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Nobody Goes to Bed the Night Before Duck Season

Yesterday marked the anniversary of old friend Johnny Vander Meer’s major-league debut.

Johnny_Vander_Meer_Reds Johnny Vander Meer

The hard-throwing southpaw first appeared in a major-league game on April 22, 1937 at the age of 22 with the Cincinnati Reds. Years later he settled down in South Tampa, which is where we became friends. During the years I knew him, he provided many a rich anecdote and story, but nothing topped his recollections of Babe Ruth.

They met in the visiting dugout of Ebbets Field in 1938. Afterwards, Vander Meer took the mound for the Reds and tossed his major-league record second consecutive no-hitter.

A black and white photograph of the meeting hung in Vander Meer’s living room. The always photogenic Bambino – an invited guest of the Brooklyn Dodgers that night – is wearing street clothes, a Reds cap and had his arm around the shoulders of the youthful Vander Meer. Though Vander Meer had many colorful Ruth stories, I particularly enjoyed the ones about Ruth the outdoorsman.

Like the night before the opening day of duck season. Ruth had been out on the town when he arrived at the camp around 2 a.m. Possessing that extra gear familiar to all the great ones, he began to sound a wake-up call.

“He came in and lit all the lights,” Vander Meer said. “Then he tells everyone: ‘Nobody goes to bed the night before duck season.’ He was one of those guys who burned – Babe only needed three hours of sleep. He could stay up later and get up earlier than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Vander Meer said they finally removed all the light bulbs in a desperate measure, but even that didn’t work.

“Damned if he didn’t start burning newspaper,” Vander Meer said. “Nobody slept.”

Ruth and Vander Meer hunted for brant [geese] on Barnegat Bay in New Jersey the following morning. Because the hunt took place during war times, a dirigible hovered above the eastern shore line keeping watch for German submarines.

“After a while, the damn thing needed to land, so it dropped all of its bombs,” Vander Meer said. “It was loud as hell, mud flew everywhere and every duck took off the water and went the other way. They probably didn’t quit flying until they got to Maryland.”

Having nothing to shoot at, Ruth instructed a guide to retrieve fresh oysters from the beds.

“Babe must have ate 10-15 dozen,” Vander Meer said. “It was a year before I could even look at oysters again.”

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography