Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Baseball Mythology 101

October 1, Wrigley Field- One of baseball´s favorite legends is the story of Babe Ruth´s “Called Shot” during the 1932 World Series. Volumes have been written about it, all asking the important question, did he or did he not point his finger toward the outfield with the intention of telling everyone within eyeshot, that he would hit the next pitch for a home run.

Now if anyone in the history of the game were able to call a home run, it would be Babe Ruth. But consider this, in 1927, the year he hit the greatest number of home runs in his career, 60, he had 540 at bats. Accounting for walks and sacrifices, which aren't counted as official at bats, a conservative estimate would have the Babe facing about 2,800 pitches that year, meaning he hit about one home run for every 50 pitches he saw. Pretty incredible, but imagine the audacity of predicting emphatically to nearly 50,000 fans, and untold millions listening on the radio during the broadcast of the World Series that you were about to do something that back in your prime you were capable of doing only once in fifty chances. That would certainly take a lot of moxie. Did Babe Ruth have a lot of moxie? He certainly did.

But did he call that home run in the fifth inning of the game three of the 1932 World Series? This is what we know for certain:

The Cub players both on the field and sitting on the bench in their third base dugout, as well as the fans were riding the Babe mercilessly during that at bat. And the Bambino returned the compliment. Charlie Root, the pitcher for the Cubs, threw two fastballs in quick succession to Ruth which the slugger took for strikes. Ruth made some kind of pointing gesture (some suggest expressing displeasure for Root´s quick delivery between the two pitches). The next thing you know, Root come low and inside with a changeup which Ruth hit with a vengeance, a screaming line drive which landed between the scoreboard and the flagpole about 490 feet from home plate. And a legend was born.

The headline of an article written by Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram reporting on the game the following day stated:


(It was Ruth´s second home run of the game). After the game Ruth was asked if he intended his gesture to signal that he would hit a home run on the next pitch. He said no. However the legend would not die. There were several notable witnesses that day who said yes indeed he called the home run.

Lou Gehrig who was on deck at the time swore that Ruth called the hone run. Another very credible witness was no less than a future Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens who had this to say: “My dad took me to see the World Series and we were sitting behind third base, not too far back. Ruth did point to the center-field scoreboard. And he did hit the ball out of the park after he pointed with his bat. So it really happened.”

Contrary to logic, as time went on, memories of details of the event got clearer and clearer. Nearly forty years later, long time Cubs PA announcer Pat Piper who was sitting close to the action, told reporter Steve Forrest that there was a fan sitting within earshot of Ruth who was taunting the slugger. Piper recalled Ruth turning to the fan and telling him: “I´ve heard enough from you. This next one´s going out...“ Then Piper recalled Ruth stretching out his arm saying: “...right over there.“

Ruth´s memory of that early fall afternoon in Chicago also became crystal clear as time went on. With each telling of the story The Sultan of Swat was able to recall more and more details, including precisely what expletives were said by and to whom. Here´s one account directly from the mouth of Babe: “Well, I looked out at center field and I pointed. I said, ´I´m gonna hit the next pitched ball right past the flagpole!´ Well, the good Lord must have been with me.”

The grainy photograph on the right can be reliably attributed to the moment. It shows the Babe in the batter´s box pointing his right hand. It´s impossible to say exactly where he's pointing but to my eyes it looks like he's pointing down the third base line toward left field, or possibly to the Cubs´ dugout. The home run he hit was to deep center field. Babe Ruth was certainly capable of hitting a home run in the direction he was pointing, but it´s unlikely if it was his intention to call a home run, that as a left handed hitter he would point to left field. In the picture, he´s holding his arm straight out, as if he´s pointing directly at someone, the third baseman possibly? Could he have been telling Stan Hack that he was going to hit the next pitch down his throat? Perhaps. But not a very good story since his drive seconds later missed the Cub third baseman by at least one hundred feet.

For his part, Charlie Root didn't buy any of it. He was a 200 plus career game winner in the big leagues but went down in history for that one pitch. This was his take:

“Ruth did not point at the fence before he swung. If he had made a gesture like that, well, anybody who knows me knows that Ruth would have ended up on his ass.” I´m guessing the same would have been the case with most other big league pitchers.

So do I think Ruth called his home run shot off Charlie Root? Well as Babe Ruth himself said to Root after the pitcher asked the slugger years later about the incident:

"No, but it made a hell of a story."

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Pumpsie Green

July 21, Comiskey Park, Chicago- Twelve years, three months, and six days after Jackie Robinson played his first game for Brooklyn, utility infielder Elijah "Pumpsie" Green made his debut with the Boston Red Sox as a pinch runner.

The Red Sox have the dubious distinction of being the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate. Not that they didn't have their chances; the team had a tryout for Jackie Robinson in 1945 and a few years later another for Willie Mays. They passed on both superstar players.

One might attribute the team’s reluctance to integrate on Boston itself, a city with a checkered reputation when it comes to race. However the crosstown Braves were one of the first MLB teams to integrate, signing Sam Jethroe in 1950. Some place the blame for the Red Sox dragging their heels squarely on the shoulders of long time team owner Tom Yawkey. Yawkey apologists say perhaps it was his manager Joe Cronin, or his GM Eddie Collins, both long time veterans of the racially restricted major leagues, or perhaps the team’s farm system which was comprised primarily of clubs that played in the South.

In a Sports Illustrated article published in 1965, staff writer Jack Mann wrote an article about the years of Red Sox futility. Mann got an interview with Yawkey for the piece. Interspersed with questions about the topic at hand, Mann got to the subject of race. Yawkey asserted that the team was only concerned about finding good ballplayers and there were simply no black players available who were good enough to make the team. Here’s a snippet of the wisdon of Yawkey from that article:
They blame me... and I’m not even a Southerner. I’m from Detroit....I have no feeling against colored people, I employ a lot of them in the South. (where he spent his winters) But they are clannish, and when that story got around that we didn't want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club. Actually, we scouted them right along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer.
This may or may not be the smoking gun pinning the team’s institutional racism upon the man at the top. But it does give the reader a good idea of where he was coming from. Either that or he and his staff were just remarkably inept at scouting talent.

Pumpsie Green had a five year major league career with a lifetime .246 batting average and a respectable .357 on base percentage. His may not be a household name but he will go down in history as the man who completed the painful process of integrating the Major Leagues.

Mr. Green retired after many years of teaching and coaching baseball. He lived in California with his wife of 50 plus years, Marie until his passing last year at the age of 85.

Here is a tribute to him that aired after his death: