It’s the “called shot” discussed—and disputed—around the world. To be precise, however, it’s not Babe Ruth’s thundering home run during the third game of the 1932 World Series that often provokes spirited arguments, but the gesture he may or may not have made just before he swung his bat. The date was October 1, and the Cubs were playing the New York Yankees at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Ruth had already hit a three-run homer in the first inning, and the Cubs “bench jockeys” were heckling him when he strolled to the plate in the fifth inning to face pitcher Charlie Root.
Why the hostility toward Ruth? The New Yorkers knew Chicago owed a lot of its pennant race success to former Yankee Mark Koenig, who had joined the Cubs in early August and batted .353 in 33 games down the stretch. His Chicago teammates, however, focused on the length of his tenure rather than his accomplishments during it, and they voted him only a half share of the club’s World Series monies. When this fact was reported in the newspapers, the Yankees (and Ruth in particular) responded by deriding the Cubs for their purported stinginess. “Sure, I’m on ’em,” admitted Ruth in a Chicago Daily Tribune article. “I hope we beat ’em four straight. They gave Koenig . . . a sour deal in their player cut. They’re chiselers and I tell ’em so.”
The Yankees appeared to “tell ’em so” with their bats, as well, for the Cubs lost the first two games in New York. The Series then shifted to Chicago for Game 3, where 49,986 spectators crammed into Wrigley Field and onto wooden temporary bleachers constructed outside the park. By the start of the fifth inning, the score was tied, 4-4, and the crowd was screaming both encouragement at the Cubs and abuse at the Yankees. Decades later, former Cub Woody English recalled the heated situation in that crucial fifth inning:
I was playing third base. I was right close to it. [Ruth’s] got two strikes on him. The guys are yelling at him from our dugout. He’s looking right in our 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. That is the true story. I’ve been asked that question five hundred times.
English added that pitcher Charlie Root “threw hard, had a good curve ball,” and when he was on the baseball field “was a competitor all the way.” Babe Ruth was left-handed, and the Cubs dugout was on the third base side. Did he gesture to the Cubs (or to Root) with derision, or did he point to center field? Root himself said that if Ruth had tried to show him up by signaling where he was going to hit the baseball, “I’d have put one in his ear and knocked him on his ass.”
Others saw it differently, of course, but what happened next is inarguable: Ruth smashed Root’s next pitch into the center field bleachers. Lou Gehrig followed Ruth to the plate and also hit a home run, leaving the Chicago team thoroughly demoralized. “The Yankees had just too much power for us,” English sighed. “It was discouraging.”
It was even more discouraging for the Cubs when they lost the game by the score of 7-5, and later the World Series in four straight games (as Ruth had hoped they would). In the dozens of press reports scrawled that day by on-site reporters, only one—written by Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram and titled “Ruth Calls Shot As He Puts Homer No. 2 in Side Pocket”—noted that Ruth pointed to center field to indicate the location of his home run ball. Many newspapers mentioned gestures to the dugout rather than the outfield. A few journalists wrote that the Babe signaled his home run (that is, he “called his shot”), but they made no references in their stories to him pointing to the outfield. For example:
- Joe Williams, New York World-Telegram, October 1: “In the fifth, with the Cubs riding him unmercifully from the bench, Ruth pointed to centre [sic] field and punched a screaming liner to a spot where no ball ever had been hit before.” (Interestingly enough, this sentence has rarely been quoted accurately in various accounts of Babe Ruth’s famous home run.)
- John Drebinger, New York Times, October 2: “Ruth came up in the fifth and in no mistaken motions the Babe notified the crowd that the nature of his retaliation would be a wallop right out [of] the confines of the park.”
- Westbrook Pegler, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 2: “Then, with a warning gesture of his hand to [Cubs player Guy] Bush, he sent him the signal for the customers to see. . . . Many a hitter may make two home runs, or possibly three in world series play in years to come, but not the way Babe Ruth hit these two. Nor will you ever see an artist call his shot before hitting one of the longest drives ever made on the grounds, in a world series game. . . .”
- Warren Brown, Chicago Herald and Examiner, October 2: “This time he called his shot, theatrically, and with derisive gestures towards the Cubs’ dugout.”
Some game-day accounts include references to Ruth raising his fingers not to point but to indicate the pitch count. Many others simply describe his home run with no mention of any gesturing at all. Spectators’ comments are just as varied as the ones by sportswriters, and, surprisingly, do not fall along partisan lines. For instance, Pat Pieper, who served as the Cubs’ public address announcer for more than fifty years, often reminisced about some of the famous games he saw at Wrigley Field. In a 1953 Chicago Daily Tribune profile, he had this to say about Game 3 of the 1932 World Series:
“The Babe’s called shot home run is not a myth,” says Pat. “It is a fact. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Guy Bush, one of our best pitchers, was on the edge of the Cub dugout screaming, ‘You big so and so, he’s got two strikes on you. He’ll get you next time.’ Ruth stepped out of the batter’s box. He definitely pointed toward center field where he planted Root’s next pitch.”
Longtime Cubs stalwart Charlie Grimm was playing first base at the time. In the December 22, 1932, issue of The Sporting News, he commented, “And that Ruth. Calling his shot and hitting one over the center fence.” According to Roberts Ehrgott in his excellent Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs During the Jazz Age (2013), “Grimm’s is the oldest direct confirmation by a ballplayer of the shot. Many more of the participants in the infield and the dugouts spoke out over the decades, just as inconclusively as the journalists who wrote things down that day.”
And the Yankees were just as inconclusive as the Cubs. Although some of the New Yorkers maintained that Ruth pointed to the outfield, others—including shortstop Frankie Crosetti and catcher Bill Dickey—acknowledged he did not. “I’ve been asked this a million times and [Ruth] did not point,” Crosetti said in 2001. “The next day, it was in all the papers. He sat next to me in the dugout and said, ‘If the writers want to say I pointed, let ’em.’”
Dickey admitted to veteran Washington, D. C. sports columnist Shirley Povich that Ruth told his fellow teammates that he did not point to the centerfield stands, but for years they all kept quiet. “All of us players could see it was a helluva good story,” said Dickey. “So we just made an agreement not to bother straightening out the facts.” Ruth himself confessed to baseball trainer Ed Froelich in 1938 that “I may be dumb, but I’m not that dumb. I’m going to point to the center-field bleachers with a barracuda like Root out there? On the next pitch they’d be picking it out of my ear with a pair of tweezers.” (Instead of “straightening out the facts,” however, Ruth related assorted versions of his “called shot” over the years, as he clearly enjoyed having fun with the story and relished the mystique surrounding it.)
Of course, the Bambino predicting a home run was not an unusual circumstance. Leigh Montville asserts in The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth (2006), that “he called shots all the time. He loved to create situations. It was for other people to determine what they meant. Did he call a shot here? That probably never will be answered to every nitpicker’s satisfaction.”
Most baseball historians agree with Montville, including Shirley Povich. In his 1988 article, “Ruth’s Called Homer Still Debated,” Povich concluded that although fans who were present at the World Series game continue to argue that Ruth did, indeed, point to the center-field seats before smashing his home run, there is “much evidence it never really happened the way folklore has it. I, too, was there on Oct. 1, 1932, and in my coverage for The Washington Post, there was no suggestion of anything like a ‘called shot,’ no reference to any dramatics at that time.” Povich added that other sportswriters also reported nothing unusual, and that in his Post article he had simply noted, “Ruth rapped it on a direct line to the farthest extremity of center field.” (In Povich’s original article, he actually writes “extremity of the field.”)
Robert Creamer made similar observations in Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (1974). In addition, he discloses that journalists who had not initially mentioned Ruth’s theatrics in their write-ups of Game 3 included the gesture in subsequent stories, which possibly sparked the legend and fueled its growth. Some fifty years after the World Series, two film versions of the famous event surfaced, both taken by fans sitting in the bleachers with 16-mm. cameras. Although it’s clear that Ruth did something with his right hand, the film angles allow for only debatable speculations, not decisive rulings.
But does it really matter? Babe Ruth’s big bat, his extraordinary power, and simply his charismatic presence helped fill ballparks across the country with enthusiastic fans. Whatever took place at Wrigley Field on October 1, 1932, only the “Sultan of Swat” could have flamboyantly transformed a few minutes of one inning into baseball (nay, American) history and folklore. As New York Times sportswriter John Drebinger observed in his game-day coverage, the Chicago spectators, who had been jeering Ruth just moments before he stepped to the plate, suddenly realized after the ball went sailing overhead that they “had just witnessed an epic feat,” and they “hailed the Babe with a salvo of applause” as he exuberantly rounded the bases. Little wonder that relatively few people today remember Gehrig’s subsequent shot.
As for unfortunate Charlie Root, the fiery Cubs pitcher always denied that the Yankee slugger gestured to center field. When Root was offered a substantial fee to play himself in the movie The Babe Ruth Story (1948), he refused, saying, “Not if you’re going to show him pointing.” According to Roger Snell, author of Root for the Cubs (2009), Root’s feelings on the matter never wavered. One afternoon, for example, as he and his family played Wiffle ball during a family outing, Charlie Junior’s wife made the mistake of defiantly pointing her bat out to center field. Root immediately sent the plastic ball whizzing straight toward his daughter-in-law, hitting her neck.
Root played with the Cubs from 1926 to 1941 and remains the greatest pitcher in club history, holding the franchise record for career wins (201) and seasons (16). For him, however, all that was overshadowed by Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. “I gave my whole life to baseball,” he said, “and I’ll be remembered for something that never happened.”
Whether it did or did not will be debated for as long as fans enjoy a good game of baseball. Chicago Cubs historian and writer Art Ahrens once remarked that his father was sitting on the third-base side of Wrigley Field’s grandstand when Ruth hit his home run. The older man always said that from his angle, it looked like Ruth pointed to center field. On the other hand, the writer knew a Catholic priest who was also at the game, but seated along the first-base side. This person always said that Ruth was gesturing to the Cubs’ dugout. “So,” the younger Ahrens asked, “who should the author believe—his father or his priest?”
It’s a question that’s not easy to answer.
Jack Bales has been the Reference and Humanities Librarian at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, for more than thirty years. He has written articles on the Chicago Cubs for ChicagoSide and NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture.