Did he call that shot?

Babe Ruth greeted by Lou Gehrig at home plate.
Photo from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 
As the Major League Baseball playoffs get underway next week some Illinoisans might be tempted to look back on the history of October baseball in our state. There have been some bright spots, like the crosstown series all the way back in 1906, and the Sox and Cubs both breaking their long title droughts in 2005 and 2016 respectively.

But Chicago’s October baseball history has some moments that are not so pleasant. While most of the details of the Black Sox scandal of 1919 are well established, and Cub fans are painfully aware of the particulars of the now-defunct curse of the billy goat, an incident at Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series (which may not have actually happened at all) still inspires discussion and debate today.

Did Babe Ruth really call his shot?

The Cubs came into the 1932 World Series having won the National League pennant by a four-game margin over Pittsburgh. They were back in the series for the first time since the 1929 series which they dropped to the Philadelphia Athletics. In fact, the Cubs had fallen short in three World Series appearances since their last win back in 1908. Some fans might have feared that a trend was developing.

In the American League the Yankees roared into the World Series after winning 107 games and taking the pennant by a 13-game margin over Philadelphia. The Yankees had won three previous World Series, most recently in 1928. They had not lost a World Series game since dropping Game 7 of the 1926 series to the Cardinals. Leading the team once again was the great Babe Ruth who was playing in his tenth; and as it would turn out; final World Series.

The series was destined to go down in history no matter what happened on the field, as it was a matchup of more than a dozen future Hall of Famers, including Yankees stars Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri, Cubs slugger Gabby Hartnett, both managers and even one of the umpires.

But in the series’ third game would come a moment that would go down in baseball legend and remain hotly debated for decades.

There was bad blood between the two teams even before they met on the field. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy had previously skippered the Cubs, taking them to the World Series in 1929 only to be unceremoniously fired by the club the following season. Yankees players also objected to the way their former teammate Mark Koenig had been treated by the Cubs after they had acquired him in a trade. Koenig was in line to receive just a fraction of the postseason bonus paid to other players because he had been with the Cubs for only a short time that season, even though he batted .353.

Ruth was outspoken about the matter, telling the Chicago Tribune, “Sure I’m on ‘em; I hope we beat ‘em four straight. They gave Koenig a sour deal in their player cut. They’re chiselers and I’ll tell ‘em so.”

The insult enraged the Cubs and their fans.

The series opened at Yankee Stadium on September 28 and the home team won the first two games. As was the tradition of the times, trash talk flowed freely from both dugouts, but the animosity between the two teams had added an extra layer of hostility. Now the teams boarded their trains for Chicago and the critical third game of the series. Arriving at their hotel, the Yankees were met by a legion of angry Cub fans, one of whom allegedly spit on Ruth’s wife Claire. The Babe would not forget the insult.

An enormous crowd arrived at Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon for Game 3. Club owners had built extra bleachers in the outfield to accommodate even more fans, so the official attendance was 49,986. They would get to see one of the most famous moments in baseball history.

Ruth intensified the bad feelings by smashing several home runs in batting practice and reportedly referring to Wrigley as “a dump.” He also strolled over to the Cubs’ dugout before the game and predicted a Yankees sweep of the series, then repeated the prediction to some autograph seekers.

Cubs starter Charlie Root struggled out of the gate, giving up three runs in the top of the first, including a long home run to right field by Ruth. The jeering erupted as Cubs fans got the chance to share their feelings with the Babe over his insult to their team. As the Cubs battled back to tie the game going into the 5th inning the tension in the ballpark reached a breaking point.

Ruth came to the plate with one out. Cub players and fans let him have it, turning up the force of the heckling even more. Some fans threw lemons at him. Ruth began to shout back from the left-hand batter’s box, even gesturing to the Cub players yelling at him from the third-base dugout.

Root’s first pitch was a called strike. The booing intensified. Ruth held up his index finger either to Root or to the dugout where Guy Bush, the losing pitcher in Game 1, was heckling Ruth mercilessly. After a second called strike he held up two fingers.

Then came the moment.

Painting of Babe Ruth's famous called shot. 
Image from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 
Ruth pointed to dead center field as if to predict where his shot would land. Root wound up and delivered, and Ruth crushed a towering home run almost 500 feet to dead center – directly where he had pointed. Or so goes the legend.

Rounding the bases for the second time that afternoon Ruth reveled in the catcalls from the crowd, still gesturing to the Cub dugout. In the stands, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt laughed out loud at the scene. Crossing home plate Ruth shook hands with Lou Gehrig, who then hit the first pitch he saw into the stands to give the Yankees a 6-4 lead.

But fans were still buzzing over the previous at bat. What had just happened at Wrigley Field?

That Ruth had hammered a long home run was not in question. That there had been plenty of jawing and gesturing before the moment was also quite clear. But had Ruth actually pointed to center field and called his shot?

New York World-Telegram writer Joe Williams certainly thought so. The headline on his story the next morning called up a billiards analogy, “Ruth calls shot as he puts home run no. 2 in side pocket.”

But is that what actually happened? While Williams’ account was widely circulated by wire services the morning after the Yankees’ 7-5 win in Game 3, no other newspaper stories mentioned the called shot. Among the reporters at Wrigley that day were legendary writers such as Shirley Povich, Westbrook Pegler and Grantland Rice. None of them recorded the called shot, though Pegler did note that Ruth told Root he was going to hit a home run, but without pointing.

In his postgame comments Ruth mentioned the home runs, but not the pointing.

“Well I picked a couple of ‘em out today anyhow,” Ruth told reporters after the game, “and I seldom get more fun out of doing it. They’ve got some pretty good bench jockeys on that Cubs bench, but I think I had the last laugh.”

As the story spread in the following days Ruth was coy about it, at first saying that he was reminding the Cub dugout that he still had one strike left, and then saying later, when asked if the story was real, “it’s in the papers, isn’t it?” The story quickly became part of the legend of The Babe.

“Of all the legendary moments in a legendary career, it just might be the most profound. It really gets to the essence of his larger-than-life persona,” said Michael Gibbons, the executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore. “No other game lends itself more to myth and legacy and debate.”

But one witness who vehemently denied the story was the man who perhaps had the best vantage point: Cub pitcher Charlie Root. Root stated a simple fact of baseball life: if Ruth had in fact made such a gesture, Root’s next pitch would have knocked him down. Ruth himself seemed to share this viewpoint in a 1933 interview, saying “only a damned fool would have done a thing like that (pointing)….If I had done that, Root would have stuck the ball in my ear.”

Gehrig was sure that Ruth had called his shot. “He called his shot and then made it. I ask you: what can you do with a guy like that?” Yankees catcher Bill Dickey had a different account. “All of us players could see it was a helluva good story. So we just made an agreement not to bother straightening out the facts.”

Cub fan and future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens saw the home run from the stands and later came down in favor of the called shot. “Ruth did point to the centerfield scoreboard. And he did hit the ball out of the park after he pointed with his bat. So it really happened.”

A painting in the Baseball Hall of Fame depicts Ruth standing at the plate pointing to center field while garbage rains down from the stands at Wrigley. The other person shown in that painting, catcher Gabby Hartnett, heartily denied that Ruth pointed to the stands.

Whatever the truth, the story was just too good not to be believed. After Ruth retired, the called shot became part of Hollywood lore, making it into the 1948 film The Babe Ruth Story as well as numerous Ruth biographies written in the years before his death. Ruth offered an expanded version of the story in his autobiography. John Goodman would re-enact the scene even more dramatically in 1992’s The Babe. Even Homer Simpson recreated the incident in a 1992 episode.

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone in the ballpark, the entire at-bat was captured on film. Sitting in the grandstand on the third-base side of home plate was Matt Miller Kandle, a fan with a 16mm movie camera. His film was not discovered until the 1970s, but while it adds pictures to the mix, it does not settle the debate. Ruth is clearly seen pointing toward the Cub dugout as if to punctuate a point amidst the shouting, and he then makes a general gesture toward the middle of the field, though whether he is pointing at Root or the center field stands is impossible to determine. Another film emerged in 1999, but it too does not satisfactorily answer the question.

On Ruth’s 125th birthday in 2020 the MLB Network attempted to resolve the dispute once and for all, but could only come up with this conclusion: “Did Babe Ruth call his shot, or didn’t he? He did, just maybe not in the way we usually imagine it….Because, like any good myth, believing in the story is way more fun.”

The day after Ruth’s home run, the Yankees clinched the series sweep with a 13-6 win. The Cubs would have to wait another 84 years for a world championship.