Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Golfer Babe Ruth Played at Plattsburgh’s Hotel Champlain

Babe Didrikson’s visit to the North Country in 1934 was historic, especially for Plattsburgh, where it was acknowledged as one of the greatest moments in the city’s history. She was an American hero (thanks to a startling performance in the 1932 Olympics), undeniably one of the world’s top athletes, and a phenomenon because of her high levels of talent in various sports. Plattsburgh’s remote location in New York’s northeast corner makes it difficult to get noticed, so Didrikson’s visit was regarded as a major coup.

Coincidentally, she wasn’t the only Babe from the stratosphere of sports fame to visit Plattsburgh in the 1930s. Even more unlikely is that both Babes were among the most famous athletes in America, and both were able competitors in sports other than the one that brought them the greatest fame. Didrikson, a track-and-field gold medalist, brought her basketball team to Plattsburgh, while Babe Ruth, a baseball giant, came north to play in an international golf tournament.

The city was well known for its long-standing military base, and had a great tourist attraction in the grand, spacious Hotel Champlain, located on a high bluff overlooking Lake Champlain. The scenic views were a powerful draw, with the Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains of Vermont across the water. The hotel’s location gave the adjacent golf course its name — Bluff Point, which bills itself today as “America’s Third Oldest Golf Resort.”

After a fantastic career, Ruth retired from baseball in 1935. He enjoyed golf and became serious about it, playing at a high level (despite relatively poor putting skills) and competing in many tournaments. But neither Plattsburgh nor Bluff Point was on his radar by chance, which begs the question — how did one of the world’s most famous athletes end up in far Northern New York? The answer was – he knew a guy, and that guy was Frank W. Regan.

During his many years of travel, Babe Ruth visited more than his share of hotels, and Regan was a hotel man. After holding other positions, including clerk, he became manager of the Belleview Biltmore in Belleair, Florida, and president of the Belleview Hotel Company. He also managed other properties, including the Hotel Champlain for a few years in the late 1920s, but spent each winter in Florida.

In summer 1933, when he returned to manage the Plattsburgh site after an absence of four years, a letter arrived from a good friend. “Dear Frank: Congratulations on taking over Hotel Champlain. I would like to be up there with you for a round of golf before you leave. Doesn’t seem likely, but if we can get a good lead on this pennant [he was still a Yankee at the time], I might sneak in a few days vacation. Babe Ruth.”

By that time, Regan and Ruth had been playing golf for several years — both as partners and against each other — and were close friends. Babe was still too busy with baseball to make the trip north, but among the properties Frank managed was the Garden City Hotel on Long Island. His proximity to the House That Ruth Built (Yankee Stadium) allowed them to frequently hit the links together in the New York City area.

Retiring from baseball in June 1935 gave Babe much more time for golf. In March 1936, he was in Florida for the Belleview-Biltmore Golf Championship, and his opponent in the opening round was none other than Frank Regan. They were tied at the halfway mark, and then Regan took the lead, but Babe rallied at the end and eliminated his friend.

Frank had to head north soon for his Hotel Champlain gig, but a reunion wasn’t far off. On Bluff Point’s schedule for mid-August was the International Invitation Tournament, and the most famous entrant, announced to great fanfare, was Babe Ruth. Regan had long ago been welcomed into the Plattsburgh business community, and when Babe arrived several days before the tournament was to begin, the two men shared public appearances to promote the event.

On the trip north, Ruth was accompanied in his huge, 16-cylinder car by his wife and daughter. Imagine the shock to some lucky Saratoga residents when Babe pulled into Ross-Ketchum’s Garage to replace a broken fan belt. Only a few people were aware he was in town, but a sports reporter for the Saratogian arrived on the scene to ask why he was up north. “I’m on my way to Bluff Point near Plattsburgh to compete in an amateur golf tournament. Starts Thursday, and I might as well be on the scene early.”

When asked about the quality of his game, he said, “Good. My drives aren’t so long as they used to be, but I’m hitting the middle of the fairways. Why, only last week I had a 32–37—69 down at one of the New York links. If my putting holds up, I can go places in this game.”

At Bluff Point, he agreed to take part in a novelty contest pitting golfers against baseball players. The plan was for Babe to lead eight members of the city’s outstanding baseball club, the Plattsburgh Majors, against nine tournament entrants. The golfers would play their normal game, but the ballplayers would use bats and baseballs to play their way around the course. To hole out, the ballplayers’ last shot would be executed by tossing the ball into a barrel placed over the hole. It was a highly anticipated event, but scheduling issues caused it to be postponed, and then canceled.

During his first round of pre-tournament play at Bluff Point, Babe seemed certain to beat the course record of 69, but issues on the 17th hole resulted in a seven, giving him a two-under-par score of 70. His partner in the best-ball competition, George Gillespie, played well, and the twosome finished with a 63.

In match play, Ruth did well among what was described as “a crack field of about 125 United States and Canada stars.” Included were strong players from England, Massachusetts, and Long Island. After earning a berth in the final 16, he was eliminated in the quarter-finals by Roger Prescott of Keeseville, who went on to win the tournament.

At the end of August the following year, he was back again at Bluff Point, practicing for Regan’s tournament. Several of his toughest opponents joined Ruth on a special outing, a trout-fishing trip on Taylor Pond in southwestern Clinton County. Ausable Forks fishermen Harry Lyon and Dan Shambeau served as guides, and on the return trip, they stopped in the Forks at the American House, where locals in attendance experienced a sports fan’s dream — sharing a beer and 30 minutes with several athletes, led by the incomparable Bambino. Ruth obligingly gave a number of autographs before returning to Plattsburgh.

About 75 golfers entered the 1937 Bluff Point tournament, for which Babe warmed up by playing rounds with Frank Regan, Roger Prescott (the defending champion), and others. He shot a 79 in the opening round, plenty good enough to qualify, but again lost in the quarter-finals, this time to Gillespie, who ultimately lost in the finals.

Although Ruth didn’t triumph, Plattsburgh and the surrounding area came out winners, receiving priceless publicity while hosting two of the country’s greatest superstars named Babe within a two-year period. Also winners were sports fans from both sides of Lake Champlain, given an opportunity to see in person two of America’s most admired sports heroes.

If you’re ever in Plattsburgh, it’s worth your time to visit the grounds of Clinton Community College (formerly the Hotel Champlain) just north of Bluff Point Golf Resort. The beautiful, huge building is historic, and the views are spectacular.

Photos: Headline, Plattsburgh Daily Press (1936); Babe Ruth golfing with NYS Governor Al Smith, 1930 (State Archives of Florida/Gleason W. Romer); Hotel Champlain (Library of Congress, 1906, Detroit Publishing); Sunrise from Hotel Champlain (Library of Congress, 1906, Detroit Publishing)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

3 Responses

  1. Richard L Daly says:

    Larry: ” … one of the greatest moment’s in the city’s history … ” Isn’t Bluff Point in the TOWN of Plattsburgh PBG?

    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      Yes, Bluff Point is in the town, south of the city limits. The benefits of a celebrity visiting the golf course didn’t stop at the city/town line. The same was true of famous visitors, including presidents, to Hotel Champlain. While they were outside the city limits, they were feted at events both in the town and the city. Many of the popular hosting venues (like the Witherill Hotel, and military base facilities) were within city limits, and for special events, the distinction between town and city wasn’t a consideration.

  2. Thomas S Ducatte says:

    Did Babe Ruth make an appearance at the Plattsburgh fairgrounds during the time?

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