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

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