Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: April 22, 2008
BASEBALL HISTORY -- AS SEEN FROM THE SHADOWS OF COOPERSTOWN, PART TWO: 1911-1920
This morning, our historian-in-residence Gene Carney continues with the second installment of his thumbnail history of baseball. Today, he covers the decade that ended with a man named Ruth changing the game forever
The 1911 season kicked off what has become one of baseball's most familiar decades to me. It wasn't always that way. I think I started learning about this decade via my APBA addiction as a kid, when I "managed" the 1915 Phillies. This team still strikes me as the typical ML team of that era. It was a deadball team all right, with an offense built around singles and speed. But it also had a glimpse of the future, in Gavvy Cravath, a slugger who could hit the ball over the distant fences, a feat that he performed 24 times that summer. I think I know how the fans of the day felt, with that kind of power in the lineup; you started looking at your scorecard to see when he'd be up next. The team also featured some genuine ace pitchers. Grover Cleveland Alexander wasn't simply his team's ace, he was a league ace, and his 31 wins and 1.22 ERA glowed in a career that earned him not only Cooperstown, but a movie starring a future US president as Old Pete, The Winning Team.
I also managed APBA's 1911 World Series opponents, McGraw's NY Giants and Connie Mack's A's. These teams could literally run circles around the teams I was following in MLB at the time -- it was as if the game itself had aged 50 years, and nobody ran anymore, except Luis Aparicio and then Maury Wills.
If baseball's first decade of the twentieth century was one of War and Peace -- the upstart AL challenging the established NL and winning equal ranking -- so was the second. I don't know of any one good book on the Federal League to recommend -- I hope one is in the works. The FL was a true major league, even though it is almost forgotten today. Most often it comes up when we talk about Wrigley Field, as if that ballpark stood today as a monument to the Feds. So be it, but the FL itself reminds us that the game was still filled with unrest in its teens, its players determined to throw off the shackles of the reserve clause.
The decade ended with the game stronger than ever, having survived not just the Federal League, but a World War, and the worst scandal to date, which went down in history as "the Black Sox scandal." Before the B-Sox scandal broke, along came Ruth, and when he followed his 29 HRs in 1919 for Boston, with 54 more in 1920 as a Yankee, the game would never be the same. America was hooked on Ruth, before the B-Sox scandal broke, and I think that was a very good thing for baseball. Bribing gamblers might fix a game here and there and cause fans to doubt the efforts of certain players. But when the Bambino swung and lofted a ball not just over a fence, but over a grandstand, there was no room for doubt -- he converted fans into true believers, becoming a folk hero without any more media than the newspapers -- and the daily conversations of Americans, including those just learning English. The war was over, the Spanish flu was gone, America had apparently returned to normal (except for that Prohibition thing) and did you hear what the Babe did today?
After finishing well back of the Cubs in 1910, the Giants took the NL pennant handily in 1911, Mathewson teaming up with Rube Marquard for 50 of the teams' 99 wins. Mack's Athletics won the AL flag again, well ahead of Detroit. And when they knocked off the Giants in October, they became the first AL team to repeat as champs (the Cubs were first, in 1907-08). Chief Bender, Gettysburg's Eddie Plank and Colby Jack Coombs had a combined 1.29 ERA in the six-game Series. 3B Frank Baker made a name for himself -- or rather, a nickname -- by swatting two clutch HRs in Games 2 and 3, one off Marquard and the other off Matty. The A's $100,000 Infield (Baker-Barry-Collins-Davis) made nine errors, but the Giants mis-played the A's, 16 errors to 11. As I said up top, I managed these teams against each other in many APBA simulations, and they are both great fun, and evenly matched.
The Giants returned to October, but not the A's. Instead it was Boston atop the AL, the team that won the first modern Series in 1903, and darned if they didn't win again -- as if they were charmed. Did their opponents feel cursed?
This Series went seven -- I think most fans root for that -- and actually went eight games, with Game Two an 11-inning tie. The Giants made five (of their Series 17) errors in that game, behind poor Matty, who ended up 0-2 that October, despite a sparkling 1.57 ERA. The National Commission met hastily after the tie game to decide where the proceeds would go, and every penny went to the owners.
Matty had Game Eight in hand, and no doubt some Giant fans had started celebrating, ahead 2-1 in the bottom of the 10th, when Tris Speaker's foul pop fly fell safely between Matty, Merkle and Meyer. That followed a Snodgrass muff. Spoke followed with a hit, tying the game, and a minute later, Gardner's sac fly ended it. The best description of this Series might be found in Tim Gay's Speaker biography. Worth noting is one of the great catches of all time, or at least up to 1912, made bare-handed by Boston OF Harry Hooper in the 6th inning of Game Eight, on a long smash by Larry Doyle, that ended with Hooper landing in a crowd.
Good biographies give you the feel for the life and times of their subjects -- Tim Gay's book has rightly called Speaker's "rough-and-tumble." I reviewed Tim's book last summer, and Rick Huhn's biog of Eddie Collins just recently. But these first decades of baseball produced so many colorful characters. Any fan should read about John McGraw and Matty, about Connie Mack, Cobb and Wagner, Alexander and Three Finger Brown, about the stars and their supporting casts. It is no wonder why The Glory of Their Time remains so popular, for the wonderful tales (some tall) of this era.
Now here is a season that gets no respect. While the 1911 and 1912 Series are both memorable, as is 1914 (the "Miracle Braves"), the Philadelphia A's sound defeat (4-1) of McGraw's Giants in October 1913 is not. If you have a time machine, I recommend going back for Games 2 and 5 (if your fuel is limited), two duels between Eddie Plank and Christy Mathewson. Matty won the first one, 3-0 (his first WS shutout since his 1905 hat trick), Plank the second, 3-1 in the clincher. Chief Bender won two games that Fall and Baker homered again in Game One.
The season itself saw the Giants win handily in the NL, the A's comfortably in the AL, with a cloud on the horizon. The Federal League was born that summer, just six teams and they did not call themselves Major League, but that was coming right up.
And it happened the next summer, as the Feds expanded to eight teams, and challenged the AL & NL in Chicago, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh and St Louis (the other franchises were in Indianapolis, Baltimore, Buffalo and Kansas City). The FL scooped up some stars, Three Finger Brown and Joe Tinker, and almost had Walter Johnson, until the AL pitched in to pay him what he was worth, and kept him in the AL.
The Federal League of 1914 and 1915 is today recognized as a Major League, by those who remember it at all. It was the last "Third League." Its championships were won by Indianapolis (by a game and a half over Chicago, 4.5 over Baltimore) and by Chicago (by one percentage point over St Louis, and a half game over Pittsburgh). That's right -- the Chicago Whales finished 86-66 and .566, the St Louis Terriers 87-67 and .565; Pittsburgh's Rebels were 86-67. I can find no record of a post-season for the FL in 1915. Their teams in St Louis and Chicago were not invited into a round-robin City Series, either.
Meanwhile, the 1914 Boston Braves, after a slow start had them in last place (8th) in July, won 61 of their last 77 games to finish 10.5 in front, then knocked off the A's in October, with a sweep, no less. Hank Gowdy, best known to fans of my generation as a longtime TV announcer and the first ML player to enlist for duty in WW I (seeing action in France), was Mr October for the Braves, with a .545 average and five extra-base hits.
In 1915, the Philadelphia Phillies took their first NL flag (and their last until 1950), behind Pete Alexander and Gavvy Cravath's amazing 24 HRs. Boston took the AL pennant by a narrow 2.5 games over Detroit, then beat the Phils in October, 4-1. Alex the Great triumphed in the opener, but lost 2-1 in Game Three. Boston also won Games Two and Four by 2-1 scores.
After the season, peace broke out again, as the Federal League folded. Its St Louis and Chicago owners were awarded NL franchises, however, the latter including what survives today as Wrigley Field (which, by any other name, will still be ivy green and easy on the eyes).
See Notes #366 for a review of the Wilbert & Hageman book, The 1917 White Sox. Charlie Comiskey had put together a dynasty team, essentially the same one that took the AL flag again in 1919 and came close in 1920. They were on top by 9 in 1917 and then defeated McGraw's Giants in a wild World Series, 4-2. The image that lingers from this October is that of Eddie Collins racing home, chased by NY 3B Heinie Zimmerman when the plate was left unguarded. Red Faber won three games for the Sox.
The war "over there" in Europe finally hit home in the country of baseball in 1918. It took a while to determine that the sport was not essential for the war effort, but the owners managed to keep it going through Labor Day (one last big gate). The pennant winners, Boston in the AL and Chicago in the NL, played just 126 and 129 games respectively. With a government OK to play the Series (it started Sept 5 and ended Sept 11), MLB limped home. Boston beat the Cubs 4-2 in a Series that was almost interrupted by a strike. A youngster named Babe Ruth won two games, 1-0 and 3-2.
World War I was declared over on November 11, a date we still celebrate. The Spanish flu pandemic lingered, taking 20 million lives, but no holiday marks its passing. Baseball owners had no clues about whether fans would return to the ballparks for the 1919 season, so to be safe, they more or less froze salaries and scheduled just 140 games. Tight times for the players.
But the fans came back, more than doubling the 1918 turnout in the AL, and nearly breaking the MLB record, despite the short season. What better way to forget the war and all those deaths to the flu, than to take in a ball game?
Of course, this is the season I've been living in since September 2002 (starting with Notes #268), and I've written so much about it that I will just refer those interested to one of the indices in the Notes Archives.
It really was a terrific summer, 1919. Boxing made a comeback of sorts when Jack Dempsey KO'ed Jess Willard on the 4th of July, and Man o'War won America's heart by tearing up the racetracks (see Notes #429, and I'm going to recommend Dorothy Ours' book Man o'War here, for a close look at the parallel universes of horse racing and of the national pastime -- gambling.) That Boston southpaw Ruth slugged 29 home runs, and what could that mean? Baseball fans were sky-high when the Series rolled around, best of nine (the coffers were still low, so maybe an extra payday would help the game survive). Cincinnati's Reds outplayed and outpitched the dynastic White Sox, 5-3, as millions of dollars were bet all across the country. But there were ugly rumors. Baseball closed its eyes and ears, and covered up.
The decade ended with baseball's darkest days, but they were sandwiched in between a couple of highlights.
Many, maybe most of the books and articles about the "Black Sox scandal" give the credit for baseball's survival either to Judge Landis, hired by MLB as the first Commish at the end of 1920; or to George Herman "Babe" Ruth; or to both, which I think is more accurate. My research suggests that Landis truly did clean up baseball's image, even if the game itself continued to be influenced by fixers and bribers; his edict, banning the eight Sox implicated in the 1919 WS fix, while unfair (I think) was extremely effective, and sent the right message to ballplayers.
The common understanding about Ruth is that he came along at just the right time, and distracted America from the scandal, then made them forget it entirely. But I now believe that Babe Ruth's popularity rose sooner -- he hit his fiftieth HR in 1920 before the scandal broke. America was already hooked on Ruth, so the Black Sox became the distraction, and fans were anxious to get it off the sports pages.
And then, just days after the scandal broke, the 1920 World Series capped the decade in fitting style. Cleveland won its first pennant -- Tim Gay's Tris Speaker is again the book to read here -- and so did Brooklyn, so there would be a new champion. And it was Cleveland, winning the Series 5-2, and giving fans lots to talk about all winter: Wambsganss' unassisted triple play; the first Series grand slam, by Elmer Smith; and the first Series HR by a pitcher, 31-game winner Jim Bagby -- all in the same game!
McGraw's Giants were overtaken by Brooklyn, led by Uncle Wilbert Robinson, an old friend of Muggsy, who had become a bitter enemy. Their public feud rivaled Comiskey and Ban Johnson, adding spice to the NL races. Cleveland finished barely ahead of the ruined Sox, but had a terrific team, with a .303 batting average. (George Sisler's .407 raised the Browns' team to .308. For just the second time in 14 seasons, Ty Cobb did not win the batting title.)
In baseball's first decades, the rivalry between the NL and AL was fierce. Ban Johnson, the AL Prez, was the czar when the three-man National Commission held sway, but the leagues were independent and had real differences. The sixteen teams battling it out in 1920 were the same sixteen in 1950. They were not equally successful or wealthy, but none of them collapsed. And no other cities joined them, or (after the Federal League) tried. Baseball weathered a war, a major scandal, the flu, and the challenge of a new league. It not only survived, but ballparks swelled with new fans when Babe Ruth came to town, and the Bambino kept on filling parks around the country, on his own, after the season ended for his Yankees. Many cities replaced their old parks with steel and concrete, larger-capacity new ones. America was ready to roar, and so was baseball.