By Greg Caggiano, AHHS Board Member
On October 26, 1926, an exhibition baseball game was held at a ballfield in Atlantic Highlands off of Valley Drive. The home team was the Highlanders. The opposition was a visiting team of major league stars, retirees, and hopefuls, which would “barnstorm” around the country in their off-season. While crowds were sure to gather at any display of America’s national past time involving stars, this occasion was different. The pitcher for the opposition tossed three innings, allowing three runs. There was nothing standout about that, but in the batter’s box, he went four for five with two homeruns. The crowd went wild as he circled the basepaths. And why not? For that man was none other than Babe Ruth.
The Jersey Shore has a rich baseball tradition. So much so that Ruth participated in a contest in Bradley Beach less than two weeks before coming to Atlantic Highlands. The following year, he played a game in Asbury Park. Our town alone had two baseball teams, the Highlanders and the Alerts, the latter of which developed future major leaguer Sterling “Dutch” Stryker. He was the most prominent resident of Atlantic Highlands to make it to the big leagues. There, his career was short-lived, as he pitched in only 20 games over two seasons with the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Robins, winning three. His minor league career was more extensive, as he went a respectable 113-97 in 348 professional games.
Stryker participated in the Ruth showcase, agreeing to pitch three innings for the Highlanders. The other two pitchers to finish out the game were future Hall-of-Famers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock. Such a concentration of star power was not unheard of in Atlantic Highlands. While not sports-related, this was right after an era of the town’s history that saw its use as a playland and summer getaway for New York City’s biggest and brightest citizens and stars, including world-famous Shakespearean actor Robert Mantell and Fritz Leiber Sr.
While someone of Ruth’s magnitude would garner considerable attention if visiting a small town like Atlantic Highlands today, we must consider the era of such an event. Like today with entities such as the paparazzi, superstars had every move they made observed and made public. When it came time for the wealthy to arrive at their summer homes, notices were published in local papers telling of how many suitcases they arrived with and what they were wearing. The same can be said of Babe Ruth in his arrival, as there is a newspaper article devoted entirely to him stopping his car to get gas at a station in Eatontown. There, he was mobbed by fans who just wanted to catch a glimpse of baseball’s greatest slugger.
The exploits of Stryker featured well in local papers. When he pitched in the major leagues, his hometown made sure to give him some ink. As he traveled the country, bouncing between the majors and minors, the love could be felt. He was one of the “leading semi-pro pitchers in North America” commented one reporter, and a “knuckleball specialist” by another. Even when he retired, his pursuance of a career as an insurance salesman was reported on. This was a time before most athletes of all sports would be financially set for the remainder of their lives following their careers. In some instances, players even had a job they worked in the off-season to make ends meet.
Stryker was involved in another major exhibition game in town. Years earlier, the Alerts hosted stars from the then-New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, and New York Yankees. The papers fail to mention which pros were involved.
But all roads continue to lead back to Babe Ruth. In just one single afternoon, he managed to take the small, unassuming (at least in a professional sports sense) town of Atlantic Highlands and turn it into a baseball mecca. A game involving only Herb Pennock would have been newsworthy. The same could be said of Waite Hoyt. But both of them in addition to Babe Ruth? Now, that is just legendary.
Perhaps more importantly than the game itself was a fostering of interest with the area’s children. A talk given by Babe Ruth to the students of the local elementary school was also scheduled. However, there are conflicting reports on when this actually happened. One newspaper notes that the talk was supposed to happen before the game, with Ruth arriving at 1:30 PM that day. Another makes mention of the talk seeming to be happening after the game, noting how the contest ran late. Ruth would then have needed to make a mad dash to the school after-hours.
In any case, this was a moment for all involved to remember for the rest of their lives. With the social media, globalization, and connectedness we have today, it is perhaps hard to imagine the sheer astonishment such an event would have created. Babe Ruth, the singular power hitter figure of his day, the man who every boy who picked up a baseball bat wanted to be, was in Atlantic Highlands. The game between “Ruth and the Stars” and the Highlanders ended in a 7-7 tie. This was due to a lack of light at a time when baseball was played only during the day because stadiums and fields were not electrified yet.
The immediate, practical result of this game was the manager of the Highlanders, Herbert H. Hunter, personally offering Ruth $25,000 (the equivalent of almost $350,000 today) to accompany him with a team of stars to tour the country the following year and do just what they did in Atlantic Highlands, Bradley Beach, and Asbury Park. While such tours continued for Ruth and others like him, there is no record if Hunter was his manager.
For the town of Atlantic Highlands, life went on. But it is incredible to imagine the effect this had on the common fan. Before televisions, and even before radios were commonplace, the only way to follow a team was to read the paper or go to a game personally. This was more difficult back then. Here he was, the mythical Babe Ruth in our town. Think of the baseball players who were born that day, who got to witness the awesome, unequivocal power of this ballplayer. The dreamers whose longings became reality. The stories which were told generation after generation. More than 90 years later, there is still cause to write about it: the single, solitary afternoon that Babe Ruth came to Atlantic Highlands.