Monday, September 18, 2017

Babe Ruth Most Certainly Predicted That He'd Homer off Charlie Root at Wrigley Field

No doubt you’ve heard about Ruth’s “Called Shot” home run in the 1932 World Series. As a refresher, the Yankees faced the Cubs in that season’s Fall Classic and New York took the first two games at Yankee Stadium. At Chicago’s Wrigley Field for Game Three, New York and Chicago the Yankees came to bat in the top of the fifth inning with the score knotted at four runs apiece. With one out, Ruth stepped to the plate to face Cubs starter Charlie Root. After taking strike one, Ruth made some sort of gesture that even today remains the subject of much controversy. He then followed the motion with a homer to deep center field, giving the Yankees a lead they would not relinquish.

Just what was the gesture? Was Ruth pointing to the Cubs dugout, engaging with the Cubs players who had been riding him all game long? Was he motioning to Root, signifying that it would only take one mighty swing to break up the tie? Or did he point to Wrigley Field’s center field bleachers, claiming he’d deposit the next pitch in that very spot, and then make good on that promise?

Historians and fans have forwarded dozens of arguments for and against Ruth having called his shot. But what they (and you) might not know is that there is now definitive proof that the Bambino most certainly did predict he’d homer off Root ... some five years earlier. Here’s the story:

Following New York’s defeat of the Pirates in the 1927 World Series, Ruth and teammate Lou Gehrig spent the rest of October barnstorming across the country. During their tour, Ruth played for a team dubbed the “Bustin’ Babes,” while Gehrig starred for the “Larrupin’ Lous.” At each stop, local talent would fill out the rest of the two teams, a brilliant marketing and money-making concept devised by the headliners’ agent, Christy Walsh. The tour ran for 19 days, stopped in 20 cities, and staged 21 games. It remains one of the greatest barnstorming spectacles in baseball history and is the subject of an upcoming book by awarding-winning writer Jane Leavy and is due out in 2018.

Throughout the tour, Ruth and Gehrig generally played first base on their respective teams, but it was common for each of these sluggers to move to the pitcher’s mound when his counterpart came to bat. This way both stars were assured of getting good pitches to hit, which is what everyone at the park really wanted to see. It also helped avoid the risk of an overzealous local pitcher trying to upstage (or accidentally bean) a big league legend.

However, the second-to-last game of the tour, a much-anticipated October 30th contest at Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field, proved to be a bit different than most of the other tour games. For this contest, Gehrig would remain at first base, and Cubs pitcher Charlie Root (yes, that Charlie Root) would do the pitching for the “Larrupin’ Lous.” Root, a former pitcher with the Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles Angels, had just completed his second major league season, winning a National League-leading 26 games for the Cubs. Now he was scheduled to face the Bambino in front of a Los Angeles crowd.


When Ruth learned that he would be facing Root, the Babe wired to local organizers of the game that he was “glad you signed Root to pitch against me. Tell the fans for me that I’ll hit two home runs off Root or be disappointed.” This boast wasn’t a gesture that remains unclear today. And it isn’t mere speculation by modern-day historians. It’s a cold, hard fact and was printed in the Los Angeles Times a full three days before the game took place:

Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1927

So did Ruth back up his prediction? Alas, he did not. Facing Root for the first six innings of the game and former major league southpaw Red Oldham for the final three innings, Ruth went 1-for-5 with a first-inning double. Ruth had boldly predicted he’d clout two home runs against Root ... and failed.

But while Ruth fell short, Gehrig (sans braggadocio) rose to the occasion. In front of a crowd of over 25,000 fans that day (some reports estimate 30,000), it was Lou who hit a pair of home runs, as well as a double, all off Pacific Coast League pitcher Dick Moudy.

Case closed: Babe Ruth did boast that he'd hit a home run (actually two) off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root at Wrigley Field ... only it happened in 1927, in Los Angeles, and the Bambino failed to homer even once.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Devil and Frank Chance

The baseball photographs at the Explore Chicago Collections web site are wonderful. This is one of my favorites:

Collection ID: DN-0051624

What the Hell?

I first saw the photo around five years ago and my initial reaction was “What the hell?” And that has basically been my reaction every time I revisited the photo, as I tried to solve the mystery behind just what is going on. It has taken me a while to crack this nut, but here's what I've determined ...

The description at the Explore Chicago Collections web site states the photo depicts “Frank Chance, Cubs baseball player, standing with a person dressed in a devil’s costume on the field of the West Side baseball grounds.” There’s no question that the player is Cubs first baseman Frank Chance. And, while I’m not overly familiar with the devil, the fellow at right seems to fit the bill. But the ballpark doesn’t look to me like West Side Park, the Cubs home field from 1893 through 1915.

The Devil is in the Details

Take a close look and you’ll see that the devil and Frank Chance are standing in foul territory near first base. You can clearly see the first base line and the nearby three-foot first base line. Thus, the packed stands in the background are in right field. But no such stands ever stood in right field at West Side Park. In fact, right field at West Side Park featured a large wall behind uncovered, outfield bleachers. Here’s an example from the Explore Chicago Collections web site showing the outfield at West Side Park from 1906:

Collection ID: SDN-004890

Additionally, Chance is wearing a jersey with the word “CHICAGO” arched across the chest. But this style only matches jerseys worn by the Cubs from 1905 through 1907 on the road, as found in the uniform database at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's “Dressed to the Nines online exhibit.




All signs point to the photo having been taken on the road between 1905 and 1907, but where? The key clue is the seating area in the background. What park of this era featured this style of covered seating in right field?

The answer is Cincinnati’s League Park, often called “the Palace of the Fans.” Compare the photo of the devil and Frank Chance with this great image of the ballpark that the Reds called home from 1902 to 1911 (also found at the Explore Chicago Collections web site):

Collection ID: SDN-004288

And the same right field structure can be seen in the background of this postcard:

There’s no question that when Frank Chance met the devil, he did so in Cincinnati. But on what date did the get-together occur?

From 1905 through 1907, the Cubs played in Cincinnati a total of 33 times. But given the overflow crowd in right field, the only possible games are those in which the attendance numbered over 12,000: the seating capacity of the ballpark. Just four of the 33 games meet that criteria. Here are the dates and mentions of the attendance from reports in the following day's Cincinnati Enquirer:

  • April 30, 1905 – “It was another gorgeous crowd, officially announced by [Reds business Manager] Frank Bancroft as 13,658.”
  • April 12, 1906 – “Before 20,000 spectators, the largest crowd that ever attended the first game of the year in this city ....”
  • April 15, 1906 – “A lot of persons were more or less responsible for the sad ending of a very interesting struggle, which kept 13,000 people on the tip-toe of expectancy ....”
  • April 21, 1907 – “Yesterday's crowd, which was numbered close to 18,000 paid admissions, was by far the largest ever assembled at a ball game in this city.”

Speak of the Devil

A quick review of the newspaper coverage for these four games reveals the date the photo was taken: Opening Day in Cincinnati, April 12, 1906. As reported in the Pittsburgh Daily Post the following day:

When the Cubs came on the field, a party dressed as Mephistopheles rushed out on the diamond and presented Frank Chance with a magnificent floral star from his Cincinnati friends.
While I was able to determine the location (Cincinnati) and date (April 12, 1906) for the photo, I am left with one nagging question: For what possible reason did the “party” with the floral star dress up in a devil outfit?

Any ideas?