SABR Century 1921: Lively Ball Era

Baseball was on the verge of a “seismic shift in how the game was played in 1921,” according to Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg in their award-winning book, 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York. The sport was moving from “low-scoring contests dominated by pitching to a power game with more hits, runs, and home runs.” Baseball’s Deadball Era was at an end. The Lively Ball Era was here to stay.

Baseball's first Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis is pictured on the February 1921 cover of Baseball Magazine (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)Debates that were playing out in baseball in 1921 have resurfaced a century later, showing how the game continually reinvents itself, and can cycle back on previous patterns. The history of the game often boils down to the battle between pitching and hitting. In 1921, hitting was gaining the upper hand, helped by some rule changes. And the fans responded with rising attendance. Today in 2021 pitching has the upper hand, and baseball is looking at ways to adjust this imbalance.

In February 1920 — in an effort to shift the game away from defense toward offense — baseball’s owners decided to ban “freak pitches,” including the spitball, mud ball, and any others thrown with foreign substances applied to the ball. Pitchers had to learn how to master other pitches (including the curveball), and hitters grew more comfortable in the batter’s box. The death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman in the late summer of 1920 reaffirmed baseball’s commitment to keep fresh, clean, and bright balls in play throughout the game. The success and popularity of Babe Ruth encouraged other hitters to swing for power from the end of the bat. Statistics from the 1921 season saw batting averages, slugging percentages, and earned-run averages continuing to rise, confirming that the 1920 numbers were not an anomaly. The 1920s would indeed be an era of offense, the Lively Ball Era.

In an echo of the 1920s, a 2021 headline in the Washington Post proclaimed, “How Baseball’s War on Sticky Stuff is Already Changing the Game,” while an article in the New York Times outlined how umpires were beginning to crack down in their enforcement of rules against pitchers’ use of foreign substances.

The 1921 season also marked the rise of the New York Yankees, who reached their first World Series. Led by Babe Ruth, they were challenging the popularity of manager John McGraw and his New York Giants. Organized Baseball also transformed in other significant ways that year. The game became more international — with tournaments taking place between American and Japanese teams — and with changes to the business of baseball.

Ongoing conflicts among major-league baseball’s owners and the 1919 World Series game-fixing scandal led to the bringing in of an outsider to take charge of the game’s management, with the appointment of Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the game’s first “Commissioner of Baseball,” a position of enormous power that was officially executed on January 12, 1921.

— Sharon Hamilton and Steve Steinberg


“Hitting plays the most important role in a ball game. There is no getting away from the fact that the baseball public likes to see the ball walloped hard. The home runs are meat for the fans. ‘Babe’ Ruth draws more people than a great pitcher does. It simply illustrates the theory that hitting is the paramount issue of baseball.”

— Walter Johnson, Washington Senators pitcher, 1920

Burleigh Grimes, pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, demonstrates his spitball before a game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in 1928. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Burleigh Grimes, shown here in 1928, was the last National League pitcher legally allowed to throw a spitball. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Sticky Stuff: The Banning of the Spitball and ‘Freak’ Pitches

In the 1910s, pitchers began to develop trick pitches by applying foreign substances to the ball: the shine ball, emery ball, and licorice ball, among them. All these pitches gave the ball added and unusual movement as it approached the plate.

There were so many doctored pitches, surreptitiously prepared, that sentiment was building that the pitchers had gone too far. In February 1920, baseball’s Joint Rules Committee enacted laws that banned all “freak” pitches, including the spitball.

A number of other factors also shut down the Deadball Era: the new “swing for the fences” hitting style ushered in by Babe Ruth, improved hitting backgrounds, as well as the constant flow of fresh, bright, and better quality baseballs. Taken together, they provided the impetus for a stunning and sudden change, one of the biggest in baseball history.

Grandfathered In

After enacting a ban on the spitball and other “freak” pitchers before the 1920 season, the AL and NL allowed teams to designate two pitchers apiece who would be allowed to continue throwing the spitball until the end of their careers. In the end, 17 spitball pitchers were “grandfathered” in — including future Hall of Famers Stan Coveleski, Red Faber, and Burleigh Grimes. Here is the full list, along with the season when they finished their major-league careers:

American League

No pitchers listed by Philadelphia or Washington.

National League

No pitchers listed by Chicago, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh.

In 1921, Rogers Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals began a five-year stretch in which he hit .402 with a 204 OPS+ (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE) In 1921, Rogers Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals began a five-year stretch in which he hit over .400 three times, winning the National League Triple Crown in both 1922 and ’25. In 1922, he became the first NL player to hit more than 40 home runs in a single season. Click here to read Hornsby’s SABR biography, by C. Paul Rogers III. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

A Changing Game

By 1921, baseball’s offensive explosion was in full swing, with league-wide OPS up nearly 20 percent from the years before World War I. (The trend also held true in the Negro National League, which saw a 12 percent increase in OPS from its first season in 1920 to 1922.)

In just five years between 1917 and 1922, scoring increased by 36 percent, from 3.6 to 4.9 runs per team per game, despite continuing declines in errors and unearned runs. Strikeouts decreased in the 1920s, and more balls were put in play (84 percent) despite the tripling of the HR rate from 0.13 to 0.43 per team per game and a slight increase in walks.

OPS changes, 1917-1922

Runs Per Game changes, 1917-1922

ERA changes, 1917-1922

Click images to enlarge. Source: Baseball-Reference.com.

Chappie’s Death

Ray Chapman, a popular Cleveland Indians shortstop, suffered a fatal blow after he was hit in the head by a pitch from New York’s Carl Mays on August 16, 1920. He died hours later from his injuries. Chapman’s death remains the only on-field fatality in major-league history.

Chapman’s tragic death resulted in a change that benefited hitters tremendously. Until that time the same baseball stayed in play for long periods of time, even after it became grimy and dirty. Chapman might have had a difficult time picking up the darkened ball from the Yankees’ hard-throwing submarine pitcher.

Umpires had been directed to introduce clean balls at the start of the 1920 season. But owners complained of increased costs, and the umpires backed off, at least until the Chapman tragedy. Afterward, umpires were instructed to replace scuffed and soiled balls. There were 43,224 balls used in the National League in 1924, a dramatic increase from a total of 14,772 used in 1916, according to Baseball Magazine.

Click here to watch the SABR Century Committee’s panel discussion on the 100th anniversary of Ray Chapman’s death, with authors Mike Sowell, Don Jensen, Kevin Trusty, and moderator Sharon Hamilton.

Ty Cobb, circa 1921 (TRADING CARD DB) At $25,000, Detroit Tigers player-manager Ty Cobb was the highest-paid player in baseball in 1921, as he had been for most of the past decade. (TRADING CARD DATABASE)

Was the Price Right for 1921 Sluggers?

How good were managers and owners at correctly valuing players? Or, put in a different perspective, how did a baseball player’s salary and his performance correlate in 1921?

If batting average was an important and valuable evaluation tool for baseball players and front-office executives, one might expect to see a high correlation between this metric and the player’s salary.

But as the game began to evolve away from the “scientific” small-ball strategy favored by Ty Cobb and John McGraw to the powerful home runs of Babe Ruth, did management adjust how they paid their players?   

Did Players 100 Years Ago Learn During a Game?

Modern baseball analysis has established without a doubt that the longer a pitcher stays in the game, the better the batters will perform against him. Deadball Era batters improved their performance against the starting pitcher in the same way as their modern counterparts.

Using Retrosheet data for the seasons 1916–2019, we will see that while Deadball batters also learned their opposing pitcher during a game, the pattern of their learning was different.

Grover Cleveland Alexander with the Chicago Cubs (CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM, CHICAGO DAILY NEWS, SDN-064431) Grover Cleveland Alexander of the Chicago Cubs led the major leagues with 12.6 Wins Above Replacement in 1920. Beginning in 1921, either Babe Ruth or Rogers Hornsby would lead the majors in WAR for the next seven years. (CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM)

Two players from the 1921 Waseda University baseball team from Japan, catcher J. Nagano and second baseman J. Kuji, pose for a photo. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Two players from the Waseda University baseball team from Japan, catcher J. Nagano and second baseman J. Kuji, pose for a photo in 1921. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

International Growth

In 1921 baseball grew in popularity in Japan. More amateur players engaged in the sport within the country, and American teams traveled to Japan for games. Japanese baseball teams also traveled to the United States and its territories to take part in international competitions.

Opponents for these American-Japanese matches came from universities, Japanese-American teams, and a semipro team composed of members of the Squamish Native American tribe, which performed well in Japan, winning nearly all their games, before the trip’s organizers abandoned them, and they were forced to rely upon the American consulate to arrange their voyage home.

Umpires in 1921

Umpiring in the early days of baseball was a tough job. Most games involved two-man crews at home plate and first base, with rowdy players and sometimes even rowdier fans to contend with.

In 1921 alone, there were notable incidents involving Ty Cobb getting into a bloody fight with umpire Billy Evans under the grandstand, a Pacific Coast League player getting spiked by umpire Ted McGrew, and future Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem having his leg fractured by a pitch thrown by the Yankees’ Carl Mays.

In the Negro National League, president Rube Foster was forced to defend his practice of employing only White umpires. The umpires he hired were not league employees — the first hiring of NNL staff umpires did not come until 1923.

Waiting for the umpire to make the call as Washington ball player, Joe Judge, slides across home plate, the catcher, on the left, is lying on the ground with ball in hand (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Washington’s Joe Judge slides across home plate and awaits the umpire’s call in an undated game from 1921. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

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