The week Babe Ruth owned Salt Lake City
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, July 10, 2011 The locomotive carrying the most mythic man to ever play a game charted a straight path through the dark night across a naked desert.
Inside, the man prepared for his first visit to a minor-league town that he knew only as the last station on a 12-city vaudeville tour that would pay him $100,000 more than he received the year before for an entire season of baseball. At each stop he donned his famous striped uniform, took mighty cuts with a polished hickory club, tipped his lopsided ballcap, read his condensed life story as written by someone else, then climbed aboard another train bound for another city full of people who, if not for this tour, wouldn't have occasion to see the great fellow.
It began on Oct. 30 in Minneapolis and hop-scotched through the Dakotas and on to the coast, where he delighted Spokane, then Seattle, and every other major city along the Pacific. And finally there he sat, on a rail bound for Salt Lake City, which, 84 years later, has a rich baseball tradition, running right up to this week's Triple-A All-Star exhibition.
Spring training was just weeks away in Florida. Before returning to the east, he would yet go to Hollywood to star in his first feature film, a silent picture in which he would play himself.
By Jan. 25, 1927, the legend's first day in Utah, he was tired and fat, his playing weight having disappeared 25 pounds ago in Bellingham or Portland or in a dining car along the way.
He would fulfill his final slate of scheduled shows, a week's worth, at the sparkling Pantages Theatre in downtown Salt Lake. Anna Q. Nillson, the lovely Swedish leading lady, waited in Southern California, impatient for filming on "Babe Comes Home" to commence.
The Bambino the Sultan of Swat, the Colossus of Clout, the Big Bam and, only sometimes, Babe Ruth was distracted. Court officials in Long Beach had served a warrant for his return. They claimed bringing boys on stage to give them signed baseballs during the act violated child labor laws in California. Elsewhere in his sport, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, two greats, were being investigated for charges of cheating back in ''19.
Most significant, Ruth awaited a contract from the New York Yankees.
His last time in uniform, on a ballfield against other ballplayers in a real park, came on Oct. 10 at Yankee Stadium. Ruth lay out on the dirt, Rogers Hornsby's glove applied firmly on his ankle. Ruth, a sure thing on the basepaths only after a homer, was caught stealing to record the final out of the World Series.
His offer would come and Ruth would agree. He would be paid a record-setting $70,000 for the 1927 season, the equivalent of $871,000 in modern times. It seemed a reasonable sum for a great player, although the Bambino by now had decided he deserved $100,000 annually for his efforts. Ruth, like most players, was never satisfied with his compensation and in the offseason took to money-making through barnstorming and vaudeville tours to supplement his already fat income.
Even with the sizable salary agreed upon by Ruth and the Yankees, neither side could have imagined the year ahead of them. Ruth would set the major leagues' home run record at 60 as the third bat in a lineup known as "Murderers' Row." His Yankees would cruise to a World Series sweep over the Pittsburgh Pirates as the final flourish of what is widely considered the greatest season in the history of the proud game.
But first, Babe Ruth had a show to do in Salt Lake City.
WITH GOLF CLUBS, TOO • As the Continental Limited neared the Union Pacific depot, Ruth pulled on a thick overcoat and adjusted his tan cap. He hefted his golf clubs, though where he thought he might use them in January nobody knew, and walked to the exit of the train. When the doors opened, he stepped, for the first time, into the thin Utah air.
Despite it being an unseasonably warm 28 degrees, he shivered slightly.
Then came the newsboys. Just that morning they threw onto porches and against fences the daily Tribune which contained a small announcement: "Babe Ruth, Famous Bat Wielder and Tribune Special Writer, Is Due Tuesday."
There he was!
Ruth was quickly surrounded by a rabid pack of schoolboys who clambered for a clear view of, and a chance to meet, the slugger.
A crowd of adults, also eager for a glimpse, was kept behind the gates, not afforded the same access to The Babe.
Whether they had tickets to see him at the Pantages was far from the point. Here he was almost a real person, riding trains, carrying golf clubs. Hardly the famed specter that flashed from newsreels or would fleet across a stage.
Ruth would make other visits to Utah as his playing days waned: next in 1930 and a year later, to pass a six-hour halt on a trip to the coast. On that trip he would play a round of golf at the Salt Lake Country Club. He would then return in 1940, only eight years from death, for a hitting exposition at Community Ballpark, but would fail to launch a single shot beyond the walls of the yard.
In 1927, he was fresh and new. Just two weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.
As it had been in each of the 11 other cities, Ruth retreated from the station to a car that whisked him the five blocks to the newspaper office.
Inside the Tribune newsroom on Main Street, he plopped himself in front of a typewriter, posed for a photograph, and assumed his role as the paper's sports editor for the day.
The following morning, readers found a column penned in Ruth's name. He gushed about the reception he received in Utah, proclaimed his admiration for Yankees teammate and former Salt Lake Bee Tony Lazzeri, and bemoaned the number of new managers throughout baseball, for they made the upcoming season unpredictable.
"Funny thing about this stove league baseball and even spring training camp baseball," Ruth, or someone writing on his behalf, pounded out on the stubborn keys, "even the wise ones get fooled and get fooled often. No one but ourselves believed we would come through this last year. We will enter the race this year with more backers."
And then, with a truly great season on the approaching horizon, Ruth said, "I hope we will meet their expectations."
A FABULOUS VENUE • The Pantages Theatre was certainly a grand theater, indeed, when it opened in 1920 on Salt Lake's Main Street. Modeled as a replica to the famous Hollywood Pantages, and the latest in a line of Pantages theaters opening across the country, it was labeled by biased local scribes "America's most beautiful vaudeville house."
Deep, blue-gray Alaskan marble greeted visitors at the box office. Ornately carved golden dÃ©cor on the balconies and the ceiling overlooked 2,200 plush opera seats, which funneled forward to the stage, where the opening was shielded by a half-ton curtain. Throughout its life, that curtain would serve as a gateway to America's greatest stars.
Later as the RKO Orpheum, the theater would present the Marx Brothers. Even Bob Hope. It would dwindle into history as the Utah Theatre before, finally, living to the present as an empty shell, where only echoes of the greats remain.
During daily performances that January week in 1927, vaudeville stars such as Eddie Carr and Verna Hayworth held Pantages crowds at bay. Then, last on the bill, Ruth would take the stage.
"Mr. Dunn made a pitcher out of me," Babe Ruth relayed to his hungry audience. He was baseball's best left-hander early in his career, and that started with the minor-league Baltimore Orioles under the watchful eye of manager Jack Dunn.
"Then he traded me the same day to another club for a batboy," he embellished. "I was feeling pretty bad in the clubhouse that day when I thought it over. But I figured I could do Mr. Dunn a favor. I went to him and told him the ceiling was leaking in his clubhouse."
The audience sat rapt.
Ruth paused for the punchline to his tale. "[Dunn] said, 'You darn boob, that ain't a leak. That's the shower bath!' "
For his week in Utah, Ruth owned Salt Lake City like he owned each and every crowd. Raised in a Baltimore orphanage himself, the Bambino ventured to the St. Ann's Orphanage at the southern reaches of town.
A Tribune photographer raced ahead of Ruth's caravan and assembled the orphans on the steps of the home, today a respected parochial school. Upon Ruth's arrival, he met the baseball team and, as a surprise presented an autographed bat to its captain, a nervous boy named Tony Renovich. A signed baseball was also gifted, but held in reserve for the boy who would lead the team in batting that year.
As he stood in front of the assembled orphans, who didn't have fathers to teach them baseball, Ruth demonstrated how to properly hold a bat. And it's a safe bet that to wherever those children advanced throughout their lives, that they never forgot that lesson.
In the present day, someone might visit St. Ann's, stand near the eastern pillar along its entry steps, and imagine taking a cut at the very place the Swat King did the same.
DAWN OF A DREAM • Despite one local sports writer's take that Ruth was in fine shape and could return to playing form with a few weeks of average training, Ruth was unsure.
After several shows at the Pantages, he called for his trainer, Arthur McGovern, to depart New York, join him in Salt Lake and continue on to Los Angeles. While Salt Lake City was consumed with Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth had other interests with which to concern himself.
He roundly declined to comment on Cobb's and Speaker's brush with baseball's enforcement arm. And rightly so. Between his arrival on Jan. 25 and his departure on Feb. 2, not only were the powerful pair exonerated, but Speaker had signed on for a season with the Washington Senators of the American League.
Ruth's own dustup over labor laws, too, came into clearer focus. The Tribune asserted, "Ruth not in as bad as report would indicate."
Soon enough, that $70,000 from the Yankees would come in too, and The Great Bambino would be entrenched with the team and the town with which he will forever be mostly closely associated.
Throughout his career, Ruth would be a great draw in New York, and on the road in Boston, and Washington, and Detroit, and Cleveland.
He would, of course, barnstorm throughout the country with his colleague Lou Gehrig the Bustin' Babes and the Larrupin' Lous again in the fall of 1927, at the immediate conclusion of that fine season.
From then, he would always be Babe Ruth, the swatter of 60 dingers, a record that would be the best ever until Roger Maris in 1961, and would not be further relegated until the reigns of Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.
But those names and records were unthinkable in the winter of 1927, when it was just the Babe and the flirtatious imagination of what he might go on to in his yet still-rising career. And, for a brief, magical, almost lost clipping of time, he brought those major-league dreams to our minor-league desert city.
For that week, Salt Lake City belonged to Babe Ruth, and, however briefly, Babe Ruth belonged to Salt Lake City.
Better in print
Be sure to check out the Sunday edition of The Tribune to see the 1927-style Sports cover up close.
To view the PDFs of the Babe Ruth stories in Sunday's section, visit: