secret_history (2006-16)

The Boy and the Babe

Yankee baseball at Caswell Park, and the end of an era

by Jack Neely

McDonald’s Billiard Supplies Co. is easy to miss driving the speed limit out Chapman Highway. It’s a long cinderblock building back behind a couple of old strip centers. You wouldn’t guess from the sign, but it’s also a poolhall, eight tables, open all day. Drop in at noon on a weekday and there may be half a dozen guys in there shooting pool.

Proprietor J.D. McDonald doesn’t play much pool anymore. “I’m 83,” he says. He has a hard time crouching over these days. “But I never could shoot to start out with.” He and his son, Pat, run what he calls “a good clean place to play pool.”

He explains, “I have three rules. No drugs. No drinking. No horseplaying around. If ladies come into play pool at night, we walk them to the car.” He does allow smoking.

He’s an old-fashioned sort of proprietor in a lot of ways. Sometimes he gets a phone call from somebody who wants to send him a fax. “Fax, hell,” he says. “Only thing I’ve got here is a 1938 cash register, a telephone, and an adding machine.”

On the wall behind the cash register, near a trophy largemouth bass, is a framed photograph. The photo shows a little kid in knickers looking serious next to a rather large fellow that anybody in America would recognize even today, more than half a century after his death.

The old man behind the cash register is the boy in the photo. The man with his arm on the kid’s shoulder is Babe Ruth. The photograph was taken at Knoxville’s old Caswell Park in April, 1934.

McDonald doesn’t remember much about that day. He was just an 11-year-old kid who got to meet the Bambino because his dad was a big wrestling promoter. Joe McDonald started this poolhall back on Gay Street in the early 1920s, about the time J.D. was born. Another photo in the poolhall has Joe McDonald posing with a middleaged Jack Dempsey, then working as a celebrity wrestling referee at the Lyric Theater on Gay Street. Nearby are photos of Eddie Taylor, “the Knoxville Bear,” the near-mythical pool champ who ruled Knoxville tables for decades. He was once a McDonald’s regular.

They’ve been in the current building for 30 years, but still have two long old red-leather benches and a couple of tables from the old place downtown, including a ca. 1930 snooker table with elaborately inlaid woodwork.

Some of this furniture was there at the old poolhall downtown that day in 1934, when Knoxvillians were keeping a wary eye out for outlaw John Dillinger, who was rumored to be on his way to East Tennessee, and the New York Yankees were staying in the hotel across the street. The Yankees stopped in occasionally, to play an exhibition game halfway home from spring training in Florida.

Babe Ruth was godlike, even in Knoxville. He had been here a few times before, but not since 1927; many suspected it would be his last visit.

The exhibition game against the Knoxville Smokies was to be on a Wednesday. The night before, hundreds of fans mobbed the Farragut Hotel at Gay and Clinch, where the Yankees were staying.

The whole team, almost, was down there in the lobby talking with fans. According to an impious Journal columnist, Lou Gehrig was “wearing a bow tie that would do justice to a UT freshman.”

Sportswriters seemed less interested in the known quantities of Ruth and Gehrig than in younger, lesser-known players like shortstop Red Rolfe and rookie second baseman Don Heffner, a combination that heralded the future of the club.

Outfielders Earl Combs and Ben Chapman, both Southerners, were crowd favorites. “You married a Knoxville girl, didn’t you?” one fan asked. “Yeah,” Combs responded. “But we busted up.”

The Yankees were loaded with Southerners that year: Louisiana-born catcher and slugger Bill Dickey; base-stealer Ben Chapman, “the Dixie Flyer,” formerly of Asheville; outfielder Sammy Byrd, a former Knoxville player on the Yankee roster whose subbing as a baserunner for the team’s aging star earned him the nickname “Babe Ruth’s Legs.”

For some, this long trip South was a homecoming, and there were impromptu reunions. Ben Paschal, a former Yankee from Alabama, surprised his old friend Byrd in the lobby. “Hello, Sammy, howya battin’ that apple?”

“Aw, straight up,” Byrd replied.

The only one missing was the one most Knoxvillians crushed into the lobby to see. Babe Ruth hadn’t arrived with the team on the train. Eventually word came that he’d been waylaid by Chattanooga Lookouts owner Joe Engel; he’d drive up in the morning. Knoxville took it as a deliberate slight on the part of Engel, whose antipathy for Knoxville was well known.

“No doubt Col. Engel put on a big party at Hickville last night just to keep Mr. Ruth there as his guest to take a poke at Knoxville,” wrote News-Sentinel columnist Bob Wilson. “They tell me that Col. Engel is more jealous of our growing metropolis than ever before....”

The crowd left disappointed. But infielder Lyn Lary’s comment mitigated the slight. “This is a nice town,” Lary said, looking out at Gay. “I was sure glad to get out of Chattanooga. That’s the worst town I ever remember being in. There’s something about it that makes me feel depressed. Seems like it is down in a hole.”

But when the proprietor of a cafe across the street invited Lary, outfielder Myril Hoag, and shortstop Frank Crosetti in for free sandwiches and beer, the trio “looked at him sorta wise-like” and took off down the street.

Ruth arrived the next morning at just after 11, less than three hours before the game. He strode into the Farragut’s lobby, picked up his bundle of mail at the counter, and rode up to his room on the 7th floor.

He called his barber and his trainer. When they arrived, Ruth sat in a chair and commanded both, “Commence.” The trainer wrapped Ruth’s famously problematic legs with adhesive tape as the barber shaved him. When the trainer wrenched his leg dangerously, Ruth barked, “Say, can’t you see this fellow has a razor to my face?”

Meanwhile he carried on an interview with a Journal reporter. “I’m just like the old gray mare,” he said. “If they don’t get me in my traces right, I ain’t worth a damn.” Ruth was an old man of 39. He couldn’t last for much longer.

Blaufeld’s Cigar Store in the Farragut lobby sold tickets to the game, thousands of them. The crowd of 5,517 was the biggest ever recorded at Caswell Park, a huge show for a Wednesday afternoon. Even the Yankee organization was surprised at the size of it. Of the 23 games they’d played around the south that spring, they said, it was the biggest. Tom Meany, the sportswriter for the New York World-Telegram remarked to a Knoxville reporter, “You have a wide-awake baseball city.”

Mainly people wanted to see Babe Ruth hit a home run, even if it meant rooting against the Knoxville Smokies. “His legs may be wobbly” and his best home-run days behind him, wrote a Knoxville columnist, but “it takes

Gehrig followed, with two of his own. No one seemed interested in recording where Gehrig’s homers landed.

The famous duo wasn’t as lucky in the actual game. It sounds like a good one, Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez, suffering from a mysterious abdominal ailment, facing the Smokies’ Ed Heusser, who would soon be well known in the majors. Ruth got two hits, Gehrig one, and the Iron Man eventually rounded the bases to score. The only homers came from Tony Lazzeri, “the colorful little Italian third baseman.” The Yankees beat the Smokies 8-4.

Reporters didn’t describe the Yankees’ departure in as much detail as they described their arrival. The local legend is that on the way out, Babe Ruth got sick from a bad hot dog he got at the L&N station. It probably didn’t have anything to do with the fact that it would turn out to be his last season with the Yankees. He hit only 22 homers that year, fewer than he’d hit in a season since his earliest days; his batting average was only .288, the lowest he got with the Yankees. Ruth endured the indignity of salary cuts, then swung a few games in ’35 for the Boston Braves. A little more than a year after his Knoxville visit, at 40, he played his last game.

The Yankees didn’t win the pennant in ‘34, but later in the decade, Gehrig’s Yankees, several of whom were among those making wisecracks in the Farragut lobby, were world champs four years in a row.

“Chalk up the happiest moment of J.D. McDonald’s life,” went the News-Sentinel caption in April, 1934, underneath the photo of the boy and the Babe.

McDonald doesn’t sound like it was. “I didn’t follow baseball too much,” he admits. He was just there because of his dad. He doesn’t remember much about the game, except that a man brought a horse collar for the Babe to sign, and the Babe signed it.

“Some say it’s worth a lot of money,” McDonald  says of the photo. “I say make me a price.” But then he hangs it up again, carefully, right by the largemouth bass, where everybody can see it.