So, that’s the story of the day I fished with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, an event that occurred long, long ago in late November, 1928. Truly a day to remember.
I hardly know where to begin. I suppose, though, it is best to spend a minute or two explaining the photo that accompanies this story, for I’m sure that without it what follows would read like so much mush. If ever a story was dependent upon a photograph, this is the one.
That photo was taken on the stern of Carnarsie’s old Rosie R II, and I was aboard that day. It was Thanksgiving Time, 1928, either the day before the holiday or the day after; I’m not sure which. But it was a weekday, for I was home from school that week. I’m certain of this because I seldom went codfishing on weekends due to the crowded conditions whenever fishing was good (and codfishing was always good those days.) I was 14-years-old.
As is readily apparent, the photo is posed. The rod Babe Ruth is holding belonged to one of the passengers (note the sidewinder reel); the one Lou Gehrig holds is my converted hickory pool-cue codfishing stick, complete with its heavy brass reel. The rod I no longer have, but the reel is still in my possession. I wouldn’t part with it for the world.
That double-header Babe is lifting were two of my half-dozen or so 8 to 19 pounders I caught that day. The two cod Lou is attempting to lift belonged to a passenger. Not that Babe and Lou didn’t catch cod that day, they certainly did. Their catch, however, had already been given to the crew when a decision was made to add this picture plus several more to the dozens of other publicity photos taken throughout the day. It was taken in Jamaica Bay, and I’ll tell you how in a minute.
Now back to that photo. How I got it is a story by itself.
Many years ago I was associated with the Nassau County school system. During summer when the schools were closed, extra custodial help was hired to aid in the million and one jobs required to get the school ready for the coming year. It was through one of these temporary employees that I received that photo.
One morning during a coffee break I was talking with one of these summer-help fellows, who also happened to be a fisherman. I mentioned that long-ago trip with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He immediately told me his brother-in-law, a professional house wrecker, had razed an old residence in Queens and had found several books on the life of Babe Ruth. One of these books contained a photo of Ruth and Gehrig holding codfish on the stern of an old party boat. If I wanted that photo, it was mine.
I just knew, just knew, mind you that that photo was one of the dozens taken on the day this story is about. Actually, I hadn’t spoken much to anyone about the trip of so long ago, but its memory remained fresh in my mind as the day it happened. Anyway, a week later I had the photo you see, and I wouldn’t part with that, either.
And that’s how the photo came into my possession.
Not to change the subject, but I can be pretty stupid at times. I say this because several Sundays ago I was straining my brain to come up with a suitable subject for an “Old Time” article. Nothing. I gave it up and decided that on this particular Sunday afternoon I would put my thoughts in neutral and watch TV for a change, which is something I don’t often do.
I checked the newspaper for a good movie and came up with a dandy: Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in “Pride of the Yankees.” Now, I’m not a baseball fan, but I know the game and occasionally played it as a kid, and I also recognized a good movie when I see one. I’d seen this movie years ago, and to me such excellence is always worth another look.
Well, I relaxed in my easy chair and watched Gary Cooper become Lou Gehrig, and a darned fine job he did. Part way through the movie came a surprise. Lo and behold, Babe Ruth made a brief appearance. I’d completely forgotten Babe was in that movie. It was then that the thought struck me: Matt, old boy, you wanted a subject for an old time article. Now you got it! At the movie’s conclusion, I went to my den and searched through my box of fishing keepsakes and finally located that photo. I breathed a sigh of relief, for, as I say, without that photo, the story of my fishing day with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig wouldn’t be worth the effort.
And here is that story. I hope you enjoy the telling as much as I enjoy the reliving. Truly, it was a day to remember.
Back in November 1928 I was but 14-years-old, as I said. A kid, yes; but even then a codfish fanatic, just as I am today. I remember I had gotten aboard the Rose R II very early that morning. But this was not unusual for me, for I was always an early bird. I would have spent the night on board if my parents had permitted it. I had placed my gear on the port side, about midships. I much preferred the stern, but it seemed that no matter how early I arrived, there were always fishermen in the stern. (I’m sure they spent the night on board.) Moored beside us at the Canarsie wharf were the Tambo II, Pioneer II, and one other boat whose name for the life of me I cannot recall.
Anyway, while sitting near the bow, propped against the lifeboat (yes, the Rose R carried a lifeboat) and chatting with an old-timer, I suddenly heard much shouting and noisy confusion. “Hey!” someone yelled. “Ain’t that Ruth?” “Hey, Ruth!” called another. “That’s Ruth, all right! Hey, Ruth!”
Well, having my back to the bow, as I say, I couldn’t see Ruth. But I figured she must be some popular girl to cause all that ruckus. But when I heard someone shout “That’s Gehrig with him!” I thought I’d better check out what’s going on.
Sure enough, there was Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Both were walking toward the dock and both seemed undecided on which boat to go aboard. With them were two men. One of these men was weighted down with a heavy press camera and assorted gear; his companion carried a valise. Babe and Lou had no tackle, and for a moment I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
No roulette ball ever held as much fascination as did Ruth and Gehrig as they walked first to one boat and then followed the string-piece to another. Shouts from the mates hawking their attention were loud and clear. “Over here, fellers! On the Rose R II! Plenty codfish! On the Tambo! Step aboard! Plenty codfish on the Pioneer!” Etc.
When one visits a strange locality, the tendency is to walk to the right, and the Rose R II was farthest right along the dock. Ruth and Gehrig approached us and came to a halt. They gave us the once-over and hesitated. Babe said something to Lou and Lou shrugged his shoulders, and with that, they stepped aboard, followed by the other two men.
Well, I guess you know what happened then. Many of the Tambo and Pioneer’s passengers left those boats and attempted to get about the Rose R, but Dick Persson, the skipper, would have none of it. It wasn’t fair, he said, that those other skippers should lose passengers because of what happened, and Dick refused to let them aboard. And so we sailed that morning with a dozen or so fishermen, instead of at least twice that many.
You and I know there isn’t a boy in America who doesn’t have a hero of one kind and another. In 1928, we kids had three: Babe Ruth – The Sultan of Swat; Lou Gehrig – The Iron Horse; and Jack Dempsey – The Manassa Mauler. Most kids would have given their eye teeth for just a peek at one of these world-famous men, and here I was in a position that would allow me to spend an entire day with two of them. How lucky could a boy get?
Naturally, on the way out all the passengers gathered about Babe and Lou; all except me, that is. I was so small, no one noticed me. Finally, everyone moved to the stern, where it was more convenient for autographs, small talk, and picture-taking. This enabled me to get closer. It was Lou Gehrig who noticed me first. He nudged Babe and nodded his head toward me.
“Hey!” exclaimed Ruth. “We got a kid on board. C’mere, kid.” As I approached him, he asked, “Where do you tend bar?” When I didn’t reply, he asked, “What’s your name, son?”
I told him.
“Another Irishman, eh? Not one of those wild Irishmen, are you?”
I stood there, mute.
“C’mon, Babe,” Lou Gehrig said, “You’re scaring the kid.”
“Am I scaring you, Matty?” Babe asked.
He removed my cap and tousled my hair. “I’ll see you later.” And with that, he went back to his conversation with the men passengers.
Well, all the way out to the offshore Sea Bright grounds, I hung around in the background, taking kid-like peeks at the two of them.
About an hour before reaching the grounds, the mate came by with rental rods and handed one to Babe and one to Lou. It was then I noticed that the two members of their party, the photographer and the man with the valise, were relegated to stand by and watch the activity. I don’t know if these fellows were fishermen, but I doubt it. They didn’t seem a bit upset over not fishing, and I don’t believe they wanted to, anyway.
Now we arrive at that part of the day I shall never forget.
For some unknown reason, Babe and Lou decided to fish alongside me, Gehrig on my right, and Babe on my left. I’ll never forget that experience if I live to be a thousand. What got me was the fact that they could have fished anywhere on the boat, and I know those stern fishermen would have gladly made room at the rail just for the opportunity to fish near them. In fact, two stern fishermen left their spots and began to set up next to Babe, but the man with the valise said a few words to them and they returned to the stern.
I was too timid to begin a conversation and I guess this was noticeable, for Lou encouraged me by saying: “I hear you’re a good fisherman. Is that right?”
Just as I was about to reply, the mate passed by with the skimmer pans and said: He sure is, Mr. Gehrig. Matty, tell him about the pool you won last summer with that big fluke.”
Well, that broke the ice and I was off like a shot. I was on home ground. And I rambled on and on; and I can ramble, believe me. But while I was talking, I was also listening and learning things from them.
This was not their first party boat fishing trip, as I had supposed. Both had gone codfishing about the same time the year before (the one in which Babe hit his 60 homers). On that trip they had fished from Sheepshead Bay on the old RC Lundy, skippered, I think, by old Gus Rau.
Of the two, I think Lou was the more experienced fisherman; at least this is the impression I got at the time. I believe, too, that he got a bigger kick from fishing. This is not to say Babe didn’t enjoy himself. I watched him go through the same heart-thumping we all do when a cod is on the hook.
Well, we began fishing and then my troubles started. The photographer kept interfering with my fishing every time Lou or Babe wrestled a cod to the surface. I had to move aside so photos could be taken. Then whenever a gaff was about ready to impale a cod, everything had to stop for an “action” shot. The Lou or Babe posed for photos showing them gaffing each other’s fish; and on and on. But all in all, it was a good fishing day.
I remember with fondness how Babe kept filling me with soda pop. “Hey, captain; give the kid all the soda he wants. I’ll settle with you later.” And I was some soda hound those days. To my young eyes, ten cents a bottle was a lot of money, and I figured Babe would go broke paying for it. But I was willing to drink it, if he was willing to pay for it.
The day ended all too quickly for me. I was saddened, for I knew I’d never again see those two great, kindly men in person. Everyone else seemed quite happy, though; especially Babe and Lou, for they had caught at least a dozen nice cod between them.
Just as we entered Rockaway Inlet, the photographer decided he should get a few more photos. So everyone gathered at the stern and that was where that photo you see was made. However, most of the fish had been cleaned and the rental tackle put away, therefore, any available rod was used, as were the available fish. That’s how my cod and my rod got into the photo.
There was one more photo made that day and I surely would give my eye teeth to possess. It shows Babe, Lou and me kneeling on the stern, Babe and Lou on each side of me with their arms draped over my shoulders and those four cod spread out before us, and me with the inevitable soda bottle in one hand. Yes, sir, I would give a lot for that one. Well, I was lucky once; maybe I’ll be lucky again.
So, that’s the story of the day I fished with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, an event that occurred long, long ago in late November, 1928. Truly, it was a day to remember.