View Full Version : The Attic of Baseball: Tragedy at Ruth's House

10-21-01, 04:10 PM
The Attic of Baseball: Tragedy at Ruth's House
By Steven Goldman
Special to MLB.com

Wednesday night saw Game 1 of the American League Division Series between the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees take place at a packed Yankee Stadium. The Stadium, an enduring landmark, has stood witness to the events of the last nine decades. Time's eddies never repeat precisely (such is the nature of human mortality) but they often form shapes that resemble previous events in shadowy, outline form. Thus Yankee Stadium saw flyovers by P-51s and B-17s in the post-Pearl Harbor days of World War II and now stands witness to jet roar of Air Force fighters patrolling the dangerous skies of the world without a World Trade Center.

As a place of entertainment, solidarity and reliability in a changing world, the Stadium has provided solace and reassurance at times of great stress. Ironically, the building once contributed its own wounds. Even the best of places and people are not unreservedly good, as proved by a sudden spring shower in the Bronx over 72 years ago.

Describe a perfect day at the ballpark and you might come up with something like this: a Sunday double-header at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and all the Murderer's Row gang in the lineup, home runs guaranteed. That's the way it was on May 19, 1929, except that the second game was never played, and some of those who witnessed the home runs didn't go home, but to the hospital, or the morgue.

Yankee Stadium had a number of desirable seating locations, but the right-field bleachers were the hot ticket due to Ruth's propensity for launching longballs into the seats. Populated by an enthusiastic cadre of Bambino rooters, often young boys, the bleachers had been informally rechristened "Ruthville." On this Sunday, Ruthville was packed. Nine thousand were said to be in the bleachers. The overall crowd was estimated at 50,000, which was, significantly, not a sellout for the Stadium at this time -- the building's official capacity was listed at 62,000, though the building had claimed an official upward accommodation of 82,000 as recently as 1927. 81,622 were said to have paid to see the Yankees host the Athletics on Sept. 9, 1928.

Ruth homered into the bleachers that bore his name in the third inning. Gehrig followed with his own home run, an opposite-field shot, directly afterward. It was then that the beautiful spring day began to turn gray. Ominous clouds occurred in the sky. A few of the bleacherites, fearing a drenching -- remember, people came dressed to the ballpark in those days -- began to edge towards the set of stairs that was the southern exit from the stands. They were still there at the top of the stairs an inning later when the Yankees came to bat in the bottom of the fifth. Shortstop Mark Koenig tapped to the first baseman as it began to drizzle. Ruth followed and did likewise, rolling a ball to Boston's Phil Todt. Gehrig strode to the plate, knocked the dirt out of his cleats with the head of his bat ... and the skies let loose.

It was one of those heavy spring downpours common to the New York City area. They never last long, but for the five or 10 minutes that they persist they have the intensity of a monsoon. Shocked, the bleacher crowd ran for the stairway exit.

The stairs leading to the bleachers contained 14 steps descending about eight feet to a dirt alley that ran behind the fence. The passage was lined with a partition of chicken wire backed by wood two-by-fours. The surging crowd met the group that had been lingering at the top of the stairs. The latter had finally committed to leaving, but now the combined mass of their fellow spectators surged against them. They fell forward, and those behind them fell on top of them, and the entire mass went tumbling toward the foot of the stairs, where they hit the chicken wire fence and tore it loose. Bodies vanished into the dark spaces under the bleachers. "I never saw such a mad rush before," said one victim. "I was sitting in the right-field bleachers with my son, Thomas, when the storm came up and the rush began. Almost at once I was pushed forward and knocked down. There must have been a half a dozen people under me all shouting and screaming. ... My son was torn from my grasp, but later I found him."

Fortunately, standard New York City Police Department procedure at this time was to send extra patrolmen to the ballpark at the first sign of rain. They had already arrived by the time the downpour began, so there was a group of rescuers already on hand. The policemen waded into the tangle on the stairs, pulling body from body so that those at the bottom of the pile could breathe. At the same time, doctors who had been in the stands treated the injured.

It was perhaps due to this early intervention that the casualties tolled only 64. Two were killed: Joseph Carter, a 60 year-old truckman who lived on East 128th Street, and 17 year-old Eleanor Price, a student at Hunter College who had attended the game with her younger brother. Sixty-two others suffered injuries raging from shock to fractures of the skull.

There was some question after the game as to whether stadium personnel or the policemen assigned to the park had failed to open gates that would have relieved the pressure on the southern exit, but even before all the victims had been removed from the ballpark, Commissioner of Police Whalen had concluded that, "This seems to be one of those unfortunate occurrences which could not be helped. There is no provision which could have been made in order to avoid such a thing." The Bronx District Attorney concurred. "All I can say is that the stadium is adequately policed and well provided with exits. There is no baseball park in the country that can be emptied more quickly." By the next day, he had officially declared that neither the team nor the police were at fault in the accident. Team owner Jacob Ruppert agreed as well. "It is just one of those unfortunate things that cannot be helped. ... We took every precaution we could."

The first game was called on account of rain with the Yankees leading 3-0. The second game was cancelled after the players learned of the tragedy. Baseball's inexorable schedule moved the teams onward, with the Yankees journeying to New Haven to play an exhibition at Yale Field. They would return to the Stadium to play two against the Senators the day after. Yankees General Manager Ed Barrow, who was known to personally police the stands for women smoking cigarettes, was still affirming and denying in the best mogul manner. "It was just a case of the crowd losing control of itself in the rush to get out of the rain. When those in front fell, the others were pushed on by the jam behind. A bleacher crowd, too, is usually made up of young fellows, and there probably was a lot of shoving and fooling, as youngsters will do, before they realized how serious the matter was." The Yankees were ready to make changes, Barrow said, "but in this instance I know of no alterations to make."

Fortunately, Babe Ruth had the last word, fairly shouting back to New York from New Haven. "Tell those youngsters to cheer up and get well quick, for I am going to miss them in the right-field bleachers. I want the name and address of every kind that was hurt. I'll see that they get rain checks anyway, and maybe more. I love you kids more than anybody -- almost. Your devoted friend, Babe Ruth." The Babe visited the hospitals the next day, no doubt promising to hit some out for the kid with the fractured rib and collapsed lung.

The Attic of Baseball appears each week at MLB.com year-round. Address inquiries, comments, criticisms, recipes for your grandma's seafood gumbo to oldprofessor@home.com. The opinions above, if any, are solely those of the author, and should not be attributed to anyone connected in an official capacity to Major League Baseball, all of whom no doubt have plenty of opinions of their own and don't need any extra help. Violators may be added to the Yankees' post-season roster in place of Luis Sojo.