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OCTOBER 2007

Finger Lakes Art & Grapes FREE

Apple, Cheese & Thee Big Love in Elk County Brewin’ in Billtown

Our Babe

Babe Ruth loved Northern Pennsylvania, where he hunted, fished and hit the world’s longest home run.

By Michael Capuzzo

OCTOBER 2007

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THE LONGEST SHOT The legendary New York slugger left his heart, and the world’s longest home run, in northern Pennsylvania By Michael Capuzzo

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rtillery Park, in downtown Wilkes-Barre, is a lovely little baseball field facing the Susquehanna River. It was built in 1924 by a founder of the Woolworths department store chain so coal miners and their sons, dusted with anthracite, could come up into the sunshine and play the American game. It has survived the death of Pennsylvania coal and the Pennsylvania Railroad, the fall of Woolworths, and the repeated rising fury of the Susquehanna, which roared over its banks during Hurricane Agnes, washing away the field and putting the city down and out for decades. The park, designed by the great landscape architect Frederic Law Olmsted, who created Central Park in New York, retains its eternal diamond lines, like a pyramid that has endured the seasonal rising and falling of the Nile. On a recent, unseasonably warm September day, I stood at home plate and looked out over the empty ballpark shimmering under a bright midday sun. Beyond the manicured dirt infield, the outfield flowed out toward the river, the grass lush with the last, resplendent green of late summer, like a fireworks finale. The National Guard armory

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towered over left field, cottonwood trees dotted the curving line behind the center and right field fence, and I felt myself traveling back in time, the calendar reeling backwards to the Roaring Twenties, to October 12, 1926. There he was, Babe Ruth, standing right there at home plate in Artillery Field, as it was known then. Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees, two days after losing the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, wearing his Yankees cap and gray road uniform with New York across the chest, calling out to the pitcher Ernie Corchran, just a local guy from Pittston, “Gimme your best fastball, kid.” The Babe, the greatest hitter and supreme athlete of American history, playing for Hughestown versus Larksville in a pickup game in northeastern Pennsylvania. Hold that image. It’s the prime time of The Roaring Twenties, when the modern world arrived in America like a hard fastball, dusting back Victorian tradition. Automobiles, cities, movies, women’s rights, cigarettes for women, Sigmund Freud, the sexual revolution, sports, and leaving the farm for the factory changed the country forever; the novel Babbit slandered small-town America as small-minded and got away with it. Calvin Coolidge slumbered in the White House; Prohibition was in, gin was sin, but Americans illegally imbibed more than ever. Bobby Jones was then the greatest golfer of all time, Jack Dempsey the champion of the ring, Sullivan County’s Red Grange the “Galloping Ghost” of college football. But George Herman (Babe) Ruth was the most famous and beloved American of all, the first American clearly more popular (and better paid) than the President of the United States, and achieved a celebrity-hood that a thousand People magazine cover stars couldn’t match today. “What the hell has Hoover got to do with it?” he famously replied in 1931 when asked why he demanded a better salary ($80,000) than President Herbert Hoover’s $75,000. “Besides, I had a better year than he did.” Ruth single-handedly transformed baseball from a leisurely speed game to an explosive power game, single-handedly made Sports the American religion, big and brawny as the new America and its Babe. Life might have become a confused, mad rush for ordinary folk but the Babe gave ‘em hope: “I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can. . . . Every strike brings me closer to the next home run. . . . It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” OCTOBER 2007

The Sultan’s Swat So this is the scene. “The Big Bam,” as his teammates called him, “The Sultan of Swat,” as the sportswriters dubbed him when they didn’t trot out “The Caliph of Clout,” “The Wizard of Wack,” or “The Bambino,” stood leveling his famously enormous bat at brave, young mountain lad Ernie Corchran. The wooden grandstands thronged with screaming children. Corchran fell off the mound whipping his arm forward with his best fastball, all he had. The Sultan of Swat swung. Then something happened unique in the annals of baseball and unmanned

hills, fish the trout streams. He ate and drank in country diners and small-town pubs, glad to leave the big-city press, the crush of autograph hunters, the pols and showgirls behind (at least for an hour or two; Babe slept four hours a night and was never far from a twentyegg breakfast with a loaf of toast, a fawning mayor, and some other babe who wasn’t one of his two wives). No evidence remains that Babe Ruth fished Pine Creek, but historians say they’d be surprised if he didn’t, because the Bambino made it his business to the black bear, the deer, the brown and brook trout, and the smartest

Baseball historian Bill Jenkinson (right) interviews Joe Gibbons, witness to the longest shot. Facing page, Artillery Park in WilkesBarre. Babe Ruth photo is signed by his grandaughter.

flight; something that some men believe, and some don’t, and neither party can rationally explain. Hold that image. Did it really happen in northern Pennsylvania, the titanic hit that was Babe’s Longest Shot? It did, the historians say. Babe Ruth played right field for the New York Yankees but left his heart in Pennsylvania. The Babe loved Pennsylvania and Pennsylvanians like few athletes ever have. He made good friends in the north and central mountains. He kept a cabin in Blakeslee, and loved to leave New York behind and hunt deer in the wooded

sportsmen in the Keystone State. But what he loved most was playing ball. So he’d come to Pennsylvania every October, after the Yankees’ season was over, to play with the locals on high school fields and minor-league parks in Williamsport, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazelton, Shenandoah, Shamokin, Mahanoy City, Oil City, Erie. Far from the madding crowds, he did what only gods and heroes do; he did “Ruthian” things, the adjective that entered the Oxford English Dictionary and means prodigious achievement in any human endeavor, especially long home runs. In games that didn’t count

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except for fun and pride, he so awed the crowds that half a century later men in Pennsylvania had it put in their obituaries, “He saw Babe Ruth play” or “He played with Babe Ruth.” In pickup games, he set records that never will be broken. Baseball Gods Don’t Take Sick Days In the bright lights of New York City, Ruth’s career was the hard stuff of the record books: the 714 career home runs and rule as the Home Run King for most of the twentieth century (until Hank Aaron, and this summer Barry Bonds, passed him); fabled anchor of the New York Yankee dynasty and Yankee Stadium, “The House that Ruth Built;” the legend acclaimed in poll after poll as the greatest baseball player and one of the greatest American athletes (falling behind only Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali in a 1999 ESPN poll). Yet in the hazy autumns of rural Pennsylvania, Ruth’s barnstorming career was more impressionistic, like a scene from the movies Field of Dreams or The Natural. Nothing got entered into the record books. Except for the hard and undeniable fact, recently uncovered by a leading baseball historian, that in the small towns and rural fields of northern Pennsylvania, in the embrace of adoring fans who allowed him to put body and soul back together and recover from repeated scandals in the city, Ruth hit the ball harder and farther than he ever did in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, the Polo Grounds, or Forbes Field, harder and farther than any human being ever has, anywhere. What remarkable thing happened between Babe Ruth, Pennsylvania and the autumn air of the 1920s? Was it because Pennsylvanians loved him best, and to them he gave back the most? Does it matter that the games didn’t count? Or is there a lesson for everyone, that pride and craft and skill matter most, no matter if anyone’s keeping score? According to the remarkable research of baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, Ruth’s superiority to modern sluggers as a long-ball hitter is dramatic, indisputable, and inexplicable unless you believe, as some do, that a Michelangelo comes along once in 500 years. The Babe just couldn’t help himself. Immortals don’t take days off. “He couldn’t have,” I said, snapping back from my time travel in Artillery Continued on page 10 Page 


The Longest Shot... Continued from page 9 Park, pointing to right center field, over the cotton-wood trees. “Nobody, not even Babe Ruth, could have hit a ball that far.” “I know,” said Jenkinson, a man of Ruthian proportions himself, standing next to me, shaking his head. “It couldn’t have happened. For ten years I argued it was not humanly possible for this to have occurred. But then there’s the evidence. There’s no way around it. The evidence says it must have happened.” Enter the Expert Jenkinson is a consultant to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the recognized authority on long-distance home runs. He is the author of the acclaimed new book, The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs, which makes a convincing case, based on his twentythree years of research, that Ruth would have hit more than 1,000 career home runs in today’s smaller ballparks. Jenkinson, an insurance investigator in Willow Grove, outside Philadelphia, drove to Artillery Park at the invitation of Mountain Home to discuss Ruth’s Ruthian feats in northern Pennsylvania. When Jenkinson began his research, he naturally assumed the rule would hold in baseball, and was shocked that it didn’t. The remarkable Jimmie Foxx , a 1920s and 30s slugger with the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox, held up admirably with the strongest of all modern hitters, Mickey Mantle, Dick Allen, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, Willie McCovey, the 6-7, 280 pound Frank Howard, and the monstrous McGwire, the most powerful hitter of the millennium. And then there was the elephant in the room, the exception to all rules: Babe Ruth. When Jenkinson interviewed Ted Williams, one of the great long-ball hitters, at age 67, he “gushed like a rookie” on the subject of Ruth’s power; when he interviewed Reggie Jackson, arguably the strongest left-handed hitter in half a century, in Fenway Park, he pointed out the spot where Williams’ reached the 33rd row of the right field bleachers. Jackson

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was amazed; he’d never seen anyone hit it that far. Then Jenkinson indicated the 45th row, where Ruth reached, and Jackson was “flabbergasted…the man who wowed historians and fans with (his) power…was wowed.” Ruth, born in 1895, who played long before the big money and the big weight training and drugs, who played with a ball that was no more lively (and probably less so) than the current one and in stadiums with fences 50 feet farther back, towers over all power hitters in baseball history, ancient and modern, like a man before children. But tell Jenkinson men hit home runs any farther than that, and you’ll get a quarrel. Jenkinson demolished newspaper reports of 550-foot home runs by Mickey Mantle and McGwire: Mantle’s legendary 1963 wallop that struck the roof façade of Yankee Stadium and McGwire’s 1997 blast into Seattle’s upper deck were descending when they struck metal and wood, not rising as popularly supposed. The

Salem. “For more than twenty years, I assumed that such a blow was humanly impossible.” Of course, as the skeptical Jenkinson learned to his astonishment, “humanly possible” has a different meaning when applied to Babe Ruth. It’s a commonplace of American life that while the world may have gotten worse, athletes are much, much better. The British runner Roger Bannister stunned the world in 1954 by breaking the four-minute mile, and now American high schoolers routinely do it. Pro basketball and football heroes of the not-so-long-ago 1980s look small and slow on the screen compared to today’s sleek behemoths. Then there are the performance drugs that apparently transformed Barry Bonds from a slender 185-pound hitter to a 240-pound aptly named San Francisco Giant. When Jenkinson began his research, he naturally assumed the rule would hold in baseball, and was shocked

seven, he “gushed like a rookie” on the subject of Ruth’s power; when he interviewed Reggie Jackson, arguably the strongest left-handed hitter in half a century, in Fenway Park, he pointed out the spot where Williams’ reached the 33rd row of the right field bleachers. Jackson was amazed; he’d never seen anyone hit it that far. Then Jenkinson indicated the 45th row, where Ruth reached, and Jackson was “flabbergasted…the man who wowed historians and fans with (his) power…was wowed.” Ruth, born in 1895, who played long before the big money and the big weight training and drugs, who played with a ball that was no more lively (and probably less so) than the current one and in stadiums with fences fifty feet farther back, towers over all power hitters in baseball history, ancient and modern, like a man before children. Jenkinson knew that. He’d devoted his life to excavating that knowledge from the historical record, the truth of the forgotten Ruth. Still, he was hardly prepared for the reality of the longest shot in baseball history, made in northern Pennsylvania. To see it as it was, we must journey again back in time, to the afternoon of October the 12, 1926. Barnstorming With the Babe

Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Babe Ruth’s July 18, 1921 homer in Detroit flew 601 feet, but Jenkinson used aerial photographs and the Pythagorean Theorem to prove that it couldn’t have. “My best judgment concludes that this Detroit homer flew about 575 feet,” he wrote, which would make it the longest ever hit in big-league competition. Countless reports of 600-foot home runs surfaced, and “I investigated every one of them. One by one, the accounts were proven to be false,” he said, including reported Ruth blasts from San Francisco to Chicago to Winston-

that it didn’t. The remarkable Jimmie Foxx , a 1920s and 30s slugger with the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox, held up admirably with the strongest of all modern hitters, Mickey Mantle, Dick Allen, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, Willie McCovey, the 6-7, 280-pound Frank Howard, and the monstrous McGwire, the most powerful hitter of the millennium. And then there was the elephant in the room, the exception to all rules: Babe Ruth. When Jenkinson interviewed Ted Williams, one of the great long-ball hitters, at age sixty-

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The Babe was making headlines again. The day after losing the World Series, October 11th, he went out on his barnstorming tour, a phrase from vaudeville, whose touring acts would perform anywhere, even a barn. In Bradley Beach, New Jersey, he played an exhibition game against a Negro League team, the Brooklyn Royal Colored Giants, then visited a New Jersey hospital to see Johnny Sylvester, a young boy who had miraculously recovered from illness after the Babe hit three Series home runs in his honor. At least that was the story sportswriters and PR men apparently cooked up, a story said by modern biographers to be wildly exaggerated. These biographers sometimes neglect to mention that in August 1948, Johnny Sylvester visited Babe Ruth on his deathbed, to say goodbye.The next day on his whirlwind tour, October 12, Ruth arrived by train in Wilkes-Barre. Typical for each stop, OCTOber 2007


he visited hospital patients, attended a banquet, and went on the radio, in between the main event: playing for Hughestown against Larksville in an afternoon game at Artillery Park. The park overflowed with 1,500 noisy fans, many of them children, filling the wooden grandstand that wrapped around from first base to third. The crowd was abuzz. The knew the Bambino had starred in the World Series, hitting a record three home runs in one game, including a 530-foot shot that remains the longest homer ever in Series history. But he had also been the goat. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game, he’d impulsively tried to steal second base and been cut down, making the last out of the Series. Ruth drew raucous cheers as the started the game at first base wearing the road uniform of the New York Yankees, and again as he came to the plate. But he seemed listless, registering no hits in his first two at-bats. The crowd quieted. Part of Ruth’s appeal was the colossus was unafraid to fail, and often did so, as flamboyantly as he succeeded. Not only had he lost the Series, his splendid 1926 season had been necessary to redeem the endless scandals and awful performances of

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1925 and before. Each of these failures was told in giant headlines in the early 1920s: Babe ballooned to 250 pounds; Babe collapsed on a train station in Asheville, North Carolina, from a mysterious illness that required abdominal surgery; Babe threw dirt in an umpire’s face, and attacked a heckling fan (“I didn’t mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands.”) Babe was suspended by his manager; accused of rape by a teenager who later admitted she’d never met Ruth; been rampantly unfaithful to his wife; was publicly chastised by the future mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker, for shameless carousing and drinking that led to the Yank’s seventh-place finish in 1925. Walker accused Ruth in public of “letting the kids down,” while the Babe sobbed uncontrollably. A chorus of New York sportswriters, after 1925, said the Babe was too old, too fat, washed up. Was the Babe really done? The crowd grew restless. Ruth could turn it all around with a mighty wallop, but it wasn’t to happen in that game. By the third inning, the youths in the grandstand could bear the separation from their hero no longer. They swarmed onto the field and tackled him, piling on in scrum of innocence

and pure joy until Ruth was no longer visible. Alarmed that Babe had been knocked down, several policemen raced to rescue him, whereupon Ruth popped up, to wild cheers, with a grin and fouryear-old Frank Lavery, who had been in danger of being crushed, in his arms. (This classic photo appears on the cover of Mountain Home.) The Kid, the Babe, and Six-base Hit By the sixth inning, the umpires called the game because of excessive delays while Ruth signed autographs. It was over, and the mighty slugger had struck out. But as disappointed fans climbed down from the grandstand, the Babe called out a challenge to four local pitchers to strike him out. One after another, Pennsylvania men named Tyson, Bartlett, and Delaney took the mound and pitched to Ruth, and pitched admirably, holding him in a dozen pitches to a single home run, short and to the opposite field. Then Ernie Corchran of Pittston, who started with a couple curveballs, tried to sneak a fastball by Ruth, “and that’s when it happened,” Jenkinson said. A line drive rose high over the second base, racing like a swallow fleeing a storm, soaring toward the

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right-center field fence and climbing so high in the October air people lost sight of it as it cleared the fence for a home run. The crowd fell silent, the traditional wild shouts and cheers stuck in their throats, for this home run wasn’t finished. As a centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates said about another Ruthian shot, “Babe, when that ball sailed over me, it was just starting to move.” This one boomed still higher, climbing over trees by a road and clearing the road and then arcing high over the park and the lanes of a running track, clearing the infield of the track and the other side of the track, soaring over the place where a second adjoining baseball field exists today, flying over the backstop and home plate and third base and landing deep in the left field of the second field, and finally coming to Earth, perhaps the only hit ever made that was a home run in one field and a double in another. According to Jenkinson, Ruth knew it was an extraordinary hit; he dropped his bat signaling the show was over. Shortly afterward, while signing autographs, he told a reporter, “When I hit that ball, it felt as if it was going The Longest Shot... Continued on page 12

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The Longest Shot... Continued from page 11 to be the best clout I ever took. . . . I’d like to know just how far that traveled and some of the club officials said they would have it measured in the morning and let me know.” Asked to compare it to his documented 530-foot homer the week before in the World Series, he said, “I believe the ball I hit here this afternoon went a lot farther.” Get Out the Tape Measure But how far? The club officials apparently never measured it, and never got back to Babe. Decades later, in the Philadelphia Free Library, Jenkinson discovered newspaper reports of the prodigious Wilkes-Barre home run. The WilkesBarre Record said the ball traveled more than 600 feet. The Associated Press reported 650 feet, and the Scranton Republican claimed 700 feet. Jenkinson didn’t believe any of the numbers. But a research trip to WilkesBarre left him shaken. He could hardly believe Artillery Field still existed and called it “a minor miracle.” After a day in the Luzerne County Library, he realized “something unique had happened here.” Home plate had been relocated forward some thirty feet, but old photographs made it possible to determine its position within a few feet. The running track, which contemporary accounts said the ball had cleared, had been moved, but not enough to leave the achievement in doubt. On October 1, 2004, Jenkinson met at Artillery Park with eighty-seven-yearold Joe Gibbons, who, as a ten-year-old boy, had sat with his father and uncle in the grandstand beside first base. Gibbons, entirely lucid, “described the events in vivid detail and then confidently walked to the point where he personally saw the ball land beyond the corner of the old running track.” By Gibbon’s witness, the ball flew almost 650 feet. A skeptic by nature, Jenkinson couldn’t bring himself to accept it. But he saw no way to dispute that the ball had traveled more than 600 feet; he placed it conservatively at 605. “I think the people from this area can rightfully claim that the longest ball in competitive baseball history was hit here,” Jenkinson said. “No matter what direction this thing takes from this point on, we are going to find out that this ball traveled well over 600 feet. I don’t think that there is any way that it didn’t.”

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The Babe Who Blessed Us Why should it matter? There is no question Ruth touched lives in a rare way. Jenkinson received a telephone call from Mrs. Joan Lavery of Harrisburg, who introduced herself as the widow of Frank Lavery, the four-year-old boy Babe Ruth raised protectively into his arms that long-ago day he hit the longest shot. A copy of that photo hangs in the Lavery home to this day and was Frank Lavery’s most cherished possession, his widow said. Jenkinson heard many such stories from those who lived in the Babe Ruth era, and marvels how popular Babe remains today, three quarters of a century after he played. Jenkinson believes people are drawn to power, and Ruth, like a great white shark, represents “power incarnate.” Others note that the Babe’s long home runs inspired people to Ruthian excellence. The great American writer John Updike, a Pennsylvanian who found fame in New York, described the meaning of “Ruthian” beautifully after he witnessed Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams’s last game in Fenway Park, September 28, 1960. “My personal memories of Williams begin when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, with two last-place teams in Philadelphia to keep me company,” he wrote in The New Yorker. “He radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose. . . . I remember watching one of his home runs from the bleachers of Shibe Park; it went over the first baseman’s head and rose meticulously along a straight line and was still rising when it cleared the fence. The trajectory seemed qualitatively different from anything anyone else might hit. For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. . . . No other player visible to my generation has . . . constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.” That gray afternoon in 1960, Updike leaned forward as the aging Williams came to the plate for the last at bat in his storied career. “We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball,” he wrote. “Three innings before, we OCTOber 2007


had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.” The pitcher threw, and “there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle . . . the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a

towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky . . .” Ted Williams trotted around the bases and into history, ending his career as majestically as he began it, a lanky, brash nineteen-year-old Californian who appeared at his first spring training with Ruthian dreams, and boasted to sportswriters he would be “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” He almost was.

The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs It’s true. It happened in 1921. Wait, you say, you looked it up: Babe Ruth hit fifty-four home runs that year, not one hundred and four. True enough, but baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, widely recognized as the leading authority on long-distance home runs, has researched Ruth’s round-trippers more thoroughly than anyone ever has. In his acclaimed new book, The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104

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Home Runs (Carroll & Graf Publishers, $16.95), Jenkinson reveals that, on average, ballpark fences were about fifty feet farther out in 1921 than they are today. With years of painstaking research, Jenkinson plotted every long fly ball, double, and triple Ruth ever hit on diagrams of modern stadiums, and what-doya-know, in sixty more of those 1921 at-bats, the ball would have flown out of today’s parks, giving Ruth 104 homers that year and more than 1,000 for his career. In this entertaining and well-written book, Jenkinson covers Ruth’s whole career in a style as winning as a long four-bagger, and the historian makes a convincing case that Babe Ruth is baseball’s once and forever Home Run King. One of the finest books ever written about the Bambino, it deserves a place on the bookshelf of every serious baseball fan. – Michael Capuzzo

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Babe Ruth's Longest Shot