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To the casual baseball fan, the 1932 season revolves around one moment — Babe Ruth’s “called shot” at Chicago’s Wrigley Field during Game 3 of the World Series. But as Thomas Wolf notes in his new book, 1932 was a year that sorely tested the mettle of baseball fans and the American public.
Sure, the title catches your eye: The Called Shot: Babe Ruth, The Chicago Cubs, & the Unforgettable Major League Baseball Season of 1932 (University of Nebraska Press; hardback; $36.95; 374 pages). But Wolf digs deeper and reveals the athletic and social turmoil that took place during the depths of the Great Depression.
For Ruth, life was “an endless succession of glimmering moments,” Wolf writes. The slugger’s called shot is the hook for the book, but Wolf does not address it until the late in his narrative. That’s a plus because there were so many other interesting subplots to examine. Wolf, a longtime baseball fan who has published four essays in The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, tackles those vignettes with zest in a smoothly written narrative rich with detail.
Ruth hit 41 home runs and drove in 130 runs in 1932 — but at 37, he was getting old. Lou Gehrig, who always seemed to play in Ruth’s shadow, had his greatest day as a hitter when he slammed four home runs in a single game on June 3. Typical of Gehrig’s luck, he was overshadowed by New York Giants manager John McGraw, who announced his retirement the same day.
Philadelphia Athletics slugger Jimmie Foxx, meanwhile, made a serious run at Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, finishing with 58.
In the National League, the Chicago Cubs suffered key injuries, particularly shortstop Billy Jurges, who was shot by Violet Popovich, a jilted lover, in a hotel near Wrigley Field. The Cubs also were held back by manager Rogers Hornsby, who gambled compulsively, borrowed money from his players and coaches and alienated them further with his blunt, undiplomatic style.
Wolf adds social context to his narrative, too. In 1932, the United States was deep into the Great Depression. Unemployment levels were on the rise, wages declined and businesses closed.
“It was a year of tragedy and conflict,” Wolf writes.
That was putting it mildly. Within view of the White House and the Capitol, World War I veterans who called themselves the Bonus Army marched into Washington, D.C., and camped out, demanding early payment of their bonuses promised after World War I. The money was not to be paid out until 1945, but hard times changed the dynamic, in the eyes of the veterans. They needed money in 1932 and were ready to fight for it.
That fighting spirit was prevalent in the major leagues that year, too. Umpire George Moriarty and several Chicago White Sox players tangled after a Memorial Day doubleheader, and a fight between New York Yankees catcher Bill Dickey and Washington Senators outfielder Carl Reynolds on the Fourth of the July were two of the memorable brawls.
Hornsby, who was fired with the Cubs at 53-46 and trailing Pittsburgh by five games, was in deep financial trouble in 1932. He owed back taxes on his farm to the Internal Revenue Service, and his gambling debts were an open secret in baseball. Hornsby owed money to several players and coaches on the Cubs’ squad, and whether it was admitted or not, his firing was a product of that issue, especially in what Wolf called “a tense and joyous locker room.” Hornsby would be remembered, Steve Smart wrote in 1993, as “the man who couldn’t give up the horses.”
Wolf examines many of the interesting parts of the 1932 season, but two storylines are the most compelling. The first one involves Harry “Snap” Hortman, who was serving a life sentence in an Iowa prison. Originally sentenced to death for a crime-of-passion he committed in 1901, Hortman’s sentence was changed to life in prison via appeals. By 1932, he had spent three decades at the Iowa State Men’s Reformatory in Anamosa, a “model inmate” with a “spotless record.”
Hortman was a rabid Cubs fan and also managed the prison’s baseball team, nicknamed the Snappers. Charlie Ireland, the prison warden who also loved the Cubs, allowed inmates to listen to Cubs games on the radio. The warden then took the unprecedented step of buying World Series tickets for the games scheduled in Chicago in 1932 — one for himself and his son Charles, and tickets for Hortman and another prisoner, Shorty Wakeman. They watched Games 3 and 4 at Wrigley Field.
“Sometimes I feel that I am the only person who sat beside a prison lifer at a World Series game,” Charles Ireland would recall in 1990.
When it was revealed that two prisoners had gone to watch the World Series games with their warden, there was some consternation.
“This is the last word in the pampering of criminals,” Clyde Herring, running for governor of Iowa against incumbent Dan Turner in 1932, told The Associated Press.
But the Rev. G.O. Thompson of Colorado, writing in a letter to the editor of the Des Moines Register that was published Oct. 16, 1932, said that Hortman “had paid an awful price for his crime,” and that he had “proved his desire and willingness to go straight.”
“If people know nothing about Harry Hortman, the story might sound like a terrible travesty of prison practice,” Thompson wrote.
Turner won the election but never followed through on his threat to have Ireland removed from his position as warden, Wolf writes. Ireland would die in June 1933, and Hortman died in August 1934.
The other compelling story was about Jurges, an up-and-coming star with the Cubs.
Jurges “had been a pleasant surprise at the plate” and had been a clutch hitter for the Cubs heading into July, Wolf writes.
Jurges had been seeing Popovich, “an aspiring showgirl” who had “survived a difficult childhood,” Wolf writes. She met Jurges in 1931 when the player was still a minor leaguer, and “a spark was lit.”
“Being with Billy satisfied Violet’s desire for stability and respectability,” Wolf writes. But the relationship soured and Jurges broke it off.
On July 6, Popovich met Jurges at his hotel room in Chicago. After a brief conversation she asked for some water, Wolf writes. When Jurges returned, Popovich pointed the gun at her head. The ballplayer lunged for the gun and the couple struggled. That’s when three shots were fired, wounding Jurges. Popovich suffered a minor injury.
Jurges did not press charges. Or, as a headline in the New York Daily News pointed out, “Jurges’ Assist Gives Girl Gun-Toter Out.”
It was great fodder for the tabloids nationwide. And Wolf tells the story wonderfully and with a flair for the dramatic.
That should not be a surprise. Wolf, who graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, earned a master in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught writing and literature courses at Carl Sandburg College and worked as a writing consultant on both the GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment and the MCAT Writing Sample.
Wolf and his wife, Patricia L. Bryan, collaborated on the 2005 book, Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland. Wolf also is a two-time winner of the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s Doris Betts Fiction Prize, with his short story “Distance” taking the title in 2007 and winning four years later with “Boundaries.”
It is interesting to note that Wolf’s interest in writing about the 1932 season came when he and his wife toured the Anamosa State Penitentiary in December to do research on what would become Midnight Assassin. He learned about Hortman and was going to write a short story, but the more he dug, the more he discovered.
“What started as a tour of a maximum security prison to research a book about a bloody murder turned into a quest to tell the story of the 1932 baseball season,” Wolf wrote in a blog last month.
Overall the book is error-free, but there were a few glitches.
One of the oddities in The Called Shot was the spelling of the name of Cubs outfielder Riggs Stephenson. Wolf spells it “Stevenson” throughout the book, but there is a caveat. There are discrepancies during the 1920s and 1930s over the spelling of the last name of “Old Hoss,” who was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1971.
Research in newspaper articles during that time period spell the last name both ways. At least Wolf was consistent.
There is also a mix-up over Hack Wilson’s breakout 1930 season, when he hit 56 home runs and had 191 RBI. Wolf gets the season right early in the book, but a passage on Page 145 seems to infer the slugger’s numbers occurred in 1929. A chart comparing Ruth, Wilson and Jimmie Foxx is definitely wrong, as it labels Wilson’s 1930 stats as 1929’s.
In his epilogue, Wolf correctly notes the Yankees played in seven World Series from 1935 to 1943 but errs when he notes New York won five Fall Classics. The Yankees’ lone World Series loss during that stretch was in 1942 to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Also in his epilogue, Wolf references Ruth’s three-homer day in Pittsburgh during the 1935 season, noting that “no one in the ten-year history of Forbes Field had ever hit a ball over the roof.” Forbes Field was built in 1909, but a grandstand was erected in fair territory in 1925; perhaps that is what Wolf meant.
These do not detract from the narrative and otherwise deep research in The Called Shot. Wolf draws information from books, newspapers, internet sites, archives and unpublished letters and papers. There are 37 pages of end notes, and Wolf concludes the book with “Extra Innings,” a compilation of “what happened to” notes of each key player in The Called Shot.
The Called Shot is a satisfying read and provides depth and context to a memorable baseball season. As the reader will discover, the 1932 season was more than just Babe Ruth’s most iconic moment.
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I love to blog about sports books and give my opinion. Baseball books are my favorites, but I read and review all kinds of books.