Centennial of Ruth’s visit charges up local baseball fans
Babe Ruth played in Sleepy Eye 100 years ago this October. In April, I spent a Saturday night at a bar in Detroit. I’ll connect those two later.
Those who know me, know I’ve made that day 1922 into a bit of a cottage industry. I’ve researched it, written about it, celebrated it, and even showed up in a couple videos. Now a group is making plans to commemorate the centennial of Ruth’s visit to our little town on Saturday, Oct. 15.
Growing up in Sleepy Eye, we all heard about that day. Old-timers talked about it. The well-known photo of Babe with teammate Bob Meusel was in the paper every so often. I didn’t think much about it in the way young people don’t think much about things in the past.
In the 1990s, I was doing research for the Brown County Historical Society on baseball in the county. I began to think more about that day. He was baseball’s biggest star when baseball was the national pastime, a giant celebrity in early days of national media.
More than that, the ballpark where Ruth played is still a ballpark. You can stand at home plate in Sleepy Eye and pretend to be Babe Ruth. I’ve done it.
The visit by the Yankee stars was part of a 14-game barnstorming tour after the 1922 World Series. Omaha, Kansas City, Denver — Sleepy Eye. Local businessmen made a connection with Ruth’s agent, Christy Walsh to promote Sleepy Eye and perhaps turn a profit.
In 1992, I talked to four men who were at the game.
Then came the serendipitous discovery of Len Youngman, the little boy peeking around Meusel in the photo. Len was 104 and had vivid recall of playing with friends out past the outfield. Remarkably a home run Ruth hit rolled to him which he still had. That was documented nicely by Channel 11’s Boyd Huppert, one of his Land of 10,000 Stories, easy to find on YouTube.
We visited Len three times before he died in 2018. Ironically, Len passed on the anniversary of Ruth’s visit to town.
So how does that get me to Detroit? A few years ago, we learned about an annual celebration of Babe Ruth’s birthday at Nemo’s Bar. It is a fairly random event. Ruth played at old Tiger Stadium, blocks from Nemo’s. Otherwise, he had no special connection to Detroit.
In 1987, Tom Derry hung out at a small bar owned by a feisty older woman, Ethel Thompson. There was juke box with a version of Happy Birthday that Ethel hated. So of course, Tom and his friends had to play it. They began digging up celebrities birthdays as an excuse to have everyone sing along. The list was heavy on baseball players as Tom was a fan.
Babe Ruth’s birthday grew to a special status. Ethel passed away, and Babe’s party shifted around, settling at Nemo’s. It became a celebration of all things baseball.
Our group talked about going someday. When we thought about the centennial of Ruth’s visit, it occurred this might be the year to go.
It really doesn’t make sense to fly to Detroit for one night to attend a birthday party for a deceased baseball star. But shouldn’t we do things that don’t make sense a couple times in our lives?
In February, my friend, Scott Surprenant, researched cheap flights to Detroit for April 30. He assured me we would leave Saturday early, and I would be back on the tractor by noon Sunday.
Scott is persuasive. In 2018, it was Scott who challenged Dean Brinkman and I to drive up to the Iron Range to visit Len Youngman: “Is this beer talk, or are we going to do it?”
Throwing down the gauntlet again, I agreed to our junket to Detroit. It turned out it was too wet to be in the field anyway, so nothing lost.
Joining us was Keith Olsen. who works with Scott at Mathiowetz Construction. Keith is not as rabid a baseball fan as Scott and I are, but he enjoys the idea of doing slightly crazy things. So, the three of us headed to the airport at 4 a.m. Maybe it was more than slightly crazy.
Things went smoothly, which is not always the case with traveling. We found ourselves at the hotel by early afternoon, walking distance to Nemo’s. It was also walkable to old Tiger Stadium and new Comerica Park, so we set off to see those before the party.
The playing field of Tiger Stadium has been preserved, although most of the bleachers have been torn down. It’s become home to local teams. There was a junior college game that afternoon. We watched a couple innings, visiting with parents and girlfriends who attend those kinds of games.
A hike away is Comerica Park. The Tigers were on the road, but a high school showcase meant there was a game there, too. Again, we watched a couple innings, visiting with players’ family. If you are a baseball fan, being able to watch ball on both those fields, new and old, was good fortune times two.
Then it was off to Nemo’s. Scott had messaged Tom that we were coming, and he was excited to greet us. We were mini-celebrities there with our 100-year-old story of Babe’s visit to Sleepy Eye. We didn’t win the award for traveling the furthest, as a fan from Germany beat us. All in all, I ate too many hot dogs, drank too many beers, and had too much fun visiting with dozens of people who have a love of baseball in common. If you are a fan, you know that is all you need to spark a friendship.
So, keep an hour open Oct. 15 to celebrate a bit of Sleepy Eye history.
Randy Krzmarzick farms on the home place west of Sleepy Eye where he lives with his wife, Pam.