1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York

This article was written by Steve Steinberg - Lyle Spatz

This article was published in the Fall 2009 Baseball Research Journal


Nineteen twenty-one was a remarkable baseball season, one that signaled that a seismic shift in how the game was played was underway. Baseball was moving from low-scoring contests dominated by pitching to a power game with more hits, runs, and home runs. It was the year that New York City rose to the top of the baseball world, where it would remain for most of the twentieth century. At hand was a long-anticipated confrontation between the two New York clubs: the Yankees, led by Babe Ruth, and the Giants, led by John McGraw. They represented two very different philosophies. Sharing one ballpark, the two teams fought for the fan base of the nation’s largest city, for the top of the baseball world, and for the future direction of the game.

Books have been devoted to nearly two dozen seasons between 1901 and 1966 and to virtually every season of the last four decades. Yet the story of this historically significant 1921 season has not been told until now. Highlights include two dramatic pennant races, the New York Yankees’ first American League pennant, and the first all—New York City World Series. With as much drama and as many turnarounds as any postseason ever, that Series, a match between the American League’s Yankees and the National League’s Giants, provided a worthy climax to an eventful season.

With the end of World War I, the nation was ready to focus on less momentous clashes, ones that were not about life and death. The election of President Warren Harding, who in his March 4, 1921, inauguration promised the nation a “return to normalcy,” signified that Americans had tired of world affairs. They were ready to consider less cosmic issues and to enjoy themselves. Newspapers across the country responded with expanded sports sections. Baseball occupied an increasingly large part of the nation’s newspapers, as well as its psyche. In 1921 the game provided a season for the ages.

In 1921 baseball had center stage of the sports world almost to itself. Professional football and basketball had not yet developed as popular alternatives for fan support. College football emerged each fall, but it was a plodding game with little offense. The forward pass, which would revolutionize football in much the same way the home run did baseball, was still in its infancy.

Boxing was popular in the lower weight divisions in New York City; yet except for infrequent heavyweight title fights, the sport did not appeal to the nation at large. Moreover, the sport meant little to the youth of America in the way baseball did. The same was true of horse racing, which was recovering from corruption— fixed races—far worse than that of baseball’s 1919 Black Sox scandal.

In New York City, it was on this stage that the larger-than-life figures of Ruth and McGraw, two of the dominant personalities of their day, took over in 1921. The Giants and McGraw, their autocratic manager since 1902, had dominated National League baseball and the New York City sports scene. McGraw’s disdain for the American League dated from 1902, when he quit as an AL manager after repeated suspensions by and clashes with the league’s president, Ban Johnson. McGraw’s contempt for Ruth’s new slugging game, which was repudiating the very style of play McGraw had helped make famous, only added to his disdain. Now the Giants were back in the World Series for the sixth time under his leadership.

The Brooklyn club had won the National League pennant in 1916 and 1920, but it was not a serious contender for the devotion of New Yorkers outside of that borough. Brooklyn remained a separate entity— not accepted as New York by New York—even after it had joined the city in 1898. The feeling of Brooklynites was mutual.

At the start of 1921, the Yankees—who have since won forty pennants—had won none. They were a franchise with a long history of losing. By 1921, however, the allegiance of New York City’s baseball fans was in play. Ruth 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. That year, the Yankees had become the first team to top one million fans in home attendance. Ruth was also the catalyst behind a shift away from the game McGraw’s teams had excelled at for years. When they met in the 1921 Series—the Giants and Yankees, McGraw and Ruth—they represented two very different styles: what the game had been and what it would soon become.

Often thought of as the season in which baseball emerged from the Great War, 1920 was dominated by the spectacular slugging of Babe Ruth. Yet 1919 was when attendance rose dramatically and Ruth first astounded the baseball world playing in Boston, where he hit an unheard-of 29 home runs. The year 1920 is also remembered as the season that baseball rebounded from the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. However, the scandal was not exposed until the final days of the 1920 season. In fact, the year that tested the loyalty of baseball fans was 1921, not 1920.

With the arrival of the game’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, 1921 also marked a revolution in baseball governance. Baseball’s owners had selected an outsider—the maverick federal judge who himself was a big fan of the game—and had given him enormous power. Confronted with a crisis of confidence in the integrity of the game, Landis began his rule with an iron, if somewhat erratic, fist and an eye on how baseball could best recover. It was also the year that Landis, Ruth, and the sheer drama of the baseball season brought the game back from its darkest days. Baseball was undergoing fundamental change. John McGraw personified the Deadball Era, which was not going quietly; and Babe Ruth was fueling the new power game almost single-handedly. This season was one of the great tipping points in the history of our national pastime.

A CHALLENGER TO THE GIANTS EMERGES

By 1921 the World Series had become America’s greatest sporting event. Even those who paid little attention to baseball during the regular season were cognizant of the multigame struggle between the champions of the American and National leagues. And while no one individual game could create the furor and excitement of the previous July’s heavyweight title fight between champion Jack Dempsey and his French challenger, Georges Carpentier, no other event could hold the sporting public’s protracted interest that the battle for baseball’s championship could.1

Dempsey was one of the two 1920s athletes whom American sports fans would come to idolize and who would symbolize the era of the Roaring Twenties. The other was New York Yankee slugger Babe Ruth. No player before (or since) has so captured the imagination of the American sporting public, many of whom had begun following the Babe’s at-bats on a daily basis. His fame spread nationwide and even beyond, with more words written about him than about President Warren Harding. Ruth’s presence in the Yankee lineup ensured that the 1921 Series between the Yanks and John McGraw’s New York Giants would be the most closely followed championship series ever. Even before the first pitch was thrown, fans were discussing whether McGraw’s pitchers would be able to handle the Yankee sluggers as a group, and in particular Ruth. With the Polo Grounds, the home park for both teams, hosting all the games, Ruth appeared to be even more of a looming threat to the Giants’ pitchers. The seats down the right-field line at the Polo Grounds were a mere 256 feet away, not that the Babe needed the help. Fifty-two of his 113 home runs in two seasons with the Yankees had come on the road.

The glamour and prestige surrounding the World Series had come a long way since that day seventeen years earlier, when, after the Giants had won the 1904 National League pennant, manager McGraw famously announced, “The Giants will not play a postseason series with the American League champions.”2 Now the Giants were preparing to do just that. They had done so before, of course, although with limited success, much to the chagrin of McGraw, who passionately hated the American League and its president, Ban Johnson.3 After having defeated the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1905 World Series, McGraw’s Giants had lost four consecutive Series to the American League pennant winners: to the Athletics in 1911 and 1913, to the Boston Red Sox in 1912, and to the Chicago White Sox in 1917.

Back in July 1904, when McGraw, backed by owner John T. Brush, issued his refusal to play a World Series against the champion of the upstart new league, there was a strong possibility that the Highlanders, as the Yankees were then called, might be that champion. But the Highlanders lost the pennant to Boston on the last day of the season, whereupon Highlanders co-owner Frank Farrell proposed to Brush and McGraw that the Giants meet his second-place team in a post-season series. Brush’s refusal was brutally and mockingly short. “Who are these people?” he asked dismissively. “We do not know them at all. The Giants do not care to play minor leaguers, so this absurd challenge from a lot of nobodies will be ignored.”4 Recognizing the new team in New York as being on a par with the lordly Giants was something neither their manager nor their owner wanted to do.

Two years later, in 1906, Farrell had his revenge. The Yankees had again been involved in an exciting pennant race, finishing in second place, three games behind the Chicago White Sox. Moreover, they had surpassed the Giants in attendance for the first time.

Hoping to convert the Yankees’ popularity into dollars for the Giants, Brush and McGraw suggested a post-season series between the two teams. Farrell, who had hoped the Yanks’ postseason play would be against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, turned the Giants down flat.5 The “nobodies” had gotten their revenge. Now that the Yankees, a team McGraw despised above all others, had won their first pennant, these two New York teams would meet, with the world championship at stake. That the Yankees’ potent offense was led by Babe Ruth, the game’s greatest attraction and the antithesis of the “inside baseball” McGraw had helped foster, only heightened the drama of this match.6 There were many reasons for McGraw’s current antipathy to the Yankees. Perhaps foremost was that the American Leaguers had now shed their image as New York’s “other team” and taken their place as the Giants’ equals in the estimation of New York’s fans.

Furthermore, by 1921 the hordes of early twentieth-century immigrants who had descended on New York City, mostly Jewish and Italian, had changed not only the ethnic composition of the city but also the fan base of its baseball teams. Author Harry Golden’s tales of his childhood attachment to the Giants were symbolic of a generation of newcomers to America who had taken to America’s game without assistance from, and often as an act of revolt against, their old-world fathers. Eric Rolfe Greenberg touched on a similar theme in his novel The Celebrant, a story centering on a young Jewish immigrant’s devotion to pitcher Christy Mathewson.

Neither the National League team that had been in neighboring Brooklyn since the 1890s nor the American League entry relocated to Manhattan from Baltimore in 1903 had done much to change the Giants’ entrenched position as the team of choice for the vast majority of New Yorkers. Brooklyn, despite becoming a part of the city in 1898, was just too far away; and its inhabitants did not fully embrace New York either. Just four years earlier, Brooklyn had voted for the merger by only 277 votes out of more than 129,000 cast; and on the eve of 1898, the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had declared, “Though borough it may be, Brooklyn it is, Brooklyn it remains, and Brooklyn we are.”7

Because the Yankees rarely generated much excitement, a good portion of the American Leaguers’ attendance came from fans anxious to see the great stars of the American League rather than to watch the home team. Only by going to watch the Yankees play at Hilltop Park located at Broadway and 168th Street, not too far from the Polo Grounds, could older fans and those youngsters new to the game have the opportunity to see players like Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Rube Waddell, Cy Young, Addie Joss, and Walter Johnson.

John McGraw’s constant bullying of umpires and complaints that everyone was out to get the Giants had alienated fans in the league’s seven other cities. Over time, his behavior came to alienate and drive away a significant number of New Yorkers. Yet despite the defections, New York had remained a strong National League town through the end of the First World War. That began to change when the Yankees became serious pennant contenders in 1919 and accelerated with the coming of Babe Ruth to New York in 1920. Ruth’s arrival had won new converts for the Yanks and the American League. On the eve of the 1921 Series, New York was evenly divided in its sentiment. “A few years ago, the Giants had the big following in New York, and the Yankees were given little consideration. McGraw and his men have still as great a grip on one part of fandom as any Giant team of the past had, but in the meantime, a new army of fans has rallied to the Yankee standard where there once was a scattering few.”8

Sid Mercer of the New York Evening Journal also recognized the inroads made by Yankee rooters and credited Ruth for bringing it about. “This is a National League town. 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.”9

Unlike in future years, when rooting for one New York team meant rooting against the others, many New Yorkers had been happy to see both teams win. New York fans wanted and demanded winning teams, and they had not had a pennant winner since the Giants in 1917. The Brooklyn Dodgers had won the National League pennant in 1920, but that World Series had not generated much interest or excitement in New York.10 People in Manhattan just could not get very enthused about a team from Brooklyn.

When the Dodgers reached that Series to play the Cleveland Indians, one New York newspaper noted in an editorial that “the honor will go to a new city.”11 Another paper sarcastically editorialized that there would be a World Series “in town,” if Brooklyn would concede that “Manhattan is part of New York and admit the inhabitants of this inconsiderable suburb to a humble share in their triumph.”12 Should Brooklyn repeat as National League champions in 1921, “there’d be nothing but thick gloom from the Statue of Liberty to Westchester County,” unless the Yankees thrashed them in the World Series, wrote sportswriter Joe Vila.13 This year was different. New York fans were certain of one thing: for the first time since Christy Mathewson and 1905, a New York team would be baseball’s world champions.

The cleaner brand of play in the American League, along with its star-studded rosters, contributed to the Yankees gaining a foothold in New York.14 Nevertheless, the overwhelming factor was the addition of Ruth. The bigger-than-life Babe, now playing on the nation’s biggest stage, won the hearts of New Yorkers immediately. After having hit 29 home runs—a record at that time—with the Boston Red Sox in 1919, Ruth shattered that mark with an unprecedented 54 in 1920, more than any other team in the American League and thirty-five more than runner-up George Sisler. He also led by similarly large margins in runs scored, runs batted in, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and walks.

Yet despite the Babe’s accomplishments, McGraw remained defiant, convinced 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.”15

Despite McGraw’s disdain for Ruth, the Babe had impressed him since he first saw the young slugger back in 1914, when the Giants were playing a spring-training game against the International League Baltimore Orioles. Ruth was, of course, a pitcher then; and McGraw envisioned him someday pitching for the Giants. When Orioles owner Jack Dunn sold Ruth to the Red Sox without even contacting him, McGraw was so upset he never forgave his old Baltimore teammate.16 Nor, seemingly, did McGraw ever again have a kind word to say about Ruth. In the spring of 1919, Ruth was pestering Red Sox manager Ed Barrow to allow him to play every day. “If he plays every day,” said McGraw, “the bum will hit into a hundred double plays before the season is over.”17 The Red Sox and Giants played a series of exhibition games that spring, and whenever Ruth had a hit he would direct a “How’s that for a double-play ball, Mac?” at the Giants’ bench.18 Now a full-time outfielder, Ruth had almost single-handedly begun changing the game from the old-style inside baseball practiced by McGraw to one that featured power hitting and home runs.19 McGraw had been the embodiment of that old style of play, a low-scoring, scientific game that had prevailed in baseball since the turn of the century, a game dominated by pitchers, many of whom threw “trick” pitches, a game where a walk, a stolen base, and a couple of sacrifices would scratch out a precious run.20 Even the introduction of the cork-centered baseball in 1910 had not changed the style of play.

Ruth did. The Babe represented the new power-hitting game, where one swing of the bat generated runs. Twenty-five major leaguers had slugged ten or more home runs in 1921, a steep increase from the usual three or four who had done so during a typical year of the Deadball Era. As recently as 1917, Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp had led the American League with nine home runs.

McGraw hated this new style of play. “I do not like the lively ball,” he said. “I think the game far more interesting when the art of making scores lies in scientific work on the bases.” He believed that while fans liked to see home runs hit, there were times when they got weary of the long ball.21

THE STAGE IS SET

But evidently, the fans were not getting weary of it. More than one million of them had paid their way into the Polo Grounds in 1920 to watch the Ruth-led Yankees stay in contention all season before finishing third, behind the Chicago White Sox and the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians. The Yankees’ failure to win that year emboldened those in the New York press who had never cared for manager Miller Huggins to call for his removal, just as they had after the 1919 season.

Huggins also had to deal with unrest among his own players, who often second-guessed his moves. Yankees co-owner Tillinghast “Til” Huston was in favor of firing Huggins, but his partner, Jacob Ruppert, had faith in Huggins and wanted him to remain. Ruppert had prevailed, and now Huggins had rewarded him and Huston with the Yankees’ first American League pennant.

While The Sporting News complained in an October 13 editorial that “baseball is a national game, not just a diversion for Manhattanites,” the Detroit News more accurately reflected the opinions of baseball fans everywhere: “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.”22

The Giants had finished in second place in each of the three preceding seasons. Over that same period, the Yankees, under Huggins and with the addition of Ruth in 1920, had become legitimate pennant contenders. As a result, supporters of both teams had spent countless 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.23 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. From a vantage point ninety miles away, 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, and if the American Leaguers bring home the bacon it will mean much, very much to them 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.”24

THE BIGGEST NAMES IN THE GAME

The storyline of the 1921 World Series was succinct and direct. Two New York teams were vying for the hearts of New Yorkers, attempting to lay claim to baseball supremacy in the nation’s largest city. Two of the biggest personalities in the history of the game were leading these teams into the Series. “Big Series Resolves Itself to Question of Ruth versus McGraw,” read the headline in the Boston Herald.25

In addition to having taken New York by storm the past two seasons, Babe Ruth had captured the attention of people throughout the country, and not only of baseball fans. He did so in part with his record-setting home run feats. But he had much more—an exuberant joie de vivre and behavior that pushed conventional boundaries. Both were made to order for the early 1920s, a time of breaking free from constraints and having a good time.

Ruth was so genuine and so unbridled in his enthusiasm for baseball and for life that his drinking and carousing only added to his allure. Grantland Rice captured the Babe’s persona well when he wrote, “Ruth, the man-boy, was the complete embodiment of everything uninhibited.”26 After the devastating Great War, Americans wanted to enjoy themselves. Sports became “an American obsession,” and celebrities (in sports and in entertainment) became the focus of great attention and adulation.27

In a time of increasing urbanization and mass production, the Babe was one of the biggest and most inimitable heroes of the times, one who appealed to people of all ages. He was “a screaming symbol, saying ‘I won’t go’—to some, the last gasp of the rugged individual.”28

Ford Frick was a young New York sportswriter who covered the Yankees in the 1920s and would serve as the commissioner of baseball from 1951 to 1965. Frick knew Ruth well and even was one of the Babe’s ghostwriters. “Most of us lack the nerve to defy the conventions which we secretly detest. When we find a man who has such nerve, then we put him on a pedestal of notoriety. While we question his judgment at times, we admire his daring and his originality. That’s Babe Ruth.”29 This was the man who would spearhead the Yankees’ attack in the upcoming Series. New York drama and literary critic Heywood Broun conveyed Ruth’s impact, in an article in the Nation during Ruth’s first season in New York. Broun related a story about the famous New York Baptist preacher John Roach Straton (1875—1929). Straton dies and goes to heaven, where he meets the “ruler of the realm,” as thousands of fans are attending a Sunday ball game at the Polo Grounds. “Let New York be destroyed,” cries the preacher. “Delay not thy wrath.” But the ruler sees that it is the ninth inning of a tie game, with two men on base and Ruth coming to the plate. “The time has not come,” declares the King.30 While some may have found Broun’s article humorous and others may have seen it as irreverent, it resonated because of Ruth’s enormous appeal. It seemed that everyone wanted to see the Babe hit.

Everyone except John McGraw. As demeaning as the Giants’ skipper had been in the past about Ruth’s long-ball style, McGraw was a realist. A week before the postseason, he said, “It’s a tough proposition to go against Ruth. I’m not silly enough to say that my pitchers will prevent Ruth from hitting out of the park.”31 A week later, he elaborated, “We shall take no liberties with a slugger like Ruth.” McGraw made it clear that in threatening situations, he would not hesitate to walk the Babe, even though the fans would not like it. “Ruth is the man we must beat,” he declared. “I will not be swerved by any sentiment from the grandstand. It will not disturb me at all.”32

One reporter noted that Giants pitchers were not afraid of pitching to the Babe. “But, then, there are people who are not afraid of rattlesnakes, and it is a well known scientific fact that rattlesnakes bite those who are not afraid of them just as readily as those who are afraid.”33

While Giants pitchers may have been eager for the challenge of pitching to Ruth, doing so would not be their decision to make. McGraw controlled his team to such an extent that he often called every pitch from the bench. Back in the spring of 1914, after winning three straight National League pennants, McGraw spoke openly about his heavy-handed style: “It has been said of me that ‘The Giants are McGraw.’ I admit that to a great extent that is true. It is my policy to build a team that is a machine, and my relation to it is always to have my hand on the lever that controls things.”34 McGraw had given little indication in the intervening seven years that he had changed his philosophy.

*****

Analysts and prognosticators considered the Series a toss-up; and the odds, which hovered around even money, reflected the closely matched abilities of the two teams. Dan Daniel declared that this World Series between two of the gamest clubs ever was “the hardest ever to dope. To tell the truth, there is no edge either way.”35 As humorist Bugs Baer put it, “Teams look as evenly matched as [sic] set of false teeth.”36

Refusing to pick a winner, a Sporting News editorial added what has often been true in the postseason, that this Series between two such evenly matched teams might be decided by a break.37 Sam Crane observed that an obscure player often emerges as the star of the World Series. He even offered up a possible candidate, the Giants’ Johnny Rawlings, “one of the gamest men who ever played the bag [second base].”38 Fred Lieb suggested that Waite Hoyt might emerge as the star, since the Brooklyn youngster was eager to gain revenge on the Giants, who originally had signed him and then let him go.39

Hugh Fullerton presented some of the most detailed analyses of the upcoming event. He predicted that the early games would be low-scoring, with hitting taking over as the Series got deeper into the pitching rotations. He went so far as to pick the winner of each game, based on projected pitching matchups. He said the Yanks would win the first two games but would eventually lose the Series, as the Giants would win the final three contests.40

HOW THEY STACK UP

The press, which had set up headquarters at the new Commodore Hotel, made the battle between Miller Huggins’s sluggers and McGraw’s pitchers the focus of most of their stories.41 Mainly they talked about Ruth. The Babe had hit 59 home runs to break his own record set a year earlier, while also establishing new single-season major-league highs in runs (177), runs batted in (171), and total bases (457).42

Seemingly forgotten by much of the press was that the Giants also had their league’s home run leader, perhaps because George Kelly’s 23 paled next to Ruth’s 59. One exception was Harry A. Williams of the Los Angeles Times, who seemed cognizant that the Giants had some long-ball hitters of their own and predicted the Series would set a record for home runs. Then, echoing McGraw’s frustration with the long-ball style of play, Williams added, “Baseball has switched from a science to a wild scramble.”43

While the Yankees had the better hitting, the Giants had plenty of offensive weapons too. The Giants had hit 75 home runs in 1921, more than any previous two World Series opponents combined; yet it seemed hardly worth mentioning compared to the Yankees’ record-setting total of 134.44 The numbers were illuminating. The Giants hit .298 with 1,575 hits in 1921, and the Yankees hit .300 with 1,576 hits. Yet, because of their power, the Yankees scored 108 more runs—948 compared to the Giants’ 840—to set a new twentieth-century high.

The consensus was that with Art Nehf, Phil Douglas, Fred Toney, and Jesse Barnes, the Giants had better and deeper starting pitching, though their earned run average of 3.55 was only third-best in the National League, lagging behind those of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Yankees were led by veterans Carl Mays and Bob Shawkey, who won 27 and 18 games respectively, and by twenty-one-year-old newcomer Waite Hoyt, who won 19. The Yanks’ pitching staff had the lowest earned run average in the American League at 3.82.

In the dawning of the Lively Ball Era, many felt the Series would be dominated by hitting. “Playing for a run is a forgotten art,” wrote umpire-columnist Billy Evans.45 Yet John McGraw felt that some things never change, regardless of the era. “Pitching will, as it has so many times in the past, decide the championship,” he declared.46

John McGraw believed that his Giants had a stronger all-round set of starters than the Yankees had. “We are going into the series with plenty of confidence, but we are not boasting,” he said.47 Not surprisingly, Miller Huggins thought his team had the edge. In Carl Mays, whose 27 wins this season had come on the heels of 26 victories in 1920, the Yanks clearly had the best pitcher on either club. “My pitchers are all in good shape for the series with the Giants,” said the Yankee skipper. “Ruth, Meusel, and the rest of my hitters will bat their way to victory.”48

Many of those analyzing the teams’ respective strengths felt that the Giants had a big—and perhaps decisive—edge in the dugout, where they believed McGraw was clearly superior to Huggins. Sam Crane, for example, said that the Giants’ manager was more creative and more of a risk-taker, while Huggins was more deliberate and predictable.49 The Giants also had the advantage of discipline that came from their manager’s iron hand. The Yankees, on the other hand, openly challenged and disregarded their manager, often deciding on their own what to do.50 Such a style might prove fatal in a short series. Yet it seems somewhat paradoxical, if not contradictory, for sportswriters to consider the Giants the smarter and more resourceful club, when their players did little thinking on their own with McGraw pulling the levers from the dugout. William Hanna was in the distinct minority of New York reporters in recognizing Huggins’s quiet and hidden strengths. “Tactically Huggins plays second fiddle to nobody, nor is he behind anybody in quick grasp of openings,” he declared.51

New Yorkers had been talking about a Giants— Yankees World Series since spring training; and now that it was here, it gripped this normally blasé city with a sense of enthusiasm and anticipation. Finding a New York City baseball fan who had no opinion on the outcome was difficult, and finding one who professed neutrality was nearly impossible. “As a result of this family feud, Manhattan seethes tonight with arguments, debates, and scraps.”52 Even the governor, Nathan L. Miller, voiced his preference. Though he risked antagonizing millions of voters by doing so, Miller announced that he was rooting for the Giants, citing the fact that both he and McGraw were born in Cortland County, New York.53

Though not directly involved, those whose allegiance was to Brooklyn, the city’s third team, also had a rooting interest, one that centered on being for or against the Giants and had little to do with the Yankees. Some Dodger fans were for McGraw’s club simply out of loyalty to the National League. Others loathed McGraw enough to want him humbled regardless of the opposition. With Ruth now the most popular man in baseball and McGraw perhaps the most hated, there was no doubt the vast majority of fans in other cities across America were hoping for a Yankees victory.

While there was some muttering that an all—New York Series would not generate much interest across the country, the unprecedented crush for press credentials and game tickets belied such comments. Tickets were in such demand that Yankees co-owner Til Huston grumbled, “I know I’m going to be an unpopular cuss after this series, and the worst of it is I can’t do a thing about it.”54

BIG MONEY, LARGE CROWDS, AND SO MUCH AT STAKE

Revelations about the fixed Reds—White Sox World Series of 1919 were only a year old, as news of the plot had first surfaced in September 1920. Nevertheless, there was extremely heavy betting on the Series, and the press reported it in detail.55 Professional gamblers gave the Yankees a slight edge based on their superior offense; but because bettors considered the teams evenly matched, both clubs had vast amounts of money wagered on them.

With Nehf and Mays expected as the probable Game 1 starters, there was a last-minute switch in the odds to favor the Giants. The thinking behind this shift was that bettors felt that if Nehf lost the opener, the Giants could come back, but if Mays lost it, the Yankees could not.

No less an authority on baseball gambling than Hugh Fullerton, the Chicago reporter who broke the story of the 1919 World Series fix, reported in his syndicated column that this 1921 World Series was seeing the heaviest postseason betting ever.56 The pro-professionals who ran the gambling establishments went even further than Fullerton. They felt certain that the amount of money wagered on the 1921 World Series would exceed that of any previous sporting event.

Almost hourly the odds shifted back and forth, as money poured into the various gambling venues around the city. Newspapers reported the odds given and the individual bets placed on Wall Street; along Broadway; at the Jamaica, New York, racetrack; and at various well-known betting parlors.57 A number of bets centered on Ruth himself—such as, Who would get more walks in the Series, Babe Ruth or the entire New York Giants’ team?

Among those professional gamblers monitoring the betting was Arnold Rothstein, acknowledged by observers as the only gambler who had the brains, bankroll, and chutzpah to devise such a scheme as fixing a World Series. Yet, in a ludicrous miscarriage of justice, Rothstein had recently avoided indictment for any involvement in the 1919 fix.

Rumors along Broadway indicated that Rothstein was betting on the Giants to defeat the Yankees. Given his involvement in some shady dealings with Giants owner Charles Stoneham and his onetime partnership with McGraw in a billiards parlor, Rothstein might have been expected to be backing the Giants. If he was, it would not be for any reasons of friendship or sentiment. Arnold Rothstein’s only sentiment was for money, so his “rooting” interest would lie only where there was money to be made.

Interest in the Series extended even to Paris, France, home to a growing American expatriate colony disproportionately made up of people with ties to New York. The Longchamps racetrack reported that among Parisian bettors the Yankees were slightly favored, just as they were among New Yorkers.

Meanwhile, back home, as the two teams prepared to do battle at the Polo Grounds, the New York City Police Department was making preparations of its own. The police had experience handling Sunday and holiday games at the Polo Grounds, but they suspected an exceptional crush of fans would attempt to purchase gameday tickets. Their job would be to get the spectators in and out of the park as efficiently as possible while dispersing the overflow crowd unable to get in. Aware of the excitement this first all—New York World Series was generating and knowing how exhilarated the fans were about it, the police department assigned three hundred men to the job of maintaining order, the largest police contingent ever assigned to any ballpark.

Inspector Cornelius F. Cahalane was in charge of this huge force, whose primary duty would be to maintain order among the crowds in line for the 20,000 unsold seats. The remaining seats consisted of 9,000 in the unreserved upper deck, priced at $3.30, and 11,000 bleacher seats, which sold for $1.10.58 Strips of reserved-seat tickets to four games had a face value of $22.00 ($5.50 each), and the scalpers were getting between $44.00 and $60.00 for the set of four.59

Additionally, the police would be responsible for controlling and directing the ever-growing number of people coming to the park by automobile. However, once the fans were in the park, the police department’s responsibilities would end. The custom in New York was to not have uniformed policemen inside the park but rather to have employees of the home team responsible for crowd control. Plainclothes detectives would also be present, mainly to look for ticket speculators. Capacity crowds of about 37,000 were expected for each game; but because of the large police presence and “the usual good nature of New York crowds,” no trouble was expected at the games.60

For the limited few with access to the new wireless technology of radio, stations WJZ in Newark, New Jersey, and WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts, would be broadcasting the games. Station KDKA in Pittsburgh had done the first broadcast of a baseball game—a Pirates—Phillies game on August 5, 1921; but this would be the first time World Series games would be “on the air.” More fans would follow the games via a medium that had become popular in many of the nation’s biggest cities. Several New York City newspapers had set up boards outside their offices that would allow thousands of people in the streets to follow the play-by-play action.

Baseball’s first World Series, back in 1903, had been a best-of-nine affair. There was no Series in 1904, thanks to the intransigence of McGraw and Brush; but all those between 1905 and 1918 had been best of seven. With the 1919 regular-season schedule reduced from 154 games to 140, the leagues revived the nine-game format for the Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox; and continued in 1920 for the Cleveland—Brooklyn Series, even though both leagues had returned to the 154-game schedule. The 1921 season repeated the nine-game format for what would be the final time.

In 1919 the scheduled sequence of games had been two at Cincinnati, three at Chicago, two at Cincinnati, and two at Chicago. In 1920, it was three at Brooklyn, four at Cleveland, and two back at Brooklyn. But because all the games of the 1921 World Series would be played at the same park, the Polo Grounds, there would be no off days; and the Giants and the Yankees would simply alternate as the home team.61 The Giants would assume that role in Games 1, 3, 5, and 7; and the Yankees, in Games 2, 4, 6, and 8. As such, the home team would wear their home whites, occupy the first base dugout, and bat last. The home team for a ninth game, if needed, had not yet been addressed.62

New Yorkers could revel in an all—New York City World Series, with the world champion sure to come from the city. Just a year earlier, Brooklyn had represented the National League, but that was different. As The Sporting News editorialized, “The distinctive Gotham obsession is that anything bearing the New York label is or should be the only thing worthwhile—and both ball clubs of late years have been incorporated as part of New York’s best in everything. Brooklyn is the more populous borough, but it is not and never will be ‘New York.’”63

Back in 1915, Miller Huggins was a third-year manager who had led the Cardinals to a surprising third-place finish in 1914. No less an authority than John McGraw was impressed with the young skipper: “Miller Huggins is my ideal of a real leader. He can take a player who has shown only a mediocre supply of ability on some team and transform him into a star with his club   He will make a high mark as a manager in baseball one of these days.”64

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.”65 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.”

This was more than a civil war, even more than what Judge Landis called a “historic occasion” in “the greatest city in the country.”66 Joe Vila wrote of the significance of this Series for the two franchises: “The New York teams must battle not only for gold, but for the magnetism that goes with victory New Yorkers have little use for losers. That is why the clans of McGraw, and Huggins now are prepared for a desperate grapple.”67 

 

Acknowledgments

This article by Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg is excerpted from their book 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York, which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in spring 2010.

 

Notes

  1. On July 2, 1921, Dempsey defended his title by knocking out Carpentier in the fourth round at Jersey City. The fight drew more than 90,000 people; and the gate, estimated at more than $1.6 million, was the first million-dollar gate in boxing history.
  1. Shortly after McGraw’s announcement, Chicago Cubs president Jim Hart announced that, should his team win the pennant, they too would refuse to play against the American League in a World Series.
  2. When the new American League began to challenge the established National League in 1901, John McGraw became the manager of the American League’s Baltimore But McGraw, a product of the rough-and-tumble National League of the 1890s, had problems with the strict discipline imposed by AL president Ban Johnson. In mid-1902 McGraw abandoned the Orioles and the American League and signed to manage the New York Giants of the National League. McGraw’s desertion was a big part of the collapse of the Baltimore franchise. The next year, the club moved to New York and began playing at Hilltop Park.
  3. The Sporting News, 13 October 1906.
  4. Originally, this postseason matchup was called the World’s Championship While the s had dropped off the first word by 1921 and the middle word had been dropped, leaving the event as simply the World Series, some reporters still used the older name. The Reach Guide used World’s Series through 1930, and The Sporting News used it from 1942 to 1963.
  5. That Ruth was the game’s greatest attraction is Yet a profile in the New Yorker of March 28, 1925, began with these two sentences: “John McGraw is baseball. He is the incarnation of the American national sport.”
  6. Andrew Goldblatt, The Giants and the Dodgers: Four Cities, Two Teams, One Rivalry (Jefferson, C.: McFarland, 2003), 27.
  7. New York Times, 2 October 1921.
  8. Sid Mercer, New York Evening Journal, 3 October 1921.
  9. Although the team was known as the Dodgers for most of their years in Brooklyn, some newspapers called them the Robins during Wilbert Robinson’s tenure as manager (1914—31) as a mark of respect for Robinson.
  10. New York World, 4 October 1920.
  11. New York Times, 4 October 1920.
  12. Joe Vila, quoted in The Giants and the Dodgers: The Fabulous Story of Baseballs Fiercest Feud, by Lee Allen (New York: Putnam, 1964), 113—14.
  13. In his effort to incorporate a different culture in the American League, President Johnson included these strictures in a May 8, 1901, directive to all club owners in his league: “Clean Ball is the Main Plank in the American League platform, and the clubs must stand by it There must be no profanity on the ball field. The umpires are agents of the League and must be treated with respect. I will suspend any Manager or player who uses profane or vulgar language to an Umpire, and that suspension shall remain in force until such time as the offender can learn to bridle his tongue. Rowdyism and profanity have worked untold injury to baseball. To permit it would blight the future of the American League.” Jonathan Fraser Light, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997), 22.
  14. Noel Hynd, The Giants of the Polo Grounds (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 220.
  15. Robert Creamer, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (New York: Penguin, 1974), p. 82. Creamer claims that when Dunn tried to sell Lefty Grove to the Giants, McGraw would have nothing to do with the Orioles, and so Dunn sold Grove to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. Dunn may have sold Ruth to Boston as a gesture of appreciation toward Joseph Lannin, the owner of the Red Sox. Lannin had helped save the International League during the Federal League war with his financial backing of the Buffalo and Providence clubs and by helping Dunn meet his payroll in Baltimore. Babe Ruth, as told to Bob Considine, The Babe Ruth Story (New York: P. Dutton, 1948), 31.
  1. Creamer, Babe, 190.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ruth pitched one game for the Yankees in 1920 and two in 1921.
  4. McGraw did not use the sacrifice bunt as much as other The Giants’ 166 sacrifice hits in 1921 were the third-lowest in the National League and were 23 fewer than the Yankees. Tris Speaker’s Cleveland Indians led both leagues in sacrifice hits in 1921 with 232. To advance runners, McGraw preferred to use the hit-and-run, an offensive tactic introduced by the Baltimore Orioles teams he played on in the 1890s. See Charlie Bevis, Sunday Baseball: The Major Leagues’ Struggle to Play Baseball on the Lord’s Day, 1876—1934 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003).
  5. John McGraw, My Thirty Years in Baseball (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, 1995), 207. (Originally published—New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923.)
  6. Editorial, The Sporting News, 13 October 1921; and Detroit News, 5 October 1921.
  7. The New York Giants of the National League did play the Brooklyn Bridegrooms of the American Association in the 1889 postseason. However, Brooklyn was not part of New York City at that time. The Giants, led by home run slugger Roger Connor, won the Series, 6—3.
  8. Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 October 1921.
  9. Boston Herald, 4 October 1921.
  10. Grantland Rice, The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sport (New York: S. Barnes, 1954), 114.
  11. Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (New York: Perennial Classics, 2000), (Originally published—New York: Harper and Row, 1931. See also Frederick Lewis Allen, The Big Change: America Transforms Itself, 1900—1950 [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952], 133.)
  12. Richard Crepeau, Baseball: America’s Diamond Mind, 1919—1941 (Orlando: University Presses of Florida, 1980), 91.
  1. Ford Frick, New York Evening Journal, 19 June 1924.
  2. Broun, “A Bolt from the Blue,” Nation, 21 July 1920, In the early twentieth century, religious conservatives known as Sabbatarians believed Sunday should be a day of religious observance, not to be desecrated by professional baseball games. The Sabbatarians led the battle against Sunday baseball, but the ban was slowly overturned state by state, with Pennsylvania the last state to relent, late in 1933. See Charlie Bevis, (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003).
  3. St. Louis Times, 28 September 1921.
  4. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5 October 1921; and St. Louis Times, 5 October 1921.
  5. Harry Cross, New York Evening Post, 5 October 1921.
  6. Baltimore Sun, 31 May 1914.
  7. Dan Daniel, New York Herald, 3 October 1921.
  8. Bugs Baer, New York American, 4 October 1921.
  9. Editorial, The Sporting News, 6 October 1921.
  10. Sam Crane, New York Evening Journal, 4 October 1921.
  11. Fred Lieb, New York Evening Telegram, 2 October 1921.
  12. Hugh Fullerton, Atlanta Constitution, 29 September 1921.
  13. Built in 1920 at the corner of East 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, the Commodore Hotel was named for Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.
  14. Ruth’s 457 total bases is still the Major League His 177 runs scored is still the American League record and the post-1900 major- league record.
  15. Harry Williams, Los Angeles Times, 5 October 1921.
  16. The 63 home runs by World Series foes Cleveland (35) and Brooklyn (28) in 1920 had set the record that the Yankees and Giants, with 209, obliterated in 1921.
  17. Billy Evans, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 October 1921.
  18. New York Times, 2 October 1921.
  19. New York Times, 2 October 1921.
  20. Washington Post, 3 October 1921.
  21. Sam Crane, New York Evening Journal, 2 October 1921.
  22. G. Salsinger, Detroit News, 5 October 1921.
  23. William Hanna, New York Herald, 2 October 1921.
  24. Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 October 1921.
  25. Cortland is a small rural county situated between Syracuse, Ithaca, and Binghamton.
  26. New York Evening Journal, 1 October 1921.
  27. The New York Times on October 3 reported that stockbroker James O’Brien was hosting a dinner at the Ambassador Hotel that night to celebrate his winning $100,000 for successfully picking the Yankees and Giants at odds of 4—1 to win their leagues’ pennants back in July when neither club was in the lead.
  1. Hugh Fullerton, New York Evening Mail, 8 October 1921.
  2. Although gambling was illegal in New York, the law, like Prohibition, was openly And, again like Prohibition, it was protected by Tammany Hall—controlled judges and police.
  3. The higher-priced $6.60 box seats and $5.50 reserved lower-grandstand seats had sold out quickly.
  4. Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2 October 1921.
  5. New York Times, 2 October 1921.
  6. This was the first time that all games of the World Series would be played at the same The second time would be the following year, 1922, when the Yankees and Giants would repeat as pennant winners. The third and last time would be in 1944, when the St. Louis Browns and the St. Louis Cardinals played all the games at Sportsman’s Park, the home field they shared.
  7. After Game 7 the commissioner would hold a coin toss at the Giants’ office in the Polo Grounds that would determine the home team if a ninth game was needed. Commissioner Landis flipped the coin, and the Giants won.
  1. Editorial, The Sporting News, 22 September 1921.
  2. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 June 1915.
  3. The Sporting News, 22 September 1921.
  4. New York Times, 4 October 1921.
  5. Joe Vila, New York Sun, 5 October 1921.

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