PLYMOUTH, N.H. — Babe Ruth stood at the end of the line, a towering redwood decked out in his full-length coonskin coat, shaking hands with the smiling students from Plymouth Normal School. It was October 1916 and the Red Sox only days before had won the World Series, the 21-year-old Ruth pitching the full 14 innings in Game 2 for a 2-1 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The female students at Plymouth Normal, the precursor to Plymouth State University, wore festive ribbons in their hair to celebrate Ruth and his fellow champs coming to town. Little children, among the townsfolk who greeted the stars at the train station, would shake hands with Ruth and then scamper back to the start of the line for yet another chance to meet all the Red Sox heroes.
“What a day it must have been,’’ noted Louise McCormack, a Plymouth State professor who brought Ruth’s visit back to life briefly one day recently for a couple of visitors from Boston. “Imagine the excitement?’’
About to retire at semester’s end, McCormack has made it her mission over the last decade to help preserve a unique part of the town’s history as it relates to Ruth, baseball, and more broadly to American sporting goods and sports marketing. Plymouth today is known almost exclusively as a college town at the edge of the White Mountains, but for some five decades, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, it was home to the Draper & Maynard Company, ranked among the largest sporting goods makers in the country.
Founded by locals Jason Draper and John Maynard in 1881, D&M transformed virtually overnight from a deerskin glove maker to a thriving sporting goods manufacturer. According to McCormack, it was a visit here in the mid-1880s by Arthur “Doc” Irwin, the shortstop for the Providence Grays, that led Draper and Maynard to help design the first gloves, padding included, dedicated solely to the playing of baseball. Irwin wanted something to protect his catching hand, and Draper and Maynard delivered it.
The company soon began mass producing baseball gloves, bats, baseballs (often stitched at home by Plymouth housewives), uniforms, footballs, basketballs, almost anything and everything (including scorebooks and whistles) related to a US sports industry that exploded in the early 20th century. By some accounts, D&M gloves, mitts, and bats were used by upward of 90 percent of all big leaguers during the 1920s.
Ruth and even some of his brothers on the famed 1927 Yankees, the distant sons of whom are at Fenway this weekend, no doubt were D&M guys during their careers.
“What’s unique about D&M is how they approached the entire business,’’ noted Richard Johnson, sports historian, author, and longtime curator of the Sports Museum at TD Garden. “If you look at A.G. Spalding, he was a sports star who created a sporting goods business. Draper and Maynard were businessmen who actively recruited sports stars to shape their business. I mean, heck, these are the guys who made the glove Babe Ruth endorsed. You could argue that they started sports marketing as we’ve come to know it.’’
We’re talking Air Jordans long before Michael Jordan was even born. Ruth, according to McCormack, made a number of vigils to the Draper & Maynard facility here, the Sox players typically arriving with their wives for stays of two or more days (D&M had its own golf course). The trip in 1916, she said, included stops along the way, with the Sox playing a game against some locals in Laconia.
“A lot of players came here,’’ said McCormack. “And not just Red Sox . . . some of the White Sox came, too . . . lots of players from different teams.’’
During his 1916 visit, Ruth sat down at the D&M factory and tried his hand at stitching a baseball. A picture on display inside the building, owned the last 20 years by Plymouth State, shows a pensive Ruth looking stumped by the unfinished ball.
“I can hit ’em better than I can sew ’em,’’ the Bambino purportedly said.
Ruth’s glove was model No. G41. A replica of it is nestled in among the many D&M objects McCormack has expertly displayed on the fourth floor of the refurbished brick building that Draper and Maynard built in 1911. Visitors to the fourth-floor display area are greeted by a huge mural of Ruth’s visit in 1916, and then there are all manner of original mitts, gloves, balls, and masks on display. Walls are covered with photographs of factory workers and replica D&M advertising through the decades.
The exhibit is a fascinating treasure, albeit not one well known to Plymouth State students or anyone else, noted McCormack, who has written a book on Draper & Maynard that is about to be published. Her dream is that one day all the artifacts on the fourth floor will fill prominent space on the first floor, an area now used as an art gallery for works by Plymouth State students.
Ruth aided greatly in creating the company logo, which has a hunting dog on point, positioned over a baseball diamond. Upon spotting a Sox rookie with a D&M glove, Ruth reportedly told the kid he was using a “Lucky Dog kind’’ of mitt. The company branded all its goods “Lucky Dog’’ and the dog used in the logo was a sketch of Nick (short for Nicodemus), Maynard’s own bird dog.
Draper died in 1913, Maynard left in charge until he stepped down as president in 1930. He remained on the board until his death seven years later at age 91, but the company was sold only a few months later to Cincinnati-based P. Goldsmith & Sons Company (later to merge with MacGregor Sporting Goods. A Japanese-based company now owns the name and the Lucky Dog trademark).
“I wish I had started looking into all this sooner,’’ lamented McCormack, standing inside the building’s door, just steps from where Ruth shook hands with the locals in 1916. “There’s nothing better than this building, and I hope the memory of everything that happened here lives on.’’