SABR Century: Rise of the Yankees

At the start of the 1921 season, the New York Yankees were a team with a long history of losing. When co-owner Frank Farrell proposed that the New York Giants meet his team in a postseason championship back in 1904, the Giants rejected the idea outright, characterizing the overture as an “absurd challenge [from] a lot of nobodies.”

Babe Ruth in 1921 (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)By the end of 1921 the “nobodies” had become serious World Series contenders. Before the decade was over, the Yankees had become one of the greatest baseball teams of all time. What happened?

A number of factors combined to make possible the Yankees’ surprising climb from the American League basement to baseball mastery. The Yankees’ wealthy owners, Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, could afford to tempt other owners to relinquish star players. The team also had the good fortune to have Miller Huggins as a manager, and to bring on the shrewd Ed Barrow in fall 1920 to serve as the team’s general manager. Above all, they had Babe Ruth.

As Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg wrote in their award-winning book, 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York, the Bambino was the force “behind the Yankees’ rise in the standings and at the box office. In 1920, Ruth’s first year in New York, the Yankees outdrew the Giants — the team that owned and shared their ballpark, the Polo Grounds — by 360,000 fans,” becoming the first major-league team to top 1 million fans in home attendance. In 1921, when Ruth hit 59 home runs to break his own record set the year before, his contract offered him a $50 bonus for each home run, a mistake the Yankees’ owners never made again.

Ruth’s extraordinary baseball talent coincided with the beginnings of modern-day celebrity culture. Exposure via early film and radio along with magazines and newspapers made Ruth an American icon. Even in baseball cards, Ruth upset previous norms by becoming in 1920 the first baseball player to be featured in single-player baseball card sets. In 1921, kids buying a single-player baseball card set depicting Ruth needed to accumulate 250 boxes to earn “a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.”

— Sharon Hamilton

1921 Babe Ruth baseball cards

Recrowning Baseball’s Greatest Slugging Season

What was the greatest season by a hitter in major-league history? In his book The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs, Bill Jenkinson argues the case for the Babe’s 1921 season. The impressive home-run total in the title, rather than his actual tally of 59 that year, comes from Jenkinson’s analysis of Ruth’s batted-ball data: If Ruth had played in modern stadiums, under modern rules, and with other modern conditions such as travel and training, he would have cracked triple digits in home runs.

Yet the Babe’s 1921 campaign remains the benchmark in other statistical categories: total bases (457), runs scored (in the modern era, 177), and extra-base hits (119). These classical statistics show Ruth ahead of everyone else, but how does he stack up against the competition when modern sabermetric statistics are used as the measuring rod?

In this new analysis, author and sabermetrician Fr. Humbert Kilanowski shows that The Babe once again comes out on top, and that his 1921 season from 100 years ago was the greatest of all time.

In 1921, Babe Ruth set single-season major-league records in home runs (59), RBIs (168), total bases (457), extra-base hits (119), runs created (229), and Wins Above Replacement (12.9). Statistics from Baseball-Reference.com.

 

The Colossus of Clout

Read stories from the SABR Games Project on some of Babe Ruth’s most memorable performances from the 1921 season.

Babe Ruth swinging at the Polo Grounds in 1921 (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

April 13, 1921: Babe Ruth opens Yankees’ season with 5-for-5 ‘one-handed’ performance

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.

Babe Ruth (TRADING CARD DB)

June 8, 1921: Babe Ruth goes from jail to the ballpark

When the Yankees took the field against the Cleveland Indians, Babe Ruth was nowhere to be found at the Polo Grounds. He was instead nine miles downtown, in a New York City holding cell after being caught for speeding again.

Babe Ruth (TRADING CARD DB)

July 15, 1921: Babe Ruth’s 138th career home run ties Roger Connor’s major-league record

Babe Ruth’s assault on home-run records began in 1919, when he hit 29 home runs to set a single-season mark. He hit 54 more in 1920, when he became the 11th player to eclipse 100 career home runs. One year later, he continued to set a new standard in baseball with his 138th career homer.

Babe-Ruth-in-1921

July 18, 1921: Babe Ruth’s 560-foot blast against Tigers sets career home run record

Babe Ruth’s historic 139th career home run — measured at a distance of 560 feet in Detroit — gave him a new major-league record, surpassing Roger Connor, whose total of 138 had stood since 1897.

Babe Ruth (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

September 15, 1921: Babe Ruth again breaks his own home run record with #55 at Polo Grounds

For the third year in a row, Babe Ruth shattered the single-season home run record — number 55 helped keep the Yankees in first place by a slim margin in a tight pennant race.

Babe Ruth (TRADING CARD DB)

October 1, 1921: After Yankees clinch pennant, Babe Ruth takes the mound again

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.


The Colonel and Hug

Jacob Ruppert, co-owner of the New York Yankees, believed that hiring Miller Huggins as his manager after the 1917 season was the first and most important step in turning the American League team from also-rans into champions. Under Ruppert’s ownership and Huggins’s leadership — along with general manager Ed Barrow — the Yankees would dominate the decade of the 1920s, winning six pennants and three World Series.

At first glance, the two could not have been more different. Ruppert, an urbane New Yorker, was a man of great wealth, which he used freely to indulge himself. He had a mansion on Fifth Avenue, a country estate, and a 113-foot yacht. Huggins, a no-nonsense Midwesterner, had little interest in what others thought of him, and certainly not what they thought of his appearance. He had no extravagances. His greatest joy came from fishing, smoking his pipe, and golf, which he started playing late in life.

Yet, in the more important matter of building winning baseball teams, Ruppert and Huggins were surprisingly alike.

Although on the surface Miller Huggins and Jacob Ruppert seemed worlds apart, the two men had striking similarities. They were the architects of the New York Yankees’ dominance in the 1920s. (BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY)

Although on the surface Miller Huggins and Jacob Ruppert seemed worlds apart, the two men had striking similarities. They were the architects of the New York Yankees’ dominance in the 1920s. (BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY)

Babe Ruth's 1921 contract with the New York Yankees (COURTESY OF MICHAEL HAUPERT)

Babe Ruth’s 1921 contract addendum with the New York Yankees. Ruth was paid a $5,000 bonus for playing in exhibition games, plus a retroactive $5,000 bonus for participating in exhibition games the prior year. In addition, he negotiated a performance bonus that would pay him for what he did best: $50 for each home run he hit during the 1921 season. These bonuses nearly tripled his $10,000 base salary. (COURTESY OF MICHAEL HAUPERT)

Bonus Performance: Babe Ruth’s 1921 Contract

In January 1920, one week after the news broke that the Boston Red Sox had sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, the New York Times wrote, “The famous Ruth is a personage of considerable worth to the lessee of his services; and, however much money the New York baseball club may have paid for him, it will doubtless make an adequate profit.”

The one crown Ruth did not wear in 1921 was that of salary king. For the only time in his Yankee career, someone else had a higher base salary. Ty Cobb was paid the princely sum of $25,000 in 1921 to serve as Detroit’s player-manager. Meanwhile, Ruth was playing in the final year of his contract, which called for a base salary of $10,000 plus a $10,000 signing bonus. Despite the higher base salary, Ruth actually outearned Cobb when the final calculations were made at season’s end.

Lou Gehrig: A Fortnight in Hartford

A young, strapping first baseman from New York City first attracted the Yankees’ attention in 1920, when as a high school senior he hit a mammoth home run in an all-star game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. By 1921, Henry Louis Gehrig was in his first semester at Columbia University and turning heads again with his performance on the baseball field.

Arthur Irwin, manager of the Eastern League’s Hartford Senators and a scout for the New York Giants, was in the twilight of a long baseball career. In April 1921, his Senators played an exhibition against Columbia. Irwin was so impressed by Gehrig’s abilities that he arranged for a tryout with John McGraw’s Giants. McGraw was not interested — he reportedly told his coaches, “I’ve got enough lousy players without another one showing up!” Irwin suggested that Gehrig join the Hartford club and play under an assumed name before returning to school in the fall.

Gehrig’s identity was quickly discovered and he was suspended for one year of athletic activity by the university. After serving his punishment, Gehrig took to the gridiron to play football in the fall of 1922 and then played one more season of baseball for Columbia in the spring of 1923 before signing with McGraw’s hated rival, the New York Yankees, and making his major-league debut.

Lou Gehrig at Columbia University (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Lou Gehrig first attracted the Yankees’ attention in 1920 as a high school senior and then again while playing for Columbia University in 1921. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Five members of the 1921 New York Yankees known as Murderers' Row pose together for a photo in the Polo Grounds in New York City in 1921. Left to right they are Wally Pipp, Babe Ruth, Roger Peckinpaugh, Bob Meusel, and Frank Baker. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Five members of the 1921 New York Yankees known as Murderers’ Row pose together for a photo at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1921. Left to right: Wally Pipp, Babe Ruth, Roger Peckinpaugh, Bob Meusel, and Frank “Home Run” Baker. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

A switch-hitter who was adept at getting on base, Wally Schang was considered by many of his contemporaries to be the best catcher of his time. An excellent hitter who posted a career .393 on base percentage, Schang could hit for power, too: in 1916 he became the first player to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game. The energetic and likeable Schang batted better than .300 six times and caught for seven different American League pennant winners. (TRADING CARD DATABASE)

Switch-hitting catcher Wally Schang posted a career .393 on-base percentage and played for seven different American League pennant winners, including the Yankees from 1921 to 1923. (TRADING CARD DATABASE)

Murderers’ Row

Upon joining the New York Yankees in 1920, Babe Ruth quickly became the sport’s biggest star, as his unprecedented power barrage signaled the end of the Deadball Era and the emergence of the Yankees. While the nickname “Murderers’ Row” is applied more often to their championship teams later in the decade, it was the Yankees’ pre-Ruthian sluggers — including Frank “Home Run” Baker, Wally Pipp, and Roger Peckinpaugh — who were first given that nickname by a sports writer in 1918. With Ruth and newcomer Bob Meusel leading the way, the 1921 Yankees shattered the American League record with 948 runs scored (the old record was 861 by the 1911 Athletics.)

Though completely overshadowed by the Bambino’s exploits, the rest of the Yankees’ lineup was strong. Right fielder Meusel ranked 6th in the AL in slugging at .559; shortstop Peckinpaugh was 3rd with 128 runs scored; first baseman Pipp finished in the top 10 with 103 RBIs; and switch-hitting catcher Wally Schang was 6th in on-base percentage at .428.

Showdown: Babe Ruth’s Rebellious Barnstorming Tour

A day after the New York Yankees lost the 1921 World Series to their landlords, the New York Giants, players gathered at the Polo Grounds to divide $87,756.67, the losers’ share of the postseason proceeds. Each player also received a letter signed by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis with a reminder of an obscure baseball rule: “Both teams that contest in the world’s series are required to disband immediately after its close and the members thereof are forbidden to participate as individuals or as a team in exhibition games during the year in which the world’s championship was decided.”

Babe Ruth had ignored this rule before and he decided to test Landis’s authority early in his tenure as commissioner. With Yankees teammate Bob Meusel and other players, Ruth organized a team to play 17 exhibition games during the fall and early winter of 1921, headlining a tour that would travel from New York and Pennsylvania to Texas and Utah.

Landis did not budge, and when Opening Day 1922 arrived, Ruth and Meusel found themselves on the sidelines — suspended for the season’s first six weeks.

Babe Ruth, circa 1921 (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Following the 1921 World Series, Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel and other players embarked on a barnstorming tour playing exhibition games across the country. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis suspended Ruth and Meusel for the first six weeks of the 1922 season. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Babe Ruth 1921 postcard, Pathe Freres Phonograph Co., Brooklyn, NY (TRADING CARD DB)

Babe Ruth 1921 postcard, Pathe Freres Phonograph Co., Brooklyn, NY (TRADING CARD DB)

A Line o’ Verse

Just before the calendar turned to 1922, sports writer Grantland Rice penned a poem to commemorate all of the interesting stories that had captured fans’ attention over the past year. His verse about Babe Ruth is below:

Ruth is stranger far than fiction,
Howsoever wild the plot,
When it comes to quick eviction
Of a baseball from the lot.
When he landed on the pellet
On a slow one or a hop.
Pitchers wondered how the hell it
Ever had a chance to drop.
Fifty-nine completes a task you
At the best can never paint
Is that going some, I ask you
You can frisk me, if it ain’t.
But they had our hero puffing
In a concentrated maze,
When he thought the judge was bluffing,
And the judge said, “Thirty days.”

Touching Sports Of Present Year, Grantland Rice Presents To You Just Some Lines In Brief Review

I
A fighter named Car-poon-tee-ay
(Or words, at least, to that effect)
Came over, debonair and gay,
To get just what you might expect,
He socked Jack Dempsey with his fist
As if to say – “There goes the crown!”
And while he shattered thumb and wrist
He made the Champion almost frown.
He took besides the well known count,
Two hundred thousand on the hummock.
(I’d like to add for that amount
A mule can kick me in the stummock.).

II
At golf we got a ragged start.
The British took the right of way
By trimming us on Hoylake’s mart,
But lo – it was not always May!
For later on, with robust clutch,
With slashing swing and valiant clout,
A Glenview pro, named Jock-the-Hutch
Turned old St. Andrews inside out.
(And yet they have us trimmed, I think,
Their nineteenth hole is not a plague.
For when a fellow wants a drink
A Hagen isn’t quite a Haig).

III
Riding “hell for leather,” out for Uncle Sam,
Pulling all together, hitting with a slam,
Milburn and his cronies (don’t forget the ponies,
None of them were phonies) tore up Hurlingham!
Romping on to glory, under English skies,
It’s an ancient story, minus a surprise,
Yet we still remember by the fading ember
Of a dead December, where the laurel lies!

IV
Ruth is stranger far than fiction,
Howsoever wild the plot,
When it comes to quick eviction
Of a baseball from the lot.
When he landed on the pellet
On a slow one or a hop.
Pitchers wondered how the hell it
Ever had a chance to drop.
Fifty-nine completes a task you
At the best can never paint
Is that going some, I ask you
You can frisk me, if it ain’t.
But they had our hero puffing
In a concentrated maze,
When he thought the judge was bluffing,
And the judge said, “Thirty days.”

V
Though I have found few things that rhymed
With Mr. Tilden’s name,
Once more the tall boy went and climbed
The heights of tennis fame.
He started at the Southern Cross
Beyond the distant foam,
To throw eight nations for a loss
And then mop up at home.
“World’s tennis king,” with title free,
Is what I’ve nicknamed “Tres jolie.”

VI
Washington and Jefferson, Lafayette, Cornell,
California, Penn State, Centre, I-o-way –
Maybe there were other teams that deserved a yell.
Maybe there were others, but I haven’t time today.
Crowds around the stadiums stirring up a din,
Everybody hungry for the autumn feast,
When the season opened up the West began to win,
Wasn’t that a pretty dish to set before the East?

VII
Zbyszko, balder than a egg,
Proved that a wrestler nearing fifty
Can still cave in a back or leg
And otherwise be strong and shifty.
He may be old and bald and fat,
But I won’t meet him on no mat.

VIII
Just as the old year’s fading glory
Began to show some signs of loss,
H. Frazee wrote his annual story
Known as “The Yankees’ Santa Claus.”
In Boston, where he sometimes dwells,
They say he ain’t no H.G. Wells.

— Syndicated column published in Daily News (Canton, Ohio), December 30, 1921: 4.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved