Whoever said “keep your words soft and sweet, in case you have to eat ‘em later”, Babe Ruth never heard them. I wrote earlier this week about his breakout 1920 season, which saw him club 54 home runs after predicting he’d top 50 before the campaign began. Baseball just doesn’t breed personalities like that — the best players in the game today, Mike Trout or Aaron Judge, or even flashier stars like Francisco Lindor or Mookie Betts wouldn’t predict all-time records for themselves in spring training.
But that was really just the start of Ruth’s outsized personality. Perhaps the most famous example is the called shot in the 1932 World Series. After a bitter three games against the Cubs, which involved mass heckling when the Yankees got off their bus outside Wrigley and a lemon hurled at Ruth while he was standing in the outfield, Babe came to bat in the fourth. We know there was jawing between he and the Cubs’ dugout, we know that on three straight pitches Ruth made some kind of gesture with his right hand, and we know that he crushed a hanging curve to deep center field.
What Ruth was pointing to, whether he was predicting a home run to deep center, taunting starter Charlie Root or waving off the lippy Cubs dugout, doesn’t really matter. Lou Gehrig, not a man generally given to hyperbole, said on a radio program five days later that Ruth was calling his shot, but the story took off when reporter Joe Williams made his headline all about the gesture — the only news story about the game that featured a description of Babe pointing.
In fact, Ruth himself initially said he was reminding the Cubs he still had a strike to give, before changing his story as time went on to fit Williams’ narrative. The star’s media savvy and relationships with writers helped grow this legend until, by the time his 1947 biography came out, it was canon, despite his own words running to the contrary:
The called shot is perhaps the single most famous element of Ruth’s mythos, born out of a time when mass media was scaling and in friction with the relationship-driven style of reporting that was commonplace in baseball for a half-century. Writers were still covering their drinking buddies, glossing over their faults and often embellishing a story or two, but instead of these stories being confined to one or two Cincinnati or Boston papers, radio and newsreels made it easier for these tall tales to be distributed across the country.
So what do you believe?
This is where talking and thinking about Babe Ruth is perhaps most fun. I think it’s certainly possible Ruth called his own shot — this is a guy who promised a sick kid he would go deep, the player who was the best on the planet even at 37 and most certainly knew it. At the same time, why wouldn’t we take Ruth’s own (initial) word for it, that he was directing his ire to the dugout and checking the count?
In the end, you can roll with whichever explanation works for you. Babe Ruth feels so detached from the rest of the baseball timeline, a singular figure who both dominated the sport at a level unseen and since unmatched, and also carefully immortalized himself through media hagiography and his own very public personal life. Ruth hit two home runs in that World Series game, and Gehrig added two of his own, but while the box score has been reduced to a historical tidbit, a finger point ascended to one of the great 20th century myths.