It was 1919, an epoch-making year in baseball history in both Vermont and the nation.
Babe Ruth, then a pitcher for the Red Sox, set a record for home runs in addition to winning nine games on the mound. The season culminated in the “Black Sox” scandal as professional gambler Arnold Rothstein paid members of the Chicago White Sox to take a dive in the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. And then, at the height of Series excitement, the Red Sox came to Rutland, Vermont, to play an exhibition game against the local team. It was a memorable game in which the Babe hit a double and a homer. One Vermont newspaper scribe, as yet unaware of the travesty in Chicago, was very satisfied.
“Rutland’s baseball management delivered “big-league” goods to its patrons for what may be the finest game of the season, and the visiting thousands saw one of the big men of the business, Babe Ruth, in his familiar feat of slamming the ball over the fence for a long home run. It was high-class baseball and the public showed pretty thorough appreciation of it.”
Despite being absent from the World Series, many believed the Red Sox were the best team in baseball, and their young southpaw, an able and reliable starter, had begun establishing his reputation as the “Sultan of Swat.” In addition to winning nine games and losing five for the Boston team, Ruth tallied 29 home runs — a stunning feat in the dead-ball era. While the Babe was winning the hearts of New Englanders, a young Vermont law-school student from Barre was studying at Boston University where, to make ends meet, he opened a shoe-shine parlor next to the Putnam Hotel, the lodging establishment where the Red Sox lived when they were in town. Future business executive and Vermont Gov. Deane Davis recalled those days in his 1991 autobiography.
“We became well acquainted with the members of the Boston Red Sox who lived next door at the Putnam Hotel. Several of them became not only regular customers but friends as well, as many of them hung around our shop during their hours off. I had a baseball autographed by all of the Red Sox regular players, including the celebrated Babe Ruth, who was then at the height of his popularity.”
In September 1919, Rutland reverberated with baseball excitement. A local businessman had sponsored a World Series scoreboard on Center Street in the downtown and, as scores were reported over the telegraph, they were posted for all to see. The Rutland Herald noted “the project gave pleasure to hundreds of people each day of the series, as the results of each game were announced play by play to the anxious crowds.”
Jake Sherman’s article in the Rutland Historical Society Quarterly (V.3: #3) captures the enthusiasm of the citizenry. “The excitement the series generated paled, however, in comparison to that being produced by the impending appearance of Babe Ruth and the Red Sox.” The Sox had won the World Series the year before. Sherman recounts the times:
“The previous year they had vanquished the Cubs in six games, the star of the series being a strong-armed young pitcher named … Babe Ruth. Yes, in those years the Babe was not only a hitter, but was considered the best left-handed pitcher in baseball. This was a young Babe, still only 24 but consisting of over six feet tall and 225 pounds of batting power and already beginning to set new standards as a long ball hitter. Home runs, it must be remembered were a rarity in this “dead ball” era. The previous season the entire Red Sox team had clouted only 15 four-baggers. In 1919, the Babe had exploded for 29 homers, an unheard of number.”
Everyone in Rutland, according to Sherman, was eager to see if this living legend could hit one over the outfield fence at the fairgrounds, something that had never happened in its 25 years of existence.
This extraordinary event was the brainchild of Harry Shedd, manager of the Rutland baseball team. Shedd was born in 1888 on his family’s dairy farm in Rutland, but he also nurtured a lifelong interest in baseball. His obituary notes that he organized a baseball team at the Vermont Marble Co.’s clubhouse, and their games drew large crowds on Sunday afternoons. One account notes the games were played on Dewey Field “when the old trolley cars operated between Rutland and Fair Haven.” For exhibition games with Major League teams, Shedd used his contacts to recruit professionals to play for Rutland. “The Center Rutland team was beefed up for all their big games with Major League players. Rabbit Maranville and Dave Shean of the Boston Braves and Red Sox played many games with the Rutland team.”
With the onset of war in 1917, Shedd organized 23 ballplayers and fans to enlist in the Navy. They signed up at City Hall in Rutland for submarine chaser duty and saw service through the armistice. When hostilities ceased, baseball resumed in Rutland, and the Red Sox came to the fairgrounds.
Shedd lived to see his 91st birthday, but the game he organized for Oct. 5, 1919, may have been the most memorable day of his life as the 1919 Red Sox featured Babe Ruth at the fairgrounds. He recalled in 1980, “the Babe hit the only home run he ever hit in Vermont on this occasion.” The famous game played that Oct. 5th was a coup for Harry Shedd. Although absent from the World Series that year, the Red Sox had a national following, primarily due to their exciting phenom, Babe Ruth.
The Rutland Herald called it “the greatest baseball attraction that was ever held in Vermont. This team is brought to Rutland at a guaranteed expense of $1,500, which is one of the largest guarantees ever paid a ball team in New England. Babe Ruth, the famous hitter of the team is manager, and the price paid this outfit is due largely to this player.” The Red Sox were also guaranteed 50 percent of the total admissions. There was a $1 admission fee and an additional $0.25 charge for grandstand seating and $0.50 for parking. With the guarantees to the Red Sox, Shedd and his fellow investors were taking a chance on a risky financial proposition.
The Herald also indicated that “the local management are going to string some canvas up along the fence as many of the fans are predicting that there won’t be balls enough in Rutland to supply Ruth when he takes a healthy wallop at them.”
Harry Shedd had a few surprises up his sleeve for the hometown fans who came to cheer for the Rutland nine. The Herald revealed “At great expense he had secured Dick Rudolph of the Boston Braves to pitch for Rutland.” Rudolph was no stranger to the hometown fans as he had been a starter for Rutland in the old northern league.
With the weather cooperating, a sell-out crowd assembled to watch the game on a fine afternoon in October. It was estimated that over 3,000 attendees came from all over Vermont and New York’s north country. All came to see the Babe. According to Sherman,
“George Herman Ruth came to the plate five times and had two smashing hits. One was a double, while the other, which came in the eighth inning was a towering home run which was ‘one of the highest hit balls ever made in the city and soared so far into right field that the Rutland outfielder lost sight of it.’ It landed two feet from the right field fence, an almost incredible distance to hit the ball. Several clouts by the Bambino during batting practice had actually cleared the left center and center field fences much to the amazement of the old timers. Another side of the Babe was witnessed by the locals when, in his initial at bat, in the first inning, he whiffed in a mighty fashion.”
All were in agreement that the city of Rutland acquitted itself well that October afternoon. The St. Johnsbury Caldeonian observed, “Rutland’s baseball management delivered ‘big-league’ goods to its patrons for what may be the finest game of the season and the visiting thousands saw one of the big men of the business in his familiar feat of slamming the ball over the fence for a long home run. It was high-class baseball and the public showed pretty thorough appreciation of it.”
Sadly, this was Babe Ruth’s swan song in a Red Sox uniform. He had torn up his contract with Boston just two days before making history in Rutland. In frustration, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold the Bambino to the New York Yankees for $125,000 a few months later — a cursed decision that would haunt them for almost 100 years.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre. His contributions appear regularly in The Times Argus.