Posted by Sal Maiorana , March 1, 2013 •
There are big shoes to fill, and then there are Babe Ruth’s shoes – not to mention his pinstripe jersey – to fill. Incredibly, Canadian-born outfielder George Selkirk, who grew up in Rochester and starred as a baseball, basketball and football player for Jefferson High School, was asked to do both when he and the rest of the New York Yankees reported to spring training on this day in 1935.
An aging Ruth – who 65 years after his death is still considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of baseball – played his final season with the Bronx Bombers in 1934, and in mid-August, the Yankees summoned Selkirk from their minor league affiliate in Newark to ultimately take his place in right field.
On Feb. 26, 1935, Ruth was officially released by the Yankees, and when Selkirk showed up in Florida, he was told that he was going to be the starting right fielder, and that he was going to wear the No. 3 jersey that Ruth popularized.
“I was just cocky enough to say, ‘Wearing Babe’s number won’t make me nervous. If I’m going to take his place, I’ll take his number, too,’” Selkirk said in a 1936 interview, which was reported in Jim Shearon’s book, Canada’s Baseball Legends.
Selkirk, who was born in Huntsville, Ont. and moved to Rochester when he was five years old when his father established a funeral parlor in town, had toiled in the minor leagues since 1927. But playing for teams in Jersey City, Columbus, Newark, Toronto and even for the old Rochester Tribe, he hadn’t come close to a sniff from any of the major league teams.
In 1933, Selkirk thought he might be getting close, though, because when he and his Newark Bears teammates visited Red Wings Stadium on the afternoon of July 10, the man they called “Twinkletoes” because of his unorthodox running style was batting .301.
However, following Rochester’s 6-1 victory that day, the Bears announced they had traded Selkirk to the Red Wings – a deal that was consummated during the playing of the game – in exchange for Rochester’s George Puccinelli. Oddly, it was agreed that the swap would only be for the rest of the season, and the players could return to their previous team in 1934, and that’s what Selkirk did.
In 1934, Selkirk played superbly for the Bears and batted .357 with 10 home runs in 106 games before the Yankees – seeing the deterioration in Ruth’s skills – finally gave him his break and called him up. Selkirk saw action in 46 games over the final month and a half, batted .313 with 5 home runs and 38 RBI, and it was clear the Yankees were counting on him to be Ruth’s heir apparent in 1935.
Selkirk went on to play nine years with New York where he batted .290, hit 108 home runs and drove in 576 and won five World Series championships, but according to Richard Tofel, author of A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939, Selkirk was an underappreciated player on those great teams.
“Not even hardcore Yankees fans are going to remember George Selkirk,” Tofel said in an interview with writer Kevin Glew. “I think the reception Selkirk got from fans was lukewarm at best. I think he was booed and resented. The Babe was the most popular player, really, in many ways, in the history of baseball.”