A Walk in the Park

By Larry Teren

baberuthIt was the last baseball game of the Babe’s career. Now about 50 pounds overweight, his swung gulped hard like a whirling dervish and missed on the first pitch at his first appearance at the plate that day. He ended awkward lying flat on the ground, spitting blood down his cheek, needing help to get back up to his feet. The pitcher was that fellow who three years earlier in the World Series the Babe had mocked by first pointing to the right center-field bleachers and then stroking a mammoth home run to that exact location. Now this same hurler was mocking and taunting him with sadistic pleasure as Ruth stood helplessly at the plate waiting to continue his at-bat.

The next pitch came upon him again too quickly; he swung and missed but this time he stayed on his feet. A look of defiant anger now took hold of his disposition and he egged on the pitcher to throw the same heater again. The third pitch came with the same intensity but this time was met by the square part of the bat and sailed over the pitcher’s head on and on. It was like a rocket heading to the moon but all that it had intended was to land quietly well past the outfield seats out of the stadium. Another home run for the Babe.

He watched with glee mixed with self-satisfaction as it sailed, then put down the piece of lumber that sent the ball on its orbit. He slowly walked to first base where a courtesy runner was standing waiting to be tagged on the hand by the Babe himself. The pinch runner finished the trot around the bases while the Babe turned and slowly walked back to the dugout amid the surprised quiet of the enemy crowd.

The next time up, the Babe shocked the crowd again with another towering home run and again availed himself of a courtesy runner from first base and on.

In his final at bat, the Babe hit the longest of the three home runs he swatted that day, the 714th and final of his career. This time, though, he did not use the pinch runner and shrugged him off. George Herman Ruth slowly but with pride circled the bases to the cheers and hoopla of thousands of enemy patrons in the stands.

After he reached home plate, the Babe turned and instead of heading toward the dugout, walked up to the owner of the Boston Braves who was on the field to greet him with a handshake. The Babe came right upon him but did not put his hand out to accept congratulations from the one who signed his paychecks. Instead, he reached up, grabbed his cap off his head and tossed it in disgust to the ground.  He turned to the long tunnel towards the visiting team’s clubhouse.  He was done. Forever.

The above reads like a touching, dramatic account of a true event in the annals of Baseball history. It makes for a good movie plot, which is what it is. Movie producers tend to make up 75% of the “facts” in filmed biographies of famous people. (Check out the real “Sound of Music” story, for example). In this case, Babe Ruth did not hit three home runs in the last game of his career. He did it a week earlier. In his last game, he had but one plate appearance.

There were other liberties taken with the truth as well. Occasionally before 1950 (when the practice was discontinued), courtesy runners were permitted by mutual consent of both clubs. Baseball historians state that Ruth never used one. And the pitcher on the mound- Guy Bush- did not give up all three home runs to the Babe that day- only the last two. In fact, Bush was not on the mound that fateful day in Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs when the Babe called his own home run shot. It was Charlie Root.

The courtesy runner bit stirred memories of my own playing baseball in the early 1970’s when I was in the athletic prime of my late teens and early 20’s. Every Sunday morning, close to thirty of us would gather at Lerner Park on the far north side of the City of Chicago. At the northeast corner, near the intersection of Sacramento and Lunt, the guy in charge of this activity would lay out the bases and other equipment. He would always be one of the managers while the other was one of three different candidates from week to week.

Sixteen inch softball has ten players on a side. By 9:00am there would already be too many on hand to satisfy all egos. As many as an entire team would sit on the sidelines waiting for the seven inning game to quickly get over so that they could challenge the winners of the first match. I was good enough to rarely wait a whole game to get in some action unless I arrived late.

It never failed, though, that one man got to play in that first game- Sid. He was in his sixties- at least that’s what it looked like to a nineteen year old. It didn’t hurt that Sid’s son was the guy who organized the matches and held on to the bases and new softballs each week.

Sid was the pitcher on whatever team he was on and stood there distractingly with a little cigar dangling from his mouth as he let go with another underhanded toss to the plate. When he came to bat Sid always had a courtesy runner who stood a foot or so behind home plate,  not allowed to take off until the bat touched the ball. Despite his advancing years, Sid could take a good poke at the ball and more often rewarded his teammate with an opportunity to be on the bases.

There has been no softball games played at Lerner Park in nearly twenty years. As I get closer to that magic age, I wonder if I’d get the opportunity again to play in a game like an excited kid and be given a courtesy runner. Or would I just be doing another walk in the park.

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