Babe Ruth Busts Out of Jail to Play the Indians

In “Major League,” Ricky Vaughn arrived in spring training after spending some time in the California Penal League. Seems entertaining, but too far-fetched for reality, right?

Well, something similar happened 98 years ago this week prior to an Indians game against the Yankees at the old Polo Grounds. To Babe Ruth, no less.

Ruth loved to drive. He was partial to big Packards, the luxurious cars that started in Warren and solidified their reputation in 1916 with the introduction of their Twin Six, the first production V-12 engine in the world. If the Yankees were playing on the road but not far – Washington, Philadelphia or Boston, he’d drive instead of taking the train.

Ruth also loved to drive fast – and maybe a little carelessly. In 1920, he was driving through Southeastern Pennsylvania on the way back to New York after a series against the Senators in Washington. He failed to negotiate a turn (some accounts suggested he was intoxicated), and the car ended up on its roof. Mercifully, nobody in it was injured, and it wasn’t long before Ruth had another Packard – a maroon one, with his initials stenciled on the door.

He was driving to the Polo Grounds from his home in preparation for a big game against the Tribe, who were then defending champions. The Yankees were a game and a half back in second place. But he was pulled over for speeding on Riverside Drive – by a police officer who didn’t believe him when he told him who he was!

Ruth was taken straight to traffic court. Because it was his second traffic ticket in as many months, he was sentenced to $100 and a day in jail. He pulled a C-note out of his pocket to pay the fine and went to pay his debt to society in the city jail on Mulberry Street. There was just one problem: The ballgame started at 3:15 p.m., and he stood to lose even more money — $500 – if he wasn’t at the game.

Fortunately for him, for purposes of the New York criminal justice system, the day ended at 4 p.m. His uniform was brought to him and he changed in his cell before departing into a crowd that was anxious to see New York’s most famous criminal.

Ruth got to his car, and with a police officer on the running board shooing away traffic, made it to the ballpark by the sixth inning in what the Universal News Service referred to as his own “Sheridan’s ride,” a reference to Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem, a dramatic (if not entirely accurate) retelling of a Civil War general’s 12-mile ride through the Shenandoah Valley to return to his army. By comparison, the jail at the southern tip of Manhattan to the Polo Grounds in Coogan’s Bluff at the extreme north end of the island was a mere nine miles, and as far as anyone knew, there were no enemy armies.

But there were Indians. George Uhle was throwing a masterpiece for the Tribe, who were able to push across three runs in the fifth, and were still clinging to a 3-2 lead going into the bottom of the ninth. Ruth had been a non-factor, only drawing a walk and stealing a base.

Wally Pipp flew out to Tris Speaker in center field for the first out of the ninth. Bob Meusel, pinch-hitting for Ping Bodie, singled, and up came Home Run Baker. With two strikes on him, the next day’s Plain Dealer said he swung at strike three, but the umpire called it a ball. Baker then singled, and Meusel moved to third. Speaker lodged a formal protest of the game. Aaron Ward singled to score Meusel, tying the game, and Uhle was done, lifted for Stan Coveleski. Catcher Wally Schang was walked to load the bases with the pitcher’s spot in the order coming up. Waite Hoyt was lifted for a pinch-hitter – another pitcher, the infamous Carl Mays, who hit a grounder to George Burns at first base. Burns went home for the force for the second out of the inning, and up came former Indian Braggo Roth. Coveleski got Roth to swing at a pair of spitters, but Roth singled, driving in the winning run.

The Yankees were now a half-game back of the Indians, who would win the next day to put a little more cushion between the two of them. But they couldn’t hold off the Yankees for the rest of the year. New York took first place in September thanks to a seven-game winning streak, and although the Indians pulled into a tie several times, they were denied a second consecutive pennant by the Yankees, who made their first World Series appearance that fall – and were on their way to a dynasty.

Photo: Associated Press

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