Ruth’s Mysterious Gambit: The Final Out of the 1926 World Series

The 1927 Yankees are forever cemented in baseball lore and ingrained in the minds of devotee’s as being the best of all time. But often overlooked is the fact they were pretty good the previous year, too. That team however, had a controversial end to it’s season when the St. Louis Cardinals bested the Bronx Bombers in the 1926 World Series. The dramatic final out has been a head scratcher for 90 years.

On October 10, 1926 at Yankee Stadium, the Cardinals were hanging on to a precious 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game Seven. The lead was stunningly preserved two innings earlier when veteran drunkard Grover Cleveland “Old Pete” Alexander, one day removed from a dazzling complete game victory in Game Six, came on in relief to strike out future hall of famer Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded. A truly pivotal moment.

Alexander remained in the game, chugging along to the ninth with the top of the Yanks’ powerful order coming up and 38,000-plus at Yankee Stadium hoping for some heroics. Old Pete forced both Earle Combs and Mark Koenig into groundouts, bringing up Babe Ruth with two outs and nobody on. On a 3-2 pitch, Ruth walked, which sent slugger Bob Muesel to the plate with the great Lou Gehrig on deck and Lazzeri in the hole, the perfect combination to tie or win the game. Suddenly, Ruth broke for second in an attempted two-out delayed steal, where upon a laser-perfect throw from catcher Bob O’Farrell (NL MVP in 1926) to Rogers Hornsby, ‘ol Jidge was tagged out, ending the game and series. The questions that this attempted steal raise, aside from the why, are many:

Was Ruth just being aggressive? He did steal on O’Farrell the day before after all, but why this particular two-out gamble with the heart of your order up? Was it a hit-and-run? Some accounts say it was, though neither Ruth, Muesel, or manager Miller Huggins ever fully confirmed this. Did Ruth not have confidence in Muesel to knock one in the gap or out of the park? This is possible, since Bob was known to have dips in confidence. On top of that his two costly misplays in the fourth inning, including a dropped routine fly, directly led to all three Cardinals runs in the game. These things, combined with his struggles at the plate no doubt put great strain on him in that situation. Knowing this, perhaps Ruth wanted to put the pressure on himself? If so, it was a very selfless, yet risky, ploy. Or was it something else?

Rogers Hornsby tags out Babe Ruth at second base for the final out of the 1926 World Series
No accusations are being made here, but one more thing needs to be considered in order to properly frame this situation. Rumors were rampant in those days, so it should be no surprise that it has been suggested that Muesel (and perhaps even Ruth?) had been approached by, or accepted payoffs from gamblers prior to the series. If he was in on the take, this could lend some credence to his uncharacteristic, and timely, defensive gaffes in the game. In addition, famous betting ringleader Sport Sullivan, a key player in the fixing of the 1919 World Series was in attendance that day. His presence roused further suspicions, and he was later removed by AL President Ban Johnson.

Gambling was, of course, all the talk of baseball in those days. Just five years removed from the infamous eight members of the White Sox being banned from the game, and amid a flurry of fresh accusations that superstars Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood had fixed games back in September 1919, it’s not unrealistic to imagine players were approached about not playing this particular game on the level. The evidence against Cobb and Speaker became so damning in fact, that just weeks after the ’26 series ended, they both retired at the urging of Johnson before the story really broke and destroyed two hall of fame careers. The Cobb/Speaker ultimatum was the design of both Johnson and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. As baseball itself was “on trial” for most of the 1920’s, it would’ve been crushing, perhaps even lethal for the game if two of it’s megastars were found to be fixing and betting on games. Landis knew this, and promptly backed off. Historian Glenn Stout compared Landis’ actions in this case to a seamstress pulling a single thread, only to discover she’s unraveling the whole garment. Both Cobb and Speaker would ultimately return the following year with the Athletics and Senators, respectively, in player-coach roles. They would be united in 1928 with the A’s before retiring permanently, but their presence for that one season helped shape a powerhouse team, as Connie Mack’s A’s would win the World Series in 1929 and 1930. 

Their situation, although having no direct involvement with the ’26 Series, is nonetheless important to consider because it was part of the baseball landscape of the time. If two of the game’s most heralded stars could be involved with betting activity, not to mention what happened with the Black Sox, then so could anyone, including Bob Muesel or even the great Babe Ruth.

Conclusions? There really are none that are concrete. Like so many great or tragic situations in baseball history, the further we delve into them the more questions arise. Was Ruth just trying to put the game on his shoulders?  Did Huggins employ a gutsy hit-and-run that failed? Was it just an unbeatable throw by O’Farrell? Were there outside factors that got to Muesel and possibly Ruth that affected the outcome of the game? We’ll sadly never fully know…

 

Sources: Tris Speaker: The Rough and Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend, Timothy Gay, 2007

By The Numbers: Judging Babe Ruth’s Attempted Steal In The 1926 World Series

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA192610100.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHA/1928.shtml

Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/68/Ruth1926-3.jpg

Booze, Lightning and Death. The ’19-’20 Indians Redefine ‘Taking One For the Team’

Simply put, the Cleveland Indians of 1919-1920 had one of the most bizarre and both fortunate – and unfortunate – runs to a World Series championship in baseball history.

Led by the great player-manager Tris Speaker, the Indians benefited immediately from the Red Sox dismantling after the 1919 season, and later from the public unrest and inner turmoil from the 1919 World Series that plagued the White Sox down the stretch in the 1920 pennant race, before eight of their star players were suspended that September. After finishing a strong second in 1919, the Indians picked up in 1920 right where they left off. They captured the AL pennant, and then proceeded to beat the Brooklyn Robins (later Dodgers), to win their first World Series in franchise history.

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Along the way, however, were two incredible incidents in August 1919 and August 1920 that were never seen before, or have been since. The first of which was where the Indians caught lightning, literally, with the signing of a pitcher.

In a late-season deal in 1919, the Indians acquired pitcher Ray “Slim” Caldwell from the Yankees. A solid pitcher, but unfortunately known more as an underachiever caused by his drinking, carousing and penchant for buggery than his accomplishments on the hill. Caldwell was always regarded as a player with extraordinary talent, but who loved the bottle more than the game. Speaker, though, felt he could get through to the 31-year old veteran and help the Indians win the pennant. To do so, Speaker had to put a special (and rather ridiculous), clause in Caldwell’s contract. It read:

“After each game he pitches, Ray Caldwell must get drunk. He is not to report to the clubhouse the next day. The second day he is to report to Manager Speaker and run around the ball park as many times as Manager Speaker stipulates. The third day he is to pitch batting practice, and the fourth day he is to pitch in a championship game.”

After confirming that there were no errors in this absurd clause, Caldwell shrugged and signed. What happened next was both figuratively and literally a sign from above.

On August 24, Caldwell made his first start with the Indians, against the Philadelphia Athletics at League Park in Cleveland. Leading 2-1 with two outs in the top of the ninth, a thunderstorm suddenly rolled in, throwing bolts of lightning all around the ballpark. One such bolt struck Caldwell square in the head, knocking him to the ground, unconscious. One account has the bolt striking the metal button on the top of his cap, then exiting through the metal cleats in his shoes. After several minutes, Caldwell got back up and demanded he finish the game, which he did. Amazing. So amazing was it in fact, that years later he later appeared on the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not radio show.

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Ray “Slim” Caldwell

Speaker’s odd plan worked, as Caldwell won five of his six starts with the Indians, with a cool 1.71 ERA in that span. He would continue his strong, and focused, performance in 1920, going 20-10 and helping the Indians get their rings. Speaker’s plan, and a little electricity through the brain, apparently knocked something right for Caldwell.

One year later, almost to the day from Caldwell’s bout with the bolt, tragedy struck.

On August 16, 1920 in a key game against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds in New York, Cleveland’s star shortstop Ray Chapman came to bat in the fifth inning. Submarine-style Yankee pitcher Carl Mays uncorked a fastball that hit Chapman in the left temple, knocking him flat to the ground. He died 12 hours later in a New York hospital, becoming the first and only player to have died from an injury sustained in an MLB game.

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Ray Chapman, 1920.
Despite the terrifying ordeal, Speaker was able to rally his team down the stretch and slip past the collapsing White Sox by two games to take the pennant, and then the World Series 5-2 over Brooklyn.

It’s a strange, eerie, and sad game. For the two seasons of 1919 and 1920, the Indians experienced as much, or more, of all of that than anyone in baseball. Credit must be given to the great Tris Speaker here too. Regardless of certain gambling accusations that would later tarnish his Hall of Fame career, Speaker did an incredible job not just playing (he only hit .388 in 1920), but managing his club in the wake of strangeness and tragedy, and utilizing a then-new platoon system for most of the season which was key in keeping his players fresh. ‘Ol Spoke and the boys got it done.

 

Sources: Tris Speaker: The Rough and Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend, Timothy M. Gay, The Lyons Press, 2007.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CLE/1920.shtml

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/8311d756

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/caldwra02.shtml

Photo Creditshttp://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/pan/6a29000/6a29200/6a29272r.jpg

http://www.baseballroundtable.com/ray-caldwell-not-even-a-lightning-bolt-drive-him-from-the-mound/

http://www.letsgotribe.com/top-100-indians/2013/12/6/5180424/top-100-cleveland-indians-history-ray-chapman