The “Little World Series” of 1922: The Most Heartbreaking Loss in St. Louis Baseball History

This article was written by Steve Steinberg

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 28, 2008)


“How about the Browns?” “Have they really a chance?”

“Do you think they’ll cop that old pennant?”

“Are they going to steam us up like this and then blow?”

Everywhere you go you hear such questions. The barber asks the customer, the elevator man asks the newsboy, bank tellers can’t cash a check without some gloomy or optimistic remark. The butcher boy talks so much baseball he brings you the liver meant for the neighbor’s bull pup. Caddies aren’t worth their hire. They gather under each tree and are so busy arguing about the Browns that they lose a ball on every fairway. Conductors are so busy craning their necks at sport finals that they don’t notice if you give them last week’s transfer or drop a cent into the box instead of a token.

Baseball and the Browns have taken hold of the city. From now until the affair is settled one way or the other everything must be relegated to the classification of nonessential industry.

—Roy Stockton, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 8, 1922

 

In 1922, the defending American League champion New York Yankees and the St. Louis Browns battled for first place all season long. The pennant was at stake when the Yanks came to the Mound City for a three-game series in mid-September, with only a half-game lead over the Browns. The third game of what was called the “Little World Series” was played before an enormous crowd at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. With first place and ultimately the AL pennant at stake (the teams split the first two contests), the game and its finish had incredible drama, including five late-inning bad breaks that saw the game slip away from the Browns. It was arguably the most heartbreaking loss in St. Louis baseball history. “It was one of the most nerve-racking finishes ever flaunted before a St. Louis public,” John B. Sheridan wrote in the Globe-Democrat. “That one inning will remain indelible in the memory of the fans who witnessed it—to the grave. It was a nightmare.”1

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Browns, not the Cardinals, were usually the better and more popular St. Louis team, as reflected in their records and attendance figures. Neither team had won a pennant, though the Browns were in the pennant races of 1902 and 1908 into September, and the Cards challenged late in 1914, until the Miracle Boston Braves blew past them and the New York Giants that September.2 Now in 1922, both St. Louis teams were fighting for the pennant. In early August they were both in first place for a number of days. While the Cards would fade and finish tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for third place in the National League, the Browns would fall just one game short of the 1922 AL pennant. This Browns team was probably the strongest ever, even more so than the 1944 pennant winner. The best-hitting team in baseball in 1922—they led the majors in runs scored (867), batting average (.313), on-base percentage (.372), and slugging percentage (.455)—was complemented by, surprisingly, the best pitching staff, which led the majors with the lowest earned run average (3.38) and the most strikeouts (534).

*****

It was a see-saw race all season long, with the Browns and Yankees trading first place. The Yanks faced the first six weeks of the season without their slugging outfielders, Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel, who had been suspended by Commissioner Landis for barnstorming after the 1921 World Series, in contravention of a baseball rule. When they returned to action at the Polo Grounds on May 20, it was, ironically, against Urban Shocker and the Browns. The former Yankee pitcher, who loved besting his old team, beat the Yanks and handcuffed Ruth, who failed to get the ball out of the infield. As the season went on, the Babe was suspended a few times for arguing with umpires.

The Yankees were also fighting among themselves. On several occasions during the season, fisticuffs in their dugout were witnessed by fans. And a faction on the team was working to undermine their own beleaguered manager, Miller Huggins, whom team co-owner Til Huston had wanted to replace ever since he was hired before the 1918 season. Yet the Yankees stayed in the race because of their pitching, primarily what they had acquired from the Boston Red Sox in trades in the past three years.3 Former Boston stars Joe Bush, Waite Hoyt, Sam Jones, and Carl Mays were among baseball’s best hurlers. They would win 76 percent of the Yankees’ victories (71 of 94 wins) in 1922 and 63 percent (62 of 98 wins) in 1923.

The Yankees (and the New York Giants, for that matter) had generated a lot of criticism from their rivals for using their deep pockets to corner the market for talent and “buy” pennants. In late July 1922, the Yankees generated even more condemnation, with most of the howls emanating from St. Louis, when they acquired star third baseman Joe Dugan (along with Elmer Smith) from the Red Sox for four lesser players and $50,000. This shored up one position where the Yanks were really weak, with the aging Frank “Home Run” Baker slowing down and hobbled by an injury in what would be his final big-league season.4 Typical was the comment of Ed Wray in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The New York team, by right of present possession and future purchase, will endeavor to surround all the available stars of the big league world.”5 Veteran New York sportswriter Sid Mercer captured the mood of Missourians when he wrote on the eve of the series, “The populace is aflame with civic pride and righteous resentment against the moneybags of the East as typified by the expensive cast of the Yankees.”6

As the Yankees arrived in St. Louis with their half-game lead over the Browns, the New York press was concerned about the St. Louis fans, who had a reputation for being very “demonstrative” against their teams’ opponents and umpires. “All they [the Yanks] ask for is protection from the bottle and cushion throwers, for which St. Louis is famous,” wrote the Globe.7 Browns owner Phil Ball had additional field boxes constructed, probably figuring they would serve him well when his team reached the World Series. Sportsman’s Park was to have a crowd of close to 30,000 for each of the games, including almost 10,000 behind ropes in the outfield, “making a farce of what should be the greatest series of the season to date.”8 Still, the demand for tickets was not sated. The New York American noted that ticket scalpers had appeared in St. Louis for the first time for this series, selling tickets “for upwards of $15.”9

Both New York and St. Louis were caught up in the excitement. The Browns had never won an AL pennant, and the Yankees had captured only their first one in 1921. “Everything else,” the normally staid New York Times declared before this series, “was second [to these games]—war clouds, Armenian massacres, rail strikes, coal shortages.”10 The diminished playing field figured to make the games high-scoring affairs, with many ground-rule doubles.

St. Louis first baseman George Sisler had been on fire at the plate. He had hit safely in 39 straight games. But he had injured his shoulder in Monday’s game against Detroit, reaching for an errant throw. He had not played in the four games since then and had been taking “electric treatments” to ease the pain.11 When he came out for batting practice before the first game with New York, cheers rippled through the ballpark. It appeared that he would be in the lineup, though just how effective he would be remained a question.

*****

The first game, played on Saturday afternoon, September 16, pitted Urban Shocker against the Yankees’ Bob Shawkey. Shocker often insisted on starting twice against his former teammates, the Yankees, in a four-game series. After years of being known as a “Yankee jinx,” he had already lost to them five times that year (against four Shocker wins), though he had already extended his win total to 23. In the bottom of the ninth, with New York clinging to a 2–1 lead, Yankee center fielder Whitey Witt was hit by a pop bottle (thrown from the bleachers) and knocked unconscious as he and Meusel were going for Eddie Foster’s fly ball.

For a few seconds, as fans spilled out of the stands and the Yankees came charging out of their dugout, many with bats in hand, the game seemed in danger of slipping out of control. Police were able to regain control, perhaps because the crowd was subdued at the sight of a bloody and unconscious Witt. The incident seemed to sap the hometown fans of their will to win. Many were actually rooting for Shawkey to retire Sisler and Ken Williams to end the game. He did. Sisler said afterward that the incident “had taken the heart out of the Browns.”12 The Browns’ star, obviously bothered by his bad shoulder, did get a hit, a double, to tie Ty Cobb’s AL mark of hitting safely in 40 consecutive games.13 For the third time in 1922, the Yankees had beaten Shocker by the score of 2–1.

The front-page headlines in the New York newspaper the World proclaimed, “Rabid Fans Hurl Pop Bottles” and “Comrades Fight Mob with Bats to Reach Unconscious Player.” The Yankees won the first game, wrote Monitor in the column below, “amid scenes of riot and disorder never before seen on an American ball field.”14 Home-plate umpire Billy Evans recalled the time a St. Louis bottle had knocked him unconscious and fractured his skull in this ballpark, on September 15, 1907.

The Browns’ team doctor, Robert Hyland, said that Witt was fortunate the injury was not more severe. “The blow from the bottle caused a severe contusion, and laceration of the forehead and slight concussion of the brain,” he declared.15 Phil Ball put up a $500 reward to apprehend the bottle-thrower, saying, “Certainly it is a most deploring [sic] incident, the act of a rank sport.” League president Ban Johnson added a $1,000 reward. Yankees co-owner Colonel Huston called it “a dirty attack,” but noted that it was “the act of an individual hoodlum and not to be blamed on the St. Louis crowd.”16

He urged manager Huggins not to endanger his men: “Insist on protection for your players, and if you don’t get it, withdraw your team from the field. I don’t propose to have New York players risk their lives to play this game.”17 Ball did announce that bottled refreshments would not be sold in the bleachers for the rest of the series.

*****

The Browns won the second game on Sunday, a 5–1 five-hitter tossed by screwball pitcher Hub Pruett, who “held the slugging Yanks in the hollow of his hand,” in the words of the New York Times.18 The rookie pitcher (who would finish the season at 7–7 and a 2.33 earned run average) had handcuffed the Babe all season long, repeatedly striking him out on that fadeaway pitch. In this game Ruth finally broke through against the screwballer with a home run that gave New York a 1–0 lead in the sixth inning. There was drama in the fifth, when Whitey Witt backed into the crowd to make a catch. In the Browns’ three-run sixth, George Sisler got a hit to extend his streak to forty-one games. In the top of the eighth, umpire Billy Evans stopped play until the center-field fans tucked away their white hankies, which they had been waving, making it almost impossible for the Yankee hitters to pick up the ball. In the bottom of the inning, Ken Williams capped the Browns’ scoring with a two-run shot, his thirty-eighth home run (off Sam Jones in relief of Waite Hoyt), on his way to amassing a league-leading 39. After the game, upper-grandstand fans hurled their heavy leather seat cushions onto the open New York press box below. “The St. Louis fans certainly all have good arms,” wrote Sid Mercer, “and they are undoubtedly the most savage rooters on the major league circuit.”19

*****

The third game of the series would determine first place. Would the Yankees leave St. Louis with a 11⁄2–game lead with less than two weeks remaining in the season, or would the Browns recapture the lead, albeit by only half a game? The pennant hanging in the balance, the series finale would reach its climax with a series of moves and countermoves befitting a World Series Game 7.

The Yankees started Joe Bush, going for his twenty-fifth win. The Browns were expected to start either Elam Vangilder (who was on his way to a 19-win season) or, seeing the success that the southpaw Pruett had against the Yankee lineup, lefty Billy Bayne. But manager Lee Fohl tabbed Dixie Davis instead. Davis had made three trips to the majors without a win in the 1910s (with the 1912 Reds, 1915 White Sox, and 1918 Phillies). He joined the Browns in 1920 and won 34 games for them in 1920–21. With so much at stake, Davis responded with the game of his life.

Although a Monday game, it drew around 30,000, the biggest crowd the Browns had drawn at home all season. Long before the age of blogs and the Internet, the center-field fans somehow communicated with each other and showed up wearing white shirts. Throughout the game, they would sway back and forth, arm in arm, an effective replacement for the waving hankies.

For seven innings, Davis held the Yankees to just two hits, both of them infield hits by Witt. Bush was almost as effective; without the crowd, he too would have had a shutout. “On an open field,” New York sportswriter Frank O’Neill wrote, “Joe was never better in his long and interesting life.”20 In the fourth inning, the crowd behind the outfield ropes stepped back to let Browns outfielder Baby Doll Jacobson catch Wally Pipp’s fly ball. Yankees manager Miller Huggins jumped out of the dugout and protested that Pipp should be awarded a double. But the umpires ruled that Jacobson did not go behind the outfield ropes but fell against them. Twice during the game, Ruth tried to penetrate the wall of fans, unsuccessfully.

In the fifth inning, Jacobson’s drive into the crowd was a ground-rule double, as the crowd held firm against Witt, preventing him from making a play on the ball. It was the Browns’ first hit of the game. Marty McManus singled him to third, and Jacobson scored on Hank Severeid’s fly, for which Ruth did force himself into the crowd. In the seventh inning, Ken Williams hit a line drive that would have been an easy catch for Meusel but eluded the Babe and went into the crowd to become “another St. Louis two-bagger.”21 McManus then doubled him home, after Jacobson had sacrificed him to third. It would be the Browns’ final run of the game. At this point, the Yankees had scored but one run in 22 innings.

The eighth inning started well for the Browns, as for the first time that day Davis managed to retire Witt. Then Joe Dugan doubled for the first real hit of the game for New York. Davis then struck Ruth out on three pitches, including a curve for a called strike three—out number two. (Ruth went 0 for 4 that day and was not a factor.) Then came the first of five breaks—lucky breaks for the Yankees, bad breaks for the Browns. Wally Pipp singled off Davis’s glove. (Bad break 1.) The ball dribbled to second baseman McManus, who had no chance of throwing Pipp out, and he compounded the matter by throwing to first rather than holding onto the ball. He threw the ball away, and Dugan came in to score. (Bad break 2.) The Yankees had closed the score to 2–1. Davis then rebounded by striking out Meusel, again with a called strike three. The Browns were now just three outs away from taking back first place, but their lead had been shaved down to one run.

After Bush retired the Browns in the bottom of the eighth, Davis returned to the mound. Improbably, Yankees catcher Wally Schang got the second infield hit in two innings off Davis’s glove. (Bad break 3.) Miller Huggins now went to his bench and sent lefty Elmer Smith to the plate to pinch-hit for Aaron Ward. Smith was best known for his heroics in the 1920 World Series, when as an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians he became the first player to hit a grand slam in postseason play. Smith’s greatest value was actually as a pinch hitter—he would finish his career at 39 for 123, for a .317 batting average.22 The first pitch to Smith got away from catcher Severeid. (Bad break 4) On the passed ball, Schang moved to second.

Lee Fohl then made a move that would be discussed and analyzed for years. He decided to pull Davis. According to some accounts, Davis had weakened; the St. Louis Globe-Democrat said that Fohl had no choice, now that there was a runner in scoring position. But the Browns’ pitcher had not been hit hard. “Davis was to be pitied,” the World wrote. “He pitched a remarkable game, one entirely unexpected for him, but Fohl apparently had no confidence in him when things began to break badly.”23 Fohl later explained that what he had in mind was something different. He went for the lefty–lefty matchup, a strategy not yet commonly used in those days.24 “I took him [Davis] out because I thought we could win with the shift,” he said.25

Fohl then brought in the previous day’s pitcher, the southpaw Pruett. Roy Stockton noted that this was where most of the second-guessers were focusing: not so much on whether Davis should have been pulled but on whether Pruett was the one to have been brought in. Why not Vangilder, who won impressively on Friday, or the team’s ace, Shocker? Clearly, these observers were not considering the advantages of a lefty–lefty matchup. Vangilder and Shocker were both right-handed. Sid Keener, sports editor of the St. Louis Times, understood. “Fohl’s plan was to get Smith out of the game by calling for a southpaw.”26 In that he succeeded.

With the lefty now pitching, Huggins pulled Smith and put in the right-handed utilityman Mike McNally, who laid down a bunt. Catcher Severeid threw low and wide (to the foul side) to third, and Schang slid in safely. (Bad break 5) It was an aggressive move, going for the win, for the lead runner. A perfect throw would have nipped Schang at third. There were now two men on base, at the corners, and no one out. Pruett then walked Everett Scott on four pitches; the game accounts indicate that it was not intentional.27 Fohl now pulled Pruett for Urban Shocker, who had saved a number of games for the Browns in the past three seasons.28 Huggins decided to let Joe Bush, a good hitter, bat for himself. (A career .253 hitter with seven home runs and 59 doubles, Bush hit .325 in 1921 and .326 in 1922.) He grounded to McManus, who threw home. The throw was in the dirt, but Severeid got it on the first bounce to force Schang. Huggins then considered pinch-hitting the left-handed Frank Baker but stayed with Witt, another lefty. With the bandages still wrapped around his forehead, Witt stroked a clean single up the middle, scoring McNally and Scott. “Here was divine retribution, or poetic justice of the first order,” wrote Harry Schumacher.29 The Yankees had taken the lead, 3–2. Shocker then retired Joe Dugan on an inning-ending double play.

Sisler, Williams, and Jacobson, the heart of the Browns’ lineup, went quietly in the bottom of the ninth. Sisler’s streak had ended at 41. He would finish the season with a .420 batting average, but late in the season the injury had begun to take its toll. In this critical series, he managed but two hits in 11 at bats.

In at least one New York newspaper, the dramatic finish was described gloatingly. “Already St. Louis had raised the brimming bowl to its lips to drink deep of the nectar      Almost before they knew it, the Browns were beaten and the sounds of reverie died. The silence was sepulchral.”30 Accounts given by St. Louis sportswriters were less emotional and more balanced. Roy Stockton wrote that “it took a series of unfortunate breaks to give the Yankees that lead but then it took some good fortune to give the Browns the lead they had.”31 Ed Wray suggested baseball institute a rule banning fans on the field during a game. “A game played with the two-base rule for hits into the crowd is manifestly not a championship contest       The defending team is not permitted proper range for fielding hits.”32

John Sheridan, who wrote for the Globe-Democrat in addition to his weekly column in The Sporting News, summed up the heartache of Brown fans: “Just like the old-time story books in which we used to read about fairies vanishing, so did a one-run lead the Brownies held going into the final inning waft into oblivion.”33 Years later, George Sisler “murmured nostalgically,” saying of that fateful inning: “I’ll never forget that last inning. We just couldn’t get a break and they couldn’t get the ball out of the infield until that last fatal hit by Witt.”34

The Yankees now had a record of 88–56, 11⁄2 games ahead of the Browns, at 87–58. But the season was not over. New York had ten games remaining, all on the road, while St. Louis had nine contests left, all at home. Harry Schumacher of the Globe understood what the Browns were up against. “The Browns will have to be game, indeed, to rally from this jolt, and the writer, for one, doubts if they can do it.”35

St. Louis lost two to the Senators and split their first two games against the lowly Athletics, while New York swept the Tigers and won their first two games against Cleveland, to extend their streak to six. By Saturday, September 23, the Browns were 41⁄2 games back of the Yankees and all but finished. Then they “righted the ship” and won their last four games, while the Yankees lost three straight, including two to the last-place Red Sox. Bush and Shawkey were beaten by ex-Yanks Rip Collins and Jack Quinn, 3–1 and 1–0, respectively. But the Yanks beat the Red Sox on the second-to-last day of the season, when Herb Pennock was replaced as the Boston starter by another former Yankee, Alex Ferguson. The Yankees struck for three runs in the first inning. While Pennock was effective in long relief, Waite Hoyt beat Boston, 3–1, and the Yankees held on to win the pennant by one game.

Postscripts

Four months later, the Yankees would make their final big deal of this era with the Red Sox, acquiring Herb Pennock.

The Browns would declare that the bottle-thrower was a youngster. Supposedly, the bottle did not hit Witt directly but rather flew up to his forehead when Whitey had stepped on it. “Everybody in St. Louis felt that the man who made up that story deserved the $1000 [reward money],” Robert Creamer wrote.36

In a sidebar to Dixie Davis’s obituary in The Sporting News on February 10, 1944, it was noted that this game of September 18, 1922, “has been the subject of more telephone inquiries than any other sports event of Mound City history,” including Grover Alexander’s dazzling performance in the 1926 World Series. 

This article is based on a presentation the author made at the SABR National Convention in St. Louis on July 26, 2007.

 

STEVE STEINBERG is author of Baseball in St. Louis, 1900-1925 (Arcadia, 2004) and co-author, with Lyle Spatz, of 1921: Babe Ruth, John McGraw, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York (Nebraska, 2010). He has a baseball history website, www.stevesteinberg.net.

 

NOTES

  1. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 19 September 1922.
  2. The Browns of the American Association won four straight AA pennants between 1885 and 1888. The American League’s Browns, who began play in 1902, had no connection with that franchise other than taking its name.
  3. Besides the players they traded to Boston to secure these four pitchers, the Yankees also sent $240,000 in cash to Red Sox owner Harry See the author’s article “The Curse of the . . . Hurlers?” in The Baseball Research Journal 35 (2006): 63–73.
  4. Ironically, an Urban Shocker fastball to Baker’s ribs had sidelined him earlier in the The Browns responded on August 22 by acquiring their own third baseman from the Red Sox. However, thirty-five-year-old Eddie Foster, nearing the end of his playing career, was no Joe Dugan.
  5. 20 September 1922. One result of this outcry was that, before the next season, Major League Baseball would move the trading deadline up from July 31 to June 1.
  6. New York Evening Journal, 16 September 1922.
  7. Globe and Commercial Advertiser (New York), 16 September 1922.
  8. The Post-Dispatch reported an attendance of 27,000 for the first game. While it was not uncommon for teams of this era to allow fans on the field, it was a practice neither the Giants nor the Yankees permitted at home, at the Polo Grounds, despite the considerable potential revenue that was at stake.
  9. New York American, 17 September 1922.
  10. New York Times, 17 September 1922.
  11. New York Times, 19 September 1922.
  12. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 September 1922.
  13. None of the newspapers mentioned the nineteenth-century records of Willie Keeler (44 games in 1897) or Bill Dahlen (42 in 1894).
  14. 17 September 1922. “Monitor” was the pseudonym of sportswriter George Daley.
  15. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 September 1922.
  16. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 September 1922.
  17. New York Evening Journal, 18 September 1922.
  18. New York Times, 18 September 1922.
  19. New York Evening Journal, 18 September 1922.
  20. Sun (New York), 19 September 1922.
  21. World (New York), 19 September Yet the New York American said it was almost a home run. Often there were such conflicting accounts of plays in different papers. Since this was long before the advent of video, there is no way for historians to resolve these differences.
  22. The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, 10 ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1996). As a pinch-hitter, Smith was 6 for 21 (.286 batting average) in 1922 and would go 11 for 21 (.524 BA) in 1923.
  23. World (New York), 19 September 1922.
  24. On Tris Speaker’s Indians, Smith had regularly platooned in the outfield with Smoky Joe Speaker had popularized the concept, which was then called a “double-batting shift” or “reversible” hitters. The word “platooning” did not even exist in baseball at the time.
  25. St. Louis Times, 19 September 1922.
  26. St. Louis Times, 20 September 1922.
  27. The Globe-Democrat, for example, said that Pruett appeared rattled after McNally’s bunt, suggesting the walk was not intentional (19 September 1922).
  28. From 1920 to 1922, Shocker appeared in relief 29 times and got 12 saves, which were awarded retroactively many years later. Saves were not computed as early as 1922.
  29. Globe and Commercial Advertiser (New York), 19 September 1922.
  30. Evening Telegram (New York), 19 September 1922.
  31. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 19 September 1922.
  32. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 20 September 1922.
  33. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 19 September 1922.
  34. Tom Meany, Baseball’s Greatest Hitters (New York: S. Barnes, 1950), 185–86.
  35. Globe and Commercial Advertiser (New York), 19 September 1922.
  36. Robert Creamer, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), 266.

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