As always, Babe Ruth began his year energetically and optimistically. The day after his traditional New Year’s Eve celebration, Babe drove to the prestigious Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York on January 2, 1932 to play thirty-six holes of golf. Ruth’s golf game was not a casual part of his overall lifestyle. As he aged, it became directly linked with his stature as a baseball player.
By all accounts, Babe took golf very seriously, and played with purpose and intensity. Although he used a caddy, thereby not carrying his own clubs, he walked the course as rapidly as conditions would allow. In other words, Ruth used an early form of “power walking,” which was an integral part of his cardio-vascular conditioning. Plus, whenever possible, Babe played thirty-six holes instead of the normal eighteen. His commitment to the game was evidenced by the fact that he played those two rounds on January 2 in a steady rain with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees.
Two days later, when Babe Ruth was asked about his physical well-being, he gladdened the hearts of Yankee fans by declaring: “never felt better in my life.” And two days after that, on January 6, Ruth began his annual off-season conditioning ritual with famed New York City exercise guru, Artie McGovern. This event was always attended by the Gotham press corps. Babe weighed in at 225 pounds, and then provided the scribes with what they wanted most.
Despite the historic and masterful three year supremacy (1929-1931) of the Philadelphia Athletics, Ruth casually, but confidently, predicted that his New York Yankees would win the American League pennant. That was a matter near to his heart. Babe had played in a total of nine World Series (winning six of them), and he passionately wanted to make it an even ten. In order to do it, he and the Yanks needed to supplant the three time defending champions who were still loaded with vast talent.
When then asked about the Major League baseball in use in 1931, Babe just kept being himself. After the outrageous offensive numbers in 1930, especially in the National League, the Lords of Baseball (an amorphous group that was headed by Commissioner Landis) ordained that the official baseball should be significantly deadened.
Most sluggers complained about the result, openly acknowledging their difficulty in knocking the altered sphere over the fence. Ruth just shrugged his shoulders, and opined that he saw no difference between the 1930 ball and the 1931 version. Typical of the Babe, he simply stated: “When you sock ‘em, they go over the fence just the same.”
Throughout January, Ruth kept working out with McGovern, and playing golf (weather permitting) on a daily basis…mostly at St. Albans Golf Club in Queens. When he initiated contract negotiations on January 14, Babe was disappointed that the Yankees wanted to cut $10,000 from his record income of 80K over each of the last two seasons. When the actual hard copy arrived three days later, Ruth simply returned it unsigned. Babe had no difficulty representing himself, and felt confident that he could come to terms during spring training in St. Petersburg with Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert.
While waiting out the winter months in New York, along with his normal physical exertions, Ruth made regular public appearances for a variety of charitable and humane causes. A typical evening found him at the Boys Club of New York on January 20 where he gave a motivational speech. Over the course of his unique life, Babe Ruth gave hundreds (perhaps thousands) of such talks.
Babe was particularly anxious to get to Florida that year. He was enjoying his golf game more than ever, and couldn’t wait to hit the links in the warmth of the Gulf Coast. Yet, he also enjoyed attending the annual Baseball Writers Dinner at the Hotel Commodore in New York. Accordingly, he and his wife, Claire, waited until February 1 (the day after the banquet) before hopping into their car to drive south.
The Ruths, along with Babe’s teammate Lyn Lary and his new wife, planned to drive in tandem. There was no Interstate road system back then, and, accordingly, no Interstate Route 95. The plan called for the two couples to take old Route 1 most of the way, stopping in Philadelphia, Pinehurst (North Carolina), Augusta (Georgia), and Jacksonville. That was okay with Ruth. Along with any activity that kept him moving, Babe loved to drive.
The trip didn’t proceed exactly according to plan. On the morning of February 4, Babe and Claire woke up in Columbia, South Carolina, and decided to “cannon ball” the rest of the way to St. Pete. They had to by-pass Augusta, Georgia, where it seems likely that Ruth wanted to check out the new Augusta National Golf Course. Those links soon became the site of the yearly Masters Tournament as well as one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world.
After motoring some six-hundred miles without any significant stops, the Ruths drove into St. Petersburg just before midnight. Checking into the Jungle Club Hotel, Babe announced: “I’m as hungry as a wolf.” After “wolfing” down several sandwiches, Ruth hit the sack for some much needed sleep. As usual, normal fatigue issues had no lasting affect on Ruth, and he showed up at the first tee at the Jungle Club’s golf course early the next morning.
Playing full rounds of eighteen holes in both the A.M. and P.M., Babe shot matching rounds of 76. During the afternoon sojourn, he missed a hole-in-one on the 183-yard, par three, seventh hole by only an inch. Ruth played thirty-six holes the next day as well, this time, recording scores of 78 and 79. He quickly established his normal routine of playing at least thirty-six holes of golf each day on all the best courses in the St. Pete area.
On February 7, Babe and Claire, along with a gathering of friends and local VIP’s, celebrated Babe’s 38th birthday on a patio table in the shape of a baseball diamond at the Jungle Club. Oddly, they picked the wrong day. In fact, for most of Ruth’s life, he had mistakenly observed his birthday on the premise that he had been born on February 7, 1894. It wasn’t until 1934, when Babe needed a passport to travel to the Orient, that he obtained an official copy of his Birth Certificate. It was then learned that his actual date of birth was February 6, 1895. So, in 1932, when he commemorated his 38th birthday on February 7, Babe Ruth had actually turned thirty-seven one day earlier.
Babe and Claire settled into the comfortable Gulf Coast lifestyle for which so many wealthy northerners “wintered” in Florida. Babe played his cherished rounds of golf, entering amateur tournaments in Pasadena and Snell Isle. Claire easily assumed the role of celebrity socialite, and enjoyed every second of it. The couple was regularly featured in the society pages of both the St. Petersburg Times and St. Petersburg Independent. Along with Ruth’s constant schedule of charitable appearances, Babe and Claire also regularly attended a swirl of dinners, dances and balls.
Most of February was comprised of rather standard fare for Babe Ruth, but the Eighteenth was somewhat unusual even by Ruthian standards. In the morning, Babe shot 76 in the finals of an amateur golf tournament at Snell Isle , losing by the score of four & three to a local sportsman named Bill Cody. For the record, Ruth had shot 70 two days earlier on the same course for the lowest score of his golf life.
After gulping down some lunch, Babe took off for the swamps outside of St. Pete. The purpose of this little jaunt was to do some alligator hunting. Consistent with his need to engage in almost every form of physical activity, Ruth, predictably, was an avid fisherman and hunter.
On this occasion, Babe was part of a four man group that included E. C. Robison, Pete Norton and a locally renowned guide, fifty-eight-year-old Lawrence Nash. They were actually searching for a specific ‘gator, a hundred-year-old nine-footer that Nash had been eyeing for close to a decade. He was hoping to locate the aged saurian so Ruth could get a shot at him with his high-powered 30-30 rifle.
Nash did his job and spotted the prized alligator. But, when he waded hip-deep through the swamp to rouse the target from its mud-hole, a poisonous four-foot water moccasin swam toward him with open mouth and ready fangs. While the others fled for their lives, Babe Ruth coolly raised his weapon, and blew the head off the dangerous snake with a single shot. Nash had hunted alligators for thirty-five years, claiming to have personally killed 2,000 of them, but had been rescued from disaster by a baseball icon.
In fact, when the venturous foursome returned to dry land, Nash reported that Babe had bagged his ‘gator with another single shot, this time with a direct hit through the left eye. During the hunt, Ruth had fired only three shots, but had scored three bulls-eyes. He had also felled a second, smaller alligator before the big one. The local papers ran a series of photographs depicting a smiling Ruth beside his nine-foot-three-inch trophy.
Modern conservationists might cringe at such stories, but those were different days. The tale certainly provides evidence of a life constantly lived on the edge of implausibility. If it were not for the irrefutable documentation, it is unlikely that anyone would actually believe the story of those events.
Babe entered his final winter golf tournament on February 27 at the Belleair Club adjacent to the world famous Belleview Biltmore Hotel. He played seventy-two holes over two days, but scored poorly, finishing with a total of 339 strokes. Never a man to embrace negativity, after finishing his round early, Ruth went back onto the course to root for Billie Burke. Burke and his wife were close friends of Babe and Claire, and Billie, a prominent professional golfer, was in contention to win the Belleair Open. With Babe Ruth cheering him on, Burke won the tournament.
The timing was perfect. The next day, February 29, 1932, Babe Ruth participated in the first full Yankee workout at their training headquarters at Crescent Lake Park. Anticipating Ruth’s appearance, 5,000 fans showed up just to watch him practice. That’s right: 5,000 folks came to see a man take batting practice. Naturally, he didn’t disappoint them. In his first effort to hit a baseball that year, the aging Bambino slugged a ball high into the palm trees in front of the lake in center field. If struck at Yankee Stadium, the ball might have flown into the distant center field bleachers, standing 490 feet from home plate.
Completing his diamond work, Ruth ran around the bases six times and retired to the clubhouse. Perspiring profusely, Babe acknowledged: “That’s the hardest work I’ve done this year.” He also expressed his approval of the 1932 New York Yankees, and repeated his conviction that they would dislodge the Athletics as American League champions. February had been lots of fun, but now it was March and time for the serious business of pursuing a World Championship.
Babe Ruth may have been the proverbial “eternal optimist,” but, in 1932, he had reason to feel confident. Most experts still believed that the Philadelphia Athletics were the team to beat in the Junior Circuit, but New York, Washington, Cleveland and Chicago all looked like contenders…especially the Yankees.
There were several reasons for Babe’s serendipitous outlook. First and foremost, the Yanks’ pitching promised to be better in 1932 than in recent years. Scoring runs had not been the problem in 1931; New York (1,067) had outscored Philadelphia (858) by over 200 runs. The Athletics had vanquished the Yankees by 13.5 games due to their superior pitching: Philadelphia’s ERA had been a league-leading 3.47, whereas New York’s was a pedestrian 4.20.
The Athletics boasted such future Hall of Fame position players as catcher Mickey Cochrane, left fielder Al Simmons, and first baseman Jimmie Foxx. However, without question, their most valuable competitive commodity was flame-throwing left-handed pitcher Lefty Grove. In 1931, Grove posted an astonishing 31 & 4 record along with a miniscule 2.06 ERA. Venerable A’s owner/manager Connie Mack even used Lefty as a reliever, whereby Grove saved an additional five games in ’31. Mack was particularly fond of calling on Grove in late inning situations versus the Yanks when he could combat the twin left-handed slugging tandem of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
In addition, the Yankees had acquired young Frank Crosetti from San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League to play shortstop. Babe Ruth’s good friend, Lyn Lary, had held that crucial defensive position in 1931, and, although Lary had performed well offensively (107 RBI), he had also committed forty-six errors. It was anticipated that Crosetti would tighten the Yankee defense.
As much as anything, Babe Ruth simply sensed that things would turn around in 1932. Even today, there is a general consensus that Ruth was America’s greatest-ever athlete. Yet, his mental abilities have been woefully underappreciated, oftentimes, even drastically misrepresented. Babe certainly was no intellectual, and his formal education was sub-par. He also suffered from some form of attention deficit disorder, which caused him to regularly forget names.
However, for those who have studied his life closely, it is apparent that Babe Ruth possessed, at least, high average intelligence. He was an excellent problem solver, and his intuitive skills were legendary. So, if the Bambino said that he “felt” like the Yankees were going to win the pennant in 1932, it was advisable to take him seriously. He rarely made mistakes in analyzing anything regarding sports, especially baseball.
Babe had this to say: “We were going mighty good at the end of the season in 1931, and with our pitching staff in much better physical condition at the start of the season, than last year, I believe we have the stuff to beat the Athletics and Senators to the wire.” Now, it was time to prove it.
As of March 5, Ruth was still unsigned, but played in the Yankees first intra-squad game, collecting a pair of singles. Babe wanted a two year contract for $70,000 per annum or a one year deal for $80,000. Owner Jacob Ruppert remained in New York, and said “No way.” Ruth didn’t seem worried, but that was the Babe.
Ruth cared a great deal about many things, but rarely fretted. He just kept training, and, for the first time in his career, seriously experimented with “choking up” on the bat. Ruth stood at the plate with his feet closer together, and held the bat about two inches from the knob at the bottom. Up until then, Babe had rapped his right pinky under the knob, thereby using every centimeter of his huge war club.
When Ruppert finally arrived in St. Pete on March 9, the press corps started to focus on Ruth’s status as a “holdout,” the only man on the Yankee roster without a contract. Babe kept saying that things would work out for everybody, and, as usual, he proved to be right. Jake and the Bambino met together for the first time on the Fourteenth, but neither man budged. Yet, just two days later, in a ceremony at the luxurious Rolyat Hotel, Ruth signed his contract. Negotiations had proceeded in normal fashion with both parties compromising. With Ruppert watching approvingly, Babe signed a one year deal for $75,000.
By then, Babe and Claire had relocated into the Rolyat, where they had been joined by their teenage daughter, Julia. In fact, the proud parents would soon host a gala dinner party for Julia at that prestigious hostelry. St. Petersburg actually boasted several magnificent hotels, including the Rolyat, Vinoy, Don Cesar, Club and nearby Belleview Biltmore. For those who were still rich and famous in that Depression Era, life remained glorious around Tampa Bay.
With business out of the way, Ruth stepped up his game. He started hitting consistently, and, at St. Pete’s Waterfront Park against the Cardinals on March 24, Babe recorded his first competitive home run of the spring. Two days later at the same site, he launched two more against the Philadelphia Phillies. All three were sizzling line drives over the distant right field fence into First Street.
The Babe looked ready for the Yanks’ scheduled season opener in Philadelphia on April 12. But, sadly, the dreaded injury bug interfered. Ruth had already bruised a toe, which had healed quickly. However, while blasting those homers against the Phils, he strained his neck, creating a disturbing medical scenario. As the Yankees broke camp on March 30, Babe had not played in four days. New York headed for their annual tour through the southern states with a cloud hanging over their legendary right fielder.
In Birmingham, Alabama on April 1, Ruth returned to the lineup, but went 0 for 4. Then, Babe’s fortunes suddenly reversed the next day in Memphis. He sat in the stands when the Yankees batted (and he was not due to hit), buying hot dogs and sodas for local children. This was a case where the legends, however inherently unbelievable, were almost universally true. The Babe truly loved children, and they absolutely adored him.
Whenever the two got together, good things always seemed to happen.
In this case, as occurred so many other times under similar circumstances, Ruth absorbed the kids’ spontaneous joy, and, somehow, transformed their emotions into functional, positive energy. He clubbed a titanic home run over the farthest corner of the center field fence. The folks in Memphis were astounded at this display of unbridled power. Babe and his buddies next moved on to Louisville, then to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Columbus, Ohio. All the while, Babe hit well, and, again, seemed ready to open the season against the rival Athletics at Shibe Park on the Twelfth.
When the big day finally arrived, the weather was a major disappointment. It was cold, rainy and blustery. The perennially financially-troubled Connie Mack had hoped for a sellout. The A’s could cram up to 40,000 fans into Shibe Park with the cooperation of the Fire Marshalls, but only 16,000 showed up for the 1932 inaugural. Mack’s money problems were caused by two central issues. First, he shared the local market with the Phillies whose ballpark (Baker Bowl) was located just six blocks away. Second, Pennsylvania still had their “Blue Laws” on the books. That meant no Sunday baseball, when most teams accrued up to 40% of their revenues.
Yet, since 1901 when the American League had opened for business, Mack and his partners had assembled three different dynasties. This was his best… as well as his last. In simple terms, because of his inability to make money, Connie could never hold onto the great teams that his baseball genius had created. Once the teams became great, there was a corresponding increase in the payroll which he could not meet. But, on opening day in 1932, the Philadelphia Athletics still boasted one of the finest rosters in Major League history.
Surprisingly, Connie Mack started George Earnshaw that afternoon instead of Lefty Grove. In retrospect, even though the move didn’t work out, it made sense. There were concerns that Grove might overwork his arm, and Mack tried to protect him from the chilly temperatures. Plus, Earnshaw had been a highly successful number two starter, having been a twenty-game winner for the past three seasons. George was nicknamed “Moose” due to his large, six-foot-four-inch, 230 pound frame. Sadly, he reported to camp in 1932 in poor physical condition, and, although he pitched okay that year, it was his last season as a serviceable Big League performer.
Soon after Earnshaw took the mound against the Yankees on April 12, 1932, Connie Mack knew that Moose just didn’t have it. In the first inning, Babe Ruth smashed a prodigious home run so far over the right centerfield wall that it landed on the roof of a two-story house across Twentieth Street. Batting again in the fourth inning, Babe unloaded again: this time clearing the houses in right field. Both drives flew approximately 480 feet. Before that fourth inning ended, Earnshaw had surrendered a total of four home runs and ten earned-runs.
The Yankees won the first round of their six-month heavyweight championship bout with the Athletics (12 to 6), but the A’s found a silver lining. After Ruth had seemingly reaffirmed his longtime slugging supremacy, the Philly’s twenty-five-year-old Jimmie Foxx offered a startling rebuttal. Everyone in Major League Baseball, including the Babe, already knew that Foxx was super-strong. Starting on April 12, 1932, and lasting that entire season (and beyond), they would discover that he was mightier than they had previously perceived.
Batting in the seventh inning, young Jimmie, with the bulging biceps, thumped a terrific shot to dead center field off New York’s ace-lefthander, Vernon “Lefty” Gomez. The ball rode on a straight line for the distant flag pole, and cleared the wall just right of the deepest center field corner which was located 475 feet from home plate. Foxx’s stunning blow sailed about 505 feet, which was twenty-five feet farther than Ruth’s two earlier masterpieces. Players, coaches, writers and fans gaped in astonishment. Babe Ruth, always supremely secure in his personal transcendence, just smiled.
Yet, Ruth was no dummy. He knew that he was closer to the end than the beginning. Babe had arguably remained baseball’s greatest player in 1931, but he understood that young studs like Foxx and Lou Gehrig were quickly closing in on him. When Ruth reflected on his historic supremacy, he knew that it was based on what he had already accomplished, not what he would do in the future. He assumed that no one would ever replace him as his sport’s greatest performer, and, eight decades later, we know that he was correct. However, in 1932, Babe understood that his contemporaneous primacy was nearing its conclusion.
Babe was reminded of his mortality four days after his glorious opening day heroics. Playing in Boston’s Fenway Park against the Red Sox on April 16, Ruth slammed another homer, but the exposure to the cold weather walloped him just as hard. He developed severe influenza (referred to as grippe in those days), and didn’t resume play until the Yanks’ home opener on April 20. Competing again against the Athletics, he belted a homer.
That four-bagger was recorded off Lefty Grove who was generally regarded as irascible and humorless. He and Babe were not usually on friendly terms, but Lefty proved that he was capable of grace and sportsmanship with a very complimentary statement after the game. Circulated by the Associated Press, the quote read: “No sir, there’s no good way to pitch to that fellow. All you can do is breeze it in there and hope he doesn’t connect. If he does, it’s likely to be a home run. He doesn’t have to hit it square. Why, I’ve seen him knock them out of the lot with the handle.”
Babe and the Yankees played well for the remainder of the month. Ruth finished with a .356 batting-average along with six home runs. New York won ten games, while losing only three, firmly establishing themselves in first place. Meanwhile, the Athletics had started woefully, posting a four and ten record.
One other issue should be addressed before closing the page on Babe Ruth’s first month of the 1932 season. On April 27, Babe announced that he would not play golf again until after the season concluded. It was a difficult concession for the Bambino who loved to relax on his infrequent off-days by taking to the links. Apparently, the Yankees pressured him into the decision, thinking that he should rest his legs when he had the chance.
Unfortunately, neither the Yanks nor the Babe realized that Ruth’s sacrifice would render the opposite effect of what was intended. Unlike earlier in his career, when Babe Ruth was always a “whirling dervish” on the field, at this time he ran as little as possible. The rationale was that such abstinence would preserve leg strength. In retrospect, we know that Ruth desperately needed his golf outings. As already discussed, Babe “power walked” when he played golf, and, although that’s not why he played, he still derived considerable cardiovascular benefit. By giving up golf, Ruth’s legs (and entire bodily system) were weakened instead of strengthened.
Looking backward with the advantage of Twenty-first Century medical hindsight, it is apparent that this decision, however well-intended, hastened Babe Ruth’s physical depreciation. He would remain a superior player throughout the 1932 season, but he demonstrably declined in the field and on the bases. That is where his reduced vitality had the most impact.
After being swept in a disappointing three game series against Walter Johnson’s Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium, the Yankees sidetracked to Bridgeport, Connecticut on May 4 to perform in one of many in-season exhibition games. These contests were no soft touch for the Babe. In fact, he had gone on record many times to explain that they were more demanding than official ballgames. These events were scheduled in locations where Ruth and the Yankees visited only infrequently. As a result, the fans worked up a particularly voracious appetite for any interaction with their beloved Bambino.
From the time that Ruth ascended to the top of the baseball world in 1919 until after he retired in 1935, his visits to any community in North America (and sometimes beyond) were passionately anticipated. They were roughly equivalent to a combination of the Fourth of July and Christmas .The post-season barnstorming games were the most grueling, but the mid-season exhibitions were no picnic either. Babe usually visited a local charitable institution prior to the game, and generally attended some type of banquet afterward. During the actual ballgame, Ruth was bombarded with requests for autographs and photos. Security standards were almost non-existent, and children were usually permitted unrestrained access to the Sultan of Swat.
Back on April 18, when Ruth was confined to his hotel room with the flu, he had been forced to miss an appearance in Springfield, Massachusetts. The fans were extremely disappointed. Accordingly, even though Babe’s chronically troublesome right knee was hurting him on May 4, he willed himself onto the field at Newfield Park to play the Bridgeport Bears.
This was one of the rare occasions when Babe Ruth did not do something spectacular in an exhibition appearance. Playing first base before 3,300 expectant worshipers, Babe was limited to one single as the Yankees defeated the Eastern Leaguers 5 to 3. Lou Gehrig, also suffering from various aches and pains, played left field but went hitless. It was routine for Babe and Lou to switch positions in such unofficial contests. There were two reasons for this tactic. First, it was thought that Babe would not have to exert himself as much. Second, if necessary, Ruth could better escape from an enveloping mob of fans from first base at the conclusion of the game. The second part of the strategy was pointless since Babe seldom avoided any kind of fan interaction.
On Ruth’s first off-day (Thursday, May 5) since giving up golf, Babe went fishing with some of his teammates off New York’s pastoral Fire Island. Two days later, playing against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium, Ruth took a third strike called by umpire Brick Owens. Flipping his bat high in the air in protest, Owen ejected him from the game. Although Babe was not averse to arguing with umpires, he maintained remarkably amicable relations with them.
He and Brick Owens had a long history of interaction with one another which, occasionally, had ended in confrontation. Yet, the two men genuinely respected and liked each other. As a young player, Ruth had several stormy encounters with various American League arbiters, but, as he matured, he also mellowed. After 1925, ejections were rare, and, on the occasion they did occur, there was never any residual rancor. Everybody seemed to love the Bambino, including umpires.
Then, on May 10, as the Yankees continued their home stand, Babe was retired on a long fly-out to St. Louis’s Goose Goslin in deep left centerfield. Normally, such a seemingly routine play would not warrant discussion several decades after the fact. But this was Babe Ruth in Yankee Stadium, and there was nothing “routine” about it. During Ruth’s entire Yankee Stadium career, lasting twelve years (1923-1934), the left centerfield bleachers were situated a minimum distance of 460 feet from home plate.
This drive to the outer reaches of the running track that extended from left center to right center flew about 440 feet in the air. It prompted Babe to muse in an article appearing the next day in the New York World-Telegram that he had already lost at least six home runs to Yankee Stadium’s peculiar configuration. Due to the close right field porch (about 300 feet away), many modern fans have mistakenly assumed that Babe Ruth benefited from helpful home run dimensions at The Stadium. That was not the case.
The right field fence angled out to a distance of 429 feet in deep right centerfield, and extended all the way to 490 feet at its deepest point just left of dead center. Accordingly, for every homer that Babe gained by lofting balls to right field in New York, he lost many more by launching drives into the vast expanses between right centerfield and straightaway left field. Since several examples of lost Ruthian home runs have been confirmed for the first month of the 1932 season, it is apparent that Babe did not exaggerate in his World-Telegram interview. The data is irrefutable.
On April 21, Philadelphia’s Mule Haas gathered Ruth’s towering shot against the screen in deep right centerfield. Two days later, also versus the Athletics, Babe recorded a triple past the running track in left center, but that 450-footer would have been good for a four-bagger any place else. Then, on April 30 against the Red Sox, Ruth lost out on two prodigious fly outs to center fielder Tom Oliver.
The wasted 430 foot shot in the first inning was bad enough, but, when Oliver raced up the track in front of the scoreboard in the fourth inning, the situation became even more painful. That blow of approximately 460 feet to deepest right centerfield would have been good for a homer in any 21st Century Major League ballpark by at least fifty feet. When Babe was denied twice more on May 10 by Goslin and company, he had the right to remind folks of this significant handicap.
When the champion Athletics arrived on May 22 for the final series of the lengthy home stand, they gave the Yanks a short-lived dose of reality. Lefty Grove defeated the Bronx Bombers 4 to 2 in the opening game, extending Philadelphia’s winning streak to seven games. However, the Yanks won the next two, and, by the time the month ended, New York’s lead stood at six games. The Yankees looked good, but Jimmie Foxx was flexing his massive batting muscles, keeping the A’s within shouting distance. Double X was hitting a blistering .417, and had already slugged seventeen homers.
On June 1, 1932, New York arrived at Philly’s Shibe Park for a six game showdown with the Athletics. The series began with a Wednesday double-header, followed by single games on Thursday and Friday, and concluded with another twin-bill on Saturday. Joe McCarthy started Red Ruffing in the first game, and Connie Mack countered with little known Roy Mahaffey. At age twenty-eight, Ruffing was enjoying the first great season of his Hall of Fame career. Red was also a powerful batsman, and recorded one of his thirty-six Big League homers before finally departing after eleven innings of a deadlocked 6 to 6 contest.
Back in the ninth inning, when Mahaffey got into some trouble, Mack had summoned the best “closer” in the Major Leagues. His name was Lefty Grove. Over the course of his fabled career, Grove amassed a 33 and 22 record as a reliever while totaling 55 saves. As always, the venerable Connie (in his seventieth year) was particularly fond of using his ace in late inning situations against the Yankees.
In this extra-inning affair, Lefty held New York scoreless until the sixteenth inning when Babe Ruth drove in the go-ahead-run with a timely single. Yet, Philadelphia fought back, scoring two runs to earn a crucial, hard-fought 8-7 victory. In game two, Jimmie Foxx knocked a seventh inning homer onto the roof of the left field grandstand to pace Rube Walberg to a 7 to 6 win over George Pipgras. Ruth went 0 for 2, lowering his batting average to .279. Babe’s power output was fine, having bashed fourteen home runs, but that drooping average was cause for concern. The Yankees stormed back on Thursday when Lefty Gomez hurled a ten-strikeout, complete game 5 to 1 win.
The next day, June 3, 1932, was one of the most eventful in Major League history. Not only did legendary New York Giants’ manager John McGraw suddenly announce his retirement, Lou Gehrig clouted a record-tying four home runs in a single Major League game. In the first, fourth and fifth innings, Lou connected off George Earnshaw, and then cracked number four off Roy Mahaffey in the seventh. All four were legitimate blasts. Batting in the eighth inning, Gehrig grounded out. Yet, with the Yanks on their way to a 20 to 13 victory, Lou batted once more.
Facing Eddie Rommel in the ninth inning, the mighty “Iron Horse” hit his hardest drive of that memorable afternoon. The ball soared off his bat like a rocket, and headed for the deepest center field corner some 475 feet away. Athletics’ center fielder Al Simmons took off in pursuit, and made a leaping catch near the wall. Lou was just shy of his twenty-ninth birthday, and was still a relatively fleet runner. Observers agreed that, without Simmons’s stout defense, Lou Gehrig would have set an all-time record of five home runs in one game.
Lost amidst Gehrig’s heroics was Babe Ruth’s fifteenth homer, a 475 foot bomb over the wall just right of dead center field. The Yankees actually set a record with seven homers and fifty total bases, including a five-for-five performance by second baseman Tony Lazzeri. Lefty Gomez also shared the glory by recording a two-inning save, finally putting the lid on this epic slugfest the day after throwing his masterful complete game victory.
The series was tied at two games apiece entering Saturday’s double-header finale. In game one, Lefty Grove hung on for a 10 to 7 triumph despite allowing thirteen hits and three walks. Factoring Grove’s eight strikeouts, it would have been interesting if pitch counts had been kept in those days. The Bambino collected two singles, including one of his many career safeties by way of a bunt. In the nightcap, New York’s Herb Pennock out-dueled Philly’s Tony Freitas for a series-tying 7 to 4 victory. When the dust had cleared on this intensely competitive six game set, the two antagonists stood in exactly the same position as when they started.
The Yankees soon departed on their first so-called western tour of the season which included series in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and St. Louis. Before the final Motor City game on June 10, Babe made the mistake of using turpentine instead of eyewash to cleanse his right eye. Despite the resulting blurred vision, Ruth played anyway. Fortunately, the damage healed quickly, but the incident exemplified another Ruthian trait that is generally unknown to modern fans.
Babe Ruth regularly played through great pain and physical discomfort. Due to his aggressive style of play, he was often injured, but he was also extremely resilient. Ruth tended to recover more quickly than the doctors generally predicted. Yet, as he aged, Babe tended to lose time to various infirmities, unlike his early years when he rarely missed games due to illness or injury.
Moving on to Cleveland’s League Park on June 11, Ruth enjoyed his best series up to that point in the season. In those four games, which included three New York wins, Babe went 9 for 15, featuring a double, triple, and four home runs. Ruth also added a spectacular shoestring catch in the third game which he turned into a double-play with a bullet throw to second base. Babe Ruth might have been slowing down, but he still showed flashes of baseball brilliance.
When the Yanks played their final contest of this western swing in St. Louis on June 23, Lou Gehrig participated in his1,103rd consecutive game. That tied him for second place on the all-time list, trailing only Everett Scott’s standard of 1,307. Of course, Lou eventually demolished Scott’s record, and held onto his own benchmark until Cal Ripken came along several decades later.
When New York returned to Yankee Stadium on June 25, it was the Philadelphia Athletics who were waiting for them. It was only a two game set which were both won by the Yanks. New York aces Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing each pitched complete game victories which rendered the Athletics’ situation somewhat bleak. However, just as he did the entire campaign, Jimmie Foxx provided his buddies with some much needed encouragement.
In the fourth inning against Gomez in game one, Jimmie blasted a tremendous shot high into the left field upper deck near the farthest point above the bullpen (close to left centerfield). There are legions of stories about this historic drive, some authored by Gomez himself, but the truth stands on its own merits. Although no one knows for certain how far the ball would have flown if left unimpeded, a consensus estimate places it at 515 feet. This was Foxx’s twelfth and final home run of the month and twenty-ninth of the season. He was well ahead of the Babe’s 1927 pace during his record season of sixty homers.
By the time June ended, Jimmie was still batting at a .386 clip. Babe Ruth had upped his mark to .307, and had no intention of simply handing over his mantle as baseball’s greatest slugger. Plus, Ruth’s Yankees were sitting well atop the American League standings with a remarkable 46 and 19 record. The surprising Detroit Tigers were in second place at 38 and 28, while the third place Athletics stood at 40 and 30 (8.5 games behind New York).
When the Yankees played the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 3, 1932, it marked the first time that Sunday baseball had ever been played in that stadium’s twenty year history. The so-called Blue Laws, prohibiting Sabbath baseball, had lingered past their time in both Boston and Philadelphia, thereby creating scheduling nightmares for all American League teams. The restrictive Philadelphia laws were not rescinded until 1934, thereby crippling Connie Mack’s effort to remain financially competitive.
On that first Sunday contest at Fenway, the Yanks prevailed over the Red Sox by the score of 13 to 2. During the game, New York’s star catcher, Bill Dickey, was knocked unconscious while trying to block a runner from scoring. This set up a chain of events that threatened to derail the Yankees’ juggernaut.
As the Yanks took an overnight train for an Independence Day double-header in Washington, D.C., the Athletics moved into Boston for their own twin-bill. However, Philadelphia was rained out, which allowed coach Eddie Collins to participate in an extended interview with the Boston Globe. Collins had performed brilliantly for Connie Mack for many years as a Hall of Fame second baseman, and, as of 1932, was serving as the A’s third base coach and assistant manager. Having graduated from Columbia University, Eddie was an educated and erudite individual, rather atypical for his era.
In the Globe interview, Collins freely discussed the attitude of his Philadelphia Athletics. For starters, he debunked the rumor that star left fielder, Al Simmons, and slugging first baseman, Jimmie Foxx, were not speaking to one another. According to the gossip, Simmons had become jealous of the youngster’s success, and was treating Foxx contemptuously. Collins stated: “The story about Foxx and Simmons is a joke…these stories of internal dissention are positive lies.”
Eddie then elaborated on the overall status of the New York/Philadelphia rivalry:
“The Yankees have a good club, but where are they better than they
were last year?...The Yanks got away to a flying start….But don’t
forget for a minute we still have Grove, Earnshaw and Walberg, and
they’re backed up by the greatest catcher in the game, Mickey
Cochrane; by the gamest player in the leagues, Jimmy Dykes; by the
best young player I have ever seen, Jimmy Foxx, and by a couple of
fellows named Simmons and Haas.”
Collins had actually begun the interview with a remark that essentially summed up his feelings: “We’re trailing the Yankees now, but we’ll catch them when class tells.”
Meanwhile, New York was playing their Fourth of July double-header at Griffith Stadium against the Nationals. While Babe Ruth continued to improve his game, going 3 for 7 with a home run, the Yankees lost both games of their twin-bill. Lefty Gomez saw his eleven game winning streak halted, but, worst of all, catcher Bill Dickey got involved in an on-field fight that resulted in a lengthy suspension.
In the seventh inning of game one, Dickey attempted to block the plate against Washington outfielder Carl Reynolds. Dickey was knocked off balance, and Reynolds scored a key run, whereupon Dickey punched Reynolds in the face. When it was learned that Reynolds had suffered a fractured jaw, American League President, William Harridge, suspended the outstanding Yankee catcher for a month.
Over the years, much has been written and said about Dickey’s actions, but the complete context has rarely been discussed. Bill Dickey (Hall of Fame-1954), although quiet off the field, was a tough competitor who didn’t back down from anybody. So, when he had been knocked out on a similar play the day before in Boston, he became embarrassed and upset. A bad situation was made worse when some Red Sox players mocked him after the incident.
So, when Reynolds plowed into him, Dickey erupted spontaneously. The circumstances don’t justify Dickey’s actions, but, at least, they render them somewhat more understandable. Either way, it was a serious blow to the Yankees’ chances of winning the pennant. Dickey was not just a good offensive catcher; he was an excellent handler of pitchers. Lefty Gomez, somewhat erratic in his personal behavior as a young man, relied heavily on Dickey’s steady hand.
Fortunately for New York, at around the same time, Philadelphia suffered a loss of, at least, equal magnitude. During a trip to St. Louis in mid-June, Lefty Grove had sustained an ankle injury. Initially believing that it was minor in nature, the hard-nosed Grove did not seek appropriate medical care. The ankle became infected, and, ultimately, Grove missed nearly a month of competition.
On July 12, 1932 at Yankee Stadium against the St. Louis Browns, Babe Ruth received four bases-on-balls. After the fourth pass, in the eighth inning, Babe worked his way around to third base where he attempted to steal home against left-handed Walter Stewart. The move caught Stewart so much off guard that he balked, allowing Ruth to score an important run in the Yanks’ 4 to 2 victory. During his storied career, Babe Ruth stole home ten times. He may have been slowing down by 1932, but he was still Babe Ruth.
During a July 17 double-header at The Stadium against Chicago, Ruth recorded three singles in nine at-bats, raising his batting average to .321. As the season progressed, the Bambino played better and better. Yet, the next day, he injured himself again, this time, “pulling” his right hamstring. Ruth’s chronically weak right knee caused numerous injuries throughout his playing days; this was the latest.
Originally, team physicians predicted a three week absence, but Babe was a quick healer. When he surprisingly pinch-hit just three days later, the Yankee faithful roared with approval. He was walked intentionally. As of July 28 in Cleveland, Ruth had not started a game since his injury. Showing up at League Park that day, Babe demanded that manager Joe McCarthy insert him in the lineup. “Marse Joe” acquiesced, whereupon Ruth went on a rampage.
The right field wall at Cleveland’s League Park was situated only 290 feet along the foul line from home plate. That was a mere pop-up for a powerhouse like Babe Ruth. As a result, Indian pitchers routinely kept the ball away from Ruth, hoping that he would hit the ball to left (375 feet) and center fields (460 feet). Of course, Babe did everything he could to pull the ball, and so he did on July 28, 1932. By game’s end, Ruth had blasted a double, two home runs (all to right field), and driven in seven runs.
Over the course of the next three days, Babe kept bombing away, batting a combined 7 for 9, including two more homers. Predictably, Ruth surmounted Cleveland’s nearby right field wall by large margins, landing two drives onto a factory rooftop across the wide expanse of Lexington Avenue. When July ended, the Yankees (68 and 33) led the Athletics by eight games, and the limping Babe Ruth was batting .337.
The Yankees continued their western tour until August 10, when they defeated the St. Louis Browns, and then headed east. However, they did not travel straight back to New York. Instead, they first stopped in Erie, Pennsylvania for an exhibition game against a local team called the Sailors. That was followed the next day by another exhibition, this time in Scranton, Pennsylvania versus the Scranton Miners. Two official league games in Washington on August 13 and 14 were next in line, but they still stopped in Newark, New Jersey for one more exhibition appearance before finally resuming play at Yankee Stadium on August 16.
That may seem odd by today’s standards, but it was business-as-usual for the Ruthian era Yankees. All Major League teams played in-season exhibition games in those days, but none could counter Babe Ruth’s iconic popularity. As a result, the Yanks scheduled many more such unofficial contests each season than any other franchise. During 1932 alone, there were twelve exhibition games played on so-called off days by New York. Babe Ruth had very few genuine days of rest throughout his long career.
In that two game set in D.C. (on the 13th and 14th), the Yankees and their legendary right fielder performed admirably. In the first game, Red Ruffing continued his emergence as a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher. He hurled a three-hit, ten-strikeout shutout, while clubbing a home run to account for the game’s only run in a thrilling 1 to 0 win. In game two, the Babe batted 3 for 4 with a single, double and homer that cleared the distant wall near the right centerfield scoreboard. Ruth’s efforts led the way to a 5 to 4 victory.
On their return to New York on August 16, the Yankees won both games of a double-header against Detroit. Babe was happy about the two wins, but he was very unhappy about the manner in which the Tigers pitched to him. Over the course of the afternoon, Ruth was walked six times as well as once being hit by a pitch. That was seven times when the bat was, figuratively, taken out of his hands. For the Bambino, with his naturally aggressive style of play, it was pure torture.
Babe was a very smart player, and understood that bases-on-balls were sometimes his best option. There were times when he knowingly swung at pitches outside the strike zone, believing that such a strategy gave the Yanks their best chance of winning. However, he also knew that his overall efficiency dropped significantly when swinging at bad balls, and often refrained from such action.
By 1932, when Ruth was beginning his gradual decline and Lou Gehrig was still in his prime, it would seem likely that Lou would have walked more often than Babe. That is especially true in view of their relative positions in the batting order. With Ruth usually hitting third, directly in front of Gehrig, it seems logical that pitchers would have passed Babe less frequently. But that was not the case.
During the ’32 season, Babe Ruth walked 130 times as compared to Lou Gehrig’s total of 108 passes. In fact, during the nine years that they batted side-by-side, Ruth led Gehrig in bases-on-balls in seven seasons. In their final campaign together in 1934, when the fading Bambino slumped to just twenty-two homers compared to the Iron Horse’s league-leading forty-nine, Babe (105) trailed Lou (109) by only four in their respective walk totals. To the end of his days as an active player, pitchers feared Babe Ruth more than any other batsman.
The day after the six passes, August 17, Ruth slammed a single, double and home run while leading the Yankees to their tenth straight win. His performance aptly demonstrated why no one wanted to throw the ball where he could reach it. Babe kept slugging away, and the Yankees kept winning. He added homers on August 19, 25, 26 and two on the 28th. Ruth was looking like his old superman self. Yet, when he arrived late for the August 29 double-header with Chicago, Babe explained that he had taken his daughter, Julia, to the hospital to have her tonsils removed. It was a reminder that Babe Ruth had to deal with mundane issues just like everyone else.
When the month of August reached its conclusion, the long anticipated surge by the Philadelphia Athletics had not eventuated. It never did. Despite playing reasonably well all year, the A’s were out of contention by August 31, trailing the Yanks by eleven games. Lefty Grove had long since returned to his dominating role as a peerless pitcher, and Jimmie Foxx was still blasting baseballs with ferocity, but the 1932 New York Yankees were just too good.
The only remaining drama in September was twofold: identifying the National League champions and following Foxx’s assault on Ruth’s hallowed, season home run record. Jimmie stood at forty-eight homers (along with a .359 batting average) which were twelve shy of Babe’s standard of sixty. Although difficult to do, hitting twelve home runs in a month was certainly attainable for Foxx. He had already recorded twelve or more homers in May, June and July of that season.
Although Jimmie had supplanted Babe Ruth as the year’s top slugger, the aging monarch was putting on a fearsome display of his own, still-formidable power. As of August 31, Babe was batting .351, and had struck thirty-nine home runs. Since Ruth was a notoriously outstanding September hitter, achieving fifty or more circuits for the fifth time was certainly within his reach.
When the Yankees met the Athletics for a Labor Day double-header in New York, the event had little of the pageantry that had long been expected. Still, everyone loves a winner, and 70,772 loyalists showed up to revel in the Bronx Bombers’ return to American League supremacy.
For the day, Babe Ruth collected a single, home run, three walks, and a fine running catch along the right field foul line. His homer was his longest of the season since his pair of 480-footers on opening day at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. The Labor Day blast was a thunderbolt of some 485 feet into the bleachers almost to the scoreboard just right of center field. Nobody was supposed to hit line drives that far, but Babe routinely did things that had previously been regarded as impossible.
Moving on to Detroit, the Yankees first stopped in Binghamton, New York to play their twelfth and final exhibition game of the 1932 season. The contest took place on September 6, and Ruth clouted another long homer to please the local fans. Everything was proceeding perfectly for the Bambino, but then fate intervened. On the way to the Motor City, Ruth developed pain in his lower abdomen. By the time he and Claire checked into the Book-Cadillac Hotel, Babe was in agony.
At the urging of his personal physician, Dr. Edward King (who doubled as the Yankees’ team doctor), Babe hopped on the train, and rushed back to New York. Upon examination by Dr. King on September 8, the diagnosis was an acute attack of appendicitis. With the World Series less than three weeks away, the Yankee Nation held its collective breath. Emergency surgery was contemplated, but eventually ruled out. Suffering from a high fever, Babe was placed on a regimen of complete bed rest. He could only wait and see what would happen.
Of course, as was always the case with the Babe, there was a swirl of rumors that the appendicitis problem was just a cover. Gossip circulated about other, darker health factors being the culprit. Predictably, some form of venereal disease was mentioned, but there was never any truth to the stories. Babe’s appendix had become infected; that was all.
By September 12, the fever was gone, but Ruth felt very weak. Five days later, on September 17, the illness was over, and Babe was permitted to visit Yankee Stadium to test his physical status. He was still as weak as the proverbial kitten, and was unable to drive a single ball into the nearby right field bleachers. The outlook for Ruth’s cherished tenth World Series looked bleak at that moment.
Yet, there was only one Babe Ruth. Over the course of nearly two tumultuous decades, he had established a seemingly fictional record of overcoming extreme adversity to rise again to the pinnacle of worldly success. And so it was once more. Where all had appeared lost just two days earlier, the Bambino returned to “The House That Ruth Built” on September 19, and bombed twelve drives into the right field bleachers. Although just batting practice, in the overall context of recent events, witnesses regarded Ruth’s performance as stupefying.
Relaxing after his exertions, Babe calmly predicted that the Yankees would win the Series. By that time, he knew that New York would face the Chicago Cubs who officially clinched the National League pennant the next day. For various reasons, the Cubs and Yanks didn’t care for each other, and the 1932 World Series promised to be memorable.
On September 21, the Yankees visited Philadelphia for the two last contests of their annual twenty-two game rivalry. Although the pennant had long since been decided in favor of New York, there was still one important, unresolved issue. Jimmie Foxx had walloped fifty-three home runs, and had five games left to break Babe’s season standard of sixty. His chances were slim, but he still had a shot. The big question was whether the Yankees would actually pitch to the man daring to dismantle their leader’s most revered record.
Although there is no residual account on this issue, it is apparent that Babe Ruth intervened. One word from him, and the Yankees’ pitching staff would have seen to it that young Jimmie got absolutely nothing decent at which to swing. But that’s not what happened. Logging nine at-bats in those two games, Foxx pounded three more homers, while receiving no bases-on-balls. The Yankees then departed for Boston to conclude the regular season with three final games against the Red Sox.
The Athletics wrapped things up with three contests versus Washington. Again, Jimmie received fair treatment. Although the A’s and Nats were competing against each other for second place (along with the coveted funds that went with it), the Nationals walked the smoking-hot slugger only twice in the series. Washington manager Walter Johnson was a good friend of Babe Ruth, but word had circulated that the Bambino wanted the powerful youngster to get his shot. Jimmie added two final home runs in eleven official at-bats to finish with fifty-eight for the year.
Meanwhile, the Babe was looking pretty frisky himself up in Beantown. Despite going 0 for 3 on Friday, September 23, Ruth had flied out on a 400-footer to the base of the bleachers. The next day, he did much better. Facing reliever John Michaels in the ninth inning, Babe pummeled one halfway up the remote bleachers in right centerfield. This was a Herculean drive of close to 500 feet, and demonstrated to everyone that Ruth had, indeed, returned to full vigor.
On Sunday, September 25, Babe and the Yankees closed out their regular season. Ruth went 0 for 3, but struck three balls solidly: two foul home runs and one long fly out. Despite compromising his season’s statistics due to illness, Babe had enjoyed another outstanding offensive campaign. He finished with a .341 batting average along with a .661 slugging percentage. Ruth had compiled forty-one homers while driving in 137 runs and scoring 120 times.
It’s true that Jimmie Foxx had replaced him as baseball’s mightiest slugger, but there was no shame there. Foxx went on to enjoy an historically successful career as a power hitter. Yet, decades after the fact, it is clear that Jimmie fell significantly short of Ruth’s career standards.
On the matter of pure batting strength, Foxx was number one in 1932, but finished behind the Sultan of Swat in overall lifetime performance. In fact, it is now apparent that Babe Ruth hit the ball harder and farther than any man who has ever played in the Major Leagues. Many have tried to supplant him as the sports’ ultimate weapon, including Mickey Mantle, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and others, but Babe Ruth remains the Paul Bunyan of baseball.
The issue back on September 25, 1932 was whether Babe could do it one more time in the World Series. The Yankees were returning to New York where they would have two days to prepare for the invading Chicago Cubs. Ruth could briefly relax and reflect on his accomplishments. Then, he would emerge again into the crucible of baseball’s most pressure-laden scenario. It had been four years since Babe had shown so brightly in his last Fall Classic. Did he still have that uncanny ability to rise to any competitive occasion? The answer would be waiting two days hence in Yankee Stadium.