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State park memories: Babe Ruth and the atomic bomb

From the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Babe Ruth once violated fishing laws during a stay in Michigan. Photo from the DNR.

May 12 is a significant date in Michigan’s history. On this date in 1919, the Michigan Legislature established the Michigan State Park Commission, paving the way for Michigan’s state parks system.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is marking this 100-year milestone with the Michigan state parks centennial celebration throughout the entire year. Below are a couple of historical stories of significance tied to Michigan’s state parks.

Babe Ruth arrested for fishing violations 

Babe Ruth, the famous New York Yankees slugger, was not as good a fisherman as he was a ballplayer. During the summer of 1926, he violated Michigan’s game and fish laws by fishing at Island Lake Recreation Area before the fishing season officially had begun. Babe went fishing with teammate Pat Sexton from the porch of the Island Lake Hotel and was caught with 25 bass and bluegill before the official June 16 start of the fishing season. The game warden arrested both of them and seized their tackle, but not their catch. They were released and even made it back to the game in Detroit that afternoon. 

In August 1926, Babe was summoned to appear in court in Brighton by A.B. Wilkinson, the conservation officer for Oakland and Livingston counties. Babe was charged with three violations: fishing without a license, fishing out of season and taking undersized fish from Island Lake. Wilkinson held a warrant for Babe when the latter came back to Detroit to play a game. Wilkinson even threatened to arrest Babe if he did not “make a satisfactory answer.” On Aug. 5, when the Yankees came to Detroit from Cleveland, Babe went right to bed. He was awakened to be told that he might be arrested. Babe’s response? Go back to bed, of course!

First crisis of the Manhattan Project solved 

Arthur Compton, a native Michigan resident, was a world-famous physicist working on the atomic bomb. During the summer, Compton often would visit Otsego Lake State Park, in Gaylord, with his family. While the Manhattan project—the research and development that led to the world’s first nuclear weapons—was being developed in Berkeley, California, Compton would invite friends to the family retreat in Otsego Lake, while he continued to work on the project.

In July 1943, Compton was at the general store in Otsego Lake with his family when a panicked Robert Oppenheimer called him. They had a problem. Oppenheimer, who was a collaborator, wanted to discuss an urgent matter with Compton, but in person. Since they were working on a top-secret project, the scientists were not allowed air travel. So, Oppenheimer took a train to Michigan. Compton picked him up from the train station and the two men drove to Otsego Lake State Park where they walked on the beach and talked about the problem at hand: could testing the atomic bomb set off a chain reaction that would destroy the world?

Scientists working on the bomb had discovered nuclear fusion—the principle of the hydrogen bomb. In creating the bomb, scientists were afraid that it would cause the explosion of hydrogen and nitrogen in the air, with unknown, potentially disastrous consequences. While this was a very real fear, Compton asked Oppenheimer and the other scientists to go ahead and complete the calculations. In fact, over the next three months, Compton asserted that should the chances of an atomic explosion destroying the world exceed 3 in a million, the whole project would be called off. Calculations revealed a smaller risk and so the project continued. In July 1945, the first bomb tests were conducted successfully in New Mexico and, as we know, the world did not end. 

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