Babe Ruth’s debut is still epitome of Yankees hype 100 years later

Gerrit Cole has been toasted, saluted, feted and lionized in his first moments as a Yankee. Every one of the 14 fastballs he threw Monday night at George M. Steinbrenner Field were greeted with hurrahs and huzzahs, with great anticipation.

When he reached 98 mph with a few of them, there was the usual stirring among Yankees faithful, both those looking on live at Steinbrenner Field and those planted in front of their computer screens, following along as best they could. Some might think that a little excessive for the initial hours of spring training.

A hundred years ago, Babe Ruth might have called that “cute.”

A hundred years ago Friday, one of the greatest baseball stories ever told became a reality when Babe Ruth officially joined the Yankees. Ruth had been dealt from the Red Sox a few months before but had yet to actually appear in New York City until the evening of Saturday, Feb. 28, 1920.

He was due to join about 20 of his teammates on the Florida Flier, a special train that was due to leave Pennsylvania Station at 6:20 p.m., bound for Yankees’ spring training headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla. All 19 of those teammates beat him to the platform at Penn. So did close to a thousand curious Yankees fans, all craning their necks for a glimpse of the man already referred to as the “Behemoth of Swat.”

(The catchier nicknames came later.)

Babe Ruth
Babe RuthAP

When at last the great man appeared at 6:10, flanked by porters lugging both his suitcases and the more important cargo of his golf clubs, Ruth was swarmed. He smiled for photographers. He shook hands at a furious pace. He waved and he laughed and he marveled, “They said New York knew how to make a fellow feel good, and now I know they meant it!”

The people shouted his name even as he entered the train, even as he sat at a table surrounded by five teammates, a deck of cards in the middle. Even as the door closed and he could be heard shouting, “Deal ’em!”

As the train ambled west toward New Jersey and then south toward Jacksonville, a new dynamic was announcing itself around the Yankees, who were (at best) the No. 2 team in town behind John McGraw’s Giants and just as often a distant third behind the Dodgers, too. The Yankees had been in New York for 17 years and had finished above .500 only six times, finishing an average of 22 ½ games out of first place. They didn’t even have their own ballpark, having to rent from the lordly Giants at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds.

That was all about to change, of course, and by the end of that 1920 season, with Ruth anchoring the lineup and the Yankees staying in the race until the season’s final week, they had become the first team in the city’s history to draw more than a million fans (which earned them an eviction notice from their landlords), and for the next 45 years there would be little question which team ruled Gotham’s baseball heart.

Babe Ruth
Babe RuthAP

The first indicator was here, though. The city’s sportswriters, accustomed to swarming around the Giants, mostly eschewed McGraw’s training camp in San Antonio and crowded the Florida Flier. Ruth held court constantly, enjoying the attention, at one time making the absurd boast, “I think I’ll hit 50 home runs this year!”

The boys in the press had no idea he was actually low-balling himself (he’d wind up with a staggering total of 54 by season’s end) and they really had little idea how to contain or control themselves. The first day the Yankees awoke in Jacksonville, they were greeted with gray skies and 40-degree temperatures, and manager Miller Huggins sent word (he’d left later than the team, due to illness) that the workout would be optional.

That was all the encouragement Ruth needed; he spent the day at the Florida Country Club in the company of pitcher Bob Shawkey and second baseman Del Pratt. He was dressed, according to one account, “in white fall flannels and a silk shirt,” although an inconsistent afternoon watching the wind steer his mighty slices way left finally moved him to chuck his brand-new driver into a nearby lake on the 18th hole.

That didn’t stop one of the 15 newspapermen from reporting that Ruth had, indeed, reported to the Yankees’ baseball workout (he certainly had not) and had launched the first batting practice pitch he spied well over the center-field wall, “the longest ball ever hit in the south.”

(He hadn’t. Remarkably Ruth, a notoriously slow starter in the spring — as he routinely waited for a few weeks to shake the rust and corrosion from his swing after an annual winter of decadence — didn’t hit even a BP ball over the fence until March 17, by which time the breathless press corps was wondering if the Sox had shipped an imposter to the Yankees instead of the mighty Ruth.)

Mostly, though, Ruth drew a crowd because that’s what he’d always done, and what he’d always do, and the Yankees adjusted accordingly. It took about a week before the team decided to forego $5 per diem allowances in favor of $5 meal credits because so many Yankees were eating on the cheap and hoarding their money for other pursuits.

It didn’t take long until the writers struck gold, from Ruth’s roommate Ping Bodie. “I don’t live with Ruth,” Bodie said. “I live with his suitcase.”

And thus did one of the greatest baseball stories ever told begin, 100 years ago Friday. Gerrit Cole has a ways to go to live up to that.

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