MEMORIES OF THE BABE : Mark Koenig, Who Once Had Fight With Ruth, Remembers Him as Being More Than a Slugger
Standing off third base after tripling, Mark Koenig had a pretty good view of Babe Ruth’s 60th homer 60 years ago.
“It was a long homer to right, just like a lot of his homers, a long, lofty shot off Tom Zachary, an old left-hander with Washington,” recalls Koenig, the last surviving starter from the 1927 New York Yankees.
Taking a trip down memory lane with Koenig, 83, is a rare look into the clubhouse of Murderers’ Row and a train ride around the American League of the Roaring ‘20s filled with beer and poker, high jinks and women.
He was a singles hitter on a team of power, a second-year shortstop who drank with the Sultan of Swat, played cards with him and brawled with him. They dressed next to each other in the locker room and slept across from each other on the team train until they had “a little altercation” midway through the 1927 season and Manager Miller Huggins moved Koenig to another berth.
Koenig says the spat began when Ruth accused him of not trying for a high throw “20 feet over my head” from second baseman Tony Lazzeri during an exhibition in Baltimore.
Koenig: “Ruth started in yelling at me, then I waited until it was quiet and called him every name I could think of.”
Koenig says he was picking up his bat in front of the dugout after the inning when Ruth grabbed him from behind and shoved him down the stairs.
“We wrestled for a minute or so until the other guys stopped it.,” he says. “I didn’t talk to Ruth until we cinched the pennant in St. Louis. We shook hands and it was OK. It was silly.”
In the World Series, Koenig ledthe Yankees with 9-for-18 hitting as they swept the Pittsburgh Pirates four straight.
“We had them beat before we even started,” Koenig says. “We beat them when they were sitting in the stands during batting practice, watching Ruth and Gehrig hit balls over the fence.”
Koenig’s hitting also atoned for his fielding in the 1926 World Series, when he booted a double-play ball in the seventh game to help St. Louis win.
There were no champagne-dousing celebrations in those days, no mobs of reporters and photographers in the locker room, either for Ruth’s record-breaking homer or for a World Series victory.
After games at Yankee Stadium, the players and some writers often gathered at a second-floor piano bar one of Ruth’s friends had in Passaic, N.J., drinking pitchers of beer around a long table despite Prohibition.
Koenig sits now at his dining room table drinking “a little tipple,” a glass of whiskey and cola, at 10:30 a.m., and the stories roll about Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Bob Meusel, Lazzeri and Huggins.
Empty bottles, full ashtrays and a bent deck of cards, evidence of a good night of poker with friends, are scattered in the kitchen of his handsome home near adventure author Jack London’s house in the heart of the wine country.
Despite lung cancer, a stomach ulcer, gout and other ailments -- “I’ve got Heinz’s disease: 57 varieties,” he says -- Koenig looks hearty with thick white hair and a sharp wit. The authoritative Baseball Encyclopedia is wrong, he says, in listing him with a 1902 birth date, “and so is the book that has me dead.”
He says he was born in San Francisco two years before the Great Earthquake of 1906. A house his family was building was among hundreds destroyed by fires from the quake.
Koenig’s only concession to age or illness is to cut back from three packs of cigarettes a day to one. “The whiskey,” he figures, “kills the cancer germs.”
Koenig remembers the Yankees of 60 years ago as a team of friends, notwithstanding his brief quarrel with Ruth. There were a few cliques, such as the Southern players, but not a lot of bickering. Contrary to reports, he says, Ruth and Gehrig got along fine.
“I don’t think it entered any of our minds that we were the best ever,” he says. “We just went on winning. We won 16 straight games on one road trip, then we played an exhibition game and lost. Then we won 10 more straight games. We won 26 out of 27 games.”
They also had fun. After an exhibition game in St. Paul, Minn., a few players visited a house of ill-repute and stole the madam’s parrot, Koenig recalls, laughing before the punch line.
“They brought it down to the train we were leaving on that night and stuck it in Ruth’s straw hat in an upper berth,” he says. “The next morning you should’ve seen that hat.”
He describes Ruth as “just a big, overgrown kid” who got along with his teammates but wasn’t real close to them.
“I don’t think he actually knew my last name,” Koenig says. “He never knew half the names on the ballclub, outside Muesel and some of the older guys. His greeting was always, ‘Hi ya, kid.’
“We never saw Ruth on the road,” Koenig says. “He always roomed by himself, and he always had some dame in the room.”
Koenig was invited to Hollywood for the making of “The Babe Ruth Story,” with William Bendix, but he wasn’t impressed. “What a lousy picture that was. They had Babe Ruth drinking milk. I don’t think he drank a glass of milk in his life.”
Ruth made $70,000 in 1927, while Koenig earned $10,000.
“We got paid every two weeks and he’d dangle that big check in front of me,” Koenig says.
On the field, though, Ruth could do everything, Koenig says.
“As an outfielder, he had good hands and a good arm, and he was pretty fast for a big man,” he says. “I never saw him drop a fly ball, and he never threw to the wrong base. He hit a lot of homers, of course, but he also had a high average. He even looked good striking out.”
Koenig remembers Gehrig, who hit 47 homers and drove in a club high 175 runs in 1927, as “a very shy guy, a helluva nice guy and a great friend. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink and didn’t know what a girl looked like. I don’t know how he ever got married.”
Koenig also was good friends with Meusel, and thinks the late outfielder should be in the Hall of Fame after averaging .309 during an 11-year career that included six World Series. The 1927 Yankees already in the Hall include Ruth, Gehrig, Combs, Huggins and pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock.
However, Koenig has no illusions about joining his more famous teammates in baseball’s shrine. “I’d put myself in the Hall of Infamy,” he says with a laugh and another drink.
Still, he had respectable numbers in an 11-year career with four teams, averaging .279. He played in five World Series: three with the Yankees, one with the Chicago Cubs and one with the New York Giants. Batting second on the Yankees behind Combs and ahead of Ruth and Gehrig, Koenig scored 93, 99 and 89 runs from 1926 to 1928.
Koenig didn’t hit for power -- he had only three of the Yankees’ then-record 158 home runs in 1927, and just 28 in his career -- and fielding was not his forte.
“I was a lousy shortstop,” he admits bluntly. “I had such small hands. We had little gloves, not the butterfly nets they’ve got now. I made quite a few errors, but not throwing errors because I had a good arm.”
He still watches baseball occasionally, though with little enthusiasm.
“I’m disgusted with this modern play,” he says. “The salaries, the hand slapping, helmets, wristlets, batting gloves and giant fielding gloves. And the game’s become a home run barrage. I don’t care what they say, the ball is livelier.”
He also doesn’t care much for Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. “He expects too much from his players and puts too much pressure on them,” he says.
One player Koenig likes a lot, though, is Don Mattingly.
“He’s another Gehrig,” Koenig says with a fair amount of authority.
Koenig criticizes today’s players for stepping out of the lineup for what he considers minor aches. He missed a couple of weeks in 1927, but he says he had a good excuse.
“I was in the hospital because Red Faber, the old spitball pitcher with Chicago, hit me right in the thigh,” he says. “I got a big lump, so I went in the clubhouse and the trainer took a rolling pin and started rolling it out. Why, he broke all the damn blood vessels.”
Koenig has dozens of stories but few mementos. He sold some and lost others. Scrapbooks, a replica of his 1928 World Series watch and a few other items are all he has to pass on to his daughter, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
Koenig has lived alone since his second wife died in 1979. He’s giving his home to one of his grandsons and will soon move to a cottage on his daughter’s olive farm in Orland, Calif.
“I was born under a lucky star,” he says. “How many guys in their first three years get in three World Series? And I never had a problem with money. I made some good investments and I’ve always gotten along.”