When Ruth, the mighty Soccaneer,
Stands up to sock the ball,
The throng is bound to raise a cheer
No matter what befall.
It thrills the vast and noisy crowd
To see a four-base clout.
And yet the cheer is just as loud
When someone strikes him out.
~ John B. Sheridan, Sportswriter | March 1921
When Babe Ruth, the home run hero of 1920, arrived at Yankees’ spring training in Shreveport, Louisiana in March 1921, he was out of shape and overweight.
He was, The New York Times said, the “Bulky Babe.”
The Sporting News was less poetic. The Babe “is fat and is working like a coal heaver to get in shape.”
(See, Panda Bear, you weren’t the first chubby to turn up at spring training.)
But, that didn’t stop several hundreds of Shreveport fans from turning out to greet Babe Ruth at the train station when he arrived in town on March 5. Shreveport had America’s biggest celebrity in their midst.
He fought his way past the cheering crowd and made his way to his hotel, The Sporting News reported, “where he was sat upon by scores of kids, who followed him to his room and were not satisfied until all had shaken hands and the Babe had shown them how he hit home runs by batting imaginary balls over the chandelier.”
Babe Ruth in Shreveport, March 1921.
During his month in Shreveport, the citizens showered him with gifts, and turned out at games – and practices – by the thousands. A local Essex car dealer gave him a car to use during spring training. The license plate read simply: “Babe Ruth’s Essex.” (“Babe Ruth’s Essex” was found one morning abandoned in the middle of the street when Babe rode off with someone else during a night of carousing.)
But, I’m just using the Sultan of Swat to lure you in. He’s not the star of this post. Bruce Price is.
Price was 24, a local, pitching for the Shreveport Gassers, a Texas League team.
Think of the Gassers as the Washington Generals to the Yankees’ Harlem Globetrotters. Just a small town practice squad for the Yankees to feast on that spring.
Two years ago, I wrote about unusual spring training spots, including Shreveport.
Last November, I found this comment at the bottom of the post:
It’s easy to write about Babe and the ’21 Yankees who, historian Robert Creamer wrote, “roared into that Louisiana city like cowboys coming to town on Saturday night.”
Broads. And booze. Abandoned cars. And Ruthian home runs that sailed over outfield walls and into the streets. That broke the windows of passing street cars.
(I had you at broads and booze, didn’t I?)
But, maybe it’s time to write about the Shreveport pitcher who got the Babe out.
So I sent an email to Janet Johnson who wrote me right back.
She confirmed that it was her grandfather, Bruce Price, “Papa Bruce” to family, who struck out Babe Ruth.
He was a smallish pitcher – maybe 5’8” and 150 pounds or so. A righty.
“My dad says Papa would go pitch for teams in little towns in the area. He also said he played baseball at Louisiana Tech one year but never went to class,” Johnson said.
Price had a wicked curve. He told folks he “could throw a baseball and make it curve through the crook of a stovepipe without ever touching metal.”
It may have been that curveball that buckled the Babe.
But, the box score from that March 12, 1921 game, like many family memories, had gotten a little fuzzy with age.
Fun Fact: That’s not how you spell Shreveport.
Turns out, Price hadn’t struck the Babe out twice. But, there’s still a story to tell.
The Gassers starting pitcher was shelled that day, giving up six runs over three innings. Price came in in relief, pitching the 4th, 5th, and 6th. He pitched three scoreless innings and faced Ruth once, getting him to hit a weak infield grounder that Price easily fielded.
If you want to quibble about a strike out’s value over an infield out, go ahead. An out’s an out, if you ask me, and I think Price did Ruth a favor by making him leg out a play to first. After all, it was early in the spring and Ruth still had 20 pounds to lose.
The fans had come to see Babe Ruth, but as the game went on they began to cheer their hometown boys instead, especially when the Gassers got Ruth out.
Despite Ruth’s 0-for-5 day, the Yankees won 7-3.
Bruce Price’s ERA? 0.00
In 1983, Wiley Hilburn of The Shreveport Times wrote that the Babe asked about Price after the game. “Who is that narrow [bastard]?” and later told a reporter, “I like that little Price.”
Decades later, Price described how he pitched Ruth: “It was inside low and inside high. … He would take one step with his left foot toward me, and then bring his right foot around to swing. I’d hesitate with my throw and try to throw his timing off.”
The Babe bounced back the next day in Ruthian style, going 6-for-6 – three homers, three singles – and the Yankees stepped on the Gassers 21-3.
(The Gassers did finally take one from the Yankees, 3-2 in 11 innings, on the last game of the spring.)
Price played a few more years on local teams, got married to a girl named Maggie, had four children, farmed, and drove a school bus.
“He never passed up an opportunity to go fishing,” Johnson told me. “He absolutely loved being out on the lake — any lake — but would not eat fish at all. He liked his coffee so strong that my mom would boil some water to dilute hers when we came to visit.”
He rarely missed church on Sunday, played the harmonica, and raised a family that stayed close to home.
“Everyone who knew Bruce just loved him,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s father – Price’s eldest son – retired back to the old home place not so long ago. The original house is gone now. “It had a porch across the front and a steep tin roof,” Johnson said. “I can’t remember exactly when they got a bathroom, but it was in my lifetime. Before that, it was a trip to the outhouse, and a bath in a tin wash tub in the back room, with well water heated on the stove. My uncle Bob lived nearby his whole life, and my two aunts married Air Force men but eventually came back home. Uncle Bob died a few years ago, but all of them have stayed close to the church and community, as have many of my cousins.”
Baseball still runs in the family. Many of Bruce Price’s children, grandchildren, and, today, great-grandchildren played in high school and some into college. One great-grandson – also a righty pitcher – played at Southern Mississippi about 10 years ago, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals, and played a season in the minors before being sidelined with an injury.
Bruce Price died on March 25, 1983. He was 86.
Babe Ruth hit 714 homeruns over 22 seasons. He was a career .342 hitter. It took a great pitcher to get the Babe out.
Bruce Price was one of them.