The big guy, the one with the broad shoulders, easy smile, deep voice, and expressive eyes, was surrounded by newspaper guys and passersby as he stood inside Penn Station. He and the rest of his new pals were excited as the 6:20 p.m. “Florida Flyer” prepared to take on passengers.
Penn Station was still bright and new, the city’s hub of all comings and goings then for only slightly less than 10 years. New York already had its buzz. Of course it did. Pace is a Manhattan chromosome.
Soon all the noise would be bigger, louder, grander, beyond even a New Yorker’s limitless imagination. Much of it would be because of the big guy about to board that train.
The beat writers gathered around him. He chomped on a cigar, one he carried with him from “Bostontown,” it was duly reported in the next day’s rags.
Outside, the sun already had sunk below the western sky across the Hudson River as the boys shuffled along the station platform. The big iron horse was about to rattle south. Destination: Jacksonville.
“And no less a personage,” reporter Ray McCarthy wrote the next day (Feb. 29, 1920) in Sunday’s editions of the New York Tribune, “than the mighty ‘Babe’ Ruth was on it.”
Thus began the parting. Ruth, a stash of stogies no doubt in a carry bag, walking side by side with a bunch of his new Yankee buddies, as they funneled into their appointed sleeper cabins.
None of them, perhaps not even Ruth himself, must have been fully able to grasp the years to come.
Boston has lived through some monumental, anguished partings in recent days and weeks. Mookie Betts dealt off to the Dodgers. Red Sox owner John Henry wrote of the pain himself in a club release. Tom Brady to Tampa. Patriots Nation might weep for the next 20 years and then 20 years more.
All of our games, for the time being, have gone off to a world of suspended animation. The Charles has become our river of cascading hurt, perhaps none of us fully able to grasp the years to come.
No departure, not even Bobby Orr packing up for Chicago or Roger Clemens for Toronto, ever has proven the equal of Ruth’s farewell. He remains our longest goodbye.
Chicago appears now as but a faded, solemn asterisk on the great Orr’s résumé. Clemens won big after leaving Boston, but he was 34 and, well, in the twilight of his career (162-73 post-Back Bay overall) when he tugged on that goofy Blue Jays cap.
The closest loss to Ruth may be Ken Dryden. He was drafted by the Bruins as an almost-17-year-old in June 1964, but then promptly flipped 17 days later to the Canadiens. Dryden went on to backstop the Habs to six Stanley Cup titles in the ’70s, swatting down the Bruins four times along the playoff trail.
Had Dryden been the Bruins’ goaltender through the ’70s, that era’s band around the Cup would have a Boston accent so deeply engraved in it that all the r’s surely would have been chiseled in as h’s.
As a boy growing up in Baltimore, Ruth spoke German, before being sent off as a 7-year-old to reform school. Over the next 12 years at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, he learned a little discipline but a heck of a lot more baseball, and it was his gifted left arm that landed him at Fenway as a 19-year-old pitcher in July 1914.
Ruth was among the most dominating hurlers of his day, and though the Sox forever can and will be blamed for dealing him to the Yanks, they were not guilty of ignorance as to his bat. In 1919, his last year in Boston, he made only 15 starts as a pitcher, and played day-to-day in the outfield, piling up enough at-bats (543) to lead the bigs in runs (103), home runs (29), and RBIs (113). In 43 years of big league ball, no one ever had smacked 29 homers.
Yet as Ruth stood in Penn Station, it was still relevant to ask whether Yankees skip Miller Huggins would send him to the mound.
Huggins himself could not answer that day, because he remained in a local hotel, a severe case of bronchitis keeping him from the trip. The ongoing Spanish Flu epidemic, which began in January 1918, would not be considered over until December 1920.
“If Huggins wants me to shift around, that’s all right with me, too,” Ruth was quoted in the Tribune. “If I can help the boys bring in a pennant by taking a turn in the pitching box, I’ll be glad to do so.”
Huggins made it to Jacksonville within a couple of days of the boys arriving there. Cold weather delayed camp’s start, which had Ruth helping to organize a golf outing at nearby Florida Golf Club.
The diminutive Huggins (5 feet 6 inches, 140 pounds), routinely referred to in the press as the Yanks’ “midget manager,” evinced no desire to put Ruth on the mound. In all his years with the Bombers, Ruth made only four starts. He won them all.
“The big fellow looked to be in a condition to go out and knock a few homers,” wrote the Tribune’s McCarthy in his account that late afternoon from Penn Station. “He stood with one hand in his pocket, shifting from foot to foot and smiling good-naturedly all the while.”
Imagine to have been standing there to see it, Ruth in his youthful and confident prime, smoking his cigar amid the cacophony of bustling crowd, belching train, inquisitive reporters. A legend about to be known. No less a personage than the mighty Babe.
The Yanks in those days shared the Polo Grounds with the Giants. Yankee Stadium, to open as “The House That Ruth Built,” did not wing wide its gates until 1923.
“I figure this is going to be my biggest year,” Ruth said before boarding. “Naturally I would say so, but honestly I feel that way about it.”
Initially irked at being traded — because he loved Boston, but also because Sox owner Harry Frazee refused to give him a cut of the $137,500 fee the Yanks paid — Ruth nonetheless was excited by the prospect of playing in the Polo Grounds. The right-field fence was a short poke, a much easier target than the far right reaches of Fenway. He literally had a target, knowing the Yanks played half of the 154-game schedule at the Grounds.
“Which means,” he calculated, “I have some 77 games at which to shoot at that short right-field stand. If I don’t knock 25 homers in there, I’ll bust.”
Think Brady in his first news conference with the Buccaneers will set a goal for, say, 25 TD passes in his first season in Tampa? No way. Not in 2020. Not in anyone’s dreams. A hundred years later, no one swings for the fences anymore, for fear the fence will come back and clobber ‘em.
“I believe I’m going to knock that record of 29 four-base clouts sky high this year,” he said.
It was Ruth being Ruth.
Big and bold then. Bigger now.
For the record, the Bambino socked 148 homers for the Yanks in the three years before their move to the Stadium, where another right-field porch would woo his swings. The breakdown: 75 at the Polo Grounds, 73 on the road.
In his 15 years in New York, the mighty Babe and the Yanks won seven American League pennants and four World Series titles. He delivered 2,518 hits, 659 homers, 1,978 RBIs, and drew 1,852 walks.
In a city bigger than life, he was bigger, and remains so 100 years after the train left town.
“Winning the pennant is the main thing,” Ruth reminded the beat reporters as they also lined up to board the train south. “Bagging homers is secondary.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.