Next to the roar of the crowd at Yankee Stadium in New York City, there were few things the great Babe Ruth loved more than the call of the wild in western Glynn County.
Yeah, I know — crazy, huh? But the Sultan of Swat’s affinity for the backwoods of our coastal Georgia community was well-documented back in the day. During the heady 1920s, when his career and legend took flight with the New York Yankees, the Babe wiled away his offseason in the tranquil settings of a place called Dover Hall. He was not alone.
A host big league ballplayers, team managers, the chummy sports writers of the era and others affiliated with the game enjoyed spending time down here in the pursuit of hunting, fishing, outdoor shenanigans and not just a little imbibing. The 2,436-acre former plantation on the Turtle River belonged to a conglomerate of major league baseball’s movers and shakers, chiefly one Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston.
Y’all might remember Huston from the May 24 History column. He was the veteran of both the Spanish-American War and World War I, who also was co-owner of the New York Yankees from 1915 to 1922. Also in 1926, he bought the former Butler Island plantation in McIntosh County and turned it into a successful farming operation that grew iceberg lettuce and raised friesian dairy cows.
But Huston’s initial forays into coastal Georgia’s good life came at Dover Hall. About the time he and Jacob Ruppert were buying the New York Yankees in 1915, Huston and other club owners were putting money down on Dover Hall. It seems they had a notion to clear some land, build some ball fields, and establish a place where teams could gather to practice and scrimmage in the springtime leading up to opening day. Yes, the incarnation of the tradition we know as Major League Baseball’s spring training has its roots in the Golden Isles.
From an article in The New York Times in August of 1915:
“Dover Hall, one of the largest and most picturesque of the southern estates, located 14 miles from Brunswick, Ga., has just been purchased by a syndicate of men prominently identified with baseball, and the indications are that the old plantation, which comprises 2,436 acres will eventually be turned into a great training camp for major league clubs.”
It was in all the papers, from the Atlanta Constitution to the Syracuse Herald in New York. Huston, or Cap as he was known, was listed as the Dover Hall Club’s president.
The land’s namesake, by the way, was Thomas Dover. He was an early Glynn County pioneer who established a cotton plantation there in the early 19th century. Thomas Dover died in 1845. Ownership of the property went through a succession of relatives, from William Dover Jenkins to Leighton Wilson Hazlehurst to George W. Wright. It was in the hands of George Wright Jr. by the late 19th century.
George Jr. was leasing the land to farming and timber concerns when he sold it to Huston and his baseball cronies in 1915. The property included a large six-room home and several cabins. It was accessible by train and by boat.
But the ballfields and the $50,000 exclusive clubhouse envisioned by the team owners never materialized. Likewise, plans for an organized spring training season never quite caught on — at least not in Glynn County.
However, Dover Hall abounded with game, from deer and turkey to rabbit, dove, duck and quail. The fishing was great too. Such pursuits were the real attraction for guys like Ruth, who remained a close friend Huston even after Cap sold his interest in the Yankees.
Huston would keep ties to Butler Island and Dover Hall up until his death 1938. (Huston is buried at Christ Church and also owned a place on Sea Island.) And as long as Huston was there, Dover Hall was always a refuge for his ballplaying pals.
It sounds like Babe’s kind of place, according to an article by Brian McKenna in the Society for American Baseball Research. “Huston insisted on having his staff of servants wake the men every morning with a strong hot toddy,” McKenna writes. “That would be followed by huge plates of eggs, boiled and fried, bacon and hotcakes. The morning fare never varied. Many of the men would then set off to bag some ducks, quail or deer or seek some other adventure.”
Babe often was inclined toward “some other adventure,” including pranks on his fellow ballplayers, according to the writer McKenna. In one instance, Babe hid in waiting for a fishing party as the boys returned at dusk to a dock framed in eerie moss-draped oaks overhanging the waters. The chains Babe rattled fit nicely the many ghost legends they told over drinks at night. Cleveland center fielder Tris Speaker plunged into the river, clambered up the banks and sprinted to the lodge, where he was met by a guffawing Ruth. “You look like you just seen a ghost,” Babe said.
Dover Hall is owned today by a pair real estate partners with ties to Savannah and offices in downtown Brunswick. Initial plans include establishing a hunting club there in the near future, with large lot estates possible later on. Those newcomers may well encounter ghosts of baseball’s glory days.
Babe Ruth died on Aug. 16, 1948. An obituary just days after noted that the baseball great had traveled the world, but one place had remained dear to his heart.
“There was one spot he had loved but it was gone now, and, with it, most of the friends with whom he shared it,” wrote Frank Graham of the Syracuse Herald Journal. “That was Dover Hall on a plantation near Brunswick, Ga. The Dover Hall Club, they called it and its only purpose was fun in the fall and early winter; hunting, fishing, drinking and sitting around the fireplace at night swapping lies.”