Cliff Snyder (Dion Ogust)

On the Friday evening of October 30, 1942, the phone rang at the Snyder household in the Saugerties hamlet of High Woods. It was the comic actor Billy Gaxton, a star of Broadway and vaudeville and a member of the Woodstock Golf Club. Although the private club was closed for the season, temporary greens were in place and the course was open for play. If he and a friend showed up around noon the next day, asked Gaxton, would Clifford Snyder caddie for them?

Sure, said Cliff, a 17-year-old junior at Saugerties High School. Snyder had been toting golf bags, including Gaxton’s, at the Woodstock club since he was 11. Having risen through the three-tiered caddie ranks to earn an “A” rating, the club’s highest, he now commanded the princely fee of 50 cents for nine holes and a solid dollar for 18. He routinely carried two bags and would be happy to do so tomorrow for Gaxton and his anonymous golf partner.

On an unseasonably balmy Saturday morning, amid sunshine and a temperature pushing 60, Cliff hopped on his bike for the five-mile ride to the club, arriving shortly before noon.

At the appointed time a car pulled up and two men got out. One was Gaxton, but the other wasn’t Victor Moore, Billy’s fellow actor and frequent Woodstock golf partner, as Snyder might have expected. No, this man, big and genial, was a first-time visitor to the club and its scenic course along the Sawkill Creek. But for Cliff Snyder, a lifelong Yankees fan and the leftfielder on his Saugerties High baseball team, there was no mistaking who he was.

It was none other than Babe Ruth.

“I was definitely surprised, but I recognized him right away. It was quite a thrill for me,” says Cliff, now 87, who recounted his long-ago day with the Babe in recent phone interviews and during a round of golf at Woodstock. “I can still see him getting out of the car and putting on his golf shoes. He was a big man, fairly tall and well-built, but with spindly legs.” Ruth was listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 215 pounds during his playing career, which lasted from 1914 to 1935.

Soon enough the two middle-aged golfers — Gaxton, 48, who had teamed with the likes of Ethel Merman, as well as with his buddy Moore, on Broadway; and Ruth, the legendary Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, baseball’s all-time home run king, now 47 and retired from the game, but still larger than life — had entrusted their clubs to Snyder and were afoot on the course, guided by their teenage caddie.

 

Ruth the golfer

“He was a happy-go-lucky person, always with a cigar in his mouth and a towel wrapped around his neck,” says Snyder of the flamboyant, fun-loving Babe, who played golf as he batted, lefthanded. “He was very friendly, calling me ‘son,’ as in, ‘I need a club, son.’ He played very well. He hit the ball well and was pretty accurate, generally right down the middle. He had never played the Woodstock course before, but shot in the 40s on both the front and back nines.”

Ruth and Gaxton played 18 holes that day, touring the nine-hole layout twice. They were the only golfers on the course. “They walked the whole way, taking their time and sitting on benches now and then. It was a beautiful day. Babe Ruth was talkative, asking me about my interest in baseball. I was excited, but not nervous. They were both such nice people. It was a pleasure to caddie for them,” says Cliff.

The Woodstock Golf Club was founded in 1929. Today, separate tees create different yardages for a given hole on the front nine and the back nine, but Snyder recalls that in 1942 the tee placements and yardages were similar each time around. (For an engaging pictorial and textual history of the club’s first 75 years, see A View from the Sixth: The Story of Woodstock’s Golf Club, 1929-2004, by K. Eric Knutsen and Janine Fallon Mower.)

Ruth twice rose to the challenge of the fourth hole, a par 3 of about 140 yards, in which the tee shot must first carry a looming pond and then avoid ensuing trouble, including a stream on the right, a bunker on the left, and, behind the green, the banks of the Sawkill. An unfazed Babe hit the green both times, Snyder reports, adding that Ruth also cleared the creek from the tee on no. 9 and again on no. 18, each time landing near the green.

The Bambino was less fortunate on the fifth hole, the only par 5 on the Woodstock scorecard. After a long drive he elected to go for it in two, says Cliff, but plunked his second shot into a drainage ditch short of the green. So it goes. In golf, the great leveler, everyone is mortal.

When the round was over, a magnanimous Ruth — who by 1930, in the middle of his baseball career, was reportedly earning an astronomical $80,000 a year — pressed a five-dollar bill into Snyder’s hand, quintupling the caddie’s usual fee. Gaxton added $2. “I pedaled my bike real fast to get home,” says Cliff. “My father and mother were so surprised when they heard the story. My father couldn’t believe that I’d caddied for Babe Ruth.” Alas, Snyder has no souvenir of the occasion. Autographs weren’t sought then as they are now, he notes, and the era of picture-taking cell phones lay far in the future.

 

A tale of two lives

Despite his jovial demeanor on the course, Ruth appeared to Snyder to be in declining health. “He wasn’t too well at the time. His health was starting to go downhill. His voice was kind of raspy and he kept that towel wrapped around his neck when he wasn’t swinging,” says Cliff, adding that the Babe, a prodigious imbiber, was completely sober that day in Woodstock.

Four years later, in 1946, a malignant tumor was discovered in Ruth’s neck. When he died, on August 16, 1948, at age 53, the Sultan of Swat owned 56 major league batting records, including the single-season mark of 60 home runs, which he set in 1927, and a career-best 714 homers. He is widely regarded as baseball’s greatest player ever.

An eventful life was just getting under way for Cliff Snyder, however. Tragedy struck before he finished high school, with the sudden death of his father. The loss was somewhat assuaged by the entrance into Cliff’s life of a High Woods neighbor, the noted artist Harvey Fite, who created the landmark bluestone sculpture Opus 40 on his property near the Snyder home. Fite became a surrogate father to Cliff, insisting that the young man attend to his studies, which Snyder did.

Drafted into the military in 1944, following his graduation from high school, Cliff served in a rifle company in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army in World War II, fighting on three fronts including the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. Although jobs were scarce when he returned home to Saugerties, the young army veteran found short-term work at the Woodstock Garage and with Allen Plumbing & Electric, among other local businesses.

Snyder found stable employment when he joined IBM as a customer engineer in 1950. He remained with the company until his retirement in 1987, having held positions in New York City, Poughkeepsie, and Kingston. (During his tenure he played baseball on an IBM team in the Industrial League in the early 1950s. One game, he recalls, took place on a field in McCombs Dam Park in the Bronx, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, forever known as The House That Ruth Built.)

Elected in 1967 to the inaugural session of the Ulster County Legislature as a Republican from Saugerties, Snyder served as a county lawmaker for 14 years, attaining the position of majority leader in 1972. He lives today in Saugerties with his wife, Florence. The couple have two grown children and two grandsons. In his ninth decade of life, Snyder plays nine holes of golf every week at the Rip Van Winkle Country Club in Palenville. It can be reliably reported that his golf game is more than respectable.

Around 1940, a couple of years before Babe Ruth would appear unexpectedly at the Woodstock Golf Club and leave a lasting imprint on local history and a young man’s memory, Snyder saw the slugger in action on a baseball field for the only time in his life. Ruth’s playing days as a major leaguer had ended five years earlier. Deprived of his wish to manage a team — he never received an offer — on this day the Babe found himself in Albany, competing in an exhibition game.

With Cliff Snyder and the rest of the crowd looking on expectantly, the great Bambino did what everyone had come to see him do. He cleared the fences.++