By Father Gabe Costa
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Mr. William Jenkinson, who has been referenced in this blog many times in the past, is an internationally known baseball historian, lecturer, author and resource person. I dare say that no one on the planet knows more about Babe Ruth than Bill.
This coming October 1st will mark the eightieth anniversary of Babe Ruth’s “called shot”, which took place in Wrigley Field during the third game of the 1932 World Series.
Almost from moment the ball left the bat, controversies ensued centering on the question as to the exact nature of the event.
Bill Jenkinson has studied and researched this particular home run for many years. I have asked
Bill to share his insights and observations with the readers of By The Numbers.
In this installment, we learn of the Bambino’s performance during the season.
Next, Jenkinson will review the 1932 World Series.
Finally, toward the end of this month, we will get a thorough look at the game in which Ruth’s most famous home run was struck.
BABE RUTH’S 1932 SEASON BY BILL JENKINSON
As always, Babe Ruth began his year energetically and optimistically. The day after his traditional New Year’s Eve celebration, Babe drove to the prestigious Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York on January 2, 1932 to play thirty-six of golf. Ruth’s golf game was not a casual part of his overall lifestyle. As he aged, it became directly linked with his stature as a baseball player.
By all accounts, Babe took golf very seriously, and played with purpose and intensity. Although he used a caddy, thereby not carrying his own clubs, he walked the course as rapidly as conditions would allow. In other words, Ruth used an early form of “power walking,” which was an integral part of his cardio-vascular conditioning. Plus, whenever possible, Babe played thirty-six holes instead of the normal eighteen. His commitment to the game was evidenced by the fact that he played those two rounds on January 2 in a steady rain with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees.
Two days later, when Babe Ruth was asked about his physical well-being, he gladdened the hearts of Yankee fans by declaring: “never felt better in my life.” And two days after that, on January 6, Ruth began his annual off-season conditioning ritual with famed New York City exercise guru, Artie McGovern. This event was always attended by the Gotham press corps. Babe weighed in at 225 pounds, and then provided the scribes with what they wanted most.
Despite the historic and masterful three year supremacy (1929-1931) of the Philadelphia Athletics, Ruth casually, but confidently, predicted that his New York Yankees would win the American League pennant. That was a matter near to his heart. Babe had played in a total of nine World Series (winning six of them), and he passionately wanted to make it an even ten. In order to do it, he and the Yanks needed to supplant the three time defending champions who were still loaded with vast talent.
When then asked about the Major League baseball in use in 1931, Babe just kept being himself. After the outrageous offensive numbers in 1930, especially in the National League, the Lords of Baseball (an amorphous group that was headed by Commissioner Landis) ordained that the official baseball should be significantly deadened.
Most sluggers complained about the result, openly acknowledging their difficulty in knocking the altered sphere over the fence. Ruth just shrugged his shoulders, and opined that he saw no difference between the 1930 ball and the 1931 version. Typical of the Babe, he simply stated: “When you sock ‘em, they go over the fence just the same.”
Throughout January, Ruth kept working out with McGovern, and playing golf (weather permitting) on a daily basis…mostly at St. Albans Golf Club in Queens. When he initiated contract negotiations on January 14, Babe was disappointed that the Yankees wanted to cut $10,000 from his record income of 80K over each of the last two seasons. When the actual hard copy arrived three days later, Ruth simply returned it unsigned. Babe had no difficulty representing himself, and felt confident that he could come to terms during spring training in St. Petersburg with Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert.
While waiting out the winter months in New York, along with his normal physical exertions, Ruth made regular public appearances for a variety of charitable and humane causes. A typical evening found him at the Boys Club of New York on January 20 where he gave a motivational speech. Over the course of his unique life, Babe Ruth gave hundreds (perhaps thousands) of such talks.
Babe was particularly anxious to get to Florida that year. He was enjoying his golf game more than ever, and couldn’t wait to hit the links in the warmth of the Gulf Coast. Yet, he also enjoyed attending the annual Baseball Writers Dinner at the Hotel Commodore in New York. Accordingly, he and his wife, Claire, waited until February 1 (the day after the banquet) before hopping into their car to drive south.
The Ruths, along with Babe’s teammate Lyn Lary and his new wife, planned to drive in tandem. There was no Interstate road system back then, and, accordingly, no Interstate Route 95. The plan called for the two couples to take old Route 1 most of the way, stopping in Philadelphia, Pinehurst (North Carolina), Augusta (Georgia), and Jacksonville. That was okay with Ruth. Along with any activity that kept him moving, Babe loved to drive.
The trip didn’t proceed exactly according to plan. On the morning of February 4, Babe and Claire woke up in Columbia, South Carolina, and decided to “cannon ball” the rest of the way to St. Pete. They had to by-pass Augusta, Georgia, where it seems likely that Ruth wanted to check out the new Augusta National Golf Course. Those links soon became the site of the yearly Masters Tournament as well as one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world.
After motoring some six-hundred miles without any significant stops, the Ruths drove into St. Petersburg just before midnight. Checking into the Jungle Country Club Hotel, Babe announced: “I’m as hungry as a wolf.” After “wolfing” down several sandwiches, Ruth hit the sack for some much needed sleep. As usual, normal fatigue issues had no lasting effect on Ruth, and he showed up at the first tee at the Jungle Club’s golf course early the next morning.
Playing full rounds of eighteen holes in both the A.M. and P.M., Babe shot matching rounds of 76. During the afternoon sojourn, he missed a hole-in-one on the 183-yard, par three, seventh hole by only an inch. Ruth played thirty-six holes the next day as well, this time, recording scores of 78 and 79. He quickly established his normal routine of playing at least thirty-six holes of golf each day on all the best courses in the St. Pete area.
On February 7, Babe and Claire, along with a gathering of friends and local VIP’s, celebrated Babe’s 38th birthday on a patio table in the shape of a baseball diamond at the Jungle Club. Oddly, they picked the wrong day. In fact, for most of Ruth’s life, he had mistakenly observed his birthday on the premise that he had been born on February 7, 1894. It wasn’t until 1934, when Babe needed a passport to travel to the Orient, that he obtained an official copy of his Birth Certificate. It was then learned that his actual date of birth was February 6, 1895. So, in 1932, when he commemorated his 38th birthday on February 7, Babe Ruth had actually turned thirty-seven one day earlier.
Babe and Claire settled into the comfortable Gulf Coast lifestyle for which so many wealthy northerners “wintered” in Florida. Babe played his cherished rounds of golf, entering amateur tournaments in Pasadena and Snell Island. Claire easily assumed the role of celebrity socialite, and enjoyed every second of it. The couple was regularly featured in the society pages of both the St. Petersburg Times and St. Petersburg Independent. Along with Ruth’s constant schedule of charitable appearances, Babe and Claire also regularly attended a swirl of dinners, dances and balls.
Most of February was comprised of rather standard fare for Babe Ruth, but the Eighteenth was somewhat unusual even by Ruthian standards. In the morning, Babe shot 76 in the finals of an amateur golf tournament at Snell Island, losing by the score of four & three to a local sportsman named Bill Cody. For the record, Ruth had shot 70 two days earlier on the same course for the lowest score of his golf life.
After gulping down some lunch, Babe took off for the swamps around Gulfport, a town just south of St. Pete. The purpose of this little jaunt was to do some alligator hunting. Consistent with his need to engage in almost every form of physical activity, Ruth, predictably, was an avid fisherman and hunter.
On this occasion, Babe was part of a four man group that included E. C. Robison, Pete Norton and a locally renowned guide, fifty-eight-year-old Lawrence Nash. They were actually searching for a specific ‘gator, a hundred-year-old nine-footer that Nash had been eyeing for close to a decade. He was hoping to locate the aged saurian so Ruth could get a shot at him with his high-powered 30-30 rifle.
Nash did his job and spotted the prized alligator. But, when he waded hip-deep through the swamp to rouse the target from its mud-hole, a poisonous four-foot water moccasin swam toward him with open mouth and ready fangs. While the others fled for their lives, Babe Ruth coolly raised his weapon, and blew the head off the dangerous snake with a single shot. Nash had hunted alligators for thirty-five years, claiming to have personally killed 2,000 of them, but had been rescued from disaster by a baseball icon.
In fact, when the venturous foursome returned to dry land, Nash reported that Babe had bagged his ‘gator with another single shot, this time with a direct hit through the left eye. During the hunt, Ruth had fired only three shots, but had scored three bulls-eyes. He had also felled a second, smaller alligator before the big one. The local papers ran a series of photographs depicting a smiling Ruth beside his nine-foot-three-inch trophy.
Modern conservationists might cringe at such stories, but those were different days. The tale certainly provides evidence of a life constantly lived on the edge of implausibility. If it were not for the irrefutable documentation, it is unlikely that anyone would actually believe the story of those events.
Babe entered his final winter golf tournament on February 27 at the Belleair Club adjacent to the world famous Belleview Biltmore Hotel. He played seventy-two holes over two days, but scored poorly, finishing with a total of 339 strokes. Never a man to embrace negativity, after finishing his round early, Ruth went back onto the course to root for Billie Burke. Burke and his wife were close friends of Babe and Claire, and Billie, a prominent professional golfer, was in contention to win the Belleair Open. With Babe Ruth cheering him on, Burke won the tournament.
The timing was perfect. The next day, February 29, 1932, Babe Ruth participated in the first full Yankee workout at their training headquarters at Crescent Lake Park. Anticipating Ruth’s appearance, 5,000 fans showed up just to watch him practice. That’s right: 5,000 folks came to see a man take batting practice. Naturally, he didn’t disappoint them. In his first effort to hit a baseball that year, the aging Bambino slugged a ball high into the palm trees in front of the lake in center field. If struck at Yankee Stadium, the ball might have flown into the distant center field bleachers, standing 490 feet from home plate.
Completing his diamond work, Ruth ran around the bases six times and retired to the clubhouse. Perspiring profusely, Babe acknowledged: “That’s the hardest work I’ve done this year.” He also expressed his approval of the 1932 New York Yankees, and repeated his conviction that they would dislodge the Athletics as American League champions. February had been lots of fun, but now it was March and time for the serious business of pursuing a World Championship.
Babe Ruth may have been the proverbial “eternal optimist,” but, in 1932, he had reason to feel confident. Most experts still believed that the Philadelphia Athletics were the team to beat in the Junior Circuit, but New York, Washington, Cleveland and Chicago all looked like contenders…especially the Yankees.
There were several reasons for Babe’s serendipitous outlook. First and foremost, the Yanks’ pitching promised to be better in 1932 than in recent years. Scoring runs had not been the problem in 1931; New York (1,067) had outscored Philadelphia (858) by over 200 runs. The Athletics had vanquished the Yankees by 13.5 games due to their superior pitching:
Philadelphia’s ERA had been a league-leading 3.47, whereas New York’s was a pedestrian 4.20.
The Athletics boasted such future Hall of Fame position players as catcher Mickey Cochrane, left fielder Al Simmons, and first baseman Jimmie Foxx. However, without question, their most valuable competitive commodity was flame-throwing left-handed pitcher Lefty Grove. In 1931, Grove posted an astonishing 31 & 4 record along with a miniscule 2.06 ERA. Venerable A’s owner/manager Connie Mack even used Lefty as a reliever, whereby Grove saved an additional five games in ’31. Mack was particularly fond of calling on Grove in late inning situations versus the Yanks when he could combat the twin left-handed slugging tandem of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
In addition, the Yankees had acquired young Frank Crosetti from San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League to play shortstop. Babe Ruth’s good friend, Lyn Lary, had held that crucial defensive position in 1931, and, although Lary had performed well offensively (107 RBI), he had also committed forty-six errors. It was anticipated that Crosetti would tighten the Yankee defense.
As much as anything, Babe Ruth simply sensed that things would turn around in 1932. Even today, there is a general consensus that Ruth was America’s greatest-ever athlete. Yet, his mental abilities have been woefully underappreciated, oftentimes, even drastically misrepresented. Babe certainly was no intellectual, and his formal education was sub-par. He also suffered from some form of attention deficit disorder, which caused him to regularly forget names.
However, for those who have studied his life closely, it is apparent that Babe Ruth possessed, at least, high average intelligence. He was an excellent problem solver, and his intuitive skills were legendary. So, if the Bambino said that he “felt” like the Yankees were going to win the pennant in 1932, it was advisable to take him seriously. He rarely made mistakes in analyzing anything regarding sports, especially baseball.
Babe had this to say: “We were going mighty good at the end of the season in 1931, and with our pitching staff in much better physical condition at the start of the season, than last year, I believe we have the stuff to beat the Athletics and Senators to the wire.” Now, it was time to prove it.
As of March 5, Ruth was still unsigned, but played in the Yankees first intra-squad game, collecting a pair of singles. Babe wanted a two year contract for $70,000 per annum or a one year deal for $80,000. Owner Jacob Ruppert remained in New York, and said “No way.” Ruth didn’t seem worried, but that was the Babe.
Ruth cared a great deal about many things, but rarely fretted. He just kept training, and, for the first time in his career, seriously experimented with “choking up” on the bat. Ruth stood at the plate with his feet closer together, and held the bat about two inches from the knob at the bottom. Up until then, Babe had wrapped his right pinky under the knob, thereby using every centimeter of his huge war club.
When Ruppert finally arrived in St. Pete on March 9, the press corps started to focus on Ruth’s status as a “holdout,” the only man on the Yankee roster without a contract. Babe kept saying that things would work out for everybody, and, as usual, he proved to be right. Jake and the Bambino met together for the first time on the Fourteenth, but neither man budged. Yet, just two days later, in a ceremony at the luxurious Rolyat Hotel, Ruth signed his contract. Negotiations had proceeded in normal fashion with both parties compromising. With Ruppert watching approvingly, Babe signed a one year deal for $75,000.
By then, Babe and Claire had relocated into the Rolyat, where they had been joined by their teenage daughter, Julia. In fact, the proud parents would soon host a gala dinner party for Julia at that prestigious hostelry. St. Petersburg actually boasted several magnificent hotels, including the Rolyat, Vinoy, Don Cesar, Jungle Club and nearby Belleview Biltmore. For those who were still rich and famous in that Depression Era, life remained glorious around Tampa Bay.
With business out of the way, Ruth stepped up his game. He started hitting consistently, and, at St. Pete’s Waterfront Park against the Cardinals on March 24, Babe recorded his first competitive home run of the spring. Two days later at the same site, he launched two more against the Philadelphia Phillies. All three were sizzling line drives over the distant right field fence into First Street.
The Babe looked ready for the Yanks’ scheduled season opener in Philadelphia on April 12. But, sadly, the dreaded injury bug interfered. Ruth had already bruised a toe, which had healed quickly. However, while blasting those homers against the Phils, he strained his neck, creating a disturbing medical scenario. As the Yankees broke camp on March 30, Babe had not played in four days. New York headed for their annual tour through the southern states with a cloud hanging over their legendary right fielder.
In Birmingham, Alabama on April 1, Ruth returned to the lineup, but went 0 for 4. Then, Babe’s fortunes suddenly reversed the next day in Memphis. He sat in the stands when the Yankees batted (and he was not due to hit), buying hot dogs and sodas for local children. This was a case where the legends, however inherently unbelievable, were almost universally true. The Babe truly loved children, and they absolutely adored him. Whenever the two got together, good things always seemed to happen.
In this case, as occurred so many other times under similar circumstances, Ruth absorbed the kids’ spontaneous joy, and, somehow, transformed their emotions into functional, positive energy. He clubbed a titanic home run over the farthest corner of the center field fence. The folks in Memphis were astounded at this display of unbridled power. Babe and his buddies next moved on to Louisville, then to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Columbus, Ohio. All the while, Babe hit well, and, again, seemed ready to open the season against the rival Athletics at Shibe Park on the Twelfth.
When the big day finally arrived, the weather was a major disappointment. It was cold, rainy and blustery. The perennially financially-troubled Connie Mack had hoped for a sellout. The A’s could cram up to 40,000 fans into Shibe Park with the cooperation of the Fire Marshalls, but only 16,000 showed up for the 1932 inaugural. Mack’s money problems were caused by two central issues. First, he shared the local market with the Phillies whose ballpark (Baker Bowl) was located just six blocks away. Second, Pennsylvania still had their “Blue Laws” on the books. That meant no Sunday baseball, when most teams accrued up to 40% of their revenues.
Yet, since 1901 when the American League had opened for business, Mack and his partners had assembled three different dynasties. This was his best… as well as his last. In simple terms, because of his inability to make money, Connie could never hold onto the great teams that his baseball genius had created. Once the teams became great, there was a corresponding increase in the payroll which he could not meet. But, on opening day in 1932, the Philadelphia Athletics still boasted one of the finest rosters in Major League history.
Surprisingly, Connie Mack started George Earnshaw that afternoon instead of Lefty Grove. In retrospect, even though the move didn’t work out, it made sense. There were concerns that Grove might overwork his arm, and Mack tried to protect him from the chilly temperatures. Plus, Earnshaw had been a highly successful number two starter, having been a twenty-game winner for the past three seasons. George was nicknamed “Moose” due to his large, six-foot-four-inch, 230 pound frame. Sadly, he reported to camp in 1932 in poor physical condition, and, although he pitched okay that year, it was his last season as a serviceable Big League performer.
Soon after Earnshaw took the mound against the Yankees on April 12, 1932, Connie Mack knew that Moose just didn’t have it. In the first inning, Babe Ruth smashed a prodigious home run so far over the right centerfield wall that it landed on the roof of a two-story house across Twentieth Street. Batting again in the fourth inning, Babe unloaded again: this time clearing the houses in right field. Both drives flew approximately 480 feet. Before that fourth inning ended, Earnshaw had surrendered a total of four home runs and ten earned-runs.
The Yankees won the first round of their six-month heavyweight championship bout with the Athletics (12 to 6), but the A’s found a silver lining. After Ruth had seemingly reaffirmed his longtime slugging supremacy, the Philly’s twenty-five-year-old Jimmie Foxx offered a startling rebuttal. Everyone in Major League Baseball, including the Babe, already knew that Foxx was super-strong. Starting on April 12, 1932, and lasting that entire season (and beyond), they would discover that he was mightier than they had previously perceived.
Batting in the seventh inning, young Jimmie, with the bulging biceps, thumped a terrific shot to dead center field off New York’s ace-lefthander, Vernon “Lefty” Gomez. The ball rode on a straight line for the distant flag pole, and cleared the wall just right of the deepest center field corner which was located 475 feet from home plate. Foxx’s stunning blow sailed about 505 feet, which was twenty-five feet farther than Ruth’s two earlier masterpieces. Players, coaches, writers and fans gaped in astonishment. Babe Ruth, always supremely secure in his personal transcendence, just smiled.
Yet, Ruth was no dummy. He knew that he was closer to the end than the beginning. Babe had arguably remained baseball’s greatest player in 1931, but he understood that young studs like Foxx and Lou Gehrig were quickly closing in on him. When Ruth reflected on his historic supremacy, he knew that it was based on what he had already accomplished, not what he would do in the future. He assumed that no one would ever replace him as his sport’s greatest performer, and, eight decades later, we know that he was correct. However, in 1932, Babe understood that his contemporaneous primacy was nearing its conclusion.
Babe was reminded of his mortality four days after his glorious opening day heroics. Playing in Boston’s Fenway Park against the Red Sox on April 16, Ruth slammed another homer, but the exposure to the cold weather walloped him just as hard. He developed severe influenza (referred to as grippe in those days), and didn’t resume play until the Yanks’ home opener on April 20. Competing again against the Athletics, he belted a homer.
That four-bagger was recorded off Lefty Grove who was generally regarded as irascible and humorless. He and Babe were not usually on friendly terms, but Lefty proved that he was capable of grace and sportsmanship with a very complimentary statement after the game. Circulated by the Associated Press, the quote read: “No sir, there’s no good way to pitch to that fellow. All you can do is breeze it in there and hope he doesn’t connect. If he does, it’s likely to be a home run. He doesn’t have to hit it square. Why, I’ve seen him knock them out of the lot with the handle.”
Babe and the Yankees played well for the remainder of the month. Ruth finished with a .356 batting-average along with six home runs. New York won ten games, while losing only three, firmly establishing themselves in first place. Meanwhile, the Athletics had started woefully, posting a four and ten record.
One other issue should be addressed before closing the page on Babe Ruth’s first month of the 1932 season. On April 27, Babe announced that he would not play golf again until after the season concluded. It was a difficult concession for the Bambino who loved to relax on his infrequent off-days by taking to the links. Apparently, the Yankees pressured him into the decision, thinking that he should rest his legs when he had the chance.
Unfortunately, neither the Yanks nor the Babe realized that Ruth’s sacrifice would render the opposite effect of what was intended. Unlike earlier in his career, when Babe Ruth was always a “whirling dervish” on the field, at this time he ran as little as possible. The rationale was that such abstinence would preserve leg strength. In retrospect, we know that Ruth desperately needed his golf outings. As already discussed, Babe “power walked” when he played golf, and, although that’s not why he played, he still derived considerable cardiovascular benefit. By giving up golf, Ruth’s legs (and entire bodily system) were weakened instead of strengthened.
Looking backward with the advantage of Twenty-first Century medical hindsight, it is apparent that this decision, however well-intended, hastened Babe Ruth’s physical depreciation. He would remain a superior player throughout the 1932 season, but he demonstrably declined in the field and on the bases. That is where his reduced vitality had the most impact.