That Time Babe Ruth Lost the World Series

The 114th edition of Major League Baseball’s World Series starts on Tuesday, October 23, and the history of this event runs deep and wide through the American consciousness.

Even though it may not be as popular as the Super Bowl, the World Series brings with it more tradition and more emotional engagement. Rather than a one-day spectacle, the Series can take more than a week to finish, and that means it dominates our cultural consciousness for much more than a single, 60-minute football game on a Sunday afternoon in January.

The New York Yankees have been the Kings of October baseball, although they will not be a part of this year’s contest. All told, the Bronx Bombers have won 27 Major League Baseball championships and lost in the Series a whopping 13 times. Those are more losses in the World Series for New York than the next-best team has won (St. Louis Cardinals, 11).

No one defines the Yankees in the public eye more than the legendary George Herman Ruth, Jr. Even though he was a member of the Boston Red Sox championship teams of 1915, 1916, and 1918 before being traded to the Yankees, Ruth is most closely associated with the great New York teams of the 1920s. The Yanks won the World Series in 1923, 1927, 1928, and 1932 with Ruth on the roster.

Many baseball historians[1], journalists[2], and statisticians [3] rate the 1927 team as the among best of the best in the history of the sport—if not the best team of all time. Ruth hit the only two home runs of that season’s four-game World Series sweep against the Pittsburgh Pirates, driving in seven runs total. The Pirates only scored ten runs in the entire series.[4] Yes, Babe Ruth was that good, and the myths are often true when it comes to discussing his statistical achievements.

However, what most people do not know is that the Yankees might have been able to win the 1926 World Series as well, if it had not been for Ruth’s controversial base-running decision in the ninth inning of Game 7 on October 10, 1926 against the Cardinals.

The Babe 
Ruth’s enduring legacy as a player and the persona magnified in the decades since his heyday obscure a lot of facts about the man and his life. Born in 1895, he was raised in a Baltimore orphanage and had a rougher childhood than perhaps most casual baseball fans know. In general, Ruth had drastic mood swings as an adult, and despite his success on the baseball diamond, he struggled with personal demons off it.

His national popularity exploded once the Red Sox traded him to the Yankees after the 1919 season; and, in the early 1920s, he was perhaps the most popular individual in America. A popular legend holds that, when asked by a journalist in 1930 why his desired salary was higher than President Herbert Hoover’s, Ruth quipped: “Why not? I had a better year than he did.”

What baseball’s biggest star really did say in 1930 was this: “Say, if I hadn’t been sick last summer, I’d have broken hell out of that home run record! Besides, the president gets a four-year contract. I’m only asking for three.”[5]

There is no doubt Ruth owned the game of baseball in the 1920s, as the Yankees won three straight American League pennants in 1921, 1922, and 1923. After losing to the New York Giants in the World Series in both ’21 and ’22, the Bronx Bombers won the 1923 Series against their crosstown rivals when Ruth hit three home runs in six games after hitting just one long ball combined in the prior two Series and the 11 games in them.

The Washington Senators had an outstanding season in 1924 to dethrone the Yankees as American League champs, then Ruth had some health issues in 1925, likely due to his off-the-field indulgence in food and drink.[6] By 1926, however, the Yankees were strong again—and so was Ruth. He and his teammates were ready to reclaim what they felt was rightfully theirs: The World Series title.

The 1926 World Series 
The Yankees fought their way back to the top of the American League by 1926, as Ruth led the league in home runs for the seventh time in nine seasons, missing out in 1922 due to a suspension and in 1925 because of ill health.

The nation was ready for the Bronx Bombers—more than ever—thanks to the relatively new phenomenon of radio. Baseball was truly America’s pastime. This newspaper account of Game 1 makes that clear:

For every one of the 63,000 persons who saw the Yankees beat the Cardinals by the score of 2 to 1 at the Yankee Stadium yesterday afternoon probably 250 listened to the accounts of the game as broadcast by WEAF, WJZ and twenty-three other radio stations covering the United States and Canada. Thus, it was estimated, the suspense which lasted throughout the nine innings of the closely fought pitchers’ battle was felt by fully 15,000,000 persons. In a fraction of a second the thrill of each exciting instant ran from coast to coast and probably from below the Mexican border to points around Hudson’s Bay.[7]

While his teammate, Lou Gehrig, drove in both Yankees runs, it was the Babe who scored the winning run in the sixth inning after leading off with a single to left field. As the radio call put it, “Babe Ruth is taking a great round of applause from his worshipers and all others who enjoy watching baseball.”[8]

The newspaper accounts the next day were just as laudatory: “[I]n the sixth there came the rumble of cannons in the distance and the Yankees’ heavy artillery rolled into sight with Babe Ruth leading the way.”[9] Win or lose for New York and St. Louis, this Series was going to be all about the great Bambino.

St. Louis, however, led by its own future Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby, emerged victorious in the next two games, Game 2 at Yankee Stadium and Game 3 in the Cardinals’ home park.

With Games 4 and 5 also scheduled in St. Louis, it was time for Ruth to take control of the Series. And that he did: The Babe hit three home runs in Game 4, becoming the first player to ever accomplish the feat in World Series history, as the Yankees won the game, 10-5.

Ruth set six World Series records in Game 4 alone[10], and this poetic description of his effort in the New York Times may have coined the phrase “Ruthian” for the future of World Series accomplishments yet to come:

Three times the big, broad shoulders of the great Bambino swung rhythmically; three times his long, lean bat lashed forward with synchronized power; three times the ball rode far and farther into the happy hunting grounds of baseballs for home runs and the Yankees followed their leader.[11]

If there had been any doubt before Game 4 about the Babe’s legacy in the sport of baseball, it was cinched right then. As the New York Times glowed, “And, after all, the Ruth is mighty and will prevail.”[12]

Even though the Series was now tied at two wins for each team, the inevitability of a Yankees championship lingered in the air after Game 4. St. Louis battled hard in Game 5 as the game went to extra innings, but Ruth drew a walk in the top of the tenth inning to get the go-ahead run to second base. With the bases loaded and one out, the Yankees were able to score the decisive run and go back to New York with a 3-2 Series edge.

But it was a defensive play by the Bambino that had everyone talking about this New York victory:

But the finest play of the game—and the finest play of the series—was turned in by Babe Ruth, who risked painful injury when he dashed against the left-field stand for Haley’s foul in the fourth. Inside the foul line there is a wooden stand with a low fence. The ball was right at the edge of the enclosure. Ruth sped over from left, went straight for the fence, swerved slightly, put up his glove and as he bounced from the railing caught the ball. It took nerve of the rarest sort to make a play like this …[13]

Game 6 was one of those head-scratchers, though, as the Yankees came out flat despite having a chance to secure the championship in front of their hometown fans. The Cardinals won the game, 10-2, and that set up an unforgettable Game 7, although most people outside of St. Louis have almost certainly forgotten the game in the 88 years since it happened.

Ruth hit a home run in the third inning to give New York a brief 1-0 lead, but the Cardinals responded with three runs in the top of the fourth inning to take control of the game. The Yankees got a run back in the sixth inning and the score remained 3-2 until the bottom of the ninth inning.

The stage was set for Ruth and New York to claim a memorable victory, but the first two batters for the Yankees grounded out to third base. The Babe came to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the final inning—it was just such a scenario imagined in the back yards of millions of American kids.

No, Ruth did not hit a home run, but he did draw a walk to get himself on base—the game-tying run—with New York left fielder Bob Meusel at the plate. It was one of four walks the Babe drew that day, as St. Louis clearly was not going to let Ruth beat them singlehandedly. Meusel had led the American League in games played, home runs, and runs batted in the year before. He was a very good hitter.

Meusel didn’t get the chance to be a hero that day, though, as Ruth attempted to steal second base off the tiring Cardinals pitcher and future Hall of Famer Pete Alexander. The 39-year-old St. Louis hurler and had thrown all nine innings in Game 6 the day before. The Yankees knew he was tired and Alexander knew it, too. The Cardinals brought him in at the close of the seventh inning and he remained in position to finish the game.

Between Alexander on the mound, Hornsby at second base, and 1926 National League MVP Bob O’Farrell behind the plate for the Cardinals, the perfect situation—under the circumstances—arose for St. Louis. The trio guessed correctly that Ruth would try to steal second base in order to be able to possibly score on a base hit by Meusel.[14]

Ruth stole 123 bases in his career, including 11 in the 1926 regular season; however, he was not the fleetest of foot, despite his occasional defensive prowess. He also was caught stealing 117 times, making it barely an even proposition for success at the time. Yet it was sound strategy in theory, to try to get himself into scoring position against a tiring old pitcher on the mound with the World Series on the line.

Alexander, Hornsby, and O’Farrell sprung their trap on perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game, and it worked: Ruth took off for second base as Alexander delivered the pitch to O’Farrell. The Cardinals catcher came up throwing, and Hornsby was able to apply the tag to Ruth’s legs as the Babe slid into second.

The radio call for the final play went like this:

One strike on Bob Meusel. Going down to second—the game is over. Babe tried to steal second and is put out, catcher to second. The World Series of 1926—we will never say it again—is over. It has come to a close, and the championship goes west, southwest, down to the sovereign state of Missouri.[15]

The game was over, just like that. St. Louis won the first of its 11 championships, and it all happened in the blink of an eye. There is no film footage of the play itself, and it remains the only time in World Series history that the championship has ended on a “walk-off caught stealing.”

That “nerve of the rarest sort” that Ruth displayed in Game 5 on defense had suddenly turned on the Yankees and cost them the 1926 World Series. As one writer put it, “The world’s series circus of 1926 is gone, but the echoes still are heard.”[16]

The Aftermath 
This disappointing and odd moment in Ruth’s career has been lost to memory due to the subsequent World Series titles in 1927, 1928, and 1932. After losing the 1926 Series, the Bronx Bombers steamrolled everyone in Major League Baseball in 1927 on their way to a World Series sweep of the Pirates. They repeated in 1928, exacting revenge on the Cardinals with a Series win in four games.

Although the Philadelphia Athletics surpassed the Yankees to win the American League pennant in 1929, 1930, and 1931, Ruth had one last hurrah in 1932 as New York easily topped the Chicago Cubs in the ’32 Series, thanks to the Babe’s famous “called shot” in Game 3 off pitcher Charlie Root. The Yankees swept that Series, too.

Perhaps if the Bronx Bombers had not gone on to those multiple successes during Ruth’s later career, the final out of the 1926 World Series would be remembered by more people. But with the Babe hitting 60 home runs in 1927—setting a record that would stand until 1961—it seems as though Ruth was forgiven.

With the championships in 1927, 1928, and 1932, no one really cared about his 1926 just-miss moment. It became a footnote in Ruth’s illustrious career. Of course, the Babe hit so many home runs, no one broke his career record until Hank Aaron surpassed him in 1974.

To this day, despite improvements in athletic training, equipment, and medical treatment, Ruth remains No. 3 on the all-time home run list—and would probably rank No. 2 if not for the controversial use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Everyone knows the Babe was not perfect: His childhood trauma manifested itself in erratic, sometimes destructive behavior as an adult, and that may have led to his early demise from cancer in 1948 at the age of 53. Yet on the baseball field, it often appeared that Ruth could do no wrong, whether as a young pitcher for the Red Sox or a veteran slugger for the Yankees.

However, that final out of the 1926 World Series remains proof that there was at least one time when George Herman Ruth, Jr. was mortal on the baseball diamond while under the most intense scrutiny possible.

Writer’s note: The first baseball game I attended was Game 5 of the 1974 World Series, where the Oakland Athletics clinched a third-straight championship—still the only other team besides the Yankees to accomplish this feat in MLB history. My grandmother told me the celebration on the field after the October 17 game was for me, as the home team was just really happy to see me at my first game. 

[1]“The Wonder Team,” University of Wisconsin Press, accessed October 10, 2017. https://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/2518.htm.

[2]“The 8 Greatest MLB Teams of All Time,” CheatSheet.com, accessed October 10, 2017.
https://www.cheatsheet.com/sports/the-greatest-mlb-teams-of-all-time.html/.

[3]“The Best MLB Teams of All-Time, According to Elo,” FiveThirtyEight.com, accessed October 10, 2017. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-best-mlb-teams-of-all-time-according-to-elo/.

[4]All baseball game information and player statistics proved by Baseball Reference, accessed October 11, 2017. https://www.baseball-reference.com/.

[5]Richards Vidmer, “Yanks Refuse Ruth’s Demand For $100,000; Star Asks That Figure On 3-Year Contract or $85,000 and No Exhibitions,” The New York Herald Tribune, January 8, 1930.

[6]”Ruth Out of Danger After Convulsions on Arrival Here,” New York Times, April 10, 1925.

[7]“Yankees Win, 2 to 1, While 63,000 Watch, 15,000,000 Listen In,” New York Times, October 3, 1926.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Vidmer, “Pennock and Gehrig Turn Tide of Battle,” New York Times, October 3, 1926.

[10]“Eleven World’s Series Records Toppled; Babe Ruth Alone Hangs Up Six of Them,” New York Times, October 7, 1926.

[11]Vidmer, “Ruth’s Big Bat Rouses Yanks from Lethargy,” New York Times, October 7, 1926.

[12]Ibid.

[13]James Harrison, “Yanks Win in Tenth, 3 to 2,” New York Times, October 8, 1926.

[14]“The Cardinals’ First World Series,” YouTube.com, accessed October 12, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82qQeExdMH8.

[15]“Play in Final Game as Told over Radio,” New York Times, October 11, 1926.

[16]Vidmer, “Cards Far Better, Is Popular Belief,” New York Times, October 12, 1926.

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