Home runs (and murder)

When Babe Ruth visited Cincinnati...

By July of 1921, George Herman “Babe” Ruth was already considered the greatest home run hitter in the history of baseball. The Babe had become a national sensation in 1919, when he hit 29 homers for Boston. That may not seem like a lot to modern fans, but in 1919 (the year Cincinnati won its first World Series, by the way), it was a brand-new single-season record. The following season, Ruth shattered his own record, smashing 54 long balls.

Ruth was destined to break that record once again in 1921, but it was two home runs that didn’t count in the official statistics that had all of Cincinnati buzzing -- and led directly to murder.

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Baseball was a different game in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s strange to imagine today, but for many years, with more off days to accommodate travel by train, every major league club played an occasional exhibition game on days when no league game was scheduled. So it was on July 25, 1921, when the powerhouse New York Yankees -- and their star slugger Babe Ruth -- stopped in Cincinnati to face the struggling Reds. The Yankees had won 10 of their last 12, including a victory the day before in Cleveland, and with three days until they were scheduled to play again, there was time for a quick money-grab in the Queen City.

Ruth was more than just a star, he was playing a different game entirely. He entered town having already hit 36 homers in American League play. That number becomes even more impressive when you consider that Cincinnati’s entire team only hit 20 home runs the entire season. The Reds’ leading home run hitter was future Hall of Famer Edd Roush -- who finished the campaign with just four homers.

This was the dead ball era, and nowhere was it deader than in Cincinnati. Redland Field (which would later be rechristened Crosley Field), was in its tenth season as the home park of the local nine, and at the time, it was one of the more spacious parks in all of baseball. The foul poles were 360 feet down the left field and right field lines. The center field fence was fully 420 feet from home plate. There had never been a home run blasted into the right field bleachers at the park; astoundingly, no one had ever even hit the center field fence on the fly. In fact, there had only been one home run hit over the fence in the entire history of the ballpark. (That had happened two months earlier, when Reds outfielder Pat Duncan snuck one over the left field wall.)

With this backdrop, baseball-hungry Cincinnati was overtaken with the excitement, eager to see if the mighty Ruth could perform his longball heroics in the Queen City. The day before had been declared “Babe Ruth Day.” The guest of honor was celebrated, along with his teammates and dignitaries from Cincinnati, in the Fountain Room of the downtown Hotel Gibson.

The morning after the exhibition game, the Cincinnati Enquirer had this brief report:

“Several small wagers were made before the game that Ruth would not hit a home run into the stands or over the fence. The prevailing odds were 2 to 1. It would have been easy to get 20 to 1 that he would not hit two in one game. But the big fellow is likely to pole one any time up.”

One of those wagers would end in tragedy.

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Edward Schueler and George Corcoran had been friendly with each other for a long time. During the day, Schueler worked as a butcher while Corcoran drove a truck for a living, but many evenings, the two would join a group at Albert Hellinger’s saloon at 1301 Harrison Avenue, at the corner of Harrison and Western. There, in the shadow of Redland Field (later rechristened Crosley Field), they would drink and argue, occasionally about baseball.

Like many in the Queen City, Schueler and Corcoran eagerly anticipated Ruth’s appearance against the hometown Reds. On the morning of the game, they met at the saloon and the discussion inevitably turned to the Babe’s hitting. Corcoran declared loudly that he didn’t believe any player on earth could knock a ball over the center field fence in Cincinnati. Schueler maintained that Babe Ruth could, in fact, accomplish the feat, and a heated argument ensued.

There was only one way to settle this, so the group all headed over to the ballpark. There, Schueler bet Corcoran a dollar -- which could’ve bought a couple pounds of sirloin at Schueler’s butcher shop --  that Ruth would hit a ball over the fence. It seemed like easy money for Corcoran; after all, it had only been done once in nearly a decade.

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The Reds were mired in seventh place at the time, 22 games behind Pittsburgh, but 16,367 fans streamed into Redland Field to see if Ruth -- in the midst of perhaps his greatest season ever, and hitting .359 -- was as good as advertised. The Bambino did not disappoint.

Before the exhibition, ten champion athletes from the local Hyde Park public schools got a chance to shake hands and talk with the Yankees slugger on the field. Moments before, Ruth had caused a stir among the early arrivals by hitting a batting practice pitch over the center field wall. We don’t know whether Schueler or Corcoran witnessed that blast, but at any rate, it was just a glimpse of what was to come.

Fritz Coumbe was on the mound for the Reds, a lefty in the final season of a nice eight-year major league career spent with Boston, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. Through the first four innings, Coumbe was brilliant, permitting just one single. In the first inning, he induced Ruth to ground out to first base. His next time up, in the fourth, the Babe lifted a Coumbe pitch deep to center field. The crowd moved to the edge of their seats, but a collective sigh went up as the ball settled into center fielder Edd Roush’s glove, just shy of the fence. Meanwhile, the Reds jumped out to a big lead, ahead 7-0 through four innings.

In the fifth inning, however, Coumbe began to struggle with his command. With one out, he walked two hitters before striking out New York pitcher Rip Collins. Leadoff hitter Ping Bodie singled to left, scoring a run. That’s when things got interesting.

With Ruth on deck, Yankees manager Miller Huggins sent light-hitting middle infielder Johnny Mitchell in to pinch hit. As Mitchell stepped into the batter’s box, in every corner of Redland Field, Cincinnati fans began to rise in unison, imploring Coumbe to issue a base on balls so that Ruth would bat with the bases loaded and two outs. Being a good sport, Coumbe did just that.

Ruth grinned broadly and ambled to the plate. Coumbe began his windup, and delivered his best fastball; the Babe timed it perfectly, and Roush stood watching as the ball sailed high above his head and over the center field fence, where it bounced along Western Avenue. As Ruth rounded the bases, the crowd erupted into delirium, despite the fact that the grand slam had trimmed Cincinnati’s lead to 7-5. By all accounts, it was the longest ball hit to date at Redland Field.

In the seventh inning, with the Yankees now trailing by just one run, Ruth faced Coumbe again. The result was almost identical. Ruth turned around another fastball, this time depositing a screaming line drive into the center field end of the right field bleachers for a two-run homer. According to the Enquirer, the ball was hit so hard it “would have knocked the arm off any rash rooter who might have tried to catch it.”

Now the Yankees led by one run, and nearly everyone in attendance could scarcely believe what they had just witnessed.

The lead was short-lived. In the bottom half of the seventh, Reds second baseman Sam Bohne tied the game with a solo homer, also to right-center, though Bohne’s home run was of the inside-the-park variety. Bohne’s hit was a line drive that rolled to the wall; the Yankees fielded it cleanly but didn’t hurry the relay back to the infield, thinking that the runner would hold up at third base. Instead, Bohne never slowed down and easily beat the throw to the plate. Two batters later, Roush also tripled and left fielder Pat Duncan doubled him home for the go-ahead run.

Ultimately, the Reds won the exhibition, 9-8, but Ruth accounted for six of the Yankee runs. On the Cincinnati side of the ledger, Roush -- a future Hall of Famer himself -- collected a double and two triples in four at-bats, scoring three runs.

Ruth would go on to hit 59 home runs that season; by the time he hit 60 homers in 1927, the game of baseball had been revolutionized and the Dead Ball Era was, well, dead. That day in 1921, however, would remain special for Reds fans, since the home run revolution was still just a rumor in Cincinnati for many years. It would be eight more seasons before a player hit another homer over the center field fence at Redland Field.

The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jack Ryder summed up the festivities in his inimitable manner: “Ruth demonstrated to the satisfaction of every rooter present that he is absolutely in a class by himself as a propeller of the spheroid.”

But not every Reds rooter was quite so satisfied.

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George Corcoran had lost the bet with his friend, and he was so incensed (according to later reports) that he assaulted Edward Schueler at the game. As the game concluded, the group headed back to Hellinger’s saloon, but Schueler didn’t follow.

Still steaming over Corcoran’s behavior, he fumed all the way home. At some point thereafter, Schueler resolved that he could not let Corcoran get away with assaulting him. He first attempted to borrow a gun from relatives. When that was unsuccessful, Schueler headed over to Louis Katz’s pawn shop on Central Avenue, where he sold his watch and used the proceeds to purchase a revolver.

Later that evening, Corcoran was standing at the bar, talking to the saloon keeper and another man. Quietly, the rear door of the tavern opened, and Schueler walked in. He pointed the newly-acquired revolver and, without saying a word, opened fire. Corcoran -- a father of five young children -- staggered out into the street, where he died from his injuries.

Moments later, Schueler ran out of the saloon and waved the gun around to keep the rapidly-growing crowd of onlookers away. He climbed the steps of the Harrison Avenue viaduct, dropping his hat in the process. When he reached the viaduct, Schueler tossed the revolver into the street and sprinted away.

In the band of his discarded hat, police found a receipt for the purchase of the revolver, but there was no question that Schueler was the culprit. A massive search began, to no avail. Schueler had vanished into thin air. Rumors circulated that he had escaped from the city on a freight train.

Two weeks later, however, Schueler reappeared in Cincinnati, and was promptly arrested. He was taken before Municipal Judge Samuel W. Bell, who held him without bond on the charge of murder, and the matter was referred to the grand jury.

Schueler claimed that it was self-defense, telling police that he had always feared Corcoran. He showed the police several bruises and an injured ankle that he claimed were caused by Corcoran’s assault. Friends of the victim, however, insisted that Schueler had sustained those injuries by either falling or jumping from the viaduct.

Nearly two months later, on October 31, 1921, the case was presented to the Hamilton County Grand Jury. According to reports in the Cincinnati Enquirer, just prior to making its final report and being discharged for the term, the grand jury refused to return an indictment. Schueler was released from custody immediately.

Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Louis H. Cappelle was indignant. “The release of Schuler,” he said, “is an outrageous miscarriage of justice. The evidence presented indicated a clear case of first-degree murder...I shall not let the matter drop, but shall present it to another grand jury.”

In the meantime, the plot thickened.

The following month, George Corcoran’s widow appeared at Prosecutor Capelle’s office, complaining that two men had visited her at home, calling themselves “state officers.” The men claimed to be working to see that Schueler was prosecuted for her husband’s murder. Later, one of the men, Carl Zimmer, returned and told Mrs. Corcoran that he needed $2.50 for certain expenses related to the investigation, and ordered her to secure an additional $100.00 by the following Sunday to ensure that Schueler would be prosecuted.

Capelle had Zimmer arrested on the charge of obtaining money under false pretenses, and commenced a search for his accomplice. Once again, the prosecutor solemnly vowed to seek justice for Mrs. Corcoran, but if either case was ever presented to the grand jury again, the papers didn’t report on it. Today, it’s just a forgotten postscript to one of the most memorable moments in Cincinnati baseball history.

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