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The Babe & The Bellyache

BABE RUTH, ASHEVILLE & McCORMICK FIELD
By BILL BALLEW
Babe 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.
Babe Ruth at McCormick Field

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.
Ruth 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 marble floor.

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 campaign.

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.