Babe Ruth at Firemen’s Park, 1931

November 14, 2011

The Fresno Bee

Then: Under the lights of Firemen\'s Park, Babe Ruth with Monte Pearson, left, and Alex Metzler.

As the nation sank into the the Great Depression, Fresnans got a needed lift in 1931 when the legendary George Herman “Babe” Ruth came to town.

Fans were thrilled to see the greatest athlete of their time, but Ruth was not so happy about what was on the agenda: night baseball. He was pretty sure it wasn’t going to last, especially in the big leagues.

Off-season “barnstorming” exhibition tours were extremely popular, giving fans the chance to see big leaguers in action firsthand in the days before TV.

And there was no one bigger than Ruth, who enjoyed visiting adoring fans and reportedly making as much money on the tour as he would in a regular season.

This was his second visit to Fresno; the first was in October 1927. Both times he played at Firemen’s Park, at the southeast corner of Ventura and Chance Avenues, by the racetrack at the Fresno Fairgrounds.

In the 1927 visit, Ruth and Yankee teammate Lou Gerhig, members of the famed “Murderer’s Row” team, possibly the best team in history, had taken the city by storm. Fresh off a World Series victory and Ruth’s new homerun record of 60 for a season, each captained a team of local baseball stars.

More than 2,000 fans packed the park for the afternoon game Oct. 29, and saw Gerhig’s team beat Ruth’s 13-3. The game was called in the 9th inning after hundreds of kids flooded the infield, swarming the two Yankees for autographs.

The 1931 game, played on October 21, had a different feel. Ruth, 36 and near the end of his career, was in the middle of a sweep of exhibitions on the West coast, starting in Southern California, and ending in the Bay Area.

One big difference was this game was played at night. Firemen’s Park was one of the first in the region to have lights. The lighting system was only a year old, and new for Ruth. This was only his third game playing under the “arcs,” and he didn’t like it.

At 7:45 p.m., he gave a hitting exhibition for the 2,500 fans who packed the park on the chilly evening. He played first base for the “Fresno Sciots” which faced the “Fresno Auto Wrecking” team. Both were local Twilight League teams.

Fans, told they’d get a chance to see him pitch (his first position played in the pros), were disappointed when it was announced that he wouldn’t due to a broken bone in his shoulder. Later he admitted to a reporter that it was just a muscle strain.

On his team, he was joined by local star pitcher Monte Pearson of the Cleveland Indians. Another local, Milwaukee Brewers’ Alex Metzler, was on the opposing team. Ruth’s Sciots lost to the Wrecking team 5-2. In four trips to the plate, he had one homer, a single and a walk, but committed two errors at first. The Bee reported, “He didn’t miss a strike at any balls to which he took a swing, which is showing quite an eye at the bat.”

The night game no doubt affected his performance. After the game, the Bee’s Ed Orman reported that Ruth “showed no hesitancy in denouncing night baseball.”

“It just isn’t natural,” Ruth said, “for you can’t see as well as in the daytime and you just can’t muster up that old pep that you get under the bright sunshine. You can bet the big leagues never will play night ball. I don’t think they’ll ever perfect the lights enough.” Before heading north for the next leg of his tour, Ruth autographed four dozen baseballs for the Fresno Community Chest’s fund raising drive. Pausing for a moment with writer’s cramp about halfway through, he said, “I’m glad to be back in Fresno. I had a good time here four years ago, and the fans were nice. We had a good crowd.”

While he rested his hand, he asked his wife to try signing a ball for him. She tried and had trouble writing on the curved surface, so the task went back to Babe. The Fresno Republican noted that one of the 48 balls was signed twice, once by Ruth and one by Claire. A caption under a photograph showing him signing the balls, reads: “The signature on the baseballs was ‘Babe Ruth,’ probably the most sought after signature in baseball.”

The old Firemen’s Park burned to the ground less than a year later, on the evening of July 17, 1932. The fire was said to have been caused by a smoldering cigarette left behind in a locker room from that evening’s ball game. The park was never rebuilt.

Today the site is within the Big Fresno Fair’s grounds, and the field that saw the legendary player is now a parking lot that’s used as the Midway during the fair.

John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Now: The Midway of the Big Fresno Fair sits on the site of the old ballpark.