Led by player-manager Ty Cobb, the third-place Tigers met the second-place Yankees for a four-game series in mid-June of 1921 at the Polo Grounds, hoping to leapfrog Babe Ruth and Co. in the American League standings. Only two games separated the teams, while the first-place Cleveland Indians led New York by just 2½ games. The 34-year-old Cobb was on his way to 197 hits in his 17th big-league season. He’d finish with a .389 BA and 1.048 OPS in 128 games. But by 1921 the Deadball Era’s offensive approach that Cobb epitomized had given way to a new era personified by the brash young Babe. The 25-year-old swatted 54 home runs and compiled a 1.379 OPS in 1920, his first year as a Yankee. The new Baseball King had arrived, but the Georgia Peach wouldn’t abdicate without a fight.
On the afternoon of Saturday, June 11, the Tigers took control in the seventh inning, scoring three runs to take a 6-3 lead. But the Detroit advantage lasted only until Ruth came to bat with two outs and two on in the bottom of the frame. His 18th home run of the season knotted the score, and the Yankees won on a Roger Peckinpaugh walk-off single. The next day, before the second game in the series, “a photographer asked Babe if he’d pose for a picture with the Peach and Ruth refused in some unkind way, so the photographer, nothing else to do, repeated to Cobb what Ruth had said and the dispositions of both were set aflame.”1 Tempers continued to flare after the game began. With one out in the top of the second inning, Detroit first baseman Lu Blue and Yankees catcher Wally Schang argued over a pitch that had been called a ball. Schang tossed his mask and faced off with Blue. “Both teams poured off the benches like smoke out of the funnels of a trans-Atlantic liner,” wrote Harry Bullion. “All of the trainers and groundskeepers figured in the melee and while Cobb was endeavoring to pacify Blue and Schang’s mates tried to console him, Ruth took the occasion to renew hostilities with the Georgian and there were two jobs for the peace-makers.”2 Order was restored and play resumed. (Blue struck out.)
An inning later, the Tigers scored a pair of runs, and Detroit led until the bottom of the fifth, an explosive half-inning that featured an argument between shortstop Donie Bush and umpire Bill Dinneen. Bush insisted he had tagged out Schang on an infield play. When Dinneen disagreed, Bush “playfully” punched the arbiter in the stomach and jaw.3 The next batter, Peckinpaugh, cleared the bases with a triple. “As Peck reached third, Bush resumed his attack on Dinneen and was chased from the game.”4 Ruth smacked his 19th home run of the year, “a sirocco-like devastator into the right field stand.”5 By time the dust finally settled, the Yankees had sent 12 batters to the plate and collected nine hits. Schang and Bob Shawkey each knocked two singles in the frame. As the Yankees trotted to their positions to defend their 8-2 lead, Cobb and Ruth faced off again, barking at each other behind the mound. In the eighth inning, the Tigers clawed back, tying the game, 8-8. But the Yankees answered in the bottom of the frame with six hits, including a Ruth double, scoring four runs and taking a 12-8 lead that proved to be the final tally. The Yankees had won the first two rounds against the Tigers and remained in second place. Meanwhile, the Washington Senators moved into third and Detroit dropped to fourth.
Prior to the game on Monday, June 13, Ruth approached Yankees manager Miller Huggins “with an offer to go into the box and save Carl Mays for another day. Huggins pounced on the suggestion, and when the crowd gathered to see the third downfall of the Tigers, there was the Babe, as large as life, warming up, while even the Tigers stood about popeyed.”6 Ruth took to the mound for just the second time as a Yankee —the first had been on June 1, 1920, when he went four innings in a victory over Washington. Given the intensity of the previous two games, it’s likely Ruth requested the start primarily for the opportunity to challenge Cobb from a distance of 60 feet 6 inches.
Batting third, Cobb earned a one-out walk in the top of the first inning, the second free pass allowed by Ruth. But the Bambino escaped the stanza without surrendering a run. The Yanks manufactured a first-inning run on Wally Pipp’s sacrifice fly. They extended the lead to 3-0 in the second on the strength of a two-run inside-the-park home run off the bat of Chicken Hawks. In the third Cobb flied out and the Tigers left two on base for the second time in three innings. Ruth led off the bottom of the third with a towering fly ball into the upper deck in right field, his 20th homer of the season. Bob Meusel doubled and Frank “Home Run” Baker followed with an eponymous round-tripper. Schang, who had hit safely in four of five at-bats the previous game, faced Tigers starter Howard Ehmke, who unleashed a rising fastball. At the last instant, Schang raised his arm to protect his face and the ball struck his wrist. He was assisted off the field in great pain and delivered to a local hospital where, to great surprise, x-rays revealed no fractured bones.
When the Tigers came to bat in the fourth inning, they found themselves in a 6-0 hole. The score held until the fifth inning. Ralph Young doubled and scored on an error. Ruth struck out Cobb, but three more runs followed the strikeout. Ruth had contained Cobb, but the Tigers were back in the game, 6-4. As had happened in the previous two games, the Tigers’ rally prodded the Yankees’ offense into action. New York scored four runs on four hits in the bottom of the fifth and the lead swelled again to six runs, 10-4. After Ruth surrendered a single and a walk to open the sixth inning, Huggins sent him to center field and called on Mays to take the ball. He retired the side without surrendering a run. The teams traded runs in the bottom of the sixth and the top of the seventh.
When Ruth strode to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with two outs and Peckinpaugh on second base, the Yankees led 11-5. The Babe delivered a knockout blow. His 21st home run sailed 480 feet, into the center-field seats —the first time anyone had accomplished the feat at the Polo Grounds. “The ball fell into the exit stairway of the bleachers and then down under the benches, where a mob of boys had a free for all for the prized memento,” noted the Herald’s Dan Daniel.7 The clout was Ruth’s second of the day and, more noteworthy, his fifth in four days, also a first. The Tigers gamely clawed and scratched two runs in the eighth and one in the ninth to narrow the gap, but they went down in defeat for the third straight day, this time by 13-8. Ruth had set records with his bat and silenced Cobb with his pitching, striking out the Peach once and holding him hitless in three plate appearances.
But the Yankees and Ruth weren’t finished. They completed the sweep on Tuesday, 9-6, behind another pair of Ruth home runs, “giving him three home runs in three at bats and seven in five games. The first shot almost cleared the distant left-field bleachers. The second blast went to virtually the same spot in the center-field bleachers, perhaps even a little farther than the previous day’s home run had reached.”8 Ruth finished the series with six home runs, and a total of eight hits in 12 at-bats. Cobb went 7-for-18 in the 4 games. The Tigers left New York reeling and lost their next five games, effectively dropping from contention. The Yankees remained in second place for much of the season, before overtaking the Indians down the stretch to win the American League pennant.
1 Harry Bullion, “Stormy Contest Is Won by Yanks, 12-8,” Detroit Free Press, June 13, 1921: 9.
4 Daniel, “Ruth Hits 19th Homer, but Peck Is Star of Victory,” New York Herald, June 13, 1921: 8.
6 Daniel, “Pitcher Ruth Hits Brace of Homers,” New York Herald, June 14, 1921: 12.
8 Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg, 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 155.