Babe Herman's antics, hitting kept Ebbets Field lively
I never saw Floyd Caves (Babe) Herman during his prime as a National League outfielder and outstanding hitter, and most people who read this story probably didn't either.
But the Babe and his zany antics were a legend in the late 1920s and early ' 30s at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, where he was to have two widely separated tours of duty with the Dodgers. In a Brooklyn uniform, he proved unmistakably that he could hit any pitcher who ever lived.
The 6 ft. 4 in. Herman is a robust 79 now, and when he appeared for an Old-Timers' Game recently at L.A.'s Dodger Stadium, nostalgia sprang a leak, fueled by recollections of Babe's .381 batting average in 1929 and .393 average and 241 hits in 1930.
The amazing part is that both years someone else (Lefty O'Doul with a .398 batting average in '29 and Bill Terry, who hit .401 in 1930) won the National League batting championship.
Still vividly remembered by Herman's contemporaries was the war year of 1945, when Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey, desperate for a pinch-hitter who could produce even once in a while, summoned Babe from his turkey ranch in Glendale, Calif.
Herman, who was 42 years old and retired from the majors seven years, hadn't swung a bat since the previous season, when he had played briefly with the Hollywood Stars in the old Pacific Coast League. But acting as though he had been given a script that called for him to hit safely his first time up, Babe singled high off the rightfield screen in Ebbets Field to drive home a runner.
For anyone who knew the history of this left-handed hitter, the act of heroism against an enemy pitcher was completely under-standable. Years before, Dodger management had erected that screen after several of the Babe's longer drives had broken store windows on Bedford Avenue.
Even that kind of destruction might not have moved the Dodgers to summon carpenters if Herman hadn't also put a ball through a glass-enclosed traffic booth on the same street. Fortunately the whistle of the enclosed and thoroughly frightened policeman (and this may be somewhat exaggerated) was too large to go completely down his throat.
Asked how he managed 35 home runs the same year he batted .393, Babe replied:
''I did it with bat control and by never sitting back and taking a third strike. But I could always hit, even when I was just a 17- or 18-year-old kid and playing for Edmonton in the Western Canada League.
''Still I never forgot what Ty Cobb said to me about hitting in 1922, when he was managing Detroit and the Tigers took a look at me in spring training. Cobb told me the surest way to get a hit, and also get out of a slump, was to try to hit the pitcher in the chest with the ball. And, you know, it did kind of get you in a groove.
''Of course, baseball was different then. There were fewer teams and kids didn't come right out of college into the majors the way they do now, or make it up here after only a couple of years in the minors. The trouble with rushing kids is that they don't spend enough years in the minors to learn their trade. Consequently they don't hit the ball that well until they've been around awhile.
''By the time I finished my minor league apprenticeship, I'd seen 'em all -- I mean the fastball pitchers, the breaking-ball pitchers, the junk-ball pitchers , the guys who threw at your head, and the cuties who either roughed up the ball illegally or used a spitter. Once I got to the Dodgers, I never saw a pitch that I hadn't already seen hundreds of times in the minors.''
Despite his hitting prowess, Babe was never known for his fielding, treating each fly ball (according to those who played with him or saw him play) as though it were an adventure in survival. While Herman denies that a he was ever hit on the head by a fly ball, he apparently doesn't count shoulders.
Most stories that had made the rounds about Herman's lack of defense, he says , are either inaccurate or have grown an extra set of wings with the passage of time. Possibly Babe's outfield problems stemmed from the many years he lived within a few blocks of Casey Stengel, who once emerged from a manhole to catch a fly ball!
Perhaps the best remembered story about Herman is the time in Brooklyn when he doubled into a double play. With one out and the bases full of Dodgers, the Babe once again tatooed that screen in right field. Hank DeBerry scored easily from third base. Running in front of Herman were Chick Fewster, who had been on first base, and Dazzy Vance.
After sliding safely into second base, Babe suddenly decided he could also make third and took off in that direction.
A problem developed however when Fewster saw Vance slow up after rounding third base. Chick understandably hesitated while Herman, running with his head down and buried in the sands of trying to get from one place to another, passed Fewster on the basepath.
This made the Babe automatically out, although he continued to third unaware of what he had done. A moment later Herman was joined at the bag by the returning Vance and Fewster.
At this point it suddenly occurred to Fewster that it was time to retreat to second base, but he made the mistake of trying to go back through centerfield and was called out by the umpires.
And that is perhaps the chief reason why Ebbets Field has gone into the pages of time with the reputation that anything can happen in Brooklyn -- with a little help from Mr. Herman of course!