(National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
During the summer of 1936, the Marx Brothers, along with a caravan of four writers, six musicians, eight actors, 18 chorus girls and boys, and one very talented horse, traveled the country, staging an ever-changing play full of gags, wisecracks and general hilarity. The idea was to test out comedy routines and refine a script that would eventually be shot for the silver screen. The result was the movie classic, “A Day at the Races.”
This on-the-road method of producing a first-rate, tried-and-true screenplay was one that the Marx Brothers had employed the previous year, ultimately culminating with the hit comedy, “A Night at the Opera.” But, unlike the 1935 road show, the 1936 version traveled nearly twice as far (some 6,000 miles) and met with greater fanfare.
So it was that on August 2, 1936, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and their entourage of entertainers found themselves in Cleveland, Ohio, playing the Palace Theater at Playhouse Square and perfecting various gags for their next movie triumph.
That same day, the second-place Cleveland Indians played host to the league-leading New York Yankees in a much-anticipated Sunday ballgame. In an effort to boost attendance as well as promote the Great Lakes Exposition (something of a mini-World’s Fair held along the shore of Lake Erie), the Indians decided to stage their contest at a ballpark much larger than the very cozy League Park. The game took place at Cleveland’s cavernous Municipal Stadium, the venue’s only big league contest of the season and the first time the Indians had played there since 1933. It was quite a show.
With ticket-holders also gaining complimentary admission to the nearby fair, well over 65,000 fans paid to enter the stadium. They certainly got their money’s worth. The clubs staged an epic duel, the game running 16 innings before being called due to darkness with the score knotted at four runs apiece. Among the ballplayers taking part in the battle were future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and Tony Lazzeri for the Yanks, and Earl Averill for the Indians.
But the wildest action took place just before the ballgame, as described in the Sporting News of August 6, 1936:
While the Tribe was holding batting practice the Three Marx Brothers of screen and stage fame, came roaring into the big bowl with a police escort and a bevy of beauties. The trio climaxed an impromptu act by downing Second Baseman Roy Hughes of the Indians and tearing off his shirt as the great crowd roared and Roy blushed.
While Lou Gehrig collected three hits at the plate that day, the Iron Horse may have gotten an even bigger kick posing with the three comedic geniuses who were the Marx Brothers.
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"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time,” is the last line from author and former New York Yankees pitching great Jim Bouton’s 1970 classic Ball Four.
Another former hurler who starred in the Bronx used the grip pictured here to post more than two decades of mound success.
Charles Herbert Ruffing was a legendary pitcher with the Yankees throughout the 1930s and early ‘40s. Sporting the home pinstripes, “Red” is demonstrating, circa 1938, his four-seam fastball grip, a pitch that would eventually place him among the game’s greatest in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.
According to Ruffing, he found his fastball to be far and away his most effective pitch. It was said of the fireballer that he threw a two-speed ball: Fast and a little faster.
“The best day I ever had with a fastball was two years ago against Washington,” Ruffing said in a 1934 interview. “I beat the Senators 1-0 in 10 innings, hitting a home run in the 10th to win the game. I struck out 10 during the game and only one on a called third strike. The other nine took their cut at the fast one and missed.
“During that game, I doubt that I threw over three curveballs. My control was good that day, as it has to be for a fastball pitcher to be effective. The ball never hopped until just before it reached the plate.”
Ruffing had a 22-season big league career, including 15 with the Yankees, finishing with an overall record of 273-225. He did not emerge as a star until he was acquired in a trade by the Yankees during the 1930 season, eventually establishing the franchise record for wins by a right-hander with 231 while losing only 124.
Of his longtime catcher with the Yankees, Bill Dickey, Ruffing said, “Bill and I never had any signs. I just told him to watch out for the fastball. Even in the (World) Series games I never used signs. Dickey used to flash them, but I never paid attention.”
Ruffing is the only pitcher in franchise history to compile four consecutive 20-win seasons, from 1936 to 1939, when he led the Yankees to four straight World Series titles. Overall, he helped the Yankees win seven pennants and six World Series.
“There was something special about wearing the pinstripes of the New York Yankees,” Ruffing said years after he retired from the game. “Maybe it was the way you walked, ate and dressed.”
Ruffing passed away in 1986 at the age of 80.
This image of Ruffing, captured by photographer William C. Greene, is one of more than 50 that are featured in the Hall of Fame’s newest exhibit, Picturing America’s Pastime.