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Babe: The Legend Comes to Life

Babe: The Legend Comes to Life

by Hilary McKay
Babe Ruth moved beyond the baselines and outfield fences of the baseball stadiums that brought him riches and adulations to become a genuine American hero. In this acclaimed biography, Creamer reveals the man behind the legend. "The best biography ever written about an American sports figure".--Sports Illustrated.


Babe Ruth moved beyond the baselines and outfield fences of the baseball stadiums that brought him riches and adulations to become a genuine American hero. In this acclaimed biography, Creamer reveals the man behind the legend. "The best biography ever written about an American sports figure".--Sports Illustrated.

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Sports Illustrated The best biography ever written about an American sports figure.

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Chapter Thirty One: The Magnificent Moment: The Called-Shot Home Run Everything worked for the Yankees in 1932. The infield clicked, the outfield was strong, the catching outstanding (except when Dickey was under a thirty-day suspension for breaking a Washington outfielder's jaw with one punch in a dispute at home plate). The pitching was superb, and the hitting strong and consistent all year long. The team won 107 games and took the pennant by a wide margin.

Ruth pretty much decided when he wanted to play, which was most of the time, but more and more he left the game in the late innings and let young Sammy Byrd or Myril Hoag finish up for him. Ruth's caddies, they were called, or his legs. Babe, now thirtyeight, had a solid enough year, although it was distinctly below his traditional high level of accomplishment. For one thing, he lost the home run championship he had held (except for 1922 and 1925) since 1918. Jimmie Foxx of Philadelphia even threatened Ruth's record of 60, ending with 58. Babe was second, but far behind, with 41. He batted .341, not bad, scored 120 runs and batted in 137, not bad at all. But people like Foxx and Gehrig and Simmons were obviously better hitters than he was now. The only thing the Babe led the league in was bases on balls.

Twice he was out of the lineup for extended periods, the first time in the middle of July after he ruptured the sheath of a muscle in the rear of his leg as he chased a fly ball. He fell in a writhing heap and once again was carried off the field. He was in a hospital for a few days and out of action for the better part of two weeks. Later in the year, in September, he felt shooting painsin his right side during a game in Philadelphia. The Yankees left on a western road trip, pausing first for an exhibition game in Binghamton, New York, and there Ruth felt the pain again. By the time the club reached Detroit he was convinced he had appendicitis. He phoned Barrow in New York, spoke to McCarthy and, with Claire, hurried back to New York for a thorough examination. It may or may not have been his appendix -- there was no operation -- but he ran a low fever for several days and was kept in bed. Ten days after his return to New York and only ten days before the World Series with the Cubs was due to begin, he got into a uniform and worked out at Yankee Stadium. The team was still on the road and Babe batted against an amateur pitcher, but he was unable to put one ball into the stands. "I'm so weak I don't think I could break a pane of glass," he said "but I'll be okay in a few days. They had me packed so deep in ice I haven't thawed out yet."

There was considerable doubt that he would be able to play in the Series, but he was in the Yankee lineup for the last five games of the year (he had only three hits in sixteen at bats), and when the Cubs faced the Yankees on Wednesday, September 28, there was Ruth in right field, batting third. This was the World Series that is remembered for Ruth's called home run, the single most famous facet of his legend, yet it was really Gehrig's series. Chicago had a good solid team, representative Of the glowing period from 1928 through 1938 when the Cubs won four pennants and never finished lower than third. These Cubs could hit, and indeed they scored almost five runs a game against the excellent Yankee pitching staff, but their own pitchers, a redoubtable collection of first-rate performers (Lon Warneke, Charlie Root, Guy Bush, Burleigh Grimes, Pat Malone), were destroyed by the Yankees, who scored an average of more than nine runs a game. Gehrig had nine hits in the four games, including three home runs and a double, and he scored nine runs and batted in eight as the Yankees won, 12-6,5-2,7-5 and 13-6.

Yet Gehrig's exploits were obscured, as they so often were during his career, by a brighter sun, meaning Ruth. Along with being the highest scoring Series ever played, it probably had the most bench jockeying, and the Babe was in the forefront of it. Mark Koenig, who had dropped down to the minors after the Yankees traded him away, had been brought back up by the Cubs late in 1932 to fill a hole at shortstop; he fielded splendidly, batted -353 in 33 games and was a key figure in Chicago's drive to the pennant. But when the Cubs met just before the Series to decide how they would divide their share of the World Series pot, Koenig was voted only a half share. (Rogers Hornsby, who had been fired as manager almost two thirds of the way through the season, received nothing. A young outfielder named Frank Demaree, who was in only 23 games during the season but played center field and batted fifth in two Series games and hit a home run, was given a quarter share.)

The Yankees, led by Ruth, made great capital of Koenig's half share. "Hey, Mark," Babe boomed, "who are those cheapskates you're with?" Variations, richly embellished, followed and never let up. The Cubs struck back, mostly at Ruth, calling him fat and old and washed up, and they dragged out the old "nigger" cry. Guy Bush, a dark-haired, swarthy Mississippian, was Chicago's starting pitcher in the first game, and the Yankees yelled back, "Who are you calling a nigger? Look at your pitcher."

The jockeying continued at this high level as the Yankees won the first two games in New York. Then the Series shifted to Chicago, where thousands of people crammed into La Salle Street Station to see the ball clubs arrive. Ruth, accompanied by Claire, fought his way through the not unfriendly crowd to a freight elevator and then out to a cab. Motorcycle cops had to clear the way for the Yankees, and as Ruth and his wife entered their hotel a woman spat on them.

Such anti-Yankee feeling was isolated on the streets, but it was overwhelmingly evident at Wrigley Field before and during the third game of the Series. Ruth complained a week or so later that the Chicago press had brought the fans down on him with stories about the bench jockeying. "They wrote about me riding the Cubs for being tight and about me calling them cheapskates," he said indignantly.

"Well, didn't you?" he was asked.

"Well, weren't they?" he answered with irrefutable logic. Then he grinned and said, "Jesus, I wish I had known they only voted that kid Demaree a quarter share. Would I have burned them on that one."

Almost 50,000 people were jammed into every part of Wrigley Field, and most of them were yelling at Ruth. Whenever a ball was lofted his way in pregame practice, a lemon or two would come flying out of the bleachers. Each time, Babe picked up the lemons and threw them back. He was in a good mood. There was a strong wind blowing toward right field, and during batting practice he and Gehrig put on an awesome show, far more spectacular than the one in Pittsburgh five years earlier. Babe hit nine balls into the stands, Gehrig seven. Ruth yelled at the Cubs, "I'd play for half my salary if I could hit in this dump all the time." Gomez, the non-hitting pitcher, said, "With that wind, I could hit a home run today."

The jockeying between the two teams, or, to be more accurate, between Ruth and the Cubs, became more intense as the game began. Charlie Root was the starting pitcher for Chicago, but Bush and Grimes and Malone were on the top step of the Cub dugout, leading the verbal barrage on Ruth. Andy Lotshaw, the Cubs' trainer, yelled, "If I had you, I'd hitch you to a wagon, you potbelly," Ruth said afterwards, "I didn't mind no ballplayers yelling at me, but the trainer cutting in -- that made me sore." As he waited to bat in the first inning, according to Richards Vidmer in the New York Herald Tribune, "He paused to jest with the raging Cubs, pointed to the right field bleachers and grinned."

The game started badly for the Cubs. Koenig had hurt his wrist in New York and was out the rest of the Series. His replacement, Billy Jurges, fielded the first ball hit by the Yankees -- a grounder by Earle Combs -- and threw it all the way into the stands behind first base. Joe Sewell walked, and Ruth came to bat with men on first and second and no one out. Root threw a pitch outside for ball one, another one inside for ball two. Then he threw a fastball on the outside corner and Ruth, swinging at the ball for the first time in a game in Wrigley Field, hit a threerun homer into the right field bleachers to put the Yankees ahead, 3-0, before an out had been made.

Gehrig hit a homer in the third with the bases empty (and Ruth hit a fly to the right center field fence), but the Cubs rallied and in the fourth inning tied the game at 4-4. The tying run was scored by Jurges, who reached second base with a double when Ruth, to the great delight of the crowd, looked foolish missing a try at a shoestring catch.

And so it was 4-4 in a rowdy game as the Yankees came to bat in the fifth. Another lemon bounced toward Ruth as he waited in the on-deck circle while Sewell went out. Boos and hoots rose to a crescendo as he stepped into the batter's box. The Cubs were on the top of the dugout steps, Bush cupping his hands around his mouth as he taunted Ruth. Babe grinned, then stepped in to face Root. The pitcher threw. It was a called strike. The crowd cheered, and the Cubs razzed Ruth louder than ever. Still grinning, holding his bat loosely in his left hand', he looked over at the Cubs and raised one finger of his right hand. Root pitched again, in close, for ball one. He pitched again, this time outside, and it was ball two. The crowd stirred in disappointment, and the razzing from the Cubs let up slightly. Again Root pitched, and it was called strike two. The crowd roared, and the Cubs yammered with renewed vigor. Bush was so excited he ran a step or two onto the grass in front of the dugout, yelling at Ruth. Grimes was shouting something. Ruth waved the exultant Cubs back toward their dugout and held up two fingers. Gabby Hartnett, the Chicago catcher, heard him say, "It only takes one to hit it." Root said something from the mound, and Ruth said something back. Gehrig, who was in the on-deck circle, said, "Babe was jawing with Root and what he said was, 'I'm going to knock the next pitch right down your goddamned throat.'"

Root threw again, a changeup curve, low and away. Ruth swung and hit a tremendous line-drive home run deep into the bleachers in center field. Johnny Moore, the center fielder, ran back and stood there looking up as it went far over his head into the stands. It was the longest home run that had ever been hit in Wrigley Field. Ruth ran down the first base line laughing. "You lucky bum," he said to himself. "You lucky, lucky bum." He said something to Charlie Grimm, the Cubs' player-manager first baseman. He said something to second baseman Billy Herman. He shook his clasped hands over his head like a victorious fighter, and as he rounded third base, still laughing, he yelled, "Squeeze the eagle club!" to the now silent Chicago dugout. In a box near home plate Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was running for President against Herbert Hoover, put his head back and laughed, and after the Babe crossed home plate Roosevelt's eyes followed him all the way into the dugout, where he was mauled and pounded by his gleeful Yankee teammates.

Gehrig stepped to the plate, Root threw one pitch and Gehrig hit a home run. Two pitches, two home runs; the Yankees led, 6-4, all their runs coming on homers by Ruth and Gehrig. Root was taken out of the game, and it ended with the Yankees winning, 7-5.

The New York clubhouse roared with noise afterwards. Ruth yelled, "Did Mr. Ruth chase those guys back into the dugout? Mr. Ruth sure did!"

The next day Bush was Chicago's starting pitcher. When Ruth came to bat in the first inning, Bush hit him on the arm with a blistering fastball. Babe pretended to flick something off his arm as he trotted down to first base. "Hey, Lop Ears," he yelled to Bush, "was that your fastball? I thought it was a gnat." To Gehrig, he called, "Don't look for nothing, Lou. He ain't got it." And Bush didn't. He faced five men in the inning, got one out and was lifted from the game. Lazzeri hit two homers, Combs one, Gehrig batted in three runs, and the Yankees won, 13-6. Ruth had only one single in five at bats and in the clubhouse afterwards put hot towels on his arm, which was flaming red and badly swollen where Bush's gnat had bitten it. Doc Painter, the trainer, said that if the Series had gone another game, Ruth could not possibly have played in it. But despite the pain, Ruth was gloriously happy. He even went over to McCarthy and shook his hand. "What a victory!" he said. "My hat is off to you, Mac." A few days later, back in New York, he said, "That's the first time I ever got the players and the fans going at the same time. I never had so much fun in all my life."

Now. What about the legend ? What about the story, often affirmed, often denied, that Babe pointed to a spot in center field and then hit the ball precisely to that spot ? It is an argument over nothing, and the fact that Ruth did not point to center field before his home run does not diminish in the least what he did. He did challenge the Cubs before 50,000 people, did indicate he was going to hit a home run and did hit a home run. What more could you ask?

The legend grew, obviously, because people gild lilies and because sometimes we remember vividly seeing things we did not see. Most of the contemporary accounts of the game talked about Ruth calling his shot, but only one that I could find said specifically that he pointed at the fence. That, written by Joe Williams, sports editor of the Scripps-Howard newspapers, appeared in late editions of afternoon newspapers on Saturday, October 1, the day of the game. The headline over Williams' story in the New York World-Telegram said, "RUTH CALLS SHOT AS HE PUTS HOMER NO. 2 IN SIDE POCKET," and part of his account said, "In the fifth, with the Cubs riding him unmercifully from the bench, Ruth pointed to center and punched a screaming liner to a spot where no ball had ever been hit before." That is the only place in the story where specific reference is made to pointing to center field. Elsewhere in his copy Williams wrote, "The first strike was called, and the razzing from the Cub bench increased. Ruth laughed and held up one finger. Two balls were pitched and Babe jeered the Cub bench, the fans and Root, grinning broadly all the time. Another strike was called and Bush ran part way out of the dugout to tell the Babe that he was just a tramp. Ruth hit the next pitch farther than any other ball ever was hit in this park."

Westbrook Pegler, who wrote a column but not a running account of the game, said, "Bush pushed back his big ears, funneled his hands at his mouth and yelled raspingly at the great man to upset him. The Babe laughed derisively and gestured at him -- wait, mugg, I'm going to hit one out of the yard. Root threw a strike past him and he held up a finger to Bush whose ears flapped excitedly as he renewed his insults. Another strike passed him and Bush crawled almost out of the hole to extend his remarks. The Babe held up two fingers this time. Root wasted two balls and Babe put up two fingers on his other hand. Then with a warning gesture of his hand to Bush he sent the signal for the customers to see. Now, it said, this is the one, look. And that one went riding on the longest home run ever hit in the park...Many a hitter may make two home runs, possibly three, in World Series play in years to come, but not the way Ruth hit these two. Nor will you ever see an artist call his shot before hitting one of the longest drives ever made on the ground in a World Series game, laughing at and mocking the enemy, two strikes gone."

The story by Williams was the only one I found of those written on the day of the game that interpreted Ruth's gestures as pointing toward center, but two days later Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News, a rococo and flamboyant writer, wrote, "He pointed like a duellist to the spot where he expected to send his rapier home." A day after that Bill Corum of the Hearst newspapers wrote that Ruth "Pointed out where he was going to hit the next one, and hit it there," but in his game account the day it happened Corum neglected to mention the fact.

Tom Meany, who worked for Williams and sat next to him at the game on Saturday, wrote a story the following Tuesday that Said, "Babe's interviewer then interrupted to point out the hole in which Babe put himself Saturday when he pointed out the spot in which he intended hitting his homer and asked the great man if he realized how ridiculous he would have appeared if he had struck out. 'I never thought of that,' said Babe." But it is not clear in Meany's story if the phrase about pointing was in the question put to Ruth or was merely incorporated in the copy as a clarifying description.

Williams was a positive, opinionated observer and a vigorous journalist. Taking an opposite tack some months later, he suggested to Gehrig that Root let Babe hit the ball ("Like hell he did," said Gehrig). Meany was a fine reporter, a gifted writer and a superior raconteur of baseball anecdotes. I believe that Williams' strong personality and the wide circulation given his original story in Scripps Howard newspapers as well as Meany's repeated accounts of that colorful World Series are what got the legend started and kept it going. That the pointing version was often questioned is shown in Meany's biography of Ruth, published in 1947. In it Meany wrote, "It was then the big fellow made what many believe to be the beau geste of his entire career. He pointed in the direction of dead center field. Some say it was merely a gesture toward Root, others that he was just letting the Cub bench know that he still had the big one left. Ruth himself has changed his version a couple of times...Whatever the intent of the gesture, the result was, as they say in Hollywood, slightly colossal."

Ruth told John Carmichael, a highly respected Chicago sportswriter, "I didn't exactly point to any spot. All I wanted to do was give that thing a ride out of the park, anywhere. I used to pop off a lot about hitting homers, but mostly among the Yankees. Combs and Lazzeri and Fletcher used to yell, 'Come on, Babe, hit one.' So I'd come back, 'Okay, you bums. I'll hit one!' Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn't. Hell, it was fun."

His autobiography, published in 1947, not only says he did it but adds the embroidery that he began thinking, about it the night before the game, after he and Claire were spat on when they entered their hotel. It says he was angry and hurt because of the taunts of the Chicago players and fans. It says that before the first pitch he pointed to center field and that when Root threw the ball, Babe held up a finger and yelled, "Strike one," before the umpire could call the pitch. And held up two fingers and yelled, "Strike two," after the second pitch. And before the third pitch, he stepped out of the box and pointed to the bleachers again. And then hit the third pitch for the home run. This version is the one that was substantially followed by Hollywood in the movie of Ruth's life that starred William Bendix, and as bad as the movie was it gave the legend the permanence of concrete.

Both autobiography and movie infuriated Charlie Root, who turned the film company down flat when they asked him to portray himself. "Not if you're going to have him pointing," he said. He refused to have anything to do with it, and he went to his grave denying that Ruth had pointed to center field. "If he had I would have knocked him on his ass with the next pitch," he always insisted. Yet Root's memory was hazy on detail. In the mid 1950s, he said, "George Magerkurth, the plate umpire, said in a magazine story that Ruth did point to center field. But to show how far wrong Magerkurth was, he had the count three and two when it was rea lly two strikes and no balls. To me, the count was significant. Why should Ruth point to show where he was going to hit a ball when, with two strikes and no balls, he knew he wasn't apt to get a pitch he could hit at all?" But both Magerkurth and Root were wrong. The count was neither three balls and two strikes nor two strikes and no balls. It was two strikes and two balls. And Magerkurth umpired at first base that day, not behind the plate.

Such fuzziness of detail is evident in several contemporary accounts of the game. Pegler, quoted above, said the count went strike, strike, ball, ball, whereas it was strike, ball, ball, strike. Corum said the count was three and two, and so did the play-by-play account in The New York Times. Meany's biography and Ruth's autobiography both say, as Root did, that it was two strikes and no balls. Any lawyer will concede that honest witnesses see the same things differently.

Here are what some witnesses said about it.

Charlie Root: "Ruth did not point at the fence before he swung. If he had made a gesture like that, well, anybody who knows me knows that Ruth would have ended up on his ass. The legend didn't get started until later. I fed him a changeup curve. It wasn't a foot off the ground and it was three or four inches outside, certainly not a good pitch to hit. But that was the one he smacked. He told me the next day that if I'd have thrown him a fastball he would have struck out. 'I was guessing with you,' he said."

Gabby Hartnett, the Chicago catcher: "Babe came up in the fifth and took two called strikes. After each one the Cub bench gave him the business, stuff like he was choking and he was washed up. Babe waved his hand across the plate toward our bench on the third base side. One finger was up. At the same time he said softly, and I think only the umpire and I heard him, 'It only takes one to hit it.' Root came in with a fast one and It went into the center field seats. Babe didn't say a word when he passed me after the home run. If he had pointed out at the bleachers, I'd be the first to say so."

Doc Painter, the Yankee trainer: "Before taking his stance he swept his left arm full length and pointed to the center field fence. When he got back to the bench, Herb Pennock said, 'Suppose you missed? You would have looked like an awful bum.' Ruth was taking a drink from the water cooler, and he lif ted his head and laughed. 'I never thought of that,' he said."

Joe McCarthy, the Yankee manager: "I'm not going to say he didn't do it. Maybe I didn't see it. Maybe I was looking the other way. Anyway, I'm not going to say he didn't do it."

Jimmy Isaminger, Philadelphia sportswriter: "He made a satiric gesture to the Cub bench and followed it with a resounding belt that had so much force behind it that it landed in the bleachers in dead center."

The San Francisco Examiner, October 2, 1932: "He called his shot theatrically, with derisive gestures towards the Cubs' dugout."

The Reach Guide, covering the 1932 season: "Ruth hit the ball over the center field fence, a tremendous drive, after indicating in pantomime to his hostile admirers what he proposed to do, and did."

Warren Brown, Chicago sportswriter: "The Babe indicated he had one strike, the big one, left. The vituperative Cub bench knew what he meant. Hartnett heard Ruth growl that this was what he meant. Ruth, for a long while, had no other version, nor was any other sought from him."

Ford Frick, who was not at the game, tried to pin Ruth down on the subject when the two were talking about the Series some time later.

"Did you really point to the bleachers?" Frick asked.

Ruth, always honest, shrugged. "It's in the papers, isn't it?" he said.

"Yeah," Frick said. "It's in the papers. But did you really point to the stands ?"

"Why don't you read the papers? It's all right there in the papers."

Which, Frick said, means he never said he did and he never said he didn't.

Copyright © 1974 by Robert W. Creamer

Meet the Author

Robert W. Creamer is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and has been a member of that magazine's staff since its inception in 1954. He is also the author of Stengel and Baseball in '41.

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