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Happy Opening Day!

Did Babe Ruth really catch a baseball dropped from an airplane?

This is a story of a baseball, Babe Ruth, and an airplane being flown by an Army Captain, Harold McClelland. 

Portrait of McClelland

It is also an example of a historian’s dilemma.  How do historians deal with anecdotal evidence?  The discipline of history calls for rigorous examination of sources, multiple sources all discussing the same event, and the ability to verify the authenticy of sources.  However, because of the ephemeral nature of history, it is occasionally difficult to meet all of these criteria. 

It becomes especially tricky when the anecdote is compelling or otherwise interesting.  The CECOM Historians have decided to relay our findings about a baseball “event” from the 1920s.  We hope that readers with any information – supporting, refuting, corroborating, denying – will help us with the story.

In 1926, at Mitchel Field, in New York, Harold McClelland was stationed as a Captain and pilot with United States Army Air Corps (USAAC).  McClelland had agreed to fly a publicity stunt intended to bring attention to the USAAC.  Benjamin Foulois (later a General) was the Commander of Mitchel Field at the time, and had made arrangements for the stunt.  It involved McClelland flying over the field, and dropping baseballs out of the plane for Babe Ruth to catch.  On 23 July 1926, Babe Ruth came to Mitchel Field in his Army uniform.  One source describes the weather as sweltering heat and high humidity.  Those present in the audience included newspaper and film cameramen, and radio and print reporters.

One source says McClelland flew over the Babe at at 100 miles per hour, at a height of about 250 to 300 feet and dropped the baseballs.  Foulois is quoted as saying that McClelland dropped “three baseballs and bombed the ‘Babe’ with them from 250 feet. The first two balls knocked him flat, but he held onto the third one and gave it to me as a souvenir.”  Foulois later wrote “The last I saw of the Babe that day he was slowly flexing his burning hand and trying to smile about it as he left in a big limousine.”  There must have been a lot a pain associated with the catch.

How much of Foulois’ story really happened?  We know that the events were at least plausible, and fairly extensive biographies were done on all the individuals.

Babe Ruth

According to Rebecca Klang (author of Brief History of the Beginnings of Fort Monmouth Radio Laboratory), Harold McClelland was listed as a director of one of the Signal Corps Radio Laboratories in the 1920s.  An Air Force biography describes McClelland as the Officer in charge of the laboratory “at Camp Alfred Vail” from 1922 to 1924.  McClelland would later become very involved in, and important to the Air Force Signal activities.  He retired from the Air Force as a Major General in 1951.  Babe Ruth was a private in the Army Reserves at the time the story took place in 1926, and Benjamin Foulois, who later became a General, played a major role in aircraft and the Signal Corps.  But what about the baseballs and the airplane and the stunt?  It’s a good story – maybe truth, maybe urban legend – but we can’t say with certainty based on the evidence we’ve found.

MG Foulois

That’s one of the great things about history, though – there’s always a chance to find out more.  Do any of the CECOM History Blog readers know about this story?  We’d love to hear from you!

Note: This story was discovered by Floyd Hertweck in September 2010, and he’s been looking for more evidence ever since.  This entry was co-authored by Floyd and Chrissie Reilly.

Posted in From the Archives.

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