Photo finish: Babe Ruth the caddy preserves Lake Worth Beach's golf links to Babe Ruth the slugger
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
THE GREAT BABE RUTH, hands on waist, his commanding physique dwarfing three companions, gazes out from a faded black-and-white photograph on a wall at the Lake Worth Beach Golf Club.
Mounted behind racks of golf jerseys, shoes and sun hats, the old photo has been a fixture inside the pro shop for years, often overlooked by patrons eager to tee off.
But for many longtime residents, it has been a portrait of local pride: There’s Babe Ruth, the home-run slugging New York Yankees baseball icon, about to tee off in Lake Worth!
At least, that’s what everyone thought.
Many pro shop employees and patrons admit they don’t really know much about the Bambino golfing in Lake Worth or about the undated photo, which for years was displayed in its own frame before being added to a collage of vintage golf photos.
They only know what has been repeated through the years — that Ruth, arguably the biggest celebrity of his era, hit the scenic Lake Worth links along the Intracoastal Waterway some time after the course opened in 1926.
The photo in the pro shop is also on display in the Lake Worth Historical Museum and has been published over the decades in local newspapers, books, magazines and online golf websites — all with cutlines matter-of-factly describing Ruth at the Lake Worth Golf Club.
But research by the Historical Society of Palm Beach County and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum tells a different story, one that places the photo not in Lake Worth but somewhere else.
That story would lead to a new mission — solving the mystery of whether the great Bambino, who loved hitting golf balls as much as he did baseballs, ever teed off in Lake Worth.
Cracking the case would be none other than Babe Ruth.
But not the Babe Ruth you think.
I SET OUT TO write a story about the photo in the pro shop. What year was it taken? Who are the other guys in the image? And what was Ruth doing in Lake Worth when his team held spring training on the other side of the state in St. Petersburg?
No one at the Lake Worth Golf Club had any idea, aside from pointing out that the course's comfortable breezes from the Intracoastal Waterway, offering relief from the Florida heat, have always attracted golfers.
So I reached out to Debi Murray, chief curator at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, who I’ve known for years going back to my days as a Palm Beach Post reporter. If anyone could nail down details about the Babe Ruth photo, it would be Murray.
What she did was deliver a big curveball.
“I don't know if I am going to burst your bubble about Lake Worth,’’ she wrote in an email to me.
Included in her email were three undated photographs identified in society archives as the West Palm Beach Country Club, which was located on Belvedere Road west of what is now Palm Beach International Airport. (The course was bulldozed after World War II to make way for the airport and re-opened in 1947 at its present location next to Forest Hill High School.)
The first photo is the same one in the pro shop.
The second photo shows West Palm Beach Mayor Vincent Oaksmith, who served two terms, from 1928-29 and from 1943-44, accepting the deed to the West Palm Beach Country Club, according to historical society records.
“Please notice the building in the background,’’ Murray said in the email.
The facade of the clubhouse in that second photo has the same features — from the roof to the screened porch and doors to the slanted walkway — as the clubhouse in the purported Ruth-in-Lake Worth photo.
The third photo was an aerial shot of the West Palm course, showing the same facade and walkway that appear in the other two photos.
The society has no photographs or records of Ruth golfing at Lake Worth Golf Club, which opened as a nine-hole course on Nov. 11, 1926, and was expanded to 18 holes in 1948 (the year Ruth died).
But maybe some other museum does.
THE BABE RUTH MUSEUM in Baltimore, where the slugger was born, was up next in my lineup of contacts. I shared Murray’s research with curator Michael Gibbons, who said the museum had no records or photos of Ruth hitting the links in Lake Worth.
Gibbons forwarded my request to a few heavy-hitter baseball historians who might have evidence.
While I waited for a response, I also shared the society’s research with some longtime residents of Lake Worth Beach. (In 2019, voters changed the city’s name from Lake Worth to Lake Worth Beach.)
City historian Helen Greene said she had no proof Ruth was in Lake Worth other than the purported pro shop photo. But she directed me to another old photo, this one of the old Lake Worth Golf Club pro shop when it was located on Lake Avenue across from the west end of the Lake Worth Bridge.
In the photo, from Beverly Mustaine’s book “On Lake Worth,” the front right side of that old pro shop had some similarities to the West Palm Beach Country Club clubhouse. But was that enough to make a case for Ruth in Lake Worth?
(The book also includes the Ruth photo with a now-questionable cutline describing him at the Lake Worth Golf Club.)
Then came an email from Tom Shieber, the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“While Babe Ruth may have played at the Lake Worth Golf Club, the photo you sent was most certainly not taken at the club,’’ he wrote, his words hissing like brush-back pitches under the chins of Ruth-in-Lake Worth supporters.
Shieber’s email included two pieces of convincing evidence: a photo and a Fox Movietone newsreel clip, both taken on Jan. 26, 1930, of the first amateur “pajama golf tournament” at the West Palm Beach Country Club.
At the 54-seconds mark in the video, one of the golfers identifies their location as he explains the carefree purpose of the pajama tournament: “We’re not trying to set any styles down here in West Palm Beach. We’re just trying to play golf in comfort.’’
More significantly, Shieber said, the clubhouse in the background of the video and photo “is clearly the same building” as the one in the background of the Ruth photo.
RUTH DIDN’T PLAY IN the pajama tournament, Shieber said. But by coincidence he did play on the same course just a few days later on his memorable first visit to West Palm Beach, a golf trip reported Feb. 2, 1930, in The Palm Beach Post.
Under the headline “Ruth Will Leave Palm Beach Today,’’ the story described Ruth and friend “Harvey Tenure” pairing up in a rematch against golf pro Terry Lewis and Palm Beach restaurateur George Lamaze, after the same teams played to a standstill a few days earlier.
“Lewis and Lamaze turned in a best ball at 73 while Ruth and Tenure carded a 75. Babe found his slice working in great shape and did some mighty blasting among those pines and palmetto clumps which adorn the rough out at the West Palm Beach Country Club,’’ the article says.
“Ruth and Mrs. Ruth will leave this evening for St. Petersburg where Babe will settle down to a daily routine of golf until the first horde of invading Yankees hit Florida for this spring camp, after which the daily socks will be taken at a baseball instead of a golf ball.
“‘I like Palm Beach,’’ stated the slugger, “‘and we are going to spend much more time here next year.’’’
In the story, the name “Tenure” was actually a bad misspelling of Turnure — as in Chrysler executive Harvey Turnure, a Palm Beacher and close friend of Ruth’s.
At least one other article, in 1937, reported that the Florida golfing foursomes of Ruth, Lewis, Lamaze and Turnure had been an annual event “for several years.’’
It was most likely during that 1930 golf outing at the West Palm Beach County Club, Shieber said, that someone snapped a photo of the foursome -- the same photo that would be mistakenly described in the ensuing decades as Ruth in Lake Worth.
As for the names of the other golfers in the photo, The Palm Beach Post published the image in 1934 and identified two as Lewis (to the left of Ruth) and Lamaze (far right). The man on the far left of the original photo — he was cropped out of the 1934 newspaper photo — is probably Turnure, although his identity could not be confirmed.
Even though the 1934 photo cutline makes no reference to when the photo was taken, Shieber still thinks the image was probably shot in 1930.
PERHAPS THE MOST PIVOTAL figure in the photograph, and possibly the source of the confusion over the photo’s location, is Lewis. He was a well known golf pro and instructor for many Roaring ‘20s rich and famous.
Aside from Ruth, his clients included Joseph P. Kennedy, boxer Gene Tunney, banker and arts patron Otto H. Kahn — whose image inspired Rich Uncle Pennybags, the mascot for the Monopoly board game — and relatives of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.
Lewis was the golf pro at West Palm Beach Country Club in the late 1920s and in 1930, according to news articles. For his next job, he didn’t have to go very far.
From 1931-37, he was golf pro at — guess where? — Lake Worth Golf Club.
“I believe some of the confusion with misidentifying the photo may have come about from the fact that Terry Lewis was at one time golf pro at Lake Worth,’’ Shieber said. “So perhaps someone who saw the photo of Ruth with Lewis assumed it was at Lake Worth.’’
Murray said she doesn’t remember reading any of the newspaper, magazine and website stories over the recent decades describing the photo as Ruth in Lake Worth.
But she also said that just because the historical society, the Babe Ruth Museum and the Baseball Hall of Fame have no definitive photos or records of Ruth golfing in Lake Worth doesn’t mean he never golfed there.
Evidence “could show up here next month or next year proving he did. So, (for now) we just don’t know,’’ she said.
AN ARGUMENT CAN BE made that the photo in the pro shop bolsters the likelihood that Ruth golfed in Lake Worth, assuming it was true that his Florida foursome matches were annual events, as reported in the 1937 newspaper story.
Ruth loved to golf. In fact, after the Boston Red Sox sent him to the Yankees in January 1920, he ditched his first Yankees spring training session because it interfered with a previously-scheduled golf game.
It's reasonable to assume that if Ruth was golfing in Florida with Lewis, then Lewis almost certainly would have taken the Yankees star at some point to the Lake Worth course where he worked, for bragging rights or pride.
But if that did happen, it somehow eluded the swarms of reporters who seemed to breathlessly write about Ruth’s every move, as a search on newspapers.com shows.
For example, among the stories from the slugger’s 1930 visit: Ruth being invited to judge the Miss West Palm Beach pageant. Ruth dining at the Poinciana hotel with Turnure. Ruth refereeing a youth boxing match on Clematis Street (to raise money for Lake Worth High School). Ruth famously firing off a 500-word telegram from the Venetia hotel (now The Chesterfield) in which he threatened to walk away from baseball unless the Yankees met his contract demands.
There were plenty of stories about Ruth golfing in Miami and St. Petersburg. But nothing could be found about Ruth doing anything in Lake Worth, let alone golf there.
And a check of the Getty Images website found a half dozen Ruth in Palm Beach photos, including a fun shot of the slugger with his wife Claire playing with a volleyball south of The Breakers.
But nothing showing him golfing anywhere or doing anything in Lake Worth.
IT FELT LIKE THE bottom of the ninth. Then I remembered that newspapers.com doesn’t contain the archives of every single newspaper, especially small community publications.
I checked the online archives of the Lake Worth Herald, the city’s newspaper since 1912. But after an hour of searching, I struck out.
Just to cover my bases, I spoke to publisher Mark Easton. He said he’d tried a few years ago to confirm the photo’s origins but came up empty.
Easton said he’d given boxes of old photos years ago to the Lake Worth Historical Museum. Curator Walter Harper said there is a photo of Ruth in Lake Worth on display at the museum, which has been shuttered since last March because of the pandemic.
But Harper said he’d be happy to open the museum to show me the photo. He unlocked the doors one day in April and we climbed a set of stairs. He turned on the lights and guided me into a room where he pointed to a photograph on the wall.
It was the same photo hanging in the pro shop.
I left the museum feeling like the game was over.
Then came an email from the daughter of “Babe” Ruth, the Babe Ruth born in Lake Worth in 1928.
FOR ALL OF HIS 92 years, Ernest Ruth has been known to family and friends as “Babe,” a nickname bestowed upon him for being the youngest of three boys.
Today, he’s adamant that George Herman “Babe” Ruth golfed in Lake Worth.
He should know, he says, because he was there.
Ernest “Babe” Ruth resides in an assisted living facility. While visiting her father April 10, his daughter, Cindy Ansell, interviewed him about his association with the Yankees slugger and shared his comments for this story.
His words rang out like the unmistakable crack of a bat hitting the sweet spot on no-doubt-about-it drive out of the ballpark.
Ernest “Babe” Ruth said he once caddied for former Yankees star Babe Ruth at Lake Worth Golf Club after the slugger retired from baseball. He thinks it was in the early 1940s and he remembers earning $1 for carrying the baseball icon’s golf clubs.
And he thinks it wasn’t the only time Ruth golfed there.
“Dad said Babe liked the course because the breeze coming off the water kept it comfortable to play in the heat,” said Ansell, manager of the Lake Worth Beach Public Library.
“Dad remembers how large a person the Babe was, how he was very nice to him, and funny, with a booming laugh. He had a powerful left-handed swing. He could hit the ball a mile, but not always where he wanted it to go.”
The retired Yankees slugger wasn’t the only celebrity to walk the Lake Worth links with Ernest “Babe” Ruth.
In 1951, “Babe” and his wife Dot golfed with their Lake Worth High School Class of ‘46 friend Helen Anderson, who brought along her husband, actor Howard Keel.
“Howard was a star at the time, so it was a big deal,’’ Ansell said about Keel, who had starred in “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Show Boat” and would later appear in the TV show “Dallas.”
“Babe” Ruth held onto the Keel golf card, but he didn’t take any photos that day.
And he didn’t take any photos a decade earlier when he carried golf clubs on his hometown course for baseball’s biggest icon.
Neither, apparently, did anyone else.
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