This article was written by Keith Spalding Robbins
This article was published in The National Pastime: A Bird’s-Eye View of Baltimore (2020)
It has been noted that history is cyclical, and there is nothing new under the sun. Baseball’s relationship with the International Olympic Committee is one example of beatitude realizing its fruition. Baseball was to be a medal sport for the first time at the canceled 1940 Tokyo Olympics.1 And now some 80 years later at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics baseball was to return, only to be postponed. The tumultuous road that baseball has taken to medal sport status traces its roots to 1936 and involves Baltimore and her most famous baseball son, George Herman Ruth.
At the XIth Summer Olympiad in Berlin, on August 12, 1936, at 8:00 PM, 21 ballplayers were introduced to the largest crowd to see a baseball game in the twentieth century.2 One by one, each player jogged from the opposite end of the stands to the center of the huge stadium with a spotlight illuminating them in the increasing darkness. This would be the first night game for these players.3 Adding to the drama, each ballplayer was ushered in with music played by the stadium band, one of earliest examples of ‘“walk-up music.”4 While both teams wore the same elegant white flannels with “US” on the front and a red-white-and-blue Olympic logo shield on the left sleeve, they were distinguished by their caps and socks. This game would be between “Red Stockings” and the “Blues.” The team gathered at the center of the Olympic field and gave an Olympic salute.5
Baseball was one of two sports officially classified as “Special Demonstrations” outside the official Olympic medal winning competitions in 1936. The uncharted path baseball took to get on that field was led by Les Mann, the controversial former player and secretary-treasurer of the American Baseball Congress and the Olympic Baseball Committee. In December 1935, the question of whether the United States would attend the Winter and Summer games held in Germany in 1936 was addressed. In a very hotly contested and divided convention, the US decided not to boycott. But on December 5, the Japanese Olympic baseball authorities decided not to send an Olympic baseball team, claiming it was too expensive to send a team overseas.6 The Japanese did allow one official, “Frank” Matsumato from Meiji University, to travel to Berlin, where he served as an umpire.7 In response, MLB announced at the 1935 Winter Meetings that no financial support would be given and international baseball barnstorming to Japan and other countries was banned.8
The issue of Japan’s withdrawal was likely national pride and not money.9 In the winter of 1935, the Wheaties All Americans — under the leadership of Mann Herb Hunter and picked by Olympic Chairman Avery Brundage, and under partial sponsorship by and Louisville Slugger and chaperoned by Frank Bradsby 10. This college aged teamplayed 15 games against Japanese collegiate teams, beating them regularly.11 In front of 60,000 fans, they beat Waseda University, the Big Six Champion, 6-0. Yet the games were spirited and competitive. Fred Heringer, a Stanford pitcher and member of both the 1935 Wheaties and the 1936 Olympic team, noted in a 1937 interview that the Japanese players he faced were “tops in baseball, and will give anyone a run for his money.”12
While Japanese amateur baseball supposedly did not have the funds to send a team to Berlin, monies were available for a college ball team to barnstorm across the US. From May 15 to July 1, Waseda University played 22 games, going 15-7 against college-age competition. Their coast-to-coast journey started at Stanford University (two games) and included stops at the University of Chicago (two games), Ann Arbor (one inning before the rains came), Boston, a return to Chicago, and finally Seattle and Oakland.13 Coincidentally, the Japanese departure date was the same as the opening of the US Olympic trials.
The highlight of their barnstorming was two shutouts: Harvard (5-0) and Yale (6-0). The Yale game on June 8, 1936, made international headlines for the two-walk, 12-strikeout no-hitter by Waseda pitcher Shozo Wakahara.14
Meanwhile, the US Olympic Baseball leadership was selecting amateur players, attempting to find a capable opponent, and were forced to be independent and raise their own funds without support from MLB. This team needed a hero.
On February 9 and 10, 1936, newspapers around the country announced that the US Olympic Baseball team would be escorted to Berlin by baseball’s greatest hero of all: The Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, Babe Ruth. Ruth was given two new nicknames: Commander in Chief of the Olympic Baseball Committee and “commandant of the United States amateur baseball delegation.”15
After rejecting an offer from Larry McPhail to play for the Reds, Ruth was quoted as saying,“I’m taking a lot of interest in this Olympics baseball program.”16 The Sporting News of April 9, 1936, featured a photo of Ruth shaking Mann’s hand.
Baltimore was chosen as the site for the trials partly due to Charm City’s capable amateur baseball commissioner, Paul E. Burke, who was the also Maryland state representative to the American Baseball Congress. On March 14, 1936, Mayor Howard W. Jackson made public the letter of invitation to Mann and the American Baseball Congress stating that Baltimore wanted to host the trials. And two weeks later, on March 29, The Baltimore Sun ran the following headline: “Babe Ruth Promises To Attend.”
Tryouts were held at Gibbons Field on the campus of Mount St. Joseph. As an added benefit for the area, one or two of Baltimore’s best amateurs would be selected to the team. The plan included tickets to a Washington Nationals game against the Yankees on July 5 and then the use of Griffith Stadium for a fundraiser.17
Mount St. Joseph, run by the Xavierian Brothers of St. Mary’s Industrial School — Ruth’s alma mater, was no accidental choice. This high school had an established baseball development heritage, sending numerous students to professional baseball.18 Having empty summer dorms and a large gym and locker room, it was an ideal campus for the players.19 They were making history, becoming Olympic baseball’s first Team USA.20
An estimated 800 prospective ballplayers sent applications to Mann, from which about an reported to 150 wound up on Gibbons Field.21 While the trials were labeled free for all, it cost each participant a $60 admission fee. No doubt this substantial amount limited the number of attendees. Mann would later state that the fee would be refunded if a player did not make the team.22 By Sunday July 5, players from all corners of the country had arrived and were competing for spots on the team.23
Baltimore had not been the first or even the second choice for the tryouts. In the summer of 1935, the Olympic baseball committee had called for 12 regional tournaments of approved amateur teams competing to determine a national champion along with selecting a tournament all-star team.24 After the Japanese withdrawal, an “East vs West” set of teams was proposed: Well-respected Stanford Coach Harry Wolter was to lead a West team versus an East team from the Penn Athletic Club, led by George Lang and former A’s catcher Ira Thomas.25 These earlier plans did not pan out, but would shape the tryouts in Baltimore: some of the twenty slots on the team were reserved for Penn AC ballplayers.
Three games were scheduled, two in Charm City and one at Griffith Stadium, intended to showcase the talent and serve as fundraisers for the overseas trip.26 The two Baltimore games would feature the local sandlotters. The first, the Police Department game, was a fundraising disaster, generating a net profit of just of seven dollars — significantly short of the $500 required for each self-funded or community-funded player to attend the Olympics!27 In response, Burke called for an emergency meeting of the Maryland Amateur Athletic Association to address the financial shortfall. After much deliberation, they dropped the plan to send any of Baltimore’s best sandlotters to the Olympics. “Apathy of Fans Cited in Abandoning Plans” read the headline in the Evening Sun on the night of July 9.
A major reason for such apathy can be attributed to Baltimore’s favorite son. Ruth did not attend the tryouts, and after mid-April 1936, he went silent on going to Berlin and with his public support of US Olympic baseball. He was encouraged to resign his position of commandant of Olympic baseball, though by whom remains unknown.28
Yet the retired Ruth was still making headlines. During the two weeks of the Baltimore tryouts, the Bambino was in Canada, on a golf and fishing vacation with wife Claire, daughter Dorothy, and friends.29 News reports throughout Canada and the US documented his kindness, accessibility, and larger-than-life prowess.30 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that the Babe’s fishing was a Ruthian event, for on the St. Mary’s River he caught 21 salmon.31 By July 9, Ruth was tracked down in Digby, Nova Scotia, coming off a round of golf at the New Pines Hotel course where he denied the Cleveland Indians had offered him a job as manager.32 The Babe’s Nova Scotia legacy lives on to this day as the Digby Pines golf course challenges its patrons to play a round “ and try to drive the 11th hole like The Babe did in 1936.”33
Ruth did help the Olympic cause in one small way by attending the farewell banquet in New York on July 14, vigorously and confidently encouraging Jesse Owens to win the gold.34 The Babe also participated in homecoming activities, though, when the team returned to New York. The city hastily planned a ticker tape parade and on September 4 Ruth attended the welcome home banquet sponsored by Mayor LaGuardia on Randall’s Island, the site of Olympic Trials. Each Olympian, inncluding members of the baseball team, received a special bronze medal.35
But while the baseball team was taking the field in Berlin, Ruth was on the links again. August 12–14, the Bambino was playing in a tournament in Upstate New York at the Bluff Point Golf Resort, hosting the St Orleans International Invitational.36 His promises to help the 1936 Olympic team in Baltimore and Berlin went largely unfulfilled, perhaps not by his own wishes.
Dinty Dennis, the Miami News sportswriter who was also the assistant coach for the Olympic team, penned a scathing column on April 12, chastising MLB owners. He accused them of being hypocrites, for signing unproven minor leaguers for $25,000 but refusing to put up a few thousand for the national amateur team.37
Dennis was one of those who selected the team, along with college coaches Harry Wolter (Stanford), Judson Hyames (Western Michigan), Linn Wells (Bowdoin College), and Frank Anderson (Oglethorpe College), as well as Hall of Famer Max Carey and George Lang from the Penn Athletic Club. George A Lang, held an executive leadership position of Mann’s American Baseball Congress and was the USA delegate to the International Amateur Baseball Federaion.38
While the team was to be limited 20 players, 21 were finally chosen, and of those, 16 were associated with the Baltimore trials. The other five came from the Penn Athletic Club, holdovers from the early proposal to send the Penn AC team. Of the 16, only two had no direct connection to the coaches in Baltimore: Paul Amen from Nebraska and Grover Galvin Jr. from Rockford, Iowa. Seven of the players were known by Mann and Carey from either the 1935 Wheaties (Les McNeece, Fred Heringer, Ron Hibbard, and Tex Fore, with Rolf Carlsten an alternate who did not go to Japan) or one of their baseball school sessions (Herm Goldberg and Dow Wilson). Lin Wells picked his team captain and best rival respectively: Bill Shaw and Clarence Keegan, who both were their team’s best hitters. Wolter picked the west coast players: Gordon Mallatratt, Fred Heringer, Ike Livermore (all from his Stanford 1933 team), and Dick Hanna (from the 1936 Stanford team), and rivals Tom Downey from USC and Bill Sayles from Oregon. Hyames was also the coach to Ron Hibbard, who was the Western Michigan center fielder and team captain. Finally, Anderson picked a rival, University of Georgia football and baseball star Henry Wagnon.
Like the Baltimore sandlotters, the Penn AC had financial issues. They were initially allocated to send a whole team. Although the club’s membership came from top families of Philadelphia, including the Shibe family, and the team staged a benefit game against Connie Mack’s A’s, they were thousands of dollars short. While their goal was $5000, they raised a total of $2611, and sent only five players.39 Only four of those were found in the box scores from their games that summer: infielders Rolf “Swede”Carlsten, Earnest Eddowes, and pitchers Carson Thompson and Charles Simons.40 Two special player exemptions to the “strictly amateur” rules were given for Carlsten and the fifth player listed: Curtis Myers.
Carlsten had attended the University of Pennsylvania where he had starred in football and baseball, and had later bumped arround both the Orioles’ farm teams (York, Wilkes-Barre, Cumberland), and the Canadian Football League — from which league he was subsequently bannned when his professional baseball career was uncovered. He ended up the starting second baseman for Penn AC and would be “rechristened” an amateur for the Olympic team.41
The exception made for Myers is even more curious. He was the 21st player added to the supposed 20-man roster, and unlike the other four, he does not appear in any of the numerous Penn AC box scores in the years leading to the Olympics; moreover, a check with the Penn AC Archives did not find him there either. The only note was linked to a semi-pro team in Camden (NJ), the Morgan AC. Yet in the Olympic records, he is listed as being a member of the Penn AC. He was a rather successful college baseball pitcher with a career record of 8-4 and coached by former A’s legend and Hall of Fame Pitcher Charles, “Chief” Bender. .However, Myers was more than just a ballplayer,. Although the fact is not mentioned in any newspaper account of the team, he was also Lieutenant Curtis A. Myers of the US Navy, and had transferred landward to the Philadelphia Naval Yard in summer 1935. Adding to the espionage picture his home was listed as Hartford, Connecticut. His naval record included serving on various ships in the capacity of executive officer, being involved in naval aviation, and having received a Master’s Degree in Paris, France.42 He played baseball at the Naval Academy, graduating in 1927 making him the oldest member on the team and the one who had been out of the sport the longest time. Thus the question was, what was he really up to in Berlin?
Another player of note was the Baltimore tryout catcher, who played left field in the game. His name on the Berlin scoreboard was the very German-sounding “Harold Goldbergh.” In reality, he was Herm Goldberg, the only Jewish player on the team. His baseball legacy is vital to understanding how we today view the team and its moral mission some eighty years later.
Although the Olympic exhibition game had two official scorers — including the father of AP sports, Alan J. Gould — no box score seems to exist, just a line score. The game lasted seven innings and ended on a walk-off home run by McNeece. The final score was 6-5. The AP went on to report, “Only a handful in the vast crowd had any idea who was playing or cared who won.”43
The 1936 Berlin games were not about sports, but something more heinous and disturbing: the propagandization of sport for an immoral regime’s social, political, and cultural agenda symbolic of military conquest. The games were part of the great deception as noted by their stated purpose in the Official XIth Olympiad Report: “Sporting and chivalrous competition awakens the best human qualities. It does not sever, but on the contrary, unites the opponents in mutual understanding and reciprocal respect. It also helps to strengthen the bonds of peace between the nations. May the Olympic Flame therefore never be extinguished.”44
The other sport besides baseball that held a Special Demonstration in 1936 was gliding. Only countries within the specter of ambition of Nazi Germany’s influence were allowed to participate: Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. Moreover, these gliding teams were housed not at the Olympic village but at the German Air Force Aviation Academy in Gatow. The official report confirmed the role of the Luftwaffe with the following: “all arrangements for the comfort and lodging of the group were under the supervision of Air Sport Leader Gerbrecht, who had been assigned to this task by the Reich Air Sport Leader.”45
Not surprisingly, the German Air Command ranked the performances and gave out awards.46
On July 28, 1936 — a mere three days before the opening Olympic ceremonies — Winston Churchill warned that the rising strength of the German Air Force was perilous, stating, “We are in danger as never before….”47 With military conscription in place, gliding introduced German youth into the basics of flight and thus the tactics of air combat. Gliding had become the militarization of sport in its rawest, most unrepentant form. Gliding was elevated to a cultural statement and iconographic descriptor of the nation of Germany in much the way baseball was for the United States, the only two nations to feature Special Demonstration sports.
Was the need to better witness the rise of the Luftwaffe and their pilots’ training skills and its material growth the reason why Lt. Curtis Myers was on the team?
In the heated debate on whether to send a team to Berlin, the issue of whether participation was equivalent to supporting an immoral state government was raised. The words of the German Olympic Organizing Committee verified such concerns: “a mighty all-enveloping educative ideal which rises above the limits of time and the confines of national frontiers, aiming at physical, mental and moral perfection.”48
The elimination of both those national borders and those humans deemed not physically, mentally, or morally perfect was the evil behind the propaganda façade. Years later, Goldberg recalled, “They were telling us … they were getting ready for war, although they didn’t call it that. They just called it the ‘preparation of Germany for expanding its borders.’”49 This deception of their true ambitions was hidden in plain sight, and sadly undiscerned by many of the ballplayers — and other Olympians as well. Les McNeece, the team’s second baseman and the one who hit the game-winning inside-the-park home run, years later noted to a reporter that, “When all the Olympic teams marched into the Stadium, there were thousands of Nazi SS Troops lining the road. We thought they were honoring us.”50
Standing against this immoral ambition on display at the Games would give rise to many heroes, none greater than Jesse Owens, who thwarted Hitler’s desire to prove Aryan superiority by winning four gold medal s and setting three world records. When conntrasted with the other demonstration sport of “Gliding,” staged by the Luftwaffe High Command and featuring future fighter and bomber pilots, baseball represents the pastime of peace This was a team of goodwill ambassadors. Goldberg, the left fielder from Brooklyn, gave the lessons of baseball a most eloquent voice: “I learned to live with the competition, to lose when I had to lose without crying about it. To win when I could win with joyousness and to share with my teammates.”51
And whether your teammate was Jim Creighton, Bill Mazeroski, Joe Carter, or Les McNeece, the shared experience the age-old stanza goes:
“And then Home with Joy.”52
KEITH SPALDING ROBBINS has been a SABR member since 2013. His family’s baseball story is an open book for all, especially if you read John Thorn, Peter Levine, or Mark Lampster. He was named after his father’s uncle, whose namesake building catches its fair share of home runs hit at Cal Tech. Keith has been published in the 2013-2014 Cooperstown Symposium and NINE and his research interests include old-timers games and international baseball tours.
1 Pete Cava, “Baseball in the Olympics,” Citius, Altius, Fortius (Journal of Olympic History 1997), Vol. 1, #1, Summer 1992, 9-16. M.E. Travaglini, “Olympic Baseball: Was es Das?” The National Pastime #5, Vol. 4 #2, Winter 1985, 46-55.
2 Report of the American Olympic Committee, Games of the XITH Olympiad Berlin, Germany; IVth Olympic Winter Games Garmisch-partenkirchen Germany, ed. Frederick W. Rubien, American Olympic Committee (New York, 1936). The actual attendance number is still in doubt to this day. The general agreement is in excess of 100,000 with the official US American Olympic Team Report stating it at 125,000. In totalitarian Germany of that day the costs of not filling the stadium would have been higher than the ticket price of 1DM.
3 Stanford’s famous Sunken Diamond did not get lights until 1996; in Philadelphia, Shibe Park did not get lights until 1939. To this day two college baseball diamonds have no lights: University of Pennsylvania and Bowdoin Colleges’ Pickard Field. https://www.baseball-almanac.com/stadium/st_shibe.shtml. https://gostanford.com/sports/baseball. https://www.facilities.upenn.edu/maps/locations/meiklejohn-stadium-murphy-field. https://athletics.bowdoin.edu/information/facilities/files/baseball.
4 Michael Clair, “The Complete History of the Walk-Up Song,” MLB.com, July 10, 2019, https://www.mlb.com/cut4/the-complete-history-of-the-walk-up-song
5 Paul Amen, diary journal entry of August 12, 1936, Baseball Hall of Fame File.
6 “Japan Cancels Baseball Trip,” Hawaii Tribune-Herald, December 7, 1935, 4.
7 Travaglini, 53.
8 Chicago World-Telegram, December 12, 1935.
9 Sayuri Gutherie-Shimizu, Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War, University of North Carolina Press, 2012, 169.
10 Mann, Leslie, Baseball Around the World: International Amateur Baseball Federation, Self Published, Springfield MA, Springfield College Library, page 6.
11 “Scalzi Back from Tours,” The Huntsville Times, February 3, 1936, 3. Scalzi was the shortstop for the Alabama Crimson Tide and a 1935 Wheaties All American.
12 Interviewed by Corvallis Gazette Times, September 17, 1937.
13 “Waseda Has Fine Record for Invasion,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 7, 1936, 11.
14 “Japanese Pitcher Allows Yale No Hits and No Runs,” The Boston Globe, June 9, 1936, 21. Some west coast newspapers erroneously reported this as a perfect game.
15 The Sporting News, April 9, 1936, 8. Advertisement of the American Baseball Olympic Committee.
16 “Babe Ruth rejects offer to play ball with Reds,” The Scranton Republican, March 10, 1936, 16.
17 “St. Joe Selected,” The Baltimore Evening Sun, June 26, 1936, 35.
18 “Cahill May Join Senators Today,” The Baltimore Evening Sun, June 9, 1915, 9. Other players mentioned include Bill Morrisette, Lewis Malone, Rube Meadows, and Dave Roth. Malone and Morrisette were on the 1915 A’s roster, the year after Connie Mack began his first great sell-off.
19 Now it’s the site of a turf multipurpose field enclosed by a track, called Pleyvak Field.
20 “Baseball Amateur Aces Are Gathering for Olympic Tryouts,” The Boston Globe, July 1, 1936, 24.
21 Stuart B. McIver, Touched by the Sun, The Florida Chronicles, Volume 3. Chapter 2,An Olympian Homer, page 14. Chapter on Les McNeece.
22 Bennington Evening Banner, May 23, 1936, p. 4.
23 “Here from Four Corners of Nation to Seek Olympic Places,” The Baltimore Sun, July 5, 1936, 18.
24 “District Baseball Stars Get Olympic Games Try,” The Pittsburgh Press, July 9, 1935, 26. The Sporting News of August 1, 1935, included a team application.
25 “West vs East,” The Reading (PA) Times, February 3, 1936, 14.
26 Jimmy Keenan, “July 8, 1936: Baltimore Police Tame the US Olympic Baseball Team,” SABR Games Project, https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/july-8-1936-baltimore-police-tame-olympic-baseball-team
27 Keenan, “Baltimore Police Tame US Olympic Baseball Team.”
28 “Dinty’s Dugout Chatter”, Column. Miami News, April 12, 1936, 11.
29 “Beware, Poor Fish.” New York Daily News, July 3, 1936, 195.
30 Saskatoon Star-Phoenix of July 6, 1936. The Babe visited Alfred Scadding at a Halifax hospital.
31 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 10, 1936, 17.
32 “Ruth Denies He was Offered Job as Indians’ Pilot,” Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1936, 25.
35 New York Daily News and Brooklyn Union Times, various stories, September 3-4, 1936.
36 “Ruth Gets 70 in Trial Round,” The South Bend Tribune, August 14, 1936, 28.
37 “Dinty’s Dugout Chatter”, Column. Miami News, April 12, 1936, 11.
38 See X. Page 8. Lang was noted as Vice President of the USABC and the USA delegate to the International Association Baseball Federation.
39 “Pennac Nine Needs $3000 – Or Else- They’ll Stay Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 10, 1936.
40 “Athletics Upset Pennac Clubbers in Olympic Tilt,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 7, 1936.
41 Given the issues with Jim Thorpe being stripped of his Olympic medals for playing semi-pro baseball its most curious that both Les Mann and the ever watchful and controlling Avery Brundage would allow a banned-in-Canada professional on the Olympic team, but they did.
42 Before World War II, newspapers published officers’ orders and ship movements. Lieutenant Myers was found approximately every 20 months with new orders. By 1935 he was in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
43 “100,000 See Baseball Tilt,” The Baltimore Sun, August 13, 1936.
44 The XIth Olympic Games Berlin, 1936. Official Report: Organisationskomitee Für Die Xi. Olympiade Berlin 1936 E. V. Wilhelm Limpert, (Berlin) 1937. Vol 6, 6. This stated is attributed to the dictator of the German state.
45 XIth Olympic Games Berlin, 1936, 1100.
46 Listed in the both Berlin Olympics and the US Olympic Committee reports.
47 XIth Olympic Games Berlin, 229.
48 XIth Olympic Games Berlin, 4.
49 Josh Chetwynd and Brian A. Belton, British Baseball and the West Ham Club, McFarland & Co., 2006, 127.
50 McIver, 15.
51 National Holocaust Museum Oral History files for Herman Goldberg http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504462.
52 Thomas Newberry, “Base-Ball,” The Little Pocket-Book, 1787 Worcester Edition, (Isaiah Thomas: Worcester, MA) 43.