A detail from Robert Thom’s painting depicting Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot.” Courtesy the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Wrigley Field is beloved not just because it’s a beautiful place to see a baseball game, which it is, not because of its harmonious dimensions, which it has, not because of its context, its perfect neighborhood of stoops and taverns where men quote Bartman and Banks, nor because of its ivy, bare in spring, green in summer, but because of all the things that’ve happened there—all of the images and afternoons. Wrigley Field’s pitching ace Grover Cleveland Alexander, ruined by World War I, stashing whiskey bottles in the clubhouse. It’s the catcher Gabby Hartnett, hitting the dinger in near darkness, that basically put the Cubs in the 1938 World Series—“the Homer in the Gloaming.” It’s the slugger Dave Kingman, known as King Kong and as Ding Dong, proposing that Chicago trade the reporter Mike Royko to New York for the reporter Red Smith. It’s the famous rant of manager Lee Elia, in which he described the stadium as a “playground for the cocksuckers.” It’s the play-by-play genius Harry Caray leaning out the broadcast booth to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” It’s me standing with Bill Buckner in the Summer of 1977. It’s the bleacher bums genuflecting before great the right fielder Andre Dawson, the Hawk. It’s Omar Moreno climbing the ivy to get at the hecklers, who drive him off with a delicious shower of frosty malt.
But the most iconic event in Wrigley Field did not star the Cubs—it starred the New York Yankees, with the home team serving merely as foil.
Backstory: In July 1932, as the Cubs were cruising, their shortstop was shot in a hotel room by a jilted lover. It’s enough to say that the ballplayer was Billy Jurges and the perp was a showgirl who’d later perform under the stage name Violet “What I Did For Love” Valli. Jurges was shot in room 509 of Hotel Carlos, a few blocks from the ballpark. He’d be back on the field before the end of the season. In the meantime, the Cubs needed a solid substitute infielder if they were going to make a pennant run.
Management signed Mark Koenig, who’d been released by the Detroit Tigers at the end of 1931. He started the summer with the San Francisco Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League before the Cubs called him up. Koenig—he grew up in California, son of a bricklayer—was with the Yankees from 1925 to 1930. He’d played shortstop for the 1927 Yankees, which many consider the greatest team ever. There’s a fraternity in that, in being a member of something perfect. Depending on what you read, Ruth loved Koenig, or did not like him at all, which is not the point. If you’re on the team, you’ll always be on the team—that’s the point.
In Chicago, Koenig, a switch-hitter who could play any position in the infield, was trying to prove he still belonged in the majors. He was only twenty-seven, with several solid seasons behind him. He appeared in just thirty-three games with the Cubs that summer but hit .353 and made memorable plays in the clutch. Yet, when it came time to apportion the World Series share—teams that made it to the championship got a bonus, which was split among the players; considering the low salaries of the time, it was a significant boon—the Cubs voted to give Koenig only a partial share.
Ruth heard about it and was incensed. Those greedy bastards, they wouldn’t even be here if not for Koenig. Ruth carried that anger into the World Series, stood at the edge of the Chicago dugout and, waving his bat, denounced the Cubs by name. The Cubs heckled the Babe right back. He was a rich target in 1932, a thirty-seven-year-old fat man with just a few seasons left.
In game 3, the moment ripened to a crisis. The Yankees were up two games to none in the series. Charlie Root was pitching for Chicago. A right-hander from Middletown, Ohio, Root was a classic sort of Cub, never great but good enough to go forever. He was with the team from 1926 to 1941. Ruth spoke to him as if he were a kid, but he was thirty-three in that World Series. They called him Chinsky for his willingness to throw inside and hurt people.
The wind blew out, the train rattled past. The score was knotted at four when Ruth came up in the fifth. He’d homered to center in the first and flied out to right in the second, but that ball carried clear to the warning track. If the wind had been more generous, it would’ve gone out, too. In other words, though out of shape and old, Babe Ruth was having one of the best games of his life.
As he stepped into the box, the heckling built to a roar. Many arts have progressed in this country, but profanity is not one of them. The curses coming from the Chicago dugout were of a richness and variety that would put modern players to shame. Root’s first pitch cut the heart of the plate. Strike one. The fans and players on the bench let Babe have it. And here comes the next pitch, hitting the same sweet spot. Strike two. This moment resonates because it’s baseball caught in a raindrop. Power versus power, will versus will. Part of you roots for the Babe even if you’re a Cubs fan. Because you crave the historic. And because deep down you know that Ruth was right: cheapskating Koenig meant giving up the blessing. Ruth probably didn’t care that much, at least not as much as writers later made it seem. He was just one of those players who had to whip himself into a righteous fury to reach peak performance.
Ruth stepped out of the box after strike one, then stepped out again after strike two. Tired of being heckled, he pointed two fingers, which is where the controversy begins. In the legend, he was pointing to the center-field seats, four-hundred-plus feet away, calling his shot in the way of Minnesota Fats saying, “Eight ball, corner pocket.” Root’s third pitch was a curve—the deuce. Off the edge of plate, down, but Ruth swung anyway, sending it into deep afternoon. It landed exactly where he’d pointed, that’s what they said, beside the flagpole in back of the bleachers—490 feet from home. Lou Gehrig followed with another home run. The Yankees won 7 to 5 and went on to sweep the Series.
Ruth’s “Called Shot” is among the most famous plays in baseball history. Drawings show the penultimate moment: Babe, Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, arm outstretched, two fingers raised like the Pope giving a benediction. There’s a statue, movies. But it was disputed from the start. Did Ruth really call his shot, or did it just look that way?
Grantland Rice and Westbrook Pegler, among the most famous sportswriters of the day, had been watching from the press box behind home. Both claimed to have seen Ruth point to center, calling his shot. Franklin Roosevelt, then candidate for president, was at the game—he threw out the first pitch—and he saw it, too. Ditto Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Among the last living witnesses is retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who, then a twelve-year-old Cubs fan, was at the game with his father. The Cubs pitcher “Guy Bush was razzing Ruth,” Stevens told the writer Ed Sherman. “He and Ruth were in some kind of discussion back and forth. I heard years later it was over the Cubs being tightfisted and not giving a full share to Mark Koenig. I do remember Bush came out of the dugout and engaged in a colloquy with him … My interpretation was that he was responding to what Bush was saying. He definitely pointed toward center field. My interpretation always was, ‘I’m going to knock you to the moon.’ ”
But the journalist Red Smith, covering the series for a Saint Louis newspaper, made no mention of the called shot, though he did write about the abuse being showered on the Babe, how the fans pelted the slugger with lemons. “But at the plate, he clowned,” Smith reported, “signaling balls and strikes in mock gestures until he found a pitch that he liked.”
What is perhaps the only picture taken of the key moment is grainy and open to interpretation. Ruth does seem to be pointing to center, but players on the field said that it only looked that way, that he was in fact pointing at the Cubs dugout.
Woody English, a Cubs third baseman, insisted there was no called shot. “That day, Ruth and Gehrig each had homered,” English said later. “Ruth got up again, and it was funny. He had two strikes on him … The guys are yelling at him from the dugout, and he holds up two fingers. He said, ‘That’s only two strikes.’ But the press box was way back on top of Wrigley Field and to the people in the press, it looked like he pointed to center field. But he was looking right into our dugout and holding two fingers up.”
“Ruth did not point at the fence before he swung,” Charlie Root insisted. “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 start 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 thrown him a fastball he would have struck out. ‘I was guessing with you,’ he said … I should have wasted that next pitch, and I thought Ruth figured I would, too. So I decided to try to cross him and came with it. The ball was gone as soon as Ruth swung. It never occurred to me then that the people in the stands would think he had been pointing at the bleachers … Maybe I had a smug grin on my face after the second strike,” Root added later. “Babe stepped out of the box, pointed his finger in my direction and yelled, ‘You still need one more, kid.’ ”
Ruth was asked about it after the game. Half in uniform, face red with sweat, grinning.
“You called the shot.”
“The hell I did.”
It came up again on a radio show a few years later.
“Did you call the shot?”
“No, kid. Only a damned fool would have done a thing like that. If I’d have done that, Root would have stuck the ball right in my ear. I never knew anybody could tell you ahead of time where he was going to hit a baseball. When I get to be that kind of fool, they’ll put me in the booby hatch.”
And yet the story would not die. It became part of baseball lore. Efforts to correct it have failed. It’s fascinating because here you see the historical process in action. The story was too good to fix. It’s what the game needed. Babe Ruth pointing at hecklers, saying, “It takes three to strike me out”—that’s small. Babe Ruth pointing at the center-field bleachers, making a promise and then delivering on it is Achilles at Troy. Over time, Ruth himself came to accept the legend, possibly even believe it. He wrote about it as established fact in his autobiography and retold the story at banquets. In 1947, when Allied Artists was making a movie of The Babe Ruth Story, the slugger was played by William Bendix, who’d been a Yankee batboy in the twenties. The director, Roy Del Ruth, invited Charlie Root to the set to watch the filming of the famous scene. Root, who was fifty years old and living on a ranch in Hollister, California, considered, then rejected the invitation. Considered because it would’ve been interesting to see how a movie is made, rejected because, as he said, “I will not be party to a falsehood.” In the end, the past is no more real than the future.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse, published today.
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