There was no guarantee on Opening Day 1921 that two teams with such vastly different playing styles — the Deadball Era strategic baseball of the New York Giants vs. the heavy-hitting Lively Ball game of the New York Yankees — would find themselves facing off against one another in the World Series. During the regular season, both teams engaged in nail-bitingly close pennant races even as they remained unhappily tethered to one another at same home ballpark: the Polo Grounds.
As of late August, the National League Giants remained behind the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates, who — with a hard fought win over the Boston Braves on August 22 — increased their lead. These two pennant-contending teams entered into a five-game series on August 24 with the Pirates ahead by 7½ games. On August 27, the Giants emerged from this head-to-head battle having made a major step forward with a five-game sweep.
On September 9, the Giants finally managed to move into first place. The Yankees took until October 1 to clinch the American League pennant. Qualifying for the World Series had remained a contested likelihood for both teams almost until the fall classic was scheduled to start. In the end, they did play one another — and by doing so, they made history: the 1921 World Series was the first modern World Series to be played all in one stadium, and the first consisting only of teams based in New York.
1921 New York Giants team photo (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)
The 1921 New York Giants
By John J. Burbridge Jr.
The New York Giants and their manager, John J. McGraw, were optimistic that the 1921 season would result in a World Series triumph. Hopefully, this would end the frustration their fans had experienced since the team last won the championship, in 1905. While the Giants won National League pennants in 1911, 1912, and 1913, they were defeated by Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in both the 1911 and 1913 World Series. In 1912 they were on the verge of a championship, leading 2-1 in the bottom of the 10th inning of the deciding final game when Fred Snodgrass, a dependable outfielder, dropped a fly ball that led to two runs and a Red Sox victory. In 1917, with World War I as a backdrop, the Giants again won the pennant but lost the World Series in six games to the Chicago White Sox.
Another exasperating season was 1908. The Giants were in the midst of a pennant race with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs when they had victory snatched from them in a crucial late-season game against the Cubs. Fred Merkle, on first base, did not run to second on a hit and was forced out as the supposed winning run scored. The game had to be replayed at the end of the season with the Cubs winning and clinching the pennant. Merkle’s boner plus Snodgrass’s error left many Giants fans feeling their team was cursed.
In each of the three years leading up to the 1921 season, the Giants finished second but were well behind the Chicago Cubs in 1918, the Cincinnati Reds in 1919, and the Brooklyn Robins in 1920. Finishing behind the Robins was probably galling to McGraw; he was losing to another New York City team and one managed by Wilbert Robinson, with whom McGraw had a feud dating back to 1913, when Robinson was a coach with the Giants.1
McGraw’s optimism in 1921 was due to some significant additions in the past few years. Ross Youngs, an outfielder who made his Giants debut in 1917, was regarded as one of the premier players in the game. In 1919 Frankie Frisch decided to leave Fordham University to sign with the Giants and become the everyday second baseman. During the 1920 season, the Giants acquired Dave Bancroft in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies to play shortstop. After spending several years between the major and minor leagues, George “High Pockets” Kelly appeared to cement his hold as the everyday first baseman. These four players plus holdover George Burns formed the nucleus of the Giants position players entering the 1921 season.
The pitching staff underwent a similar transition. In 1919 the Giants acquired Art Nehf from the Boston Braves in a midseason deal. Nehf won 21 games in 1920. Prior to the 1918 season, the Giants acquired Jesse Barnes in another trade with Boston. He won 25 games for the Giants in 1919 and 20 in 1920. Fred Toney was expected to be a key contributor. The fourth member of the rotation was Phil Douglas, whom the Giants acquired from the Chicago Cubs in a 1919 trade.
With this nucleus of position players and starting pitchers, McGraw had every reason to be optimistic. His high hopes were also shared by sportswriters; many picked the Giants to win the pennant. The principal opposition was expected to be the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Robins.
One other noteworthy change was the purchase of the Giants in January 1919 by a syndicate led by Charles A. Stoneham. Stoneham, a Jersey City native, was known as a playboy who enjoyed women, casinos, horse racing, and the Manhattan nightlife. McGraw was also part of the new ownership group.2
While the Giants were the favorite to win the pennant, their status as New York’s team was being threatened by the American League’s New York Yankees. After the 1919 season, the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. In 1920 Ruth hit 54 home runs, leading the Yankees to a third-place AL finish. They also became the first team to draw over one million fans, more than the Giants in the Polo Grounds, which the Giants owned and in which the Yankees had been a tenant since 1913.
The surge in the popularity of the Yankees resulted in the Giants deciding they no longer wanted them as a tenant and asked them to find a new place to play.3 The Yankees decided to build their own ballpark in the Bronx just across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds. The Yankees moved into Yankee Stadium for the 1923 season.
What was especially aggravating to McGraw was the Yankees style of play. McGraw was a disciple of scientific baseball, which might now be characterized as “smallball.” McGraw believed in stealing bases, hitting behind the runner, and sacrifice bunts. The Yankees with Ruth were now relying on the home run and it appeared to be succeeding. Many were choosing the Yankees to win the 1921 AL pennant.
Future Baseball Hall of Famers
Top: George Kelly, 1B; Dave Bancroft, SS; Frankie Frisch, 2B/3B Middle: Casey Stengel, OF, John McGraw, MGR; Ross Youngs, OF
Bottom: Jesse Burkett, Christy Mathewson, Hughie Jennings (coaches)
The Giants opened the season playing the Philadelphia Phillies at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia with Phil Douglas starting against Jimmy Ring for the Phillies. Douglas was not very effective and after four innings the Phillies held a 5-1 lead. The Giants rallied to take a 7-5 lead in the seventh inning but the Phillies tied the score in the bottom half of the inning. Neither team scored in the eighth, ninth, or 10th, but the Giants scored a run and then Kelly hit a two-run inside-the-park home run in the top of the 11th to give the Giants a 10-7 lead. The Phillies rallied but could score only one run and the Giants had an Opening Day 10-8 victory.
The Giants won the next day but lost the final game of the series. They went to Boston and beat the Braves twice, giving them a 4-1 record as they returned to New York to play the Phillies in their home opener. The Phillies got a quick lead but the Giants came back and the score was tied 5-5 as the two entered the eighth inning. Irish Meusel led off with a triple for the Phillies and scored on an error by shortstop Dave Bancroft. The Phillies held on to win 6-5. The Giants won the final two games of the series, giving them a record of 6-2 as they went to Ebbets Field to play the Robins in a four-game series.
The Robins proceeded to sweep the Giants in four well-pitched games as the Giants offense sputtered, scoring only seven runs in the four games. The Giants rebounded and won six games in a row. The first game of the streak was against the Boston Braves and saw the return of Ross Youngs to the starting lineup. He had missed the first 12 games of the season with a knee injury. The final two games of the winning streak were against the Robins at the Polo Grounds. The third game of that series was played at Ebbets Field while the Yankees were home at the Polo Grounds. The Giants continued their lack of hitting in Brooklyn as they lost 2-0 to end the winning streak.
The NL’s western teams were now scheduled to visit the Polo Grounds. The first opponent was the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the first game of a four-game series, 7-6, as Rogers Hornsby went 4-for-4. (The Giants had made an offer to the Cardinals for Hornsby but were rebuffed as the Cardinals wanted more than what McGraw was offering.4) Hornsby was probably the best hitter in the NL and McGraw may have wanted him not only for what he could contribute on the field but also to attract more fans given the emergence of the Yankees.
After the loss to the Cardinals, the Giants won eight in a row, culminating with a 3-2 win against Chicago on May 18. The Giants’ record was 20-8 but the Pirates also had a hot start and were 21-6, giving them a 1½-game lead over the Giants.
On May 19 Chicago snapped the Giants’ winning streak with a 5-3 victory. The two teams split the next two games. Pittsburgh was next to arrive for a two-game series and led the Giants by 3½ games. The Pirates won the opening game, 8-6, but lost the second so they left New York with the same lead.
With the homestand over, the Giants went to Boston for a five-game series and won three of five. They returned home on Memorial Day to play Philadelphia in another five-game series beginning with a doubleheader. Between games on that Memorial Day, the Giants placed a plaque on a monument in center field commemorating Eddie Grant, a former Giant, who had been killed in World War I.5
New York swept the doubleheader and won two of the next three games against the Phillies. Pittsburgh’s lead was now 2½ games as the Giants embarked on a 14-game road trip, beginning in Pittsburgh with four games.
New York won the first three games in Pittsburgh. After the third victory, a 12-0 shutout pitched by Douglas, the Giants found themselves in first place, a half-game ahead of the Pirates. Their lead was short-lived; they lost the fourth game, 5-4, putting Pittsburgh back in first place.
The Giants lost their next five games to Cincinnati and St. Louis before winning the last game of the St. Louis series, 6-4. The Giants ended the road trip by winning three of five games in Chicago. As they returned home to New York to play Boston in a three-game series, the Pirates’ lead was 3½ games.
The Giants lost the first two to Boston but won the third game, 10-4. Then they headed to Philadelphia for four games with the Phillies. They won the first three but lost the fourth. They went to Boston for a single game and lost 3-2. As July began, the Giants were still in second place, five games behind the Pirates.
Though idle on July 1, the Giants made a trade with Philadelphia, acquiring second baseman Johnny Rawlings and outfielder Casey Stengel for three players including third baseman Goldie Rapp. Rapp, who had been acquired by the Giants during the offseason, had been unable to hit major-league pitching. With Rawlings playing second, the Giants were able to move Frisch to third base, solidifying the lineup.6
After another idle day due to rain, the Giants played two consecutive doubleheaders. On July 3 at the Polo Grounds, they swept the Braves, then went to Brooklyn and won both games against the Robins. After the doubleheaders they returned to the Polo Grounds for an 18-game homestand. In the first two games, the Robins defeated the Giants. The NL Western teams were next scheduled beginning with the Cubs and Cardinals.
The first game against Chicago was a masterful pitching duel with the Giants winning 1-0 behind Art Nehf over Grover Cleveland Alexander. New York won two of the next three versus Chicago, then swept a three-game series with St. Louis.
Pittsburgh then arrived for a four-game series. The Pirates’ lead was three games. The teams split the series, so the Pirates left New York still three games ahead. Cincinnati was next for a four-game series, which the teams split. The homestand ended with a 4-3 victory against the Phillies and the Pirates still led by three games.
With high hopes of reducing that lead as they headed to Pittsburgh for four games, the Giants lost the first game, 6-3, but made another significant trade with Philadelphia. The Giants acquired Irish Meusel, a rising star, for two unproven players plus $30,000.7 The deal was criticized by Pittsburgh and other NL owners, who lobbied Commissioner Kenesaw Landis to veto the trade. Landis, who had stymied McGraw’s earlier attempts to trade for Heinie Groh, allowed the trade but later acknowledged that he should have negated the deal.8
After losing the first game, New York rebounded to win the next three, reducing the Pirates’ lead to just one game. The Giants then headed to Cincinnati for a six-game series, with doubleheaders on July 30 and 31 following a single game on the 29th. After winning on July 29 and splitting the first doubleheader, the Giants found themselves tied for first place with Pittsburgh. However, they lost both games on the 31st, falling a game behind the Pirates as July ended.
As August began, McGraw and the Giants had cause for optimism. They were just a game behind and now had Irish Meusel to bolster their lineup. However, the road trip proved to be somewhat difficult. After winning the final game in Cincinnati, they lost the first three games in a four-game St. Louis series. They rebounded to win the final game, 2-1, behind the pitching of Fred Toney. Then they split the four games in Chicago, and were three games behind Pittsburgh.
Back home for a prolonged homestand beginning with a four-game series against Brooklyn, the Giants won two of the four but were now 4½ games back as Pittsburgh kept winning. On Sunday, August 14, Philadelphia came to town for a two-game series, which the teams split. On August 16 the Robins beat the Giants, 7-6. Cincinnati was next for a three-game series. The Giants won two of the three but then lost three of four to St. Louis. The homestand was very disappointing; the Pirates lead was now 7½ games.
The Giants did have a faint glimmer of hope: Pittsburgh was coming to the Polo Grounds for a five-game series beginning with a doubleheader on Wednesday, August 24. The Pirates’ record was 76-41 while the Giants stood at 70-50. With a nine-game lead in the loss column and 37 games left in the season, Pittsburgh seemed like a sure thing for the pennant.
On the night before the series was to begin, McGraw, somewhat frustrated by the Giants’ August performance, called a team meeting. Supposedly he raged, “Pittsburgh is going to come in here tomorrow laughing at us. Pittsburgh is going to take it all. Pittsburgh! A bunch of banjo-playing, wise-cracking humpty-dumpties! You’ve thrown it all away! You haven’t got a chance! And you’ve only got yourselves to blame.”9
To illustrate the confidence of the Pirates, Barney Dreyfuss, the team’s owner, had extra grandstands and bleachers added at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh’s home ballpark. In addition, George Gibson, Pittsburgh’s manager, ordered his players to assemble before the first game of the doubleheader to have their team picture taken for the anticipated World Series program.10
Possibly McGraw and the picture-taking contributed to the Giants dominating both games of the twin bill. They won the first game, 10-2, behind Nehf, and Douglas shut out the Pirates in the nightcap, 7-0. The lead was now 5½ games. The next day, the Giants won again, 5-2, behind Fred Toney. For the fourth game of the series, Douglas was back again, pitching against Pirates hurler Earl Hamilton. Hamilton was effective, allowing only five hits and two runs. The Pirates could score only one and lost 2-1. With the lead now cut to 3½ games, Nehf was again the starting pitcher in the final game of the series, and he led the Giants to a 3-1 win. Pittsburgh was still in first place, by 2½ games, but was shaken as a result of the five-game sweep. Asked about the sweep, McGraw responded, “Not bad. But Pittsburgh is still in first place.”11
The Pirates were still up four games in the loss column and were playing most of their remaining games at home. However, the momentum had seemed to shift. The Giants swept Chicago in a three-game series while the Pirates won two of three at Ebbets Field. The Pirates’ lead was down to 1½ games.
The Giants lost four of their next six games, but Pittsburgh was also struggling. After defeating Philadelphia in both ends of a twin bill on September 7, the Giants were just a half-game behind the Pirates. This sweep of the Phillies was also the beginning of a 10-game winning streak. On Friday, September 9, after an offday on Thursday, the Giants defeated the Robins 6-2 while the Pirates lost. New York was in first place.
After seven more wins, the winning streak was snapped by the Pirates with a 2-1 victory behind Babe Adams at Forbes Field. The Pirates had lost the first two games of the series so the Giants left Pittsburgh with a 3½-game lead with only eight games to go.
The Giants continued their road trip with series in Chicago and St. Louis. They split the two games with the Cubs and the first two games against the Cardinals. On September 26 the Giants behind Nehf beat the Cardinals, 4-1, in the final game of the series while Pittsburgh was losing to the Phillies, 2-1. With the victory and the Pirates’ loss, the Giants clinched the pennant.
The Yankees won the AL pennant, setting in motion the first so-called Subway Series. Ruth had continued his prodigious hitting with 59 home runs. The Yankees began the best-of-nine series with both Carl Mays and Waite Hoyt of the Yankees shutting out the Giants by 3-0 scores. In Game Three the Yankees got an early 4-0 lead but the Giants came roaring back and won 13-5. Game Four also went to the Giants, 4-2, as Ruth hit his only home run of the Series. In Game Five, Hoyt once again beat the Giants, 3-1. Ruth laid down a perfect bunt in the fourth inning and scored the go-ahead run on a double by Bob Meusel, Irish’s brother. Ruth did not start any of the remaining games due to an inflamed elbow and sore knee.
Without Ruth in the Yankees lineup, the Giants won Games Six and Seven. The Giants led, four victories to three. The starting pitchers for Game Eight were Nehf and Hoyt. Nehf had already lost two games to Hoyt. The Giants scored a run in the first inning and led 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth. (The Yankees were the home team.) To lead off the inning, Miller Huggins, the Yankees manager, called upon Ruth to pinch-hit. He grounded out to first. After a walk to Aaron Ward, Home Run Baker hit a vicious line drive that was fielded by second baseman Rawlings who got the out at first. Ward attempted to go to third but was thrown out by first baseman High Pockets Kelly, ending the game and the Series with a rather bizarre double play. John McGraw and the New York Giants had won their first World Series since 1905.
The Lyle Spatz and Steven Steinberg book 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012) was invaluable in providing a chronology of the Giants’ 1921 season. The author additionally relied on Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
Photo credits: 1921 New York Giants team photo, SABR-Rucker Archive. Collage: SABR-Rucker Archive, The Sporting News, 1921 Christy Mathewson Testimonial Program.
1921 New York Yankees team photo (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)
The 1921 New York Yankees
By Alan Raylesberg
The 1921 New York Yankees are the team that started it all. As the most successful franchise in baseball history, the Yankees (as of 2020) have won 27 World Series championships, 40 American League pennants, and 18 American League East titles.1 When Babe Ruth joined them in 1920, the Yankees had never won the pennant. Led by Ruth, that changed in 1921 as the Yankees won their first pennant, before losing to the New York Giants in the World Series. The Yankees would go on to win six pennants and three World Series during the decade as their dynasty began.
The Yankees were one of eight teams when the American League began in 1901. Originally, they played in Baltimore and were known as the Orioles (no relation to the current Baltimore Orioles). In 1903 the team was sold and moved to New York City, where they played at Hilltop Park as the Highlanders. In 1913 they moved to the Polo Grounds as tenants of the New York Giants and were renamed the Yankees.2 The early versions of the Highlanders and Yankees did not meet with much success, never finishing higher than second in the American League. Everything changed in the winter of 1919 when the Boston Red Sox sold Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000. In 1920, his first season with the Yankees, Ruth shattered his own major-league record by belting 54 home runs3 as the Yankees finished third, three games behind the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians.4
In 1921 the Yankees finished first, ahead of the Indians, as the 26-year-old Ruth broke his own single-season home-run record yet again, hitting 59.5 After trailing Cleveland by a small margin for most of the season, the Yankees took three of four from the Indians in late September and won the pennant with a club record 98 wins. In addition to his 59 home runs, Ruth led the AL with 168 RBIs and narrowly missed the Triple Crown, with a .378 batting average, good for third in the league.6
Ruth played almost exclusively in left field in 1921, with 24-year-old Bob Meusel in right. Ruth also played 20 games in center field, a position that was usually manned by a combination of Elmer Miller, Chick Fewster, and Ping Bodie. Behind the plate was Wally Schang, who had come to the Yankees from the Red Sox in an offseason trade, At first base was Wally Pipp, who would become famous for his injury in 1925 that led to Lou Gehrig replacing him in the lineup to begin Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games played.7 Twenty-four-year old Aaron Ward saw action at both second base and third base, Roger Peckinpaugh (in his ninth season with New York) was at shortstop and 35-year-old Frank “Home Run” Baker played the majority of games at third.8
The Yankees’ top pitcher was Carl Mays, a submarining right-hander best remembered for one of the darkest moments in baseball history. On August 16, 1920, Mays threw a fastball that hit Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in the head, fracturing his skull. Chapman died the next morning, the only time a player has died from an injury sustained in a major-league game. Despite being part of that traumatic incident, Mays had a tremendous 1921 season as he led the league with 336⅔ innings pitched, tied for the league lead in wins with 27 (27-9) and had a 3.05 ERA. Future Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt was 19-13 with a 3.09 ERA. Bob Shawkey was 18-12 with a 4.08 ERA.9 Rounding out the rotation were Rip Collins, Bill Piercy, and Jack Quinn. Ruth pitched in two games, including one start, and had a 2-0 record despite an ERA of 9.00 and nine walks in nine innings pitched.
Future Baseball Hall of Famers
Top: Babe Ruth, LF; Waite Hoyt, P Bottom: Frank Baker, 3B; Miller Huggins, MGR
As the 1921 season began, optimism reigned for the upstart Yankees. With Miller Huggins in his fourth season as Yankees manager,10 New York was expected to compete for the pennant against the defending champion Indians. Cleveland was led by manager, center fielder, and future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker (.362 with 52 doubles in 1921).11 In addition to Speaker, four other regulars batted over .300: catcher Steve O’Neill, shortstop Joe Sewell, third baseman Larry Gardner, and left fielder Charlie Jamieson. Several backups, including George Burns, Riggs Stephenson, and Smoky Joe Wood,12 also hit over .300 as Cleveland had a team batting average of .308.13 On the mound, Cleveland was led by future Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski (23-13, 3.37 ERA), 22-year-old George Uhle (16-13, 4.01 ERA), Duster Mails (14-8, 3.94 ERA) coming off a sensational debut in 1920,14 and veteran Jim Bagby (14-12, 4.70 ERA).
The Sporting News picked the Indians to finish first ahead of the Yankees “who seem to be the only dangerous rivals of the world champions.”15 There was concern about Ruth’s weight since he was “carrying about 226 pounds and is striving madly to reduce.”16 The Yankees “collectively still lack speed on the bases” so “the Yankees, in order to win the pennant, will have to hit harder behind better pitching than Huggins developed last season.” At the same time, the Indians were “strengthened enough” that it was difficult to “figure out how the Yankees can finish better than second.”17
According to The Sporting News, the Yankees pitching was a question mark with “only two really dependable pitchers” in Mays and Shawkey.18 “Quinn is nearly through, while Hoyt and Harry] Harper have shown nothing in the last two years to warrant a feeling of optimism.” Cleveland had better pitching, bolstered by having Mails in the rotation for a full season. The Indians were “equipped with confidence and experience,” giving them “a profound advantage over the Yankees,” who had question marks at various positions, including second base and third base.19
As predicted, the Yankees and Indians battled it out for the pennant in a race that was very close from start to finish. New York began with a bang on Opening Day, routing the Philadelphia Athletics 11-1 at the Polo Grounds. Ruth went 5-for-5, Ward hit a home run, Bodie hit a bases-loaded triple and Mays pitched a complete-game three-hitter. The rest of April did not go as well, as the Yankees ended the month 6-6 and in third place. The 11-5 Indians were tied for first with Washington.
After beating Detroit two straight on May 12 and 13, New York was 12-9, two games behind first-place Cleveland, with a big four-game series coming up on the road against the Indians. In the series opener, on May 14, the Yankees rallied late to beat Cleveland 6-4 on a long home run by Ruth. The Yankees won the next two games to extend their winning streak to five and take a one-game lead. When the Indians beat them, 4-2, on May 17, the two teams were tied in the standings.
After losing to the Chicago White Sox on May 18, the Yankees fell to second place and remained there throughout May and June. They faced off against the Indians in a four-game series at the Polo Grounds in early June. After winning the first two games to move within a half-game of first place, they lost the last two. The second game of the series, on June 8, was a classic, as the Yankees scored two in the bottom of the ninth to pull out a 4-3 victory. After Ward had tied the game with a one-out RBI single, leadoff hitter Braggo Roth20 won it with a two-out, bases-loaded single off Coveleski, who had relieved Uhle.
The Yankees were still second on July 15, when they beat the Browns, 7-3, in St. Louis, as Ruth hit his 35th home run. The Yankees won their next five to extend their winning streak to nine games, including a 10-1 win over Detroit on July 18 when Ruth hit number 36. The streak culminated in a 7-1 win over the Indians on July 20 that put them in a tie with Cleveland for first place – the first time the Yankees had been in first since May 17. However, they were right back in second the next day when the Indians routed them 17-8 in Cleveland, in a game that featured a total of 16 doubles.
New York remained in second place until August 5, when they beat Detroit, 7-3, at the Polo Grounds, to take a half-game lead over Cleveland. Once again the Yankees dropped to second the very next day, losing to Detroit 9-8, despite Ruth’s 39th home run. A five-game home series followed with the White Sox. After splitting the first four games, the Yankees won the final game on August 10, by a score of 14-8, to move within a half-game of first. The aging Baker had a career day with two home runs and five RBIs.21
The following day, August 11, the Yankees beat the Athletics in Philadelphia to tie for first place before once again dropping to second the next day. They remained second until August 24, when they beat the Indians in Cleveland, 3-2, to move a half-game ahead. The power-hitting Yankees won this one with baserunning as Ruth, Meusel, and Pipp all stole second, and New York broke a 2-2 tie in the ninth to win it. Following a familiar pattern, the Yankees were back in second the next day following a 15-1 drubbing at the hands of the Indians. August ended with the Yankees still second, a half-game behind Cleveland.
The pennant race continued into September as the Yankees hosted the Washington Senators. New York swept four games, extending their latest winning streak to six games and taking their largest first-place lead of the season – two games! After beating the Red Sox in Boston on September 5 in the first game of a doubleheader, New York had won seven in a row before losing the nightcap.
The Yankees continued to maintain a slim hold on first place as September unfolded. On September 9 and 10, they routed the Athletics 14-5 and 19-3. On September 15 they swept a doubleheader against the Browns 10-6 and 13-5. Ruth hit number 55 in the first game. Even with these wins, they led by only a half-game. They were tied for first going into their home game against Detroit on September 19, when disaster struck. Leading 4-0 in the eighth inning, the Yankees blew the game, and first place, as starter Mays and relievers Shawkey and Hoyt were shelled for eight runs in the frame. The final score was 10-6 Tigers. The next day’s New York Times noted that “on several occasions during the pennant chase now drawing to a finale the Yankees have been bad, but it is doubtful if they ever suffered a form reversal in a few minutes as that which marked the close of yesterday’s affair in Harlem.”22
New York bounced back the next day to beat Detroit 4-2 and again moved into first place by a half-game. In the series finale against Detroit, on September 22,23 Detroit took a 5-1 lead in the third only to see the Yankees rally to a 12-5 win. Jack Quinn relieved Shawkey in the third inning and pitched brilliantly, shutting out the Tigers on three hits over the remaining 6⅓ innings. The win left the Yankees tied for first place with Cleveland, at 91-53, with a huge series against the Indians about to start in New York.
Cleveland and New York faced off for four games beginning on September 23, with the pennant on the line. Tickets for the series were in such great demand that “extra police were needed to keep the fans in line [at the Yankees offices on West 42nd Street] and the office force had a busy day trying to keep the pasteboards out of the hands of speculators.”24 In the Friday opener, Hoyt pitched a complete-game victory as New York scored two in the bottom of the sixth to turn a 2-1 deficit into an eventual 4-2 win. Ruth was 3-for-3 with a walk, including three doubles, giving him 43 two-baggers for the season.
On Saturday Cleveland came right back to tie for first as they routed the Yankees 9-0. Uhle pitched a four-hit complete-game shutout, despite six walks. Harry Harper started for New York and was sent to the showers in the fourth. Shawkey, in relief, did not fare better as Cleveland scored nine runs on only nine hits, taking advantage of eight walks by the two Yankees hurlers. With the teams again tied for first, New York regained the lead on Sunday, September 25, with a resounding 21-7 win. The Yankees had 20 hits and eight walks, as Meusel went 3-for-6 with a home run (his 24th) and five RBIs. Carl Mays was not at his best but pitched a complete game to gain his 26th win.
With the Yankees holding a one-game lead for the pennant and only one week to go in the season, the final game of the series on Monday, September 26, was a critical one, to say the least. In what is considered one of the best games of all time,25 the Yankees rallied from an early 3-1 deficit and held on for an 8-7 win. Ruth came up big when it counted, going 3-for-3 with two home runs (57 and 58) and four RBIs. For the Babe, “it was doubtful if [he] ever had a bigger day in his major league career than in this game, which meant so much to the Yankees.”26 Hoyt got the win in relief in a “gripping, nerve-racking battle which did not lose its tenseness until Carl Mays [who came in to close it out27 swished a third strike past Steve O’Neill’s bat with two gone in Cleveland’s ninth inning.”28 The win gave the Yankees a two-game lead over Cleveland with six games to go. While there was “still some fighting to be done,” the Yankees’ “glorious victory” all but “settled the pennant race in their favor,” sending 30,000 fans “home with a lot of repair work for the nerve specialists.”29
On September 27 the Yankees were shut out 2-0 by Urban Shocker of St. Louis, who won his 27th game of the year.30 With their first-place lead cut to 1½ games, New York gained a game back when Shawkey shut out the Athletics 5-0, in Philadelphia, on September 29. New York now held a 2½-game lead over Cleveland with only three games remaining on the Yankees schedule.31
Any hope the Indians had of catching the Yankees ended when New York swept a doubleheader on October 1 against the Philadelphia Athletics. The Yankees clinched the pennant by winning the opener, 5-3, as Mays pitched a complete game for his 27th win. The New York Times marked the occasion, reporting that “[t]he long fight of the Yankees for the pennant symbolizing the championship of the American League was ended and won,” that “the outcome settled the abiding place of the cherished gonfalon for the Summer of 1922”32 and that there was “joy that the game quest of many years had been rewarded at last.”33 The Times went on to report that “the two Colonels, Jacob Ruppert and T.L. Huston, owners of the Yankees, were compelled to submit, willy-nilly, to a congratulatory reception from their crowding friends … as the Yankees had captured their first pennant and the world’s series of 1921 would have only one stage.”34
The second game of the doubleheader turned out to be an “eleven-act comedy that wound up the happy afternoon, with Babe Ruth as chief comedian, and the newly crowned sovereigns of the younger big league finally won the verdict by the score of 7 to 6.”35 With many of the Yankees regulars getting a rest, New York took a 6-0 lead only to see it disappear in a wild eighth inning. At that point, Ruth “allowed it to be understood that an invitation to pitch would not be regarded as an affront … and was allowed to clamber into the saddle.”36 With Ruth on the mound, the Athletics “had the Babe where they wanted him” and “shot out a fusillade of ardent drives and tied up the score.”37 After the disastrous inning, with Ruth yielding all six runs, the Babe settled down and pitched three scoreless innings. He became the winning pitcher when the Yankees won it, 7-6, in the bottom of the 11th.
New York won its final game of the season, on October 2 at home against Boston to finish the season at 98-55. Cleveland finished 94-60, 4½ games behind. The final standings did not do justice to how close the pennant race was throughout the season, as New York’s lead was never greater than two games until September 29.
The 1921 World Series was best of nine, for the last time. It was also a Series of many firsts. The Yankees played in the World Series for the first time; all the games were played at the same site (the Polo Grounds) for the first time; and it was the first Series broadcast on radio.
The Yankees took a 2-0 Series lead, beating the Giants twice by identical 3-0 scores. In Game Two, Ruth stole second and third base but scraped his elbow in the process. The elbow became infected, hampering Ruth’s play, and eventually caused him to miss the last three games.
The Giants tied the Series with 13-5 and 4-2 wins in Games Three and Four. Ruth reinjured his elbow in Game Three and was expected to miss the rest of the Series. In a surprise, he started Game Four and had two hits, including his first World Series home run.
In Game Five, Ruth played with a bandaged arm, as the Yankees won to take a 3-games-to-2 Series lead.
Ruth was out of the lineup in Games Six and Seven when the Giants won both to take a 4-3 Series lead. In Game Eight, Ruth again sat out, before coming up as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the ninth with the Yankees trailing 1-0. He Ruth grounded out. The Yankees then rallied and might have tied the game except for a baserunning blunder by Ward that led to the final out, a 1-0 Giants victory, and a World Series championship for the other New York team.38
Despite their World Series loss, the 1921 season will always be remembered as the year the Yankees won the pennant – for the first time – but certainly not the last.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
The author also acknowledges Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz, authors of 1921: The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), for their assistance in identifying some of the significant games and highlights of the Yankees’ 1921 season.
Photo credit: 1921 New York Yankees team photo, SABR-Rucker Archive
1 The 18 titles do not include finishing first in the 1994 season, which was canceled after the players struck. The Yankees also finished first in the AL East in the first half of the 1981 season, when the season was split into two halves due to a players’ strike.
2 The nickname Yankees had been occasionally used by sportswriters since the team moved to New York.
3 In 1919, his last season with the Red Sox, Ruth hit 29 home runs, the most in a single season at the time.
4 The Chicago White Sox finished second, two games behind Cleveland. Cleveland’s AL pennant and its World Series championship was the club’s first. Like the Yankees, Cleveland was one of the eight original American League teams. The team was nicknamed the Blues, Bronchos, and Naps before becoming the Indians in 1915.
5 Ruth’s 59 home runs were more than were hit by five of the other seven teams in the American League. The Philadelphia Athletics hit 82 home runs and the St. Louis Browns hit 67. Ruth hit 42 more home runs than the entire Red Sox team. In 1920 his 54 home runs were more than every one of the seven other teams.
6Harry Heilmann of Detroit led at .394. His teammate, Ty Cobb, was second at .389. Ruth’s 59 home runs were 35 more than the second-place finisher, teammate Bob Meusel, who hit 24, as did Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns.
7 Gehrig’s streak was the major-league record for many years until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995. Ripken ended up playing 2,632 consecutive games, the record as of March 2021.
8 Baker got the nickname “Home Run” as a result of leading the AL in home runs in four consecutive seasons (1911-1914) playing for the Philadelphia Athletics. Baker’s league-leading home-run totals in those four years were 11, 10, 12, and 9, respectively. “Home Run” seemed like an odd moniker as Ruth began shattering all the home-run records. After joining the Yankees in the 1916 season, Baker never hit more than 10 home runs in a single year before retiring after the 1922 season.
9 Hoyt and Shawkey as well as Ruth and Meusel were also on the 1927 Yankees, considered by many to be the greatest team of all time.
10 Huggins began his managerial career in 1913 as a player-manager with the St. Louis Cardinals. After managing the Cardinals through the 1917 season, Huggins became the Yankees skipper at the start of the 1918 season. He managed the Yankees in 12 seasons, winning six pennants and three World Series championships. He fell ill during his final season, 1929, and died in September 1929 at the age of 51. Huggins was inducted into the Hall of Fame, as a manager, in 1964.
11 Speaker played 22 years in the majors, mostly with the Red Sox and Indians. He was player-manager for the Indians from 1919 through 1926, leading them to the World Series championship in 1920.
12 Wood was a pitcher for the early part of his career, from 1908-1915, with the Red Sox and in 1917 with the Indians. Beginning in 1918, with Cleveland, Wood became a position player. In 1921 he batted .366 in 194 at-bats, the best average of his career.
13 Cleveland’s .308 average was only second best in the AL, as were their 925 runs scored. Detroit led the league at .316, despite a sixth-place finish. The Yankees led in runs scored with 948 on the strength of a league-best 134 home runs, 52 more than the next best team (Philadelphia).
14 Mails was purchased by Cleveland from Sacramento (Pacific Coast League) late in the 1920 season and was 7-0 with a 1.85 ERA.
15 Joe Vila, “Vila Decides to Do the Fullerton Act,” The Sporting News, April 7, 1921: 1.
16 Joe Vila, “Doing Best He Can with What He’s Got,” The Sporting News, March 31, 1921: 1.
26 “Great Ruth Leads Yanks to Victory,” New York Times, September 27, 1921: 29.
27 Typical of the era, Mays started 38 games and also relieved in 11, as he led the league with 336⅔ innings pitched. He also tied for the league lead with 27 wins and in saves with 7. (Saves were not kept as a statistic in 1921 and his saves were only credited years later after the statistic became part of official baseball records.)
30 Shocker began his career with the Yankees in 1916 before being traded, prior to the 1918 season, to the Browns. After the 1924 season, Shocker was traded back to the Yankees. The then 34-year-old Shocker became a mainstay of the Yankees rotation including an 18-6 season with the 1927 Yankees, his last full season in the major leagues.
31 New York was 95-55 at that point. Their September 4 game against Washington was rained out and not made up. As a result, their season was 153 games instead of 154.
32 According to the Oxford online dictionary, a gonfalon is “a banner or pennant, especially one with streamers, hung from a crossbar.”
33 “Yankees Are 1921 League Champions,” New York Times, October 2, 1921: 1.
38 The Giants victory broke a streak of having lost in their last four World Series appearances (1911, 1912, 1913, and 1917). The 1921 championship was their fourth World Series crown; they had previously won in 1888, 1889, and 1905.
The Polo Grounds served as home to the New York Giants and New York Yankees in 1921. Two years later, the Yankees built their own stadium in the Bronx, just across the Harlem River. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)
The Polo Grounds
By Stew Thornley
The Polo Grounds, an odd name for an odd stadium, was home to several baseball teams, most notably the New York Giants until the team moved to San Francisco following the 1957 season. Its horseshoe-shaped grandstand and elongated playing area provided for ridiculously short distances down the foul lines and equally ridiculous long distances to the power alleys and center field. So short were its foul-line distances that inches were sometimes included in the measurements — 279 feet, 8 inches to left; 257 feet, 8 inches to right. As for the distance to center, the figure almost could have been rounded to the nearest hundred.
The Polo Grounds is actually the story of several stadiums. The final three were located beneath Coogan’s Bluff in upper Manhattan. The one that opened in 1911 would last twice as long as the other three combined. It would carry the Giants through the golden years of its history and then serve as the home of a new team after the Giants abandoned New York for the West Coast. And, for ten years in its early going, the Polo Grounds served as the home of the New York American League team in addition to the Giants.
The Giants were amenable to letting the Yankees sign a ten-year lease to use the Polo Grounds beginning in 1913. It wasn’t like the Giants felt threatened by their tenants; the Yankees were among the American League doormats and didn’t appear likely to steal the spotlight from the Giants.
That changed at the end of the decade when the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox. Originally a pitcher, Ruth’s prowess with the bat led to a full-time switch to the outfield, allowing him to be in the lineup every day. With the Red Sox in 1919, Ruth had set a major league record with 29 home runs. The next season, as a member of the Yankees with the Polo Grounds as his home park, Ruth connected for 54 homers and followed that up with 59 in 1921.
The Yankees won the American League pennant for the first time in 1921 and won it again the next two years. Their opponents in each of the World Series were the New York Giants. In 1921 and 1922, all the games in the World Series were played at the Polo Grounds. By 1923, however, the Yankees had a new stadium of their own.
Fans in the Polo Grounds bleachers watch Game One of the World Series between the New York Yankees and New York Giants on October 5, 1921. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, BAIN NEWS SERVICE)
In 1920, Ruth’s first year in New York, the Yankees drew nearly 1.3 million fans to their games at the Polo Grounds and topped the million mark in attendance again in 1921 and 1922. The Giants had never drawn a million fans in one season (and wouldn’t until 1945). John McGraw, who in 1919 had become a part owner in the Giants, was not the type of man to be magnanimous in such a situation. He was the type to be petty and vindictive. McGraw’s jealousy of the Yankees’ success is often cited as a reason for the Giants’ decision to force the Yankees out of the Polo Grounds.
However, there is much more to the story and a number of explanations of what transpired regarding the relations between the Yankees and Giants. Harold and Dorothy Seymour, in Baseball: The Golden Age, says that the American League had been pressuring the Yankees to get their own stadium ever since 1915 when the team was acquired by Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Captain Tillinghast Huston. Another version, also noted in Seymour’s book, has American League president Ban Johnson persuading the Giants to cancel the Yankees’ lease as a means of ousting Ruppert and Huston as team owners.
What is clear is that in mid-May of 1920 (only a month into Ruth’s first season with the Yankees — hardly enough time for jealousy to set in), the Giants informed the Yankees they would have to find a different place to play starting in 1921.
The Giants rescinded their eviction notice a week later, but the Yankees had already begun efforts to find a new place to play. The team settled on a spot just across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds, at 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx. The Yankees continued playing in the Polo Grounds until their new home, Yankee Stadium, was ready for the beginning of the 1923 season.
The end of the 1922 season marked not only the departure of the Yankees from the Polo Grounds but also a radical change in the look of the Polo Grounds. Initially the double-decked stands of Polo Grounds IV had resembled a hook more than a horseshoe. The stands reached approximately 40 feet into fair territory in right field but stopped short of the foul line in left field. Uncovered seats extended out from the permanent stands on both sides and eventually came together in center field.
Plans to renovate and enlarge the Polo Grounds started in 1921 when team president Charles Stoneham met with an architect to explore the possibility of increasing the seating capacity of the Polo Grounds from 38,000 to more than 50,000. In August of 1922 plans were filed with the Manhattan Bureau of Buildings for a massive project that would extend the double-decked grandstand on both the north (left field) and south (right field) sides of the stadium. The grandstands would then curve in toward one another but not actually come together. A uncovered bleacher section — itself divided by a building that housed the clubhouses and administrative offices — was to be wedged between the two grandstand sections in center field with the clubhouse set back from the outfield fences along the bleachers, resulting in an alcove in straightaway center field. The area was in play, even the stairways on each side of the alcove that led to the Giants’ and the visitors’ clubhouses. The massive clubhouse actually served as the center-field fence, although it was so far away that it didn’t really matter.
Work on the stadium renovation began in November of 1922 with the removal of the old clubhouse. Construction proceeded through the winter and continued into the 1923 season. Fans attending the Giants’ home opener in late April saw tall, red columns of steel in right and left field, towers for the pouring of concrete, and thousands of feet of false timber work, which were to become the concrete beds for thousands of new seats.
When construction was finally finished in mid-September of 1923, the Polo Grounds had assumed its final familiar look. “At the left-field foul pole, the concrete wall was 17 feet high, gradually rising to 18 feet in left center and then sloping to 12 feet where the left-field grandstand met the center-field bleachers,” reports Lawrence S. Ritter in Lost Ballparks. “In right field, the wall was 11 feet high at the foul pole, gradually rising to 12 feet where the right-field grandstand met the center-field bleachers. The bleacher seats were behind 4-foot-high concrete walls topped by 4-foot-high wire screen.” So ample was the playing area that it was possible to fit the bullpens into fair territory with nary a chance that they would affect a ball in play. The visitors’ bullpen was in left-center and the home bullpen in right-center, both approximately 440 feet from the plate. In addition, in the center-field alcove, just in front of the clubhouse, was a five-foot high monument containing a tablet dedicated to Eddie Grant, a former Giant who was the first major league player killed in the World War.
Much disappeared in the renovation, including the decorative fresco friezes on the façade of the upper deck. Before the 1920s were out, the coats of arms of the National League teams had also been removed from the top of the grandstand. One feature that did appear as a result of extension of the grandstands was the overhang in left field. Until 1923, the double-decked grandstand on the left-field side had ended before it reached fair territory. With the extension, though, the upper deck extended over the playing field 21 feet beyond the lower deck. (In right field, where the grandstand had already reached into fair territory before it was extended even farther, the upper and lower decks were flush. A photographers’ perch that was later built on the front of the upper deck created a slight overhang — but nothing that approached the extreme of the overhang in left field.)
While the look of the Polo Grounds received its last radical change with the 1922-23 expansion, most aspects of the baseball experience beneath Coogan’s Bluff remained constant, including the setting.
Babe Ruth opened the Yankees’ 1921 season by hitting safely in every at-bat. In five turns at the plate, Ruth came away with two doubles and three singles, leading the Yankees over the Athletics before 37,000 fans at the Polo Grounds.
In the second of a two-game series at Griffith Stadium, Bob Meusel and the Yankees brought about the “downfall” of the Nationals with the use of the long ball as former President Woodrow Wilson watched on.
Before a 5-game series against New York, the first-place Pirates took a team photo with the World Series in sight. By the time they left town, the Giants had swept all five games and were sitting just 2.5 games back.
Fred Toney’s clutch performance lifted the Giants over the defending NL champion Dodgers and into first place for good. They would clinch the National League pennant on September 29 after a Pirates loss.
Yankees manager Miller Huggins, derided in the press and by his own players, wrote a letter of resignation after the team lost a crucial game to Detroit, but team co-owner Jacob Ruppert would not accept it.
The Yankees clinched their first AL pennant in a doubleheader opener against the A’s, then a relaxed Babe Ruth pitched four innings in relief and earned the win in Game 2.
New York Yankees captain Roger Peckinpaugh, second from left, and New York Giants captain Dave Bancroft, far right, pose with the umpires at home plate before Game One of the 1921 World Series at the Polo Grounds in New York. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, BAIN NEWS SERVICE)
The 1921 World Series
By Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg
Through good times and bad, the Giants had dominated baseball in New York since the late nineteenth century. Neither the National League team in neighboring Brooklyn nor the American League entry in Manhattan since 1903, had done much to change the Giants’ entrenched position as the team of choice for the vast majority of New Yorkers.
The coming of John McGraw to New York in 1902 had launched a golden age for the Giants. Under McGraw’s leadership, the team had won seven pennants, the 1921 flag being the latest. During those years the Yankees had mostly struggled, before several additions changed the course of their history forever. It began with Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston’s purchase of the club in 1915. Ruppert hired Miller Huggins as his manager in 1918 and purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox after the 1919 season.
Led by Ruth’s spectacular slugging, the Yankees finished third in 1920, and behind his historic offensive production in 1921 edged Cleveland to win their first pennant. McGraw’s locker-room speech before a crucial five-game series against first-place Pittsburgh in late August was the catalyst for the Giants sweeping the Pirates and going on to win the National League flag.
New York was evenly divided in its sentiment for the upcoming World Series. Sportswriter Sid Mercer recognized the inroads made by Yankee rooters and credited Ruth for bringing it about. “This is a National League town,” he wrote. “John J. McGraw put his label on it years ago, and the Giants are firmly established. Up to a couple of years ago, the Yanks were just the ‘other New York team.’ But the immense personal popularity of Babe Ruth and the dynamite in the rest of that Yankee batting order have made the Yanks popular with the element that loves the spectacular.”1
The 1921 World Series was the last best-of-nine to be played, and the first to be played in one ballpark. The battle for baseball supremacy in New York matched the new “lively ball” style of offense, epitomized by Ruth, against the “inside baseball” Deadball Era style, epitomized by McGraw.
Ruth had won the hearts of New Yorkers by hitting an unprecedented 54 home runs in 1920, more than any other team in the American League. He also led by similarly large margins in runs scored, runs batted in, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and walks. In 1921 he hit 59 home runs to crown the best offensive season of the twentieth century. His exploits were mostly responsible for the Yankees becoming the first team to draw a million fans in a season. That they outdrew their landlords, the Giants, by more than 250,000 prompted the Giants not to renew the Yankees’ lease at the Polo Grounds, which in turn led to Ruppert building Yankee Stadium.
Yet despite the Babe’s accomplishments, McGraw remained defiant, convinced that his pitchers could handle the Yankee slugger. When asked before the Series if the Giants would pitch to Ruth, he responded, “Why shouldn’t we pitch to Ruth? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, we pitch to better hitters than Ruth in the National League.”2
Babe Ruth, Frank Baker, and Bob Meusel were the Yankees’ first version of Murderers’ Row, leading the franchise to its first American League pennant in 1921. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)
All season, fans of both teams had spent hours arguing which was the better team. Now, finally, the first all-New York Series was here, and the answer would be determined on the field. In one corner stood John McGraw and the old, established Giants, a fixture in the city since the “Rosie O’Grady” days of the Gay Nineties. In the other stood Babe Ruth and the brash Yankees, the perfect sports symbol for what would come to be called America’s “Jazz Age.”
Also at stake was the battle for who would be New York’s team of choice. A reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “It is more than possible that the victor in this combat will plunge ahead as the chosen team of the city. … McGraw has never lost his hold on the popular imagination of New York, and the legend that he is the greatest still exists and is still potent.”3 But for McGraw to maintain his hold on the loyalty of New York baseball fans, he had to beat the Yankees. The fans of the nation’s Number One city expected to have and root for the nation’s Number One baseball club.
When Huggins took over as the manager of the Yankees after the 1917 season, someone told McGraw, “Now you have a man who will go 50-50 with you in New York.” To which he replied, “No man will ever go 50-50 with me there.”4 Perhaps it was arrogance; perhaps it was his belief, confirmed over the years, that he and his Giants had a virtual birthright over New York. Yet now with the rise of the Yankees, led by the Babe, New York was in play. And the Yankees were going for much more than 50-50. Yet the press had framed the Series as a contest between McGraw and Ruth, not McGraw and Huggins. McGraw personified his Giants, and Ruth towered over the nondescript Huggins in accounts of the Yankees.
The idea of a one-city World Series had its critics. TheSporting News complained that baseball was a national game, not just for New Yorkers. But the Detroit News more accurately reflected the opinions of most baseball fans: “Never before have two teams as colorful as the contending clubs in this Series met for the title. Never has personality and individuality entered so strongly into a clash for baseball supremacy.”5
Analysts and prognosticators considered the Series a toss-up, and the betting odds, which hovered around even money, reflected the closely matched abilities of the two teams. The all-New York Series elicited unprecedented coverage, and not only from the many local writers. Representatives of numerous out-of-town newspapers jammed the press section at the Polo Grounds. Long before television, and with radio still in its infancy, the vast majority of Americans depended for information on what they could read in their newspapers, information from such legendary figures including Grantland Rice, Heywood Broun, Hugh Fullerton, Ring Lardner, Fred Lieb, and Damon Runyon.
The night before the first game of the Series was cool, damp, and windy; nevertheless, hundreds of people camped out at the Polo Grounds waiting for the thousands of unreserved upper-grandstand and bleacher tickets that would go on sale the next morning. Tickets cost $6.60 for box seats and $5.50 for reserved seats, compared with regular-season prices of $1.50 and $1.10, respectively. Many had brought along wooden crates to sit and doze on, though as the night wore on and the temperature dropped, many used the boxes for bonfires. Hot dog and coffee vendors did a brisk business.
These were the “real fans,” those who attended games during the year, wrote the New York Evening Post. Yet the truth was that many of those in line were unemployed, hoping to sell their places for $5 the following morning; and despite the intense fan interest and demand for tickets, the game was not sold out. In part, the crowd was reduced because of the damp and chilly weather, and in part because the morning newspapers had predicted an enormous outpouring of fans.
Many celebrities were present, including former New York Governor Al Smith, playwright George M. Cohan, songwriter Irving Berlin, former Giants star John Montgomery Ward, former Yankees owner Frank Farrell, and the notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein.
Both teams were listed as “New York” on the scoreboard; the “visiting” Yankees in yellow, and the “home” Giants in white. The crowd of just over 30,000 fans generated the largest gate to that date in baseball history, more than $100,000. Even more people followed the play-by-play action in front of the big game boards that many of the major New York City newspapers provided.
The New York Times board at Times Square measured 15 feet in height and 20 feet in width, covering an entire floor on the north side of the Times building on 43rd Street. It was the largest such device ever set up for this purpose and drew a crowd of about 15,000. The east and west sides of Broadway, as far north as 45th Street, were a mass of humanity, and the overflow crowd spilled up to 50th Street, on Seventh Avenue, as well as Broadway. The Times board so disrupted traffic in the area that the paper discontinued it after the second game. Similar boards were set up at Madison Square Garden, at 26th Street and Madison Avenue, and at the Stewart Building, at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street in lower Manhattan.
Miller Huggins opened with his ace, Carl Mays, while John McGraw’s starter was a surprise. He bypassed left-hander Art Nehf, his best pitcher all season, and chose Phil Douglas, a right-hander with a serious drinking problem.6 Douglas came through with a well-pitched game, but Mays was even better, shutting out the Giants, 3-0, on five hits, four by Frankie Frisch. The 23-year-old Frisch had been the Giants’ leading hitter during the season, with a .341 batting average and 211 hits. Huggins, in a change of strategy, had his team playing “small ball,” ordering three sacrifice hits. It was not something McGraw would have done. Although he embodied the Deadball Era of inside baseball, McGraw was not a believer in giving up an out to move up a runner.
A collage of action photos from Game One of the 1921 World Series at the Polo Grounds. Top: Elmer Miller scores the Yankees’ first run on Babe Ruth’s RBI single in the first inning. Middle: The Yankees’ Mike McNally steals home in the fifth inning as Giants catcher Frank Snyder attempts to apply the tag. Bottom: Frankie Frisch slides in safely with a triple in the sixth inning. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)
For Game Two, the teams switched home and visitor uniforms and dugouts – as they did throughout the Series – but the result was the same, a 3-0 win for the Yankees. Twenty-two-year-old, Brooklyn-born Waite Hoyt was even better than Mays, allowing the National Leaguers just two singles. McGraw may have said he had no fear of pitching to Ruth, but left-hander Art Nehf walked him three times, much to the crowd’s displeasure. To everyone’s surprise, the Yankees again won by playing “small ball.” They had no extra-base hits, but stole three bases, two by the Babe.
The Giants’ bats woke up in Game Three. They overcame a 4-0 deficit to tie the game and then broke it open with an eight-run seventh to win, 13-5. Although they pounded Yankees starter Bob Shawkey and three relievers for 20 hits, the hero of the game for them was reliever Jesse Barnes. McGraw brought Barnes in to pitch with no outs in the third inning, after starter Fred Toney had yielded three runs. Barnes pitched seven innings, giving up one run on four hits and striking out seven.
Shawkey, the oldest Yankees pitcher in continuous point of service, had struggled much of the season despite winning 18 games. “He is not, in his present form, even a fair major league pitcher,” wrote Hugh Fullerton.7 In the third inning, when Shawkey became the first pitcher in World Series history to walk three consecutive batters, Yankees fans were yelling for Huggins to remove him. The consensus among sportswriters and fans was that Huggins had stayed far too long with a pitcher who did not appear sharp and lacked control. It was, most felt, the type of tactical error McGraw would never make. The New York writers, ever critical of Huggins, took advantage of this perceived blunder to again question his managerial ability. “No one could understand why Huggins was permitting Shawkey to remain in the box,” wrote Damon Runyon in a typical comment.8
Douglas and Mays, the first-game starters faced each other again in Game Four. Both pitched well, as they had in the opener, but this time Douglas won, 4-2. Doctors had ordered Ruth not to play because of an abscess he had developed near his left elbow – Grantland Rice said the “mangled elbow looked like a veal cutlet, breaded.”9 The Babe defied the doctor’s order and was in left field, playing with a bandaged arm. He had a single and a home run against Douglas, who used his spitball to limit the Yankees to seven hits while striking out eight.
Mays had a no-hitter through five innings and a two-hitter through seven. He had a 1-0 lead before the Giants broke through with three runs in the eighth. Mays’s eighth-inning collapse, which prevented the Yankees from taking a commanding three-games-to-one lead in the Series, remains controversial to this day.
Fred Lieb claimed that the night after the game, George Perry, Jacob Ruppert’s personal secretary, along with a well-known (but unnamed) Broadway actor, told Lieb that Mays had been offered a bribe by gamblers before the game.
He said that at the start of the eighth inning, Marjorie Mays signaled her husband that she had received the bribe money and that he now should “throw” the game. Mays then gave up the three runs on four hits and gave up another run on three hits in the ninth.
Lieb, Perry, and the actor awakened Colonel Huston and then Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis and related the story to them. Landis directed Lieb to refrain from making the story public. (Major-league baseball might not have survived a second “thrown” World Series in three years.) Landis put a detective on Mays for the remainder of the Series, but the detective was unable to uncover anything incriminating.
Mays had been connected to gambling incidents earlier, yet there is no direct evidence of a 1921 World Series Game Four fix. In addition, his late-game collapse was not particularly unusual. Despite Mays’s outstanding 1921 season, he had weakened in the late innings in numerous games.
Waite Hoyt outpitched Art Nehf again in Game Five, winning, 3-1, and putting the Yankees ahead in the Series, three games to two. Hoyt was not as dominant as he was in Game Two. The Giants had 10 hits off him, but scored only once, an unearned run in the first inning. Nehf held the Yankees to six hits, including a surprise bunt single by Ruth, who besides his injured elbow had a bad knee and a charley horse in his leg. Ruth later scored on Bob Meusel’s double, never even hesitating at third. He staggered into the dugout, collapsed, and passed out. Dr. George Stewart revived him with spirits of ammonia. Clearly, Ruth should not have played in this game. An incision near his elbow had allowed doctors to drain the pus out of his infected wound. He was in a severely weakened state, yet Huggins wrote him into the lineup and kept him in after the collapse. Ruth came to bat two more times in Game Five. He struck out both times.
Chick Fewster replaced Ruth in Game Six, which the Giants won, 8-5, to tie the Series at three wins each. McGraw decided to come back with Fred Toney, despite his poor showing in Game Three, while Huggins chose Harry Harper, a talented yet inconsistent nine-year veteran. The Yankees jumped on Toney quickly, scoring three first-inning runs. Before he could get the third out, McGraw replaced him with Jesse Barnes, the pitching star of the third game.
Home runs by the Giants’ Irish Meusel and Frank Snyder, the team’s first home runs of the Series, led to three game-tying runs in the second. Huggins yanked Harper in mid-inning and brought in Bob Shawkey. The game was now a battle of relief pitchers. Barnes was even better than he had been in Game Three. After giving up the two runs in the second inning, he held the Yankees scoreless the rest of the way, while striking out 10.10
Meanwhile, Shawkey again was ineffective. “Now when his dream of the Yanks in the world’s series has been realized,” observed the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “he finds that his good right arm is not equal to the demand.”11
Huggins had little to say after the game. “I have no alibi to offer for today’s defeat. … When a pitcher is able to strike out ten men in a game and get every member of your batting order, why try to explain away defeat?”12
John McGraw had brought his Giants back again, and the Chicago Tribune described his controlling style in detail: “John McGraw refuses to permit any of his players to use their own judgment while batting. Even the veteran George Burns is compelled to look to the bench for instructions. Close observers will notice that after almost every pitch and especially when there are runners on the bases, the Giant batters never fail to turn to the bench for instructions.”13
Sid Mercer summed up the Yankees’ predicament, as the Series was now reduced to a best-two-of-three: “If the Giants win the world’s series, it will be because Miller Huggins could not find a third pitcher to collaborate with Mays and Hoyt.”14 Huggins would use Mays and Hoyt as his starters for Games Seven and Eight, but if a ninth game was necessary, he would have few promising pitching options.
The twin holidays of Columbus Day and Yom Kippur gave New Yorkers the excuses they needed to skip work and school and show up at the Polo Grounds for Game Seven. The police estimated that 50,000 disappointed fans were turned away. The huge gathering pushed the total gate receipts for the Series past $800,000, more than $80,000 in excess of the previous high, set by the Reds and White Sox in eight games, in 1919.
The Giants’ Phil Douglas and the Yankees’ Carl Mays had split their first two meetings, both stellar pitching duels. The third match between them was the same, with the Giants coming out on top, 2-1. Each had a strong outing in a game that was close and hard-fought.
“So strenuous was the combined rooting that many patrons were in a state of collapse at the finish of the contest,” wrote Sam Crane.15 The Yankees scored their lone run in the second inning, while the Giants had single runs in the fourth and seventh, the latter run unearned. Mays allowed six hits but no walks. It was the third time in the Series that he had pitched a complete game without issuing a walk. After being down two games to none, the Giants had won four of the last five to take a four-games-to-three lead.
For Game Eight, cold, windy weather, along with the possibility that there might be a ninth and deciding game the next day, made for the smallest crowd of the Series, less than 26,000. Just as Mays and Douglas had faced each other for the third time in Game Seven, Art Nehf and Waite Hoyt, who had won the two previous matchups, would do the same in Game Eight.
Hoyt was hindered somewhat by a blister that had formed on a finger of his pitching hand, probably from the Frankie Frisch smash he had stopped with his bare hand in Game Five. The blister had been lanced and treated with iodine, and was extremely painful. Also, the nail of that split finger was loosening with every pitch.
Nevertheless, Hoyt continued to dominate the Giants batters. He was beaten mainly because the Yankee defense failed him. It allowed the Giants to score an unearned run in the first inning, a run that Nehf made stand up for a 1-0 victory.
Hoyt issued first-inning walks to Dave Bancroft and Ross Youngs. The ball-four call to Youngs by Ollie Chill, an American League umpire, upset him, with good reason. Analyzing the Series in Baseball Magazine, W.A. Phelon described that ball four to Youngs as “one miscalled pitch – a perfect strike.”16
Hoyt appeared to have escaped the threat when George Kelly hit a routine groundball to shortstop, but the ball either went through the legs of Roger Peckinpaugh or was deflected by him. Bancroft scored what was the final run of the 1921 World Series and the only run of this eighth game.
Several sportswriters were far more critical of what Peckinpaugh did, or did not do, after the ball rolled into short left field. “Imagine this infielder missing the ball completely and, turning around, dazed and stupefied, pursuing it disconcertingly into left field.”17
“I shall never forget the error I made in the first inning of yesterday’s game,” Peckinpaugh said after the game. “Like the man who lost his head on the guillotine, I must resign myself to my fate. I envy the man who lost his head – the big lucky stiff,” added the despondent Yankee captain.18
Nehf and Hoyt continued to hold their opponents scoreless, but the Yankees did not go quietly. Wally Pipp was due to lead off the home ninth, but a sudden roar went through the crowd. Babe Ruth, who had been coaching at third base during the game, had emerged from the dugout and was heading to the plate to bat for Pipp.
Nehf’s first pitch was a curveball that the Babe fouled back, agony showing on his face from his wound and the pain caused by the ferocity of the swing. On Nehf’s fourth pitch – all had been curveballs – Ruth grounded out to first baseman Kelly. As the Babe headed for the dugout, the fans rewarded him with the most prolonged cheering of the Series.
The dejection felt by Yankee rooters quickly turned to hope again when Aaron Ward drew Nehf’s fifth walk of the game. That set the stage for one of the most spectacular game-ending – and in this case, Series-ending – defensive plays ever. Frank Baker ripped a 2-and-1 pitch that appeared headed between first baseman Kelly and second baseman Johnny Rawlings into right field. However, Rawlings, who had sparkled the entire Series for the Giants, made a spectacular play to retire Baker.
Meanwhile, Ward never stopped running, continuing around second base and headed for third. Kelly, equipped with a powerful and accurate throwing arm, saw what was happening and fired the ball across the diamond to third baseman Frankie Frisch, who put the tag on Ward. Umpire Ernie Quigley gave the out sign, completing the double play and ending the Series. No World Series had ever ended with a double play before, and only one, in 1947, has since.
Kelly, the National League’s home-run champion had a poor Series at the plate (he tied a World Series record with 10 strikeouts), but he excelled in the field. As for Ward, he had violated one of the cardinal rules of baseball. He had made the third out at third base. That the out had ended both the game and the Series only compounded his blunder.
H.G. Salsinger said that the sudden and dramatic end of the game stunned the fans, and an eerie silence hovered over the Polo Grounds. “It required the crowd more than one minute to realize that the game and series were over, even when the players started leaving.”19
After four consecutive World Series losses to American League teams, John McGraw and the Giants had their first Series triumph since 1905. The games had been intense and, for the most part, well-played. The relative depth of the teams’ pitching had been the difference. The Giants had gotten strong efforts from three men: Nehf, Douglas, and Barnes, while the Yankees received them from only two: Hoyt and Mays. Shawkey, a three-time 20-game winner for the Yankees, had been ineffective.
This first all-New York World Series drew 269,977 fans, breaking the Series record set by the Giants and Red Sox in 1912. The total gate receipts, $900,233, also set a Series record, topping the 1919 mark established by the Reds and White Sox. Both previous records had been set in an eight-game series.20 Those who tracked such things said that money bet on the Series, both legally and illegally, exceeded one million dollars.
Special mention must be made of Waite Hoyt’s overall performance. Although often overlooked, his pitching in this Series remains among the best in World Series history. Over the course of 27 innings, the National League’s most prolific offense had failed to score a single earned run against him. His 0.00 earned-run average for 27 innings duplicated that of Christy Mathewson in 1905 and has not been equaled since. An unearned run in each of his last two starts was all that prevented Hoyt from matching Mathewson’s three shutouts against the Philadelphia Athletics in that 1905 Series.
Changes in various aspects of the game can often make comparing accomplishments from one era to those of another difficult. However, a comparison of the offenses of the 1905 Athletics and the 1921 Giants makes Hoyt’s pitching effort the more impressive one. The Deadball Era A’s team that Mathewson faced had a team batting average of .255, with 24 home runs and 623 runs scored. The 1921 Giants, playing in a much more high-scoring era, had a .298 team batting average, hit 75 home runs, and scored 840 runs. Holding such a team without an earned run for three complete games truly was a remarkable feat.
Game 1: Yankees 3, Giants 0
Speed and resourcefulness, always attractive in any sport, backed by the wonderful pitching of Carl Mays, won a 3 to 0 victory for the Yankees in the first game of the first intercity world’s series that ever came to New York.
Game 2: Yankees 3, Giants 0
“There is little to say about the game beyond Hoyt’s splendid pitching. He required little support at the bat and he got more than enough, little though it was.” — Yankees captain Roger Peckinpaugh
Game 3: Giants 13, Yankees 5
After the Giants were shut out in the first two games, their bats woke up for the first time in Game Three. Irish Meusel broke a 4-4 tie in the seventh inning with a bases-loaded double, then Ross Youngs put the game on ice with a bases-clearing triple in the same inning. Frank Snyder and George Burns each had four hits.
Game 4: Giants 4, Yankees 2
As the first of 36,372 spectators poured into the Polo Grounds for Game Four, it appeared as if Ruth would not play. But the injured Yankees star did make it into the lineup and homered in the ninth inning. However, the turning point of the game, indeed the entire best-of-nine World Series, was the fateful eighth inning.
Game 6: Giants 8, Yankees 5
Giants starter Fred Toney was knocked out early, allowing three runs before the first inning ended, but Jesse Barnes came on in relief and held off the Yankees with an injured Babe Ruth on the bench. Irish Meusel and Frank Snyder both homered for the Giants.
Game 7: Giants 2, Yankees 1
The Yankees offense sputtered without their injured star, Babe Ruth, and Giants right-hander Phil Douglas scattered eight hits to put the NL champions on the brink of a title.
Game 8: Giants 1, Yankees 0
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.