SABR Century: 1921 Year in Review

The 1921 season was a pivotal one in baseball history. Led by Babe Ruth’s record-setting 59 home runs, the New York Yankees began establishing a dynasty that would span most of the twentieth century by winning their first American League pennant. Their first World Series was an epic all-New York City matchup against the National League champion Giants, managed by the legendary John McGraw, a proponent of the small-ball, low-scoring style of play that had dominated the Deadball Era.

Ruth’s home run exploits — the 26-year-old slugger set a new single-season record for the third straight year — showed everyone there was a different way to win. (“Let the kids play” was not the catchphrase of the day, but the idea was the same.) The Yankees drew more than 1 million fans in home attendance in 1921, a feat accomplished by no other team in baseball history before the Yankees first did it the year before, while still renting the Giants’ home ballpark at the Polo Grounds. Soon, the American Leaguers would have a new ballpark to call their own: Yankee Stadium, “The House that Ruth Built,” which opened two years later.

The Negro National League celebrated its second season of play in 1921, with individual stars like Oscar Charleston — who won the league’s Triple Crown — of the St. Louis Giants and two-way phenom Bullet Rogan of the Kansas City Monarchs, along with the powerhouse pennant winners, Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants. Newly available statistics for the segregated all-Black league — which operated during an era of horrific racial violence around the United States — show a growing trend toward home run-happy offenses that affected all levels of baseball. Baseball had fully entered into the Lively Ball Era.

The sport also became more widely accessible in the early 1920s to fans who were able to follow along from their homes by tuning in to games on the radio. The first baseball broadcast on commercial radio took place in the summer of 1921 at Forbes Field, an innovative experiment by a young electrical engineer, Harold W. Arlin, for KDKA radio in Pittsburgh. By 1923, Arlin and other broadcasting pioneers were calling World Series games for the entire nation, bringing in millions of new fans to the national pastime.

Finally, American culture still reverberates with the ruling made in August 1921 by the newly hired commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banning eight disgraced Black Sox players for life after they were caught fixing the 1919 World Series. Landis’s actions — which continue to play out in popular culture through films such as Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams — helped establish his authority in a new role and changed the landscape of baseball’s power structure forever.

— Sharon Hamilton, Century Committee chair

SABR’s Century Committee invites you to join us on a journey back in time to learn more about baseball in 1921:

 

Award Winners

There were no MVP, Cy Young, or Rookie of the Year awards in 1921. But which major league players might have won them if the honors had existed at the time?

In the mid-1980s, SABR conducted extensive member surveys to choose retroactive winners for the American League and National League awards. In 2001, John Holway selected retroactive award winners for his book The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues. Seamheads.com has recently put forth worthy selections for the 1921 season as well. For this project, SABR’s Century Committee, in consultation with the Negro Leagues Committee, has selected retroactive award recipients for the Negro National League honors.

Click on an image below to read the player’s SABR biography or view career statistics at Baseball-Reference.com.

1921 Retroactive MVPs

Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth

New York Yankees
Rogers Hornsby

Rogers Hornsby

St. Louis Cardinals
Oscar Charleston

Oscar Charleston

St. Louis Giants

1921 Retroactive Cy Young Award winners

Red Faber

Red Faber

Chicago White Sox
Burleigh Grimes

Burleigh Grimes

Brooklyn Dodgers
Bullet Rogan

Bullet Rogan

Kansas City Monarchs

1921 Retroactive Rookies of the Year

Joe Sewell

Joe Sewell

Cleveland Indians
Ray Grimes

Ray Grimes

Chicago Cubs
Crush Holloway

Crush Holloway

Indianapolis ABCs

THE JAZZ AGE BEGINS

With Tales of the Jazz Age, American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald named the decade he later described as “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” During the 1920s, young people who had survived the First World War became “the wildest of all generations.”

Flappers wore dresses with shockingly short hemlines, smoked, and danced the Charleston. Partiers faced with a national prohibition on alcoholic beverages consumed homemade bathtub gin while listening to the new hot music, jazz. And everybody followed the baseball exploits of one of the most-loved sluggers of all time: Babe Ruth.

That generation’s determination to live only for amusement began, Fitzgerald said, “with the cocktail parties of 1921.”

Video: American Museum & Gardens

RETURN TO NORMALCY: A NEW PRESIDENT

With his promise of a “return to normalcy,” Warren G. Harding, America’s new president who took office in March 1921, had won over an electorate shaken by the tragedy of a world war, followed by more than a half-million deaths in the US from a global influenza epidemic.

Baseball, too, had been affected by the war and by the pandemic. As part of the return to normalcy he had promised, President Harding threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Senators season opener on April 13, 1921, continuing a tradition begun by William Howard Taft in 1910.

Video: US National Archives

PROHIBITION AND THE RISE OF ORGANIZED CRIME

For gangsters and bootleggers, the coming into force in January 1920 of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — introducing a national prohibition on the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” — presented a great opportunity.

One of those who took advantage of this situation was Al Capone. Following his father’s death in November 1920, the young Capone moved to Chicago where, within a few years, he had established a criminal empire. A baseball fan, Al Capone could sometimes be seen enjoying a game, protected by a conspicuous row of fedora-wearing body guards.

Interior of a crowded bar moments before midnight, June 30, 1919, when wartime prohibition went into effect New York City (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Interior of a crowded bar moments before midnight, June 30, 1919, when wartime prohibition went into effect in New York City. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

RACE MASSACRE DESTROYS TULSA’S BLACK BUSINESS DISTRICT

At the end of May and beginning of June 1921, the prosperous Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was attacked during a race massacre that demolished an area popularly known as “Black Wall Street,” leaving hundreds of residents killed or injured.

In keeping with the era’s entrenched racism, at that time National League and American League baseball had no official rules against the hiring of Black players, but collusion among those leagues’ owners kept them out. During 1921, Black players played in a professional league of their own that enterprising Black owners had founded the previous year: the Negro National League.

Video: Vox Media

CANADIAN SCIENTISTS DISCOVER INSULIN — AND A GREAT PITCHER IS BORN

During 1921 in Canada, a history-changing event took place when Dr. Frederick Banting and a team at the University of Toronto discovered insulin. Canada’s first major league baseball team, the Montreal Expos, would not be formed until the 1960s, but Canadians played professional ball long before then.

One of those players, Dick Fowler, was born in Toronto in 1921. On September 9, 1945, Fowler became the first Canadian to toss a major-league no-hitter with the Philadelphia Athletics.

Video: UMass Diabetes Center of Excellence

SOCIETY BEGINS A LOVE AFFAIR WITH TECHNOLOGY

During the 1920s people became more addicted to their devices. Cars became more affordable and began to be purchased, for the first time, in large numbers by the middle class. A Franklin touring car promising “20 miles to the gallon” could be bought for $2,350 in 1921 (the equivalent of about $32,777 in 2021). Radios became more common in homes and in August 1921, KDKA in Pittsburgh became the first commercial radio station to broadcast a baseball game.

Airplane use during the war opened the way for greater use of this new technology in civilian life, including the beginnings of a regular US airmail service. A writer in the Boston Globe commented in 1920 that “Times certainly have changed, when whole baseball teams fly across country to play a game.” He reported that an aviation service team from Dayton, Ohio had flown to Indianapolis to play a game with another aviation service team. The flight was made in a Martin bomber. The writer noted, “Not all ball teams would take this means of transportation at this time, but some day in the future — who knows?”

A woman sits behind the wheel of an automobile, circa 1921 (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)A woman sits behind the wheel of an automobile, circa 1921. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Top 10 Games of 1921

Here are the top 10 games of the 1921 baseball season as chosen by the SABR Games Project Committee. As an overarching principle, this list favors excitement — an outcome in the balance until the final pitch, an individual’s step-by-step triumph over challenging circumstances — over games merely featuring unusual or interesting occurrences. It aims to identify or highlight the players, accomplishments, or themes that will most captivate fans and historians over the next century.

American League

Babe Ruth (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

June 13, 1921: Ruth’s Yankees knock out Cobb’s Tigers as Babe reaches Polo Grounds bleachers

As tempers flared between two AL contenders, Babe Ruth took the mound against Ty Cobb’s Tigers, pitching five solid innings and then blasting a gargantuan homer to ice the victory.

Walter Johnson (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME)

September 14, 1921: Walter Johnson, backed by a triple play, faces only 27 batters

So great a pitcher was Walter Johnson that his 1-0 victory over the St. Louis Browns may not be among his greatest games. He faced just 27 batters — the minimum for a nine-inning game — but allowed three hits and struck out only five as the Senators turned a triple play.

Waite Hoyt (TRADING CARD DB)

September 26, 1921: Yankees finally gain the upper hand over Cleveland with thrilling victory

With Cleveland on the verge of tying for first place, Waite Hoyt won his 19th game to keep the Yankees in front. Center fielder Elmer Miller ended a late Indians rally by throwing out a runner at third base.

National League

Ross Youngs (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

July 26, 1921: Ross Youngs rallies Giants past Pirates in showdown of league leaders

The Giants surged into the NL pennant race after Ross Youngs’ return from a preseason knee injury; their star right fielder hit a bases-clearing triple and scored the winning run in the 10th inning.

Frankie Frisch (TRADING CARD DB)

August 11, 1921: Giants win a ‘humdinger’ over Dodgers with two late comebacks and 13th-inning rally

Frankie Frisch drove in the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, then hit a game-ending triple to lift the second-place Giants against their crosstown rivals from Brooklyn.

Eppa Rixey (TRADING CARD DB)

September 5, 1921: Reds’ Eppa Rixey tosses 13-inning, complete-game victory over faltering Pirates

The Pirates seemed poised to win their first National League pennant since 1909, but in a crucial late-season battle, Pittsburgh fell to Eppa Rixey and the Reds as Sammy Bohne scored the game-winner in the 13th inning.

Negro National League

Bill Gatewood (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

June 6, 1921: Bill Gatewood of Detroit Stars throws Negro National League’s first no-hitter

Bill Gatewood of the Detroit Stars, a veteran pitcher known for his spitball as well as for his versatility, pitched the Negro National League’s first no-hitter, defeating the Cincinnati Cuban Stars, 4-0.

Cristobal Torriente (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

June 20, 1921: Cristóbal Torriente scores in 10th for American Giants’ 13th consecutive victory

Speedy outfielder Cristóbal Torriente drew a walk in the 10th inning, stole second base, and then scored the winning run to give the Chicago American Giants their 13th win in a row.

Bullet Rogan (TRADING CARD DB)

July 25, 1921: Monarchs’ Bullet Rogan hits 2-run homer in 9th-inning comeback over Detroit Stars

Kansas City’s Cliff Bell took a perfect game into the eighth inning before losing the lead. The Monarchs rallied to retake the lead, then the Stars did the same in the top of the ninth. Bullet Rogan tied the game with a two-run homer before Dobie Moore’s RBI single finally won it.

World Series

Art Nehf (TRADING CARD DB)

October 13, 1921: Giants beat Yankees 1-0 to clinch World Series championship

The Giants clinched their first World Series crown since 1905 behind a dominant 4-hit performance from lefty Art Nehf, who induced Frank “Home Run” Baker to hit into a dramatic 4-3-5 double play to end the game and the all-New York fall classic.

Credits

Special thanks to all of our contributors for the SABR Century 1921 Project.

  • Project Manager: Sharon Hamilton
  • Project Editors: Len Levin, Bill Nowlin
  • Web Designer: Jacob Pomrenke
  • Fact-Checkers: Gary Belleville, Ray Danner, Brian Harl, Mike Huber, Evan Katz, Kevin Larkin, Madison McEntire, Laura H. Peebles, Carl Riechers, Jack Zerby, Bruce Slutsky, Stew Thornley
  • Authors and Contributors: Bruce Allardice, David W. Anderson, Gary Belleville, Dana Joseph Berry, Bob Blackstock, Peter C. Bjarkman, Luis Blandon, Kurt Blumeneau, Stephen D. Boren, Bob Brady, Thomas J. Brown Jr., John J. Burbridge Jr., Dan Busby, Frederick C. Bush, Ken Carrano, Ralph Christian, Dick Clark, Alan Cohen, Scott Crawford, Tom Cuggino, Richard Cuicchi, Dan D’Addona, Ray Danner, Paul E. Doutrich, Doug Feldmann, Rob Fitts, James F. Forr, John Fredland, T.S. Flynn, Gordon Gattie, Don Geiszler, Gary Gillette, Steve Ginader, Neal Golden, David J. Gordon, Peter M. Gordon, Vince Guerrieri, Tim Hagerty, Donna L. Halper, Sharon Hamilton, Bruce Harl, Andrew Harner, Michael Haupert, Leslie Heaphy, Chris Hicks, Chuck Hildebrandt, Paul Hofmann, John Holway, Jeff Howard, Mike Huber, Joanne Hulbert, Jorge Iber, Bill Jenkinson, Don Jensen, Bill Johnson, Kevin Johnson, David Jones, Evan Katz, Thomas Kern, Humbert Kilanowski, Bill Lamb, Kevin Larkin, Bob LeMoine, Larry Lester, Len Levin, Daniel R. Levitt, Madison McEntire, Thomas E. Merrick, Seth Moland-Kovash, Bill Nowlin, Tim Odzer, James Overmyer, Laura H. Peebles, Jacob Pomrenke, Chris Rainey, Alan Raylesberg, Stephen V. Rice, Carl Riechers, Michael Rinehart, Eric Robinson, C. Paul Rogers III, Quentin Sallat, Gary Sarnoff, Jason Schwartz, Peter Seidel, Kyle Sharimitaro, Stuart Shea, Blake W. Sherry, Bruce Slutsky, Mike Sowell, Glen Sparks, Lyle Spatz, Steve Steinberg, Aaron Tallent, Stew Thornley, Adam Ulrey, Cort Vitty, Russ Walsh, Joseph Wancho, Bob Webster, Steven C. Weiner, Bob Whelan, Jay Wigley, Ken Willey, Gregory H. Wolf, Allan Wood, Jack Zerby, John G. Zinn, and Eric Zweig

Click here to visit the SABR Century Committee website for more articles and essays covering the 1921 season.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved