100 years ago Babe Ruth played his first game in Detroit

Babe Ruth in his road uniform for the Boston Red Sox in 1915.

Babe Ruth in his road uniform for the Boston Red Sox in 1915.

One hundred years ago this May, Babe Ruth played his first game in Detroit. On May 11, 1915, the burly youngster, who had grown up in a Baltimore orphanage, squared off against Tigers veteran George “Hooks” Dauss. That Tuesday afternoon, Ruth surrendered 9 hits and 8 walks before being pulled in the sixth inning as Detroit rolled to a 5-1 victory. After striking out in his first-ever at-bat in Detroit, Ruth later cracked a run-scoring double off Dauss. It was a sample of the power that would eventually cause his shift from twice-a-week starting pitcher to full-time outfielder.

Whether playing ball during the day or partying at night, baseball’s greatest name enjoyed his visits to the city. “Ruth,” Detroit sportswriter Malcolm Bingay once observed, “was stark drama wherever he went or whatever he did.”

Indeed, a couple of Ruth’s most memorable homers came at Navin Field. One afternoon in 1926, he launched a moonshot off Lil Stoner. The ball rocketed over the 12-foot wall in right-center field and finally rolled to a stop 626 feet from home plate—reportedly Babe’s longest home run ever. Eight years later, in one of his final appearances in Detroit, Ruth hit his 700th career homer, a two-run wallop off Tommy Bridges. At the time, that particular milestone seemed out of reach of mere mortals. The runner-up on the all-time list, teammate Lou Gehrig, was 377 home runs behind!

Ruth, a blend of infantile charm and superhuman ability, first visited Detroit in 1914 as a 19-year-old rookie pitcher with the Boston Red Sox. However, he didn’t actually appear in a game at Michigan and Trumbull until the following season.

In his early years, Ruth was regarded as one of the game’s premier southpaws. His lifetime record was 94-46 with a sparkling 2.28 ERA. He was undefeated in World Series play, posting three wins with a composite 0.87 ERA as he helped the Red Sox capture world championships in 1915, 1916, and 1918. Nearly all of his mound success came by the time he was only 23. It’s entirely possible that, had Babe continued in Boston’s rotation for several more seasons, he would have made the Hall of Fame solely on the strength of his left arm. However, by 1918 it was clear that Babe’s future was as an everyday player. That summer the versatile star won 13 games while also leading the major leagues in home runs!

Curiously, as a pitcher Ruth often struggled in Detroit. He dropped his first four decisions at Navin Field (two each in 1915 and 1916) before blanking the Tigers, 6-0, on two hits on July 31, 1916. It was one of Babe’s league-leading 9 shutouts that summer. The following July, Ruth allowed only an 8th-inning infield single to Donie Bush in a 1-0 victory at Navin Field. Despite these two gems, Ruth’s overall record at Michigan and Trumbull was a middling 5 wins and 7 losses, including two blowouts when he was chased in the first inning by Ty Cobb’s heavy-hitting crew. Detroit was the only foreign venue where Babe posted a losing record.

After spending his first six seasons (1914-19) with the Red Sox, Ruth was sold to New York. It was in pinstripes that Babe’s legend took hold. Babe’s Yankees career (1920-34) coincided with the long, dry years of Prohibition. Detroit’s thousands of blind pigs and conveniently close proximity to “wet” Canada made the city a welcoming three- or four-day stop on any road trip. He usually was accompanied by fellow rounders like teammates Bob Meusel and Waite Hoyt as well as such fun-loving Tigers as Harry Heilmann, Heinie Manush, and George Uhle.

A young Detroit Times reporter named John Manning was assigned to do a story on Ruth during a Yankees visit in August 1920. “Prohibition was new,” Manning wrote years later, recalling that Ruth had just crawled into his room at the Fort Shelby at 5 a.m. after spending the night hitting most of the gin joints in wide-open Hamtramck.

“Ruth didn’t feel like talking that morning,” Manning wrote. “He said he had a headache and hadn’t slept well for some reason or other.”

Manning instead spent much of the interview session watching the bleary-eyed slugger eat breakfast in his pajamas. The meal consisted of “a triple orange juice, a triple tomato juice laced with worcestershire sauce, a big bowl of porridge, a double order of ham and eggs and fried potatoes, a vast stack of buttered toast and four or five cups of coffee.”

That afternoon, Ruth walloped a pair of home runs off Hooks Dauss as the Yankees won, 11-7.

In all, Babe hit 60 of his 714 career home runs at Navin Field. They were the most ever hit at The Corner by a visiting ballplayer and the most Babe totaled in any foreign ballpark, aside from Philadelphia’s Shibe Park (where he smacked 68).

Ruth’s last played at Detroit in 1934 before closing out his career as a player-coach with the lowly Boston Braves in 1935. In years to come, he occasionally made it back to Detroit as goodwill ambassador for the American Legion’s baseball program, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company.

It was in that capacity that Ruth made his final visit to Detroit, a few months before his death from cancer. It was a dreary day, with rain pelting the hotel window, remembered Detroit Free Press reporter Lyall Smith. Puffing defiantly on a cigar, Babe described in a raspy voice one of his greatest regrets. In the fall of 1933, with his career drawing to a close and the Tigers in search of a manager, Ruth had let a golden opportunity slip through his fingers.

Ruth’s agent had just scheduled a series of exhibitions in Hawaii when Tigers owner Frank Navin called. He wanted to see Ruth right away. “He had just fired Bucky Harris and I knew what he wanted,” Ruth told Smith.

“But I was dumb. I told him I was catching a train for the West Coast and that I’d be back in three, four weeks and that he wouldn’t be needing a manager anyway for five months. I said I’d see him when I got back and he hung up….

“Next thing that happens is I’m in the islands playing exhibitions. I pick up a newspaper and see where Navin had bought Mickey Cochrane for $100,000 from Connie Mack and made him the new Tiger manager. That was the biggest boot in my career. I always wondered what I could’ve done running a ball club. Now, I’ll never know….”

Ruth died on August 16, 1948. He was only 53, though he had lived the equivalent of a dozen lifetimes. The flag at Briggs Stadium was lowered to half-mast and the crowd attending the Detroit-Chicago contest the following night stood and observed a minute of silence. At his typewriter, Detroit News sports editor Harry Salsinger tapped out the following eulogy:

“No other athlete ever won the admiration, love, and devotion of as many people, old and young, as Ruth. His followers numbered in the millions….He had most of the human faults and weaknesses but he also had most of the human virtues and probably the greatest of them were honesty, complete unselfishness, charity, and love for his fellow man.”

Ruth had a “deep and genuine love for children, especially for the underprivileged,” Salinger continued. “His sympathy went out to them since he understood their plight. He was open-hearted, friendly in a robust way. He cheered the sick and helped the unfortunate.

“The Babe was as American as the hot dog…the most colorful figure any sport has known.”