Remembering the Canadian who replaced Babe Ruth

Huntsville, Ont., native George Selkirk hit .333 for the New York Yankees in the 1936 World Series. (Photo: Courtesy of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame).

Huntsville, Ont., native George Selkirk hit .333 for the New York Yankees in the 1936 World Series. (Photo: Courtesy of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame).

*Writer’s Note: This is an updated version of an article that I’ve published previously on this blog.

He’s Canada’s Mr. October.

But even though George Selkirk earned five World Series rings during his nine-year career with the New York Yankees, the vast majority of baseball fans in Canada and the U.S. don’t know who he is.

“Not even hardcore Yankees fans are going to remember George Selkirk,” said Richard Tofel, author of A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939, in a 2009 interview.

Born in Huntsville, Ont., Selkirk had the misfortune of replacing Babe Ruth in right field for the Bronx Bombers. The upstart Canadian not only assumed The Bambino’s position in 1935, but he also donned Ruth’s No. 3.

“I was just cocky enough to say, ‘Wearing Babe’s number won’t make me nervous. If I’m going to take his place, I’ll take his number too,’” explained Selkirk in a 1936 interview, reported in Jim Shearon’s book, Canada’s Baseball Legends.

Later that same year, however, Selkirk wasn’t as enthusiastic about his decision. In an article published in the Brooklyn Eagle on December 13, 1936, he was asked if it was a tough assignment to replace Ruth.

“Was that a tough assignment?” he responded. “Instead of being just another outfielder, one who was no [Tris] Speaker or [Earle] Combs in the outfield, I was expected to make fans forget all about one of the greatest players in the history of the game, Babe Ruth. 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.”

Selkirk would persevere to enjoy a productive big league career. Suiting up alongside immortals like Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey and Lefty Gomez, Selkirk hit over .300 five times in nine seasons. He was also a key contributor to the Yankees’ four consecutive World Series titles from 1936 to 1939.

Selkirk has toiled in more World Series games (21) than any other Canuck. He also tops Canadians in World Series hits (18), RBI (10), walks (11) and, most importantly, championship rings (5).

“Selkirk was one of my favourite players, taking over Ruth’s spot at bat and in right field,” Yankees legendary manager Joe McCarthy once said. “George was under heavy pressure that first year but came through brilliantly. No player ever had a tougher assignment.”

The Canadian outfielder made a splash in his Fall Classic debut on September 30, 1936, when he hammered a screw ball from Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell over the right field wall at the Polo Grounds in his first World Series at bat. He’s one of just 34 major leaguers – and the only Canadian – to homer in his inaugural Fall Classic at bat. For an encore, he knocked in a team-leading six RBI in the following World Series as the Yankees repeated as champs.

George Selkirk 3

But statistics and accomplishments aside, who was Canada’s Mr. October?

As noted earlier, Selkirk was born in Huntsville, Ont., in 1908. According to an excellent SABR bio by Joseph Wancho, Selkirk was one of three children to George and Margaret (nee Dykes) Selkirk. Wancho notes that Selkirk’s father retired from the mortuary business and moved his family to Rochester, N.Y. (Some reports indicate that the family moved to Rochester when the younger George was five).

Shearon’s book reveals that the Canadian was a star catcher on his high school team when he first attracted the attention of scouts. Dubbed “Twinkletoes” for his distinct running style, Selkirk’s professional baseball odyssey began in 1927.

“When I was a kid, I had a lot of trouble with charley horses and stuff,” Selkirk explained in an interview with Yankees Magazine in 1983. “A coach by the name of Spike Garnish told me if I would run on my toes, I might get over it. So I did. Not only made me faster, but cleared up the leg trouble. Ernie Lanigan [a Jersey sportswriter] pinned the label on me when I was with Jersey City. The name stuck.”

After seven seasons in the minors, including a stop with the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs in 1932, Selkirk made his big league debut on August 12, 1934. Supplanting The Bambino in the Yanks’ outfield the following year, he hit .312 and knocked in 94 runs.

In 1937, the underrated Canuck was hitting .344 and was tied for the league lead in home runs when he broke his collarbone diving for a fly ball on Canada Day. His finest season came in 1939 when he knocked in 101 runs, recorded a team-high 103 walks and finished with a .452 on-base percentage. He was also on the field for Lou Gehrig’s emotional retirement speech.

From 1940 to 1942, Selkirk’s playing time diminished and he was reduced to a reserve role before he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where, according to Wancho, he was promoted to the rank of Ensign.

Little has been written about Selkirk’s personality, however, a story from long-time Yankee Tommy Henrich’s biography illustrating Selkirk’s playful side is included in Tofel’s book.

“After he (Selkirk) joined the Yankees, he once hit a screaming drive to center, an easy double by the look of it. When the center fielder instead made a leaping catch, Selkirk not yet at first, ‘jumped into the air, whirled and ran back down the first-base line and slid into home plate,’” writes Tofel.

Selkirk’s strength was also legendary in the Yankees clubhouse. Tofel uncovered that the steady Canadian outfielder was “the only man who could wrestle a healthy Gehrig to a draw.”

As far as Selkirk’s personal life, Wancho reports that the Ontario-born outfielder was married to Norma May Fox in June 1931 and they had a daughter named Betty. The couple remained married for 55 years.

After hanging up his playing spikes, Selkirk served as a minor league manager in the Yankees and Milwaukee Braves organizations, and would later work in player development roles with the Kansas City Athletics and Baltimore Orioles. Among the players he helped hone the skills of were Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Moose Skowron.

In 1964, he was named general manager of the Washington Senators to become the first Canadian to be a GM at the big league level. He served in that post until 1969.

Dave Baldwin, a pitcher with the Senators from 1966 to 1969, has fond memories of Selkirk.

“I felt that George took a special interest in my career,” Baldwin shared in a 2010 e-mail exchange. “Perhaps he was empathetic because I was late in making it to the majors (I was 29 in my first full season in the majors) as was George (who was 27 in his first full season). In 1968, he had to send me down to the minors, and it seemed to really bother him. Most general managers are pretty cold about transactions of this sort.”

Baldwin’s contract negotiations with Selkirk also went smoothly.

“He was rather relaxed, easygoing (during the negotiations),” remembered Baldwin. “I know that players who had contract disputes with him felt otherwise, but I never had any problems of that sort.”

After the 1969 season, Selkirk returned to the Yankees as a scout. According to Wancho, Selkirk and his wife, Norma, eventually retired to Fort Lauderdale.

For his efforts on and off the field, Selkirk was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in 1958 and into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.

The man they called “Twinkletoes” died in Pompano Beach, Fla., on January 19, 1987. His wife passed away just eight months later. At the time of his death, Selkirk was survived by his daughter, a brother and two grandchildren. He’s buried in the Siloam United Methodist Cemetery in Harrisonville, Pa.

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9 thoughts on “Remembering the Canadian who replaced Babe Ruth

  1. Len Corben - Author of The Pitching Professor: The Life and Times of Ernie Kershaw, One of Professional Baseball's Oldest-Living Former Players

    My dad was a big baseball fan. I remember him listening intently to the 1951 World Series on the radio. I was only 9 at the time but by the next season I was a huge baseball fan. I think the Topps baseball bubble-gum cards of 1952 had a lot to do with that as well. Dad would tell me about some of the ballplayers from years past that he liked. George Selkirk was one of them. Whether it was because he was a Canadian or because he did so well filling Babe Ruth’s shoes, I don’t know. Perhaps it was both. Thanks for re-telling the story.

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