In this week’s “Conversations with Clayton,” I had the pleasure of corresponding with Thomas Wolf, author of a fantastic new work of baseball history. The Called Shot: Babe Ruth, the Chicago Cubs, and the Unforgettable Major League Baseball Season of 1932 is the latest in a long line of fantastic baseball books from the University of Nebraska Press. It was named one of the best baseball books of 2020 by Sports Collectors Digest and has been named a finalist for the 2021 Seymour Medal, which is awarded annually by SABR for the best baseball history book or biography.
In a wide ranging interview, Tom and I discuss presidents and baseball, Tom’s research and writing process, and growing up in Ohio.
Clayton Trutor (CT): What drew you to this topic?
Tom Wolf (TW): The 1932 baseball season had it all: Dramatic pennant races, great stories, and a Chicago Cubs versus New York Yankees World Series. It was also a challenging year for America. The country was in the grip of the Depression, and for many Americans, baseball was a diversion during this troubled time.
CT: What player on the Yankees did you find the most interesting to research?
TW: Joe Sewell. He was the hardest man to strike out in the history of the game. In more than 7000 big league at-bats, he only struck out 114 times. In 1932, he came to the plate over 500 times and struck out just three times. He had two brothers who also played in the majors.
CT: What player on the Cubs did you find most interesting to research?
TW: Guy Bush. The Cubs had an outstanding pitching staff in 1932, from the veteran Charlie Root to the rookie Lon Warneke, but Bush was the most interesting to me because of his historical connections to Babe Ruth. In the 1932 World Series, Bush was the main antagonist when Ruth came to bat in the fifth inning of Game Three, screaming insults at Ruth from the Cubs dugout just moments before Ruth launched his called shot home run. In 1935, when Bush was pitching for the Pirates, he gave up Ruth’s last two regular season home runs—and tipped his cap in admiration to Ruth as Ruth circled the bases on what would be home run number 714 of Ruth’s career. Many years later, Bush was one of the few Cubs who supported the belief that Ruth had, indeed, called his shot in the 1932 World Series.
CT: What were FDR and Hoover’s relationships with baseball like?
TW: Both were baseball fans with an appreciation of tradition and who viewed the game as the national pastime. In each of his four years as President, Hoover appeared at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC, to throw out the traditional first pitch. Roosevelt was a devoted Yankees fan, and in 1932, he was a spectator in Wrigley Field who witnessed Ruth’s called shot in the World Series. After Ruth’s home run, Roosevelt turned to his son, James, and said, “Unbelievable.” Roosevelt also wrote the famous “Green Light” letter in January 1942, encouraging the major leagues to continue to play baseball through World War II.
CT: Can you describe your writing process?
TW: In a word: slow. I prefer mornings, but I don’t have a rigid or set schedule. I probably should. If I have a deadline, I try to work productively early in the day. I write mostly on a computer, but I also scribble notes by hand on scraps of paper or compose short passages on notebook paper.
CT: What advice would you give to somebody trying to research and write a book about baseball?
TW: It depends on the player or era or topic one is researching. In researching the 1920s and 1930s, I found oral histories and biographies especially helpful. I also took advantage of many online sources: the SABR biographies, Baseball-Reference, and Retrosheet. Anyone writing baseball history should visit the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The staff is terrific, and the archives are fantastic.
CT: Who was the most interesting bad team in baseball during the 1932 season?
TW: The New York Giants finished 72-82, in sixth place in the National League, but they had five Hall of Fame players on the roster—Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Freddie Lindstrom, Carl Hubbell, and Waite Hoyt. Plus, their manager—who resigned in mid-season—was John McGraw, another Hall of Famer. Ott tied for the league lead in home runs. Hubbell was second in the league in ERA. With all that talent, how did they manage to lose more games than they won?
CT: When you think of Cincinnati, you think of ________.
TW: I grew up in Granville, Ohio, a small town in the middle of the state, so when I think of Cincinnati, I think of Ohio and my youth. After a brief dalliance with the Yankees, I became a Cincinnati Reds fan. Vada Pinson was my favorite player. I collected baseball cards, played dice baseball games, and played pickup baseball with friends after school. My career in organized ball ended in Little League, where I hit .257 in my last season.
CT: Describe the worst seats you’ve ever had at a game.
TW: I had bad seats once in Yankee Stadium, way in the back of the lower deck where it was hard to see and follow fly balls. I also saw a lot of games in the Kingdome in Seattle in the mid-1970s, and that was an awful place to watch baseball. Every seat in the Kingdome was a bad seat.
CT: What are you working on now?
TW: I’m researching a book on baseball in 1926, another year with great baseball stories. The careers of Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker were coming to an end. That year the St. Louis Cardinals won their first national league pennant and first world series. Rogers Hornsby and Babe Ruth led their teams into the World Series. The Negro Leagues were thriving. Satchel Paige made his professional debut that season. Nationally, it was the midpoint of the Jazz Age and Roaring 20s. In just a few years, the nation would be plunged into despair and the depression. 1926 was another pivotal year in the story of our country.
Drop everything you are doing and go buy The Called Shot: Babe Ruth, the Chicago Cubs, and the Unforgettable Major League Baseball Season of 1932 immediately!