Flashback: Babe Ruth and the Yankees called New Orleans home during spring training in 1920s
Long before the Florida and Arizona became the permanent annual sites of all the MLB teams’ spring training season, New Orleans played host to several major-league teams seeking warm weather that would allow them to get a head start on their training and preparation for the regular baseball season.
The New York Yankees were one of those teams, spending their spring training for the1922, 1923, and 1924 seasons in the Crescent City. These comprised some of the early years of Babe Ruth’s illustrious career with the Yankees. Already a national sensation by then, he naturally attracted most of the attention from baseball fans and newspapermen in New Orleans.
The Yankees’ spring training routine during those years included a stopover in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for several weeks prior to arriving in New Orleans. Yankee management usually sent players there to lose weight and begin their conditioning prior to beginning baseball drills. This was an era in baseball where players didn’t engage in any type of training or dietary regimen during the off-season. Known as a hearty eater and drinker, Ruth’ time spent in the Arkansas resort city was usually well spent, typically losing 20 or more pounds.
Once in New Orleans, Yankee players were housed at the Grunewald Hotel, which was the predecessor to the original Roosevelt Hotel and later the Fairmont. Folklore has it that Ruth had to be frequently smuggled into the hotel in the wee hours of the morning after a night of carousing in the city.
The local New Orleans Pelicans team provided practice game competition for the Yankees. They drew large crowds at the Pels’ home stadium, Heinemann Park, most of which were attracted to the spectacle surrounding Ruth and his Yankee teammates, as opposed to the local team. Ruth had hit 54 and 59 homers, respectively, in 1920 and 1921, helping to propel the major leagues out of the deadball era. Fans came to the stadium to see Ruth hit his mammoth home runs.
Ruth’s talented teammates included other notable players, including catcher Wally Schang, third baseman Home Run Baker, outfielder Bob Meusel, and first baseman Wally Pipp. Pitching for the Yankees were Bob Shawkey, Waite Hoyte, Bullet Joe Bush, and Carl Mays. Most of these players had helped the Yanks win their first American League pennant in 1921.
Ruth came into New Orleans in 1922 under the order of a suspension (until May 20) and fine by Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Landis for his participation in post-season exhibition games following the 1921 season. It wasn’t clear at first that Ruth would be allowed to participate in training activities, but Landis ultimately approved Ruth’s training with the team in New Orleans.
Ruth’s wife, who was in New Orleans to watch some of the spring games, publicly lobbied the commissioner to allow her husband to play the entire season. She said, “Babe broke his record by making fifty-nine home runs last year, but he is in even better form this year and I hope he will make seventy-five. I am sure he will make around sixty-five, at the least, for he has been doing wonderful work in training.” Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert said he thought Ruth could break his record even if Landis didn’t rescind his suspension.
New Orleans fans were delighted when Ruth hit a grand slam home run in a 9-0 victory in one of the games against the Pelicans. Two days later he homered again against the St. Louis Cardinals who came into town for a practice game.
Ruth signed a contract for $75,000 during spring training in 1921. He was clearly the highest-paid player at the time. It was rumored he would also be rewarded with $500 for each home run he hit, but that turned out to be false. Landis wound up sticking to his order for Ruth’ suspension until May 20, and Ruth played in 110 games as a result. He still managed to finish third in home runs with 35. The Yankees won the AL pennant again but lost the New York Giants in the World Series for the second year in a row.
Ruth contracted the flu in 1923 while in Hot Springs, getting into condition for spring training in New Orleans. He was confined to his room for two weeks and delayed his arrival in New Orleans
Controversy arose again around his time in the city, centering around a $50,000 lawsuit against Ruth by 19-year-old New Yorker Dorothy Dixon for breach of promise. She claimed that she was carrying Ruth’s unborn child. From the outset of the suit, Ruth countered he was being blackmailed, and ultimately the suit was dropped.
The Yankees topped the Pelicans in four of seven contests during the 1923 spring training series. New Orleans native Larry Gilbert was in his first season as manager of the Pels. He was praised for the team’s results in spring games, and it was an omen of good things to come during the Pelicans’ regular season, since they wound up winning the Southern League title. Playing in their first season in Yankee Stadium, the Yankees won their third consecutive pennant and defeated the Giants for their first World Series championship.
The Yankees returned to New Orleans for the third straight year in 1924. Ruth had another bout with the flu in Hot Springs. However, it turned out not to be a serious case, and he arrived in New Orleans ready to play.
There was no shortage of entertainment activities Yankees players experienced in the Crescent City while not on the ball diamond. They were theatre guests at an Orpheum party, spent time at the racetrack, went to boxing matches, and took a fishing trip to a nearby bayou. Their popularity also found themselves selling raffle tickets for a local church and playing a benefit game for school children.
21-year-old rookie Lou Gehrig was being mentioned during spring activities as a prospect who could eventually become heir apparent to Ruth as the home run king. However, it turned out Gehrig wouldn’t become a permanent fixture with the team until 1925.
The expectation of a Ruth home run attracted the local crowds at Heinemann Park. He was continually on-stage, as fans hung on each at-bat, hoping he would blast one out. In one of the games with over 3,000 howling schoolboys in attendance, he sent them happily home by hitting a homer over the right field fence in a losing cause to the Pelicans, 12-4.
The Yankees had an off-year during the 1924 regular season, finishing second behind the Washington Senators. However, Ruth led the league in batting average (.378) and home runs (46).
Other major-league teams that came to New Orleans for spring training during the modern era (beginning in 1901) included the Cleveland Indians (1902-1903 and 1916-1920), Chicago Cubs (1907, 1911-1912), and Brooklyn Dodgers (1921). Over the years, the city would also play host to numerous major-league teams playing exhibition games on their way North following spring training.
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New Orleans baseball historian
Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.