Side Streets: Babe Ruth visit part of Colorado Springs' baseball history

April 11, 2014 Updated: April 11, 2014 at 1:00 pm
photo - Sky Sox catcher Sam Hairston proudly holds the Most Valuable Player Award trophy after Western League President Sen. Ed Johnson made the presentation Monday night before the ball game on Sept. 8, 1953. Seen in a Gazette Telegraph. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District.
Sky Sox catcher Sam Hairston proudly holds the Most Valuable Player Award trophy after Western League President Sen. Ed Johnson made the presentation Monday night before the ball game on Sept. 8, 1953. Seen in a Gazette Telegraph. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District. 

As the Sky Sox prepare for their home opener Friday evening at Security Service Field, it's a good time to go into extra innings talking baseball in Colorado Springs.

My recent column about Melvin Barhite winning a 1949 Gazette Telegraph-sponsored contest to name the new minor league franchise brought back lots of memories among readers.

Dee Niehans said Melvin and his wife, Florence, contributed much more to Colorado Springs than simply naming the team.

Dee said they played a major role in creation of the Little Britches Rodeo program in the Pikes Peak region.

"Mel and Florence put a lot of effort into the local program that gave young people a chance to experience the sport of rodeo and learn some important lessons in life," Dee said in an email.

A surprising email came from reader Mick McLaughlin, son of the late Tom McLaughlin, a former G-T sports editor I quoted in my column.

"The article was a trip down memory lane as I grew up at Memorial Field with the original Sky Sox," Mick wrote. "My childhood was spent going to all Colorado Springs sporting events with my dad and his typewriter."

Tagging along with his dad instilled a love of sports that influenced him to pursue a career in baseball.

"I am still coaching high school baseball after 47 years largely due to my love of the game and fond memories of growing up with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox," Mick said, attaching a photo of an original Sky Sox uniform he has framed.

Then I hit the jackpot of historic baseball photos when I took a call from Roger Hadix, author of "Baseball in Colorado Springs - Images of Baseball" published in 2013.

Hadix is a native of Colorado Springs who grew up listening to St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio. He played sandlot baseball with his friends growing up and softball in high school and college before discovering, about 20 years ago, the Colorado Vintage Base Ball Association in which players don historic uniforms and play according to rules in effect in 1864.

"I thought: 'How can I get involved in this?'?" said Hadix, a teller at First Commercial Bank of Colorado.

He began playing with a Denver team, wearing a replica uniform of the "Millionaires" - the city's first professional team formed by the Colorado Springs Base Ball Club that played in 1901-05.

He started researching Colorado Springs' baseball history so he could better represent his hometown in the vintage games. From a May 31, 1873, story in The Gazette, he learned of the first organized baseball team, the Denver & Rio Grande Reds, named for the railroad owned by Colorado Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer. (The team also was known as the Colorado Springs Reds. By the way, the Reds will play games July 19 in Victor and Sept. 1 at Rock Ledge Ranch.)

A great excerpt from that Gazette story: "Colorado Springs is to have a Base Ball club. And why not? We find it hard enough to string together a page of local items for the Gazette and anything which will produce a few more 'accidents' will be a perfect Godsend to us."

And just as the newspaper helped name the Sky Sox in 1949, the Gazette of 1901 gave the Millionaires its nickname. Another excerpt read: "The Millionaires are coming soon . everybody in Colorado Springs is a millionaire and why shouldn't the ball players be?" From then on, the club carried the name.

Hadix also tells in his book of gold mining legend and philanthropist Winfield Scott Stratton's connection to the Millionaires and of stadiums such as Boulevard Park, Merchant Park and Zoo Park, among others.

And he has photos describing legendary figures in the local baseball scene such as the Burns brothers, who owned the Millionaires, Sky Sox great Sam Hairston, who led the club to Western League championships in the 1950s, and, of course, Rich "Goose" Gossage, the Wasson High School grad who went on to a 22-year career in the major leagues. He was a pioneering relief pitcher who helped the New York Yankees win the World Series in 1978 and earned enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.

There also are chapters on college baseball played here, semi-pro teams and city leagues. And there's the 1988 return of minor league baseball and the new Sky Sox.

All the history is on display in photos in his 127-page book.

I was intrigued by a story that didn't make the book.

Hadix mentioned a visit to Colorado Springs in July 1940 by Babe Ruth, the legendary New York Yankees slugger who was five years into his retirement and came with his wife and daughter on a tour of the country that included staying at The Broadmoor hotel, playing golf, putting on a hitting display during a doubleheader between two semi-pro teams and, of course, visiting orphans and disadvantaged children at the Myron Stratton Home.

Hadix was unable to find photos of the visit and said he was forced to only mention Ruth's visit here.

I had a little more luck digging up details from Gazette Telegraph accounts of the visit and even a poor quality photo of Ruth with two Stratton children.

The stories described a warm reception from a standing-room-only crowd attending a July 4 doubleheader between semi-pro teams from Colorado Springs and Pueblo at Sportsman Field on Nevada Avenue north of Fillmore Street.

During a ceremony, Mayor George G. Birdsall gave Ruth the keys to the city. Then Ruth took some swings against pitchers for the home team Orioles, including Jimmie Thompson, a Springs native who played shortstop in the 1940s for teams in the Cardinals' minor league system.

Gazette stories say Ruth and his family visited Garden of the Gods, Cheyenne Canyon, High Drive and the summit of Cheyenne Mountain. Ruth was honored at a picnic at Seven Falls where he reportedly smacked a baseball an estimated 266 feet to the top of the falls. There was also an autograph session at a sporting goods store downtown, a visit to 90 children at the Myron Stratton Home and a trip to Pueblo for another hitting demonstration at Runyon Field.

Ruth and his family left on the train July 8 for Cheyenne to continue his barnstorming tour.

And with that, it's once again time to play ball.


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