On Nov. 8, 1926, Calvin Coolidge was President of the United States. The average lifespan of an American male was just 55 years old. Prohibition was still entrenched in American policy, yet the Roaring Twenties were still very much roaring.
And on Nov. 8, 1926, the most famous baseball player who ever lived stepped onto a celebrated Fargo stage.
Ninety years ago today, Babe Ruth played the first of three shows at the Fargo Theatre. Yes, that same Fargo Theatre that is a fixture of the city’s downtown landscape, then in its first year of operation.
Comparing the stature of Ruth to today’s baseball’s stars doesn’t do Ruth justice. He wasn’t just a record-breaking slugger in 1926. He was, according to the Associated Press, the most photographed person in the world. Baseball is called the national pastime, but never was that more true than it was in the 1920s.
Less than a month removed from playing in that year’s World Series, Ruth — who famously was thrown out trying to steal second base in Game 7 that October for the final out of a one-run game — arrived in Fargo after previous stops in the Twin Cities and Duluth. It was a vaudeville stop, which might sound odd today but was rather common for baseball stars in Ruth’s time. As noted in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, the likes of John McGraw, Christy Mathewson and Cap Anson all supplemented their income in the offseason by performing in front of theater audiences. Often times, it was merely just discussions of baseball strategy and story-telling, but fans poured out to see them.
In 2005, Bill Snyder, then 88, wrote a story for the Generations section of The Forum in which he recalled seeing Ruth’s act on the first night:
I was in the fifth grade at the Jefferson School at that time, and the boys in my class kept asking me, “Bill, are you gonna go see Babe Ruth at the Fargo? It’s today at 4:30! He’s gonna be there in person! And it only costs a dime!”
Later, Snyder wrote:
Babe Ruth bounced to the front of the stage, and when the cheering quieted down, he began to explain to the audience how he holds the bat for more distance. “I’ll let you in on a little sceret,” I think he began, and the kids all quieted down. They all wanted to hear.
“I curl my little finger across the bottom of the bat handle,” he added. The audience was quiet as a mouse. “Somehow,” he continued, “this is why I can belt out those home runs!”
The audience then exploded in cheering; they had heard the secret.
Then the Babe launched into a monologue of how he stands in the batter’s box, how he swings, and how he places the hits in the ballpark. The kids loved the simple instructions, and I’m sure every kid in the Fargo studied how the Babe curled his little finger on the bottom of the bat when he arrived at the plate.
Later in his talk, Babe took questions from the audience. The kids asked him everything they could think of.
For a final bit of his act, Ruth autographed six baseballs and presented them to six lucky kids in the audience. He called the winning kids up on the stage and they were the envy of every jealous kid in the theater.
When one youngster was offered the ball, the Bambino got the surprise of his life – the lad refused to take it. He just stood there with his hands in his pockets and looked sheepishly at the Babe.
Babe’s mouth dropped open as he beheld the miracle of an American kid refusing a gift every other kid would do anything to get.
“Come on, lad,” said Babe. “I’m giving it to you!”
There was a dead quiet pause, and then the boy slowly pulled his hands out of his pockets and accepted the autographed ball. The audience screamed with delight.
In the 90 years that the Fargo Theatre has been in existence, there may not have been a bigger star to take the stage. However, finding evidence of Ruth’s visit anywhere except the newspaper archives is difficult.
Nicole Larson, who is the operations manager at the Fargo Theatre, said that there isn’t much left from the landmark’s early days as a vaudeville theater. But hidden away is an autographed picture of the Babe, addressed to the Fargo Theatre and dated from his final night there.
“To the Fargo Theater, remembrance of a pleasant engagement. Babe Ruth. Nov. 10, 1926”