Thomas Wolf has written numerous articles on baseball history and is the coauthor of Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland. The Called Shot: Babe Ruth, the Chicago Cubs, and the Unforgettable Major League Baseball Season of 1932 is now available.
On a cold December day in 2000, my wife, Patricia Bryan, and I were given a tour of the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa. Baseball was the last thing on my mind, but my experiences that day at the penitentiary would get me started on a book about the 1932 baseball season.
Patricia and I were doing research for a book about a crime committed a century earlier, the story of a gruesome ax murder of a prosperous farmer in an Iowa farmhouse that would be the basis of our book Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland. The woman accused and convicted of killing her husband had been imprisoned at Anamosa, and we wanted to see the inside of the facility. During the tour, we were guided through a series of heavy metal doors and gates which clanged shut behind us. We saw the cells where incarcerated prisoners lived and slept. We saw the inmates at work doing the jobs that they were assigned. We were advised not to speak to or look directly at them.
When the tour ended, we sat in a small conference room with our two guides, Steve Wendl and Richard Snavely, who had worked at the prison for decades and were dedicated to preserving the history of the institution. They answered our questions and told us stories.
One of those stories was about a prisoner named Harry Hortman. In his youth, he had shot and killed a young woman in a drunken rage. It was an impulsive act, a crime of misplaced emotion. Hortman immediately turned himself in, confessed to the act, and lapsed into remorse. He was sentenced to life in prison and spent the final 34 years of his life at Anamosa.
Hortman became a model prisoner, acquired the nickname Snap, and was recognized as a valued member of the prison population. He was a mentor to younger inmates. He played clarinet in the prison orchestra. He coached the football and baseball teams at the institution. The baseball team was called the Snappers in his honor.
Baseball was Hortman’s passion. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Snappers played against town teams in Iowa and seldom lost. In addition to his duties as a baseball coach, he was a devoted fan of the Chicago Cubs. Wardens allowed Hortman and other inmates to listen to broadcasts of the Cubs games on the prison radio.
In 1932 the penitentiary got a new warden. Charlie Ireland was also a Cubs fan, and he struck up a friendship with Snap Hortman. As the Cubs battled for the National League pennant, Hortman and Ireland talked about the team’s chances to reach the World Series. Ireland made Hortman a promise: if the Cubs made it to the World Series, he would take Hortman to the games in Chicago.
And, yes, the Cubs won the pennant to earn the right to face the New York Yankees in the World Series. Ireland took Hortman on a two-day trip to Chicago, where they saw the last two games of the series in Wrigley Field. The Yankees beat the Cubs, but in game three, Ireland and Hortman witnessed one of baseball’s most iconic moments: Babe Ruth’s called shot home run off Charlie Root.
My interest was piqued. The story of a compassionate prison warden offering a convicted murderer, a prison lifer, the opportunity to travel out of state to see a World Series game—one of the most famous games in all of baseball history—was compelling. I was hooked.
Initially, I planned to write a relatively short book that focused simply on these two men, their relationship, and their trip to Chicago for the game. I figured I could work in some drama by way of capturing the essence of the Cubs season, and I soon discovered that the Cubs season had a lot of drama. For one thing, most of the Cubs didn’t like playing for their manager, Rogers Hornsby, and in early August, in the midst of a tight pennant race, Hornsby was fired and replaced with the Cubs popular first baseman, Charlie Grimm. More bizarre, but also dramatic, I discovered an off-the-field incident in which the Cubs shortstop, Billy Jurges, was shot in a Chicago hotel room by a disappointed girlfriend. Jurges was to recover and play a key role in the pennant race.
As my research expanded beyond the baseball season, I paid more attention to what was happening in America in 1932: the hardships of the Great Depression, the social unrest, the historic presidential race. The book grew in scope and content. In the final version, I wove together multiple storylines. The result, I believe, is a very readable and entertaining book about Babe Ruth, the Cubs, and the remarkable 1932 baseball season that was played during such a pivotal year in America’s history. The story of the prison warden and the murderer is an important part of the book but not the primary focus.
What started as a tour of a maximum security prison to research a book about a bloody murder turned into a quest to tell the story of the 1932 baseball season.
2 thoughts on “From the Desk of Thomas Wolf: Starting with a Convict, Compassion, and the Cubs”
I’ve read a lot of baseball books and the Called Shot is one of my favorites. It’s especially poignant to read it during a May without a baseball season and during a time of social upheaval that we maybe haven’t seen since, well 1932. It’s full of little details from both within baseball and beyond.