May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Batter steps into the box. Pitcher cranks, works, throws. STEE-RIKE! Crowd yammers. Pitcher’s teammates chatter encouragement; his bench defames the batter, who disdainfully raises a single finger. Only one strike, he is saying. Takes three to get me out.
Pitcher throws two balls. Then he catches the outside corner of the plate. STEE-RIKE TWO! Bench erupts at batter. You stink. Go home, ya big bum, ya. Batter raises two fingers. Two strikes, that’s all, he’s saying.
And now the batter—are you ready?— he raises his bat, see, and majestically he points it out to the Wrigley Field center-field bleachers. Did you catch that? This is the World Series, third game, and the Babe, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, he’s pointing like the Statue of Liberty where he’s gonna put the next pitch.
Chicago’s Charlie Root gives him a changeup curve low and away. Day in the morning! The ball goes right where Babe Ruth pointed. What a shot! Longest homer old Wrigley ever sees. Babe runs around the bases laughing. Babe clasps his hands over his head like a triumphant boxer as he prances past the enemy infielders. See that, you mugs? In a box near home plate, the Democratic candidate for the Presidency, Governor Roosevelt of New York, throws back his head and laughs.
Yes! It’s all true! With one minor caveat. Ruth never called the shot. He might have waved the bat, yes. He frequently waved a bat. But it was only later that the called-shot legend grew. Yes, articles and movies tell of his doing it—that awful William Bendix thing, The Babe Ruth Story . Yankee manager Joe McCarthy put the whole business in a nutshell: “Maybe I didn’t see it. Maybe I was looking the wrong way.” When in later years people asked the Babe if he had actually pointed, he said: “It’s in the papers, isn’t it? Why don’t you read the papers?”
Can something that never occurred be defined as overrated? Tough question. Philosophical question. What do I know? But the Bambino’s called shot, that’s my overrated moment in sports.
Picketers protested outside Yankee Stadium, and people inside threw banana peels, cigarette packs, paper cups, and curses at Max Schmeling as he made his way to the ring to seek Joe Louis’s heavyweight championship. Two years earlier, before Louis was champ, Schmeling knocked him out. Germany had gone wild. Schmeling lunched with Hitler and then they watched a film of the bout, the F’hrer joyfully slapping his hand on his thigh when Schmeling landed heavily. The movie Max Schmeling’s Victory, a German Victory played to full houses all over the Reich.
Now it is June of 1938, and National Socialism’s representative is going in against American democracy’s champion, the first and for a long time the only African-American hero in the country’s history.
The fight went 124 seconds. It is thrilling—and chilling—when seen in old films. Savage tiger, killing machine, the papers said of Louis. His was the triumph of a boxer who that night may have been the best there ever was or would be. The showing of this avenging angel was Homeric, operatic. On a larger than individual level, there has never been an athletic event granted such symbolism by the meaning of its times. Historians might one day say, wrote Heywood Broun, “that the decline of Nazi prestige began with a left hook.”
Because it stands alone, this moment can be compared to no other in sports. If, however, comparisons must be made, we are bound to say that this fight is impossible to be granted justice and therefore can be called, no matter what one says, underrated.