By IAN WILSON
It was a contingent of Hall-of-Fame baseball talent that Western Canada had never seen before and hasn’t seen since.
When Major League Baseball (MLB) stars descended upon Alberta in October of 1934 on their way to Vancouver to board a ship for Japan, the group of legendary players included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Gomez, and Moe Berg.
The only thing more compelling than the celebrity aura they brought to each stop was the newspaper ink they generated on their 19-game barnstorming tour of North America, which included 12 contests in Canada, in the lead up to their Asian tour.
Ruth – the “Sultan of Swat” – was coming off his last season with the New York Yankees and the 39-year-old went so far as to announce his retirement as he angled for a managerial job.
“I’ve played 21 seasons of major-league ball. I guess that’s enough, but it sure will be tough,” Ruth told reporters in Vancouver. “My batting is as good as ever, but my legs won’t carry me. Now about managing a big league ball club, I sure would like that if I could get a chance …. I definitely won’t be playing next year. I don’t want to make a fool of myself.”
Added Ruth: “Not for the money. No sir, not for twice the money.”
The Babe would ultimately return to Boston, the city where his MLB career began with the Red Sox. He was given the titles of vice president and assistant manager, and played his final 28 games with the Braves of the National League (NL) in 1935.
TRIPLE CROWN HORSE
Ruth’s teammate, Gehrig, had just wrapped up the Triple Crown by topping the American League in home runs (49), runs batted in (165), and batting average (.363).
Gehrig recently experienced a Depression-era pay cut that reduced his annual salary from $25,000 to $23,000, according to the biography Iron Horse by Ray Robinson. The exhibition games provided Gehrig and the other pro players riding the rails with him the opportunity to travel and make some extra cash.
Neither pinstriped icon would take the field in Alberta, but their arrival in Calgary was highly anticipated.
The Oct. 16th edition of the Calgary Herald proclaimed a “galaxy of famous baseball stars” would briefly visit the city. Ruth and Gehrig highlighted the “heroes of the baseball diamond” passing through, along with Hall-of-Fame manager Connie Mack and the first Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Also expected on that Dominion train was Morris Berg, a backup catcher who was considered one of the smartest men in the sport. The graduate of Princeton University spoke several languages, including Japanese, and served as the “professor” and translator for the group.
Among the items Berg had packed for his trip was a motion-picture camera that was used to film rare footage in Japan. The film was later handed over to American authorities and served as valuable intelligence regarding industrial and military facilities in the Asian country.
Berg continued to put his espionage skills to use during World War II and his life was chronicled in the 1994 biography The Catcher Was a Spy, which was made into a movie starring Paul Rudd in 2018.
While Ruth and the others represented a second wave of baseball royalty visiting the province, Alberta fans got more than just a quick autograph and a wave from the first group that came through.
From Oct. 11-14, the American League (AL) all-star squad (the NL prohibited barnstorming tours at the time) played two games in Edmonton and one in Calgary against the best players those cities had to offer.
The first of those contests took place in the provincial capital, where Jimmy Rattlesnake had the unenviable task of taking the mound against the major leaguers in front of an estimated crowd of more than 700 fans. The Hobbema-born southpaw carried a 1-1 tie into the third inning before he was touched up for six runs. The “Smilin’ Rattler” surrendered three hits during that frame and his defence also recorded a trio of errors as the AL sluggers cruised to a 9-2 victory.
“The starting pitcher of the Edmonton ball club had enjoyed considerable success. He had nice control and was throwing everything he had at the big leaguers. But it just could not last,” wrote Edmonton Journal reporter Ken McConnell of the performance, which was umpired at home plate by John Ducey at the newly-built Renfrew Park.
Heinie Manush – who played for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Western Canada League in 1921 – also made an impression during his return. The left fielder for the Washington Senators hit “a terrific drive over the right field fence” and also made a relief pitching appearance in the eighth inning.
“The ball traveled almost on a line and cleared the fence with plenty to spare,” wrote McConnell. “Our very best baseball patrons will be talking for many months regarding that home run of Heinie Manush’s … what a drive it was.”
LET’S PLAY TWO
If the locals felt outclassed in the first exhibition game, things were about to get worse.
The fans received bad news from the visitors when Foxx – the back-to-back AL MVP in 1932 and 1933, and one of the major draws for the event – was unable to play. The Philadelphia Athletics first baseman suffered a “slight concussion” after he was hit in the head by a pitch in Winnipeg. As a result of the slugger’s absence, organizers slashed admission prices for the second game.
In an attempt to level the playing field, plans were made to have pitcher Earl Whitehill and catcher Luke Sewell of the Washington Senators play for Edmonton in the rematch. But the Edmonton team was threatened with “suspension of their amateur cards” if they played alongside professional athletes. The result was a 20-2 shellacking at the hands of the AL All Stars, who were led offensively by outfielder Roger Cramer and third baseman Pinky Higgins, both standouts for the Athletics.
SATURDAY MATINEE IN CALGARY
After taking it to the Edmonton players for two straight days, the big league squad went south for a showdown in Cowtown. Admission to the afternoon game was $1 for adults and 50 cents for children.
The Pucksters fared little better against their superior opponent, dropping a 16-5 decision at Mewata Stadium. Foxx was in attendance for the game but was still unable to play, so he simply took a bow for the 1,500 spectators on hand. Cramer, playing at first base in place of the injured Foxx, hit a round tripper and went 3-for-5 at the plate, while Manush continued his strong play by hitting a double and scoring three runs.
“It’s like old times to be playing for Calgary fans again,” Manush told reporters.
Earle Mack, manager of the touring ball team, heaped praise on Calgary but made a familiar refrain that baseball fans in Alberta have become accustomed to hearing about.
“The only thing I don’t like is the weather,” Mack told the Herald. “If you can have it changed, I’ll spend a lot more time in the town.”
One of the oddities in the Pucksters lineup was Heinie Olson, a wrestler from Portland who was in the Drumheller area for a match around the time the AL All Stars rolled through. Also an experienced ball player, Olson suited up for Calgary and did not look out of place, going 1-for-2 at the dish while scoring two runs in a losing effort.
With the first leg of the Alberta tour complete, the famed groups of batsmen and hurlers continued their journey west to British Columbia. Ruth was mobbed by fans during a 20-minute stop in Revelstoke, B.C., a common occurrence during the trip.
“During his entire time in Revelstoke the swat king was kept busy signing papers and baseballs to the immense delight of his youthful audience,” according to a report in the Calgary Herald.
“Charlie Gehringer, Detroit Tiger second baseman, was also pressed into service and his signature, a specimen of excellent pensmanship, will also adorn many mantelpieces in Revelstoke. The party of baseball players and their wives were delighted with the Canadian Rockies and according to Gehringer most of them would come this way again.”
In Vancouver, the full contingent of elite MLB players was finally gathered in the same spot at the same time. The 3,000 fans who endured the elements at Athletic Park on Oct. 19th were treated to a split-squad matchup that pitted Ruth’s All Stars against Mack’s All Stars. Ruth’s lineup featured Gehringer, Gehrig, Gomez, Berg, and Lefty O’Doul, while his opposition included Cramer, Manush and Higgins.
BLAME IT ON THE RAIN
A steady downpour threatened to cancel the event, dubbed “Aqua-Baseball” by the headline writer for the Vancouver Province, but Ruth insisted the players take the field.
“Come on, boys, let’s go. If these people can take the weather, so can we. We’re going to give ’em their ball game,” the Bambino reportedly told his teammates.
“If it hadn’t been for the Babe, none of us would be here, you can bet your wet shirt on that,” O’Doul said from the dugout. “Say, this Vancouver’s some ball town, isn’t it?”
The game, which went a full nine innings, ended in a 2-2 tie. Gehringer went 3-for-4, and Earl Averill hit a home run for Ruth’s side, while outfielder Bruce Campbell went 3-for-4 with a run scored for Mack’s team. Ruth made three catches in left field but neither he nor Gehrig could contribute a hit on the day.
The next day, the squad split once again – one team of super stars boarded the Canadian Pacific steamship Empress of Japan for an exhibition game in Honolulu, Hawaii. That pit stop was followed by an 18-game Japanese tour.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the group. One incident on the luxury liner, recounted in the book Gehrig & the Babe: The Friendship and the Feud by Tony Castro, involved a panicked Gehrig searching for his wife Eleanor after she went missing for two hours. The Yankee first baseman feared she may have fallen overboard, but Eleanor was eventually located in Ruth’s cabin, along with “an empire of caviar and champagne.” Scandalous rumours followed, souring a relationship between the players that had already been fractured for years.
Back in Canada, many of the remaining players who didn’t make the trip to Japan headed back to Alberta for some more innings of work.
Calgary’s Pucksters got a second crack at the big league pros on Oct. 24, and this time the teams were allowed to swap batteries without having the move impact the amateur status of the local players. American League pitchers Rube Walberg and Ted Lyons joined the Pucksters, along with catcher Charlie Moss, and Bill Walker and Smoky Harris found new teammates in the major league dugout. The move made for a more competitive game but the AL All Stars prevailed in a 9-5 victory. It was a chilly afternoon contest, but many players were relieved to not have to play in heavy rainfall or snow.
Following the win, the players were treated to a duck dinner at the Calgary Elks Lodge and Manush had an opportunity to visit with some of his old Edmonton Eskimo teammates. Other MLB members of the tour took advantage of the outdoors and went hunting and fishing throughout their Canadian travels.
With the exhibition schedule winding down, the big leaguers hit the road for Drumheller and a date with the Nacmine Athletics. Another cold-weather game kept attendance low, and the pro ball players had an easy go of it, coming out on top in a 10-0 romp.
The final game followed at Athletic Park in Medicine Hat, where the American side put its undefeated streak on the line.
“This may be Medicine Hat’s first and last chance to see the big shots doing their stuff locally – and very few Hatters can afford the time and shekels to see big leaguers playing on their own grounds,” proclaimed the Medicine Hat News upon discovering the local Royals had “completed telegraphic negotiations” to bring the barnstormers to the Gas City.
“The Hat may well consider itself fortunate in being allowed to watch these renowned tossers in action at this time, as the recent injury to Jimmy Foxx resulting from a ‘beaning’ at Winnipeg has started a movement in the East which may end in the forbidding of future barnstorming by all major league players.”
‘BALL TREAT OF DECADE’
Declared the baseball treat of the decade by the News, the game lived up to its billing as the Royals – Alberta’s reigning senior amateur baseball champs – defeated Mack’s travel-weary team by a 6-4 score.
AL pitchers Ted Lyons and Tommy Thomas “kept sticking the ball across the groove with the intention of providing a fielding spectacle by letting the Royals hit harmlessly to the outfield; but it so happened that a good many of the Hatters’ wallops landed in outfield holes and went for easy hits, and the local tossers were two up after the final putout,” according to the newspaper.
Cramer put the visitors up 1-0 when he blasted a home run to deep right centre field on the first pitch of the game from Wilf Pennington, but Ken Blaney and Fred Long responded with homers of their own in the seventh and eight innings, respectively. Pennington, Herbie Thacker and Kelly Riddle were able to keep the big league bats in check for the most part during the win.
Another highlight of the event, as it was on every tour stop, was the entertainment value provided by “The Clown Prince of Baseball” Al Schacht, who surrendered the homer to Long, and amused fans with comedic antics and impersonations throughout the game.
No matter what the score was, the former Washington Senator kept fans engaged and feeling like they got their money’s worth. In Medicine Hat, Schacht performed a partial strip tease during the warm up, displayed a slow-motion pitching windup, and did two innings of “broadcasting” from the stands.
All clowning aside, the MLB barnstorming tour provided the treat of the decade, and possibly the century, for baseball fans in Alberta.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This article involved many hours of research of archived newspaper stories, but a special nod must be given to the Western Canada Baseball website operated by Jay-Dell Mah. If you have not visited the website, please check it out. It is an amazing resource for those seeking information about baseball history in Western Canada.