By ROGER MOONEY
Don Zimmer was 17 when he met Babe Ruth. Zim’s team had just won the American Legion national title. This was in 1947, when the cancer was closing in on the Babe.
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In a gravely voice you might remember hearing on those old recordings, Ruth told the crowd, “I’ve been all over the world, and this is the best team I’ve ever seen.”
It gave Zimmer goose bumps then.
It gave Zim goose bumps Saturday morning as the Rays’ senior advisor sat in the dugout at Charlotte Sports Park while the team took batting practice, Zim imitated Ruth’s fading voice.
“The best team I’ve ever seen.”
“I was in awe,” Zimmer said of that day more then half a century ago.
The conversation had turned to Ruth because Saturday was the anniversary of Ruth’s first home run as a professional.
The Babe never goes out of style.
His home run records belong to someone else, but those pigeon-toed home run trots and big smiles and tall tales of hard-living will live on as long as there are baseball games to be played and memories to be shared.
The historic game was played on Saturday, March 7, 1914 at the fair grounds in Fayetteville, N.C. Ruth was a rookie with the Baltimore Orioles, then a minor league team owned and managed by Jack Dunn.
Dunn was also a scout of some renown, and young George Herman Ruth was referred to as “Jack’s newest babe,” hence the nickname.
According to Robert W. Creamer’s 1974 biography of Ruth, “Babe,” the Orioles left a snowstorm in Baltimore a few days earlier for North Carolina and practiced indoors at the armory until the fields dried.
A few hundred fans made their way to the fair grounds to see the team play an intersquad game. Ruth played shortstop that day. A left-handed shortstop? Why not?
He came to bat in the first inning and hit a ball so far to right field that it landed in a corn field. Reports in the Baltimore newspapers described Ruth’s first home run trot as such: “... he walked around the bases.”
“Ruth Makes Mighty Clout,” screamed one headline.
In time, mighty clouts struck by others would be called “Ruthian.”
Jim Thorpe had hit the longest home run at that park in Fayetteville until the Babe arrived.
Those who witnessed both said Ruth’s went farther than Thorpe’s blast by 60 feet.
Ruth had hit all the home runs he would hit by the time Zim and his American Legion buddies caught up to him during that tournament in California.
Ruth signed a baseball for everyone on Zim’s team, players and coaches.
Funny story, Zim said. He no longer has the ball.
He returned home to Cincinnati eager to play more baseball.
Problem was, they needed a baseball. Zim had one.
“We knocked the cover off it,” Zim said
And when the cover was gone they wrapped the ball in black electrical tape and got a few more games out of it.
“That’s what we did back then,” Zim said, offering no regrets.
Babe Ruth. Zim smiled at the memory.