From the first moment Tom Shieber saw the clip, at an exhibit on pre-World War II life at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, he knew those were no ordinary ballplayers. They were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Ruth and Gehrig played opposite one another in an 1927 barnstorming tour organized by Ruth’s agent, Christy Walsh. The Yankee stars captained teams called the “Bustin’ Babes” and the “Larrupin' Lou’s” at each city. Walsh drafted local minor league or semipro players to fill in the rest of the lineup. Fans flocked to local ballparks to see batting practice, then an exhibition game. When the stadiums couldn’t hold any more people, ushers lined spectators up in foul territory or along the outfield fence.
There is not much video footage from the 1927 tour, which covered 20 cities over 21 days, and the clips that do exist are grainy and dark.
To the Japanese American National Museum, the video was part of a curation of items from a family-owned general store in Oregon. The video, captured by Reverend Sensho Sasaki, a Buddhist priest and amateur filmmaker, was thought to show part of a local pickup game.
Instead, Shieber, senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was able to trace it back to the 1927 Ruth-Gehrig tour. And by studying the advertisements on the outfield wall, he tied it to the pair’s visit to Oak Park in Stockton, Calif., on Oct. 24, 1927.
The video had not previously been widely circulated or linked to the barnstorming trip.
In the clip, Ruth, who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, can be seen reaching for his sore back, which he hurt during the exhibition game. He sought treatment from a chiropractor the next day in Marysville, Calif., according to “The Big Fella,” a chronicle of the road trip by Jane Leavy.
“Something cracked when I missed that ball today, and we’ll see in the morning if it’s going to come out,” Ruth told the Marysville Appeal-Democrat.
Even with the injury, he hit a home run. Gehrig legged out a triple.
“He kissed one towards the moon and it landed in the oak grove beyond the right field scoreboard,” began the Stockton Record’s story about the game. “That was the most prodigious feat performed by the Mighty Bambino of Swat in his Stockton appearance before a crowd of over 2,500 people at Oak Park yesterday afternoon.”
It was only the second out-of-the-park home run in the history of the ballfield. The Babes won, 17-4, and the tour ended less than a week later in Los Angeles.
“Now we can revel in this footage that’s been around for 90 years but no one knew what they were seeing,” Shieber said. “And for me, there’s nothing like seeing these ballplayers that are usually static in motion now. To see them move and hit the ball like that, it’s incredible.”
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