Chuck Frederick column: Bigger than life, Babe Ruth proved ‘huge’ in trip to Twin Ports
The “Bambino,” Babe Ruth, larger-than-life and the biggest name in baseball then and still, was coming off one of his biggest seasons so far in 1926. He hit .372, drove in 153 runs, and belted 47 homers. He came within a game of helping his New York Yankees to their second World Series crown. And he visited Duluth-Superior, the second stop of a 12-week, after-the-season vaudeville tour.
The whirlwind, turn-the-Twin Ports-on-its-ear, headline-grabbing visit from “the most colorful athletic figure of the age and baseball’s most titanic slugger,” as the News Tribune described him on the day of his Nov. 6, 1926, arrival, is well worth recalling today in the wake of Friday’s 100th anniversary of the Babe’s debut in Major League Baseball.
“It was huge. When someone like that comes to a town, especially in those days, it’s just huge,” said Maggie Scheibe, the collections manager for Fairlawn Mansion in Superior.
Perhaps nowhere was the visit more huge than at what originally was the 42-room Queen Anne Victorian home of lumber and mining baron Martin Pattison and his family. By 1926, the mansion, now an attraction open for daily tours, was an orphanage, the Superior Children’s and Refuge Association. Once an orphan himself, Ruth made a point of visiting the home and its 50 or so children during his two days in the Twin Ports.
“The kids’ lives were very structured and mundane. So this was out of the ordinary. This would have been extremely exciting for them,” Fairlawn Executive Director Sara Blanck said of the visit.
“It’s something that affected the whole community,” Scheibe added.
Ruth’s trumpeted two days in the Twin Ports certainly did. In addition to visiting the orphanage in Superior, he was the guest of honor at a lavish breakfast reception at the Hotel Duluth, now the Greysolon Plaza in Old Downtown. Ruth dined that morning with Duluth Mayor Samuel Snively and Boston Braves Manager Dave Bancroft, among others. Bancroft was a native of Superior and a longtime friend of Ruth’s. They were World Series competitors in 1921, 1922 and 1923 when Bancroft was shortstop and captain of the New York Giants. In Duluth, they posed for pictures together and speculated about another Giants-Yankees World Series matchup in 1927. They’d be half right. The 1927 Yankees, with a lineup nicknamed “Murderers Row,” would be considered one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Just months after visiting the Northland, Ruth would lead the Yankees to a World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The highlight of Ruth’s visit in the Twin Ports had to be his series of public appearances at the Lyric Theater downtown in the 200 block of West Superior Street. One appearance was before 2,000 Duluth and Superior boys who were so excited about meeting the “Sultan of Swat” police had to be summoned to “quell the near riot which ensued,” as the News Tribune reported.
“No distinguished personage visiting Duluth in the past ever received the plaudits bestowed upon Babe Ruth, famous home run king, of the New York Yankees,” the newspaper’s story boasted. “The … wild acclaim from the youthful audience was a homage which but few of the great and near great have ever received. …
“Although the appearance of Babe Ruth at the Lyric Theater was not scheduled until 10:30 a.m., so great was the crowd of boys around the entrance, blocking traffic and with some of the smaller ones in danger of getting hurt, the doors were opened at about 8:45. … The calls of the youthful audience were so insistent while a News Tribune cameraman was taking a picture from the stage that Babe himself had to be summoned from his dressing room in his shirt sleeves to quiet them long enough for the cameraman to take the photograph. (Ruth’s) first appearance, unconventionally garbed as he was, sent the boys almost into hysterics, but at Ruth’s own request they finally stopped for the camera.”
After a “feature picture on the screen,” Ruth shared baseball stories, told jokes, talked about his life and randomly picked 15 boys to receive autographed baseballs.
“Babe appeared at regular shows at the Lyric Saturday where his reception by the grownups was equally impressive — although less noisy,” the article concluded.
After two days in Duluth and Superior, Ruth was to go duck hunting in “the north woods” with a party that included Detroit Tigers outfielders Harry Heilmann and Heinie Manush and new Tigers manager George Moriarty, according to the News Tribune.
Nearly 90 years later, Ruth’s visit isn’t forgotten at Fairlawn. A picture of Ruth on the mansion’s front steps surrounded by scores of squirrelly children remains on display to this day. More than a few children recalled the day years later when offering oral histories to Superior Public Museums. Not only did they meet a baseball great, they were allowed on the front steps, at least one former orphan reminisced.
A few years ago, Scheibe said, she was giving a tour of the mansion and pointed out the picture, which is protected under glass.
“Oh, hey,” a man exclaimed from the back of the group, “that’s my grandfather.”
“Those sorts of things happen here,” Scheibe said of the surprise visit from the great slugger’s descendent.
And maybe they do, but visits like Ruth’s to the Twin Ports in 1926 remain rare and wonderful nuggets of our past.
Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune’s editorial page editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (218) 723-5316.