In one of these vintage photos from a bygone era is a photo of the New York Yankees from 1938 – including immortal legends such as Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey.
Eighty-four years later, George Selkirk’s name may not be as recognizable to Yankees fans as the first three – all of whom have had their numbers retired and are memorialized in Monument Park. But by all accounts and by all metrics, Selkirk has had a stellar career in stripes.
The Canadian-born outfielder has been on two American League All-Star teams, hit .300 or better in five of his nine major league seasons and appeared in six World Series, winning five of them . His Major League debut in 1934 – when he was called up to the Yankees after seven years with the Minors – is still remarkable: 38 RBIs on 13 extra hits in just 46 games and 192 plate appearances.
Yet, in many ways, George Selkirk is the forgotten New York Yankee. Some people look at that black and white photo, and the guy next to Dickey looking straight into the camera lens, and say, “Who is that?”
Well, he’s the guy who replaced Babe Ruth, following in Ruth’s footsteps in right field and even wearing the same No. 3 uniform.
Selkirk was the guy who helped revive the Yankees dynasty.
Throughout history, the sports world has been littered with players and coaches who became legends and failed. Some failed due to circumstances – they were good, but never quite as good as the deity they replaced in the eyes of fans. And some have failed because of, well, reality – they were never really talented enough for the ultimate level of athletic competition.
George Alexander Selkirk was neither. He was better than good, he deserved his place on the Yankees roster, and he was a key cog in helping continue to forge the dynasty built in the Bronx in the 1920s.
That’s who he was. As for who he wasn’t? Well, it wasn’t Babe Ruth.
Ruth pierced a nation long before television, satellite and social media. His legend grew through radio and newspaper and magazine accounts. It was not just his talented feats as a pitcher and batter, but also his charisma and outsized personality – which burst onto movie theater screens across the country thanks to the short newsreels aired ahead of the main feature – which earned him the adoration of millions.
He was the baby. The Big Bambino. Sultan of Swat. The Colossus of Clout. The crash king.
And George Selkirk knew it.
He knew all about Ruth and Gehrig and Frankie Crosetti and Tony Lazzeri and every player on a loaded Yankees roster that left little to no room for minor leaguers hoping to earn a shot.
It took a veritable act of the baseball gods for Selkirk to finally get a taste of the major leagues at age 26, a time when most major leaguers are well into their careers. In late July 1934, Yankees left fielder Earle Combs was running for a well-hit ball during a game against the St. Louis Browns at Sportsman’s Park. Combs’ momentum carried him full speed into the concrete wall, leaving him with a fractured skull. His season was over.
Selkirk’s career was about to begin.
The outfielder was recalled from the Yankees farm team in Newark, New Jersey, where the southpaw was batting .357 for the Bears. It took him almost three weeks to make his debut, but he was finally inserted into the roster on August 12, 1934 and he closed the season with the aforementioned impressive achievement.
Selkirk was a Yankee and was here to stay, endearing himself to his teammates so much that they co-opted a nickname from his Minor League days and started calling him “Twinkletoes” for his unique running style.
“When I was a kid, I had a really hard time with charley horses and all that. A trainer named Spike Garnish told me if I ran on my toes I could get over it,” Selkirk told Yankees Magazine in 1983. “So I did it. Not only made me faster but also solved the leg problem. [Sportswriter] Ernie Lanigan pinned the tag on me when I was with Jersey City. The name stuck.
Selkirk played the final five weeks of the ’34 season with Ruth, including Ruth’s final game as a Yankee against the Boston Red Sox when The Babe was in right field and Selkirk was in left field. The Yankees released Ruth before the 1935 season, and he signed with the Boston Braves, which only lasted until May before retiring.
Meanwhile, as Season 35 opened and Ruth’s familiar site in right field was gone, the boos rained down on Selkirk. But he was ready for the reception. And the boos were short-lived, in part because of Selkirk’s confidence.
“If I have to take his place [in right field]I’ll take his number too,” Selkirk told the Brooklyn Eagle in 1936.
Indeed, Selkirk came out for the first game in 1935 wearing number 3 and proudly wore it for eight seasons.
“Instead of being just another outfielder, one who wasn’t Tris Speaker or Earle Combs in the outfield, fans were expected to forget all about one of the greatest players in history. of the game, Babe Ruth,” Selkirk told the Eagle.
Yankees manager Joe McCarthy later told the authors of Lefty: An American Odyssey that Selkirk was one of his favorite players.
“George was under a lot of pressure that first year, but he came through it brilliantly,” the manager said. “No player has ever had a more difficult mission.”
Selkirk had an outstanding rookie season in 1935, especially given the circumstances. He hit .312, hit 11 home runs, 29 doubles, and drove in 94 runs, second on the team only to Gehrig’s 120. The Yankees finished three games behind the eventual World Series champion Detroit Tigers.
Selkirk had arrived, and it wasn’t just as a replacement for Ruth or as a spark plug. He was a vital part of the Yankees engine that appeared in the 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941 and 1942 World Series during his tenure in the Bronx, winning all but the last. He hit .290 total, .265 in 21 playoff games, and he was an American League All-Star in 1936 — playing alongside rookie outfielder DiMaggio — and again in 1939.
In fact, his first All-Star campaign is often overshadowed by the 1927 Yankees greats, but the 1936 Yankees won the American League pennant by 19½ games with a 102-51-2 record and had five players. – including Selkirk – drive in 100 races or more. Selkirk also led all American League right fielders in fielding percentage that year.
Selkirk made his name playing baseball at Rochester Tech in upstate New York as a catcher, but he was born in 1908 in Huntsville, Ontario, before his father moved the family from five people in America and they become American citizens.
He was originally signed by Rochester of the International League in 1927, but when he heard an Eastern Shore League team needed a catcher, he jumped at the offer. The Yankees eventually bought Selkirk’s contract, launching him on his journey to crack the star-studded big league roster.
In addition to Ruth, Selkirk is also inextricably linked with another famous Yankee of that era – Gehrig. According to an article in Canada’s National Post, Bill Hine, Selkirk’s son-in-law, said his famous stepfather would share a hotel room down the road with none other than the Iron Horse. Both players had an affinity for wrestling — another sport Selkirk participated in at Rochester Tech — but the incredibly strong Gehrig often got the better of him during their playful hotel room matches.
“They fought and fought in a hotel room because hotels in those days didn’t have much to offer in terms of a gym,” Hine told the newspaper. “Lou was stronger. Lou was winning most games, even though George was set up well and was a man who kept himself fit. He didn’t gain any pounds. I’ve never seen George look like a businessman. He always looked like an athlete.
“One day, Lou suddenly went limp. George didn’t want to hurt her,” Hine said, noting that her stepfather quickly backed off.
“Lou, what’s wrong?” Selkirk asked Gehrig.
“I don’t know,” Gehrig replied.
“Lou professed his innocence,” Hine said. “He just didn’t know. It was the beginning…a sensibility that something was wrong.
The something, of course, was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Gehrig voluntarily ended his streak of consecutive games at 2,130 on April 30, 1939, and retired from baseball on July 4, 1939, when he gave his famous “Luckyest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium. He died on June 2, 1941.
By then, Selkirk had become more of a reserve player. In 1943, he enlisted in the United States Navy and served in World War II. But after returning home in 1946, he still lived a baseball life. Selkirk managed the Yankees farm system for several years, and in 1953 he joined the Milwaukee Braves organization and was named American Association Manager of the Year.
Selkirk then worked as director of player personnel for the Kansas City Athletics and helped bring in a young right fielder who also made his way to the Yankees and was mentioned in the same breath as Ruth – Roger Maris, that Selkirk acquired from Cleveland in 1958.
“He could have used another season in one of the top minor leagues to get the experience he needs,” Selkirk told John E. Peterson for his book, Kansas City Athletics: A History of Baseball 1954-1967. “But we don’t know how far he can go. He has all the tools to be awesome.
One of Selkirk’s greatest contributions to the game came during his playing days. was chatting with reporters midway through the 1935 season when he made an observation. There should be a path of ash, he thought, about six feet from the outside wall. Such a path would let an outfielder know that he had left the soft, quiet comfort of the grass and now had something creaking under his feet, a signal that he was close to the outfield wall. Major League Baseball followed Selkirk’s suggestion and implemented what is now called the “warning track” in 1949.
Selkirk died in 1987 at the age of 79 and was rightfully inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, as well as the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. He will remain at forever remembered as the man who replaced the greatest baseball player in history. of the game, but his self-confidence has ensured that he is not a mere footnote.
“Did I worry? Well, I tried not to,” Selkirk told the Brooklyn Eagle over 80 years ago. “Ruth, you know, has always been my baseball hero, but I never thought I would take her place.”