- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

The big man with the big gut stood at the plate, waggling his black club menacingly. Even at 38 and on the downside of his magnificent career, he commanded every fan’s attention — just as Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds would do more than six decades later.

Not all the fans were in the stands either. “We wanted to see the Babe,” National League starter Wild Bill Hallahan had said earlier that afternoon. “Sure he was old and had a big waistline, but that didn’t make any difference. We were on the same field as Babe Ruth.”

This was July 6, 1933, and major league baseball’s first All-Star Game was under way at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. The American League was leading 1-0 as Ruth came to the plate in the bottom of the third inning. Hallahan, the St. Louis Cardinals left-hander, had struck out the Babe in the first inning — “that was quite a kick for me,” he said years later — but now Ruth would get even in a hurry.

Hallahan foolishly tried to throw a fastball past the old man, and the Babe smashed it on a line into the right-field seats so fast that fans in the sellout throng of 47,595 were momentarily stunned. Then, according to one contemporary account, “the crowd roared its acclamation.”

The All-Star inaugural had been christened the best possible way — on a home run by the greatest hitter and possibly best all-around player in baseball history. It gave the American League its winning runs in a 4-2 victory, starting the AL on a run of 12 wins in the first 16 editions of the “Midsummer Classic” before the National League began its own long period of domination with a 14-inning victory in 1950, also at Comiskey Park.

The managers in 1933 were Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, then in the 33rd summer of his incredible 50-year tenure, and John McGraw, who had led the New York Giants to 10 pennants in 30 years before retiring in 1932. McGraw had watched bitterly as Ruth’s arrival in 1920 had turned the New York Yankees into the city’s favorite team, but now even the fiery Mac was full of admiration for the Babe.

Small wonder. In addition to his homer, the portly Ruth — acting half his age — raced out of nowhere to make a marvelous catch of Chick Hafey’s drive to right field in the eighth inning, preventing what loomed as a big inning for the National League.

After the game, McGraw visited the American League clubhouse to congratulate Mack, his rival in three early World Series. Of Ruth, McGraw said, “The old boy really came through when they needed him.”

It was almost the last great moment on a ballfield for the man who, it was said, had saved baseball with his slugging exploits after the Black Sox scandal of 1919. With Ruth obviously fading over the rest of the 1933 season and throughout the next, the Yankees sold him to the abysmal Boston Braves (38-115) in ‘35. Ruth hit three home runs one glorious day in Pittsburgh before quitting a week later with a .181 batting average in 28 games. Frustrated in his lifelong ambition to manage the Yankees, he died of throat cancer in 1948 at 53.

This summer Major League Baseball is attempting to renew interest in the All-Star Game by awarding the winning league home-field advantage in the World Series. Seventy years ago, no such artificial impetus was needed. In those days, arguments raged steadily over which league was stronger. For that reason, the All-Star Game was a big deal — although it started as a single event after Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward advocated the game in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair.

On April 20, Ward broached the idea to AL president Will Harridge, who agreed when Ward promised that any profits would be donated to charity and any losses underwritten by the Tribune. The league’s other owners approved the game May9, but the National League didn’t come around until late June.

How important was the All-Star Game at its birth? Present for the American League was Lou Gehrig, the Yankees’ slugging first baseman, although there were fears he might not get back to New York for the next afternoon’s game — thereby ending his impending chance to break Everett Scott’s record consecutive-games streak of 1,307.

Asked earlier if he would play in the All-Star Game, Gehrig replied, “Certainly. I will go gladly and give up my chance at the mark, and I will prize the honor greatly.” Of course, Gehrig did make the Yankees’ next game and broke Scott’s record five weeks later on the way to his mark of 2,130 consecutive games, which stood for 56 years until Cal Ripken shattered it in 1995.

Despite high ticket prices in that Depression-haunted year — a reserved grandstand seat cost an outrageous $1.10 — Comiskey was filled by game time. In those days of no television and limited radio coverage of baseball, the idea of seeing the game’s best players on the same field was intriguing and would remain so for the next 25 years.

If the game was truly ceremonial, it nonetheless mattered to many. Both managers went all out to win, Mack using only 13 players and McGraw 17 (including four pinch hitters). The so-called Senior Circuit’s players wore special gray uniforms with “National League” on the front, a sartorial touch that disappeared after one year. Each American Leaguer wore his own team’s home whites.

Two left-handers started on the mound, Hallahan against the Yankees’ Lefty Gomez. The American League snatched a 1-0 lead most illogically in the second inning when Gomez, a notoriously weak hitter, delivered a run-scoring single to center. That set the stage for the Babe, who always seemed to rise when an occasion presented itself.

The success of the first game left commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the owners no choice but to schedule a second for 1934 at New York’s Polo Grounds, with the pennant-winning skippers from the previous year managing, Joe Cronin of the Washington Senators and Bill Terry of the Giants. When Terry’s own ace, Carl Hubbell, earned everlasting acclaim by striking out five American League sluggers in a row (Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons and Cronin) with his deadly screwball, the All-Star Game was assured of becoming a fixture on the baseball calendar.

After American League catcher Bill Dickey, batting in the eighth spot, ended Hubbell’s strikeout string by singling in the second inning, Gomez had sharp words for his Yankees teammate. “Why couldn’t you strike out, too?” Lefty inquired. “Then Hubbell would have been famous for fanning seven of the greatest hitters of all time, and I would have been one of ‘em!”

Gomez’s lifetime batting average was .147 over 14 seasons, so we can call that an All-Star one-liner.

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