The latest chapter in Baseball Across America landed me in a home with a transplant from Tampa Bay, Florida named Mary. That in itself is no huge life changing event. It’s the little things that I hoped to see and it’s the little things I have so far been blessed to come upon. See, this woman Mary is not only a transplant, she also happens to be a baseball fan, humanitarian, historian and comes with a load of stories. One such story caught my ear the other night and I had to know more.
In 1934 the United States had baseball players such as Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth tour East Asian countries in a barnstorming tour promoting the game of baseball. Long before the war that would ravage the Pacific, there was baseball being played.
Truthfully I had no idea or clue about this fact of history. I could tell you anything about World War II and the Pacific and events leading up to the war. Never did I know baseball was not only alive in countries like Japan but it was huge. The Japanese had a flourishing league right up until near the start of the war when advisors to the government banned it because of its western influence.
Lost in that barnstorming were stories of homeruns, strife, celebrity and
baseball. One such story was the playing of baseball in the Philippines, more exactly Manila. Rizal baseball stadium had opened in 1934 and Lou Gehrig would be the first player to hit a homerun in it. Not to be outdone, Babe Ruth would be the second. I can only wonder how that exchange went because at that point in their careers each man hated each other. Gehrig was soft spoken and conservative while Ruth would continue to be his boisterous self. Neither man or their family associated with the other.
So Babe Ruth had the record for the longest ball in Manila.
Along comes Mary and I hear a tid-bit about how “Uncle Tom” beat Babe Ruth’s homerun record.
“Excuse me,” I asked?
“Your uncle Tom hit farther than Babe Ruth?”
I asked and replied I didn’t even know Ruth played in the Philippines.
So like the journalist I am off to do research. I was amazed at this whole section of baseball history I had no idea about. Ruth had not only played in Manila and Japan, he was considered one of the biggest celebrities to have visited and when asked 30 years after the visit, people in Japan still listed Ruth. After the war and the U.S. occupation of Japan it was not unheard of for Japanese citizens to yell, “To hell with Babe Ruth” in hopes of offending the soldiers.
“Who was uncle Tom,” I asked. I had to know.
Uncle Tom was a young Navy man years later after the war when he hit the record ball in Manila.
Lucky me, “Uncle Tom” is still alive and rooting for the Rays of Tampa. I’m hoping he has good internet skills and a penchant for telling stories because I know this is one I need to chronicle. If I ever did complete a book it’s chapters like these I would have the most fun writing.
You meet the darndest people in the darndest places.
So make that two reasons to visit Tampa. First to meet one Cliff Wittig aka Rays Renegade and track down one “Uncle Tom.”
Programming note: Stay tuned for the next Timeout at the Plate. It will be a first of it’s kind and a look at baseball that is somewhat unique! It should be a good read.