At four in the afternoon on Sept. 29, 1927, in Yankee Stadium, Paul Hopkins got the call he had been waiting for since he was a boy. Bucky Harris, the manager of the Washington Senators, was walking to the mound and signaling for Hopkins to come in from the bullpen in leftfield.
Hopkins had just turned 23 and had never been in a major league game. Only four months before, he had been a star pitcher at Colgate, from which he had graduated in June, and he had pitched that summer for the New Haven Profs of the Eastern League. One day in early September, Hopkins got word that his contract had been sold to Washington for $25,000 and that the Senators wanted him to report at once. He held out for more money, but when the Senators threatened to suspend him, he made off by train for Washington. He had been working out with the team for nearly three weeks when Harris signaled for him by tapping his right arm.
Hopkins walked through a fading patch of leftfield sunlight to the mound. It was the bottom of the fifth inning. There were two outs. Hopkins looked around. The bases were loaded with Yankees: Walter Ruether on third, Earle Combs on second and Mark Koenig on first. Of all the things Hopkins remembers of that day more than 70 years ago, the one he remembers best is standing on the mound at the stadium called the House That Ruth Built and wondering who was coming to the plate.
Hopkins stole a glance toward home. There the batter was, looking bigger than the House itself, larger even than his myth: moonfaced and broad-backed and shaped like an inverted eggplant, dragging his bat toward the plate. No man on earth had more nicknames than George Herman Ruth. The Babe. The Man. The Bambino. The Home Run King. The Circuit Smasher. Herman the Great. Homeric Herman. The Bulky Monarch. The King of Clout. His Eminence. The Sultan of Swat. "I looked over and saw Ruth walking to the batter's box," Hopkins, 93, recalls. "I was a little nervous, but I wasn't scared. I always thought I could get anybody out."
The Babe, however, was on an incomparable tear. For more than five seasons, ever since he hit a major league record 59 home runs in 1921, he had been trying to surpass that mark. The closest he had come was 47, in '26, and by the beginning of the '27 season, when his hard-used, increasingly paunchy body had turned 32, his record looked out of reach. But in September, Ruth went on the most sustained spree of home run hitting that had ever been seen in one month. It began on Sept. 2, when he belted his 44th of the season, against the Philadelphia Athletics, and by Sept. 29 he had 14 homers for the month, more than the Cleveland Indians' starting lineup would have all year.
On Sept. 27, two days before Hopkins got the call, Ruth crushed number 57 against the A's, driving one of Lefty Grove's heaters like a golf shot into the rightfield bleachers for a grand slam. That left Ruth three shy of a new record, with three games to go. On Sept. 29, when Washington's submarine-ball specialist, Horace Lisenbee, tried to finesse a curveball past Ruth in the first inning, the Babe again lashed a drive into the rightfield seats. That was number 58. He was one dinger short of tying his mark.
Four innings later the six-foot, 175-pound Hopkins came in to face him. "It was like a dream come true," Hopkins says. "He was the greatest living ballplayer."
"The rookie looked at Ruth, and the Babe looked at the rookie," wrote Frank Getty in The Washington Daily News. "Ruth pawed the dirt of the batter's box. Then the rookie imitated the gesture, pawing the sawdust and the soil of the pitcher's box, and the duel was on."
Hopkins doesn't recall how many pitches he threw to Ruth in the fifth, but he had control of his curve and nibbled outside and in. He can still see Ruth ripping the ball foul down both lines. Twice the Babe swung from his spindly ankles and raised "monstrous fouls," as Hopkins puts it, into the seats behind him. "I thought I'd never get him out of there," he recalls. "I threw him nothing but curves, most of them slow."
The count was 3 and 2 when Hopkins delivered the slowest, prettiest snake that he had thrown Ruth yet. "A beautiful curve," he says. "Real slow and over the outside of the plate. It was so slow that Ruth started to swing and then hesitated, hitched on it and brought the bat back. And then he swung, breaking his wrists as he came through it. What a great eye he had! He hit it at the right second. Put everything behind it. I can still hear the crack of the bat. I can still see the swing."