Look, I don’t mean to pick on Leigh Montville, but his “The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth” just happens to be the book I’ve been reading lately. And I found another sentence that made me stop and say, really? From page 312 of the hardback:
In 1930 he hit three home runs against the Philadelphia A’s, then came to the plate the fourth time, batted right-handed for two strikes, then stepped across the plate and swung with a fury to strike out on the next pitch.
And it’s not.
The part about hitting three home runs against the A’s is true. It happened in the first game of a doubleheader on May 21, 1930, the first time the Babe had ever hit three home runs in a regular-season game (he had done it twice in World Series contests, in 1926 and 1928). But according to the box score, Ruth did not strike out.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t bat right-handed.
Note in the box score Ruth’s home runs came in the first, third and eighth innings. We don’t know how many outs there were when he hit the homers, but a minimum of 14 Yankees would have had to bat between his home runs (13 outs if the homers came with two outs in the third and leading off the eighth, plus one run scored in the fourth), so Ruth had to bat between his second and third home runs. He couldn’t have come to the plate for the fourth time after hitting three home runs.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t bat right-handed after hitting three home runs.
Except we can see from the box he batted only four times in the game. (You can also prove that by looking at the Yankee totals: 27 outs plus 7 runs plus 4 runners left on base equals 38 batters in the game, meaning the last batter was number two hitter Lyn Lary.) So Ruth did not come up to bat again after his third home run.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t bat right-handed before hitting his third home run. Of course, this story has already pretty much fallen apart.
Montville does not credit the source for this story, but it appears to come from one of the Ruth biographies published in the mid-1970s that he references in his introduction, Marshall Smelser’s “The Life That Ruth Built: A Biography.” Here’s the passage (from page 422 of the 1993 printing from the University of Nebraska Press):
Ruth made the only truly stupid play of his life on May 21  in Shibe Park, Philadelphia. For the first time in a regular season game he hit three home runs in one game. The third cleared the fence, crossed the street, a house, and two back yards, and landed on the roof of the next house. And he still had one more time at bat on a day when he was as hot as hydrogen fusion. Nobody had hit four in one game since Ed Delahanty did it in 1896. When Ruth came up in the ninth he faced the right-handed spitball pitcher Jack Quinn. Outraging reason, Ruth decided to bat right-handed against a right-hander. He took two called strikes in this unfamiliar batter’s box, then crossed over to bat left-handed — and struck out. A case can be made for the attempt to steal which made the last out of the 1926 World Series, but not for throwing away a chance to hit four home runs in one game. It was his dumbest hour.
We’ve already seen that Ruth couldn’t have batted in the ninth inning; the game ended with him on deck, and his last at-bat came in the eighth. And Jack Quinn didn’t pitch in the ninth inning; the box score shows he pitched the fifth, sixth and seventh.
Of course, that means Quinn was the one pitcher who retired Ruth in the game, in his at-bat that came between his second and third home runs. But we know that out wasn’t a strikeout. And we know that Ruth hadn’t already hit three home runs when he faced Quinn.
But did Ruth attempt to bat right-handed against Quinn? The game account in The New York Times makes no reference to it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but you might think such a stunt would merit mention. I have access to no other daily newspaper accounts of the game, but on the front page of the next issue of The Sporting News, dated May 29, 1930, the reports on the A’s and the Yankees both discuss Babe’s three-homer game without mentioning any right-handed-swinging shenanigans. Again, the most famous player in the world tries to pull a stunt like that, don’t you think it would be noted in The Bible of Baseball?
(By the way, the one thing in Smelser’s telling that is more-or-less correct was that Babe hit an unusually long home run in the game, although in the New York Times story it was the third-inning home run, not the third home run. “The ball soared across the first row of houses across the street from the right-field wall, diving into the back yard of a house facing on the next street.” That version doesn’t have the ball traveling quite as far as Smelser’s does.)
So where did Smelser get the story? Like Montville’s book, Smelser’s is not footnoted. But Smelser was an academic historian, and it’s clear from the preface his book was extensively researched, both through interviews and published materials. I read both the passage I quoted and the preface via Google Books online, which doesn’t allow viewing of the entire book; I have a printed copy on order from inter-library loan, so maybe I’ll see something there that gives some indication as to where this story came from. (ADDED 3/9/13: Nope, the book has no indication whatsoever. Perhaps it was a tale told by one of the numerous Ruth teammates Smelser interviewed.)
A version of this tale also appears on the BaseballLibrary.com website, including the inaccurate assertion that Ruth’s three home runs came in consecutive at-bats. You’ll also find it told on Baseball-Reference.com.