PEELER: When Lefty Freeman Struck Out Babe Ruth
Editor's note: Look for Don Shea's interview with Lefty Freeman in an upcoming episode of "Inside Wolfpack Athletics."
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. – For Babe Ruth, it was a day to forget, one of the worst offensive and defensive performances in his waning career.
But for NC State College pitcher Olney Ray "Lefty" Freeman, it was a day that lives fresh in his memory today, exactly 75 years later.
That's because the 96-year old lefthander can still brag about striking out the most feared hitter in baseball, back when Freeman was a 21-year-old NC State College junior, facing the National League Boston Braves in an exhibition game in Fayetteville. After falling behind on a 3-0 count, Freeman threw three consecutive curveballs, the last sending the Bambino corkscrewing into the batter's box and onto his duff.
The Babe, who had just been sold to the Braves after his long run with the New York Yankees, came to Fayetteville, N.C., with his new team on April 5, 1935, to participate in "Babe Ruth Day," featuring a day's worth of activities that included signing autographs for a busload of kids from the Oxford Orphanage Glee Club, a speech at the Fayetteville Kiwanis Club and the game against Chick Doak's Red Terrors at Highland Park.
It was one of several exhibition games the Braves played as they worked their way north for Opening Day.
That Friday afternoon was practically a holiday in Fayetteville. Mayor Q.K. Nimocks Jr. asked the city's businesses to shut their doors between 2:30 and 5 p.m. and schools were let out early so everyone in town could see the Bambino one more time in his old stomping grounds. Adults paid $1.13 for the privilege, while school kids paid 35 cents.
The Babe, star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and slugger for the Yankees, always had a special kinship with North Carolina. When he signed as a professional baseball player in 1914, he was sent to Fayetteville for spring training with the Baltimore Orioles, which at the time was unaffiliated minor league franchise in the International League.
That spring, youngster fresh from the St. Mary's Industrial School in Baltimore hit his first professional home run at the old Cumberland County Fairgrounds. He also earned his famous nickname while staying old Prince Charles Hotel, where he liked to spend his free time riding the fancy elevators and hanging around manager Jack Dunn, who had legally adopted the orphan named George Herman Ruth. The rest of the Orioles called him "Dunn's newest babe," and the name stuck.
In the years that followed, Ruth returned frequently to North Carolina to play golf and to hunt.
So the city was eager to host the over-shadowed Braves, who continued to struggle for spectators against the Boston Red Sox and hoped that Ruth would improve season-ticket sales. It certainly worked in Fayetteville.
Though the park seated only 3,500 spectators, a crowd estimated at between 7,000 to 10,000 spectators filled every seat, stood along both foul lines and encroached around the outfield boundaries for the opportunity to watch Ruth knock one out of the park again.
But it was not a great day for the 40-year-old Ruth, who was suffering from both an ankle injury and the effects of his 20 seasons in the major leagues.
Nor was it a good day for NC State starting pitcher Stuart Flythe, who was so nervous to face the big league team that he walked eight batters and threw three wild pitches in just three innings on the mound. In the first, the Braves filled the bases on a hit by Billy Urbanski and walks to Billy Mallon and Ruth. Wally Berger – who would lead the National League with 35 home runs and 130 runs batted in during the 1935 season – drove in Urbanski with the only hit of the inning. With Mallon on third and Ruth on second, NC State shortstop Woody Lambeth snagged a line drive by Boston's Pinky Whitney, and doubled Ruth off at second base.
In the second, Tommy Thompson doubled and Flythe loaded the bases by walking the next two batters. Urbanski scored Thompson on a sacrifice fly, and Flythe walked Mallon, bringing Ruth to the plate with the bases loaded. The crowd edged even closer to the foul lines, in hopes of catching the Bambino's grand slam ball.
But Ruth hit a soft grounder to first baseman D.C. Williams, who fired to catcher Jim Staton for the force out at the plate and then received the ball back at first base to complete the double play.
The Braves scored two more runs off Flythe – who pitched 17 games in 1936 for the Philadelphia Athletics, in his lone major league season – in the third inning, on two walks, an error, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly. The inning could have been much worse, but NC State centerfielder Uriah Norwood went deep into the outfield to catch a long fly ball by Urbanski.
Freeman replaced Flythe in the fourth, and the first batter he faced was Ruth, who walked on four consecutive pitches against the nervous pitcher. But Berger followed with a hard smash to third baseman Ted Ware, who threw it around the horn for a double play.
The Red Terrors scored their first run of the game in the fifth, loading the bases on a pair of errors and a walk. Norwood then hit a soft fly ball to centerfield that was declared an infield fly, but Johnnie Johnson scored on the play.
In the top of the sixth, fans again saw how Ruth's skills had deteriorated. With two outs, catcher Staton doubled to left field, then scored when Ruth failed to field Flythe's ground ball to first base.
In the bottom of the sixth, with one on and one out, Ruth came to the plate again to face Freeman. Still a bundle of nerves, Freeman let fly a ball that nearly hit Ruth in the head. As he ducked, Ruth muttered "Damned wild left-hander."
"The first pitch got away from me and it sailed right at him," Freeman recalled in a 1977 interview with The Raleigh Times. "He went down and got up talking."
Freeman was booed by the anxious crowd after throwing two more balls to Ruth, taking the count to 3-0.
"They all came to see Babe Ruth hit a home run and they thought I was intentionally walking him," Freeman said. "They were yelling all sorts of things but most of them were just pleas for Ruth to rip one."
Freeman was surprised when Ruth chased after a curveball on the 3-0 count.
"I guess he just wanted to please the fans, however, and he went all the way after it," Freeman said. "He swung so hard he fell down and just sort of curled up there."
Ruth fouled off the next pitch to run the count full. Freeman, who threw side-armed because of some strained ligaments in his shoulder, shook off Staton's call for a curve ball.
"I wanted to think a little," he said. "I didn't have but two pitches – the curve and what I called a fastball although it wasn't very fast – so it didn't take long for the catcher to get back to the curve again."
But instead of side-arming the pitch, Freeman came straight over the top with a curveball, which dropped straight down, and the Babe, thinking it was a waist-high fastball, took a Ruthian cut at the ball. He missed badly and his momentum took him to the ground, baseball's greatest hitter struck out by a collegian.
The Braves did score two more runs off Freeman in the sixth inning, but as the News & Observer reported in its coverage of the game: "As The Babe missed that third strike, an ear-to-ear grin took possession of Lefty Freeman's countenance. The kid was still grinning as he pitched to other batters in the inning. Lefty had a right to grin."
Things got a little weird in the top of the seventh inning, after NC State advanced runners to first and third base and Doak sent freshman Mason Bugg in as a pinch hitter for Flythe.
It seems that the supply of baseballs had dwindled during the game, as the chamber of commerce encouraged fans to keep all every baseball they could get their hands on: "Keep it – don't throw it back – it's yours – it's a free baseball souvenir."
Quantity didn't seem to be a problem, since the Braves brought with them 40 balls, NC State had a dozen in their equipment bag and the chamber supplied four dozen more in reserve. The fans obliged to the announcement: more than two dozen balls disappeared into the stands during State's batting practice, and four dozen disappeared during the Braves' batting practice. Not a single foul ball that left the playing field was returned.
Midway through the game, after home plate umpire Robert Dunn counted just four balls in his pouch, an announcement was made for any hardware store owners in attendance to return to their shops and bring back their entire supply of baseballs. That added about another dozen to the count.
But when Bugg fouled off a pitch during his seventh inning at-bat, Dunn called the game. Bugg, who had slipped out of NC State's dugout and into the crowd to catch two foul balls himself earlier, offered up one of his souvenirs for the opportunity to continue his at-bat against Braves pitcher Leo Mangrum.
But the umpire refused and the game ended, with the Braves claiming a 6-2 victory. The official box score from the game says "Game called in first half of 7th, no more baseballs."
It was clearly a moral victory for Doak's team. It out-hit the Braves 7-6 and out played them in the field as well. The star of the game was Lambeth, who had three hits in four at bats. He, too, remembered his outstanding performance throughout his long life as a textile executive. He died in Brevard, N.C., on May 1, 2008, at the age of 95.
Ruth might have known that his career was just about done that afternoon. Though he made a triumphant return to Boston for opening day and hit three home runs on May 25 at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, Ruth's skills were in serious decline. He hit just .181 in 28 games for the Braves and hit the final six of his 714 career home runs. He announced his retirement in early June of that season.
Freeman, a native of Colerain, N.C., continued to pitch for the Red Terrors. But he threw out his arm later that summer in a Tobacco League game in Sanford and never pitched again. He went on to become an agricultural extension agent, a tobacco farmer and hog farmer.
Now 95, he lives at his home in Wake Forest and is a frequent spectator at Wolfpack men's and women's basketball games and baseball games. Saturday, he threw out the first pitch for NC State's game against top-ranked Virginia and presented the letterman's sweater he won in 1935 to NC State coach Elliott Avent.
Freeman's pitch on Saturday might not have knocked Ruth to the ground, but it returned the grin to his face one more time.
You may contact Tim Peeler at email@example.com.