THE TRAINJOTTING READER: The Big Bam

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Seeing as I live about a mile from the Sultan of Swat’s grave, I just finished reading the Babe Ruth biography, The Big Bam. The book, by Leigh Montville, is almost as much about riding trains as it is about baseball.

The players of course rode trains all over the country to play–road trips that would last a month or so. They’d also hop the train down to Florida for spring training each year.

“The train was their portable fraternity house, membership open to an exclusive few men who knew absolutely what to do with a well-thrown baseball. They clattered through the small towns of their individual pasts, zip, a bell ringing, a barrier dropped across all roads.”

A trip to St. Louis from New York, for one, saw the Yankee train leave Gotham around 5 p.m., with “dinner at sunset while crossing the Hudson River,” before arriving at the Mississippi River a full 24 hours later.

“America would slide past the window,” writes Leigh Montville.  

When the baseball season ended in the fall, the Babe then embarked on giant “barnstorming” tours–leading an all-star team against police department teams, Negro teams, amateur squads–at train outposts big and small all over the country. The players drank and gambled, sliced each other’s neckties, hazed each other and brawled. Gawkers watched them come and go at the stations–no one commanding more interest, of course, than the famed Babe.

After his fateful trade to the Yankees, the Babe got to know his new teammates about the Florida Flyer train, going from Penn Station down to Jacksonville.

Montville writes:

The big man appeared at the designated track at Pennsylvania Station in his big leather coat. He was followed by a porter pushing a cart loaded with suitcases and a new set of golf clubs picked up in California. A gathering crowd of gawkers came next, merging into a crowd of the curious who already were waiting.

It was a comic yet majestic scene, due to be repeated every time he took a train out of the city. He would turn to speak to the porter, or change direction on a whim, and the crowd would turn with him, people stepping on each other just to be closer, just to hear whatever he might say, see whatever he might do.

After this fast, first snapshot, he was off, playing cards with his new teammates for meal money and more before the train hit New Jersey.

Several years later, Babe was leading the Yankees into the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. A subplot to the Series was a train race between the Yankees and the Cardinals when each was responsible for trekking to the other’s park. The “Cardinal’s Special” raced the 1,051 miles across the Pennsylvania Railroad in 21 hours and 20 minutes.

The Yankees, “handicapped by taking a longer route on the New York Central,” were closer to 24 hours getting to St. Loo.

The Yankees, however, had the last laugh, winning the Series.

The train ride back to New York could’ve taken a week–the players wouldn’t have minded. Ruth leaned on some St. Louis contacts to get “a clothes basket full of ribs and ample amounts of what one paper called ‘amber-colored liquid that foams when poured.’ Other, heartier spirits magically appeared. The players sang, cavorted, and floated home.”

The world before the iPod and chartered airplane travel doesn’t sound so bad.

A PREVIOUS TRAINJOTTING READER, ABOUT DENNIS LEHANE’S ‘THE GIVEN DAY,’ ALSO DETAILS BABE RUTH’S TRAIN TRAVEL.

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