Saturday, October 22, 2016

Waiting on the Bambino

My time-trip today involves packing rain gear and ball glove and heading for 1922. Parking myself in the middle of Wabash avenue near 20th street. Blinking into a cold October drizzle just outside the walls of Kansas City’s emerald diamond. Waiting.

The Monarchs, in their third season of Negro National League baseball, and city champions after taking five of six games from the Blues, are playing an exhibition game here today. These are the Monarchs of Bullet Joe Rogan and Frank Duncan, Heavy Johnson and Jose Mendez and Rube Carrie. Reason enough to be time-traveling here.

But as the morning newspaper says, the great Babe Ruth is with us today at Association Park!

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In  October 1922 Babe Ruth's greatness is actually in question. He has just finished his third season with the New York Yankees in underwhelming style, by hitting .118 in the World Series against the New York Giants. The Giants have swept the Yanks in four games. Ruth had set home-run records the previous two years, but after missing the first five weeks of this season his numbers fell off. Suddenly the Bambino has become a bum. Sportswriters are referring to “the waning star of Ruth.”

The five weeks off were a gift from Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. At the end of the 1921 season Ruth and teammates Bob Meusel and Bill Piercy had gone barnstorming around the country, playing in local exhibitions for extra money. Against the baseball rules at the time. Landis suspended all three. This year, 1922, the rules have been changed.

So Ruth and Meusel are back to barnstorming, a tour of the Midwest. Nineteen games with and against minor-leaguers and semi-pros from the Knights of Columbus or the American Legion or the local sporting-goods dealer. Ruth and Meusel each receive $1,000 at every stop.

The trip is winding from Perry, Iowa, to El Paso, Texas, touching places named Deadwood, Sleepy Eye, Tarkio, and Drumwright. The largest stop will be Kansas City. Our first chance to see the Babe in person will come at 1 p.m., Sunday, October 22. A doubleheader. First game: both Meusel and Ruth on a team playing the Monarchs. Nightcap: Ruth and some Legionnaires vs. Meusel and some Masons.

The weatherman has called for 60 degrees and clouds, with “a slight possibility of rain.” At 1 p.m. it is gray, chilly and wet. Meusel and Ruth arrive in raincoats over their Yankee road uniforms.

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The Kansas City Call, African-American weekly, began its summation this way:

Sunday was a nasty day for any outdoor sport except duck hunting, yet 1,500 fans, most of them white, were present at Association Park when the umps called “play ball” as the signal for the opening game of a doubleheader, wherein the great Babe Ruth and his teammate Bob Meusel, both of the New York Yankees, and assisted by local semi-pros and former big leaguers, were to cross bats with the Monarchs.

The Monarchs won 10 to 5. Bullet Joe Rogan started, allowed two hits in two innings. Meusel singled twice and showed off baseball’s best outfield arm with a perfect throw to the plate. Ruth hit four singles in four at-bats and pitched an inning. Frank Duncan threw out Ruth attempting to steal second. Heavy Johnson homered. The rain ended the second game in the second inning. Ruth and Meusel left town by interurban rail for their next game in Leavenworth.

And the next year they would lead the Yanks to their first World Series title, forming part of the famous "Murderers Row" lineup of heavy hitters. In 1927 "the waning star of Ruth" would set a home-run standard that would stand 34 years.

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American Association Park was built for the Blues in 1903, and also became home to the Monarchs in 1920. In 1923 both teams moved four blocks to the new Muehlebach Field, later known as Ruppert Stadium and finally Municipal Stadium.

The land where Association Park once stood – a grassy wedge between Prospect and Olive, 20th street and the railroad tracks – is today a parcel of the Parks Department called Blues Park. There’s a little playground and a softball diamond. A concrete basketball court sits about where Meusel and Ruth took batting practice in the cold drizzle 94 years ago today.

Many of the old houses along Wabash avenue, south of what would have been the right field wall along 20th street, still stand. According to the news accounts, Ruth hit his only homers that afternoon – surely what most fans had come to see – during batting practice. Four of them to right field. Including one that cleared the roofs of two houses on Wabash avenue.

Which is where I’m standing, pounding my glove in the 1922 rain, waiting on the Bambino.

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