- - Tuesday, August 22, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Nearly 70,000 fans packed Yankee Stadium for the historic superstar showdown 75 years ago — two baseball giants battling each other, one on one.

The “Big Train” took the ball to the mound on Aug. 23, 1942, to face the “Sultan of Swat” in a battle between the two baseball icons — not in a game between the New York Yankees and the Washington Senators.

No, the confrontation between Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth was for something far more important than a regular season American League game.

Johnson and Ruth were battling to raise money for the Army and Navy relief funds in World War II.

Yes, Ruth and Johnson took the field to battle Nazis.

It was a fundraiser that captured nationwide attention — Johnson, perhaps the greatest right handed pitcher of all time — a record of 417-279 over 20 seasons with Washington, with a 2.17 ERA and striking out 3,508, vs. Ruth, the greatest home-run hitter of his time, the Yankee slugger who belted 714 home runs and drove in 2,213 runs over 21 seasons.

Ruth was 47 and Johnson was 54, but their ages didn’t deter from the hype and anticipation of the matchup. The front page of the Sunday Washington Star sports section led with a preview of the Johnson-Ruth showdown, with the lead headline reporting the Yankees 1-0 win over the Senators the day before:

“Yanks’ 1-0 Win over Griffs Serves as Exciting Prelude to Big War Fund Card.”

The advance by a “staff correspondent of The Star” read: “From the pedestals in baseball’s hall of fame tomorrow will come two of the mightiest men the game has known when Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson emerge to space a war relief fund program.

Did I mention that war relief fund program was to fight Nazis?

The event took place in between games of a doubleheader, and was part of a carnival-like day promoted by Yankees owner Ed Barrow that would also feature a 60-yard race between Yankees and Senators players, a fungo-hitting competition and an “accuracy test for catchers who will try to throw the ball from home plate into a barrel at second base.”

The New York Times reported the next day that the fans got what they came to see.

“The ramps and runways were crowded with fans who came to see Ruth and Johnson in action. For once the ball games were incidental ….

Ruth required five pitches to get the home-run range, a tribute to Johnson’s arm, which drew admiring comments from the Yankees and Senators youngsters grouped on the field watching the performance. “After a ball, a called strike, a fly to right and another ball, in that order as umpire (Billy) Evans called the pitches, the admiration encompassed Ruth’s batting eye as he slammed his homer.

“No cheer ever to greet any of the 714 homers Ruth had hit in championship games or any of the 15 he exploded in World Series matched the mighty roar that went up as the Babe swung, the ball arched and came to rest among the fans in the lower stand, who fought for a priceless souvenir.”

“There were other smashes by the Babe. He narrowly missed parking one in the centerfield bleachers, hit a terrific liner to right, a high fly and a clean ‘single.’ When on the 20th pitch, Ruth exploded another drive into the stand that went foul by a scant margin, the Babe trotted around the bases to a reception that echoed over the lower Bronx.”

The Times reported Johnson and Ruth helped raise $80,000 for the war relief effort: “They helped immeasurably in bringing an estimated $80,000 to the funds of the relief of dependents of nation’s heroes.”

Did I happen to mention these “heroes” were fighting Nazis?

It wasn’t so hard to recognize the enemy in 1942. The front page banner headline of the Aug. 24 Washington Star read, “Nazis Push Twin Drive On Stalingrad.”

Another headline read, “38,000 Jews in Belgium drafted for Reich labor.”

Johnson died four years later, and Ruth would follow in 1948. They lived long enough to see the fruits of their charity help win the war against the Nazis — at least the last war.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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