Babe Ruth’s called shot in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series remains one of the most famous home runs in baseball history. What’s much less known, however, is that Ruth’s blast would likely never have occurred except for a remarkable chain of events that started with three gunshots fired by a jilted lover and a wounded Chicago Cub whose replacement propelled them to the World Series.
On the morning of July 6, 1932, 24-year-old Chicago Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges answered a knock on the door of Room 509 of the Hotel Carlos, a Ruthian blast from Wrigley Field. In walked Violet Popovich, a 21-year-old, chestnut-haired woman who had fallen hard for Jurges. The couple’s year-long relationship had soured, however, and ended a few weeks earlier after an argument in New York City.
With the Cubs just three games out of first place that July morning, Jurges declared his current mistress was baseball, not Popovich. “I’m not going to go out on any more dates,” he told his former flame. “We’ve got a chance to win the pennant. I’ve got to get my rest.”
The breakup was just one more emotional blow for Popovich to endure. Her father had abused her mother and abandoned the family following their divorce. Popovich moved in and out of foster care throughout her childhood and was whipped at age 15 for staying out late after going to a movie with a boy. The aspiring actress married at 18. Divorce followed six months later. “All she wanted was a stable guy in her life and a solid relationship,” says Jack Bales, author of The Chicago Cub Shot for Love, a book about the cabaret singer and ballplayer. “She just wanted a normal life with someone who loved her.”
With that prospect dashed, the jilted Popovich pulled a small, .25-caliber pistol from her purse. Three shots rang out as Jurges wrestled Popovich for the gun. One bullet struck the shortstop’s right side; another grazed his finger. The third shot hit Popovich’s left hand. Luckily, none of the injuries were life-threatening, and the pair were taken together to a hospital.
A police search of Popovich’s hotel room uncovered empty liquor bottles and a note she scribbled to her brother: “To me life without Billy isn’t worth living, but why should I leave this earth alone? I’m going to take Billy with me.” Blaming the note on “too much gin,” Popovich insisted she never intended to shoot the Cubs' shortstop but only herself. More comfortable in the sports pages than on the police blotter, Jurges refused to press charges against his former girlfriend, who was set free.
The Shortstop and Shooter Stage Comebacks
Seemingly bulletproof, Jurges returned to the Cubs’ lineup 16 days after the shooting, although his play proved lackluster. Meanwhile, Popovich also made an unexpected comeback of her own.
“After her court appearance, she told reporters that she was going to lie low and stay with her mother,” Bales says. “That didn’t last long.” As the Cubs returned home on July 24, thousands of yellow handbills littering the sidewalks outside Wrigley Field touted the State-Congress Theater’s new burlesque show, “The Bare Cub Follies,” headlined by Violet Valli, Popovich’s stage name.
That night, a curious crowd shuffled into the theater and watched “The Girl Who Shot for Love” take the stage to sing a love ballad. The audience expected her to shed articles of clothing or spread gossip, but she revealed neither body nor soul and left the stage to a smattering of applause. The public quickly lost interest in Popovich, and the show closed well short of its planned 22-week run.
Billy Jurges Is Replaced in Chicago Cubs' Lineup
Mired in second place as the calendar turned to August, the underachieving Cubs replaced manager Rogers Hornsby with Charlie Grimm and signed former New York Yankees shortstop Mark Koenig to spell the struggling Jurges.
Chicago flourished under Grimm, whose last name belied his fun-loving attitude, and Koenig provided a badly needed spark. The new Cubs shortstop batted .353 in 33 games, and his three-run, walk-off homer on August 20 launched a 14-game winning streak that propelled the Cubs to the National League pennant. “We wouldn’t be in first place if it wasn’t for Mark,” Grimm said of Jurges’s replacement.
Despite Koenig’s critical role in sending Chicago to the World Series, his teammates voted to give him only a half-share of any bonuses. “We figured he wasn’t entitled to it,” remembered Jurges. “He did win the pennant for us, but he didn’t play that many ball games.”
The Cubs’ World Series opponents—the New York Yankees—stood up for their former teammate and needled the Cubs for their miserly ways. Nobody was as boisterous as the 37-year-old Ruth, who proved as prodigious at heckling as homering. “Ruth was not shy about mixing it up,” says Ed Sherman, author of Babe Ruth’s Called Shot. “He had a big personality and could talk trash with the best of them.”
As the World Series opened in New York with Koenig at shortstop and Jurges on the bench, Ruth derided the Cubs as “penny-pinchers,” “tightwads” and “nickel nurses.” After losing the first two games, the Cubs and their fans no longer found Ruth’s ribbing a laughing matter. Five thousand jeering fans welcomed Ruth as his train arrived in the Windy City, and one woman even spat at him and his wife as they entered the hotel. “I heard some words that even I had never heard before,” Ruth quipped.
Babe Ruth Responds to Taunts with Legendary Homer
Ruth resumed his cutting commentary during batting practice before Game 3 at Wrigley Field. “I’d play for half my salary if I could hit in this dump all my life,” he bellowed while launching home run after home run into the bleachers.
With Koenig out with a wrist injury suffered in New York, Jurges returned to shortstop and promptly made an error on the first play of the game. Two batters later, Ruth clobbered a home run to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead. Jurges repaid the favor in the fourth inning, however, with a sinking liner to left field that Ruth failed to corral with an unartful shoestring catch that drew the hoots and hollers of Cubs fans. Jurges eventually scored to tie the score, finally giving the Cubs momentum in the series.
When Ruth stepped to the plate in the fifth inning, fans reportedly tossed lemons at him while Cubs players flung a fusillade of insults. Ruth heard them all: “Big belly!” “Grandpop!” “Balloon head!” The more colorful taunts questioned Ruth’s parentage, intelligence, ability to touch his toes and even his race.
Throughout his at-bat, Ruth jawed with the Cubs’ dugout and gesticulated in the direction of pitcher Charlie Root. Whether Ruth physically pointed to predict a forthcoming home run remains one of baseball’s great mysteries, but what’s certain is that the riled-up slugger golfed Root’s 2-2 over Wrigley Field’s center-field wall for a home run measuring nearly 500 feet.
“Unbelievable!” exclaimed Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had thrown out the game’s first pitch. Guffawing as he rounded third base, Ruth continued to spout jokes about Chicago’s miserly ways. The final homer of Ruth’s World Series career put the Yankees ahead for good in Game 3, and the demoralized Cubs lost the series the following day.
“What always gets diminished in the controversy about whether it was a called shot is that it was an unbelievable moment in which a player was challenged, and Ruth responded emphatically as only he could,” Sherman says. It was an historic moment that may not have happened without a femme fatale, a replacement shortstop and a tight-fisted decision that ignited an epic war of words.