Ruthian Recollections

January 31, 1995|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Sun Staff Writer

As fraternities go, this one might be the most exclusive in America.

Its members are 80 years old or older.

They all played in the major leagues during the 1920s or 1930s.

And every one can make this remarkable statement: I was in a big-league game with Babe Ruth.

Bill Werber is in the group. Now living in retirement in Naples, Fla., after spending most of his life near College Park, he was a 21-year-old infielder when he joined the New York Yankees in 1930.

Werber vividly can recall getting a lecture from Ruth on the art of home run hitting -- a few moments after one of Babe's homers.

Sixty-five years ago, Werber was in the Yankees' dugout beside outfielder Earle Combs "when Ruth hit a ball way up in the right-field bleachers."

When Babe returned to the bench, Combs asked about the pitch he'd belted into the stands. As Werber recalled, Ruth neither knew nor cared.

"Babe said, 'The trouble with you fellas is you think too much. You look for a fastball, a curve, a change of pace.

" 'When I go up there, I don't think about nothing.' "

Werber, 86, paused a moment, chuckling at the memory.

"He was a man of absolute confidence at the plate," he said. "But I wouldn't say he was an imaginative fella."

Werber, a retired insurance executive, is one of about a dozen ballplayers who played with or against Ruth and are alive to talk about it. Their memories have been getting massaged recently with the centennial of Ruth's birth Monday.

Mostly, Ruth's former ball-playing friends have fond thoughts about him. They remember the Babe as generous, perhaps to a fault. It was common for him to pick up dinner bills or pay for cabs to the ballpark. When the Yankees' batboy turned up JTC without an overcoat in Detroit one day, Ruth handed him $40 to go buy one, then refused to accept the change, Werber recalled.

Fun to a fault

Ruth's reputation as an eager, if sometimes crude, practical joker also apparently was true. His idea of a gag was to nail a teammate's shoes to the floor or to cut the sleeves from a shirt, a few said.

"No one I talked to said they didn't like him or found him unapproachable," said author Brent Kelley, whose forthcoming book, "In the Shadow of the Babe," is a compilation of interviews with players.

Ruth's friends also said he probably would have been a disaster as a big-league manager, though he wanted that job badly. They point out he was not exactly a student of the game.

"I don't think Babe ever would have made a manager," said Tot Pressnell, a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, the year Ruth was their first-base coach. "He could just never remember names or the signs."

They all remember Ruth as among the greatest hitters of theirs or any era.

"A beautiful swing and a wonderful eye," said Charlie Devens, 85, a pitcher for the Yankees from 1932 to 1934, Ruth's last three years in New York.

"He took a good cut at the ball, went completely through it," said former Detroit Tigers pitcher Elden Auker, 84. "If he got a hold of it, forget it."

The four players interviewed for this article saw Ruth in the waning days of his career. By 1930, when Werber joined the Yankees, the Babe was 35 years old and had logged 16 years in the big leagues. He had hit more than 500 home runs and played in nearly 2,000 games.

Still, he went on to hit 49 home runs in 1930 and 46 the next year, leading the league both seasons.

Devens' memories of Ruth include the "Called Shot," the Babe's home run against the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series. It's probably the most talked-about of Ruth's 714 homers.

'Called shot'

What's certain is that Ruth homered off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root in Game 3, leading the Yankees to a 7-5 victory over Chicago. Ruth motioned to center field before the blast, but whether he was predicting the resting spot of the next pitch -- as Ruth insisted and baseball historians have speculated -- is anybody's guess.

Devens, who was there, takes Ruth at his word.

"I certainly saw him point and hit the next one there," said Devens, who became president of a large mutual fund company after his playing days. "He might as well have called it. I don't know why not."

But Devens doesn't discount another theory, that Ruth's arm gestures were part of an exchange between the slugger and players taunting him from the Chicago dugout.

"Ruth was giving them hell because he thought there had been some chicanery when they had divided up the World Series money. A friend of Babe's didn't get what Babe thought he deserved," said Devens. "And they were giving it right back."

Not that all the Ruth memories were made at the ballpark.

Bridge player and golfer, too

Werber recalled the Yankees traveling between cities by train and the bridge games that helped to pass the time. Werber and catcher Bill Dickey often paired against Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

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