A myth debunked

A July afternoon, Chase Park

My younger daughter is enrolled in a swimming class at a pool that’s not quite in our neighborhood, but not terribly far away, either. The heat of this miserable summer claimed a few of the lessons, when the pool was overrun by those wanting to beat the heat more than learning how to swim. Survival instincts kick in on days like that.

But on this day, it isn’t too hot for a swim lesson. As my daughter is in the pool, using her kickboard and splashing around, I have some time to kill. I spot a bookcase filled with children’s books, and peruse the titles, looking for ones from the publisher that I work for. And there are a healthy number of them on the shelves, too. But that doesn’t compel me to write this story, either.

I’m drawn to a book from the early 1990s about baseball heroes. It’s a leveled reader, designed for kids reading at the 3rd and 4th grade level, which is just about the time–one would hope–that some children are learning about baseball. There are many who never learn the game at all, but for those who have begun making inroads into the game, reading of the heroic deeds of Ruth, Robinson, Clemente, and others seems quite natural. I’m sure that I read similar books myself when I was at that age.

I start flipping through the pages, and come to an artist’s rendering of probably the most fabled moment in all of baseball history–Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in the 1932 World Series. Eight decades after the event may or may not have happened, it’s the closest thing there is to a Paul Bunyan-like superhuman effort. Ruth points toward the bleachers, and then hits a home run to that exact spot. Only Ruth could do something like that, right?

The rendering above gives a modern reader–or at least one from the early 1990s, when the book came out–some sense of what that moment might have looked like. Ruth connects on the pitcher’s offering, and the ball begins its ascent into Wrigley Field’s bleachers. It’s an inspiring image but, unfortunately, it’s factually inaccurate. And I have the evidence to prove it.

An August evening, BlueBattingHelmet world headquarters

I received the photo above at a promotional giveaway  at a Cubs game. I would guess it was some time in the early 1990s, when going to ball games was a regular event for me. I don’t always hold on to freebies like this, but this one was different. It’s survived all of the moves I’ve made (and there have been a few of them, I’m sure), and now it’s being pressed into service on my blog.

When the photo was given away in the 1990s, there probably wasn’t any such thing as the internet, at least for the majority of people. Dating this picture probably seemed like an onerous task, and so the date was somehow established as “early 1930s,” even though this is not the actual date, at all. Yes, there are enough clues contained on this photo to definitively date it, but I’ll leave that for another post. For now, let’s take the “early 1930s” designation and run with it.

1932 was an election year, and the World Series that year was being played out against that background. The Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, promised that if he were elected, he would support the repeal of Prohibition. That means that everyone at the ballgame to see Ruth’s 1932 homer could not have legally done so with a beer in their hand. That’s not to say there weren’t those in the stands who were drinking illegally, but the ballpark, like the country itself, was dry that day.

So take a look at the picture above.On the right hand edge, a sign reading “Prager Beer” is clearly visible. Since Prohibition lasted until December of 1933, the earliest that this photo could have been taken was Opening Day of the 1934 season. So it’s fair to say that the way the outfield bleachers looked in this picture approximated what Ruth was looking at in the 1932 World Series.

It’s sometimes possible to click on the pictures that I post here, to zoom in and get a better look. If you can do that, you’ll notice that there is no ivy-covered outfield wall, as the artist’s rendering suggests. Additionally, the scoreboard in the picture is most likely what Ruth and the other players saw in the 1932 World Series. It was more of a rectangular shape, had a pitcher and a batter stationed on the top, and did not have a flag on the top, as the current scoreboard at Wrigley Field does. There were large American flags on either side of the scoreboard, but nothing directly at the top.

If you look closely at the outfield bleachers, it’s really just a riser with not much to separate the fans from the field of play. There’s no brick wall, and no ivy growing over it. The grandstand was built, and the ivy was planted, by Bill Veeck during the 1937 season. The picture shown here can thus be dated to somewhere between 1934 and 1937.

For an exact dating of this photograph, and the clues that lead to this date, come back another time. For now, I’ll close by saying that the Wrigley Field bleachers, as we know them today, are a far cry from what Babe Ruth beheld as he rounded the bases back in 1932.

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