6th June 2006
By John Thorn
As I suspected he might, George Herman Ruth paid me another nocturnal visit last week, after Barry Bonds hit home run number 715 and consigned him to third place on the all-time list. As I had mentioned in this space (I Dreamed I Saw Babe Ruth Last Night, May 12, 2006), I had questions ready for him, but he knew what he wanted to say and would brook no interruption from this mere mortal.
“You know, this Barry Bonds thing didn’t bother me a bit. Not before he hit 715, not now. Henry Aaron already had my record, and I didn’t exactly disappear after he passed me, did I? There will be others to come, too, maybe Rodriguez or this Pujols kid. Folks are missing the point here: Henry wasn’t really chasing me, no more than Barry’s now chasing him. Barry is being chased — by Father Time, like I was.
“I was through as a ballplayer by 1934, when I thought I was 40 (later on somebody dug up my birth certificate and it turned out I was I was born a year later than I had always been led to believe). I had 708 home runs by the end of that season, my last with the Yankees, and that was enough for me; the home run record had been mine since mid-1921, when I hit my 139th to pass Roger Connor. Oh, I could still hit better than most — I probably could have socked 800 home runs if that designated-hitter rule had been around, and I could have hit .600 if all I wanted was to be a dinky singles hitter like Cobb — but I couldn’t cover ground in the outfield any more. I wanted to stay in baseball more than I ever wanted anything in my life. But in 1935 there was no job for me, unless I agreed to play. That’s why I took to the field that one last time for the Boston Braves: I thought the deal was that if I brought the fans to the ballpark by playing every now and then, they’d name me the manager soon enough. Didn’t work out that way, though, and I’ve got to admit it embittered me. I would sit by the phone, waiting for the call that never came.
“I hit six home runs in that spring of 1935, before I walked away. The final three came in the same game, at Pittsburgh in late May. I really caught that last one, number 714, sent it clear over the roof at Forbes Field, and no one had ever done that. Guy Bush was on the mound for the Pirates, the same pitcher that we’d just clobbered when he pitched for the Cubs in the last World Series I played in. Now I didn’t much like anyone on that Cubs team, the way they shortchanged mark Koenig, who used to be our shortstop, and the way they razzed me. So when I hit this ball over the roof in Pittsburgh, it kinda tickled me that I hit it off Bush. In fact, I hit my second home run that day off him too, cause he was just a relief pitcher, on the skids in 1935 like I was. But as I hobbled around third base, I looked over there at him and he kind of looked at me. He tipped his cap, sort of to say, ‘I’ve seen everything now, Babe.’ I looked back at him and saluted and smiled. Let bygones be bygones, I say. I’ve got nothing against Bush, nor against Charlie Root, the Cub pitcher when I called the shot.
“Aw, everybody knows that game — October 1, the third game of the 1932 World Series. But right now I want to settle all arguments: I didn’t exactly point to any one spot, like the flagpole. Anyway, I didn’t mean to. I just sorta waved at the whole fence, but that was foolish enough. All I wanted to do was give that thing a ride … outta the park … anywhere.
“I’d had a lot of trouble in ’32, and we weren’t any cinches to win that pennant, either, because Lefty Grove was trying to keep the Athletics up there for their fourth straight flag, and sometime in June I pulled a muscle in my right leg chasing a fly ball. I was on the bench about three weeks, and when I started to play again, I had to wear a rubber bandage from my hip to my knee. You know, the ol’ Babe wasn’t getting any younger and Jimmie Foxx was ahead of me in homers. I was eleven behind him early in September and never did catch up. I wouldn’t get one good ball a series to swing at. I remember one whole week when I’ll bet I was walked four times in every game. Believe me, Barry Bonds wasn’t the first one they pitched around.
“Anyway, we got into Chicago for the third game — we’d taken the first two in NewYork. They were in front of their home folks, and I guess they’d thought they better act tough: that’s where those Cubs decided to really get on us. Then in the very first inning I got a hold of one with two on and parked it in the stands for a three-run lead and that shut ’em up pretty well. But they came back with some runs and we were tied 4-4 going into the fifth frame.
“I told Hartnett, ‘If that bum, Root, throws me in here, I’ll hit it over the fence again.’ Gabby, didn’t answer, but those other guys were standing up in the dugout, cocky because they’d got four runs back and everybody hollering. So I just changed my mind. I took two strikes and after each one I held up my finger and said, ‘That’s one’ and ‘that’s two.’ Gabby could hear me. That’s when I waved to the fence.
“No, I didn’t point to any spot, but as long as I’d called the first two strikes on myself, I hadda go through with it. It was damned foolishness, sure, but I just felt like doing it, and I felt pretty sure Root would put one close enough for me to cut at, because I was showing him up.
“Gosh, that was a great feeling… getting a hold of that ball and I knew it was going someplace … yessir, you can feel it in your hands when you’ve laid wood on one. How that mob howled. Me? I just laughed … laughed to myself going around the bases and thinking, “You lucky bum … lucky, lucky bum.’
“Yeah, it was silly. I was a blankety-blank fool. But I got away with it and after Lou Gehrig homered, behind me, their backs were broken. That was a day to talk about. In batting practice before the game, I had whacked out homer after homer. I hollered to some fans , ‘I’d play for half my salary if I could hit in this dump all the time.’ You see, Yankee Stadium wasn’t a slugger’s park for me or for Gehrig — we weren’t dead-pull hitters. I’ll tell you, I cried when they took me out of the Polo Grounds after 1922. That was some park. I’d hit only 9 home runs at Fenway my last year with the Red Sox, in 1919, but when the Polo Grounds became my home park, I hit 29 of my 54 there, and 32 of 59 the next year.
“I hit my 60 home runs in 1927 — only 28 in Yankee Stadium — before many of the parks had been changed so as to favor the home-run hitter. I hit them into the same parks where, only a decade before, ten or twelve homers were good enough to win the title. They said they livened up the ball for me, and some of the writers called it the jack-rabbit ball. Well, if they put some of the jack in it around the 1927 period, they put the entire rabbit into it in 1961 and at the same time shortened a lot of fences. And most of these new parks they’ve built recently are smaller than the ones they replaced, so I wasn’t surprised one bit when McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds blew past Roger Maris’s 61.
“But make no mistake about San Francisco. This new park may be better for hitters than Candlestick was (Willie Mays sure caught a bad break when the Giants moved there, just as fortune smiled on Aaron when the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta). But Pac Bell is still tough — no one except Barry consistently hits the long ball there.
“As to the lifetime mark, Henry has held it for 32 years now, since 1974. I held it for 53 years. If Barry wants to hit 756, he should copy what Henry and I did: we extended our careers by shifting leagues. I hit my last six in the National League, and Henry hit his last 20 in the American League.
“Take my advice, Barry. You cover the outfield now about as well as I did in 1935, which ain’t sayin’ much. And gee, it’s lonesome in the outfield. It’s hard to keep awake with nothing much to do, and then have to accelerate like a racecar when a ball is hit in your direction. Do what Henry did and what I wished I coulda done: become a DH.
“And I have just the place for you: Yankee Stadium. Wear the pinstripes — not next year but this summer. Waive your no-trade clause and reward the Giants by letting them get a prospect or two in a trade to New York. While you’re at it, get a two-year extension of your current contract from the Yankees, whose corner outfielders may not come back healthy this year.
“Do this, Barry, and you’ll win the World Series, which you’ve always wanted to do.”
And then I woke up.
John Thornwrites “Play’s the Thing,” a column for the Woodstock Times, in which this piece first appeared. He is the author and editor of many baseball books.