This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
Perhaps unfairly, Charlie Root’s name and legacy are indelibly intertwined with one of baseball’s most enduring and intriguing legends: Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in Game Three of the 1932 World Series. Overlooked is Root’s reputation as one of the most dependable, durable, and hardest-throwing pitchers of his generation. With the most victories in Chicago Cubs history (201), Root paced the National League with 26 wins in 1927 and helped lead the North Siders to four World Series appearances (1929, 1932, 1935, and 1938) during a ten-season span. After his active playing career, Root was a well respected minor-league manager and major-league pitching coach, most notably for the 1957 champion Milwaukee Braves.
A baseball career was far from foretold when Charles Henry Root was born on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1899, the eighth of nine children of Jacob and Mary Root in Middletown, Ohio, situated about halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton. Called the Kaiser for his authoritarian personality and preference for speaking German at home, Jacob worked in the local steel mill, Armco, and envisioned for his four sons a life of hard work in factories.[fn]Roger Snell, Root for the Cubs. Charlie Root and the 1929 Chicago Cubs (Nicholasville, Kentucky: Wind, 2009), 8.[/fn] Young Charlie was a class clown in grade school and often found himself in trouble with his teachers. When a teacher reprimanded 13-year-old Charles for his disruptive behavior, “I quit school,” he recalled. “And I never spent another day in the classroom.”[fn]The Sporting News, March 2, 1933, 7.[/fn] Jacob, who placed little value in formal education and considered athletics folly, accepted his son’s decision and demanded that Charlie find a job to help support the financially strapped family. Charlie began “driving a grocery wagon” and then toiled in a box factory, but admitted that he spent more time playing baseball on vacant lots, collecting baseball cards from tobacco packs, and hunting bumblebees. Approaching his 18th birthday, Root took a job at Armco as a patternmaker. Aided by a growth spurt, he pitched and played shortstop for the factory team. Showing promise as a pitcher, Root played semipro ball for the Middletown Eagles, earning $5 a game on Sundays in 1919. When the nearby Hamilton Engine Works offered him $35 per game to pitch for them and a job paying $50 a week, Root jumped at the opportunity, and led manager Carl Link’s team to the championship in the Southern Ohio industrial league. Industrial leagues were fertile grounds for professional baseball at the time and were scouted heavily. St. Louis Browns pitcher and scout Carl Weilman, who lived in Hamilton, saw Root pitch several times, including in an exhibition against the Browns, and signed Root to a professional contract.
Almost 22 years old, Root reported to manager Lee Fohl at the Browns’ spring-training camp in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1921. “A promising youngster” was the report on the tough right-hander, but the Browns, whom some considered to be serious contenders in the American League, had little use for such a green player.[fn]“Browns to be in Flag Fight,” New Castle (Pennsylvania) News, March 10, 1921, 20.[/fn] Root was optioned to the Terre Haute Tots in the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (Three-I) League, but his promising maiden season (8-7 with a 3.57 ERA) was cut short when he broke his leg sliding into third base. Returning to Terre Haute the following season, Root helped lead the Tots to the pennant by winning 16 games, including a no-hitter, and impressed management with his versatility as a starter and reliever.
With a career in the major leagues beckoning, Root joined the Browns at their spring-training facility in San Antonio in 1923 and made the team. Coming off a surprise second-place finish in 1922, the Browns had a veteran staff, led by Urban Shocker, and topped the AL in ERA. Pitching out of the bullpen, Root made his major-league debut on Opening Day, April 18 and retired all three batters he faced in the ninth inning. Throwing almost exclusively fastballs, Root pitched typically in mop-up situations (the Browns lost 23 of the 27 games in which he appeared) and finished with a 0-4 record and 5.70 ERA which earned him a ticket out of the major leagues. “I was glad to go,” Root said. “Those fellows just murdered my fast one and they were the best I had in the bag.”[fn]“Charley Root Has the Makings of a Truly Great Hurler,” Zanesville (Ohio) Times Signal, December 19, 1926, 14.[/fn]
In the offseason new Browns manager George Sisler traded Root, utilityman Cedric Durst, pitcher Rasty Wright, and catcher Josh Billings to the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League for pitcher George Lyons and catcher Tony Rego in a deal later called Sisler’s Folly.[fn]The Sporting News, March 7, 1933, 7.[/fn] Veteran pitcher Doc Crandall took Root under his wing, taught him a hard curveball and helped him develop a changeup. The results were spectacular: Root won 21 games and logged 322 innings. The Chicago Cubs purchased his contract after the season for an estimated $30,000 and two players.[fn]“Cubs Pay $50,000 for Charley Root,” Wisconsin State Journal (Madison), August 10, 1924, 27.[/fn] After participating in the Cubs’ spring training at Catalina Island, Root was optioned back to the Angels for more seasoning. He excelled, winning 25 games, lowering his ERA almost one full run to 2.86, logging 324 innings, and leading the league in strikeouts.
Commencing in manager Joe McCarthy’s first year at the helm of the Cubs and marking the advent of 14 consecutive winning seasons for the team (1926-39), including four NL pennants, Root’s career has two distinct phases. As the staff workhorse from 1926 to 1933, he averaged 18 wins per season, 40 appearances, (31 starts), and 252 innings pitched; from the age of 35 in 1934 through 1941, Root was an invaluable spot or fourth starter and reliever, averaging 8 wins, 35 appearances (12 starts), and 140 innings per season.
Described as the “pitching find of the season” in 1926, Root (whose first name was spelled both Charley and Charlie in newspaper reports his entire career) began auspiciously, winning his debut by going the distance against the Reds on April 14.[fn]New York Times, August 2, 1926, 13.[/fn] Almost immediately, the 27-year old Root established himself as the staff ace, capable of starting every fourth day and occasionally relieving. More than anything, he earned McCarthy’s trust; in turn, McCarthy depended on Root more than any other pitcher in their five years together. Completing 21 of 32 starts (two of them were ten-inning outings) and appearing ten times as a reliever, Root logged 271? innings and won 18 times; however, had the Cubs provided him even average run support in his losses, he might have won 25, instead of leading the NL with 17 defeats. In 13 of his losses, the Cubs scored two runs or less (a total of 13 runs).
“Cool” and “graceful,” Root was one of the great fastball pitches of his era.[fn]“Charley Root Has the Makings of a Truly Great Hurler.”[/fn] Though he never led the league in strikeouts, he ranked in the top five for six consecutive seasons (1926-1931) in both strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings. The Sporting News said he had a “mysterious delivery” and could baffle hitters with his overhand, three-quarters, and side-arm delivery depending on the batter or pitch count.[fn]The Sporting News, June 7, 1926, 1.[/fn] With a commanding mound presence, the tobacco-juice spitting Root intimidated batters and freely threw inside, thus earning his nickname Chinski (a ball near the batter’s chin). His curveball, a self-described “wrinkle ball” (“It slews a little like the wrinkle in a piece of suit,” he said), was known to freeze hitters.[fn]“Charley Root Has the Makings of a Truly Great Hurler.”[/fn]
In 1927 Root had one of the best seasons for a pitcher in Cubs history, leading the National League with 26 wins, 309 innings, and 48 games pitched. For the first time since their last pennant, in 1918, the Cubs remained in contention until a September collapse. Hailed as the “best pitcher in the league” and the “sensation of the major leagues,” Root won his 22nd game on August 16 by tossing his second consecutive shutout and defeating the Dodgers in Brooklyn, 3-0, giving the Cubs a season-high six-game lead over the Pirates.[fn]New York Times, March 19, 1928, 27; Milwaukee Journal, August 13, 1927, 11.[/fn] “Root, once a discarded disappointment, was brought back to life and ambition by McCarthy,” lauded the New York Times.[fn]New York Times, August 28, 1927, 53.[/fn] With six weeks remaining in the season, fans and sportswriters wondered if Root could be the first NL hurler to win 30 since Pete Alexander in 1917. Lacking confidence in his other pitchers and in a tight race, McCarthy pitched Root on short rest and used him in relief between starts. Root won his 24th game on August 27 (after pitching in relief in both games of a doubleheader); overworked, exhausted, and weak (he lost 15 pounds), he won just twice the rest of the season as the Cubs faltered with a 12-17 record in the last month to finish in fourth place.
One constant in Root’s rise from semipro ball in Ohio to success with the Cubs was the unwavering support of his wife, Dorothy, Throughout Root’s 16 years with the Cubs, she was a permanent fixture at home games at Wrigley Field and often traveled with the team to road games. They were so inseparable that The Sporting News labeled them “baseball’s ideal family” in a special report about Dorothy.[fn]The Sporting News, November 9, 1939, 4.[/fn] They met in Charlie’s hometown, Middletown, eloped to Newport, Kentucky, to marry on May 9, 1918, and had two children, Della and Charley Jr., who were also regulars at the Cubs games.
Largely responsible for keeping the Cubs near the top of the NL in 1927, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Root reported to camp about 15 pounds overweight in 1928 and battled his waistline all year. After he lost his first three decisions and with an ERA over 5.00, it appeared as though Root was burnt out and suffering the consequences of overwork the previous season. With Pat Malone, Sheriff Blake, Art Nehf, Guy Bush, and Root, McCarthy had five legitimate first-line starters and no longer needed to rely on one pitcher. Root never got untracked and finished with a disappointing 14 wins, a team-high 18 losses, and a 3.57 ERA, and finished only 13 of 30 starts.
Rumors of a trade involving Root for Boston Braves second baseman Rogers Hornsby proved incorrect when the Cubs acquired the cantankerous infielder for five other players and an estimated $120,000 to $200,000, instantly making the Cubs the favorite to win the pennant in 1929.[fn]Glen Stout, The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007), 123.[/fn] Relying on his fastball and fast curve, Root enjoyed arguably his best season, winning 19 games and leading the league with a .760 winning percentage. Behind Malone, Root, and Bush (who ranked 1, 2, and 4 in the NL in wins), the Cubs demolished competition in July and August, going a combined 44-18, and cruised to the pennant. Consistent the entire season, Root was best when the Cubs needed him, especially in September, when he tossed five consecutive complete games, winning four.
Finishing with 98 wins, their most since 1910, the Cubs faced the juggernaut of the Philadelphia Athletics, winners of 104 games and an 8-1 favorite to win the World Series.[fn]“A’s 8-1 Favorite to Win World Series, Associated Press, Fredericksburg (Virginia) Freelance Star, October 11, 1929, 1.[/fn] Instead of 22-game winner Malone, McCarthy unexpectedly chose 30-year-old Root, noting his “greater experience,” to start Game One at home.[fn]“Root to oppose Grove,” Associated Press, Pittsburgh Press, October 7, 1929, 20.[/fn] Unflappable on the mound, Root was temperamentally sound, level-headed, and not easily rattled. In the most effective start of his four World Series with the Cubs, Root surrendered just three hits in seven innings, including a home run by Jimmie Foxx, but was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. His mound opponent, submariner Howard Ehmke, pitched the game of his life, struck out a then-World Series record 13 batters, and won, 3-1. Given the start at Shibe Park in Game Four with Chicago down two games to one, Root cruised into the seventh inning with an 8-0 lead before surrendering a towering home run to Al Simmons. After a single by Foxx, Hack Wilson lost Bing Miller’s fly ball in the sun and Root came undone, giving up singles to three of the next four hitters before being replaced by Art Nehf. Owing to another Wilson miscue, Root was charged with six runs in 6? innings, but not the loss as Philadelphia scored ten runs during the inning in a crushing 10-8 Cubs’ loss. The A’s closed out the Series two days later with a ninth-inning comeback win.
With great expectations for another pennant, the Cubs got off to a sluggish start in 1930, further enraging team owner Bill Wrigley, who was still smarting from the World Series defeat. Root buttressed the team with nine wins in his first 13 starts, including eight complete games and three shutouts. With their offense firing on all cylinders, the Cubs enjoyed a 5½-game lead over the New York Giants when Root left in the first inning of a defeat to the Pirates on August 27 after surrendering four runs without retiring a batter. Diagnosed with shoulder problems, he was limited to 13? innings over the remaining five weeks of the season. Chicago lost 13 of its next 19 games to fall out of contention. McCarthy resigned with four games remaining, Wrigley’s trust in him irrevocably damaged.
McCarthy’s easy-going demeanor was sharply contrasted with new manager Rogers Hornsby’s authoritarian and tyrannical rule over players in his year and a half as skipper. Root rebounded in 1931 from a lackluster 1930 season to post 17 wins and led the staff in innings (251), starts (31), complete games (19), and appearances (39, tied with Guy Bush),while lowering his ERA almost one run to 3.48; however, the Cubs were undone by injuries, poor pitching, and age. Alienating players, Wrigley, and general manager William Veeck, the egotistical Hornsby led the team to a disappointing third-place finish.
The mood in the Cubs’ clubhouse changed overnight when first baseman Charlie Grimm replaced Hornsby as manager after 99 games in the 1932 season. The tactful and approachable Jolly Cholly let his team play and they responded by winning 26 of 32 games and cruising to the pennant. Root, noticeably relaxed after his relegation to the bullpen for two weeks in July under Hornsby, pitched his best ball of the season after Grimm took over, winning seven of nine decisions in August and September on his way to a 15-10 record. At 33 Root was still a vital member of the staff, which led the NL in ERA and included 22-game winner Lon Warneke and 19-game winner Bush.
With losses in the first two games of the World Series to the overwhelming favorite Yankees in New York, the Cubs returned to Chicago for Game Three. After surrendering a towering three-run blast to Babe Ruth in the first inning and a solo shot to Lou Gehrig in the third, Root entered the fateful fifth inning in a 4-4 game. According to Root, Cubs players had been riding Ruth the entire game. After the first strike Ruth supposedly yelled at him “That’s only one strike” and then gestured to him after the second strike.[fn]Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), 237.[/fn] On the next pitch Ruth clouted a shot over the center-field bleachers. Gehrig followed with his second home run and Root was replaced after becoming the first pitcher in World Series history to surrender four home runs in a game. The Bronx Bombers won, 7-5. On the next day, the Yankees completed their resounding sweep of the Cubs.
Neither Root nor Ruth made references to a “called shot” after Game Three and contemporary sportswriters did not mention one either, except for Joe Williams of the New York Telegram, whose columns were syndicated nationally. Soon, the story of Ruth’s “called shot” spread like wildfire, helped by the sheer stature of the game’s greatest player. Eyewitness accounts differ about what actually happened, and an amateur 16mm film of Ruth’s at-bat, discovered in the 1970s, has not quelled the enduring controversy. “Ruth most certainly did not call his home run in that game,” said Root years later. “I ought to know. I was there.”[fn]The Sporting News, May 12, 1948, 10.[/fn] Root claimed that he would never have allowed Ruth to show him up without retaliating: “I’d have put one in his ear and knocked him on his ass.”[fn]Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Baseball: An Illustrated History (New York: Knopf, 2010), 210.[/fn] Longtime teammate and friend Grimm added, “Root never squawked as the legend grew that Ruth had called his shot for baseball’s most celebrated home run.”[fn]Peter Golenbock, 236.[/fn] Never seeking the spotlight, Root, adamantly opposed any dramatizations of the event that exaggerated Ruth’s at-bat and refused to cooperate with a Hollywood film of the event.
In 1933, Grimm’s first full season as manager, the Cubs plodded along and never challenged for the pennant. The 34-year-old Root pitched solidly, completing 20 of 30 starts, notching 15 wins, and posting a career-low 2.60 ERA. He pitched four extra-inning complete games, including a career-high 13 innings in a 3-2 loss to the Phillies on September 9. The Cubs scored three runs or fewer in all of his ten losses (a total of 15 runs), an oft-repeated refrain for the season.
After a poor spring, Root had an auspicious beginning in 1934 by hurling a complete-game victory on April 21 while hitting a solo home run against rival St. Louis, winning 2-1. A capable hitter with 11 career home runs, Root had a career .180 batting average (196-for-1,086) and 93 RBIs. Failing to get on track after his initial victory, Root, battling his weight, was demoted to the bullpen after a dismal two-inning outing in which he surrendered four runs to the Giants on June 20. Root didn’t start another game all season, and finished with a 4-7 record that ushered in suggestions of his demise as a pitcher.
The 1935 season put the suggestions to rest. No longer capable of starting every fourth or fifth day, the 36-year-old Root proved his worth as an effective spot starter, completing six of eight starts while appearing in 16 games as a reliever in the first four months of the season. “I had developed a roll of fat across my shoulders,” he said of his problems the season before. “It bothered my delivery.”[fn]“Charlie Root Tries Again” Associated Press, Windsor (Ontario) Daily Star, October 7, 1935.[/fn] He said that during the offseason he had seriously contemplated quitting the game. But with the endless encouragement of Dorothy, Root began a regimen of rowing and arrived at spring training lighter than in previous seasons, ready to prove he wasn’t washed up. His fastball no longer a threat, the 36-year-old Root developed an effective hard knuckleball to go with his breaking balls and transformed himself into a wily, cerebral pitcher whom newspapers called the “grandpappy” of the Cubs staff.[fn]“New Yorkers Tumble Far Behind Leaders,” Palm Beach (Florida) Post, September 19, 1935, 6.[/fn]
Entering September in the middle of a pennant race, just 1½ games behind St. Louis, the Cubs began an unprecedented run by winning 23 of their last 26 games, including a club-record 21 in a row from September 4 through September 27, on their way to the NL pennant. Joining Warneke, Bill Lee, and Larry French as the primary starters during the September stretch, Root won four consecutive starts, including an 11-inning, complete-game masterpiece over the Phillies on September 5. Root got credit for the Cubs’ presence in the pennant race.[fn]“Charley Root Main Factor in Chicago’s Drive in the National League,” Saskatoon (Saskatchewan) Star-Phoenix, July 23, 1935, 11.[/fn] “[Root] was a big help, not only as a pitcher,” recalled first baseman Phil Cavaretta, “but as a coach to our younger pitchers.”[fn]Peter Golenbock, 255.[/fn]
Sporting a 15-8 record and a 3.08 ERA in 201? innings, the sturdily-built Root, whom teammates called Old Bear, started Game Two in the 1935 World Series with a chance to exorcise demons from his performances in 1929 and 1932.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Facing the vaunted batting order of the Detroit Tigers boasting four future Hall of Famers (Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, Goose Goslin, and Hank Greenberg), Root was lifted after surrendering four runs in the first inning without getting an out. He had one more chance to pitch in the Series (two scoreless innings in relief during Game Four), before the Cubs were defeated in six games.
After an ineffective season as primarily a reliever in 1936 (3-6 with a career-low 73? innings), Root won 13 games in 1937, prompting The Sporting News to report that he “still stands out as the only reliable performer” on a maddening inconsistent staff.[fn]The Sporting News, July 22, 1937, 5.[/fn] When he relieved Roy Parmelee on August 13 and pitched 7? innings to earn the victory in a 22-6 drubbing of the Reds, the Cubs owned a 6½-game lead over the Giants, but went cold, going 27-24 down the stretch to finish in second place for the second consecutive year.
Used mainly in relief during most of the 1938 season while the Cubs floundered in third or fourth place, Root experienced his final moments of glory in the tension-filled last month of the 1938 season as the Cubs staged a dramatic comeback under the direction of player-manager Gabby Hartnett (who had replaced Grimm in midseason) to win the pennant on the next-to-last day of the season. With the Cubs down by seven games on September 4, Root pitched a complete-game 11-inning 2-1 victory over the Reds at Crosley Field to initiate a 21-5 run the rest of the season. In the best month of his season, Root started five games, relieved in three, won four games, and posted a 2.49 ERA. His last two victories were among the most important of his career: With a scoreless inning of relief against the Pirates on September 28, Root earned a victory when catcher-manager Gabby Hartnett hit his celebrated game-winning “homer in the gloamin’ ” in the bottom of the ninth to go into first place. Two days later, Root pitched a complete game to defeat the Cardinals 10-3 in Sportsman’s Park, securing the pennant for the Cubs. Despite Root’s success at the end of the season, Hartnett opted for a three-man rotation of 22-game winner Bill Lee, oft-injured Dizzy Dean, and Clay Bryant for the World Series against the Yankees. The Cubs were swept, and in his only appearance, Root relieved Lee in Game Four and pitched three innings, allowing one run).
On the biggest stage in baseball, Root inexplicably had some of his worst games in his career. In the Cubs’ four World Series defeats, Root was winless, lost three, surrendered 26 hits in 22? innings, and was charged with 18 runs (17 earned) for a 6.75 ERA. Root’s woes in the World Series have contributed to his neglected legacy as one of the era’s most dependable pitchers. Never one to make excuses, Root admitted that he never learned to pace himself and had a tendency to overpitch.[fn]The Sporting News, April 4, 1956, 11.[/fn]
Pitching three more seasons and winning an additional 18 games, “Old Mr. Troubleshooter” had the distinction of being the oldest player in 1940 and 1941 and the last player born in the 19th century to play in the major leagues.[fn]The Sporting News, March 7, 1940, 1.[/fn] Released at the end of the 1941 season, the 42-year-old Root finished his career with 201 wins and 160 losses and a 3.59 ERA,. At the end of 2012, Root’s 605 appearances as a Cub led the franchise by a wide margin.
A baseball lifer, Root pitched for the Hollywood Stars from 1942 through 1944. In his second season with the club, he was the team’s player-manager. In 1945-46 he was the player-manager of the Columbus (Ohio) Red Birds, the Cardinals’ affiliate in the American Association. In 1948, at the age of 49, Root pitched his final game in Organized Baseball for the Billings Mustangs in the Class C Pioneer League. He finished with 111 victories in his minor-league career.
Root was the pitching coach of the Cubs for three seasons (1951-53) before former teammate Charlie Grimm hired him in 1956 as a coach for the Milwaukee Braves. Root was known for his “Nine Hill Commandments.” With his pitchers he stressed conditioning, ball control, fielding, mastering pitches before experimenting with new ones, running every day, bunting, pacing, developing a changeup, and finally an unteachable quality: “heart.”[fn]The Sporting News, April 4, 1956, 11.[/fn] After leading the National League in ERA in 1956, the Braves ranked second in their 1957 championship season. “We all respected Root,” eight-time All-Star Del Crandall told the author.[fn]Author’s interview with Del Crandall on July 30, 2012.[/fn]
In a surprise move, Root and coaches Johnny Riddle and Connie Ryan were fired within weeks after the Braves won the World Series over the Yankees. “Chances are that no club in major league history went through a shake-up like that after the World Series,” reported The Sporting News.[fn]The Sporting News, November 6, 1957, 3.[/fn] “Puzzled” by the firing, Root felt insulted by how the Braves, and especially manager Fred Haney, who replaced Grimm in 1956 and wanted his own coaching staff, presented the news to the public. “The club,” reported The Sporting News, “made it clear that [Root] had been ‘replaced’ and had not resigned.”[fn]The Sporting News, November 6, 1957, 3-4.[/fn] When Grimm returned as manager of the Cubs in 1960, Root joined him for one final season of coaching before retiring from baseball.
Among the highest-paid players in baseball in the 1930s, Root invested wisely during the Great Depression and lived within his means. After living in Los Angeles during the offseason for many years, he and Dorothy later lived on their 1,000-acre Diamond-R Ranch in Paicines, 120 miles southeast of San Francisco, where Root became a successful cattle rancher and enjoyed hunting and fishing. After an extended illness, Root died on November 5, 1970, at the age of 71 near his home in Hollister, California. He was cremated at Garden of Memories Memorial Park in Salinas, California, and his ashes were scattered.
This biography is included in the book “Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs” (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. It also appeared in the book “Thar’s Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves” (SABR, 2014).
The Sporting News