Day 648: A Legend With An Asterisk

originally published October 9, 2013

It is quite possibly the single most iconic moment in sports history. More so than Gretzky scoring his 50th goal in 39 games, more than Tiger winning his first major, even more so than David Tyree’s helmet-catch that helped the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Though that last one still makes me smile.

No, this is bigger. If the world of sports as a whole was granted one iconic postage stamp, it would undoubtedly feature the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the most iconic player in baseball’s history, pointing into the outfield right before smacking a home run along the same trajectory. Just thinking about it sends a little marimba shimmer up and down my spine, and I’m not even a huge baseball fan. But this is an athlete exerting the perfect champion’s swagger, then delivering on it.

Or did he? Babe Ruth’s quintessential display of brashness may or may not have happened. There was no NBSEE-IT slow-mo camera, no myriad of fans live-tweeting the game. And while reality threatens this balloon of legend with the tentative pin-prick of conflicting perspectives, the whole thing might be worth a closer look.

It was the 1932 World Series, a battle between two cities in need of a spiritual lift from the murky depths of the Depression. The National League’s Chicago Cubs had finished four games ahead of the second-place Pirates, while the American League’s New York Yankees were riding the bejeweled wave of a magnificent era, featuring stars like Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Lefty Gomez – people that non-baseball-lovers like me have actually heard of. New York cleaned up in the first two games. But game 3 was in Wrigley Field – enemy territory.

The Cubs’ pitcher was Charlie Root, one of the greatest pitchers in club history whose name tragically only seems to get brought up in reference to this story. The score was tied 4-4 in the fifth inning. Ruth, who was the subject of a chorus of heckles – not only from the crowd but from the Cubs’ bench – headed to the plate. The fans went wacky, throwing fruit at the batter and hurling any and every insult they could think of.

The first pitch was a clean strike. The heckles continued, and Ruth held up his hand, possibly to Root, maybe to the Cubs’ raucous dugout, or maybe toward center field. No one knows. Strike two.

The gesture was then repeated. On the third pitch, Ruth blasted the ball at least 440 feet, past the permanent bleacher seats and into the Sheffield Avenue temporary seats. It was a beautiful home run, and Ruth showed no modesty as he rounded first with a dismissive wave toward the Cubs’ bench. When he rounded third he made a two-handed pushing motion, which may have been a snazzy 30’s-ish way of expressing that he was the cat’s pajamas.

The very next pitch Root threw was to Lou Gehrig, who launched another home run over the fence. The Yankees went on to win 7-5, and took the Series in a sweep the next day with a 13-6 rout.

The lingering question is whether or not Babe Ruth was actually pointing to the spot where he subsequently rocketed the next pitch. Reporter Joe Williams, whose work appeared all over the country in the Scripps-Howard newspaper network, was the only late-edition report of the game that suggested Ruth had pre-ordained the shot with his gesture. But his was the story that greeted millions of hungry eyes that night. And the center-field finger-point became instant fact because of it.

Soon other reporters who weren’t at the game were referencing the incident. And why not? Ruth had a history of bold accomplishments.

Remember little Johnny Sylvester? At eleven years old he was hospitalized after getting kicked in the head by his horse – doctors feared the ensuing complications could lead to his death. Babe Ruth was summoned to his hospital room during the 1926 World Series, where he promised to hit a home run for the kid the next day, in game 4. He hit three and little Johnny made a miraculous recovery.

So maybe this was simply another entry into the Babe Ruth lore, another divine act by one of the greatest players the game has ever known. Except that Ruth’s first public statement right after the game was that he’d been pointing at the Cubs dugout, telling them he had one more strike. In another interview he said he wasn’t pointing to any specific spot, he just wanted to give the ball a good ride.

Before long, Ruth was going along with the story. He was smart enough to know it’d make for some pretty great press.

By the time Babe Ruth’s autobiography was published in 1947, he claimed he’d dreamed of the moment the night before. The Cubs’ public address announcer Pat Pieper swears Ruth called the shot. Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich insists Ruth had been pointing at pitcher Charlie Root, who’d been calling him names. As for Root himself, he spent the rest of his life attesting that there was no way Ruth would have called the shot. Had he done so, Root claims, Root would have tossed a little cold water at this blatant hubris and sent the next pitch into Ruth’s ear.

The problem was, there was no video replay to turn to. The story became a legend because it was simply more fun to believe it actually happened.

And then in 1970, that all changed.

A 16mm home movie of the called shot came crawling from the estate of Matt Miller Kandle Sr., an amateur filmmaker. The gesture is unmistakable, but specifically where he’s pointing is a little sketchy. Some say his arm is pointed toward left field, which is right near the Cubs’ bench, suggesting maybe he was directing a verbal shot at them. Others say a close examination shows Ruth making a second quick point, either right at Charlie Root or beyond him to center field just as Root is winding up.

Another film emerged in 1999, and the few who have seen this one seem fairly certain it debunks the called-shot theory. But there’s no sound, and neither film captures the precise angle of Ruth’s gesture. Ultimately, though it no doubt pains the descendants of Charlie Root to no end, the legend of the called shot will be the one that stands, simply because it’s a great story.

I’m sure matters weren’t helped when the Curtiss Candy Company slapped a giant billboard for their Baby Ruth bar on a Sheffield Avenue rooftop, right across from where Ruth’s homer had landed. That insensitive reminder of the iconic home run – which would be Babe Ruth’s final postseason homer – stared down at the inhabitants of Wrigley Field right through to the 1970’s.

Kind of cruel. But what a story, whether it’s fiction or not.

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