. In 1921 alone, which was Ruth’s best tape measure season, he hit at least one 500-foot home run in all eight American League cities.”
St. Pete Independent journalist Jeff Moshier also was impressed with Ruth’s West Coast Inn homer. He wrote, “Yesterday, as the Yanks went down in their first defeat of the training season before the Boston Braves, he [Ruth] hit a towering drive that cleared the right field barrier well into fair territory with plenty of room to spare.” Then Moshier went on to comment as an aside, but “his home run smashes over the flag pole on the center field fence about eight or nine years ago has never been approached…” Material for yet another Ruth story!
Will Michaels has served executive director and trustee of the St. Petersburg Museum of History, vice president of the Carter G. Woodson Museum of African American History, president of St. Petersburg Preservation, and co-chair of the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society. He is the author of The Making of St. Petersburg. He may be reached at 727-420-9195.