The defending world champion Cleveland Indians and challenger New York Yankees waged a razor’s-edge, too-close-to-call campaign for the American League pennant in 1921. In the final game of their pivotal late-September series at New York’s Polo Grounds, Babe Ruth’s power, Waite Hoyt and Carl Mays’s clutch relief, and Elmer Miller’s heart-stopping defense enabled the Yankees to escape with an 8-7 win and a crucial two-game edge toward the first title in franchise history.
The top of the AL standings settled early in 1921; New York and Cleveland were in first and second from May 14 onward. When the Indians arrived at the Polo Grounds on September 23 for a four-game series on the season’s next-to-last weekend, the Yankees led by .002. No more than two games had separated the front-runners since August 21.
The Yankees expanded their advantage when Hoyt outdueled Stan Coveleski in the opener.1 George Uhle’s four-hit shutout moved the Indians back within percentage points,2 but New York restored its lead with a 21-7 rout on September 25. Mays went the distance for his 26th win, adding three hits to the Yankees’ attack.3
At stake in Monday’s finale of the “Little World’s Series”4 was whether Miller Huggins’s Yankees held a two-game lead with less than a week left in the season, or whether player-manager Tris Speaker and the Indians went into their more favorable remaining schedule in a virtual deadlock.5
The pitching matchup remained murky as morning newspapers hit the stands. The New York Tribune identified Hoyt as New York’s probable starter.6 The New York Herald listed Jack Quinn as probable, with Hoyt a possibility, and Allen Sothoron — author of two complete-game wins against the Yankees in 1921 — going for Cleveland.7 The New York Times hedged even further: “Hoyt or Quinn” for the Yankees and “probably … Sothoron [for Cleveland], but Jim Bagby is a possibility.”8
Confounding the speculation, Speaker tapped Coveleski. The 32-year-old right-hander had led Cleveland in wins three times in four seasons, including 22 victories in 1921. But he had lost five times to the Yankees in six decisions9 and was pitching on only two days of rest instead of his usual three or four.
Huggins’s choice was foreseen but still unconventional. Quinn — like Coveleski one of only 17 pitchers permitted to throw spitballs in 1921 — had not started since a complete-game win over the Indians on August 23.10 Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire 38 years earlier and still pitching in the majors after his 50th birthday in 1933, the right-handed swingman had contributed 6⅓ scoreless innings of relief in a win over the Detroit Tigers on September 22.11 Huggins requested his pitchers’ opinions on the day’s starter, triggering a heated discussion;12 he then selected Quinn, reserving Hoyt for the next day against St. Louis Browns ace Urban Shocker.13
Two singles, a hit batsman, and an error by third baseman Mike McNally later, Cleveland — their jerseys proclaiming “WORLDS CHAMPIONS” — had a 3-0 lead, and Hoyt was in with two runners in scoring position and two out. The 22-year-old Brooklyn native walked Steve O’Neill intentionally before striking out Coveleski to end the inning.
Coveleski retired the first two Yankees in the first, bringing up Ruth, already two homers beyond his own single season record of 54, set a year earlier. A leg injury gave the 26-year-old slugger “a decided limp.”16 But his bat was sound, driving Coveleski’s one-ball pitch over the top corner of the right-field stands to cut the deficit to 3-1.17
Ruth struck again in the third. Coveleski, struggling with his control,18 walked Roger Peckinpaugh with one out. Expecting Ruth to pull, Speaker shaded into deep right-center, but Ruth crossed up the alignment, ripping the first pitch on a low trajectory to left-center for what the New York Tribune called “by far the longest and hardest hit of the game.”19 It smashed off the wall and bounced sharply toward Speaker.20 Peckinpaugh scored, and Ruth had a double.
Chick Fewster readied himself to pinch-run, but Ruth waved him off.21 Bob Meusel singled Ruth to third, and Wally Pipp’s single knotted the game and pushed Meusel to third. Coveleski was out; Uhle was in.
Aaron Ward hit a popup to short center. Wambsganss chased it down from second but was in no position to throw home. Meusel tagged and scored, and the Yankees led, 4-3.
Meanwhile, Hoyt was deploying a “sharp breaking curve ball” to frustrate Cleveland, striking out five Indians in a row at one point.22 The powder-keg portion of New York’s lineup batted again in the fifth. Peckinpaugh singled, and the Indians decided to pitch to Ruth again, rather than bypass him after the two long hits.23 Uhle’s first two pitches missed the strike zone.24 The third one curved slowly over the plate; Ruth crushed it over the right-field stands for his second homer of the day and 58th of the year, spinning the Polo Grounds into a frenzy.25
“To a man, the crowd rose, and Babe was accorded the greatest ovation of his career,” New York’s Daily News reported.26 “Scraps of paper fluttered like snow from the upper tier, and one brown derby sailed from the stands and was flattened on the greensward.”27 Batboy Eddie Bennett jumped on Ruth’s back in celebration.28 “Those home runs blew all dignity completely out of the ballpark,” the New York Tribune observed.29 The Yankees had a 6-3 advantage.
After four fruitless innings, Cleveland finally solved Hoyt in the sixth. Joe Sewell led off with a single and George Burns tripled to left center to drive him in. O’Neill’s RBI groundout made it a one-run game.
The Yankees had a rapid response. McNally started the sixth with a single. Wally Schang pulled Uhle’s pitch into the right-field stands for a two-run homer, restoring the three-run cushion.
Hoyt retired the first batter in the seventh, but Speaker’s liner up the middle deflected off his pitching hand for a single.30 The Cleveland dugout taunted “Yellow Hoyt! Yellow Hoyt!” while Elmer Smith walked.31 Hoyt yelled back at his hecklers; Larry Gardner hit into a force for the second out.32
Sewell’s walk loaded the bases; the New York Herald alleged “poor judgment by [home-plate umpire] Bill Dinneen, who did not seem inclined to give Hoyt the corners.”33 Cleveland capitalized on the break: Burns singled to center, scoring Smith and Gardner, and Sewell dashed toward third. But center fielder Miller, a 31-year-old journeyman who had spent a decade bouncing between the majors and minors,34 fired a strike to the bag, cutting down Sewell and preserving New York’s 8-7 advantage for another inning.
The Indians’ siege resumed in the eighth. Jack Graney batted for Uhle with one out. “Three and Two Jack,” twice the AL leader in walks, was the longest-tenured Indian, having debuted in 1908. True to his reputation, the 35-year-old Graney walked, and Joe Evans, whose offseason studies had yielded a medical degree, pinch-ran.
Jamieson took two balls; the Yankees met at the mound.35 At Peckinpaugh’s direction, Hoyt started walking to the bench, but coach Charley O’Leary sent him back on the field.36 Peckinpaugh, overruled, “scowled and said a lot of caustic things to nobody in particular.”37 Miller grabbed Jamieson’s deep fly for the second out.
Wambsganss followed with a shot to right, bouncing off Meusel’s shins. Evans stopped at third, and Wambsganss was in with a double. Huggins turned to the bullpen with the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position and Speaker due. His stopper was Mays, a day after pitching all nine innings and 13 months after mortally wounding Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman with a pitch.
The 33-year-old Speaker, who had missed nine games after a September 11 knee injury,38 was still one of the game’s top hitters, finishing in the AL’s top 10 ten in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage again in 1921.39 In the aftermath of Chapman’s death in August 1920, he had reportedly called for peace, asserting that Mays’s fatal pitch was “an accident.”40
With 1921’s pennant hanging in the balance, Speaker lofted a 2-and-2 pitch from Mays to short center, too deep for the infielders to reach.41 Evans and Wambsganss raced around the bases, intent on flipping the scoreboard in Cleveland’s favor.
But Miller, playing Speaker deep in center, ran in, reached down, and made the catch, inches above the grass.42 His second clutch defensive play in two innings preserved New York’s lead.
Guy Morton shut down the Yankees in the eighth, and the Indians went to their last ups. Smith grounded out to second, but Gardner drew a walk. Riggs Stephenson pinch-ran; Sewell grounded into a force. Cleveland was down to its last out.
Burns batted as the clock neared 6 P.M. “Twilight had come,” the New York Herald reported.43 “Lights began to appear in the windows atop of Coogan’s Bluff.”44 Burns singled off Mays’s glove for his fourth hit of the game, pushing Sewell to second and bringing up O’Neill. Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, overwhelmed by the tension, hid in the bullpen, relying on catcher Fred Hofmann for updates.45
It was an instant classic, “as desperate a conflict as was ever seen on a major league diamond,” according to the New York Tribune.50 “Nobody who saw the game would have missed it for millions, but unless we are much mistaken, few would care to undergo such an ordeal again for any smaller sum,” asserted legendary writer Heywood Broun, who labeled it “the greatest game of baseball which has ever been played.”51
The season’s windup was anticlimactic. On October 1, the Yankees clinched their first-ever pennant with a 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Athletics.52
Many more Yankee championships followed, especially after they relocated to the Bronx two seasons later. The final Monday of the 1921 regular season swept in more than a decade of autumn headlines for Ruth, and his performance that day, along with Hoyt, Mays, and Miller’s contributions, foreshadowed generations of pinstriped magic. The Yankees’ narrow win over Cleveland provided a foundation for those glories and long held its luster as one of baseball’s greatest games.53
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material and the box scores noted below; game coverage in the Baltimore Sun, Cleveland Plain Dealer, New York Daily News, New York Evening World, New York Herald, New York Times, and New York Tribune newspapers; and several relevant SABR Baseball Biography Project biographies, especially Charles F. Faber’s biography of Jack Quinn, Adam Ulrey’s biography of Jack Graney, and Joseph Wancho’s biography of Joe Evans. Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg’s 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, & the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York and Comeback Pitchers: The Remarkable Careers of Howard Ehmke and Jack Quinn and Mike Sowell’s The Pitch That Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920 also provided useful background information.
SABR member Steve Steinberg provided insightful comments on an earlier version of this article, and Steven Goldman and Vince Guerrieri contributed valuable research assistance.
1 “Indians Defeated by Yanks, 4 to 2: Hoyt Outpitches Coveleskie, Cleveland’s Great Ace, in Sizzling Game,” New York Times, September 24, 1921: 7.
2 Daniel, “Yankees Stopped by Uhle; Clevelands Triumph by 9 to 0: Harper Driven Out in the Fourth, Which Brings Four Runs,” New York Herald, September 25, 1921: 4, 2.
3 Jack Lawrence, “38,000 See Yankees Smother Indians, 21 to 7 — Giants Defeat Cards and Increase Lead: Homers by Meusel and Fewster Feature Victory of Many Hits,” New York Tribune, September 26, 1921: 10.
4 Isaac Shuman, “Notes of ‘Little’ World’s Series,” New York Evening World, September 27, 1921: 22. The September 26 game was a makeup of a game rained out on August 2. “Tigers Open Series With Yanks Today: Rain Prevents Fourth Game With Indians — Piercy Again Ready to Pitch,” New York Times, August 3, 1921: 11.
5 After their series in New York, the Indians had four games remaining, all against the Chicago White Sox, who were in seventh place in the AL. The Yankees had three games against the eighth-place Philadelphia Athletics, but also single games against the St. Louis Browns, who had won 43 of 68 games since July to gain a slight edge over the Washington Senators for third place and were pitching ace Urban Shocker against the Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox, who were in fifth place and had chances to finish in fourth and with a winning record.
6 Lawrence, “38,000 See Yankees Smother Indians, 21 to 7 — Giants Defeat Cards and Increase Lead.”
7 Daniel, “Yankees and Giants Are Nearer the Pennant: Yanks Set Scoring Mark in Overwhelming Indians,” New York Herald, September 6, 1921: 8.
8 “Curves and Bingles,” New York Times, September 26, 1921: 11.
9 Charles A. Taylor, “Hoyt Outpitches Coveleskie [sic] and Lands Victory in Ninth: Series of Bungles by Champions Gives New York Close Game in Last Inning by 3 to 2 — Pipp’s Sacrifice Fly Decides Issue in Favor of Yankees,” New York Tribune, August 25, 1921: 12.
10 William B. Hanna, “Yanks Win by 6 to 1; Ruth Hits 2 More: Quinn Holds Indians to Five Hits, and Hugmen Trail by Only a Point,” New York Herald, August 24, 1921: 12.
11 “Desperate Rallies by Hugmen Overcome Four-Run Handicap: Game Stand by Local Team After Shawkey Walks out of the Box Is Crowned With Success; Indians Open Crucial Series Here To-day,” New York Tribune, September 23, 1921: 14.
12 Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg, 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, & the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press: 2010), 295.
13 Robert Boyd, “Ruth’s Bat Practically Clinches the Pennant for Yankees: Babe’s Two Homers in Final With Indians Decide Race,” New York Evening World, September 27, 1921: 22.
14 Newspapers reported the crowd at 28,000 (New York Tribune); 30,000 (New York Times); and 35,000 (New York Evening World and New York Herald). Jack Lawrence, “Babe Ruth’s 2 Home Runs Win for Yankees Over Indians, 8-7: Hugmen Increase Lead to Two Full Games by Taking Close Contest From Champions; Hoyt and Mays Rushed to Rescue When Quinn Fails,” New York Tribune, September 27, 1921: 1; “Great Ruth Leads Yanks to Victory: Babe’s Titanic Hitting Costs Cleveland Most Important Game of Season,” New York Times, September 27, 1921: 16; Boyd, “Ruth’s Bat Practically Clinches the Pennant for Yankees”; Daniel, “Yankees Defeat Indians in Critical Contest by 8 to 7; Ruth Hits Two Homers: Quinn and Coveleskie [sic] Knocked Out as 35,000 Enthusiasts Cheer Locals,” New York Herald, September 27, 1921: 14.
15 Spatz and Steinberg, 1921, 295-296.
16 Daniel, “Yankees Defeat Indians in Critical Contest by 8 to 7; Ruth Hits Two Homers.”
17 Marshall A. Hunt, “2 Homers for Babe as Yankees Win, 8-7: Tarzan of Swat Laces out Three Lusty Hits,” New York Daily News, September 27, 1921: 3.
18 Henry P. Edwards, “Tribe’s Defeated by Yanks, 8 to 7; Ruth Scores Two: Indians Drop Game That May Mean Season’s Pennant When Pitchers Fail to Walk Babe,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 27, 1921: 1.
19 Lawrence, “Babe Ruth’s 2 Home Runs Win for Yankees Over Indians, 8-7.”
20 Heywood Broun, “Ruth’s Homers Spell Victory for Yankees: He Gets Two Circuit Drives and Is Responsible for Five Runs,” Baltimore Sun, September 27, 1921: 1.
21 Shuman, “Notes of ‘Little’ World’s Series.”
22 Daniel, “Yankees Defeat Indians in Critical Contest by 8 to 7; Ruth Hits Two Homers.”
23 Before the series Speaker had commented that the only approach against Ruth with runners on base was to walk him, rather than pitch to him. Spatz and Steinberg, 1921, 292. Speaker received criticism for disregarding his own advice and pitching to Ruth in the September 26 game. The next day’s Brooklyn Daily Times headline, for example, asserted, “Poor Judgment May Cost Flag to the Indians: Tris Speaker Might Have Saved Game by Not Allowing Hurler to Pitch to Ruth.”
24 Broun, “Ruth’s Homers Spell Victory for Yankees.”
25 Hunt, “2 Homers for Babe As Yankees Win, 8-7.”
26 Hunt, “2 Homers for Babe As Yankees Win, 8-7.”
28 Shuman, “Notes of ‘Little’ World’s Series.”
29 Lawrence, “Babe Ruth’s 2 Home Runs Win for Yankees Over Indians, 8-7.”
31 Broun, “Ruth’s Homers Spell Victory for Yankees.”
33 Daniel, “Yankees Defeat Indians in Critical Contest by 8 to 7; Ruth Hits Two Homers.”
34 The Yankees opened 1921 with Ping Bodie in center but benched him at the end of April with a .205/.271/.273 batting line. “Huggins Makes Radical Shifts in Yank Lineup: Benches Ping Bodie and Chick Fewster,” New York Daily News, April 30, 1921: 16. Braggo Roth followed with a three-week starting stint in May; he moved to right for two weeks in June while Ruth played center. Chick Fewster had most of the starts in center between late June and early August, when the Yankees acquired Miller from the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. Miller played center for the remainder of the season. Of the seven players who appeared in center for the 1921 Yankees, three played in their final major-league games that season (Bodie, Roth, and Tom Connelly), one finished his career in 1922 (Miller), and one (Chicken Hawks) did not return to the majors until 1925.
35 Broun, “Ruth’s Homers Spell Victory for Yankees.”
36 Lawrence, “Babe Ruth’s 2 Home Runs Win for Yankees Over Indians, 8-7.”
38 Spatz and Steinberg, 1921, 289.
39 Speaker finished in the AL’s top ten in on-base percentage every season from 1909 to 1925. During that period, he also finished in the top ten in batting average and slugging percentage in every season except 1919.
40 Mike Sowell, The Pitch That Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920 (Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press: 1989), 188-1989.
41 Broun, “Ruth’s Homers Spell Victory for Yankees.”
43 Daniel, “Yankees Defeat Indians in Critical Contest by 8 to 7; Ruth Hits Two Homers.”
44 Daniel, “Yankees Defeat Indians in Critical Contest by 8 to 7; Ruth Hits Two Homers.”
45 Spatz and Steinberg, 1921, 298.
46 Game accounts differed on the details of O’Neill’s at-bat against Mays. Jack Lawrence’s New York Tribune description had a ball and then two swinging strikes preceding the final pitch. Isaac Shuman had the same sequence in New York’s Evening World. Heywood Broun’s account, syndicated in the Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe, had balls and strikes alternating until the count was 2-and-2. “Daniel” in the New York Herald reported “strike one and then strike two after a couple of bad ones.” Years later, famed sportswriter Fred Lieb reported a full count on the final pitch. Frederick B. Lieb, “Baseball’s Great Games,” Insider’s Baseball: The Finer Points of the Game, As Examined by the Society for American Baseball Research (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983), 3-11, available at https://sabr.org/journal/article/baseballs-great-games/.
47 Daniel, “Yankees Defeat Indians in Critical Contest by 8 to 7; Ruth Hits Two Homers”; Broun, “Ruth’s Homers Spell Victory for Yankees.”
49 Lawrence, “Babe Ruth’s 2 Home Runs Win for Yankees Over Indians, 8-7.”
51 Broun, “Ruth’s Homers Spell Victory for Yankees.”
52 “Yankees Are 1921 League Champions: Defeat Athletics in First Game of Double-Header and Clinch Pennant,” New York Times, October 2, 1921: 1. The New York Giants beat the Yankees in the 1921 World Series, five games to three.
53 In 1976, 55 years after this game, sportswriter Fred Lieb contributed an essay to SABR’s Baseball Research Journal on baseball’s greatest games, drawn from a writing career that spanned over 70 years. Lieb labeled the September 26, 1921, game between the Yankees and Indians a “sentimental choice” for his list, which also included the 1908 National League playoff game between the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs, Fred Toney and Hippo Vaughn’s “double no-hitter” of 1917, and the final game of the 1951 National League playoff between the Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. “Considering the way the Yankees dominated the American League and baseball in general over the next forty-odd years, the September 26, 1921, triumph over the Indians merits inclusion among the outstanding games of the past 100 years,” Lieb concluded. Lieb, “Baseball’s Great Games.”