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On Sports

In the footsteps of America's greatest sports legend

Rochester Business Journal
March 27, 2015

It’s usually better to be the guy who succeeds the guy who succeeds a legend. But Didi Gregorius didn’t have much say in the matter. When the New York Yankees acquired him in the off-season to follow in the spike steps of beloved shortstop Derek Jeter, what was he supposed to do? Say no and retire at the ripe old age of 25? Gregorius’ challenge this season will be as daunting as trying to hit against Clayton Kershaw with a twig as a bat. Yankees manager Joe Girardi is well aware of what Gregorius is up against, which is why he pulled him aside the instant he showed up at spring training last month. “Try to be the best Didi Gregorius you can be,’’ Girardi advised. “Don’t try to be like Derek Jeter.” That, of course, will be easier said than done.

Back in the spring of 1935, Canadian-born, Rochester-bred outfielder George Selkirk was tasked with an even more formidable challenge. The Yankees had just released Babe Ruth, the greatest and most popular player of all time, and Selkirk was penciled in to take the Bambino’s spot in right field. Like Girardi had done with Gregorius, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy felt compelled to have a heart-to-heart with Selkirk about “being your best self.” Marse Joe walked away from that conversation no longer concerned about whether the Jefferson High School product and former Rochester Red Wings rightfielder would be able to handle the assignment. Not lacking for confidence, Selkirk told McCarthy: “If I am going to take his place, I’ll take his number, too.” So, Ruth’s hallowed No. 3, now retired, was placed on Selkirk’s back that season, like a bull’s-eye for all the world to see.

“Instead of being just another outfielder, I was expected to make the fans forget about one of the greatest players in the history of the game,” Selkirk later reflected. “Did I worry? Well, I tried not to. Ruth, you know, always had been my baseball hero, but never had I thought I would be taking his place.” Rather than wilting under the pressure, Selkirk blossomed. That season, he put up respectable numbers: 11 home runs, 94 runs batted in and a .312 batting average. The following year, he clubbed 18 homers, drove in 107 runs, batted .308 and earned American League All-Star honors as the Yankees won the World Series.

Selkirk went on to have a solid but underappreciated nine-year, big-league career, batting .290 and helping the Bronx Bombers win five Fall Classics. Although he didn’t “replace” Ruth—who could?—he did become the best George Selkirk he could be, earning the respect of his Hall of Fame manager.

“Selkirk was one of my favorite players, taking over Ruth’s spot at bat and in right field,” McCarthy said of the outfielder who became known as “Twinkletoes” for his light-footed running style. “George was under heavy pressure that first year, but he came through brilliantly. No player ever had a tougher assignment.”

Interestingly, Yankee fans took it easy on Selkirk—something they didn’t do when Mickey Mantle succeeded Joe DiMaggio in centerfield in 1952. The Bronx boo-birds brutalized The Mick for almost a decade. The tide finally turned in 1961 when they began to appreciate his baseball greatness while turning their vitriol toward his teammate, Roger Maris, for having the audacity to break Ruth’s single-season home run record. The fans rarely booed Selkirk for his fielding miscues and for not putting up “Ruthian” numbers at the plate. He often wondered why he was given a free pass by the “bleacher creatures” at Yankee Stadium. Selkirk’s teammate, centerfielder Ben Chapman, offered a humorous explanation, when he quipped: “They’re too busy booing me to pay any attention to you.”

According to his cousin, 92-year-old Rochesterian Chuck Starwald, Selkirk and his family moved here from Huntsville, Ont., when George was about seven years old. A fire had destroyed the Starwalds’ home, and George’s father, who was a carpenter and stonecutter, traveled from Canada to help his sister’s family build a new house. William Selkirk brought his wife and children with him, and he decided to keep them here after the house was constructed.

Young George excelled at all sports, including wrestling, in which he won a sectional title in his weight class. But he was best at baseball—and wound up signing with Rochester as an 18-year-old after wowing scouts with a stellar performance in a semi-pro game.

“One of his good friends was pitching against him, and before the game, George went to him and said, ‘Look, there’s a scout in the stands, so I need to make a good impression,’” Starwald recalled. “His friend said, ‘OK, I’ll give you one shot. The first pitch every time up will be right down the pike. If you miss it, tough luck. You won’t be getting any more gifts.’ I guess George didn’t miss much that day, because the scout signed him to a contract.”

Selkirk divided the 1933 season between Newark and Rochester, combining for 22 homers, 108 RBI and a .306 average. He spent the latter part of the following season with the Yankees and performed well enough to convince McCarthy he was ready to replace the aging Ruth. Selkirk’s finest moments included an eight-RBI game, a walk-off home run in the 16th inning and four homers in four consecutive at-bats over two games. But his biggest contribution—one still being felt today—was his suggestion of installing six-foot-wide cinder paths in front of outfield walls. These “warning tracks” greatly reduced the number of wall-banging injuries and extended the playing careers of many.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Selkirk was released by the Yankees and never played in the big leagues again. But he did go on to have a successful career as a minor-league manager, grooming future Hall-of-Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mantle. He also served as farm director of the Kansas City Athletics and Baltimore Orioles before becoming general manager of the Washington Senators.

“He was a heckuva of ballplayer and a heckuva of a guy,” said Starwald, who spent a lot of time tagging along with his famous cousin. “That couldn’t have been easy following in that big guy’s footsteps, but he did just fine.”

That he did. It’s a story that Didi Gregorius undoubtedly would love to repeat.

Best-selling author, award-winning columnist and radio talk show co-host Scott Pitoniak is in his 42nd year as a journalist.

3/27/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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What You're Saying 

Frank Cicha at 12:18:47 PM on 3/27/2015
Great article. Little known facts, at least to me.
Ron Mack at 3:51:23 PM on 3/27/2015
Fun read about a wonderful man.

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