Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-067357. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society. Photo appears to have been taken at spring training on Catalina Island in 1928.
In 1985, SABR held its national convention in Chicago. One of the most anticipated events at all such gatherings is the trivia contest, featuring renowned experts in all aspects of the game and its history. Seldom does a question stump all the contestants. The moderator, injecting some local flavor into the queries, asked: "Who holds the Cubs record for most career pitching wins?" No one at the table knew.
You can probably win a few tavern bets with this one. As Cubs baseball enters its fourteenth decade, the team record for pitching victories is 201, held by Charlie Root. In his long Cubs career, Root set team records for wins (201), games (605), innings (3137.1), and seasons (16). He ranks second in complete games, strikeouts, and walks.
Root is hardly forgotten, he is a featured player, and chief victim, in perhaps the most famous baseball drama ever staged on the diamond. And he's literally the victim of nothing, for the drama is a fraud.
Charles Henry Root was born March 17, 1899, in Middletown, Ohio. While pitching for the town team, he was seen and signed by the St. Louis Browns, for whom he made his major league debut in 1923. He finished 0-4, his only non-Cub big league decisions. After two years in the minors in Los Angeles, Root came to the majors to stay, with the Cubs, in 1926.
Root was a right-handed hurler and batter, the only things he did right-handed in his life. He was a stocky, aggressive player, hard-nosed in the manner of the day. He worked remarkably quickly on the mound, and was often juggled in the rotation in order to pitch on getaway days.
He immediately became the workhorse of the staff, 18-17 in his rookie year. In 1927, he had his best year, 26-15 (his only 20-game season, and the last Cub to win 25). In 1929, the Cubs won the first of their four pennants during Root's tenure. Charlie's record that season was 19-6, and manager Joe McCarthy assigned him the opening game of the World Series, at Wrigley Field.
It was the first of an astonishing trio of World Series games in which Root would be on the losing side of an historic performance. Surprise starter Howard Ehmke won the game for the Philadelphia Athletics, striking out a record thirteen batters.
Root started game five in Philadelphia, and carried an 8-0 lead into the seventh inning. But the Athletics then scored ten runs, most ever in a Series inning, aided by two flies lost by Hack Wilson in the centerfield sun. One of the lost flies went for a three-run, inside-the-park homer.
Root was 15-10 during the Cubs' next pennant-winning year, 1932. The Cubs lost the first two games of the World Series to the Yankees in New York, and Root started game three, October 1, at Wrigley.
It was wild and rowdy from the start, the Yankees scored three times before the first out of the game, capped by a three-run homer from Babe Ruth. Ruth nearly duplicated the home run in the second inning, hitting a deep drive that was caught by Kiki Cuyler at the right field wall. Gehrig homered to lead off the third inning. But the Cubs came back to tie the game, 4-4. The tying run reached base in the fourth inning when Ruth awkwardly misplayed a Bill Jurges fly ball into a double. In the Yankee fifth, Joe Sewell led off with a groundout, bringing Ruth to the plate for the third time that afternoon.
The stories of the bad blood between Ruth and the Cubs that Series are legendary; constant and obscene abuse was exchanged during all the Babe's plate appearances. In this instance Ruth's misplay during the previous inning added fuel to the razz. Ruth homered to right-center on a 2-2 pitch to give the Yankees the lead. Gehrig followed with a home run on the first pitch he saw, knocking Root out of the game. Root had served up four home runs, a one-game Series record (which still stands), two each to Ruth and Gehrig. The Yankees won the game, 7-5, and completed a Series sweep the next day.
If an entire book hasn't been written about what happened during Ruth's at-bat in the fifth inning of game three, one could be. It is, of course, the "Called Shot", the legend insisting that Ruth, two strikes down, pointed to center field in response to Cub taunts, and delivered the next pitch to the very spot he had indicated.
The eyewitness recollections of players and fans are so varied and contradictory that a researcher is forced to consider the sum of it worthless. In the mid-1970s, as Henry Aaron's chase of the career home run mark reached its climax, several biographies of Ruth were published, two, especially, were acclaimed; Robert Creamer's Babe (1974), and Marshall Smelser's The Life That Ruth Built (1975). They were the first scholarly treatments of Ruth's life, and have become definitive. Both took the first critical look at the legend of the Shot, and traced the authenticity of the story based on the chronology of the claim rather than the testimony of the parties involved. This is revealing, as the astoundingly conflicting accounts are patently describing an incident more famous in hindsight than in the moment, one whose reputation had been acquired well after the fact. Many witnesses describe things that literally did not take place. Both authors wrote the story off, (Creamer rather more gently), as have nearly all researchers since. Smelser: "The legend is harmless, and even comforting to some who need a Hercules".
Only one writer, Joe Williams, of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, mentioned the Shot in his immediate account of the game, but Williams was famous for embellishment and hyperbole. Ruth did not claim it for several days, and then as often denied it, according to his mood. But he was never one to miss a chance in the end, and by 1933 it was part of his standard repertoire, he added some arabesques himself with time. To close friends, in later years, he played coy. To Ford Frick: "It's in the papers, ain't it?" One of the few undisputed things about the event is that it did not happen in the fulsomely dramatic manner of Ruth's final audio version of it, the one most repeated and available.
Newsreel footage exists of the home run, and of some of the pitches Ruth took (the home run was the only swing in the at-bat), but not of the banter between pitches, the cameras were shut off during down time. In recent years, two home movies of the sequence came to light, both portraying several gestures by Ruth. They are taken from distinctly different angles, the more publicized of the two is ambiguous, with most observers seeing the direction of the gestures as toward the Cubs dugout. The other film is less ambiguous, and seems to confirm the direction as the dugout.
The author, in his youth, knew an elderly gentleman who had attended that game. When asked, he would smile and merely confirm the gestures, without venturing an opinion as to their intent. He may have been the only witness that day with anything like good judgment.
When it became apparent that the incident would haunt him all his life, Root bore it as best he could. He could be belligerent ("I'd have knocked him on his ass"), or almost plaintive ("Please, he didn't point"). This was a blow to a great athlete's professional pride, and Root never fully lived it down. (One reason to suppose the story is false is that Ruth, colorful to be sure, was first and foremost a professional himself, on the field).
Root lasted in the majors into his early forties, a veteran of four great mangerial regimes: McCarthy, Hornsby, Hartnett, and Grimm. Late in the 1941 season, he announced his major league retirement effective the end of the year. August 10 was "Charlie Root Day" at Wrigley Field, and in the manner of such things, Root lost the game to the Reds and Johnny Vander Meer, 3-1.
Root's 200th win came in Boston, in relief, on August 27, and he provided the winning margin with a bases-loaded single in the ninth inning. Root began a long minor league career, pitching until the age of 49. He won 111 minor league games, for a combined 312 professional wins over 27 seasons. Root managed in the minors after hanging up his glove for good, and returned to the Cubs as pitching coach, serving from 1951-53. He coached for the Milwaukee Braves in 1956 and 1957, and had a final coaching stint with the Cubs in 1960.
Root owned a cattle ranch and an antique shop in Hollister, California, not far from the movie business. He was invited to attend the filming of "The Babe Ruth Story" (William Bendix in the title role), and accepted. He must have sensed what was coming, but refused an offer to portray himself on screen in "that" scene; saying he would not be party to a falsehood.
In 1969, Major League Baseball sponsored a number of elections, to celebrate the putative 100th anniversary of professional ball. Participants were journalists and scholars, voting on the greatest players of all-time, and of individual teams. Root was elected the greatest Cubs right-handed pitcher. More recently, Fergie Jenkins, by sheer weight of his multiple 20-game seasons and eventual Hall of Fame career, is usually accorded that title.
Root died in Hollister on November 5, 1970.
[Note from Al: Mike sent me an "appendix" to this profile, an account directly from Babe Ruth on what happened when he hit the home run off Root in the 1932 World Series. I put it "below the fold", because it contains eight different F-bombs. All of those, however, are in a direct quote from the Babe, and I thought it worth including. If you don't want to read that language, you don't have to. But I'm betting you will "Click Read More for the rest..."]
In the spring of 1933, Grantland Rice, the eminent sportswriter, held a very formal cocktail party, attended by political and literary lights of the time, and also by Babe Ruth. The wife of columnist Walter Lippman asked the Babe to give an account of his already legendary Series home run. Rice transcribed the reply, and sanitized it for inclusion in his autobiography, published two years later. But here is the unexpurgated version, as included in the new Ruth biography Big Bam, by Leigh Montville (highly recommended, incidentally). Imagine this tale told amongst the white tuxedos, fluted crystal, and canapes, if you can.
Well, I'm riding the fuck out of the Cubs, telling `em they're the cheapest pack of fuckin' crumbums in the world. We've won the first two and now we're in Chicago for the third game. Root is the Cubs' pitcher. I pack one into the stands in the first inning, but in the fifth it's tied, four-to-four, when I'm up with nobody on. The Chicago fans are giving me hell.
Root's still in there. He breezes the first two pitches by -- both strikes! The mob's tearing down Wrigley Field. I shake my fist after that first strike. After the second I point my bat at these bellerin' bleachers -- right where I aim to park that ball. Root throws it and I hit that fuckin' ball on the nose, right over the fence for two fuckin' runs.
"How do you like those apples, you fuckin' bastard?" I yell at Root as I run towards first. By the time I reach home I'm almost fallin' down I'm laughing so fuckin' hard -- and that's how it happened.