Frank “Home Run” Baker, Terrell Owens, and the Greatest Collapse in MLB History

The 2012 Phillies aren’t in the midst of the most spectacular collapse of a dynasty in Philly baseball history. That happened in 1915. The A’s were coming off four World Series appearances in five years, with victories in 3 of them. But success has it’s own price, and for Connie Mack, that was trying to keep his players paid. With so much success, the stars of the team were wanting major pay raises. Adding pressure to the problem were a couple of major developments. For one, the Federal League, baseball’s USFL more or less, was offering huge wads of money to MLB stars, many of whom played on the A’s. And Mack, coming off a season in which fans had become spoiled by success (The A’s were 5th in the AL in attendance in 1914 despite winning the pennant), became convinced that fans enjoyed watching a team try to get to the top more than seeing a team already there. He was also losing money to technology. The giant scoreboard the Philadelphia Record had erected across from City Hall was hurting him too (similar to this one at the New York Herald’s offices). Fans were showing up for free to “watch” the game on the board instead of paying to get into the ballpark. Finally, he believed his own hype, and thought that if he built this dynasty, why couldn’t he start from scratch and build another?

The dismantling began with Mack selling AL MVP Eddie Collins to the White Sox in December of 1914, reportedly for $50,000. (It was with Chicago that Collins is perhaps today best remembered for being the “clean” superstar on the 1919 Black Sox.) Collins was floored by the move, loved playing in Philly and for Mack, but the money Comiskey was offering was just too great to turn down.

The move was not met with derision in Philly or nationally, as most people considered it a smart move. As WA Phelon wrote in Baseball Magazine:

“It reduces the Athletics payroll, brings the needed cash, yet will not hurt the gate. Hence it’s a great thing for the Mackmen.”

He released the aging Jack Coombs, another hero of the 1911 World Series. Eddie Plank and Chief Bender, though both toward the end of their careers, jumped to the Federal League and the big paydays. Still, the team seemed to be pretty much intact. An aging but capable Nap Lajoie was brought back to town from the Indians to take over for Collins at second base. The three of the four members of the famous $100,000 Infield were still in place and the 4th piece had been replaced by a legend. The team would be fine. Except for one thing.


Third baseman and city legend Home Run Baker (above, left) was torn between returning to the A’s or retiring to his farm in Maryland.

At the team’s annual banquet in February of 1915, Mack dropped a bombshell, “I can’t say that I’ve had as good a time tonight I’ve had in years gone by at this banquet. I have given you a lot of surprises lately, but tonight I have a real surprise for you. Frank Baker wrote me a letter that he would not play for the Athletics the coming year. Frank has decided to quit the game for good.” The air went out of the banquet hall, and the annual jovial affair took on the air of a funeral reception. Mack continued on.

“He’s just sick of traveling and he wants to settle down for good on his Maryland farm. His wife has been at him for years to quit and it has been a tussle to make him sign each season…The boy isn’t dissastisfied. He doesn’t want more money, and he isn’t flighty.”

That was partly true. Collins was a country boy who loved his farm. But as he told a reporter that winter, “Every man has his price at which he is willing to work. I have mine. I am not stating what it is, but I will take it if it is offered. I will work for Connie Mack cheaper than I will work for anyone else. But I will not work for Mack or anyone else under the conditions as they are at present.”

Baker, a bonified superstar, could not be happy with the fact that he had signed a $6,666 per year contract a year before Collins had signed a $15,000 a year contract. And he certainly wasn’t pleased when Mack brought in the 40-year old Lajoie for $9,000. “I wish them all the luck in the world, but I have to look out for my own interests also.” At a time where the economy in the US wasn’t so hot, Baker’s holdout didn’t go over real well. Almost all of Philadelphia sided with Mack. Baker had signed a 3-year, $20,000 contract the year before, and now he was breaking it.

When the team reported to Jacksonville that March, Baker was nowhere in sight. Players wrote him. He wrote none of them back. Rumors began to swirl that he would be dealt to the Yankees. He said that he would play in New York, but he would play in Philadelphia for cheaper. It was beginning to look like exactly what TO would want from the Eagles 90 years later; a modest bump to the salary he had already signed, just to show respect for what he had given the team and the city. It’s worth noting that in both cases, fans in the city tended to side with management, since both players were so egregiously overpaid to begin with. And in both cases, the loss of the star player resulted in a team going from the championship game to an epic disaster. (Of course, TO would play a few games with the Eagles, while Baker didn’t play a single one.)

Baker met with Mack on Opening Day. He wasn’t reporting to the team, though you get the feeling that when he talked to Mack, he had to be hoping that the A’s leader was going to offer him a token raise and the problem would be solved. It wasn’t. Baker asked permission to opt out of his contract and play for a semi-pro team in Delco. The obstinate Mack granted him permission, so long as he didn’t play any games in Philadelphia. They had only months previous been the two undisputed kings of the city. Now they went their separate ways.

The A’s, without stars Collins and Baker, and with a young pitching staff that Mack had greatly overrated**, made a nosedive into the cellar of the AL. A year after winning 99-games and winning the AL by 8.5 games, they went 43-109, 58.5 games out of first place. The drop of 56-games is still a major league record. (The Phillies would have to go 8-66 for the rest of the season to break it.) Many fans of the A’s drifted 6 blocks west and started watching the exciting 1915 Phillies team, who would make their first ever World Series appearance that October.

Baker would play a year of summer league ball in Maryland, then Mack would sell his contract to the Yankees. He would play four years for them, though he never again duplicated his numbers from his Philadelphia days. The A’s meanwhile, wouldn’t recover from the Collins deal and the Baker fallout until the mid-1920s, when Mack would put together his second dynasty.

A lot of this info comes courtesy of the excellent books, “Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball” and “Connie Mack, The Turbulent and Triumphant Years“, both by Norman Macht.

**Hmm, losing two best players and overrating young pitchers. Sound familiar?


Pitching Matchups for the 1911 World Series

(October 14, 1911) NEW YORK–If baseball had a Hall of Fame, both squads would have some surefire entries.

GIANTS: Christy Mathewson is as fine of a flamethrower as you will ever lay eyes on, and “Matty” can lay you low with his fadeaway (Later known as a screwball). He went 26-13 with a 1.99 ERA this season, not quite “Matty-esque” (remember that Matty won 37 games in 1908), but none too shabby. He’ll be on the hill this afternoon.

Their #2 option is no Christy Mathewson, but who is? Rube Marquard is a dashing young lefty who really felt his oats this year, going 24-7 with a 2.50 ERA. The Giants are quite pleased with his progress, and have plenty of confidence that their Game 2 pitcher can go the distance.

In a pinch, they can go to Red Ames (11-10, 2.68) or Hooks Wiltse (12-9, 3.27) with confidence.

ATHLETICS: They counter with quite a trio of hurlers. In Game 1, they’ll have the great Redskin Chief Bender on the mound. He is known as the innovator of the nickel change (now known as the slider), and we have no doubt he’ll employ it to confound the Giants’ batsmen.

And don’t think the Giants will see much relief in Game 2, as Eddie Plank takes to the hill. The 36-year old one-upped Ponce De Leon, finding a fountain of youth this year that enabled him to amass a record of 23-8 with but a 2.10 ERA.

And their 3rd pitcher in this Series is led the team in wins with 28. Jack Coombs (right) gives up more runs than the first two pitchers, but the boys tend to rally behind him, as they gave him a record of 28-12 this season.

ADVANTAGE: Mathewson is the best of the bunch, but the Athletics have more depth, as even their #4 pitcher, Cy Morgan, had a mark of 15-7 with a 2.70 ERA. I would give the slightest edge to the Athletics.


Mathewson Outlasts Bender as Giants Take Thrilling Opener

The Giants edged the Athletics yesterday afternoon in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a baseball game. 38,281 baseball enthusiasts packed into the new Polo Grounds, and they were treated to a pitching duel between two of the finest hurlers of the stitched potato the game has ever seen. Why, the two twirlers are a combination of Cy Young and Thomas Edison, as they both have invented their own pitches: Bender the nickel change (later known as the slider) and Matty the fadeaway (later known as the screwball). Each tosser mixed these into their arsenal with great effectiveness, keeping the batters on the defensive all afternoon. As for the scene at the ballpark? Well, I’ll let Rex Beach, my contemporary at the New York Times, describe it.

The bleachers were banked solidly by 12 o’clock, for it was a great baseball day. The sun was slightly dimmed by a faint October haze, and the air was sharp enough to be invigorating. It was real hard cider weather, with just the right tang to it. 

One noticed first upon looking down at the well kept field that a great shadow, cast by the south wall of the grandstand, was creeping out toward the visitors side, inch by inch. Later, as the game progressed, it was like the implacable shadow of defeat reaching out to engulf the Quakers. It crept slowly across the sward, and it was not until it touched the players bench occupied by Mack and his men that the Athletics weakened.

It was 12:45 when out through a huge whiskey sign in right field came the Elephants (the Athletics), to be met with an ovation (picture above). They came lackadaisically, however, with heavy step and heads down. It was like a funeral march. The Giants on the contrary came with a rush, Devore leading and Matty at his heels. The crowd gave tongue magnificently, and one could not fail to recognize the fact that baseball is the one legitimate outlet for the great American lung. 

No man with blood in his veins could have watched the hand of the clock creep around toward the hour of 2 without yielding to the intensity of that multitude. It could be felt and it caused the heart to pound…Then came perhaps the most interesting moment of the game. It was that hush, pending delivery of the first ball, which can be heard. Matty split the plate, and, oh, what a yell! (Photo of the first pitch of the Series is at the top of the story. Notice the shadow Beach wrote of earlier.)

The Athletics drew first blood in the 2nd frame. Frank Baker led off with a single, then went to second on a Danny Murphy groundout back to the mound. A rare Chief Meyer passed ball sent Baker to 3rd, and first baseman Harry Davis (right) came to the plate. The 37-year old, filling in for an injured Stuffy McInnis, did the honors of knocking in the first run of the 1911 World Series with a single.

The Giants drew an equalizer in the 4th. Fred Snodgrass was hit by a pitch, then went to second on a grounder. Buck Herzog hit a grounder to 2nd baseman Eddie Collins, but Collins booted the ball, and Snodgrass, who had been running on what was a hit and run, came around to score.

The Giants nearly took the lead in the 6th, but Collins got a reprieve for his earlier mistake with some quick thinking at 2nd. With runners on first and third with two outs, the wily McGraw called for a delayed double steal. Buck Herzog took off for 2nd, and catcher Ira Thomas threw down. But the razor-minded Collins saw what devious plans the Giants had in store, and cut off the throw, sending it back home, where Snodgrass was so dead that his body was cooling as he reached the plate.

After an Art Fletcher groundout to lead off the bottom of the 7th, it was Chief versus Chief, the two finest Redskin athletes in America going toe to toe.  The Giants’ Meyers got the upper hand, sending a screamer down the left field line, and when the dust settled, he was standing on 2nd. After Mathewson struck out, the Giants leadoff hitter Josh Devore came to the plate. Bender had been yapping at the Giants hitters all day, and with a 2-2 count on Devore, he started running his mouth again.

“I’m going to throw you a curved ball over the outside corner,” taunted the Chief.

“I know it, Chief,” Devore (left) answered back. Devore runs a boxing gym in Indiana during the offseason, and the pugnacious pugilist delivered a knockout blow on that next pitch, hitting one deep to left, scoring Meyers.

“I knew it would be a curve ball,” Devore told Mathewson after the game. “With two and two, he would be crazy to hand me anything else. When he made that crack, I guessed that he was trying to cross me by telling the truth. Before he spoke, I wasn’t sure which corner he was going to put it over, but he tipped me.”

The Giants had two runs, and with Matty on the mound, they might as well have had 20. He retired the last 11 batters he faced, the mighty throng roaring its approval all the while. The Series shifts back to Philadelphia, where these two superpowers will meet again on the 16th. Here’s the box score for Game 1, and we end with a few thoughts from Beach:

To be sure, the Quakers were on a strange field, in hostile territory, and were naturally a bit nervous at the start, so this opening victory does not settle the argument by any means. Monday’s game in Philadelphia may swing the odds back to even money again, but the Giants have the jump; first blood is theirs, and this triumph is liable to inspire them with a confidence which may prove a material factor in the struggle to come. 

It was a great game, a great crowd, and a great day, and the issue was in doubt up to the last. What more could a fan desire? 


Bender, Baker Lead Mackmen to Victory in Game 4; Now Stand One Away From Championship!

(October 25) PHILADELPHIA– Last year, after Chief Bender (left, in color!) knocked off Chicago in Game 1 of the 1910 World Series, Cubs manager Frank Chance quipped, “That Indian was almost inhuman. The greater the tension, the better he pitched. He fairly reveled in the tumult of the stands and often laughed like a pleased boy.” Yesterday, the most beloved Redskin in Philadelphia got the last laugh once again, as after a shaky start he gathered his wits and hurled a gem.

Mathewson held a 2-0 career record against Bender, and in the first inning it looked like he was ready to make it a trifecta. Bender was clearly rattled in the first, as he gave up a lead off single to Devore followed by a triple to second bagger Larry Doyle. Snodgrass entered to catcalls as a result of his infamous slide last week, but hit a sacrifice fly to knock in Doyle, and though the game was only a few minutes old, the score was already 2-0. But Bender settled down, and over the next hour and 40 some minutes the Giants would not cross home plate again.

The A’s fans did not sell out the ballpark, but they were plenty raucous. In the bottom of the first, when Home Run Baker came to the plate, they let out a hearty song through megaphones:

“What’s the matter with Baker?

“He’s all right!

“What’s the matter with Baker?

“He’s out of sight!

“He’s the boy with the old home runs.

“He’s landed two and there’s more to come.

“What’s the matter with Baker.

“He’s all right.”

Baker would add no home runs to his totals on this day, but he would do nothing to dim his star either. In the bottom of the 4th, with the A’s trailing 2-0, he blasted a double into left-centerfield. Baker’s continued domination of him obviously flustered Mathewson, as he then gave up a double to Danny Murphy to almost the exact same spot, and the A’s merely trailed by 2-1. Up to the plate came first baseman Harry Davis. A former bank teller, the 37-year old Davis was only in the lineup because Stuffy McInnis was injured. But he paid Mack back for the time in 1901 when Mack convinced him to leave the bank and come to the diamond, as he hit a double past Fred Merkle and down the right field line. The game was tied at 2, and the Shibe faithful were in a frenzy. A few batters later, Ira Thomas hit a sac fly to score Davis. The A’s had a lead they would not relinquish, adding a run in the 7th when (guess who?) Home Run Baker hit another double to score Eddie Collins. Bender had long since settled down, and his fastball was sizzling. “Who can hit a pea when it goes by with the speed of lightning?” lamented Giants left fielder Josh Devore after the game.

The Athletics now take a 3-1 lead into the Polo Grounds today for the Game 5 tilt, which will be between Plank and Marquard. If there is a game 6, it will be held at Shibe Park on Thursday.


A’s Win the World Series! Philadelphia Once Again Center of Baseball Universe!

(October 27th, 1911) PHILADELPHIA– After 5 games filled with nonstop suspense, the A’s decided to treat their fans to little more than a 2 hour coronation celebration yesterday. After giving up a double and a run to their ongoing nemesis Larry Doyle in the first, Chief Bender settled down and shut the door on the Giant hitters the rest of the way. The A’s meanwhile, started their assault in the 3rd inning, added some battery in the 4th, and in the 7th they flat out murdered Giants pitcher Hooks Wiltse. It was a complete and utter annihilation, and when the dust had settled, the A’s had a 13-2 victory. The following prose comes courtesy of today’s Inquirer:

For the second consecutive time the Athletics captured a world’s championship, last fall trampling underfoot the Chicago Cubs. It was a great victory, appropriate because won on the Athletics home field and before a home crowd, and spectacular because of the concentrated attack upon the National Leaguers…Even Gotham fans, awakened by their favorites’ gallant victory in New York, assembling legions strong at Shibe Park, sat back in their seats and smiled sickly. From a Giants standpoint, the defeat and windup of the Series was ludicrous. They were pigmies when facing the speedy curves of the redskin, while no Giant twirler could stay the onrushing Athletics. 

Indeed, Chief Bender added to his legend. It was believed that Eddie Plank was going to pitch this game, since the Chief had just thrown Game 4 two days prior. But while playing catch, Bender walked over to Mack and said, simply, “I’m going to pitch and win the World Series for you.” As Bender would say after the game, “It’s only once in a century a chap gets a chance to clinch a world championship.” (Of course, if Coombs had shut the door on the Giants in the 9th inning of Game 5, it would have been twice in two years for him, as he won Game 5 in 1910). Mack knew that the Indian was ready, and made him the starter. He responded by throwing a complete game 4 hitter against this vaunted Giants lineup after only one day of rest.

The Giants continued the defensive ineptness that had haunted them all series, making 3 more errors. In their four losses of this Series, they committed an astounding 14 errors.

Jack Coombs was not at the game. His groin was so badly injured he had to go to the hospital. Connie Mack arranged for play-by-play bulletins to be transmitted as he laid in his hospital bed. He no doubt enjoyed what he heard.

Home Run Baker continued his sterling Series with 2 runs scored and an RBI. Right Fielder Danny Murphy more than made up for his poor throw to end Game 5, going 4 for 4 and scoring 3 runs. It was, fittingly, a complete team effort from the best all-around team in baseball. And there was a nice moment at the conclusion that showed just what a close-knit team this was. Stuffy McInnis had injured his wrist late in the regular season and had not gotten a chance to play in this Series. But with 2 outs in the 9th, Mack called time and inserted him into the game so that he would feel a part of the team. Bender threw to Art Wilson, who tapped it to third. Baker picked it up, fired to Mcinnis, and the Series was over. The Philadelphia Athletics were, for the 2nd straight year, World Champions.

Boxscore of Game 6.