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Big belly, big nose, big shoulders, big bat, big swing, big cigars, bigger cars: Everything about Babe Ruth was big. He was living large before anyone coined the phrase. Ruth was the ultimate consumer of food, booze, women, pitchers, and life. Ultimately, of himself. He was completely of his time -- the Roaring Twenties, when many Americans frolicked till dawn in speakeasies, gambling parlors, vice dens, and other illicit venues. Ruth was one of their own, a satyr capable of reveling in an all-night debauch in some whorehouse before racing to the ballpark, without so much as a catnap, to hit two home runs against some Bible-belting, temperate, upright, devoted husband of a pitcher who had taken the mound with a full eight hours' sleep.
Yet while he was playing, few beyond Ruth's circle knew of his excesses, that he knocked them back in gin mills as often as he knocked them out of ballparks. Babe cavorted during the so-called Golden Age of Sports, when fans expected their athletic icons to mimic the virtuous comportment of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. Much of what journalists wrote about Ruth back then -- the man, not the extraordinary player -- was myth, a myth that never fully embraced the breadth of his vibrant, delightfully profane personality.
Ruth's on-field exploits needed no embellishment. The Babe was, hands down, the most astonishing baseball talent ever to slip into a pair of spikes, and if you want to argue that point, consider this: Before becoming the game's most prodigious slugger, Ruth was considered the finest left-handed pitcher in the major leagues. So unless you find someone who can morph from Randy Johnson into Barry Bonds, who are you going to put up against him?
Überplayer that Babe was, no one had to exaggerate his accomplishments, an irony since the most enduring Ruth legend started on the diamond. It has the Yankee right fielder strutting to the plate against the Chicago Cubs during the third game of the 1932 World Series and calling his shot -- actually predicting with the point of a finger that he would smack the next pitch from Charlie Root over Wrigley Field's center-field fence. Homer he did, to that very spot. But did the Bambino actually call it?
Most of the reporters covering that series apparently didn't think so. At least, not at first. In his splendid biography of Ruth, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, author Robert Creamer writes that the day following Ruth's homer, only one journalist, Joe Williams of the Scripps-Howard syndicate, mentioned the called shot in his story. A few days after Williams's piece appeared, several writers -- most notably Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News and Bill Corum of the Hearst syndicate -- carried the angle further. Corum's account of the called shot was particularly curious since, as Creamer notes, he didn't refer to it at all when he wrote his game account in the Wrigley Field press box on the day it supposedly occurred:
Robert Creamer: "It's just my conjecture, but when those two or three writers first wrote about the Babe's call, no one thought that much of it at the time. Then it became a good follow-up story. Especially for a guy looking for something to write about, something a little different, a little refreshing. Also, I think all of them had a vague memory of seeing Ruth point at something, but I think they saw him point in the first inning, which was very clearly written about. So maybe they had that in the back of their minds, sort of equating the pointing in the first inning with the gesture in the third."
After the game -- a 7-5 New York victory -- the Cubs denied that Babe called anything. Charlie Root, the no-nonsense, gravel-tough pitcher who surrendered Ruth's homer, said, "Ruth didn't point at the fence, because if he had I would have knocked him on his ass with the very next pitch." Root's catcher, Gabby Hartnett, supported his teammate, claiming that Ruth wagged his fingers, not toward center field, but at the Cub's dugout, where the players "gave him the business, stuff like he was choking and he was washed up."
Other witnesses, teammate Lou Gehrig and Yankees trainer Doc Painter among them, were convinced that Ruth did gesture toward center before homering. In his 1947 autobiography, written with Fred Lieb and Bob Considine, Ruth himself, who throughout his life was often deliberately vague about what happened in Chicago, took credit for calling his shot. But when Ford Frick, the ghostwriter for many of the newspaper articles that appeared under the Ruth byline, asked him to set the story straight, the Babe went all foxy on him:
Robert Creamer: "Frick wasn't at that Series, but he told me that he asked Babe later if he did, in fact, point to the center-field bleachers. And Ruth replied, 'Well, it's in the papers, right?' When Frick pressed him on it, Ruth said, 'Why don't you read the papers? It's all right there.' Clearly, he was alluding to the columns by writers like Williams and Corum that had him calling the shot. Ruth also said, 'Ah, I did that lots of times. In 1928, for instance.' Which means he never denied it to Frick, but he never confirmed it, either."
So, did he or didn't he?
Grainy black-and-white images captured on celluloid are the only recorded evidence we have of the event. Over the last twenty years, two films of Ruth's most famous at-bat have surfaced, but, viewed in tandem, they contradict rather than clarify. One shows Ruth gesturing toward what may be center field just before hitting the next pitch out of the yard. The second, shot from a different angle, indicates that Gabby Hartnett's recollections of that afternoon were accurate, that Ruth was wagging his finger at the taunting Cub bench rather than engaging in any prognostication. But now another film has been uncovered from the cinema of memory and its antique frames finally reveal what occurred in Chicago that afternoon:
Frank Crosetti (New York Yankees infielder and coach, 1932-68; shortstop, 1932 New York Yankees): "All right, that's a story I can tell you about. As you know, Mark Koenig, the shortstop, had been with the Yankees and was a great friend of the Babe's. After he left the Yankees, he went from the Tigers to the Pacific Coast League. Koenig had a good season there, so the Cubs picked him up when their own shortstop [Bill Jurges] got injured. Mark played terrific ball with Chicago [Koenig batted .353 and slugged .510 in 33 games] during the Cubs' stretch drive. Chicago won the pennant in a close race, and everybody knows they would have had a tough time doing it without Koenig.
"But when the Cubs voted to divide their World Series shares -- you did that before you actually played the Series -- they voted Mark only half a share..."
Woody English (major-league shorstop/third baseman, 1927-38; third baseman, 1932 Chicago Cubs): "We thought a half-share was fair. Koenig played a little more than thirty games for us, barely one-fifth of the [154-game] season. So ordinarily he would have been entitled to a quarter-share. We thought he did such a great job, we doubled it to a half-share. That seemed generous to us..."
Frank Crosetti: "Did that burn the Babe! Not just because Mark was his friend, but because it went against his nature. Let me show you what I mean. During that season  we were playing a series in the old White Sox stadium [Comiskey Park]. Now, in those days they didn't have any security guards at the clubhouse door. Anyone could walk right in.
"I was dressing across from Babe and Myril Hoag, the outfielder; I can still see those steel lockers we had back then. Through the door, comes this old man. He had a beard, hat flopping over his ears, a coat that reached down to his ankles. He must have been seventy or more, and he looked down and out. What you would call homeless today. Babe was still in his underwear. The old guy walks up to Ruth and whispers something in his ear. Babe reaches into his locker, removes his pants, takes a wad of bills from his pocket, and peels off a hundred-dollar bill. He gives it to this fellow.
"Remember, this is during the Depression! You have people on bread lines. They're selling apples on the corner. A guy making ten dollars a week is doing well. So you can see that was a lot of money back then. But to Babe it was nothing. He was the kind of guy who would lend someone two, three hundred dollars, then forget he gave it to them. The old man thanked him and shuffled out the door. I can't tell you how many times Babe did that sort of thing. He was the most generous guy in the world and he couldn't stand tightwads.
"So when he thought the Cubs stiffed his friend, he got on them. Babe would really razz them good. Called them cheapskates, penny-pinchers, tightwads. The Cubs, they razzed him back, making fun of his big belly and calling him Fatso. Someone in their dugout offered to hitch a wagon to him. And they said a lot of stuff to each other you can't print in this book.
"In that game you're talking about, Root got a strike on Babe and, boy, did the Cubs let him have it. Then Root got another strike past Babe -- I think that made it 2 and 2 -- and now they really ripped into him. Babe stepped out of the box. He put up his hand but he did not point to center field! What Babe did was turn slightly toward the Cubs dugout and hold one finger in front of his face, meaning he had one more strike left. I was watching and he didn't point to center field like everyone says. It just so happened he hit a home run on the next pitch! Boy, that shut the Cubs up. Babe was like a little kid running around the bases. When he got into our dugout, he said, 'If anyone ever asks me what my greatest moment was, this is it!' He was so excited about coming through, even though he didn't call the shot.
"Naturally, the next day, after a couple of writers wrote that he called the shot, everyone wanted to know whether or not he pointed. But I was with Babe, sitting next to him in the dugout, and, no matter how many questions the reporters asked, he never said that [he called the shot] directly. He also didn't exactly deny it. He just went along with whatever they said, let them fill in the details. That's why the story spread. After they left, and I remember this like it happened yesterday, I asked him what that was all about and he told me, 'You and I both know I didn't point, but if those writers want to think that I pointed to that spot, let them. I don't care.' And that's how it all started. The writers wanted to say he pointed to center field even though he never did, and Babe let them think and write whatever they wanted. He was just having fun with them."
Robert Creamer: "The point I keep trying to make to people about this is that even if he didn't point to a particular point in center field, there is no question that he challenged the Cubs -- Gabby Hartnett said that as Ruth wagged his finger he said, 'It only takes one to hit it' -- and then stuck it to them by hitting not just a home run, but a tremendous home run. A breathtaking shot deep into the bleachers. So it all came together in a nice little story."
Frank Crosetti: "You know, the funny thing is, Ruth actually called a lot of home runs, but no one wrote about them. Babe would come in the clubhouse singing -- he had a nice bass voice -- and say, 'I'm going to hit one today,' and then he would. We were used to him doing things like that, things no one else could do. You know, he wasn't just a great home-run hitter, he was a great hitter, period. Probably could have hit over .400 a couple of times, if he didn't swing so hard on every pitch.
"He and I talked about that one day when I asked why he struck out so much, and he told me, 'I try to hit a home run almost every time I go up to the plate, because that's what the people come to see.' And he still hit over .340. After a while, you stopped being surprised. This was a guy who had more color than any ballplayer ever. Who else could have saved baseball? I know a lot of people today probably don't believe he did that, but I was around then.
"After that 1919 scandal, when the White Sox threw the World Series, I remember, fans felt sick about the game, thought it was all crooked. So they turned away from it. Then here comes this young fellah, he's hitting home runs further and more of them than anyone ever hit before and they're following him on the radio and in the newspapers. Then everyone went back to the ballparks to see him. I have no doubt they would have come back eventually, but Babe got them coming back much sooner. He was amazing. What was that you told me Jimmy Dykes said about him -- 'Ruth's not human, I think he dropped out of a tree'? I know he meant that as a compliment and he was right. There was nobody like Babe, not before or since. And with everything he did, all the attention he got, the money he made, no one in our clubhouse was jealous of him. Most of the players loved him."
Robert Creamer: "That's one thing that stood out, apart from his accomplishments on the field, when I researched my biography of Ruth. I talked to one or two people who had reservations about Babe, who saw him do unpleasant things. But they were in the minority. You have to understand that Ruth was sort of indifferent to what people thought about him. He didn't pretend to like people because he wanted them to like him; he just liked who he wanted to. If people got in his way, he pushed them out of his way. I don't mean brutally; he just ignored them. So I can't say it was one hundred percent favorable, but talking to most old players, they would clearly enjoy talking about the old days with their teammates and other players. But they would just beam when they got to Ruth. The memories were so warm and so much fun."
Copyright © 2002 by Richard Lally