With the exception of a couple of dry spells in the 1960s and ’80s, the Yankees have spent most of the last 90 years in the American League penthouse. With 40 pennants and 27 World Series titles, the Yanks have earned the love and devotion of their followers—as well as the ire of fans throughout the rest of the league. Love them or hate them, they have been the team to beat for longer than most fans have been alive.
It wasn’t always that way. Throughout much of its first 20 years, the franchise struggled, logging 11 losing seasons and a .487 winning percentage. The club, which played in Baltimore for two years before moving to New York and becoming the Highlanders, finished higher than fourth only five times in its first two decades, and lived much of the time in the shadows of John McGraw’s Giants.
That began to change in 1920, when Babe Ruth joined the team and set the major leagues abuzz by launching an undreamed of 54 home runs. Suddenly the Yankees were a hot ticket, luring more than a million fans to the Polo Grounds, which they rented from the Giants. This new brand of baseball, embraced by the masses and loathed by McGraw, set the two New York teams on nearly equal footing as the 1921 season dawned.
The year was a pivotal one for baseball, and the fading of the deadball era, while significant, was only part of it. In “1921: The Yankees, the Giants, & the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York,” veteran baseball researchers Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg place the season in the context of both a nation emerging from World War I and a sport emerging from disgrace and tragedy.
Though the Black Sox scandal had taken place during the 1919 World Series, it didn’t come to light until nearly a year later, with the fallout landing squarely upon the 1921 season. The trial of eight Chicago players captured headlines throughout the summer. Despite a not-guilty finding by the jury in early August, new commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned them from baseball as the game attempted to shed its image as a corrupt sport ruled by gamblers. Baseball was also still healing from the death of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, who was struck in the head by a pitch from Yankee righthander Carl Mays in August 1920.
Ruth’s heroics and taut pennant races in both leagues helped the game maintain, and even gain, favor with its fan base. As the Yankees tussled with the Indians in the AL, the Giants jockeyed with the Pirates in the NL. All the while the two clubs fought for the hearts of New Yorkers, which was something the Giants had taken for granted for many years. Though they shared a ballpark, there was a distinct difference in the supporters of the two teams.
“If you were an immigrant, one of the lower income people, it was a lot easier to relate to a big guy knocking the ball over the fence versus following the strategy of bunting and stealing a base to score one run,” Steinberg says. “McGraw had more of the stock market fans, the money fans, while the Yankees had a lot of the newer fans.”
The Giants were very much McGraw’s team. He ruled the club with an iron fist, calling virtually every pitch from the bench. His counterpart with the Yankees, Miller Huggins, was not nearly so well regarded in the early ’20s. Some of his own players undermined him and he never had the full support of Til Huston, one of the two Yankee owners. Small and frail, the stresses of the baseball season frequently wore him down, to the point he needed an occasional leave of absence. New York’s reporters were clearly biased toward the Giants’ skipper.
“McGraw was adored by the New York press and Huggins was almost despised,” Steinberg says.
The diminutive Yankee manager, who was listed at 5-foot-6, may have been closer to 5-foot-3, making it hard for some men of the time to picture him leading players significantly bigger in stature. And unlike his predecessor, Bill Donavan, he wasn’t one to go out drinking with the boys, thus wasn’t close with most of the city’s sportswriters, many of whom were frequently critical of the future Hall of Famer.
Six pennants and three titles in eight years eventually earned Huggins some respect, but in the fall of 1921, the World Series was viewed as a showdown between McGraw and Ruth. While the Bambino had been pitched around frequently late in the season, McGraw declared his Giants would pitch to him. They didn’t stick to that script for long, however. Ruth was walked three times in Game 2. Deprived of the opportunity to swing his bat, he chose to show off his wheels, stealing a couple of bases, but paying a high price when his sliding aggravated an elbow injury. By Game 6 (of baseball’s last 9-game World Series), the ailing slugger was watching from the press box.
The loss of their star player certainly didn’t help the Yankees’ chances, but the Series tilted in the Giants’ favor largely on pitching depth. The Giants rebounded from a 2-0 deficit to win the Series in eight games, riding the arms of Art Nehf, Phil Douglass, and Jesse Barnes. Only Fred Toney, who was hammered in Games 3 and 6, failed to produce.
Mays and Waite Hoyt were tremendous for the Yankees, but when neither man was on the hill the team stood little chance. Hoyt allowed no earned runs in 27 innings of work. Mays, who led the American League with 27 victories, shut the Giants out in Game 1 and for the first seven innings of Game 4. Nursing a 1-0 lead, he tired suddenly in the eighth, surrendering three quick runs. That led to speculation he had taken a payment from gamblers. Despite a lack of credible evidence, those rumors dogged Mays the rest of his life and may have helped keep him out of the Hall of Fame. Of course it didn’t help that he was one of the most despised men in the game, even before the Chapman beaning.
Despite the significance of the 1921 season—the Yankees’ first pennant, the first all-New York World Series, Ruth’s 59 home runs and the dawn of the lively ball era—the year had never been documented by any significant release. Steinberg and Spatz recognized the void in baseball’s library. Both had written about Yankee history and baseball in the 1920s and knew there was a story here to be told.
“For about two years at SABR conferences we were joking with each other ‘you should really write a book about 1921,’” Steinberg says.
In the end they wound up collaborating on the project from opposite ends of the country, Spatz in Florida and Steinberg in Seattle. They each tackled half the writing, and through the process of editing each other’s work melded a manuscript that reads in one consistent voice.
Countless hours spent poring over microfilm helped the authors see the players and teams as witnesses of the era did. Newspapers were still king back in 1921, with a dozen different dailies in New York alone. Spatz and Steinberg mined the work of legendary sportswriters like Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice to bring the season alive in great detail. They also tapped into several private photo collections and included more than 50 photographs.
While the scoreboard watching and standings updates get a little repetitive in spots, the regular-season recaps are heavily sprinkled with stories that flesh out most of the players on each roster. Those background tales are the strength of the book, though the World Series chapters are exceptional as well.
As Steinberg states on his web site, “Time travel is possible.” In “1921,” he and Spatz will take you back to see this pivotal season for yourself.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.