SABR

Home Run Baker

This article was written by David Jones.


In an era characterized by urbanization and rapid industrial growth, Frank "Home Run" Baker epitomized the rustic virtues that were becoming essential to baseball's emerging bucolic mythology. Born and raised in a tiny farming community on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Baker developed his powerful back, arms, and hands by working long hours on his father's farm. Like the rugged president who defined the century's first decade, the taciturn Baker spoke softly but carried a big stick--a 52-ounce slab of wood that he held down at the handle and swung with all the force he could muster. One of the Deadball Era's greatest sluggers, Baker led the American League or tied for the lead in home runs every year from 1911 to 1914, and earned his famous nickname with two timely round-trippers against the New York Giants in the 1911 World Series. Baker later insisted that his hard-swinging mentality came from his country roots. "The farmer doesn't care for the pitchers' battle that resolves itself into a checkers game," he once declared. "The farmer loves the dramatic, and slugging is more dramatic than even the cleverest pitching."

John Franklin Baker was born on March 13, 1886, the second son of Franklin A. and Mary C. Baker, on a farm just outside Trappe, Md., a tiny community located just a few miles east of the Chesapeake Bay. Frank's mother was a distant relative of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and though Frank's father spent his life toiling in anonymity on the farm, Baker later remembered him as a prodigiously strong and good-humored man. "He never saw a trick in the circus he couldn't perform," Frank remembered. "He [once] cartwheeled the length of the street in front of our house and finished off by landing on his feet in an upright position."

Though the younger Baker never possessed his father's flair for showmanship, he did inherit the old man's strength and athletic ability, which was first put to good use as a pitcher and outfielder for the Trappe high school baseball team. In 1905, Baker's exploits with a local amateur team caught the eye of Trappe native Preston Day, who recommended the youngster to future major leaguer Buck Herzog, then managing a semipro outfit in nearby Ridgely. After looking Baker over, Herzog signed Frank to a $5 per week contract, and moved him to third base.

The following year, Baker earned $15 per week playing for the semipro Sparrows Point Club in Baltimore, and in 1907 he turned down an offer to play in the Texas League and instead signed with an independent club in Cambridge, Md. At the end of the season he received a tryout with Baltimore of the Eastern League, but after Baker collected just two singles in 15 at-bats, manager Jack Dunn concluded that he "could not hit" and released him. In 1908, Baker joined the Reading Pretzels of the Class B Tri-State League, where he batted .299 in 119 games. In September, Connie Mack, the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics who was looking for a third baseman to replace the aging Jimmy Collins, purchased his contract.

After batting .290 in 31 at-bats at the end of the 1908 season, Baker was handed the starting job at third base at the outset of the 1909 campaign. He was an instant success, supplying a much needed dose of offense to the middle of the Philadelphia attack. On May 29, Baker became the first man to hit a ball over the right field fence at the newly constructed Shibe Park, one of his four home runs for the season. For his rookie year, Baker finished with a .305 batting average and .447 slugging percentage, good for fourth best in the American League. His 85 RBI placed him third in the league, and his 19 triples led the circuit. The young slugger also proved himself to be a deft handler of the stick, finishing third in the American League with 34 sacrifices.

A left-handed batter (though he threw from the right side), Baker positioned himself with his left foot firmly planted on the back line of the batter's box, and his feet 18 inches apart in a slightly closed stance. At 5'11", 173 lbs., Baker did not cut an imposing figure at the plate, but the ease with which he handled his famed 52-ounce bat spoke volumes about his physical strength. Asked to explain Baker's power, Jake Daubert commented, "Frank Baker doesn't look so big, but he has big wrists." Observers noted that when Baker swung, he seemed to give the ball an extra push by violently snapping his wrists at the point of contact.

Baker also acquitted himself well on the base paths and in the field, though, like Honus Wagner, he appeared clumsy in his movements. Bowlegged and husky, the lumbering Baker ran "like a soft-shell crab" according to one observer. Nonetheless, he stole 20 or more bases every year from 1909 to 1913, and in his rookie season he led all third basemen in putouts, an accomplishment he repeated six more times during his 13-year career.

Baker's outstanding rookie campaign was a major factor in the Athletics' surge in the standings. Winning 27 more games than they had in 1908, the Mackmen finished in second place, just 3½ games behind the Detroit Tigers. In late August, the upstart A's had actually enjoyed a 1½ game lead in the standings, before dropping three straight at Detroit's Bennett Park. It was in the first game of this pivotal series that Baker was involved in one of the most controversial plays of the era, when Detroit superstar Ty Cobb spiked him in the forearm as Baker was attempting to tag Cobb out at third base. Frank had the wound wrapped and was able to stay in the game, but the play infuriated Mack, who went so far as to call Cobb the dirtiest player in baseball history. But a few days later, a photograph of the play taken by William Kuenzel of the Detroit News showed Baker reaching across the bag to tag Cobb, who was sliding away from the third baseman. The photograph vindicated Cobb, and led the Detroit Free Press to declare that Baker was a "soft-fleshed darling" for complaining about the play.

Although he would continue to develop into one of the league's best players, helping the Athletics win their first World Series in 1910 and batting .334 in 1911 with a league-leading 11 home runs, as a result of the Cobb spiking the mild-mannered Baker carried a reputation for being easily intimidated on the field. It was this alleged weakness that John McGraw and the New York Giants attempted to exploit in the 1911 World Series, with disastrous results.

In the bottom of the sixth inning of Game One, the Giants' Fred Snodgrass was on second and saw a chance to take third when Fred Merkle struck out on a pitch in the dirt. Following a strong throw from the catcher, Baker was blocking the base with the ball when Snodgrass went into the bag hard, spikes high, severely gashing Baker's left arm. Initially signaling an out, the umpire called the play safe when he saw the ball rolling on the ground. The trainer came out to patch up Baker's wounds, and the Giants went on to win 2-1. But the tone had been set, and Baker took his revenge with his bat.

With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth of Game Two, Baker came to bat with one man on base and two outs, facing Giants' lefthander Rube Marquard. After running the count to 1-1, Marquard threw Baker an inside fastball, which the slugger blasted over the right field fence for a two-run home run. That proved the difference, as the A's held on to win the game 3-1 and even the Series. The following afternoon, Giants' ace Christy Mathewson carried a 1-0 lead into the top of the ninth inning, when Baker came to the plate and again smashed a home run to right field, tying the score.

When the game moved into extra innings, the Giants once again tried to intimidate Baker. In the bottom of the tenth, Snodgrass again tried to take third, this time on a passed ball. Again, Baker blocked the base with the ball as Snodgrass came into the bag hard, spikes high, cutting into the third baseman's arm a second time. This time Baker held onto the ball. The A's went on to win the game in eleven innings, with Baker's infield hit contributing to the winning two-run rally. After the game, a Philadelphia reporter approached the "battle-scarred hero," observing the odor emanating from the bandages on Baker's wounds. When pressed, Baker finally broke his silence, and blurted out, "Yes, Snodgrass spiked me intentionally. He acted like a swell-headed busher."

The A's went on to win the series 4-2, with Baker leading his team with nine hits, five runs batted in, and a .375 average. His inspired play forever dispelled the notion that he could be intimidated on the diamond, but more importantly, Baker's two dramatic home runs on consecutive days off two future Hall of Fame pitchers propelled him into the upper echelon of baseball legends. Henceforth, for the rest of his life and beyond, he would be known as "Home Run" Baker. The nickname would become something of a curiosity for future generations, weaned as they were on a version of the game where home runs were a routine occurrence. But in the context of Baker's time, when it was only the rare slugger who could hit as many as 10 home runs in a season, the name connoted mythic power and strength.

Despite his newfound fame, Baker remained a rugged individualist, retiring to his Maryland farm every offseason where he kept in shape by chopping wood and hunting for quail. Sportswriters who managed to track him down for a hot stove feature soon learned that the quickest way to get Frank to open up was to go hunting with him. "Frank is the best shot in Talbot County, and he's wild about duck shooting," one friend explained. "Whenever you look at him he's either just shot fifteen or twenty ducks or is just going to, and he'll call you blessed if you save him the trouble of bringing up the subject. After that he'll discuss anything under the sun with you."

From 1912 to 1914, Baker continued to lead the league in home runs every season, and also collected his first RBI title in 1912, with a career high 130, and a second in 1913, when he drove in 117 runs. Continuing to rank among the league leaders in assists and putouts, Baker was also widely regarded as one of the game's best fielding third basemen. His all-around superlative play helped the Athletics win two more AL pennants and another World Championship in 1913, with Baker once again torching the Giants with a .450 batting average, one home run, and 7 RBI in the five game Series. After the Boston Braves shut down Baker and the Athletics in the 1914 Series, Mack began selling off his championship team. Baker, locked into a three-year contract, attempted to renegotiate for a higher salary, but Mack refused.

Both were stubborn men of principle and would not budge from their respective positions. Baker announced he would be perfectly happy back on the farm, "batting a few out with the boys." Twenty-nine years old and at the peak of a Hall of Fame career, that is exactly what he did. In 1915 he played for the Trappe town team, the Upland club in suburban Pennsylvania, Atlantic City, and the Easton (Maryland) club of the independent Peninsula League. Many local towns held Home Run Baker Days, presenting their hero with gifts in return for his services for the day's game.

Under pressure from Ban Johnson, Connie Mack sold Baker's contract to the Yankees for the 1916 season, ending the slugger's lengthy holdout, but after a year's absence from the major leagues Baker was no longer the dominant offensive force he had been just two years earlier. He put together four solid seasons for New York, but never led the league again in any significant offensive category. Despite his fading skills, Baker was admired by his teammates for his work ethic and imposing locker room presence. Though Baker never led the league in home runs while a Yankee, he still anchored an offensive attack dubbed "Murderer's Row" before Ruth had even joined the team. In 1919, aided tremendously by the Polo Grounds, the Yankees smashed a major league-leading 47 home runs, 10 of which came from Baker's heavy stick.

Following the 1919 season, during the winter that New York became intoxicated by the news that Babe Ruth had been purchased from the Boston Red Sox, Baker was humbled by personal tragedy. An outbreak of scarlet fever struck the Baker home, killing Frank's wife, the former Ottilie Tschantre. His two infant daughters also caught the disease, though they eventually recovered. Quarantined, paralyzed by grief, and preoccupied with taking care of his family, Baker announced that he had lost interest in baseball and would not play in 1920. But within a few months Baker was itching for baseball again. He played a few games for his old Upland club, and after a trip to New York in August, agreed to return to the Yankees for the 1921 season.

The game was changing as Baker took on the role of a part time player, and his teammate, Babe Ruth, redefined the home run. Perhaps envious of Ruth's fame, Baker bemoaned the "rabbit ball" that made the home run a more frequent occurrence. "I don't like to cast aspersions," Baker later confided to a reporter, "but a Little Leaguer today can hit the modern ball as far as grown men could hit the ball we played with." Baker decided to hang up his major league spikes after playing in just 66 games during the 1922 season. He married Margaret Mitchell of Baltimore, and returned to his Maryland farms.

Though Baker was looking to devote more time to his passions of family, farming, and duck hunting, he was pressed into service as player-manager of the Easton Farmers of the Class D Eastern Shore League in 1924. It was there that he discovered Jimmie Foxx. After Baker sold Foxx to Connie Mack, Baker was unceremoniously sacked as manager during the 1925 season, partly due to the "paltry" price he had received for the young slugger.

Continuing to work the family farms while raising his four children, Baker also served his community on the Trappe Town Board, acted as tax collector, was director of the State Bank of Trappe, and was active in the volunteer fire department. He never lost his love for baseball and was an avid supporter of organized Little League when it began. Inexplicably, considering that for many years Baker's record was the greatest of any third baseman in baseball history, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame eluded him. When finally selected by the Veterans Committee in 1955, the taciturn Baker responded, "It's better to get a rosebud while you're alive than a whole bouquet after you're dead." Humble as ever, in his later years the man who had first popularized the home run and helped his teams win three world championships told a reporter, "I hope I never do anything to hurt baseball."

Baker died of a stroke on June 28, 1963, and was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery of Talbot County in Easton, Md.

Note

This biography originally appeared in David Jones, ed., Deadball Stars of the American League (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006).

Sources

For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

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