That Babe Ruth was one of the greatest of the greats on the baseball field is indisputable. He was one of the first five ballplayers elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His season and career home run records stood for decades, without steroids or souped up baseballs. Twelve times he led the American League in home runs. Seven times he was a World Series winner. He was an All-Star, an MVP and a batting champion. And yet was it possible that the great Bambino had a rush of blood to the head that cost his team a game? And, not just any game, but the seventh and deciding game of the 1926 World Series.
The Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals split the first six games of the World Series. The decider was played at Yankee Stadium. The Cardinals had kept their hopes alive in game six as their ace Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched a complete game. One day later, Alexander came out of the bullpen in game seven and entered the ninth inning looking to protect a 3-2 Cardinals lead. He quickly disposed of the first two batters when up to the plate strode the mighty Babe. Ruth hit .300 in the World Series, with four home runs and five RBI’s. He had already cracked one in the fourth inning of game seven. Alexander pitched cautiously and ended up walking Ruth. That brought Bob Meusel to the plate.
Meusel was a fixture in the Yankee outfield throughout the 1920’s. He was a .309 career hitter and had hit .315 in 1926 with 12 homers and 78 RBI’s. But Meusel’s turn at bat would turn out to be inconclusive. On Alexander’s second pitch, Ruth took off for second base. The throw to second base was on the money. Ruth was out. And the Yankees were out. Game over. The Cardinals were the champions.
So Babe Ruth, for all of his glorious accomplishments, cost his team the series with an ill-advised break for second. Well, not so fast. While Ruth’s attempted steal has often been treated as a massive mistake on his part, there is some revisionist history afoot. And the revisionists are pointing the finger at Meusel.
Writing for a web site called Baseball Egg, Dan Holmes, pointing to the Sporting News as his source, offers a different take on the game’s pivotal play:
“He (Alexander) started Meusel with a fastball that Bob was late on. At that point, something happened that has been forgotten to history. Apparently, Meusel signaled to Ruth for the hit-and-run. The Sporting News reported that ‘Meusel, after swinging viciously at the first pitch, put on the hit and run with the Babe on the next pitch.’
“This is where the Babe’s reputation is exonerated. Where a mistake is corrected. Ruth wasn’t stealing second base. It wasn’t a lark, a moment of hubris. It was a set play called by the batter.
“Alexander went to the fastball again with the same result: Meusel missing it on a big swing. Ruth got his jump and sped his piano legs toward second base. But at the moment he arrived, Rogers Hornsby also received a perfect throw from catcher Bob O’Farrell and slapped on the tag, getting Ruth on the right toe. The game was over, the series was over, the season was over.
“But Babe Ruth has been wearing goat horns for too long. His steal attempt that ended the 1926 World Series was not a steal attempt. The real goat was Bob Meusel, who called for a hit-and-run and didn’t succeed in the ‘hit’ part.”
What did the sportswriters covering the game think of this play? Jon Flynn, sports editor of the Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, Mass., corroborated the hit-and-run story.
“Bob Meusel, who had collapsed afield in the fourth and had fallen down at bat in the fifth and seventh innings with men yearning to score, again had a chance to keep himself out of the world’s series boob ranks. The first pitch was a strike, Meusel swinging and missing the ball. Manager Huggins called for a hit and run play. Babe got off with the pitch but Meusel failed again. He swung and missed the sphere which O’Farrell caught and got to Hornsby ahead of Ruth. George Herman slid for the bag and was tagged out, the night watchman at second base deciding that Babe arrived behind schedule.”
Perhaps it is a testament to Ruth’s popularity that no one was ready to point the finger at him. Brooklyn Daily Eagle writer Thomas S Rice, offered this justification:
“Ruth’s attempt to steal second yesterday was logical in that he had a good gambling chance. He was beaten mechanically. He is still an excellent base-runner, despite his large size, his troubles with his legs and his ankles, and the natural slowing up that comes from continuously playing major league baseball through 18 seasons. He made a clean steal of second on Saturday.
“Ruth figured he had a gambling change to steal second and score on a long single. John J. McGraw would almost certainly have figured the same at that stage of the game. This writer would have taken the gamble on Catcher Hank Severeid making a poor throw with a wet ball. As it was, the play was close. Like Icarus, Ruth failed, but he failed in a great attempt.”
Baseball’s dumbest plays: