On October 1, 1932—exactly 80 years ago this Monday—during the fifth inning of Game 3 of the World Series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Yankees slugger Babe Ruth, facing a 2-2 count against Cubs pitcher Charlie Root, looked over to the Cubs dugout then appeared to point toward center field.
Ruth hit the next pitch 440 feet, over the center field wall.
The home run broke a 4-4 tie, and the Yankees would hold the lead for the remainder of the game.
The moment has become a part of baseball’s mythology: Babe Ruth’s “called shot.”
The Cubs’ bench players had been taunting Ruth all game (even though Ruth had hit a homer in his first at bat), and the Bambino shut them up by telling his hecklers that he would hit a home run, showing them the direction in which he would hit it and following through on his promise.
Or so the story goes.
Babe Ruth’s called shot has become a part of the Bambino’s mythos and is one of those events that comes up whenever someone makes a list of the great moments in American sports. There’s a reference to the called shot in The Sandlot, an allusion to it in The Natural, and an entire youth novel—Babe & Me—about a kid who travels back in time to witness the called shot.
As much as we like to remember one of the great athletes and personalities of the twentieth century calling his shot like a pool shark, in a World Series game no less, it is uncertain whether that is what Ruth actually did.
There is no doubt that Ruth pointed before hitting his fifth inning home run in Game 3, but it’s not clear that he was pointing at the center field wall. He may have been pointing to Root, or the scoreboard. It’s also possible that he was pointing at the Cubs dugout. Different witnesses offer different accounts of what actually happened.
Ruth’s New York Yankees easily won the American League in 1932.
Their 107-47 record that year was 13 games better than that of the second-place Philadelphia Athletics. (Back then teams played only 154 games and there were no playoffs, other than the World Series. The team with a league’s best record won the pennant.) The Yanks and Ruth had put together a dynasty of sorts during the Golden Age of American Sport, winning World Series in 1923, 1927, and 1928.
The Cubs ended up winning the National League with a 90-64 record, despite some late season turmoil in the clubhouse.
On August 2, with the Cubs in second place, team president William Veeck released player-manager Rogers Hornsby. The hall-of-fame second baseman had been the hero of the Cubs team that went to the World Series in 1929, but his teammates had grown weary of his abrasive managerial style.
With new manager Charlie Grimm at the helm, the Cubs made a late run to surpass Pittsburgh in the standings and earn a trip to the World Series.
The 1932 World Series opened in Yankee stadium with a 12-6 New York win. The Yankees won Game 2 5-2 to take a 2-0 series lead back to Chicago. Ruth went 1 for 3 in both games and didn’t hit a home run in either. Game 2 would be Ruth’s final post-season game at Yankee Stadium. In his last World Series at bat in the House that He Built, Ruth hit a single.
Cubs starting pitcher Charlie Root got off to a rough start in Game 3. The Yankees’ first two batters, Hall of Famers Earle Combs and Joe Sewell, both reached base. Then Ruth came to the plate and hit a three-run homer to right center field.
The Cubs scored one run in the first inning. After a scoreless second, Lou Gehrig homered to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead. The Cubs answered with two runs in the bottom of the third then tied the game at 4 in the fourth.
Ruth didn’t reach base in his second plate appearance. He returned to the plate in the fifth inning with the score tied at 4, one out, and no men on base. Despite Ruth’s first-inning heroics, and despite the fact that the Yankees were leading the series 2-0, Cubs players taunted Ruth from the top steps of their dugout as he came to the plate in the fifth inning.
Ruth’s immortal plate appearance began with a called strike. Root followed with two balls then caught Ruth looking for a second called strike. The count was 2-2 when things got interesting.
The “Called Shot”
The banter between Ruth, Root, and the Cubs’ bench was getting chippy. And with the count even at two balls and two strikes, Ruth pointed at something or someone or in some general direction. You can decide for yourself where or at whom or what Ruth pointed:
Baseball historian Bill Jenkinson points out that “called shot” wasn’t part of the baseball vernacular in 1932. The idea that Ruth had told the crowd at Wrigley Field that he would be hitting a homer to center field before doing exactly that originated with a headline in the October 1 evening edition of the New York Daily Telegram, written by sports editor Joe Williams: “RUTH CALLS SHOT AS HE PUTS HOME RUN NO. 2 IN SIDE POCKET.” The article itself didn’t mention a called shot.
Two days later, after the Yankees had won Game 4 and swept the Cubs, Westbrook Pegler of the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote of Ruth:
He licked the Chicago ball club, but he left the people laughing when he said goodbye, and it was a privilege to be present because it is not likely that the scene will ever be repeated in all its elements. 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, laughing and mocking the enemy with two strikes gone.
Another Chicago writer, Herbert Simons of the Chicago Times, had a different take. Writing about the supposed called shot for Baseball Digest on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Game 3, he said, “This is the 25th anniversary of a historic baseball event that never happened. I know. I was there. I saw it never happen.”
Ruth, for his part, initially declined to comment on the incident, saying only, “Well, it was in the newspapers.” But he would eventually buy into his own hype, accepting and embracing the legend surrounding his fifth inning at bat in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series.
Poor Charlie Root
Charlie Root threw only one more pitch in Game 3 after Babe Ruth’s memorable fifth-inning home run. Lou Gehrig hit that pitch over the right field wall and Root left the game with the Cubs trailing 6-4.
Root, for obvious reasons, took exception to the “called shot” story. He denied that Ruth called his shot or that he even pointed toward center field, insisting, “If he had I would have knocked him on his ass with the next pitch.”
Even after Root’s death in 1970, his daughter Della continued to make an emotional case that Ruth had not shown up her father by calling his shot:
Root had a respectable baseball career.
He pitched 16 of his 17 Major League seasons (1926–1941) with the Cubs. (He played for the St. Louis Browns in 1923.) He was a member of the Cubs team that lost the 1929 World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics. He would also be on the Cubs teams that won National League pennants and lost World Series in 1938 and 1938 (to the Tigers and Yankees, respectively).
He led the National League in wins in 1927, with 26. Root still holds the Cubs career records for wins (201) and games pitched (628).
But Root’s career numbers were never enough to overshadow what allegedly happened on October 1, 1932.
Despite being a solid player with a long career, casual baseball fans will long remember Charlie Root first as the pitcher who was on the wrong end of one of the game’s most legendary moments.
Whether history or folklore, baseball fans have been telling the story of the Babe’s fifth-inning homer for 80 years, and probably will for 80 (or 160 or 240) more.