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Book review: ‘The Called Shot’

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There are a lot of great stories in this book.

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Given the title of this book, “The Called Shot,” and the photo you see on its cover, you might think this 300-page tome was a detailed analysis of Babe Ruth’s famous home run in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series.

While the book does that — and I’ll get to that later — it’s much more than just the story of a home run, even a home run that might be the most famous in baseball history.

The subtitle of the book gives a clue: “Babe Ruth, the Chicago Cubs, & the unforgettable major league baseball season of 1932.”

That’s what this book is really about, the lead-in and setup to Ruth’s blast, which, had it been hit in Wrigley Field’s current configuration, might have cleared the bleachers just to the left of the center-field scoreboard.

Thomas Wolf, the author, brings us through the development and composition of the 1932 Cubs, how they got to be a powerhouse team beginning in the late 1920s thanks to the ownership of William Wrigley. Wrigley, a huge baseball fan (unlike his son P.K.), was willing to spend money and do whatever it took to win. The book talks about Wrigley’s business career and mentions something I’d never heard anywhere nor can I find corroboration for it — that Wrigley was apparently considered to be Calvin Coolidge’s running mate in 1924. Now that might have changed not only Cubs history, but US history.

The rest of the book is the story of the 1932 season and year, both in baseball and in America in general. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby is described in detail, as is the shooting of Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges by Violet Popovich, an event that is said to have possibly inspired Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Natural,” written in the 1950s.

Wolf does an excellent job of describing what American society, and life in Chicago, was during 1932. Frankly, those portions of the book are more interesting than his descriptions of how the baseball season played out, not just for the Cubs but for the rest of the National and American Leagues. Wolf goes into detail about Cubs manager Rogers Hornsby and how his reputed gambling addiction had gotten him into such financial hot water that he was borrowing money from his players to pay back gambling debts. You can imagine how well that went over with Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and eventually Bill Veeck Sr. (father of the future White Sox owner), Cubs GM who was running the team after the death of William Wrigley, fired Hornsby and replaced him with Charlie Grimm, a move that pleased players — they were sick of Hornsby’s tough-guy attitude and harsh rules — and helped the Cubs win the pennant.

Of the supposed called-shot home run, Wolf describes everything in detail and produces both contemporary evidence (the writing of sportswriters who were there) and notes the films of the home run which were discovered later. Here’s one of those films:

Wolf draws no conclusion of his own, but presents the arguments on both sides.

This is a good read, but I do have one minor nitpick. The editor of this book either missed misspellings of several baseball names, or “corrected” them incorrectly. The most egregious one of these was “Riggs Stevenson,” which occurred multiple times. Riggs Stephenson (that’s the correct spelling) was a legitimately great player and a key part of the Cubs pennant winners of both 1929 and 1932. Injuries ruined what might have been a Hall of Fame career. To this day, Stephenson’s .336 batting average as a Cub is the franchise record for anyone who had 3,000 or more plate appearances with the team (and his .408 OBP ranks third). Editors shouldn’t get this wrong.

But as I said, this is a minor nitpick. The book is a fun read and gives great insight on what life was like in Chicago in the early 1930s, both what it was like being a Cubs fan, and life in general. Recommended.