In 1912 the New York baseball club in the American League was a sorry operation indeed. Known as the Highlanders, they played in rickety, wooden Hilltop Park at Broadway and 165th Street and finished last in the league that year.
A few blocks away, John J. McGraw's New York Giants were the most famous team in baseball—the most feared, the most loved, the most envied, the most imitated. They were also the incarnation of McGraw's vision of the game: "Inside baseball," he called it, "scientific baseball," a shrewd amalgam of bunts, steals, sacrifices, platoons and strategies. Play for a run or two, then make them stand up. This was the august old game—refined and purified, to be sure—played the way it had been since Grandpa's time. But McGraw had elevated it to an art form, and the Giants became the team to contend with.
Thus, it was seen as almost an act of charity when, in 1913, the Giants invited the Highlanders to move into the Polo Grounds as tenants. The Highlanders—they changed their name to the Yankees later that year—were threats to no one but themselves. The Giants were simply letting their little brothers use the equipment when the real ball club was away.
But in 1915 the Yankees were acquired by an aggressive new ownership and over the next few years they began playing a new kind of game, going for power throughout the lineup. They aimed for the big inning, runs in clusters, and as a result they moved toward the top of the American League standings. In his biography, Babe, Robert W. Creamer compared the 1919 Yankees to John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord.
November 3, 1986
The Lord, of course, was Babe Ruth. In 1920, Ruth's first year with the Yankees, he hit 54 home runs. Inside baseball suddenly seemed a bit dull. Why sweat and work for one run when runs could be had in bunches? Whack! Two runs. Bam! Three runs. The public loved it. Crowds flocked to the Polo Grounds in record numbers to see the Yankees shatter by almost 400,000 the old single-season attendance record of 910,000 set by the 1908 Giants.
McGraw seethed. What the public-wanted to see was not his exquisite Giants but the parvenu Ruth and the crude Yankee style of big-inning baseball. By the end of the 1920 campaign McGraw had had enough. He fought back as only a landlord could: He told the Yankees he wanted them to leave. Nothing personal, mind you, just go away. Play your games anywhere you see fit, just take leave of the Polo Grounds as soon as you can find a new home. As things turned out, the Yankees and Giants won pennants the next three years, setting the stage for one of the great showdowns in baseball history, the World Series of 1923.
The '21 Series was the first to be played all in one ballpark and the last to be a best-of-nine-games affair. The Yankees started out strongly, winning the first two games. The second game, in which Giants batters were stifled by Waite Hoyt, was particularly mortifying to McGraw. As a Brooklyn teenager, Hoyt had made his major league debut with the Giants in 1918, striking out two in the only inning he worked. But McGraw had cut him. Hoyt subsequently signed with the Red Sox, who sold him to the Yankees. Now he was back at the Polo Grounds.
In the third game an early Yankee lead disappeared, and the Giants won 13-5. That game changed the tone of the Series, and the Giants swept four of the next five. Most important, they had controlled Ruth.
"Ruth! Why all the excitement about Ruth?" McGraw said grouchily afterward. "We've been pitching all along to Rogers Hornsby and he's a three-to-one better hitter than Ruth." During Ruth's minor league days McGraw had been interested in signing him as a pitcher. Now he was openly contemptuous of the Ruthian style, predicting that the Babe would end up hitting into more double plays than grandstands. And the result of the 1921 Series seemed to bear out Little Napoleon's prediction. Ruth was held to a meaningless homer and four singles. The Giants won the championship; the new slugging style was discredited.
Over the next summer a lot of newspaper space was used to report the insults exchanged by the two sides. McGraw rarely missed an opportunity to slam the Yankees. Whenever Ruth hit a home run with McGraw present, he would turn toward the Giants skipper and bellow, "How's that for a double-play ball, Mac?" But strange as it sounds today, it was the Yankees who always seemed to be swimming upstream. They were still the Giants' tenants, after all. And in 1922 McGraw had made a few subtle moves that transformed his Giants of that year into one of the greatest teams ever.
Heinie Groh had been obtained from Cincinnati to play third base. Groh was a small but powerful man, one of the great bat doctors of all time. He used a 46-ounce bat with a handle that had been shaved down until the whole bat looked like an elongated Bordeaux bottle. The acquisition of Groh enabled Frankie Frisch to move from third base to second, his natural position and a spot where his abilities as a field leader could flourish.
For centerfield, McGraw had obtained Charles Dillon Stengel from the Phillies (Casey, a Phillie?) in mid-1921. In '22 McGraw used him well, platooning him in center with Bill Cunningham. But almost more important was Stengel's other role. He would sit on the bench beside McGraw, developing strategies and serving as a coach without portfolio. It was here that Casey acquired the knowledge that later served him as a manager.
In the '22 Series, McGraw again found ways to handle Ruth. What the methods lacked in subtlety they made up for in effectiveness. Ruth saw little but low, outside curveballs for the entire Series. And he heard little but epithets from the Giants' infielders—racial epithets. There were not many ways to get the Bambino riled, but one of them was to suggest that his physical prowess—baseball and otherwise—stemmed from black ancestry. Ruth took the bait. He was so distracted that he hit .118 for the Series.
Not surprisingly, the Giants swept the Series. Once again McGraw's style of baseball seemed vindicated. The Yankees had been easily dispatched twice, and now McGraw had what appeared to be an added bonus. The Yankees were leaving the Polo Grounds, although not quite in the way the Giants had envisioned. By evicting the Yankees the Giants had hoped to send them wandering around the city, eventually to settle in some shabby digs, presumably in a remote section of Queens. Instead, Yankee Stadium was built in full view of the Polo Grounds, on a tract of land across the Harlem River purchased from the Astor Estate. Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert had rushed the stadium to completion in less than a year. It was there in 1923 that the real Giants-Yankees showdown finally took place.
McGraw went into the '23 Series on the threshold of his most cherished goal: three consecutive world championships. All that his Giants had to do was beat a team they had already handled in '21 and '22. But first there had to be a few introductory hostilities between the clubs.
This time the center of the storm was 20-year-old Lou Gehrig. McGraw's scouts had spotted Gehrig in the summer of 1921, just before he entered Columbia University on a football scholarship. Through some quick talking they had signed him to a professional baseball contract and hidden him at the Eastern League's Hartford club under another name—not an uncommon practice of the day. But a former A's and Highlanders hurler named Andy Coakley, who was then the Columbia baseball coach, got wind of the move. Coakley went to a Hartford game to confront Gehrig. "What," he demanded, "are you doing in that uniform?"
Coakley dragged Gehrig back to New York, saved his scholarship and extricated him from the Hartford contract. Gehrig played football and baseball for Columbia; then the Yankees signed him in the spring of '23. Where did they send him? To Hartford, of course. He tore up the league. The Yankees brought him up at the end of the year, and he hit .423 in 13 games. It appeared that they had another treasure.
But Gehrig had not moved up to the big club until after Sept. 1, which meant that he was ineligible for the Series. Co-incidentally, first baseman Wally Pipp had suffered a painful rib injury. The Yankees requested that Gehrig take Pipp's place on the World Series roster. Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis responded that Gehrig could play only if the opposing manager consented. McGraw, keeping the events of 1921 in mind, was quite happy to withhold consent. First Hoyt had gotten away to the Yankees. Next Ruth. Now Gehrig. It was all too much for McGraw. "The hazards of baseball," he said. "The rules are quite specific." Gehrig was not allowed to play, Pipp was patched up, and the World Series of 1923 began.
So disdainful was McGraw of everything connected with the Yankees that he refused even to use the new Yankee Stadium locker rooms. His players could change sweatshirts in the stadium's clubhouse, nothing more. For Yankee home games McGraw's troops used their locker room at the Polo Grounds, then took cabs across the Harlem River into enemy territory.
In the ninth inning of the opening game with the score tied at 4-4, Stengel hit what might have been a single to left center. Leftfielder Bob Meusel had been guarding the line. Centerfielder Whitey Witt had been shifted toward right. Before anyone could quite figure out how it had happened, the ball was between them, hopping toward the wall 450 feet away, and Casey was running as if his life depended on it. Because anything involving Stengel had to have a comic touch, he was cheering himself on at the same time, yelling, "Go on, Casey, go on!"
Damon Runyon immortalized the incident in the New York American the next day. Rounding second, Stengel felt a sponge break free inside his left shoe. Rounding third, he wobbled like a cripple. Sliding home, he signaled himself safe. Fortunately, umpire Billy Evans agreed. Ruth had been deprived of hitting the first World Series home run at Yankee Stadium. And the Giants had the run that would win Game 1. Yes, 1923 looked like a replay of the previous two years.
But, as Heywood Broun wrote in the World the following day, "The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail." True enough. In the second game, at the Polo Grounds, Ruth walked in the first, and then in the fourth he caught a Hugh McQuillan curveball and belted it over the rightfield grandstand.
Ruth came up again in the fifth. Walk him? McGraw had answered that question before the game. "Why shouldn't we pitch to him?" said John J. "We pitch to better hitters in the National League."
Oh? Giants reliever Jack Bentley showed the Babe a slow curve. Ruth showed Bentley a fierce line drive into the lower deck. The Yankees had a 4-1 lead and the game. And the tide seemed to be turning. The Babe was starting to catch up to Giants pitching.
The unexpected hero in the third game was again Stengel. In the seventh inning Casey—who hit with surprising power during his career—lined a ball into the rightfield seats at Yankee Stadium. It would prove to be the only run of the game but not the only fun. The target of relentless heckling from the Yankee dugout, Stengel turned toward the Yankee bench and appeared to be flicking a fly off his nose with the tip of his thumb. But 62,430 people saw Casey's gesture of ill will. Ruppert later demanded that Stengel be punished, but commissioner Landis refused. "Casey Stengel," Landis said with uncharacteristic understatement, "can't help being Casey Stengel." Even the Bambino, one of the targets of Stengel's nose thumbing, was amused.
"I didn't mind it," Ruth said. "Casey's a lot of fun."
The Giants had a 2-1 lead in the Series. What followed was the equivalent of an old wall crumbling as a relentless tide rushes through. Game 4, played at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 13, was a watershed for professional baseball.
In the second inning the Yankees finally went to work on McGraw's pitchers, scoring six runs to move the game out of reach early. It was 8-0 when the Giants finally rallied in the bottom of the eighth, but they fell four runs short.
"It was a bad game for a good team to lose," McGraw remarked when it was over. But maybe he sensed something, too, because the fifth game, played at Yankee Stadium, was also a rout, 8-1 Yankees. The American Leaguers scored three runs in the first and four in the second to make it no contest early on. The turnaround was absolutely stunning. Forty-eight hours earlier, riding the heroics of Stengel's second home run, McGraw and his troops had seemed on the brink of their third straight Series title. Now their backs were against the wall.
Game 6, at the Polo Grounds, became a classic struggle between the old baseball and the new. Ruth hit a home run in the first inning. Then the Giants, playing their traditional game, chipped away for single runs in four different innings. The score was 4-1 Giants at the start of the eighth. That was the Big Inning.
Art Nehf, the Giants pitcher, had been coasting. He had pitched a shutout only three days earlier, but now in the eighth, Yankees Wally Schang and Everett Scott both singled. Then Nehf walked two pinch hitters on eight pitches, forcing in a run; he had lost his stuff so quickly that McGraw hadn't had time to warm up Rosy Ryan, his best reliever. Ryan had to come in anyway. He walked Joe Dugan and the Yankees had another run. The score was 4-3, and Ruth was up next.
Somehow, Ryan managed to pull himself together. In the final gasp of old time, inside baseball, Ryan fanned Ruth. Perhaps he then thought the worst was over and that the Giants could hold on. If so, he thought wrong. There was no Gehrig to follow Ruth yet—McGraw had seen to that—but there was Meusel, who bounced a ball over Ryan's head. When Bill Cunningham kicked the ball around in centerfield, the three men already on base scored. The Yankees had five runs in the inning, and 25 minutes later they returned to Yankee Stadium with their first world championship.
McGraw was strangely gracious and philosophical when it was over. "The best team won," he allowed. "The old guard changes but never surrenders." McGraw must have had an inkling of time passing him by. At 50 he was old beyond his years—his face lined, his hair white and his waistline thick. Worse, McGraw must have known how the public would interpret the 1923 World Series: The mighty Giants had been dethroned by the sluggers from the Bronx. By the next season young players across the land would be holding big bats down by the knob and swinging from the heels.
That is, of course, exactly what happened. The stars who evolved over the next few years were all sluggers: Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Jimmy Foxx, Hack Wilson, Chuck Klein. Inside baseball was dead. The home run and the big inning—TNT ball, as it was called at the time—had killed it.
McGraw appeared in one more World Series, the following year against Washington. The American League won that one, too. McGraw's teams remained contenders after that, but they would never again finish first.
As for the Yankees, the nucleus was in place for the great, explosive teams that would rule baseball for the next half century. Playing exactly the type of ball that McGraw had so loathed, the Yankees would go on to win 33 pennants and 22 Series titles. Their park in the Bronx may have been the house that Ruth built, but John J. McGraw, the perfect foil, had certainly laid the foundation.
Noel Hynd is writing a book about the old New York Giants baseball club.