PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Home run numbers 712, 713 and 714 were smashed into low earth orbit by Babe Ruth at Forbes Field in Oakland on May 25, 1935. Ruth’s last career home runs set a major league record that would stand until 1974, when Hank Aaron surpassed it on his way to 755.
Ruth had only played in Pittsburgh one previous time, when the Yankees defeated the Pirates in the 1927 World Series. By the time he returned in 1935, the Bambino had become an aging player whose titanic hits would become his final hurrah before retiring eight days later, after several less impressive performances. Had Ruth retired in Pittsburgh, the epitaph on his playing career would have been even more heroic.
The Sultan of Swat had racked up his impressive tally of home runs over a 22-season career, but the game on May 25 was only the second time he’d hit three home runs in a single game.
Each of the final three hits was greater than the one before as they sailed over the right-field wall. The first one went into the lower deck. The second went into the upper deck. The third one went completely over the roof and out of the ballpark, the first one to ever clear the 86-foot high stands. Some eyewitnesses said it even cleared the roof by 50 feet.
Paul Warhola, the brother of artist Andy Warhol, was at the game when he was 12 years old. He told the Post-Gazette that when Ruth stepped up to the plate in the seventh inning “he pointed to a group of old guys clapping for him and said he’d put it over the roof.”
That final home run ball was estimated to travel over 600 feet. It is said to have landed on the roof of the rowhouse at 318 South Bouquet Street where was retrieved later by the chief usher, though other accounts suggest it was found in the backyard of a home on Boundary Street. It is now located at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
After hitting his final home run, Ruth crossed the plate and headed straight to the locker room. At Forbes Field, that meant he had to pass through the Pirates’ dugout and he reportedly paused to sit on the end of the Pirates’ bench next to pitcher Mace Brown, saying “Boy, that last one felt good.”
The man who pitched the last two home runs, Guy Bush, once said “I never saw a ball hit so hard before or since. He was fat and old, but he still had that great swing. Even when he missed, you could hear the bat go swish.”
Born George Herman Ruth on February 6, 1895, he was the first of eight children to a Baltimore saloon keeper. Ruth was a troublemaker from an early age. His parents sent him to an orphanage at the age of seven, where he remained until he was signed as a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles at age 19.
Ruth was sold to the Boston Red Sox and his teammates called him “Babe” for his lack of experience, even though he was already recognized as one of the best pitchers in the league. Despite his record for consecutive scoreless innings in a World Series, Boston sold Ruth to the New York Yankees. It was a mistake that kicked off an 85-year World Series drought that became known to Red Sox fans as “the Curse of the Bambino.”
One of the most celebrated athletes of all time, Ruth was beloved by fans and would often hit more home runs in a single season than entire teams managed throughout the year, including his former Red Sox teammates.
Released by the Yankees after the 1934 season, Ruth returned to Boston to play for the Braves. Though they lost 11-7 to the Pirates, Ruth’s hits accounted for six of the Braves’ runs. Ruth would play five more games before retiring, but he did not record another hit.
Ruth died of throat cancer on August 16, 1948. He was 53 years old.
Just a 10-minute trolley ride from downtown Pittsburgh, Forbes Field replaced the wooden Exposition Park on the flood-prone and smoke-choked North Shore in 1909. Situated among the green hills of still-growing Oakland and adjoining Schenley Park, Forbes Field also bumped up capacity significantly, from 16,000 at Exposition Park to 25,000, the largest in the major league at that time (a further expansion in 1925 would raise that to 35,000).
Named in honor of John Forbes, a British general in the French and Indian War, it was one of the first concrete and steel ballparks. Designed by Charles Wellford Leavitt, Jr., a landscape architect who specialized in gardens at wealthy estates, the palatial grounds of Forbes Field and the ornate details on its multiple decks place it highly in fans’ sentimentality as a “classic” ballpark.
Forbes Field also served as the home of the Pitt Panthers from 1909 to 1924, and the Pittsburgh Steelers played there from 1933 until 1963, alternating locations with Pitt Stadium after 1958. Duquesne University of the Holy Ghost and Carnegie Tech football teams also called the ballpark home turf in their early years.
The Homestead Grays, a Negro League team, played all their home games at Forbes Field from 1922 to 1939.
The first radio broadcast of a baseball game happened there in 1921, with the announcer using a telephone as his microphone. Other league firsts for the ballpark include the first rain tarpaulin and the installation of pads on the outfield walls.
Roberto Clemente began his career at Forbes Field and Honus Wagner retired there, living just long enough to see his statue (now at the front entrance of PNC Park) placed behind the left field wall in 1955.
Inevitably, as the University of Pittsburgh expanded, the ballpark’s era came to a close. The university purchased the land in 1958, but repurposing the site was contingent on the ballpark’s replacement, Three Rivers Stadium, being completed.
The lame duck ballpark’s decay became more and more evident as no one was interested in improving a doomed structure, but “The House of Thrills” wasn’t done making memories.
Among the sweetest moments for fans remains Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning home run in the 1960 World Series that sailed over Yogi Berra’s head and into the trees outside the park. As Mazeroski crossed home plate he waved his hat, a gesture immortalized in a bronze statue that was rededicated and which now stands outside PNC Park at the end of Mazeroski Way in front of the actual “406” section of the left-center field wall. The dramatic finish is still considered by many to be the greatest game ever played in baseball history.
The Pirates played for over 60 years at Forbes Field and won three World Series during that time. During the 4,728 games played at Forbes Field, no one threw a no-hitter. Perhaps even more surprisingly, alcohol was never sold inside the ballpark either, though fans could bring their own until 1959.
The last game, like the first, was played against the Chicago Cubs on June 28, 1970. Unlike the first, the Pirates won and fans rushed the field and plundered the ballpark for souvenirs, ripping numbers from its hand-operated scoreboard. Shortly after, several fires sealed the fate of “The Old Lady of Schenley Park” and demolition began in earnest during the summer of 1971.
A portion of the outfield wall was left behind in tribute along Roberto Clemente Drive, from its former deepest point of 457 feet near left-center to the 436-foot marker at center field. Baseball fans still seek out the remnants of Forbes Field hidden among the University of Pittsburgh campus, where home plate sits under glass in the hallway of Wesley W. Posvar Hall.
The Pirates would move on to Three Rivers Stadium, which they would share with the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 30-year stint before it too was demolished to make way for a dedicated ballpark.
PNC Park opened in 2001 and sits just east of the where Exposition Park was located, which is remembered today by a marker and home plate.
The legacy of Forbes Field lives on at PNC Park, which was heavily inspired by its predecessor. The current ballpark corrected the concrete sterility and distance Three Rivers Stadium imposed between fans and players and restores intimacy and asymmetry to the field of play, which immediately won praise from the fans.
© 2020 Cox Media Group