Mark Koenig and a Legend

The following is an excerpt from a book, The Least Among Them, I am writing about the Yankees that is currently in development:

            Mark Koenig was the Yankees starting shortstop for three seasons from 1926 through 1928.  Koenig was an erratic fielder, leading the league in errors in 1926 and 1928.  As a batter, he  usually served as the number two batter in the line-up,  hitting just before Babe Ruth.  After batting .319 in 1928 and .292 in more limited duty in 1929, Koenig got off to a slow start in 1930.  By the end of May, he was batting only .230.  On May 30, 1930, the Yankees traded Koenig, along with future Hall-of-Famer Waite Hoyt to the Detroit Tigers for Ownie Carroll, Harry Rice, and Yats Wuestling.  Of the three, only Harry Rice, who played 100 games for the Yankees in 1930 (batting .298) had any significant impact on the team.  After the trade, Koenig bounced between four teams over the remaining six years of his career, but during that time he influenced one pennant race and, in an indirect way, one of the most legendary moments in the history of baseball.

            After the 1931 season, Mark Koenig was purchased by the Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League.  Playing Minor League ball, Koenig was sported a .325 batting average in 89 games when his contract was purchased in early August by the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were looking for infield depth because of shooting incident that involved one of their own players.

            Through the first half of the season, the regular shortstop on the Cubs was a second year player named Billy Jurges.  In a situation that most likely influenced author Bernard Malamud when he wrote The Natural, Jurges was shot by a showgirl, Violet Popovich Valli after she entered Jurges’ hotel room and was rebuffed by him.  Valli brandished a .25-calibur pistol and pointed it at Jurges.  As Jurges struggled for the gun, Valli fired three shots injuring herself and Jurges who sustained injuries to his left-hand, ribs, and right shoulder.  Interestingly, Jurges never pressed charges. Violet Valli went on to some fame in as this incident brought her some celebrity status. 

            Koenig appeared in his first game for Chicago on August 14.  On that date, the Cubs sat atop the National League by a tiny margin, just a half-game over the second place Pittsburgh Pirates.  Koenig appeared as a pinch hitter and singled in that game.  Beginning on August 19, Koenig assumed the duties as the regular shortstop for the Cubs.  Overall, as a Cub, Mark Koenig batted .353.  He was instrumental in the Cubs winning the pennant by four games over the Pirates. 

            When it came time for the Cubs to vote on player shares, they elected to offer Mark Koenig only a half-share of their World Series earnings.  This outraged the Yankees players who felt that the Cubs wouldn’t have won the pennant if not for the great work of their former teammate and friend.  When the World Series began in New York, the Yankees, most notably Babe Ruth, taunted the Cubs calling them, among other things, cheapskates.  The Cubs gave the taunts right back to the Yankees especially targeting the Babe.     

            The taunting continued through the first two games, won by the Yankees by the scores of 12-6 and 5-2.  They were just warming up…

            The third game of the 1932 World Series was played in Chicago.  The ballpark, Wrigley Field, was packed.  The fans were eager to see a Cubs victory.  Their beloved team had not won a World Series since 1908.  They lost the previous three times they were in the fall classic (1910, 1918, and 1929).  Cubs fans, like their fans still today, were thirsting for a World Championship.

            In the bottom of the first inning, Babe Ruth hit a three-run homerun to give the Yankees a convincing lead as the game was just getting under way.  The resilient Cubs though battled back, even after Lou Gehrig later hit a homerun of his own.  Aiding the Cubs in this comeback effort was a ball misplayed by Ruth in the outfield.  By the end of the fourth inning, the game was knotted at four.

            During the game, the fans, and the Cubs players screamed and yelled pejoratives at Babe Ruth.  Lemons flew out of the stands at Ruth when he was in the outfield.  By the time Babe Ruth came to bat with one out in the top of the fifth inning, the crowd was in a frenzy.    

            Charlie Root was pitching for the Cubs.  He got off to a fast start by throwing a called strike on Ruth.  This brought louder screaming.  Root missed the strike zone on his next two offerings but was able to even the count at two balls and two strikes after his next pitch, another called strike.  By this point, the Cubs players were relentless in their attacks on Babe Ruth, some even leaving the dugout to hurl their verbal attacks at the baseball legend.

            And this is when it happened…

            Babe Ruth stepped out of the batter’s box and pointed toward the mound or to center field behind it.  He was basically saying, “You have only two strikes on me, I get one more.”  He may have been saying, “I’m going to hit the next ball over the centerfield fence.” 

            What happened with the next pitched ball is clear; Babe Ruth hit the ball into the seats for a homerun giving the Yankees a 5-4 lead.  The blast was one of the longest ever hit at Wrigley Field.  It was majestic, and considering the moment, absolutely amazing.

             Debate may rage about whether Babe Ruth actually called his shot, but the results were clear, he rose above the bench jockeying and slammed a homerun.  It would be the last World Series homerun he would ever hit.

            While the home run is debated even today, there is contemporary evidence that Babe Ruth did call his shot.  That evening’s edition of the New York World Telegram had a headline that read, “RUTH CALLS SHOT AS HE PUTS HOMER NO.2 SIDE POCKET.”  In addition, Chicago Sports writer Westbrook Pegler wrote the following in the Chicago Daily Tribune, the next day, “Many a hitter may make two home runs or possibly three in world series play in years to come, but not the way Babe Ruth hit these two.  Now will you ever see an artist call his shot before hitting one of the longest drives ever made on the grounds, in a World Series game…”  These seem to indicate that Babe Ruth did gesture in a way that convinced others that he was announcing that he would hit the next pitched ball for a home run.  

            After Babe Ruth’s long homer, Lou Gehrig came to the plate and hit a home run of his own.  Both Gehrig and Ruth hit two home runs in that legendary Game Three propelling the Yankees to victory.  The next day, the Yankees finished off their World Series sweep of the Cubs with a 13-6 victory. 

            A baseball legend was born, a real life Casey at the Bat moment (only this time Casey didn’t strike out), in part because the Cubs players didn’t vote a full World Series share to a former Yankee – Mark Koenig.

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