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Did Babe Ruth really call his shot at Wrigley Field?

In an amateur film taken by Matt Miller Kandle Sr. Ruth clearly points before hitting his home run against Cubs

In an amateur film taken by Matt Miller Kandle Sr., Ruth clearly points before hitting his home run against Cubs pitcher Charlie Root. But it’s hard to determine where he's pointing.

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In an amateur film taken by Matt Miller Kandle Sr., Ruth clearly points before hitting his home run against Cubs pitcher Charlie Root (right). But it’s hard to
determine whether he was pointing at the Cubs’ dugout, at Root or out to center field.

After hitting the homer, Ruth makes a waving gesture in the direction of the Cubs’ dugout, then twice makes a pushing motion between second and third base.

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Updated: September 29, 2011 12:32AM

Did he or didn’t he?

Almost 79 years later, it’s still one of the more debatable moments in baseball folklore: Did George Herman Ruth — ‘‘The Babe’’ — really call his shot in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series against the Cubs? Or is it better that we never know?

Does reviewing old 16-millimeter home movies and interviewing sons and granddaughters of players who were involved in the game tarnish what is better left untouched as baseball legend?

‘‘I think that’s right,’’ author and baseball historian George Will said when he was asked Thursday about letting the ‘‘called shot’’ stay a great baseball story. ‘‘[With] the Loch Ness Monster, you can at least say, ‘Well, maybe tomorrow he’ll stick his head up out of the water.’ But [with Ruth], we’re never really going to know, and baseball thrives on arguments.

‘‘ ‘Who is the best left-handed pinch hitter from South Dakota?’ Baseball fans will argue about anything, and this is a hearty perennial for the cold, winter months.’’

Or a reminder of that history in the heat of interleague play in June.

Beginning today, the New York Yankees come to Wrigley for three games. That means the pinstripes, the swagger and the history. It means Gehrig, DiMaggio and, of course ‘‘The Bambino.’’

The Cubs began playing at Wrigley Field in 1916 and have offered up more heartbreak than history within the ivy walls. But while Wrigley never has seen a Cubs player hold up a World Series trophy, that doesn’t mean that baseball history doesn’t reside there.

There are some undisputed facts about Ruth’s ‘‘called shot.’’

After hitting a home run earlier in the game, Ruth came up in the fifth inning with hostile words coming from the Cubs’ bench. There is footage of the Cubs riding Ruth to no end, especially after pitcher Charlie Root threw a called strike on the first pitch.

After the pitch, Ruth looked at the dugout and raised a finger, almost reminding the Cubs it was only one strike. Root then fell behind 2-1 before throwing a second called strike. The Cubs’ dugout — and the stands — erupted.

Ruth waved two fingers at the Cubs’ dugout, then started yelling at Root on the mound. It was at that point that he made a gesture. Was he pointing again at the Cubs’ dugout? Was he pointing at Root? Or was he pointing to center field and calling his shot?

Root’s next pitch was a curveball that Ruth hit what was estimated at the time to be about 440 feet to center field, near the flagpole. It since has been estimated as a 490-foot blast, considering where the flagpole was. But then the story really got interesting.

As Ruth rounded the bases, he mocked the Cubs’ dugout twice in what was an eventual 7-5 Yankees victory. The Yankees put the Cubs to rest the next day, completing the four-game sweep. But the ‘‘called shot’’ would be Ruth’s last World Series hit.

Only one article written on the day of the game mentioned that Ruth pointed to center field, and that was by a reporter named Joe Williams. But Williams never referred to it as Ruth calling his shot. Several days later, as more and more writers read Williams’ story, they began writing that Ruth had called his shot. It had taken on a life of its own.

And like a magician who never reveals his tricks, Ruth fed the beast, never coming out and saying it did or didn’t happen. All he said was, ‘‘Well, it was in the newspapers.’’

‘‘Babe Ruth’s ‘called shot’ ranks as high in baseball folklore as George Washington and the cherry tree ranks in our political folklore, and they have one thing in common: They probably didn’t happen,’’ Will said. ‘‘Babe Ruth never said he did it. He may have on his deathbed said that he didn’t do it, but he never claimed that he did it.

‘‘During that game, the Cubs’ dugout was all over him. Bench jockeys were a lot fiercer and meaner in those days, so there was a lot of back-and-forth. He could have been pointing to them. He was no doubt yelling at them because that was part of the ethic of the game then.

‘‘The fact is that we don’t know and we’re never going to know for sure — unless Charlie Root comes back and tells us something different. That was the pitcher that was 60 feet, 6 inches away from him at the time.’’

Root hasn’t come back to tell his side of the story, but his daughter, Della, did. In a documentary done in 2009, Della Root said Ruth wasn’t calling his shot.

‘‘The day before [my father] died,’’ Della said in the piece, ‘‘I was holding his hand, and he said, ‘You know, Della, I gave my life to baseball, and I will always be remembered for something that never happened.’  ’’

Oct. 1, 2012, will be the 80th anniversary of Ruth’s ‘‘called shot.’’ The way the Cubs are going, it’s safe to say it still will be the greatest moment in Wrigley Field’s history of home-team failure.

Was Ruth’s gesture actually the slugger calling his shot?

‘‘It’s a hell of a good story,’’ Will said with a smile.

One that baseball is better off keeping alive and well.

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