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By Jerry Amernic
The only pro baseball you see along the lakefront these days is at SkyDome, courtesy of the Blue Jays. And while the glamour and championships of the Summer game now seem like a far-off dream, there once was a time – even before the old Maple Leaf Stadium at the foot of Bathurst Street was built – when legends were born on these very shores.
A mere three weeks after World War I began, Babe Ruth clubbed his very first professional home run in a game against the ‘AAA’ Toronto Maple Leafs. It occurred at Maple Leaf Park, which was also known as Hanlan’s Point Stadium. Some seventy years later the City of Toronto erected a plaque to commemorate the feat and it stands today, largely ignored, on a nondescript site near the Island Airport.
On September 5, 1914, Ruth was a pitcher with the Providence Grays and that day he tossed a 9-0 shutout and, in the process, hit a mammoth three-run homer; it was the only minor-league home run he ever hit. He would soon join the American League Boston Red Sox and establish himself as the top lefthander in the A.L., and in 1920 he would be traded to the New York Yankees and go on to hit 714 big-league home runs.
The Ruth trade to the Yankees led to the famed Curse of the Bambino, an 86-year Red Sox drought that was only broken this past October with Boston’s improbable World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 1914 Ruth was anything but an overweight, bulbous ball player. He was 19 years old and stood a trim and svelte six-two and 190 pounds. Some say his home-run ball at Hanlan’s Point disappeared into the water and was never found while others claim it went into the stands. At least one veteran sportswriter, now retired, says he once spoke to a man who actually claimed to see that home run; the man told him the ball cleared the fence, but didn’t go into the water.
Toronto historian Mike Filey isn’t so sure. He says the fence at the old park was up against the water so any home run wound up in the lake. A photo of the park that has been used for marketing purposes by the Toronto Blue Jays would seem to confirm this. But Filey adds that another Babe Ruth home run also went into Lake Ontario.
“When Ruth was playing with the Yankees in the early 30’s they had an exhibition game at Maple Leaf Stadium and he hit one out,” he said. “That ball is in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, but the 1914 ball? Who knows? It might still be in the water.”
And that was how I got the idea for my novel Gift of the Bambino. It’s a story about the relationship between a young boy and his grandfather and how the two are ultimately bound by baseball – and Babe Ruth. The grandfather, you see, was just a young boy himself when he took in the Toronto-Providence game in 1914 and was a witness to baseball history. In my story that ball is the stuff of hopes and dreams, and the journey it takes over three-quarters of a century has some fascinating impact on the family.
I won’t tell you how it ends, but suffice to say that whatever did happen to the 1914 ball remains a source of speculation to this day. I once spoke to Tom Valcke, President and CEO of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and he said he knows of at least two stories about the Hanlan’s Point home run.
“The first is that it was hit into the lake,” Valcke said. “The second is that someone stole the ball and as security chased him away he threw it into the water. But maybe it was the baseball from the ’30s that was stolen and tossed in. It would almost make draining the lake worthwhile if two of the Babe’s biggest taters are sitting on the bottom.”
Of course, the saga of Babe Ruth carries as much fiction as it does fact, and separating one from the other can lead to endless hours of banter and debate. But Torontonians can rest assured that they possess a valuable nugget of baseball lore right on their doorstep.
Jerry Amernic is author of the novel Gift of the Bambino, available at www.amazon.com, or