Trading Bats For Rods

By Ann Dermody

Baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig loved fishing together.

It's hard to imagine now the sort of fame and attention baseball stars Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig garnered back in the 1920s and ‘30s. In a time before cable, reality TV, and supermarket magazines, when people relied on newspapers for their celebrity fixes, the Yankee pitcher and first baseman were revered as heroes on whose every word their dedicated public hung. Hardly a week went by without one or the other making the national front pages.

Though their relationship allegedly soured in later years, there was a time when baseball's two biggest legends bonded hard and fast over their shared passion for fishing. Babe Ruth had fished his whole life; he even mentioned in his autobiography, Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball, how he regularly played truant from school to go fishing. In fact, the slugger, who was no stranger to making the headlines for questionable choices, made his favorite pastime nationally famous when he was arrested in June 1926 for fishing without a license in Michigan. The press reported at the time that "the Babe" had caught only "a few scrawny bluegills." But it wasn't until Lou Gehrig joined the Yankees, 91 years ago this June, that one of history's most famous sporting duos, and slightly less famous fishing fraternity, was born.

Theirs was an odd relationship by any standard. Not only for the obvious competitiveness between top-ranking athletes on the field, but because the two were considered very different men. Ruth was known as the flamboyant, big-spending party animal, Gehrig the quieter All-American hero who was somewhat of a loner. In a New York Times profile 85 years ago, the writer Niven Busch said that besides baseball, Gehrig's main amusement was fishing, and his primary associates "his mother and Babe Ruth." Like Ruth, Gehrig had grown up fishing. He caught so many eels that his mother started pickling them. When he introduced fellow teammates on the Yankees to Ma Gehrig's pickled eels, some claimed their hitting improved.

"Lou Gehrig would rather fish than eat," Ruth wrote in his autobiography. And, as many people of different temperaments who've shared quiet hours on a boat trolling for fish can attest, their bond deepened in spite of their many differences.

Many of their joint fishing trips took place in the Gulf of Mexico for mackerel or grouper. But Babe Ruth wasn't one to let the little matter of location get in his way. His obsession was such, it was rumored, that he'd go to local New York City fish markets to buy live fish, put them in his hotel bathtub, and invite fellow players and the media for an impromptu fishing tournament.

Ruth's angling was so famous that in a publicity stunt in 1921, the champion surf caster at the time, Harold G. Lentz, was invited to the New York Polo Grounds to see if he could cast a four-ounce lead weight farther than Ruth's record home run hit of 470 feet, in front of a crowd of 30,000. There seems to be some debate over who won. 

— Published: April/May 2014

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