After 19 years as a professional athlete, by 1932, Babe Ruth's body was really beginning to suffer from the wear and tear. However, his most dramatic moment was still to come.
The 1932 Baseball Season
All season long with the New York Yankees he put up with leg problems: a charley horse here, a sprain there. The ancient cartilage tear in his knee resurfaced with frequent pain. He ripped a muscle in the back of his leg in July and sat out nearly two weeks. The leg pains were so severe that Ruth quit playing golf, one of his favorite pastimes, during the season.
In September he had what he thought was an appendicitis attack; the doctors did not operate, but they kept him packed in ice for three days. (Showing his sense of humor 10 days after the icing, he said, "I still haven't thawed out.")
Frequently during the season Ruth was removed late in the game for a pinch runner or defensive substitute. Sammy Byrd and Myril Hoag therefore earned themselves the nickname of "Babe Ruth's legs."
Even with Ruth hobbled, the 1932 Yankees would not be denied. They scored the almost incomprehensible total of 1,002 runs (no team had ever done that before; only two other teams have since). That works out to an average of six and a half runs per game. Ruth hit 41 homers, and Lou Gehrig hit 34.
In one memorable June game, Gehrig hit four homers and Ruth one in a 20-13 Yank victory. However, Ruth didn't win the home run crown; Philadelphia's Jimmie Foxx did. Foxx also out-slugged Ruth, and it was only the second time since 1917 that Babe Ruth had not led the league in that category.
The A's also took over the traditional Yankee titles of team leadership in batting average and slugging percentage. For a change, the New Yorkers' pitching was in top form. Lefty Gomez, now 23, put up his second consecutive 20-win season; Red Ruffing won 18; Johnny Allen, 17, and George Pipgras, 16. More importantly, the Yankee staff as a whole led the league in earned run average.
The Yanks jumped into first place in late May and ended the season 13 games in front of Philadelphia. It would have been impossible for a team to lead the league in ERA and score a thousand runs and not win the pennant.
The 1932 World Series Match-Up
The Yankees' World Series opponents that year were a curious bunch. The Chicago Cubs had won the National League flag in 1929 under the leadership of Joe McCarthy (now the Yankees manager). In 1930, with the Cubs only a handful of games behind the St. Louis Cardinals and four games left in the season, McCarthy was dumped and replaced by Rogers Hornsby.
Under Hornsby's slash-and-burn personality, the team finished 17 games out of first in 1931, but amazingly "the Rajah" kept his job. The situation would soon change.
He lost it with his team in first place in August of 1932. The Cubs, locked in a tight pennant race with Pittsburgh and Chicago, replaced Hornsby with the kindly ministrations of manager "Jolly Cholly" Grimm (who had once been traded from the Pirates because he played the banjo too much).
Historian Bill James has pointed out that when a team is chafing under a strict disciplinarian manager, the best thing ownership can do is hand the players a fun-loving, easygoing sort. The pro-Ruth faction was why this hadn't worked for the Yanks under Shawkey. The Cubs caught fire, spurred by the late-season acquisition of former Yank Mark Koenig, who batted .353 in 31 games for them.
When it came time to vote World Series shares, however, the penurious Chicago Cubs voted Koenig just a half-share, and former manager Hornsby was given nothing. The Yankees, each and every one, thought that was the ultimate in cheapness. As the Series began, they let the Chicagoans know their feelings on the matter.
In comparison, the generous Yanks voted a trainer a three-quarter share and a half-share to Charlie Devens, a rookie who pitched just nine innings that season. In addition to the Koenig-cheapness attitude, the Yank players agreed that McCarthy had been mistreated by Cubs management with his untimely and sudden axing.
The riotous badmouthing between the two teams started before the first game and never let up. The Yankees loved calling the Cubs "penny-pinchers," "tightwads," and "skinflints." What the Cubs hollered back isn't printable. One historian said "the tone approach[ed] the style of an Ozark feud more than a professional sporting event." The press even joined in the fray.
The Games Begin
As Game 1 began, Guy Bush retired the Yankees order the first time through without anyone reaching base. He walked Earle Combs to open the fourth, a Ruth single drove in the first Yankee run, and Gehrig followed with a home run. Bush fell apart in the sixth, walking four Yanks. By the time the inning was over, New York had a commanding 8-2 lead. They won 12-6.
Cub pitcher Lon Warneke opened Game 2 the way Bush had ended his stint, issuing free passes to the first two Yankees. Two runs came in. Two more walks cost him two more runs in the third, and Lefty Gomez shut out the Cubs the rest of the way. Yankee Stadium was not sold out for this game; the Depression was taking its toll.
Game 3 was one of the rowdiest World Series contests ever. It resulted in one of the largest legends of all time for the largest legend of all time -- Babe Ruth.
Babe Creates a Legend
The Cubs were most likely feeling better as they were heading back to their home park, Wrigley Field in Chicago. Their fans were in a frenzy. It was one of those now-famous Wrigley days when the wind is blowing out, and every pitcher is ducking the ominous sense of impending doom. The fans were already chiding Ruth and the Yankees when batting practice began. Babe stuck their noise back in their faces by slugging nine balls out of the park in practice; Gehrig added seven.
In inimitable Babe-style, Ruth shouted at the Cub bench, "I'd play for half my salary if I could hit in this dump all the time." The fans responded by tossing lemons at the Babe, and he playfully tossed them back.
Tempers were hot on both sides, and they didn't cool when Billy Jurges, replacing the injured Koenig, threw wildly on the first ball the Yankees hit in the first inning. Joe Sewell followed with a walk, and Ruth really sent the fans into a tizzy when he casually homered deep into the rightfield bleachers to give New York a 3-0 lead. Lemons poured onto the field as he circled the bases.
In the second inning, Ruth backed Kiki Cuyler to the right field wall. With not an inch to spare, Cuyler snagged Babe's towering fly. Gehrig led off the third with a solo homer, but the Cubs came back to score twice in that inning, then tacked on one in the fourth to tie the game at four each.
Understand the situation: A Yank win would put them in the insurmountable position of a 3-0 lead in games. A Cubs win would put them just one victory away from a tie.
In the top of the fifth the Yankees untied the game in a way only the great teams of Ruth could. When the Babe came to bat with one out, both the Cubs bench and the fans were assaulting him with the ugliest verbal abuse. The first pitch by Charlie Root was called a strike.
Ruth sarcastically held up one finger, broadly announcing to the world that he definitely knew the count. After two balls another strike was called, and Babe obligingly held up two fingers, quietly stating the fine old baseball cliché, "It only takes one."
The Cubs were like madmen in their ferocious screaming at the Babe, and the Yanks were giving it right back. The incensed Guy Bush, out of control, ran part of the way out of the dugout to scream obscenities at Ruth.
What happened next is still being debated today. Ruth was waving his bat and his right hand toward the Cubs dugout, toward the outfield. Some thought he was indicating he'd line the next pitch foul at the Cubs bench. Others surmised that because pitcher Root was shouting at him, Ruth was basically indicating that he was going to knock the next pitch right down the hurler's throat.
By now the ballpark was in total bedlam. Ruth was gesturing, the two benches were screaming, and the fans were on the verge of a riot. The stage was set for something dramatic.
Of all the times to do so, Root tried to fool the Babe with a slow curve inside. Babe cracked it all the way into the centerfield bleachers, the longest home run anyone could ever remember at Wrigley. (It was his 15th and last World Series homer.) Gehrig followed with another homer on the next pitch.
The Yankees had reasserted their amazing dominance. After the game, one reporter (of the dozens who were there) wrote that Ruth had "called his shot," pointing to the centerfield bleachers before he proceeded to belt the ball out there. No one else had seemed to notice, although Gehrig was quoted, "Did you see what that big monkey did? He said he'd hit a homer, and he did."
Within days the story had spun into legend: Babe Ruth, in a tied World Series game, had called his shot. Ruth, never shy about embellishing his legend, claimed he had thought about doing just that the night before. Today at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown you can listen to a tape of Babe Ruth relating the story: "I told him I was going to hit the next pitched ball right into centerfield for a home run."
Did the Babe really "call his shot" in that game? No one can be sure. It is absolutely certain that he always had a flair for the dramatic, from his exuberant catch and toss to end the first game he played in Baltimore in 1914, to his running grab to end the 1928 Series, to his countless clutch home runs.
As Roger Kahn said, where the Babe was, center stage was. Ruth said after the Series, "That's the first time I ever got the players and the fans going at the same time. I never had so much fun in my whole life." For a Babe Ruth historian, it may be the ultimate Ruth quote.
A film discovered in 1992 seems to show him pointing to centerfield. But then again, he was making broad gestures just about everywhere. One might look to two people as the voices of authority on the matter, namely those closest to the play: Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett and pitcher Charlie Root.
Hartnett flatly denied Ruth had said any such thing about calling a homer. Root stated unequivocally: "Anyone who knows me knows [that if Ruth had tried that] he would have ended up on his [backside]."
An intense battler, Root wasn't kidding. Some 15 years later, when asked to play himself and re-create the scene for the Ruth film biography, he flatly refused.
The battle over what truly happened in that one moment of time so long ago may never be settled. Whatever the facts may be, one thing is clear: Babe Ruth, for one of the last times in his life, had done something positively Ruthian.
As biographer Tom Meany says, "It was slightly colossal."
The Series Continues
Things were no happier for the Cubs as Game 4 began. The first two Yankees singled in the first inning. Ruth was hit on the arm by a wicked fastball from Guy Bush, the insane bench jockey who had nearly stormed from the dugout to challenge Ruth in Game 3.
Ruth shouted, "Was that your fastball? I thought it was a gnat." However, the injury was serious, and Ruth's arm swelled painfully. He would not have been able to play Game 5. Despite the early advantage, the Yanks could manage just one run (on a mammoth sacrifice fly by Gehrig), and Chicago answered with four runs in the last of the inning.
A two-run homer by Tony Lazzeri in the third and two more Yank runs in the sixth put them in front, but the Cubs replied with a solo tally to even the score. In the seventh, "Five O'Clock Lightning" struck in all its fury.
The Yanks powered home four runs, one on a Ruth single, despite his pained arm. Then they did it again in the ninth, with Lazzeri's second two-run homer aiding the cause. The final was 13-6.
The Yankees had won 12 straight World Series games, something no team accomplished before or since. Ruth had provided the most dramatic moment -- perhaps the most dramatic of his dramatic career -- a moment that will always be a segment in baseball and Ruth history.
The times of the Yankees were changing, though; the Ruth era was coming to an end. Gehrig, who was taking over the Ruth mantle of slugging leader, was the real star of the Series, with a .529 batting average (to Ruth's .333), three homers, nine hits, and eight RBIs to lead all batters.
Although still far above average, Babe's baseball abilities continued their decline. Learn about the results on the next page.
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