If you give me one day to go back to in history, I'd have to choose the first Easter. My second choice might be as unlikely an event: Babe Ruth's visit to Sleepy Eye on Oct. 16, 1922.
If we stepped back in time 90 years, we'd find ourselves around midday waiting outside the Berg Hotel. A strong northwest wind was blowing in the first cold snap of the season, even a few flurries. The Babe, Yankee leftfielder Bob Meusel, and Ruth's wife Helen arrived in town about 9:30 a.m. and went to the Berg. By late morning a crowd had gathered outside.
The Yankee stars had travelled by train overnight from Omaha where they played the day before. This was part of a 19-game Midwest barnstorming tour that began when the World Series ended. The trek took them to cities such as Denver, Kansas City, Des Moines and Sleepy Eye.
Bob Meusel and Babe Ruth are shown in this photo, taken during their visit to Sleepy Eye in 1922. (Photo courtesty of Sleepy Eye Historical Society)
At 1 p.m. a cold public school band showed up to lead a parade to Athletic Park, the same ballpark that hosts games today. Extra seating for thousands had been constructed. Advertising had gone out as far as the Twin Cities. The Sleepy Eye businessmen who booked the game hoped to make a nice profit. But the miserable weather kept the crowd to 700. With Ruth receiving $1,000 and Meusel $800, the locals probably took a loss.
It would be hard to exaggerate how big a star Babe Ruth was at the time. Baseball really was the national pastime and obsession. Ruth began his career as a very good pitcher for the Red Sox. When he was traded to the Yankees, he became an outfielder and shattered all the batting records by wide margins. He was a phenomenal athlete, belied by black and white footage of a chubby Ruth chugging around the base paths late in his career.
He was the brightest star just as modern media was evolving to give him a national stage. At the same time as Ruth was hitting baseballs like no one before, radio, film and syndicated newspapers were telling America about him. He was really the first "superstar." For Babe Ruth to come to Sleepy Eye in 1922 would be as if Albert Pujols, Brad Pitt, and Justin Bieber all showed up in town today.
A game between "Ruth's Team and Meusel's Team" commenced at 3 p.m. Besides the Yankees, the lineups were filled with players from across southern Minnesota. Ruth did not disappoint, hitting two prodigious homeruns into the sloughy area behind centerfield. He also pitched an inning. Meusel went hitless, and the San Jose-born star was reported to be miserable in the frigid conditions. Ruth's team won 9 to 7.
Later there was a banquet put on by the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary's School and a dance at the Standard Opera House. Finally, the barnstormers boarded an overnight train to Sioux Falls.
Twenty years ago, I did research on the history of baseball in the area for the Brown County Historical Society. Then I was able to talk to four men in Sleepy Eye who had been at the game. Now those gentlemen are all gone.
Floyd Greg was in the band and remembered the valves on his horn freezing up. Leo Fritz played hooky from school that day to see the game and snuck in under the fence. "Spin" Schroepfer was a ten-year old boy visible in the photo in the grandstand. "Red" Schueller played second base an inning when Ruth went in to pitch.
Any one who has spent time with history knows there are things that tempt you, things that you can't quite know for sure. The photo here is a wonderful moment in time, but it is the only one I've ever seen. Years ago, I was talking to Renie Bruckbauer at her jewelry store in town. She said that her father-in-law, J. J. Bruckbauer, "took a whole bunch of pictures" that day, and that they were in "a box somewhere."
Bud Kolbe told me about being a boy lying in bed listening to the radio in the thirties. Ruth, speaking at a banquet in New York, was asked about the most interesting place he'd played baseball. According to Bud, Ruth told several stories about a little town called Sleepy Eye. That was when radio was live, and little was recorded.
Sox Schueller pitched against Ruth that day and gave up two "wicked liners." Sox said later, "He hit those so hard, they ain't found the (expletive) balls yet." Jerry Meidl once showed me a ball he found in a box of old baseballs at a rummage sale. It was a "Western League" branded ball and written on it was "Babe Ruth hit this in Sleepy Eye, October 16." Did Ruth hit that ball? Is there a box of photos? Did Ruth tell a radio audience about his visit here? We'll probably never know.
Back in 1997, Scott Surprenant and I decided that the 75th Anniversary of Babe's visit deserved recognition. On a beautiful fall day, a bunch of ball fans toasted the Babe with beer and hot dogs, both of which the Babe was known to enjoy. Everyone took turns hitting a couple, standing on the very spot where the Sultan of Swat stood in '22.
It's time to honor the Babe again, and really just celebrate baseball. So, rain or shine or snow flurries, you're welcome to join us at Sleepy Eye Ballpark on Tuesday, Oct. 16. We will fete the Babe's memory with a dog and a beer (or root beer) around 5 p.m. Bring your glove!