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by Thomas Wolf
An Overview

The year is 1932. It is a crisp fall day in Chicago, the first of October, and the skies are slightly overcast, a kind of battleship gray. Nearly fifty thousand people are crammed into Wrigley Field to watch Game Three of the World Series. A stiff breeze is blowing out, whipping the American flag on top of the pole in dead centerfield.

Chicago has lost the first two games of the series to the New York Yankees, and the crowd overwhelmingly supports the hometown Cubs, but one of the more notable figures at the game is an unrepentant Yankee fan. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the governor of New York and now the Democratic Presidential candidate, has stopped off in Chicago to attend the game on the final leg of a long campaign trip.

The governor is in a good mood. The campaign is going well. The previous evening nearly 200,000 Chicagoans packed the streets of the city to welcome his arrival, and he was treated to a torchlight parade from Union Station to the Congress Hotel. He has been selected to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the game.

Most importantly, Roosevelt is in Chicago to watch Babe Ruth—the most famous man in America—play baseball.

During pre-game batting practice, the Yankee slugger excites the crowd by lofting one ball after another into the right field seats. Ruth shouts over to the Cubs, “I’d play for half my salary if I could hit in this dump all the time.” Cub players yell insults back at Ruth. The fans throw lemons at Ruth in the outfield.

Every time Ruth appears on the field, as an outfielder or a batter, the crowd is agitated and Ruth continues his verbal sparring with the Cubs. When Ruth comes to bat in the fifth inning, the score is tied 4-4, and the bases are empty. Once again, lemons fly in his direction as he walks to the plate. And once again, Ruth jaws back and forth with the Cubs leaning out of their dugout.

With the count two balls and two strikes, Ruth points. The crowd watches intently to see what will happen now. On the next pitch, Ruth swings and hits the longest home run ever seen at Wrigley Field, a majestic drive that lands somewhere near the flagpole. The crowd is transfixed. All eyes follow Ruth as he circles the bases, chortling to himself, “You lucky, lucky bastard.” He crosses home plate and disappears into the New York dugout. Governor Roosevelt’s gaze follows Ruth every step of the way.

It is the Called Shot. Every fan in attendance will remember the moment for a lifetime.

In her introduction to Crazy 08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, Cait Murphy writes: “Every baseball season is like a Dickens novel—a tale told in installments, until in the last chapter, known as the World Series, all the loose ends are tied up and the heroes go home, tired and happy.” Murphy’s words aptly describe the 1932 baseball season—a season that features villains and heroes, intrigue, strangeness, a challenge to Babe Ruth’s home run record, and the sudden plot twists of a suspense novel.

Let’s start with the Chicago Cubs. In 1932, the Cubs treat their fans to a memorable season and emerge as champions of the National League. But the team has to overcome obstacles and adversity—both on and off the playing field—illustrating that the story of a baseball season is not simply a description of what happens at the ballpark.

Early season injuries sideline Woody English and Kiki Cuyler. Riggs Stevenson is able to play, but he’s gimpy on a bad ankle that was broken during the 1931 season. Untested rookies are expected to play key roles. The team’s cantankerous manager, Rogers Hornsby, bets compulsively at the racetrack, borrows money from his players to help cover his gambling debts, and eventually is fired in the midst of the pennant race. And exactly at mid-season, a few hours before a home game with the Phillies, the Cubs’ shortstop, Billy Jurges is shot in his Chicago hotel room by a jilted lover.

Many years before Steve Bartman, and more than a decade before the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Cubs were jinxed and terrorized by a pretty brunette named Violet Popovich.

The story goes like this: On the morning of July 6, 1932, in a room at the Hotel Carlos just a few blocks from Wrigley Field, Violet finishes off a bottle of gin, composes a suicide note, and tucks a .25 caliber handgun into her purse. After stopping by the room of Kiki Cuyler and taping a note to Cuyler’s mirror that reads “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU,” she proceeds to room 509 and knocks on Billy’s door. Violet and Billy argue, and then she yanks the gun from her purse. Billy wrestles the weapon away from her, but three shots are fired in the struggle. Billy and Violet are both wounded in the shooting. The young woman continues to attend games at Wrigley Field. The legal issues are settled under the jurisdiction of a judge who has business connections to some of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters.

A few weeks later, the Cubs sign ex-Yankee, Mark Koenig, as a back-up shortstop. Koenig is indispensable, batting .353 and clubbing numerous clutch hits during the pennant run. But the Cubs—at the urging of Jurges, no less—deny Koenig a full share of World Series money, precipitating the verbal battle between Babe Ruth and the Cubs’ bench that occurs just moments before the called shot. Referring to Violet Popovich, Dick Bartell of the Phillies later says, “[That] young lady triggered all the historic events of the ’32 series, including the Babe Ruth called shot that never happened.”

In the American League, the Yankees win 107 games and dominate the league in Babe Ruth’s last great season. The drama is not in the pennant race but in the season-long quest of Philadelphia A’s slugger Jimmie Foxx to break Ruth’s single-season home run record and establish himself as baseball’s home run king. Through July, Foxx is on pace to eclipse the record, but he slumps in September and finishes with fifty-eight homers.

For Americans, the summer of 1932 is one of the most remarkable of the twentieth century. The Olympics are staged in Los Angles. Roosevelt battles Hoover for the presidency. The nation drifts deeper into the Great Depression. After a decade of prosperity, the country is rupturing at the seams. Homeless men curse the government from speeding boxcars. Civil strife threatens the peace of the country. World War I veterans, popularly called the Bonus Army, roll into Washington, DC, to stage an angry protest.

Baseball is a diversion for a troubled country, but the entire season is marked by the same edginess that pervades the national scene. Fistfights are as common as double plays. In Cleveland, a pugnacious umpire named George Moriarty challenges the entire Chicago White Sox team to a fight under the stands. Moriarty kayoes one player before other players jump in and pummel the umpire. The American League fines and reprimands Moriarty. The Yankees’ Bill Dickey is suspended thirty days for punching out Carl Reynolds of the Senators after a collision at home plate. In the National League, separate incidents involving Billy Jurges and Leo Durocher result in bench-clearing altercations.

In the penultimate game of the 1932 season played at Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field, Babe Ruth—already a legend and national hero—stands at home plate and listens to the jeers. Ruth points—promising to players and fans alike that something magical is about to occur—and then he delivers by launching his epic home run to centerfield. In front of 50,000 fans and in a game broadcast to millions more, Ruth rewrites and enhances his legacy. The mystique of this iconic moment is unquestioned, and fans continue to argue to this day about the meaning of the gesture, scrutinizing the grainy film evidence frame-by-frame for clues of Ruth’s intent. These home movies—almost eighty years old—are baseball’s equivalent of the Zapruder film.

THE CALLED SHOT captures the full story of the 1932 baseball season: the drama of the Cubs’ season; the fast-approaching end of Ruth’s career; and the historic World Series game that has come to symbolize the enormity of Babe Ruth’s importance in our cultural history.