The pitch: This is an event that has its own Wikipedia page, for crying out loud. Sports Illustrated calls it one of the “76 greatest sports moments in history.” It has been poured over by historians, debated and mangled in the media. But Sherman’s story here really isn’t so much about finding the truth about what happened in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field, with the Cubs and Yankees tied at 4-4 in the top of the fifth inning. It’s more if you believe what Ruth did and why that’s important to hold onto. Sherman chooses the best way to approach this: It’s a ride-along as he goes after all aspects of teh story, spurred on by seeing a box score of that game framed in the chambers of a U.S. Supreme Court judge in Chicago who was there.
Hollywood’s spin on all this just clouds the issue, to be honest, and that aspect is thankfully examined as well. Hand-held movies and still-frame photographs that have been used as evidence are also deconstructed, as are questions why famous columnists Red Smith, Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice and Ring Lardner didn’t really describe much about after seeing it first hand.
“The most interesting angle is not what happened on the field,” says MLB historian John Thorn in the introduction. “Rather, it’s why do we care about it so much, and why has it produced so many co-conspirators who want to keep it alive?”
The Called Shot “represented something that was essentially true,” adds Bob Costas in the final chapter. “When you talk about Ruth with his outsized personality and bravado, it’s something where you could say, ‘It could be true.’ If anybody could be inclined to do it, it would be him. So the story matches the legend of the man.”
A Q-and-A with Sherman: Q: From the interviews you’ve done about the book, and reviews you’ve read about your work , has the reaction been pretty positive to this forensic re-evaluation of what happened? A: I think so. At least I hope. The idea for the book started when I did an interview with Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in 2008. He was at the game as a 12-year-old. It isn’t often you get to talk baseball with a sitting Supreme Court justice in his chambers. It was a great thrill. That interview piqued my interest. I started to dig deeper and realized there was quite a bit to the story. Much happened to set up the dynamic for the Called Shot; what happened after in the near term and then decades later with the discovery of home videos that shed some new light on that famous Ruth at bat. I thought all the various pieces added up to an interesting story. I appreciated the New York Post doing a nice spread on my book. However, the headline was misleading. It said I “debunked” the Called Shot. I don’t think I did, and that certainly wasn’t my intent. My goal was to lay out all the facts, including the differing opinions of eyewitness accounts, and let people make up their own minds. Q: In your last chapter, you write that what probably happened is Ruth embellished a bit on the story after hearing it repeated so many times, so why spoil a good tale. But you also don’t dismiss that he did make a gesture toward pitcher Charlie Root after taking a called second strike, basically telling him to pitch at his own risk. If you had to give an honest explanation after all your research, would that generally be it? A: I have been saying this is the most unique at bat in the history of baseball. People who claim he didn’t point make it sound as if this was a regular confrontation with Charlie Root getting the signs while Ruth waited for the next pitch. It wasn’t like that at all. In the middle of a World Series, the fans were going crazy at Wrigley Field, and Cubs players were on the field taunting Ruth. Can you imagine that happening today? Ruth was being challenged like no player before or since. He responded to that challenge by hitting a mammoth homer that effectively clinched the Series for the Yankees. Name me another moment that’s comparable? You can’t. From watching the home video, the thing that struck me was that there was more than one gesture. The big gesture with his arm straight, either pointing to center field or to the Cubs dugout, occurs after a ball to make the count 2-1. Then after taking a strike, Ruth made another gesture where he is cocking his arm and waving his finger. He’s definitely saying he is going to do something bad to Root and the Cubs. Q: Is it strange to you that for all the legendary sportswriters present at the game, they really didn’t play up that moment in their writing? A: For starters, imagine a press box that included Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan, Paul Gallico, Arch Ward, and a couple young reporters named Red Smith and Shirley Povich. Now that’s an all-time press row. On the surface, you would say, yes, it is strange that writers like Rice and Gallico didn’t write up the Called Shot in their next-day stories. Instead, they waited until the day after to weigh in on the dramatic scene with all their signature flourishes. Now keep in mind, conventional rules of journalism were different back then. Columnists were known to save their best stuff and write it on later days. Perhaps that’s what Rice and Gallico were doing. However, more than likely, they were playing catch up after reading next-day accounts of other writers about Ruth calling his shot. All in all, what was written and not written by the various writers added to the intrigue and mystery of the Called Shot. Q: Why was it important for you to also provide a lot of background here about Ruth that many may have already known about him? A:I thought it was important to document that historical context that was behind the Called Shot. Why was there so much bad blood between the Yankees and Cubs? What kind of player was Ruth at 37 and nearing the end of his career? He almost didn’t play in that World Series after missing nearly the entire of month of September. Think about this: There were 14 Hall of Famers in Wrigley Field that day and the soon-to-be new president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt. That’s quite an assemblage of talent. Also speaking of historical context, I think it was important to do a chapter on baseball in the Depression. Given all the hardships, the country wanted heroes. None were bigger than Ruth. Also, myth making was in vogue when it came to Ruth. The Depression definitely fed the origins of the Called Shot. I hadn’t originally intended to do this, but one of my favorite chapters was on breaking down Ruth’s swing via YouTube videos. It is hard to get an appreciation for his massive athleticism from the grainy newsreel footage. I had a hitting coach analyze a slow motion swing of Ruth. One of the observations: Ruth had incredible flexibility in his upper body. It allowed him to keep the bat back longer, storing up energy to whip it through the zone. I only wish I could have seen the swing in person.Q:Should Hollywood be embarrassed by the way they’ve portrayed this part of Ruth’s life on movie or TV screens? A:Yes and yes. We all know the William Bendix version is beyond laughable. However, the ’90s updated version starring John Goodman truly is the definition of embarrassing. In the last scene, they actually had Ruth using a designated runner while playing his final games for the Boston Braves. Really, are you kidding me? What baseball games did the director and screen writer see that included designated runners? Of course, they made a sham of their depiction of the Called Shot. Not even close to what actually happened. I would have expected the Goodman version to be a bit more nuanced, allowing for some doubt about Ruth’s intentions. But there was Big John with his arm straightened like a plank for a count of five. …. Don’t get me started. I’m still hoping somebody does a decent film on the Babe. He deserves it.
More to know: =Sherman appeared on the MLB Network with Harold Reynolds and Fran Charles to discuss the book.
= An excerpt by the Yes Network
= An appearance on Sports Talk Live in Chicago included footage of Frank Thomas examining the Called Shot bat during a tour at the Hall of Fame
= A Joe Cowley Chicago Sun-Times piece on this historic event from June, 2011
= A YouTube.com recap: