by Bill Burk
editor's note: This story appeared in the April 20, April 27, May 4 and May 11, 2015 editions of the Jamestown Gazette newspaper.
The Babe - Part 1
"He wasn't a baseball player. He was a worldwide celebrity, an international star, the likes of which baseball has never seen since." - Ernie Harwell (broadcaster)
The Little League baseball field at Celoron Park has a functional building along the first base line that serves the youth of Southwestern as a concession stand, storage area, and press box. It is aged and storied and dingy inside when closed up. It is also, I found out one fall afternoon, a place of mystery.
It's October of this year, and I'm at the wooden shack. I walk upstairs to the back of the building. I'm looking for an old uniform for a friend who wants to reminisce about the old days. The room is dark, and smells of baseball; spent uniforms, old helmets, catchers gear, socks, stirrups, balls and caps. I duck under a shelf and reach deep into a dark corner for a box labeled Lion League Uniforms 1975-79, blinking against cobwebs and years of dust. I close my eyes and reach further, feeling for the box. Except there's nothing there. I step over a duffle filled with helmets and stretch, and an uncomfortable nausea hits me like a hangover. My hand finds nothing, not the elusive box, not a single piece of baseball history, not even, in fact, the back wall of the building. A burst of air blows in my face, washing away my dizziness, but not the disorientation, a feeling that I'm somehow falling yet standing still. I feel rain. Rain? In the Celoron storage building? I push through the dark...
And suddenly, magically, out the other side, I'm transformed.
I'm in a white Flannel three-button shirt and heavy wool sweatpants, a tall brown belt keeping my shirt tucked and my knee-highs from falling to my ankles, standing beside a dirt road. Soft leather spikes on my feet, brimmed cap on my head. It's a baseball uniform, and it's heavy and scratchy.
"Come now, you're late."
I blink into gray afternoon sky. "What? Late for what?"
"The game, you lout. The game. First pitch in less than an hour."
I have no bearings. Where am I? Where's the little league diamond, the musty storage building? I spin on my axis, a disoriented 360 degrees. Okay, there's the inlet, and the southern basin of Chautauqua Lake. Where's the Post Office, the Celoron Grocery, the log cabin? Where are the basketball courts, and the parking lot? Where's that sketchy Lucy statue, and the Moose Lodge? There are huge buildings and horses (Amish?), and a Model T car rally of some sort, and oh my God, is that a Ferris wheel? There is nothing that looks vaguely familiar.
"I'm Maltby", the man says pulling my arm, "the park manager, and you're late." He's wearing a belted, high-waisted jacket with wide lapels dampened from the rain. His pants (trousers?) are narrow, straight and short, socks showing; suspenders, herringbone fedora, and deep red sideburns and mustache. At my obvious confusion he hands me a fold of thick paper, ink smearing in the light rain. BABE RUTH TO PLAY HERE, shouts from the banner above the fold. The masthead says Jamestown Morning Post October 18th, 1921. Below that, HOME RUN KING, BOB MEUSEL AND PIERCY IN EXHIBITION GAME AT CELORON TUESDAY – DEFY LANDIS. Somewhere in the recesses of my memory a light flickers. I turn to him, "Late for what? What game?"
"Late for the game with The Babe."
My mouth turns into an "O", but nothing comes out.
The village of Celoron, New York is named for the French officer and explorer Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville. In 1749 Blainville set out from Montreal with 213 men by way of Lake Erie, headed south to the Allegheny River. His route took him along the shores of Chautauqua Lake where he buried engraved lead plates claiming all he could touch and see for France. The village is located in the western part of the town of Ellicott and sits on the banks of Lake Chautauqua. Water passing by Celoron from the lake through the inlet will eventually, and inevitably, gravitate via the Chadakoin to the Conewango, Alleghany, Ohio and Mighty Mississippi respectively, and deposit into the Gulf of Mexico. A comprehensive voyage where maybe a dozen names in 1921 United States would be easily recognized; possibly that of the current president, Warren G. Harding, maybe Charlie Chaplin, Al Capone, or Greta Garbo, but most definitely Babe Ruth.
"Come now. The Bambino is already at the field." Maltby again, and apparently I am scheduled to be there also.
The Babe and Celoron Park - Part II
The Jamestown Post circa 1894: THE PEOPLE'S PARK AT CELORON
"A playground for Jamestown and all creation. It will have all the wonders of electricity and giant toboggan slides, magic, mirth and soft drinks on tap, shows every thirty minutes. President A. N. Broadhead of the Celoron Amusement Company...purchased a huge searchlight, let contracts and studied ways of entertaining the great people of Atlantic City, Coney Island... (He) is confident of making a joyous season at Chautauqua's chief amusement point...to make Celoron the liveliest place in Western New York."
Jump in your car, and drive to the village of Celoron. Take the low roads, hug the water. If you travel from the west, you'll trace the southern basin of Chautauqua Lake along Lakeside Drive, rounding onto Jackson Avenue. Keep your eyes open while you drive, and if you have the imagination, lay all this land bare, take out the lakefront houses on Longview Road, take out Ellicott Shore Apartments. Take out the streets, take out the trees. Turn it into a vast island of green grass and potential.
With the development there today, and the alignment at the village of Celoron and Lucille Ball Park, it's hard to imagine how that point of land, where Chautauqua transitions into the Chadakoin, could be one of the most grand destinations in the United States at the turn of the previous century. Hard to fathom attractions like a bathhouse three stories tall with three toboggan slides, a barber shop, 150 dressing rooms, bowling alley, billiards room, shooting gallery, ice-cream parlor and a large open recreation area. Or an auditorium with Turkish spires five stories high that seats 8,500 (in the winter the floors were flooded and used for ice skating). Or how about the Celoron Theater that extended out over the water hosting dances, stage performances and vaudeville acts. Try to picture the Phoenix Wheel the world's largest Ferris wheel, ten stories tall with twelve cages, able to hold 168 thrilled passengers. Or the all-wooden Greyhound Roller Coaster with three loops and 6,000 lights. Celoron Park opened in 1895 and all this land you're looking at from your car featured, at various times, four major hotels and fifteen smaller rooming houses, local and national athletic events on the baseball grounds, the top rated amusement rides of the day, the best quality musical and vaudeville performers, a bathhouse and bathing beach, and family picnic areas. Celoron Park was the top amusement park between New York City and Chicago. You can go there now, down Duquesne Boulevard, and you can see that rampant potential staring at you from the past.
Speaking of the past, I have been unceremoniously dumped into that very Celoron on October 18th, 1921, the day Babe Ruth barnstormed here. I'm wearing a retro baseball uniform that smells of mothballs and tobacco. Stuff like this happens all the time, right, but it would be nice to get a heads-up. I mean I didn't even bring a ball glove. If my notions of time travel are at all accurate (go ahead and mull that over for a spell), I should be standing on the first base line of a baseball field, one with Babe Ruth on it. There is a field here, just no baseball. "Where's the field?"
"This way. Come with me. Please hurry." George Maltby, the Celoron Park supervisor, is a small man, maybe 5'5", wispy and twitchy, and clearly agitated. He says "please", but he doesn't mean it. He mumbles things like "Not my idea" and "He come's all this way and doesn't even bring a ball mitt." And "Oh, of all the days" His hands wring, his eyebrows jump.
Next to the lake, where in some ninety years there will be a little league outfield, there is a considerable rubble pile. "Is that supposed to be the field?" I point.
"No, Mr. From-the-Future, that's a hotel." "A hotel?
It's supposed to be an outfield. It's where Babe Ruth hits one into the lake." This is the spot I imagined The Babe hitting that famous 500 footer into the lake when he stormed Celoron.
"It was The Hotel DeCeloron. It's been burned to the ground seven years now. It was magnificent." Maltby's pensiveness disappears for a moment. I let him be. Then, "And Mr. Ruth will most definitely NOT be hitting a ball into the lake here."
To be continued...
Postscript: Picture then, if you can, the Celoron baseball grounds, one of the original structures of the park built in 1894; huge grandstands, concession area framing a full sized field. The venue hosted boxing matches, football, lacrosse, cricket, soccer games, and importantly most every major league professional baseball team of the day, and special athletes like Jim Thorpe and, on October 18th, 1921, the one and only Babe Ruth.
The Babe and Celoron Park Part III
"Sometimes I still can't believe what I saw. This 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth and the symbol of baseball the world over - a man loved by more people and with an intensity of feeling that perhaps has never been equaled before or since." - Harry Hooper (Babe Ruth teammate)
It's three days after the 1921 World Series, and I'm waiting for Babe Ruth to hit a baseball into Chautauqua Lake. I'm not entirely sure how I got here; one minute I'm reaching for a baseball uniform in the little league storage shed at Celoron Park, the next I'm standing in an empty field wearing a baseball uniform you'd see in a museum. Where I came from, the 110th World Series was about to start with the Kansas City Royals taking on the San Francisco Giants in a best-of seven series. Where (when?) I "am" (1921), the New York Giants just beat the Yankees in the last best-of-nine World Series ever contested. When I was (2014), over twenty TV cameras will be trained on every pitch of every game, video will allow viewers to see the ball compress when it's hit using technology that the U.S. military uses to look at replays of missile impacts. The 1921 World Series, three days ago, was the first broadcast via radio, and the only series with every game played at the same site, the Polo Grounds in New York. Nobody here knows it yet, but that series was a generational shift between the dead-ball "inside game" Giants, and the power "outside game" of the Yankees featuring Babe Ruth and his 59 home runs and 171 RBI.
Right now I'm being dragged through the village of Celoron by George Maltby, the park Superintendent and the genesis behind the Babe Ruth barnstorming visit. I gather my wits and examine this new (old) Celoron. Frankly I can't reconcile what I see and what I know to be. I reach in my pocket for my cell (gotta get a picture of this!). Not only don't I have a phone, I don't have pockets, except for a tight pouch sewn into the wool ball pants. In that pocket are five sparkling 1921 Morgan Silver Dollars. "That's probably a consistent value to what you had before you crossed", says Maltby. He's looking at me like I might bolt, or disappear. To be safe, he clamps my arm and rushes me across a brick street toward the Celoron Log Cabin and Moose Lodge.
Except there's no Cabin and no Moose. There is however a ten story tall Ferris wheel. There is a boathouse on the lake and there is a midway concourse. There are hotels, food stands, men in double-breasted vests and single-breasted jackets, boys in knickers and flat hats, women in flapper dresses, drape hats and bobbed hair. Horses, carriages and Model T's clog the street. The bustle is a physical thing, electricity dampened only by a light rain, muffling voices and footprints. Steamboats unload more Roaring 20's characters at a huge public dock. I simply cannot believe all the buildings and the people. Where's the grocery? Where's the Post Office? I could be in Coney Island, Atlantic City or the World's Fair. Without the familiar shape of the lake as a landmark, I would be lost. This is a Celoron I do not know, one I've seen only in pictures, and then only solitary structures, not the big picture. It is BOOMING.
"Mr. Ruth is most surely at the field by now." Maltby is practically running through the park. "I've opened the park for everyone to see. He arrived very late from Buffalo last night. Fortunately this rain", he scows at the sky, "has delayed the start of the game. You are late, sir."
"You mentioned that...a few times. We're talking about the Babe Ruth here, right?" I can't wrap my mind around this reality. Maltby notices.
"Yes...yes of course. Don't you read the papers?"
The Jamestown Post, October 18th, 1921: "It is a big undertaking to bring an attraction of this size and importance to Celoron, but Mr. Maltby, after posting a big guarantee decided to take a chance and ask in return that all red-blooded fans turn out and enable him to break even at the deal. It is a chance that many will never have again and if the fans show their spirit the Celoron Park will be filled to capacity. Oh the joy of it all, seeing Babe Ruth clouting a few of those dear $2.50 balls into the blue waters of Chautauqua Lake."
Hence the scowl at the weather and Maltby's impatience with me.
The Babe at Celoron Park: Part IV – The Finale
"To understand him you had to understand this: he wasn't human."- Joe Dugan (Babe Ruth teammate)
It's the roaring 20s. In sports pages of the day Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon are taking professional sports and spinning story arcs of mythical heroics. They've taken simple reporting of boxing and golf and tennis matches and transformed them into epic battles. Games have become wars. No athletes benefitted more from this shift to masculine prose than the "Big 5" of the era; Jack Dempsey in the ring, Red Grange on the gridiron, Bob Tilden on the courts, Bobby Jones on the greens, and, of course, Babe Ruth on the diamond.
And here I am, October 1921 Celoron, New York, playing baseball against The Babe. It's hard to exaggerate how big he is, even from across a baseball field. He simply looms over the day. His head is enormous, Shrek without the green skin. Right now he's 26 years old, seven years into his career. He'll play for another fourteen years, and live for another thirteen after that. He's not unhandsome, but there is a roughness around his edges, a life hard-lived even at this age. The fans, smack in the middle of an experience of a lifetime, gawk at him, with no real idea what he will become or all that he will do. It's disconcerting I can't shout to them, "You're looking at the one man who will be bigger than the sport he plays." He'll be the genesis for the Hall of Fame, one of the first five inducted, and he'll have at least two records that will last into the next century, career slugging percentage .690 and OPS 1.164. He's 6'2" and 220 pounds, but you'd swear he was bigger. Pictures do not do him justice; he is, at least at this age, a physical specimen. Larger than life is a term bandied around a lot. In this case, it's true.
There should be no list of the best baseball players in history that does not start with the name Babe Ruth. He invented baseball, saved baseball, was baseball. The game, popular at the turn of that century, was different after he launched it over the fences of the day. Want to know why Henry Aaron had a candy bar named after him? Babe Ruth. Want to know why Major League Baseball made over $8 billion in 2014? Babe Ruth. Want to know why they turned a blind eye when Barry Bonds guzzled steroids so he could hit 762 home runs? Babe Ruth. Want to know why Alex Rodriguez has more money that most third world nations? Babe Ruth. Without Babe Ruth, and that dynamic transition from dead-ball era to home run derby, in a United States where attention span seems to diminish daily, baseball becomes soccer, only slower and harder to watch.
The 1921 game is climactic only in that Babe freakin' Ruth plays. I sit on the bench, best place for me, and grin incessantly and insanely, so that none of my teammates want to get close. They are spooked. So am I. They let me bat. As a lark I point at the centerfield fence, calling my shot as it were. The pitcher scowls, then quite deliberately hits me with the next pitch, aiming for my head. After the game I get to meet The Babe, my human sized hand disappearing inside his Mickey Mouse mitten. Looking at this paw, it's not impossible to fathom 714 home runs slinging a 54 ounce bat, "You get real solid timber in the heavier bats," says The Babe.
He's holding court, talking baseball in the dugout after the game that wasn't a game. He turns to me, "Why the heck did you point to center field? You trying to get yourself killed?" His voice is gruff, serious.
I shrug, "Just kind of a little show."
He shakes his mammoth head ruefully, "Damnedest thing I ever saw on a baseball field. Damnedest thing." There's a twinkle in his still-young eyes. In eleven years he'll repeat that same move in the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, in what is universally referred to "Ruth's called shot". That pitcher, Charlie Root, will make the mistake of not plunking Ruth, and he'll smack it right where he pointed. I have no way of knowing if he remembered me from 1921, but what the heck.
Epilogue: I'm back in the future now. Celoron is returned to its current state, roads lightly traveled, simple commerce and functional government buildings replace the epic bounty of Celoron Park. But the lake remains, steadfast in its shores, and its flow and its shape. It whispers of great days past, confident in its pedigree. If it could talk it would tell a story about one day in October almost a century past, when the Sultan of Swat stormed its shores. I could help tell the tale. Would gladly do so.