Never let the truth get in the way of a good story (oh yes I’m talking to you, Sammy Vick and Leigh Montville)

I’m finally getting around to reading Leigh Montville‘s 2006 biography of Babe Ruth, “The Big Bam.” This passage, beginning on page 115 of the hardcover edition, jumped out at me:

“My greatest moment during the season came one day with the bases loaded, the score tied, and Babe’s turn to bat,” Sam Vick said. “The height of ambition of the fans was to see such a setup. They were almost taking the top off the stand. There was a lull in the game, and Babe did not climb out of the dugout. He had hurt his wrist and couldn’t go up to bat.”

Vick and the rest of the players in the dugout looked at Huggins [Yankee manager Miller Huggins–JGP]. The manager looked back, considering each possibility, staring at someone, then moving his eyes to the next player. Vick held his breath, Huggins looked at him, then looked away. Huggins looked again, looked away. This happened several times. The manager finally said, “Sam, get your bat.”

“I began to breathe again, picked out my bat, and started to the plate,” Vick said. “The announcer said, ‘Vick, batting for Ruth.’ When it dawned on the crowd what was happening, you could hear a pin drop. It seemed like five miles to the plate. The stillness was frightening, but on the way, down inside me, there was the reaction, ‘That’s what you think!’

“I then blacked out and don’t remember anything until I slid into third base with a triple.”

Or did you, Sammy Vick?

Big BamIt’s easy to see why Montville would include such a richly-told anecdote (although it’s really a story about Vick and not about the Babe). But for all its detail, several key facts were missing, such as when the game took place, or where, or who the opponent was.

Turns out it was pretty hard to include those details when the incident in question never happened. Not even close.

Montville’s book is aggravatingly unsourced beyond a bibliography, the author’s acknowledgments and an interesting introduction in which he describes tracking down some of Ruth’s previous biographers and gaining access to some of their research materials. But with no footnotes, there is no indication where this anecdote came from. Vick died in 1986, so it’s pretty clear Montville didn’t interview him for the book.

The tale is included in the chapter about the 1920 season, and that was the only season Vick and Ruth were teammates. Vick had been the New York Yankees’ primary right fielder in 1919 and was relegated to a reserve role when the Yanks acquired Ruth after that season. Vick was traded to Ruth’s old team, the Boston Red Sox, after the 1920 season in a deal that brought Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt to the Yankees.

When Montville wrote the book, the amazing volunteer researchers at Retrosheet had not yet included box scores for all the games of the 1920 season on their site. So it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as easy for Leigh to check the details of Vick’s story as it was for me. On the other hand, wouldn’t you be curious to read a firsthand account of this dramatic event? Montville quotes from many other game stories in the course of his narrative.

Anyway, let’s get to the bottom of this. Turns out Vick hit just one triple all season, and that on the last day of the season, in the first game of a doubleheader at Philadelphia. Alas, he didn’t hit it as a pinch-hitter, as Vick was in the starting lineup, as was Ruth.

Okay, maybe the triple part wasn’t quite right. But there must have been some sort of dramatic situation in which Vick hit for Ruth, right?

Sammy Vick

Sammy Vick

Uh…..no. I went through the game-by-game account of Ruth’s 1920 season and looked at all the box scores of games Ruth started but didn’t finish. There were only four. In none of those games was Ruth’s substitute listed as a pinch-hitter. And in only one of those games was Vick the substitute for Ruth, that game being June 19 at Chicago. Vick had a single in two at-bats and did not drive in a run, although he did score one.

I figured I’d better check an account of the game for details, maybe the box score inadvertently omitted the fact that he actually did pinch-hit for the Babe before replacing him in the field, and maybe he delivered a dramatic single that didn’t drive in any runs.

Uh…no. According to a story in the New York Times on June 20, Ruth was hit in the head by a throw from second base by White Sox shortstop Buck Weaver trying to complete a double play in the second inning. Babe stayed in the game, but in the sixth inning he lost a fly ball hit by Happy Felsch that fell for a double. “Ruth was so badly shaken up by his accident in the second and his right eye troubled him so badly that it was responsible for his missing Felsch’s drive,” wrote the unidentified reporter. “Ruth was taken out of the game. Sammy Vick went out to right field in the big fellow’s place.”

That sounds like Vick replaced Ruth during the inning, immediately after Felsch’s hit, although the author doesn’t say that in so many words. But with the narrative then going on to give a play-by-play of the rest of the inning, the reader is left with the clear impression that Vick entered the game immediately after Felsch’s hit. Vick did come to bat in the bottom of the sixth, with one out and nobody on, and singled, later scoring. The Yanks would go on to lose in 10 innings.

So when did Vick start telling the story that he pinch-hit for Babe Ruth? According to his obituary in the Sept. 1, 1986 issue of The Sporting News, Vick was “the only player ever to pinch hit for Ruth.” The account in the obituary is similar to the story told by Montville; Ruth had “suffered a minor arm injury” and Vick “delivered a bases-loaded triple that tied the score in a game the Yankees eventually won.” Again, no date or opponent is given. (Note that in Montville’s book Vick’s triple came with the score tied, in the obituary the triple tied the game.)

On Vick’s page on the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame website, at least at the time I write this (Feb. 18, 2013), it is noted that “Vick pinch-hit for the immortal Babe Ruth and ended up with a triple.” When Vick died, at least one newspaper included Babe’s name in the obituary headline but not Vick’s. And while the Associated Press obituary also included the “fact” that Vick was the only man ever to pinch-hit for Ruth, that’s no more true than the “fact” that Vick himself hit for the Babe.

According to “The Yankee Encyclopedia” by Mark Gallagher, the only player ever to pinch-hit for Ruth with the Yankees was Bobby Veach in 1925. “Veach flied out,” Gallagher writes, but he does not give a date. Going through Ruth’s day-by-day record for 1925, I don’t find a game in which his substitute is listed as a pinch-hitter, but this account indicates Veach hit for the Babe on August 9 at Yankee Stadium against the White Sox, quoting a report in the Chicago Tribune and another unattributed story. The New York Times game story, the only one I can access at the moment, does not mention Veach entering the game as a pinch-hitter.

Other sources also list Veach as the last man to bat for the Babe. But the biography of Ben Paschal as part of the Society for American Baseball Research‘s Baseball Biography Project says Paschal was the last player to pinch-hit for Ruth, in the opening game of the 1927 season on April 12. It quotes as its source a report by Fred Lieb in the New York Post that was excerpted in G.H. Fleming‘s fine book, “Murderer’s Row”:

It was Ruth’s turn to bat during the sixth inning fusillade. Koenig was on third. What’s that? Ben Paschal batting for Ruth. For whom? Yes, for Ruth. Ben slung a single to right, scoring Koenig.

Yes, there is an explanation. Miller Huggins says that Babe had a bilious attack. Something he had eaten, and he couldn’t see the ball.

The New York Times game story also indicates Paschal batted for Ruth while not listing him as a pinch-hitter in the box score. It appears, although I can not state this with any authority, that the newspaper custom of the day was to indicate pinch-hitters as such in the box score only if they did not stay in the game after batting; in a modern box score Paschal would have been listed as “ph-rf,” not just “rf” as he was in the Times.

But back to Sammy Vick and Leigh Montville…after telling the (false) story of Vick batting for Ruth, Montville launches right into another yarn:

On another day, a doubleheader in Washington, Vick struck out seven times. The background was bad for hitters in Washington, and Walter Johnson pitched one of the games and was impossible to hit, and…seven strikeouts in seven appearances. The Yankees were shut out in both games. Vick was mournful as he walked back to the clubhouse.

He suddenly felt an arm around his shoulder.

“Don’t mind that, boy,” second baseman Del Pratt said. “When the Babe strikes out five times [and he had], they don’t even see you.”

This story is also false — Vick never struck out anywhere near seven times in a doubleheader in 1920 — but it does contain a kernel of truth. Ruth did strike out five times in a 1920 twin-bill…but not in Washington, or even against the Senators. And the Yankees were not shut out in either game, let alone both; they scored a total of 11 runs in splitting a pair against the St. Louis Browns on July 13 at the Polo Grounds, the Yankees’ home at the time. (The Yanks weren’t shut out in both games of a doubleheader all season.) Ruth struck out three times in the first game and twice in the second. Vick played in both games, and while he did not strike out in the opener, he did fan three times (in four trips to the plate) in the finale. Pratt’s post-game words of condolence are conceivable; the home fans were certainly more interested in Ruth, who was two home runs away from tying the single-season record he had set the previous year, than they were in a backup outfielder.

It’s true resources weren’t as easily available for Leigh Montville to debunk the two false stories about Sammy Vick that are in his book. But it’s troubling the anecdotes were included. Montville has been criticized — and quite unfairly, in my opinion — for the lack of detail he includes about Ruth’s personal life, in particular his childhood and first marriage. But Montville makes it clear much of that detail is unknown and unknowable, because records and accurate first-hand accounts simply don’t exist. Rather than speculate, fill in the blanks and draw conclusions, Montville presents what little is known (and points out contradictions in available information) and leaves it at that. The troubling part is the same level of skepticism isn’t applied to the baseball side of Babe’s life, that the undated but clearly later-in-life assertions of a former teammate are taken at face value. Old baseball players aren’t reliable sources of accurate information about their lives (really, my observation is very few of us are, and I don’t include myself among them). For another example, take a look at a post I did a few years ago about French Bordagaray.

ADDED 3/9/13: Marshall Smelser interviewed Sammy Vick for his 1975 biography of Ruth, “The Life That Ruth Built.” Neither of the stories above was included in that book, but Montville wrote in the introduction to his book that Smelser left all of his materials to the Baseball Hall of Fame and implied that he (Montville) accessed them. It’s possible Vick’s yarns were in those materials.

ADDED 2/28/14: Yes, that’s exactly where they were…SABR member Bill Nowlin found handwritten letters in Vick’s Hall of Fame file, written to Smelser in 1972, telling both these stories. Nowlin includes longer passages from those letters in his biography of Vick.

ADDED 2/20/13: Okay, I shouldn’t paint old ballplayers with such a broad brush. While most of them (like most of the rest of us) mangle the facts of their memories, especially when they are many years after the fact, not all of them (or us) do. Starting on page 135 of “The Big Bam,” Waite Hoyt remembers when he was a teammate of the Babe’s with the Red Sox:

I remember one time we were playing the White Sox in Boston in 1919, and he hit a home run off Lefty Williams over the left-field fence in the ninth inning and won the game. It was majestic. It soared. We watched it and wondered, ‘How can a guy hit a ball like that?’ It was to the opposite field and off a left-handed pitcher, and it was an incredible feat. That was the dead ball days, remember; the ball normally didn’t carry. We were playing a doubleheader, and that was the first game, and the White Sox did not go into the clubhouse between games. They stood out there and sat on our bench and talked about the magnificence of that home run.

Naturally I expected this tale to be riddled with errors…only, to the extent that I can check it, it isn’t. A check of Ruth’s home run log turns it up quickly: a home run on September 20, 1919, in Boston, off Chicago’s Lefty Williams, in the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader, the first game-ending home run of Ruth’s career, to give the Red Sox a 4-3 victory. Sure, there are a couple of things I can’t verify without reading a newspaper account of the game, such as whether the home run was hit to left field and whether the White Sox really did stay on the field between games, but since Hoyt got everything else right I’m inclined to believe him on those points as well. Very impressive, Mr. Hoyt.

ADDED 12/29/13: I’ve found an account of the September 20 games in the next day’s Boston Herald, and Babe’s game-winning home run was indeed hit to left field. And while there is no reference to the White Sox staying on their bench between games, perhaps they remained there to watch the festivities; it was the final home games of the season for Boston, and it was Babe Ruth Day, with a full house on hand. Burt Whitman described the scene in the Herald:

Between games Babe and Mrs. Babe were given about everything you could think of by various persons, but just naturally the Pete Marquette Council of the Knights of Columbus, who managed the special day exercises, led in presentations. They gave Babe $600 in United States Treasury savings certificates. They handed him a diamond studded insignia of the order, a flock of boxes of “seegars,” which Babe adores, and an order for a $100 coat. Then, too, Mrs. Babe, who was compelled to trot onto the diamond with Babe, was presented with an admirably fitted up traveling bag.

A cartoon from the September 21, 1919 Boston Herald depicting Babe Ruth's game-winning homer of the day before.

A cartoon from the September 21, 1919 Boston Herald depicting Babe Ruth’s game-winning homer of the day before.

3 thoughts on “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story (oh yes I’m talking to you, Sammy Vick and Leigh Montville)

  1. Cliff Blau

    Vick’s story could have been about an exhibition game. They played at least five during the regular season in 1920.

    Reply
    1. prestonjg Post author

      That’s a good point, Cliff. Vick’s telling of the tale seems a bit dramatic for an exhibition, but it could have happened. In any event he shouldn’t be billed as the only man to pinch-hit for Ruth. Isn’t there a SABR member who has tried to gather information on all of Babe’s in-season exhibition games?

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Did Babe Ruth bat right-handed in a game after he hit three home runs? | The J.G. Preston Experience

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