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Bustin’ Babe Goes Barnstorming

5/1/2019

by Andrew Fowler

The Knights helped popularize baseball with Babe Ruth’s national postseason tours

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth visit Father Edward J. Flanagan

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth visit Father Edward J. Flanagan, founder of Boys Town, and young residents of the Nebraska school in 1927. Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives/Photo by Ernest Bihler Co.

A crowd of 2,500 people attended an exhibition game in Stockton, Calif., to watch two of baseball’s greatest legends square off Oct. 24, 1927. The following day, an article in the Stockton Record titled “Babe Wallops Circuit Blow Over Bulwark” began: “He kissed one towards the moon and it landed in the oak grove beyond the right field scoreboard.” Babe Ruth’s out-ofthe- park home run put on a show for the fans while helping his “Bustin’ Babes” win 15-4 over Lou Gehrig’s “Larrupin’ Lous.”

Just 16 days earlier, Ruth and Gehrig had led the 1927 New York Yankees — often cited as the greatest team in the history of major league baseball — to a World Series victory. Now, the duo was nearing the end of a three-week “barnstorming” tour, playing exhibition games for charity in 21 cities from Providence, R.I., to Los Angeles.

Long before any major league teams were based in Western states, barnstorming tours were the only opportunity many fans had to get a glimpse of professional ballplayers in action.

The game in Stockton, like a number of others during Ruth’s barnstorming tours, was sponsored by the local Knights of Columbus. Both Ruth and his agent, Christy Walsh, who organized the tours, were members of the Order. (Ruth had joined Père Marquette Council 271 in South Boston in 1919, his last year playing for the Red Sox.) By sponsoring exhibition games, hosting the traveling stars and organizing other events during Babe’s tours, the Knights of Columbus played a role in popularizing professional baseball.

THE SULTAN OF SWAT

George Herman “Babe” Ruth, known by many nicknames, was the most famous baseball player in the United States — though only seven of those states, plus Washington, D.C., had major league teams during his 22-season career.

If you lived west of the Mississippi and couldn’t get to St. Louis, Chicago or farther east to see a game, your best option was to hope the Bambino came to you. Walsh’s scrapbooks, preserved at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, chronicle how Ruth embarked on postseason tours through the 1920s, appearing with vaudeville acts and playing exhibition games.

In early 1922, the Knights of Columbus in Milwaukee hosted a banquet for Ruth and other guests. A contemporary account of the event notes that the Knights in the area were invited to hear Ruth “demonstrate his method of hitting ’em over the fence and … relate some entertaining incidents in his baseball career.”

Before the season began that year, Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis levied a suspension against Ruth and Yankee teammate Bob Meusel for violating a rule that prohibited World Series participants from barnstorming. Ruth was suspended until May 20, but was allowed to play in a preseason exhibition tour with the Yankees.

On March 31, 1922, the team was in San Antonio to play the Brooklyn Dodgers. Prior to the Bambino’s first at-bat, “The Knights entered the grounds in mass formation and surrounded the plate,” before giving Ruth an engraved, sterling silver ball and bat. One newspaper noted that the bat was modeled after Ruth’s own, adding, “Babe declares he will keep it as long as he lives.”

The Sultan of Swat then lived up to the expectations of his fans, hitting a home run over the right field fence — “the longest hit, according to local experts, that has been made in League Park.”

Commissioner Landis soon relented on the ban against World Series players touring. In the years that followed, the Babe continued to barnstorm with the help and hospitality of his brother Knights, as noted by Jane Leavy in her book The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created (2018).

When Ruth arrived in town, local council officers were often on hand with the mayor to greet him. They sometimes escorted him from the train station to his hotel and presented him with K of C-branded flower wreaths. And a steady lineup of Knights of Columbus luncheons and dinners helped keep the “Colossus of Clout” colossal.

The Knights underwrote a game in Los Angeles on Oct. 27, 1924, raising money for their charitable fund. In addition to Ruth, the game featured Meusel, Earl McNeely and others, attracting 7,000 fans. According to the Illustrated Daily News, the Babe failed to “knock a couple over Washington Park right-field fence” as he had hoped, but he still had four hits, including a 400- foot double, and played a “corking good game around first base.”

Babe Ruth poses with two young Brooklyn fans during 1927

Babe Ruth poses with two young Brooklyn fans during his 1927 postseason barnstorming tour. Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

A STAR AMONG STARS

Babe Ruth wasn’t the only baseball legend who was a member of the Knights of Columbus. Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack and New York Giants manager John McGraw, both Knights, led their respective teams to multiple World Series championships. Other Hall of Fame Knights include Johnny Evers, Hughie Jennings, Ed Walsh and Jim O’Rourke.

But the Great Bambino was the biggest star of them all, and the popularity of his postseason barnstorming reached its peak in 1927, when he was joined by Lou Gehrig for the 21-city tour. They were fresh off their now-legendary season in which the Yankees won 110 games and swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. Ruth had hit 60 home runs, a single-season record that would stand until 1961. Gehrig was the league’s most valuable player, leading in doubles (52) and RBIs (173).

Christy Walsh knew he could turn to K of C councils when planning the most significant barnstorming tour to date. He sold the tour as a “rivalry between Babe and Gehrig,” adding it was “just as intense as the rivalry of the Yanks and Pittsburgh in the recent World Series.”

A number of councils hosted discussions with Ruth and Gehrig, and in Denver, Knights welcomed them with a “huge horseshoe floral offering” in front of “the largest crowd ever assembled at Merchants Park,” according to The Denver Post.

Knights in California sponsored several exhibition games, including those in Sacramento and Stockton. Before the latter game, which benefited a K of C Christmas charity fund, an announcement was published in a local newspaper: “The game will not start until 3:30 p.m. This will permit all youngsters who wish to see the game to reach the ball park after school.”

Ruth always made time for children on his tours, frequently visiting them in orphanages and hospitals. Contemporary newspaper accounts note, for example, that he once visited with more than 1,000 children at a K of C New Year’s party outside Chicago and handed out baseballs to kids at a Knights event in San Francisco in 1927.

During the 1927 barnstorming tour, Ruth and Gehrig visited Boys Town orphanage in Omaha, founded a decade earlier by Father Edward Flanagan. According to an April 1928 Columbia article, “Babe talked to the boys on the value of his training in a similar institution when he was a boy.” Ruth had spent much of his youth at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore, under the guidance of Xaverian Brother Matthias Boutilier.

When some people accused Babe of visiting children solely for publicity, he began asking sportswriters not to mention his visits. In a series for The Saturday Evening Post titled “My Hits — and My Errors,” he later wrote, “I reached the point where I got as much a kick out my association with [kids] as they received from their meetings with me.”

Altogether, the Bustin’ Babes and Larrupin’ Lous had played in front of more than 220,000 people during the 1927 tour, which finished in Los Angeles. Walsh’s K of C council then hosted Ruth and Gehrig in what it called the “Biggest Athletic Event of the Year” Nov. 1, right as postseason barnstorming had to end because of league rules. Following the 1928 season and another World Series championship, Ruth and Gehrig paired up again for another tour.

The West Coast would not get a major league team until 1958, when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants relocated to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. Many of the most ardent fans remembered how, when they were still youngsters, Babe Ruth’s barnstorming tours helped to grow the national pastime.

ANDREW FOWLER is a content producer with the Knights of Columbus Corporate Communications Department.