This article was written by Joe Lawler
This article was published in the 1983 Baseball Research Journal
Every baseball fan worth his salt knows that Babe Ruth began his career as a pitcher and rose to become one of the American League’s best in the years around World War I. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that once his hitting skills were revealed Ruth was gradually moved into the role of an everyday player. It was his extraordinary prowess with the bat that made Babe so attractive to other teams and resulted in his eventual sale to the New York Yankees in 1920.
What is not readily known, however, is that Ruth did not completely forsake the mound once he moved on to New York. During his tenure with the Yankees he pitched in five games, four as a starter, picking up the win each time out. Since his team was seldom short of competent hurlers, Ruth’s appearances were little more than publicity events.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s last game as a pitcher. On October 1, 1933, in the season’s final game, Ruth started and finished against the Boston Red Sox, winning 6 to 5.
The Washington Senators had captured the American League pennant seven games ahead of the second-place Yankees and fans everywhere were eagerly awaiting the start of the World Series. In order to arouse some interest in their finale, the Yankees announced that Ruth would pitch. A crowd of 25,000 responded at Yankee Stadium that afternoon to cheer their 38-year-old hero.
With nothing at stake, the seventh-place Red Sox held a number of regulars out of their lineup. The Yanks, with some minor adjustments to the batting order, used most of their everyday players. A notable exception was behind the plate where regular catcher Bill Dickey was given the day off. In his place was a burly youngster fresh from an outstanding season with Minneapolis in the American Association, Joe Glenn.
Born Joseph Michael Gurzensky in Dickson City, Pennsylvania, a small coal mining community near Scranton, Glenn was in his second late-season trial with New York. Although Dickey was a day-in day-out performer, a capable backup was always needed and the Yankees liked what Joe could do. He would eventually spend three seasons as Dickey’s understudy, sharing the duty with Art Jorgens.
Now retired, the former major league backstop took some time recently to discuss that afternoon a half century ago when he caught what turned out to be the Babe’s last pitching effort.
Joe explained why he was picked to work that day: “I was going to be the second-string catcher. They figured they’d give me a chance to catch. It was a confidence builder. `Throw him in with Babe and see what he can do’.”
When asked how he felt before the game, Joe answered, “Was I nervous? No, I didn’t know I was going to catch till a couple of hours before. McCarthy (Joe McCarthy, Yankee manager) said, `Babe’s gonna pitch today, get together with him on your signals’, that’s all.
“To me it didn’t make any difference whether Babe was pitching, or Ruffing, or Gomez. It was just the idea that I was in the game, not thinking that someday it might be history. Nobody thought of it that way,” Joe added.
In keeping with the Ruthian image, Babe did nothing special to prepare for his first mound assignment in three years. As Joe tells it, “He just warmed up on the sidelines and went out on the mound just as if he pitched all year. He knew how to operate.”
Considering the amount of time between starts one wonders about the kind of stuff Babe had that day. “He pitched better than a lot of guys who were pitching in the major leagues,” Joe said. “I would say he had what we call the average pitcher’s fast ball, curve, change of pace, and good control. Plus, he had pitching savvy.”
Baseball was all business to Joe McCarthy. He expected his players to take every game seriously. Despite the ballyhoo, this game was no exception. The Red Sox applied themselves also, according to Joe. “They tried to beat him, sure! They tried to steal on him. There was no clowning.”
Although touched for 12 hits and five runs, Ruth shut out the Sox over the first five innings while his teammates supplied him with a six-run cushion. A flurry in the sixth gave Boston four runs but Babe settled down and allowed just one more the rest of the way. In his nine-inning stint he walked three, struck out none, and allowed just one extra-base hit, a double by George Stumpf.
Acting true to form, Ruth belted his 34th home run of the season in the fifth inning off Boston starter Bob Kline. Batting from his customary third spot in the Yankee order, Babe also walked and scored on a single by Ben Chapman. Glenn chipped in with an RBI single of his own to go along with his flawless handling of Ruth’s offerings.
Rubdowns and ice water were applied between innings to offset the rigors of the task but through a combination of pride and that “savvy” mentioned before Babe was able to finish in decent form.
“They didn’t figure on Babe pitching a full nine innings. They thought, `Let him start the game and draw some extra people to the ball park.’ But he won and made it greater for everybody,” Joe explained.
“He finished the game, no problem. And he looked good! Like a regular pitcher, not like a guy who was wild, throwing the ball in the dirt. What pulled him through was that he had previous experience as a pitcher. And I think he knew most of the guys, their strong points and weak points. He was a heads-up ballplayer.”
The popular image of Babe Ruth is reinforced in no uncertain terms by Joe Glenn. When questioned about his famous teammate Joe exclaimed, “He was an ironman! He would do things the average man would fall down trying to do.” Because of his home runs, Joe feels that many fans overlooked the other things Ruth could do in the field. “He had a good baseball head,” said Joe.
Joe’s admiration for Babe Ruth began during his years growing up in the coal regions. The Yankees had always enjoyed a big following in northeastern Pennsylvania. A contributing factor no doubt was that a few local diamond stars had preceded Joe to the Yankee lineup.
Minooka’s Mike McNally played third base for their first pennant winner in 1921. Mike Gazella of nearby Olyphant was a valued utility infielder on four world championship teams including the immortal “Murderer’s Row” of 1927. During Ruth’s post-season barnstorming tours, he had frequent appearances at the minor league ball park in Scranton, always drawing capacity crowds.
Joe said, “Babe was my idol. He was like a god in baseball to me. And I never, never, never figured at that time that I would ever play with him on the same team and catch his last game. That is something like we call a miracle. Babe took to me; he called me `Coal Miner’.”
Joe spent eight years in the big leagues with the Yankees, St. Louis Browns, and the Boston Red Sox. Except for 1939 when he caught regularly for the Browns, Joe was mainly a backup. Playing behind a future Hall of Famer during what should have been his peak years, was disappointing to be sure, but Joe had this to say about the situation: “I was satisfied to be on a ball club like the Yankees and be understudy to a man like Dickey.”
When he got his chance, Joe performed quite well. He was part of the Yankee dynasty of the 1930’s, the Yankees of Gehrig, Ruffing, DiMaggio, and Rolfe, who captured four consecutive world’s championships. Though his part was a small one, Joe was nonetheless a valuable member of the cast.
Always gregarious, Joe was tagged by Gehrig with the nickname “Gabby”. “I did a lot of buzzin’,” Joe said. “I kept them loose.”
In his heart Joe Glenn still is and will remain a Yankee. He has appeared at a number of Yankee Old Timers’ Day games and has always taken his turn at bat and behind the plate. When asked if catching Ruth’s last game was his biggest thrill in baseball Joe answered characteristically, “That, and the fact that I was a Yankee with such great ballplayers. Coming from a small town, that was a once in a lifetime dream.”
Baseball gave a lot of attention this year to the 50th anniversary of its All-Star Game. Babe Ruth was the first player to homer in the annual mid-season affair and a postal stamp was issued with his likeness. It would be nice if Babe’s other golden jubilee is remembered too. In Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, Joe Glenn, the “Gabber,” has never forgotten the day or the man. “He was a super human being, that guy, a good-hearted soul.”
Note: Although Joe Glenn doesn’t mention it in the above interview, he also had the unusual experience when he was with the Red Sox of catching Ted Williams in the latter’s 2-inning relief effort against the Tigers on August 24, 1940. See Tom Hufford’s article in the 1978 Baseball Research Journal.