August 11, 1929: Babe Ruth hits 500th career home run
A solid klop must have filled Jake Geiser’s ears when a baseball ricocheted off a doorstep on Cleveland’s Lexington Avenue and rolled toward the New Philadelphia, Ohio, resident’s feet.
Geiser, waiting to board a bus to his home about 90 miles south of the city,1 was standing just beyond the tall right-field fence at Cleveland’s League Park. He most likely heard, too, the roar of the overflow ballpark crowd of more than 25,000 people 2 just as the Sultan of Swat cocked his bat over his left shoulder and swung fiercely, launching the baseball toward the street.
As Geiser was about to depart from Cleveland that Sunday afternoon after visiting relatives,3 Babe Ruth stepped to the plate in the top of the second inning with 499 career home runs tallied on his stat sheet. Ruth had been hitting homers at a torrid pace; he had four in his last five games. The Babe seemed to find League Park particularly accommodating, having slugged many moonshots there since he first deposited one into the center-field seats, just left of the scoreboard, in May of 1921.4 (The ballpark was known as Dunn Field in 1921.)
As the Bambino settled at the plate – it was his first at-bat of the game – Cleveland pitcher Willis Hudlin threw a high fastball “which left home plate much higher and ten times faster than it arrived,” reported New York Times writer William Brandt. “It soared over the right-field fence near the foul line, and was the first run of the afternoon.”
According to the front-page, above-the-fold article in the next day’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ruth called his shot before the game. In his story, Gordon Cobbledick wrote about an exchange the Yankees’ slugger had with the ballpark’s security chief, H. Clay Folger:
“Listen,” said the Babe, “I’m going to hit No. 500 today and I tell you what I wish you’d do. I wish you’d find the kid who gets the ball and bring him to me. I’d kinda like to save that one.”
Geiser was no kid. Brandt wrote in the Times that he was 46 years old. As for respecting the Babe’s wishes and returning the ball, the Times simply reported that he, the “ball retriever,” was brought back to the stadium and escorted to the Yankees’ dugout. The Plain Dealer, sticking with the kid theme, provided a more elaborate tale of how Geiser reached and met the Babe.
“Folger and his men immediately went into action,” the Plain Dealer reported. “This and that urchin they interviewed and at length they found one who said: ‘A fella got it. I think he went in to the ball park.’
The Cleveland newspaper claimed Folger rushed back to the ballpark, and soon “there entered a young man with a suspicious looking bulge at his right-hand coat pocket.”
There, the Plain Dealer reported, Folger offered to exchange a “brand new one [baseball] with the Babe’s autograph on it” for the 500th home-run ball.
We learn from the Plain Dealer’s side of the story that Geiser was accompanied by an unidentified friend, who may have been trying to score a better deal for his pal by piping up with, “Oh, yeah? Maybe my friend would like to save it, too.”
At that moment, everyone involved headed to the Yankees dugout to meet the Babe.
Once there, Ruth asked the ball retriever his name. His reply, according to the Plain Dealer: “I’m Jake Geiser. “I came up from New Philadelphia, O., to see the game.”
From that point, the Plain Dealer and New York Times stories mostly agree. Ruth hands an autographed ball – the Times reported it was two balls – to either a young or a 46-year-old Geiser, and an unautographed $20 bill. The Sporting News, perhaps gleaning information from the Cleveland reports, did not list Geiser’s name or age, but referend to him as “youngster” and “boy” in its August 15, 1929, edition.
The Times reported that Geiser delayed his bus trip back to New Philadelphia to stick around at League Park – often called Dunn Field, in honor of the Indians’ owner, James Dunn – in hopes of seeing Ruth hit another shot toward Lexington Avenue. After “watching Ruth miss the fence on three subsequent efforts, and asserting that Ruth’s 600th homer is not likely to happen here this week, he left for his home tonight, richer by $20 to say nothing of the two baseballs.”
So much had happened on and off the field, but so much more was yet to be played out. After Ruth hit his milestone home run in the second – it was his 30th of the season – Lou Gehrig came to bat in the fourth with the bases empty. As Cobbledick wrote in a separate story for the Plain Dealer the day after, the Yankees first baseman hit “another slow ball floating lazily up toward the plate, bashed into approximately the same spot where his more illustrious mate’s had landed.”
Gehrig’s 27th home run of the year gave the “terrible men of Gotham”5 a 2-0 lead.
Going into the game, Cleveland already had defeated the Yankees nine times in the season. But the Roger Peckinpaugh-managed team was 55-51 and sat in fourth place, a distant 22 games out of first place. They had lost three in a row, including the series opener to the Yankees, the defending World Series champions.
Down early in the contest, Peckinpaugh’s men rallied in the bottom of the fourth. The Indians up to this point had managed only a couple of harmless singles off Yankees lefty hurler Ed Wells.
Rookie left-handed hitter Earl Averill, who for the previous three seasons had played for the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals, sparked the Cleveland rally by squaring his bat, dropping a bunt toward first base, and running to the bag safely. It was one of three hits in the game for the center fielder. First baseman Lew Fonseca singled up the middle to put runners on first and second. Bibb Falk’s sacrifice advanced the runners 90 feet closer to home.
“This set the stage for Johnny Hodapp and he came through with a single that scored Averill and Fonseca. Then he moved up on Ray Gardner’s infield out and when Luke Sewell slid a single into left he disregarded Coach Howard Shanks’ instructions to stop at third and came tracing in ahead of Bob Meusel’s bad throw with the run that put the Tribe in the lead.”6
The Indians led 3-2 after four. The Yankees rebounded for a run in the top of the fifth to tie the game, but Cleveland got its own tally in the bottom half of the frame.
Bob Meusel’s bases-loaded, two-run double notched more Yankees runs on the League Park scoreboard, putting the New Yorkers ahead, 5-4 in the sixth.
The Indians donned their rally caps, figuratively speaking, once again in the bottom half of the sixth when Yankees second baseman Tony Lazzeri “muffed a throw which should have retired the side runless. The Indians scored two runs, and Wells retired to the seclusion of the showers.”7 He exited in the sixth, having been knocked around for 12 hits and six runs – four of those were earned. Righty Roy Sherid took Wells’s place on the mound and allowed only one hit.
Willis Hudlin recorded the win for Cleveland, his 12th of the season, “making him the first Indians flinger to accomplish a dozen wins.”8
The win moved Cleveland into sole possession of third place in the American League. The Yankees remained 10½ games behind the league-leading Philadelphia Athletics, who lost 9-8 in 11 innings that day in Detroit.
Ruth’s second-inning blast made him the first player in big-league history to hit 500 home runs. Cy Williams, star slugger for Philadelphia’s National League club, was the Bambino’s closest competitor. The veteran outfielder had collected 249 career homers as of August 11, 1929, the day Ruth paddled a Hudlin pitch over the 40-foot-high concrete and screen right-field wall that thumped off a doorstep on Lexington Avenue and rolled unsuspectedly toward the footsteps of a traveler from New Philadelphia, Ohio.
1 William E. Brandt, “Ruth Hits his 500th Major League Homer, but Yankees Lose,” New York Times, August, 12, 1929.
4 Ken Krsolovic and Bryan Fritz, League Park: Historic Home of Cleveland Baseball, 1891-1946 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2013), 86.
5 Gordon Cobbledick, “Ruth Rides 500th Homer, but Tribe Trips Yanks, 6 To 5,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 12, 1929.