[Revised with additional information 5/20/18]
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 that Ruth didn’t come to the plate for the fourth time after hitting three home runs. He didn’t come to the plate at all after hitting three home runs. He hit his third home run in his fourth, and last, plate appearance of the game.
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.
Ruth didn’t bat in the ninth inning, and Jack Quinn didn’t pitch in the ninth either; he pitched the fifth, sixth and seventh. Quinn was the one pitcher in the game who retired Ruth, getting him on a fly ball to right field in the fifth inning, after Babe had homered in his first two at-bats off George Earnshaw. Babe’s final at-bat came in the eighth inning, when he homered off Hall of Famer Lefty Grove.
But did Ruth attempt to bat right-handed against Quinn? Or Earnshaw or Grove, for that matter? The game account in The New York Times makes no reference to it; nor does the story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but you might think such a stunt would merit mention. 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 it was the third-inning home run, not the third home run, and apparently as dramatic as it was, it wasn’t quite as dramatic as Smelser would have us believe (it didn’t land on a roof). From the Times: “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.” And the Inquirer: “He drove the ball over the wall, Twentieth street, a dwelling and all, the pill finally falling down in the second street from the park for the longest circuit crack that eyes in the press box ever envisaged.”
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. But Smelser gives no indication whatsoever what his source for the story was; perhaps it was a tale told by one of the numerous Ruth teammates Smelser interviewed. What I would love to know is if this claim ever appeared in print before Smelser’s book was published. If anyone can find such a thing, PLEASE let me know in the comments.
You’ll find Smelser’s version of the story told on the NationalPastime.com website on its “This Day in Baseball History” page for May 21. It’s on the TodayInBaseballHistory.com site for May 21. You’ll also find it told on Baseball-Reference.com, on its listing of events for May 21. They’re all wrong. (David Schoenfield of ESPN.com linked to my page in 2015 to debunk the story.)