Sammy Byrd, who played with the Babe Ruth-era Yankees in the Fall Classic, also excelled in golf, nearly winning 2 Masters titles
It’s October, so that means it’s time for the World Series … and the Masters? With the COVID-19 virus rearranging our lives and sports, the 2020 Masters has been rescheduled for Nov. 12-15. A few decades ago, a big-league baseball player, Sammy Byrd, played for the Yankees in the 1932 World Series and later competed regularly in the Masters, nearly winning it twice.
Byrd was born in Bremen, Ga., in 1907 but raised in neighboring Alabama. His family lived next to the Roebuck Golf Course in Birmingham, where he caddied and started playing the game. In high school, Byrd played basketball and baseball and had been trained to become a bricklayer by his father, but by 1926 was playing minor-league baseball for the Class D Jonesboro (Ark.) Buffaloes. He bounced around in the minors, was spotted by a Yankees scout and signed a contract in 1929 as an outfielder.
In 1929 spring training, Byrd polished his game with two Yankees outfielders, Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel. Byrd got a break in June when he subbed for an ill Ruth in right field for 16 days, during which he batted .321. Baseball writer Irving Vaughn of the Chicago Tribune took note of the rookie, reporting, “On three occasions the young man flagged drives that the ponderous Babe would have been forced to welcome on the first hop.”
In spite of Byrd’s skills in the outfield and at the plate, it was obvious that he would not replace Ruth in the Yankees’ lineup. In addition, the Yankees had two other great outfielders, Meusel and Earle Combs, so Byrd was relegated to a role with the Yankees as a bench-sitting backup. Byrd got the nickname “Babe Ruth’s legs” because he frequently was called in as a pinch runner for the aging Ruth.
Byrd didn’t mind his status with the Yankees. It was steady work during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and he got to play a game he loved. In the 1932 World Series, Byrd subbed for Ruth in right field during the bottom of the ninth inning in the fourth and final game as the Yankees swept the Chicago Cubs. He didn’t have an at-bat or have to field a ball, but Byrd played in a World Series, as the record books attest.
Byrd and Ruth were friends and roomed together on the road. Ruth imparted his theory on hitting a baseball to Byrd, espousing that the swing should be on a single plane, like a table; the batter shouldn’t chop down on a pitch or swing up on one. The theory stuck with Byrd.
He and Ruth also shared another interest: golf. During spare time when not on the diamond, they were on the golf course. Though Byrd was the backup for Ruth in the outfield, he was much better in golf and soon was acknowledged as the best golfer in the major leagues.
In April 1934, Byrd and Ruth were in Atlanta to play an exhibition game against the Atlanta Crackers, a top minor-league team. Byrd and Ruth went to East Lake Golf Club to play golf with Bob Jones, who was a director of the Crackers ballclub, and Jones’ bridge-playing friend Hal Sims. Byrd hadn’t met Jones before, but had seen Jones play in a junior tournament at Roebuck in Birmingham and saw Jones win the final leg of the Grand Slam at Merion in 1930.
Due to the starting time for the baseball game, the match was limited to nine holes, with Byrd and Ruth playing Jones and Sims. Jones shot 36, Byrd 37, Ruth 39 and Sims 41. Byrd won a dollar from Jones, having bet that he and Ruth would beat Jones and Sims.
The match aside, Jones watched with awe as Byrd hit 300-yard drives into the middle of the fairway. Jones measured one of Byrd’s shots at 316 yards. Jones commented that Byrd was the best driver of the golf ball he’d ever seen.
In the fall of 1933, while still playing Major League Baseball, Byrd started playing in professional golf tournaments as an amateur. He played the Mid-South Open at Pinehurst and, in December, in the Miami Biltmore Open on the Florida circuit, hitting his usual long drives. He caught the eye of Tommy Armour, who said, “I believe [Byrd] can hit a golf ball as far as anyone now living, and I also believe with a little more chance to play and practice, he would be one of the true stars of the game.”
In 1934, the Yankees traded Byrd to the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he played in the outfield. The next year, on May 24, the Reds faced the Phillies at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in Major League Baseball’s first night game. At 8:30 p.m., President Franklin Roosevelt flipped a switch in the White House, and the baseball diamond was illuminated with 632 lights. Baseball got a boost from night games, but the first night baseball game was not bright for Byrd.
In the sixth inning, Dolph Camilli of the Phillies hit what looked like a home run, but Byrd leaped into the air, grabbed the ball and crashed into the unpadded center-field wall. “That crash ruined my [baseball] career,” Byrd said. “The lighting was poor, so I couldn’t see the wall, but one of the other fielders yelled that I had plenty of room, so I went after the ball, hit the wall, hurt my knee and knocked myself out. My knee was never right after that night.”
In 1936, with his injured knee, Byrd again served as a reserve outfielder, but he still had strength and a good batting eye. In a game against the Pirates at Crosley Field, the Reds were down 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded. The right-handed-hitting Byrd was sent in to pinch hit and knocked the first pitch out of the ballpark for a grand slam, the only one of his career.
The Reds traded Byrd to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1936 season, but Byrd decided that he wanted to devote himself to golf. Even a personal appeal from Branch Rickey, general manager of the Cardinals, couldn’t persuade Byrd to stay in baseball. Golf would be his full-time game as he turned pro.
Byrd started playing regularly on the professional tour, backed by a job at Philadelphia Country Club as an assistant to Ed Dudley. In 1939, Byrd won his first event of note, the Philadelphia Open, a strong regional event with some top names in the field, including his boss, Dudley, Ralph Hutchison, George Fazio and Leo Diegel.
In making the switch from baseball to golf, Byrd noted that “baseball and golf are alike, but completely different. But these things are essential if you would win at either: concentration, perfect timing and relaxation.”
Tension, Byrd, believed was different in golf than in baseball.
“I have found that golfers have more tension, are inclined to tighten up more than ballplayers due to the fact they are hitting a stationary ball,” Byrd said. “The ballplayer keeps his eyes focused on a moving object, has less opportunity to grow tense. A golfer can overcome this tension by easy footwork, taking a full, smooth swing and a good turn.
“Another reason for less tension at baseball lies in its team play. The golfer is out there for himself, and even if he’s playing a team match, must make all the shots by himself. And knowing if he misses a shot, uses bad judgment or gets into difficulty just once and takes unnecessary strokes, puts on the old pressure.”
In baseball, Byrd pointed out that the catcher and pitcher, with occasional input from the manager, jointly decide on which pitch to throw. The catcher can go to the mound to steady the pitcher, and fielders yell out where a batted ball is headed. The golfer is on his own.
Byrd earned $250 for his victory in Philadelphia, but it earned him much more than that: an invitation to play in the 1940 Masters. The Masters, which debuted in 1934, originally was known as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, and the name change, beginning in 1939 and over club co-founder Jones’ initial objection, didn’t alter the “invitation” aspect. All players were invited by Jones to participate. There were no automatic entries based on prize money or other measurements of standing in the golf world.
It didn’t hurt that Byrd had played golf with Jones in 1933 and impressed him with his ball-striking ability, nor did it hurt that Byrd’s boss, Dudley, was the head professional at Augusta National Golf Club during the winter. In his first Masters, Byrd finished a respectable 14th, but the best was yet to come.
The next year, Byrd finished third at the Masters with a score of 3-under 285, behind Craig Wood’s winning 280 and runner-up Byron Nelson’s 283. Byrd finished one stroke ahead of Ben Hogan and four ahead of Sam Snead. Byrd was right in the mix of a major golf tournament.
In 1942, Byrd started the Masters with back-to-back rounds of 68, putting him one stroke behind the leader, Nelson. Byrd’s last two rounds of 75 and 74 put him at 285 and in fourth place, behind Nelson, the winner in a playoff with Hogan, and third-place Paul Runyan.
Byrd’s outstanding play at Augusta ended with the suspension of the Masters for the duration of World War II, but all was not lost for him during the war years. Among his six official victories credited by what today is known as the PGA Tour, Byrd won the 1942 Greater Greensboro Open, the 1943 Chicago Victory National Open, an ersatz event modeled on the U.S. Open, which had also been suspended during the war, the 1945 Texas Open and the 1945 Azalea Open. In all, Byrd won some 25 events during his golfing career, although not all were officially sanctioned by the PGA of America.
Perhaps his biggest event was the 1945 PGA Championship where Byrd faced Byron Nelson in the scheduled 36-hole final match at Moraine Country Club in Dayton, Ohio. Byrd had Nelson 3 down through 21 holes, but a bogey by Byrd at the 25th and a change in the weather seemed to turn the tide for Nelson. Gusty winds came up, giving Nelson, who learned the game in windy north Texas, an apparent edge. Nelson ended up beating Byrd, 4 and 3.
While Byrd consistently bested his old pal Babe Ruth on the golf course, Ruth’s theory on batting proved to be a gift to Byrd in golf. Though Ruth taught that a baseball bat should be swung on a level plane through the strike zone, he practiced batting with a towel tucked under his leading arm (Ruth’s right arm, as a left-handed hitter) and kept it there throughout the swing, with his weight coiled back on his left leg, which was anchored.
Byrd took this concept to golf, explaining, “In golf, the plane changes to a tilted one. I tuck a towel under my left armpit, square up my right foot, shift my body into my right leg for power and keep my left arm on my body the whole time while hinging at the elbow — and I go to the target.”
For Byrd, hitting a golf ball required the same move as dropping the bat into position to hit a low outside pitch.
While Byrd delivered a lot of power with his swing, the great Yankees pitcher of the 1920s, Waite Hoyt, who also played golf, said Byrd had “the most graceful [golf] swing you’ve ever seen. His baseball swing was just as easy, and when he got hold of one, it rode the fences easily.”
Byrd believed the baseball swing and the golf swing were basically the same. When Grantland Rice, the top sportswriter of the 1930s and ’40s via his nationally syndicated column, asked Byrd to write a book with him comparing the baseball swing and the golf swing, Byrd replied, “It’s going to be a damn short book, Granny.”
At the end of the 1940s, Byrd retired from playing the tour and owned a par-3 course and driving range in Birmingham, where he taught his theories. Hogan, who fought a duck hook for a long time, took lessons from Byrd, and they talked by phone regularly about the nature of the golf swing. In reading Hogan’s book, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, one can see Byrd’s theories set forth. Hogan never acknowledged the input he received from Byrd.
Byrd employed a young golf professional at his driving range, Jimmy Ballard, who took Byrd’s (or Ruth’s) connectivity theory of the lead arm remaining tucked against the body throughout the golf swing to greater heights, becoming a leading golf instructor for many touring professionals.
Byrd died in 1981 at age 74, but he remains as the only person to have played in the World Series and the Masters Tournament.
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