The 1922 Browns-Yankees Pennant Race

This article was written by Paul Greenwell

This article was published in the 1979 Baseball Research Journal


Other pennant races have been undecided longer, had more participants, and perhaps other cities have been as involved with their teams as was St. Louis in 1922, but for the lasting effect it had on the future of a franchise, probably no race could match the impact of the one between the New York Yankees and the Browns culminating with the September 16-18 showdown in St. Louis. Not only did the Browns lose the pennant but also the long-standing loyalty of the fans in St. Louis. This would lead to near financial ruin in the 30’s and eventually to a total loss of the franchise 31 years later.

The Yanks of 1922, fresh off their first pennant, were loaded with talent and were favorites to repeat despite the six-week suspension of Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel at the start of the season. This was because of their post-season exhibition play in 1921, a violation of existing rules. Besides returners like  Ruth, Meusel, and pitching ace Bob Shawkey, the New Yorkers had plucked pitcher Joe Bush and shortstop Everett Scott from the Red Sox in a poorly disguised plan to keep Sox owner Harry Frazee’s non-baseball ventures alive. The final blow came on June 26 with the purchase from Boston of third baseman Joe Dugan to replace the injured Frank Baker and ineffective Mike McNally, a move which caused total 0utrage in St. Louis and set the stage for the showdown in September.

This was clearly the greatest Browns team. Besides the acknowledged superstar first baseman George Sisler, the Browns were loaded with quality players who, despite not having long careers, were peaking in 1922 and blended into a powerful offensive machine. From his clean-up spot just behind Sisler, Kenny Williams had developed into a bonafide slugger whose 39 homers and 155 RBIs led the league. Williams also stole 37 bases, to finish second to Sisler in that category. Centerfielder “Baby Doll” Jacobson hit behind Kenny Williams and drove in 102 runs while covering the outfield superbly. The third outfielder, Johnny Tobin, was the lone holdover from the St. Louis defunct Federal League entry and hit .331 while pounding 13 homers from his leadoff spot. The Browns keystone combo of Marty McManus at second and Wally Gerber played a solid defensive game although McManus at .312 was clearly the better hitter. Hank Severied, an excellent hitting veteran, did the catching and batted .321. This was one of the few teams in history with four hitters having 100 RBIs. Over all, the Browns led the league in runs, hitting, and stolen bases.

The pitching staff, led by Urban Shocker’s 24 wins and Elam Vangilder who was having his best year at 19-13, received excellent help from starters Dixie Davis and Ray Kolp, plus rookie relief ace and occasional starter Hub Pruett. They led all other American League teams in strikeouts, earned run average, and saves, although the lack of depth was later used as an excuse for losing the pennant.

Of all the Browns, however, none could compare with the 29 year-old George Sisler. An incredible .420 average with 246 hits, 134 runs, 51 stolen bases and the league MVP award only begin to tell the story. During the heat of the race and despite a serious arm/shoulder injury, he compiled a 41-game hitting streak into late September which broke Ty Cobb’s 40-game streak of 1911. (Interestingly enough Kenny Williams had a 28-game streak the same year and Rogers Hornsby of the Cardinals had a 33-game streak in 1922 which stood as the National League modern record until Tommy Holmes hit in 37 straight in 1945.) By the end of 1922 Sisler had a lifetime average of .361, but sinus trouble led to eye problems which caused him to miss all of the 1923 season and plagued him throughout his career.

The Yanks minus Ruth and Meusel jumped from the gate winning 22 of 33, actually playing better before they returned. Lee Fold as manager of the Browns also had his club break fast and the two teams quickly left the pack behind. The Brownies got hot in early June and took over first place until July 28 when the acquisitions of Dugan and Scott began to take effect.

When the Browns blew a four run lead in the ninth inning of an August 30 game against Tris Speaker’s Indians, the club had slipped to 2½ games back with 26 left to play. Five days later however, after winning four of five  and watching the New Yorkers drop three of four with Babe Ruth sitting out his fifth suspension of the season, the Browns moved back into first place by 1/2 game. Nearly as much interest was directed at the George Sisler hitting streak which by now had reached 35 games.

The Yankees played their last home game on September 11 before the largest crowd in their history at that time with 40,000 inside the Polo Grounds and another 25,000 turned away. This was the last regular season American League game played in the Polo Grounds, with Yankee Stadium opening the following spring. The Yanks thus faced playing their last 18 games on the road.

On September 13 the Browns announced George Sisler had severely sprained ligaments, couldn’t lift his right arm above his head, and might miss the rest of the season, a critical question for his 39-game hitting streak and particularly his club’s pennant hopes. Ironically, Sisler had injured his arm in an attempt to catch a throw on a ball hit by Ty Cobb, whose consecutive game hitting streak he was attempting to break.

Four games away from the big St. Louis-New York series, Everett Scott, the Yankee shortstop, had his own unusual problems. With his 970 consecutive games playing streak in jeopardy because he had missed the train, Scott was forced to take a bus from Gary, Indiana to Chicago to make the Yanks-White Sox doubleheader. At that time this was the longest playing streak in baseball history and would not be broken until Lou Gehrig came along.

As the big series neared, the fans in St. Louis became increasingly excited with tickets going for $45 each via the scalpers. On game day, fully 30,000 persons paid their way into tiny Sportsmans Park which was then designed to hold only 15,000.

Attention naturally centered on Sisler who had already missed several games causing his streak to be frozen at 39. When Sisler appeared from the dugout the crowd “burst forth with incredible excitement and had to be held back by mounted police”. Sisler was playing, the Browns were playing their last 12 games at home and suddenly the Yanks’ half-game lead seemed awfully small.

The Yanks sent their leading pitcher, Bob Shawkey, against Urban Shocker, the Brownie ace. After Sisler extended his streak to 40, the New Yorkers moved ahead 2-1, and when Sisler, swinging poorly due to his injury, bounced into a rally ending doubleplay in the sixth, Shawkey caught his second wind and began mowing down St. Louis. To begin the bottom of the ninth Yankee centerfielder Whitey Witt was tracking a medium deep fly ball to right-center when he was struck on the head by a flying soda bottle from the stands. Immediately the crowd emptied onto the field. As order was restored and Witt was carried from the field bleeding badly, a crucial change in the attitude of the fans occurred. Much of the hostile crowd actually began cheering for the Yanks to secure victory which they quickly did.

As Sisler later stated, “The bottle throwing had taken the heart out of the Browns.” League officials were outraged. Ban Johnson offered $1000 for the arrest and conviction of the culprit and the local papers had front page pictures of Witt from his hospital bed. Although several well-regarded sources stated the bottle had been thrown by a small boy who may have been trying to hit the ball and not Witt, there was another explanation. Johnson later awarded two World Series tickets to a gentlemen who wrote saying that Witt had stepped on the bottle, already laying in the outfield, and it had bounced up and hit him on the forehead!

The next day the Browns rebounded before an even larger crowd behind Hub Pruett, the rookie lefty who gained his reputation striking out Babe Ruth. In his ten at bats against Pruett before this game Ruth had struck out nine times and was hitless. It seems odd that in one of his biggest wins ever Pruett would lose his total mastery over the Babe who homered in the 5-1 loss. As Ruth rounded the bases in total silence, a straw hat was thrown at his feet and he ceremoniously wore it back to the dugout. Sisler extended his streak to 41 eclipsing the Cobb mark and establishing a record that stood until the incredible DiMaggio streak in 1941.

The final game of the series would decide whether or not the Yanks would leave town in first place and as far as the St. Louis fans were concerned, the pennant.

Manager Miller Huggins was working his righthander Joe Bush against Dixie Davis, a late replacement for Elam Vangilder. The righthander Davis was the complete master for seven innings and led 2-0. A two-out error allowed one run to score in the eighth and the Browns led by one going into the fatal ninth, an inning which would live forever in the hearts of Brownie fans. Wally Schang singled off Davis’ glove and after Severeid had committed a passed ball, Lee Fohl quickly removed Davis in favor of Pruett, a move for which he was to be second guessed for years. Despite pitching a great game the previous day Pruett had missed much action due to a sore arm. The Yanks sent Mike McNally up to hit, and when Severeid made a poor throw to third on his bunt, the Yanks had runners on first and third with none out. Pruett then walked Everett Scott and Fohl quickly went to Urban Shocker the first game starter. After retiring Joe Bush, a good hitting pitcher, disaster struck when Whitey Witt, his head still bandaged from the first game bottle incident, singled to center scoring two runs and the Yanks led 3-2. The only consolation was George Sisler having one final shot at extending his 41 game hitting streak. When he was retired in the ninth, the season was as good as over for the Browns.

Despite the favorable schedule remaining, the absence of Sisler for several games after this series due to the arm injury was too much to overcome. Three days later, when Babe Ruth had saved his third game of the month with a late inning throw, the Brownies trailed by 3½ games with only six to play. Perhaps more interesting was the St. Louis attendance which had slipped to 2000. Clearly the fans had deserted.

With five games left, the Yankees needed only one victory or a St.Louis loss to clinch the flag. They dropped the final game of a series in Cleveland to the fourth-place Indians and the first two with last place Boston before clinching with a 3-1 win. After losing their finale in Washington, the Yankees were only one game up in the standings over the Browns who had won their last five.

The Browns were not to be close again until their war-time contingent finally won the American League title in 1944.

The sharply declining attendance near year-end in St. Louis was unfortunately a preview of things to come. During 1922 the Browns drew 713,000, which was second to the Yankees. By early spring the following year the absence of Sisler coupled with the collapse of the pitching staff was adding to the Browns problems. As summer progressed, attendance continued to fade, and by year-end the decline was 40% from 1922.

Unfortunately for the Brownies, the Cardinal farm system as designed by Branch Rickey was quickly taking hold in 1923. By 1926 the National Leaguers were the World Champions and were outdrawing the Browns by 2 to 1. The fans had obviously made their choice.

Things became progressively worse for the Browns during the depression and the loss of owner Phil Ball only added to the problems. Between 1930 and 1939 the Browns were to draw an average of only 115,000 per year or a total of 1,115,000; this 10-year figure was nearly exceeded by Baltimore the first year it took the franchise in 1954.

 

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