This article was written by Joseph Wancho
Babe Ruth is considered by many, if not most, baseball fans, as the greatest player ever. The Great Bambino is noted for his magnificent clouts and overwhelmingly charismatic personality. Before he became baseball’s home run king, he was a tremendous pitcher, winning 94 games in his career. His enormous appetite for everything that life had to offer made him a larger-than-life celebrity. He was cheered between the lines, and beloved outside of them.
Certainly he would be a tough act to follow. If one had a choice, perhaps he would choose to be the player who replaced the player who replaced Babe Ruth. But George Selkirk did not have an option. Instead, he boldly told New York manager Joe McCarthy, “If I am going to take his place I’ll take his number, too.”1 The hallowed “3” of Ruth was placed on the back of Selkirk in 1935. “Was that a tough assignment?” Selkirk later said. “Instead of being just another outfielder, one who was no Tris Speaker or Earle Combs in the outfield, I was expected to make the fans forget all about one of the greatest players in the history of the game, Babe Ruth. Did I worry? Well, I tried not to. Ruth, you know, always had been my baseball hero, but never had I thought I would be taking his place.”2
McCarthy lauded Selkirk for his positive attitude, adding that he felt the transition went smoothly. “Selkirk was one of my favorite players, taking over Ruth’s spot at bat and in right field,” said Marse Joe. “George was under heavy pressure that first year but he came through brilliantly. No player ever had a tougher assignment.”3
Still, Selkirk wondered why he was receiving a pass from the Bronx faithful. He was seldom booed for fielding mishaps or for not crushing mammoth home runs. Yankee center fielder Ben Chapman was quick with the answer. “They are too busy booing me to pay any attention to you.” 4
George Alexander Selkirk was born on January 4, 1908 in Huntsville, Ontario. He is one of three children born to George and Margaret (nee Dykes) Selkirk. The elder George Selkirk retired from the mortuary business and relocated his family to Rochester, New York. The younger George attended Rochester Technical School, participating in all sports, excelling in wrestling and baseball. But it was his talent as a catcher at Rochester Tech that got him noticed by the scouts. Rochester of the International League signed George to a contract in the spring of 1927, when he was just 18 years old.
But his stay in the Flour City was brief as the Cambridge (Maryland) Canners of the Eastern Shore League (Class D) were short on catchers and Selkirk was selected to fill the void. Selkirk arrived at the ballpark with his catching gear in tow, and entered the wrong clubhouse. Cambridge’s opponent that day was the Crisfield (Maryland) Crabbers, who were not looking for a catcher. Crabbers manager Dan Pasquelli said to Selkirk,“Hell, I don’t want a catcher, I want an outfielder.” 5 Not realizing that he had entered the wrong clubhouse, Selkirk just wanted a chance to play and told Pasquelli that he could play the outfield just as well as he could catch. “I had to borrow a glove from one of the other players,” said Selkirk. “And I was shaking all over. But the breaks were with me. Not a single ball was batted into my field during the game. I got hold of a couple at the plate and everything was fine. At least so I thought. But it wasn’t. After the game there was hell-a-popping.” 6
Cambridge manager Bill Johnson confronted Selkirk, asking him if he had been sent by Rochester. When Selkirk admitted that he had, Johnson remarked, “Well what a cluck you’ve turned out to be. You’re with the wrong team. You’re supposed to be with Cambridge, as a catcher. I just found out you are the guy. ”7 There were some heated exchanges between the two clubs as to who had the right to Selkirk. In the end, he stayed with Crisfield for the remainder of the season.
After a shifting of franchises within the International League, Selkirk landed in Jersey City. He spent four seasons with the Skeeters, starting the last three in the outfield. He put up solid numbers both at the plate and in the field. His transformation from backstop to outfielder was complete.
That was not the only change for Selkirk, who also married the former Norma May Fox on June 23, 1931. Norma May, a nurse, and George were married for 55 years and had one daughter, Betty.
The Yankees purchased Selkirk, and for the next couple years he shuttled between Toronto, Rochester and Newark of the International League and Columbus (Ohio) of the American Association. On July 24, 1934, New York left fielder Earle Combs crashed into the concrete wall in left field at Sportsman’s Park. Combs broke his left shoulder and fractured his skull, sidelining the future Hall of Famer for the remainder of the season. Selkirk, who was hitting a robust .357 at Newark, was called up to the big leagues. The left-handed batting newcomer showed promise, hitting .313 and driving in 38 runs in 176 at-bats.
Selkirk demonstrated his unique running style for the Yankee fans, which earned him the nickname, “Twinkletoes.” “When I was a kid I had a lot of trouble with charley horses and stuff,” explained Selkirk. “A coach by the name of Spike Garnish told me if I would run on my toes I might get over it. So I did. Not only made me faster, but cleared up the leg trouble. Ernie Lanigan [a Jersey sportswriter] pinned the label on me when I was with Jersey City. The name stuck.”8
The Yankees finished second to Detroit in 1934 and again in 1935. Ruth had been released and signed with the Boston Braves in February, 1935. In his first full season, Selkirk batted .312 and totaled 11 home runs and 29 doubles. On August 19, Selkirk achieved his career high in hits with five in a Yankee 9-7 win over the Tigers at Navin Field. He drove in 94 runs, second on the team to Lou Gehrig, who had 120 RBI. “Selkirk is our right fielder,” declared McCarthy. “He has shown me everything-punch, speed, defensive strength, enthusiasm. I know he can hit at least .330 against right-handed pitching. I also believe he can bat successfully against southpaws. I am going to afford him every opportunity to prove that he deserves to be out there every day.”9
From 1936 to 1939, New York won the American League pennant, and won it without much difficulty. For Selkirk, his best years were 1936 and 1939, which were bookends for two years shortened by injuries (a broken right collarbone in 1937 and a sore right wrist in 1938). In both 1936 and 1939 Selkirk drove in more than 100 runs, hit over .300 and posted his high marks for walks, 94 and 103, as well as stolen bases, 13 and 12. New York set a record in 1936 when five players drove in more than 100 runs, including Joe DiMaggio (125), Lou Gehrig (152), Bill Dickey (107), Tony Lazzeri (109) and Selkirk. He led all AL right fielders in fielding percentage (.972) in 1936. Twinkletoes reached his career high for home runs in 1939 with 21. On May 27, 1939, George smashed two home runs off Philadelphia Athletics starter, Bob Joyce. The next day, Selkirk went yard twice. He victimized Joyce again on both homers when the rookie entered the game as a reliever in the fourth inning. He was named to the All-Star team in both 1936 and 1939.
In 1935 Selkirk discussed his hitting style: “For a time I tried to hit like Bill Terry. I always have admired his style more than that of any left-handed hitter. I couldn’t quite master the Terry idea, so I decided to shift to Frank O’Doul, another stylish hitter. But O’Doul also had me licked, so I decided to drop all heroes and models and devote myself to George Selkirk. The idea is to hit that ball consistently, and if I can do that I am satisfied.
“However, right now I am trying something new after all. Joe McCarthy wants me to pull the ball. He says my old way of hitting brought too many short flies to left. So I have turned toward right field a bit and loosened up my left arm, and now I am pulling the ball as much as I can. That style should be especially effective in the Stadium.”10
In 1936, the Yankees faced off against the New York Giants in the World Series. The headlines in the October 1 edition of the Sporting News left no doubt as to whom the editors thought would win the fall classic; “11 Series’ Vets Give Giants Edge in Experience.” However, the series was the debut for Red Rolfe, Jake Powell, DiMaggio and Selkirk. After the Giants’ Carl Hubbell mastered the Bombers in Game One, 6-1, it seemed like the weekly paper was on to something. The lone run came via a home run off the bat of Selkirk in the third inning, his first at-bat in a World Series game. He hit a second home run in Game Five off Hal Schumacher, a solo shot in the second inning. The new kids performed admirably, each an offensive force for the Yanks. DiMaggio hit .346, Rolfe .400, Powell .455. Selkirk batted .333, as he got a hit in each game. New York was victorious in six games.
The Yankees and Giants hooked up again in 1937 with the same result. The Yankees won in five games, and Hubbell once again won the only game for the Giants. Selkirk’s six RBIs led the team. The Yankees swept both the Chicago Cubs in 1938 and the Cincinnati Reds in 1939.
In 1938, Selkirk was moved to left field as Tommy Henrich took over in right. Eventually, Charlie Keller became the starting left fielder as Selkirk was moved into a reserve role. After the 1942 season, Selkirk, like many of his baseball brethren, enlisted in the armed services in support of World War II. Selkirk joined the Navy. He was promoted to the rank of Ensign, and worked in instructing naval recruits in shooting. Upon his discharge from the Navy following the war, Selkirk was also released by the Yankees in 1946 before the beginning of spring training. In nine seasons, all with the Yankees, Selkirk compiled a .290 batting average with 108 home runs, and 576 RBI. His finished his career with a fielding percentage of .977. He was a member of six pennant winners, and five World Championship clubs.
Although he was released from the varsity, Selkirk was still very much a part of the New York Yankees. He moved down to the minors, managing for three different teams in their farm system, including Newark of the International League (1946-1947), Binghamton of the Eastern League (1948-1950) and Kansas City of the American Association (1951-1952). Selkirk saw some of the future stars of the Yankees perform under his tutelage, including Yogi Berra, Bobby Brown, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Bob Cerv, Joe Page and Moose Skowron. Selkirk had a falling out with the front office in New York when Andy Carey and Cerv were promoted to the big league club. He vehemently protested, arguing that they were not ready. He was released after the season. From there Selkirk managed the Toledo Sox (1953-1955) and the Wichita Braves (1956) both of the American Association and top farm teams of the Milwaukee Braves.
Selkirk left the playing field for good when he was hired as the personnel director of the Kansas City Athletics in 1957. It was a position he held until 1961. One of the players to come through on his watch was Roger Maris, acquired from Cleveland in 1958. Said Selkirk of Maris, “He could have used another season in a top minor league to get the experience he needs. But there is no telling how far he can go. He has all the tools to be great.”11
Kansas City owner Charles Finley cleaned house during the season. He fired farm director Hank Peters, manager Joe Gordon, and general manager Frank Lane. Selkirk resigned in August, dismissing the idea that his decision was based on the ousting of Lane. Instead, he said that he wanted to get away from baseball for a while. However, Selkirk finished out the year in Baltimore as field coordinator.
The Washington Senators relocated to Minneapolis after the 1960 season. As part of major league baseball’s expansion plan, Washington was granted an expansion franchise, as was Los Angeles for the 1961 season. In 1962, the National League grew by two franchises as well, in Houston and New York. George Selkirk replaced Ed Doherty as Washington’s general manager in 1962.
The “new” Senators manager was Mickey Vernon, one of the greatest players in Senators history. He played 14 seasons in a Washington uniform, and was adept with the lumber and the leather. He was a fan favorite and his hiring no doubt had a publicity twist to it. In each of his first two seasons at the helm, the Senators dropped 100 and 101 games, respectively. Selkirk hired Gil Hodges, the former Brooklyn Dodger great, to replace Vernon during the 1963 campaign.
The Nats improved under Hodges, but were still a second division club. The Washington club was on a tight budget, using discarded players from other teams. Eventually Hodges was lured back to New York, taking over the Mets in 1968 and winning a world championship in 1969.
Selkirk hired another former Senator, Jim Lemon, as his new manager. They finished in last place in 1968. When the team was sold to Bob Short, who made enemies right away by not promising to keep the team in Washington, Selkirk and Lemon were both fired before spring training commenced in 1969.
George and Norma retired to Florida, settling in Fort Lauderdale. He spent much of his time pursuing his two interests other than baseball, golf and hunting. His performance as a baseball player was not forgotten; he was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in 1958 and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. George Selkirk passed away on January 19, 1987, after a long illness.
George Selkirk made his major league debut on August 12, 1934, at Fenway Park. The double dip was being billed as Babe Ruth’s last game at Fenway. A reported crowd of over 46,000 jammed the park that day, with another 20,000 being turned away. Selkirk was stationed in right field for both games, and Ruth got the start in left. In the nightcap, Ruth was replaced in the later innings by Sam Byrd. “There I was playing as a Yankee and that was thrill enough,” recalled Selkirk. “As I was going out to my position in the late part of the second game, Ruth left the game. The crowd was clapping and cheering for the Babe. I just stood there and then I realized that I had taken off my cap and I was clapping my hands, just like those people in the stands. It was something that came from the heart. I felt a little ashamed of myself, thinking that I was just a busher, and then I looked around and there were the rest of the Yankee players and they were doing the same thing.”12
Tom Clavin and Danny Peary. Gil Hodges. New York: New American Library, 2013
Tom Deveaux. The Washington Senators 1901-1971. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001
Jonathan Eig. Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005
Jim Shearon. Canada’s Baseball Legends. Kanata, ONT: Malin Head Press, 1994
Lyle Spatz, ed. The SABR Baseball List and Record Book. New York: Scribner Books, 2007
Paul Votano, Tony Lazzeri: A Baseball Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005
National Baseball Hall of Fame, Player’s File
1 Henry P. Edwards, Brooklyn Eagle, December 13, 1936
3 Verona Gomez and Lawrence Goldstone, Lefty: An American Odyssey (New York: Ballantine Books, 2012), 260
4 Henry P. Edwards, Brooklyn Eagle, December 13, 1936
5 Vern DeGeer, Sport Gossip, July 31, 1936, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Player File.
8 Leo Trachtenberg, Yankees Magazine, “George Selkirk: The Answer To: Who Replaced Babe Ruth in Right Field for the Yankees?” October 13, 1983, 18-19
9 Dan Daniel, World-Telegram, April 7, 1935
10 Dan Daniel, World-Telegram, April 10, 1935
11 John E. Peterson, The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History 1954-1967 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), 87
12 Trachtenberg, 18