Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 8, 2020

Book Review: The Babe Makes His Moment

When the final out was recorded in the last of four Division Series games played Wednesday, a total of twenty-eight contests had been completed in the Great Game’s 2020 postseason. While that number is inflated by MLB’s ill-advised money grab of an expanded playoff field, it still left the potential of as many or more matchups still to be played, in the admittedly unlikely event that almost every series in the current and remaining rounds played to its maximum number of games. It’s been more than half a century since divisional play was introduced in 1969 and with it, the inaugural League Championship Series in both the NL and AL. Fans have long since grown used to the multiple levels and multitude of games in the modern playoffs. But for an even longer period of time – more than six decades – baseball’s regular season led directly to the World Series, so some years the Great Game’s entire postseason was over in what seemed like less time than it now takes to explain which teams get into the Wild Card round.

That was the case in the 1932 Series, when the New York Yankees dispatched the Chicago Cubs in four straight, winning 12-6 and 5-2 in the Bronx before traveling by train to Wrigley Field and taking two more, 7-5 and 13-6. Even with all that scoring, the entire World Series was played in eight hours and forty-five minutes, or about the same game time as a modern-day contest between the Yankees and Red Sox at Fenway Park.

But history is made of moments, and that compact Fall Classic remains more memorable than some seven-game Series at the end of a lengthy postseason trail because of a single at-bat in Game 3. Almost nine decades later, Thomas Wolf has now given readers “The Called Shot,” placing one of Babe Ruth’s most historic trips to the plate in the context of its time.

The Cubs had taken early leads in both the first two games at Yankee Stadium, only to be overwhelmed by New York’s bats. Now, in Chicago, Game 3 had reached the top of the 5th inning. An overflow crowd showed up early to Wrigley that Saturday afternoon, filling not just the regular stands but also temporary seating that had been erected beyond the outfield bleachers hours before the scheduled first pitch. They came to see Yankee heroes Ruth and Lou Gehrig take batting practice, and the two did not disappoint. New York’s first baseman launched seven balls into the stands, only to be outdone by the Babe, who hit nine practice homers. Once the game started Ruth added a round tripper that counted in his first at-bat, flipping the script of Games 1 and 2 by putting the Yankees on the board first, 3-0. Gehrig matched him with a solo shot in the 4th, but the home team chipped away and by the top of the 5th the score was tied, 4-4. Ruth was due up second for the visitors from the Bronx.

Many pages before his narrative of what happened when the Bambino stepped into the batter’s box, Wolf begins “The Called Shot” with Ruth’s previous World Series in Chicago. That was in 1918, when the 23-year-old left-hander was one of the best pitchers in baseball, the ace of the Boston Red Sox. As he would be more than a decade later, Ruth was the dominant figure of the 1918 World Series. He shut out the Cubs on five hits in Game 1, which was played at Comiskey Park because it had more seats than the Cubs’ home, then known by its original name, Weeghman Park. He then tossed another seven scoreless innings in Game 4, before finally yielding a pair of runs and finishing the Series, won by Boston in five games, with a 2-0 record and ERA of 1.06.

Wolf follows the fortunes of both the Cubs and Ruth over the intervening years until their next meeting but focuses much of the book on the 1932 season. It was a campaign played against a backdrop of the Great Depression, a bitterly contested presidential election, the waning days of Prohibition, and the aftermath of the recently convicted Al Capone’s rule of the Chicago underworld. Wolf reaches beyond a mere accounting of wins and losses and movement in the standings to weave the story of a single season into all those events.

It was a tumultuous time in the country, and the Great Game reflected that atmosphere. There were frequent fisticuffs on the field, emblematic of the general tension across the land. Teams that were preseason favorites disappointed their fans, who dealt daily with a rising tide of economic disappointment. But baseball also served as a refuge and source of hope for many, especially young fans. Wolf chronicles several, including some who would grow into well-known adults, such as author Bernard Malamud and Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens. And it was not just the back alleys and speakeasys of Chicago where violence lurked, as readers are reminded by Wolf’s account of the midseason shooting of Cubs infielder Billy Jurges by a spurned lover, a true story that may have found its way into Malamud’s debut novel “The Natural.”

Whether Malamud was inspired by the Jurges shooting or that of the Phillies’ Eddie Waitkus, also by a jilted fan and also in Chicago, though nearly twenty years later, has never been definitively settled. That makes the Pulitzer Prize winner a fitting bit player in Wolf’s book, since the central event is one that may or may not have happened. Did Ruth call his shot in Game 3 by pointing to the center field seats just before blasting a long home run in that direction, a drive that sent the Yankees on their way to victory? Fans and pundits have debated what happened on that Saturday afternoon almost since the moment Ruth’s homer left the park.

Wolf doesn’t weigh in with his own opinion, though the contemporary accounts he cites, from fans in the park like the future Justice Stevens to several newspaper reports of the game, tilt toward the affirmative. But the author grasps that provable truth has long since given way to legend. Ruth’s called shot is part of the Great Game’s lore, one of the last larger than life moments by the greatest ballplayer ever, then nearing the end of his career. Like the presidential campaign of Franklin Roosevelt, who was also in the stands that day, it was audacious and powerful, a welcome tonic when hard and bitter times had many Americans feeling timid and weak. For that alone Ruth’s final World Series home run is worth remembering all these decades later, just as Thomas Wolf’s account of a remarkable season in the Great Game’s long story is worth reading.

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