Even though he was surrounded on this day by a galaxy of stars, Babe Ruth always seemed to shine the brightest in the eyes of baseball fans. And so it came as no surprise when, after being honored along with the greatest stars his sport had ever known, it was the Bambino’s surprising appearance with bat in hand that brought down the house.
It was 74 years ago, on Monday, June 12, 1939, when Cooperstown, would for at least one day be considered the baseball capital of the world. Earlier in the day the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum would hold it’s first-ever Induction Ceremony in which the game’s immortals, including Ruth, would forever be enshrined. But now an all-star baseball game was taking place with the best active players of the day participating.
In the fifth inning, and wearing a uniform from a 1934 baseball tour of Japan, the 44-year-old Ruth appeared from the dugout ready to pinch hit. Would the Sultan of Swat be able to steal the show from baseball’s living immortals on this day of all days?
The picturesque village of Cooperstown, settled in 1786 by the father of famed American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, was deemed the “Birthplace of Baseball” in 1907 as the result of findings by the Mills Commission, which was appointed to determine the game’s origin two years earlier. The Commission stated specifically that “the first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence available to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839.”
Some 30 years later, plans were underway in the central New York hamlet to host a four-month celebration in the summer of 1939, honoring the game’s 100th anniversary.
“Baseball has become, through the years, not only a great national sport but also the symbol of America as the melting pot,” wrote President Franklin Roosevelt in a letter earlier that year. “The players embrace all nations and national origins and the fans, equally cosmopolitan, make only one demand of them: Can they play the game?
“It seems to me that the museum will be a place of special interest, particularly in this centennial year of baseball.”
From May through August, Cooperstown was abuzz with baseball, with the newly christened Doubleday Field playing host to special high school, college and semi-pro contests. Motorists entering the village from any direction saw markers in the shape of giant baseballs with arrows directing them “To the Cooperstown Baseball Centennial.”
The summer’s crowning moment took place on June 12, a day that not only paid tribute to the game’s best, but also opened a 1,200-square-foot shrine to the national pastime that fans from around the world enjoy to this day.
The Hall of Fame had been in the planning stages for a number of years before its official dedication and first Induction Ceremony. When the day finally came, crowds flocked to the historic village of 2,500 residents nestled in the Leatherstocking Region of upstate New York to witness the once-in-a-lifetime events that forever made Cooperstown part of the cultural landscape of our nation.
“My gosh, there were more people than cows,” marvels Catherine Walker, who was only 8 years old at the time. “I remember my dad holding me up so that I could see, putting me on his shoulders, but other than that it was just a big sea of faces.”
Howard Talbot, who would later serve as the director of the Hall of Fame, came with his family from nearby Edmeston.
“For a 14-year-old it was overwhelming, believe me. No question about it,” he said.
Approximately 12,000 fans, national press and three national radio broadcast were in place at noon on Main Street in front of the newly opened Hall of Fame where the 25 electees from the first three Induction classes were to be honored with bronze plaques.
“Since for 100 years this game has lived and thrived and spread all over our country and a large part of the world it is fitting that it should have a museum, a national museum,” said Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, at the beginning of the ceremony. “I should like to dedicate this museum to all America. To lovers of good sportsmanship, healthy bodies, keen minds, for those are the principals of baseball. So it is to them, rather than to the few who have been honored here, that I propose to dedicate this shrine of sportsmanship.”
After a ruffle of drums and the sounding of taps were played for the 14 deceased members — Cap Anson, Morgan Bulkeley, Alexander Cartwright, Henry Chadwick, Charles Comiskey, Candy Cummings, Buck Ewing, Ban Johnson, Willie Keeler, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Charles Radbourn, A.G. Spalding and George Wright — the living inductees were introduced and approached the microphone one at a time. All except the Georgia Peach.
Connie Mack, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, George Sisler, Eddie Collins, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Babe Ruth made short remarks for the crowd, the half dozen newsreel cameras and a nationwide radio audience, but Ty Cobb, according to reports, was delayed because he was overcome with indigestion en route to Cooperstown and had to stop off at a hospital in nearby Utica.
“I was washing up over at Knox college,” said Cobb, “the only place in Cooperstown where I could get accommodations — when I heard my name read over the radio. I didn’t know the ceremonies began that early.
“Called out on strikes, I guess,” he laughed.
While Cobb was tardy, Sisler decided to stay in Cooperstown and send his wife to attend their son George Jr.’s graduation ceremony from nearby Colgate University.
Some of the Hall of Famers, like longtime second baseman Collins, were awestruck by the talent on the Cooperstown stage: “I’d be glad to be the batboy for such a team as this.”
Alexander, winner of 373 big league games, said during his speech, “In my dreams I often think what I could do today with a team like they were and if they could be now what they were then. I would have no mistakes to be worrying about or when they hit those line drives off me I would have no trouble wondering who was going to get them.”
The last player introduced was Ruth, who it was reported received the day’s loudest cheers.
“I hope some day that some of the young fellows coming into the game will know how it feels to be picked in the Hall of Fame,” Ruth said. “I know the old boys back in there were just talking it over, some have been here long before my time. They got on it, I worked hard, and I got on it. And I hope that the coming generation, the young boys today, that they’ll work hard and also be on it.
“And as my old friend Cy Young says, I hope it goes another hundred years and the next hundred years will be the greatest.”
Also attending this day was longtime American League umpire Tom Connolly, himself elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, who was impressed with the improved verbal skills of the former players.
“The way those fellows have improved their vocabularies was something to hear. They walked right up to those radio microphones and started unloading words like ‘magnificent,’ ‘superb,’ ‘imposing’ and ‘stupendous,’” he said. “They sounded wonderful except they didn’t sound like the same fellows I used to know when they were playing baseball and I was umpiring.”
The day’s events continued that afternoon with a four-block parade down a flag-and-bunting-decorated Main Street to Doubleday Field, where a pageant, the “Cavalcade of Baseball,” was held. It began with demonstrators appropriately dressed showing how the game evolved from its town ball beginnings in the 1830s to the days of its first organized teams in the 1850s and concluded with a game played between the current stars of the game.
With the 16 big league parks closed for the day and each club represented by two players, Hall of Famers Wagner and Collins chose up sides using the hand-over-bat method of getting the first selection. “I don’t know about the other fellows, but I’m playing for keeps, to win,” Wagner was heard to say before the game. “I’m not playing for marbles.”
The two Hall of Famers picked their teams from among such future inductees as Dizzy Dean, Mel Ott, Hank Greenberg, Lloyd Waner, Charlie Gehringer, Billy Herman, Arky Vaughan, Joe Medwick and Lefty Grove. Other participants of note included Stan Hack, Cecil Travis, Johnny Vander Meer, Wally Moses, Terry Moore, Moe Berg, Muddy Ruel and Cookie Lavagetto.
“It was quite something that here in Cooperstown we could see some of the heroes of baseball and were able to say ‘hi’ to them,” said Homer Osterhoudt, who as a 21-year-old documented the day’s activities with about 50 photographs that are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
And while the Wagners would come away with a 4-2 triumph over the Collins team, it was the dramatic “comeback” of Ruth, pinch hitting for Danny MacFayden against Syl Johnson in the bottom of the fifth inning, that is most remembered.
“The Glimmerglass,” Cooperstown’s summer daily newspaper, reported that, “Everyone was pulling for the Babe to pump one into the stands but the best the Bambino could do was pop a two-two pitch up the first base line which (catcher Art) Jorgens caught. The Babe returned to his place in the dugout with the cheers of the fans still ringing in his ears.”
According to Harold Hollis, who covered the game as a 24-year-old reporter for the local Cooperstown newspaper, “Everybody yelled, ‘Drop it, drop it, drop it,’ because they wanted to see him hit one out.”
Ruth, four years retired from the game, later admitted, “I’m too old … I can’t hit the floor with my hat.”
After the game, Ruth famous love of children was in evidence as he agreed to pose for a photo for 14-year-old Fred St. John.
“He said, ‘Wait a minute, I think you’ve got your finger on the lens,’” St. John recalled. “He got me all lined up and he said, ‘Now point it and take a deep breath and hold still and then shoot it.’ And so I did and he said, ‘There, I don’t want anybody to take a bad picture of me.’”
Although he didn’t hit one of his awe-inspiring home runs, the Ruth’s fans didn’t end this historic day disappointed. “Gee,” a 10-year-old boy was overheard saying, “ain’t the Babe wonderful?”