Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate wearing an Ascension parish uniform
by Shawn Weldon
Baseball today seems more like a business than a sport. Americans look to the past as a simpler time when baseball was played for fun, not profit. These thoughts may just be nostalgic longing for a time that never really existed. But there are stories that illustrate there once were simpler times. One of these stories took place in a Catholic parish in Philadelphia and involved the greatest baseball player of his time.
During the 1920s, Ascension of Our Lord Parish in the city’s Kensington section sponsored one of the many independent semi-professional baseball teams in Philadelphia. In 1923 the Ascension Catholic Club was in serious financial trouble. The club had built a new field at I and Tioga Sts. and was deeply in debt. Father William Casey, pastor of Ascension, was desperately seeking some way to defray the cost.
An avid baseball fan, Father Casey was the unofficial chaplain of the Athletics and knew many of the ballplayers personally. He hit upon an idea that seems ridiculous today. Perhaps Father Casey could persuade Babe Ruth to take part in a charity baseball game to raise money to pay off the field. Father Casey met with Ruth and Yankees manager Miller Huggins to discuss the idea. Ruth’s only question was whether children would be involved. Ruth had spent most of his early life in St. Mary’s Industrial School, a Catholic institution in Baltimore. Ruth would play.
The game was set for Tuesday, September 4. The opponent would be the squad sponsored by Lit Brothers department store. But Father Casey had another problem. The Yankees had a game scheduled against the Athletics the same day, and Ascension’s field had no lights. The game had to be played early enough to take advantage of the light but late enough that Ruth could make the game. The Ascension game was scheduled for 6 p.m. which was cutting things close since the Yankees-Athletics game was scheduled for 3:15.
The day of the game, Father Casey sat anxiously in the stands at Shibe Park as the Yankees and A’s faced off during the afternoon. The priest trusted that things would go right and he was not disappointed. He also received an unexpected treat: Yankees pitcher “Sad” Sam Jones pitched the first no-hitter of the 1923 season that afternoon. The Yankees downed the A’s 2-0. The game was over in less than 90 minutes.
After the game, Ruth and Father Casey jumped into a waiting car and raced to Ascension. Arriving at the parish, Ruth changed into an Ascension uniform made especially for the occasion. At the field he was greeted by 10,000 spectators, the largest crowd ever to witness an independent baseball game in Philadelphia up to that time. The grandstands were overflowing. Hundreds of spectators jammed the field and the enclosures. Crowds packed the hills by the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. Uncounted numbers stood on rooftops and hung out of factory windows.
Longest double ever hit
When Ascension took the field, the crowd was surprised to see Ruth take his position at first base instead of his usual spot in the outfield. Ruth played his position flawlessly. Unable to play casually even in a charity game, he went diving for a line drive in the second inning, badly dirtying his uniform.
But the fans were not there to see Ruth field. They were there to see him hit. Before his first at-bat, Father Casey and the Ascension team gathered around Ruth at the batter’s box and presented him with a diamond stick-pin as a token of thanks. The Babe was genuinely touched by the gift. Perhaps the scene affected him, because he popped out.
In the fourth inning, Ruth gave the crowd what they came for. Stepping to the plate, he hit a towering line drive to deep right field. It was easily the longest ball ever hit at Ascension Field. Newspaper reporters said it would be a certain home run at Shibe Park. Some fans said it was the longest ball ever hit. Estimates ran as high as 600 feet. Ruth was stunned when the umpire stopped him as he rounded second base. Because of the short right field fence at Ascension Field, the gargantuan blast was ruled a ground-rule double. This was certainly the longest double Ruth ever hit.
Ruth grounded out to second his next time up. In the ninth he hit a pop fly so high that the Lit’s outfielder dropped it for a two-base error. The next Ascension batter, Charlie White, walked. Ruth and White then tried a double steal. While White was caught in a run-down between first and second, Ruth stole home, sliding across the plate to score Ascension’s only run of the day. Despite the presence of the great Babe Ruth, Ascension lost to Lits, 2 to 1. Lit’s pitcher, Charlie Gransbach, pitched a masterful game, holding Ruth to one hit in four at bats.
During the game Ruth threw several balls over the outfield fence to his young fans gathered there. In the ninth inning he hit several more balls over the fence. Hundreds of spectators went scrambling after the trophies. He also autographed several dozen balls during the game. These were sold at $5 apiece, with the proceeds helping to pay off the field. After the game, the Babe was mobbed at home plate by fans clamoring for this autograph.
Erased a debt; etched a memory
It is nearly impossible to imagine a similar event occurring today. The Yankees were in first place, driving for a pennant. Ruth was hitting .390 and battling Harry Heilmann for the batting title. But Ruth realized his talent and popularity brought tremendous responsibility. He was always willing to do what he could for charity. Not only did he pull the Ascension Club out of debt, but he gave the parishioners of the parish and the surrounding neighborhood a memory that would last forever.