RUTH, ASHEVILLE & McCORMICK FIELD
By BILL BALLEW
Ruth is the greatest name ever associated with professional baseball.
With that fact in mind, it should come as no surprise that the “Sultan
of Swat” and Asheville, one of the preeminent showplaces in
minor league baseball annals, became intertwined during the mid-1920s.
Rumors have made the rounds over the years regarding Ruth’s
association with Asheville. No, he never played for the Tourists,
and no, the Great Bambino did not die in The Land of the Sky, even
though there were published reports to the contrary for a few hours.
He did, however, play at McCormick Field with the New York Yankees
and liked what he saw.
|In 1926, Ruth
stood in the outfield, smelled the honeysuckle and said, “My,
my, what a beautiful place to play. Delightful. Damned delightful
place!” Five years later, on April 8, 1931, Ruth and teammate
Lou Gehrig both hit home runs in New York’s 11-3 win during
an exhibition game at McCormick Field.
As far as Ruth’s supposed death in Asheville is concerned,
that event garnered the nickname, “The Bellyache Heard ‘Round
The World.” A variety of stories have made their way to print
over the past 80 years, yet the following is what happened, based
on the most credible accounts.
The New York Yankees were working their way north from spring training
in Florida during the first week of April. The tradition in those
days had teams playing exhibition games for approximately two weeks
while riding the trains to the Northeast to open the regular season.
The Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers were slated to meet in a series
of contests, including stops in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville
and Asheville, prior to Opening Day on April 14.
Such games produced excitement at every stop, for the Yankees were
the game’s biggest draw and Ruth ranked among the world’s
greatest celebrities. Ruth, however, had not been feeling well since
he celebrated his 30th birthday on February 6, 1925. His weight
had increased significantly over the past few years, topped off
by an eating and drinking binge since the end of the 1924 campaign
that left Ruth tipping the scales at a robust 255 pounds. In an
effort to drop some weight, Ruth reported to Hot Springs, Arkansas,
in February for a combination of exercise and steam baths. His girth-reducing
efforts proved fruitless before he caught the flu just prior to
heading for spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida.
battled his health for most of March until the team ventured north
at the end of the month. On the way to Atlanta, Ruth complained
of chills and fever. He continued to fight through his conditions
in Chattanooga, yet thrilled the locals with two home runs after
feeling too sick to take batting practice. Ruth added another roundtripper
in Knoxville, only to suffer stomach cramps with a high fever shortly
after the contest.
The bumpy ride along the winding tracks through the Great Smoky
Mountains did little to improve Ruth’s condition. The Bambino
was not alone, for several of his Yankee teammates reportedly felt
nauseous on the trip prior to pulling into the Asheville train station
on Depot Street. Ruth staggered off the train in front of a large
crowd that had gathered to meet him and immediately fainted. Had
teammate Steve O’Neill failed to catch the falling Babe, Ruth
might have been seriously injured had his head landed on the station’s
The Yankees made plans to ship Ruth to New York along with scout
Paul Krichell. In the meantime, an unconscious Ruth was carried
to a taxi by his teammates and driven to the Battery Park Hotel.
He remained at the hotel overnight in the care of Dr. A.S. Jordan
prior to departing the next afternoon, at 3:50. With little information
to report, rumors started to circulate, including one that stated
Ruth had died in Western North Carolina.
Sportswriter W.O. McGeehan of the New York Tribune is the one who
initially described Ruth’s ailments as “The bellyache
heard ‘round the world.” Ruth’s bellyache, however,
proved to be much more than a virus or a temporary case of indigestion.
Shortly after his arrival at New York’s St. Vincent’s
Hospital on West Eleventh Street, the Babe underwent surgery for
what was described as an “intestinal abscess.” He wound
up spending seven weeks in the hospital, from April 9 through May
25. Amazingly, Ruth took the field shortly thereafter, playing in
his first game on June 1.
Legend says that Ruth’s primary ailment was acute indigestion,
caused by consuming too many hot dogs, soda pop and beer on the
train ride between Knoxville and Asheville. As mentioned earlier,
Ruth had been feeling under the weather for several weeks prior
to his incidents in Asheville and New York. To the press, doctors
described Ruth’s condition at various times as “the
flu,” “indigestion” and “intestinal abscess.”
Yet those close to the situation, including Yankees general manager
Ed Barrow, said privately that it was a bad case of venereal disease.
Regardless of what bothered the Babe in early 1925, he managed to
overcome the problem. He wound up hitting .290 with 25 home runs
in 98 games that year, numbers that represent one of the lower outputs
of his laudable career. A year later, in 1926, he rebounded to hit
a career-high 60 home runs while posting 164 RBIs. His legend continued
to grow by leading the majors in homers every year through the 1931
Ruth concluded his career with 714 long balls, a total that set
the standard until Henry Aaron surpassed it in 1974. That’s
not too shabby, especially for a man that reportedly came close
to meeting his maker in Asheville midway through the most remarkable
career in baseball history.