Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: May 2, 2008
Baseball History as Seen From the Shadows of Cooperstown, Part 3: 1920 - 1930
The Roaring 1920s: the lively ball, jazz, speakeasies, Babe Ruth and the Golden Age of sports. The twenties are more memorable than the first two decades of last century for another reason, too -- we have many more moving pictures, not just stills, and even some recorded voices from that decade. The first motion-picture theater opened in 1902 (in L.A.), then came the nickelodeons, then Birth of a Nation in 1915, and indeed a new nation was born. The first all-color film was made in 1922 (Toll of the Sea) and with 1927's The Jazz Singer, we had sound.
Vaudeville had given ballplayers an off-season outlet, and now the big screen was an option. Athletes could be marquee names in many more cities than those with MLB teams. We were a long way off from slo-mo, instant replay, and the special effects we are used to today, but the grainy B & W images of Ruth and Gehrig and the Gashouse Gang survive.
Radio came along, too, and this was truly a marriage made in heaven. Baseball seemed to be suited for radio, and vice-versa. Even today, many fans prefer radio ball to TV. A good announcer could activate your imagination, take you into the ballpark, into the action on the field. Fans felt closer to Dizzy and the Babe and Casey (you could look it up). It was no longer just newspaper accounts and box scores, the game itself learned how to talk, and America learned how to talk baseball, better than ever.
As I move thru baseball's history, I am consulting two main guidebooks, my trusty old Total Baseball (3rd Ed.), and Big Mac, the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia (8th Ed.), neither current nor infallible, but fine for my purposes. But I would be remiss, as they say, if I failed to recommend a series of books that was published by Redefinition, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, World of Baseball. I have eleven volumes -- I think that's all they published, before going out of business. Some of the volumes are on themes -- sluggers, pitchers, glovemen, the World Series (October's Game, edited by Paul Adomites) -- and others cover decades in the sport's history. Which is what I'm doing. For a nicely detailed and different treatment of the 1920s, see The Lively Ball, edited by James A. Cox, in 1989.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis, hired by baseball's magnates at the end of 1920, was at the helm when this decade began. In the wake of the B-Sox scandal, there was a lot of repair work to be done, and mostly by appearing stern, this no-nonsense federal judge did the job. He was always an employee of the owners, who could be fired if he went too far, but that would be risky -- because the owners had hired him not just to clean up baseball's image, but to save the game from themselves. They had slept while baseball was sullied by the gambling menace; now the game was in Landis' hands, or so it seemed to most fans, and he showed soon enough that he was now The Law.
Of course, baseball's star kept rising because it was hitched to another star: Babe Ruth. After smashing an unimaginable 54 homers in 1920, Ruth turned in one of the great all-time seasons in 1921: 59 HRs, 119 extra-base hits, .378, 171 RBI. He propelled the Yankees into their first World Series, with help from Long Bob Meusel (24 HR) and Carl Mays (27 wins), whose submarine pitches must have shaken AL batters, after one of them had killed Cleveland SS Ray Chapman the previous August.
Ruth not only was the planet's premiere slugger, but he drew crowds wherever he played (with or without the Yankees). As a box-office attraction, he commanded unprecedented salaries, which seemed scandalous to some fans. In an old poem on the Hall of Fame, I once wrote, "If Yankee Stadium is the House that Ruth Built, then in Cooperstown is the one he furnished." Ruth and the Yankees showed how the rich got richer, the NY fans topping a million nine times between 1920 and 1930; Detroit (in 1924) was the only other AL team to do that. The pinstripers became America's Team in the twenties, at least for fans who liked a winner. The Yankees were almost synonymous with winning for the next four decades. It was mostly, happily, before my time.
John McGraw was the other force in New York, and his Giants took the 1921 pennant, then the World Series, 5 to 3, in the last October best-of-nine. Waite Hoyt tossed one of the best Series in history -- three complete games, no earned runs, but an unearned one in the finale cost the Yanks, 1-0. Ruth was held to one HR.
For the second year in a row, the Giants and Yankees faced off in October, and again all games were played at the Polo Grounds. This time, Ruth was held to one extra-base hit (a double) and one RBI, as the Giants swept, 4-0. There was also a tie, and all of the games were close. Bob Meusel batted .300 and had bragging rights over his brother Irish of the Giants, but McGraw was on top again, and Miller Huggins again #2.
Ruth was suspended for barnstorming at the start of the 1922 season and played just 110 games (35 HR). George Sisler batted a remarkable .420, his St Louis Browns hit .313, but they fell short of their first pennant by a single game. The Browns had a new kind of slugger, too: OF Kenny Williams smacked 39 HRs while stealing 37 bases. Sisler was, like Ruth, a former pitcher, and had hit over .400 before (.407 in 1920), and seemed to be ready to take over as perennial AL batting champ for the aging Ty Cobb. But his optic nerves were infected in 1923, and he was never quite the same, although for those who saw him play -- he could run and field with the best -- Sisler was an all-timer at 1B.
For a third straight year, the Giants of McGraw and the Yankees of Huggins met in October, but this time, Yankee Stadium was available for half the games. Ruth crashed three HRs, all in the Polo Grounds. The first WS homer at the Stadium was an inside-the-parker by -- the Giants' Casey Stengel, and it came with two out in the ninth inning of Game One, to win it, 5-4.
I highlight the pennant winners as I skim along here, but of course every team had talent. Walter Johnson toiled for Washington, Harry Heilmann hit .403 for Detroit manager Cobb, Tris Speaker was still kicking, at .380, and Kenny Williams hit 29 HRs (Ruth had 41). Cuban Dolf Luque won 27 for Cincinnati, Jughandle Johnny Morrison won 25 for Pittsburgh (I had to look that up, he's obscure even for Pirate fans!), and young Rogers Hornsby was in the middle of a five-year streak for the St Louis Cardinals, of .397-.401-.384-.424-.403, which comes to 1,078 hits and a five-year average of over .402. And unlike Cobb, Hornsby was an infielder, and hit the long ball, too. (Cobb had power, but eschewed the home run, favoring strategy over brawn.)
In fact, if you look at the rosters of these early-20s teams, you must conclude that it is unfair to give all the credit for baseball's rise to Ruth and Landis. Even the last-place Phils had Cy Williams, who poked 41 HRs in 1923, to lead the NL.
If there were Yankee-haters in 1924, they must have been pleased, as the Washington Senators (or Nationals) finally won a pennant, putting one of the great all-time hurlers, Walter Johnson, on display in October. Walter was in his 18th season and had gone 23-7, 2.72 in 1924. McGraw's Giants made it four straight WS appearances, and handled Johnson OK, beating him twice, but Washington finished on top, winning in seven games. Much of baseball history has come down to us through the filters of New York writers and publishers, and the credit (or blame) for this Series went, somehow, to a pebble. The stone resided in the Washington infield, and came into play in the 12th inning of the deciding game, boosting a ground ball over the head of Giant 3B Fred Lindstrom, allowing the winning run to score. It may even have been the same pebble that pulled the same trick earlier, to tie the game.
I once wrote a short story, No Rock Is an Island, from the point of view of that pebble. I dug it up (no pun intended) and include it here. I'm hoping it will be in a collection of my short stories, now in Spring Training with a publisher and hoping to make a roster. To give credit where it is really due, the 1924 Series hero was not the pebble -- it was Bucky Harris, Goose Goslin, and pitcher Tom Zachary, winner of two starts, and better remembered for giving up Ruth's 60th.
Growing up in Pittsburgh and starting my rooting career in 1957, the year 1925 was very familiar to me -- it was the last time the Pirates won a World Series. If my parents and grandparents remembered it at all, they never said much about it.
The Pirates had been in October's Game before, losing in 1903 and winning in 1909 (Honus!). In 1925, they faced Washington, who won 96 for Bucky Harris while the Yankees fell to seventh place, after starting the decade with three pennants and a close second in 1923. The 1925 Series was notable because the Pirates were down 3-1 in games, then came back to win, a first. It was a Series played in rain and mud, with 3B Pie Traynor and Max Carey the Bucco stars. One of the last things I did when SABR members had access to ProQuest, was to print out Ring Lardner's coverage of this Series (it's in some back issue).
The Yankees were back in the Series in '26, a Series that again went seven games, but this time the St Louis Cardinals were on top at the end. I'm not sure when exactly Branch Rickey started the St Louis farm system, but it is generally credited with turning the Cards from losers into the NL's powerhouse.
The 1926 Series provided baseball with some images that have stood up over time. It was a kind of last hurrah for Old Pete Alexander, although he had a few more winning seasons in him. He would win 373 games in his career, same as Mathewson, while battling epilepsy and alcohol. Pete started and won Games Two and Six, but is best remembered for coming on in relief in Game Seven to face Tony Lazzeri with the sacks full in the Yankee 7th. He took no warm-ups, gave up a long ball blown just foul, then fanned Lazzeri, and pitched two more innings to nail down the 3-2 win. This is the Series that ended with Babe Ruth being gunned down in the bottom of the ninth, trying to steal second, to get into scoring position.
Ruth had hit three homers in Game Four, and they were remembered, too. A terrific Series, a strange ending.
If Pittsburghers remembered 1925, every fan could tell you about 1927. The summer followed a Hollywood script. Babe Ruth now had a slugging teammate, Larrupin' Lou Gehrig, AKA Columbia Lou and later as the Iron Horse for his unprecedented durability. The steady 1B took root in 1925, but '27 was his breakout year, .373, 47 HRs, 175 RBI. Gehrig's colorful teammate clouted sixty homers (to go with .356, 164 RBIs), and the number, 60, punctuated not just 1927, but the whole decade.
In the last two issues, I mentioned how the APBA "Great Teams of the Past" enhanced my appreciation for the teams of the Deadball Era. Well, the first team I bought was the 1927 Yankees -- Murderer's Row. This gang was sheer pleasure to manage, even when they went up against the 1927 Pirates. Naming the members of Murderer's Row has always been a "gimme" trivia question for me. And of thousands and thousands of APBA cards, Lou Gehrig 1927 stands out -- in other words, if you were picking teams and had first choice, that's your pick. (I haven't seen Barry Bonds' mega-cards.)
The 1927 Series was not the rout that it might seem, with the Yankees sweeping, 4-0, behind HRs by Ruth and Gehrig. Two of the games were decided by a run. Pirate fans took some consolation in that the Waner brothers, Big Poison (Paul) and Little (Lloyd), collected more hits than Ruth and Gehrig.
The Cardinals returned to October, but the Yankee juggernaut was still in gear, and this time the Cards were swept. Ruth hit three more HRs (all in Game Four), Gehrig went deep four times. The Yanks took revenge on Alexander, knocking him out in the 3rd inning of Game Two. Tom Zachary, who had yielded #60 in 1927, was a late-season pickup for New York, and tossed a CG win in Game Three.
Break up the Yankees? No, there was another solution to the "problem" of pinstripe dominance. Create another dynasty, and that is what Connie Mack did in Philadelphia. Born during the Civil War, Mack managed his first ML team in 1894, and would go on to manage until 1950. The second Mack dynasty won 104 games in 1929 and 313 over the 1929-31 seasons, while finishing ahead of the Yankees by 18, 16, and 13.5 games respectively.
The 1931 A's were another one of my favorite APBA teams to manage, and they were really the only team that could consistently challenge the 1927 Yankees in my leagues or tournaments.
The Yanks had Ruth and Gehrig, the A's answered with Al Simmons and Jimmie Foxx. Like Murderer's Row, the A's dynasty lineup was a dream -- guys who could get on base, play good defense, score runs. In the 1929 Series, they took on the Chicago Cubs, and defeated them 4-1. The Cubs were on the verge of tying the Series at two games each, when, in Game Four, they blew an 8-run lead. The A's scored ten runs, all in the 7th inning, as Hack Wilson lost two balls in the sun. The A's took Game Five, 3-2, by scoring all three runs in the bottom of the ninth.
The decade ended with the country in a depression, but baseball's offense at new heights. The A's would win the Series again, this time over the Cardinals, 4-2. But it was as if the leagues were juiced. The NL batted .303 (up from .294) and hit 892 HRs (up from 754) -- 56 of them by Hack Wilson, the Series goat in '29, a NL record that stood a long time; his 191 RBI still stands. Bill Terry hit .401. The AL numbers were not as dramatic; Babe hit a Ruthian 49 HRs.
I will inevitably forget to mention some highlights, and when I remember, I'll try to add them. On May 1, 1920, the Braves and Dodgers played a 26-inning game, a 1-1 tie. Leon Cadore and Joe Oeschger dueled for three hours and 50 minutes. 2B Charlie Pick, in his final season, had an 0-for-11 day -- ouch!