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?


#9 Most Underrated Philly Athlete of All-Time: Eddie Plank

Eddie Plank is the best Philadelphia athlete you’ve never heard of. Yeah, some guys beat him as more underrated, but you’ve heard of those guys. Odds are you’ve never heard of the former A’s great (I had never heard of him until I did that piece on the 1911 World Series), which is nuts because he’s one of the greatest left handed pitchers in the history of baseball and the argument could be made that he’s the greatest lefty in the history of Philadelphia baseball.

I know. I know. Blasphemy, right? Well, not so fast. Carlton won 329 games. Plank won 326. Carlton had an ERA of 3.22. Plank had an ERA of 2.35. Plank’s career WHIP was 1.119. Lefty’s was 1.247. The only place where they don’t compare is strikeouts. Lefty fanned 4,136 to Plank’s 2,236. I think the slight edge overall goes to Carlton, but not by much.  And the fact that it’s even up for debate shows you exactly how good Plank was.

Born in Gettysburg, PA, in 1875, Plank was known as Gettysburg Eddie. He made his debut with the A’s in 1901 at the age of 25, and he would stay with them until 1914. He helped them to World Series wins in 1911 and 1913. He still holds the record for most shutouts by a left-handed pitcher, with 69.

Of course, it’s kind of fitting that he’s overlooked now, because he was kind of overlooked in his own day as well. Pitching at the same time as Cy Young and Walter Johnson, the quiet lefty’s trademark was consistency, which was just as sexy back then as it is now. As his former teammate Eddie Collins once observed: “Plank was not the fastest. He was not the trickiest, and not the possessor of the most stuff. He was just the greatest.”

All Gettysburg Eddie did was win baseball games. A lot of them. He may have been forgotten in Philly, but not in his hometown. He is a Philadelphia athlete you absolutely, positively should know about.


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.


Today’s Pitching Matchup: Marquard vs. Plank

(October 16th, 1911) PHILADELPHIA– ATHLETICS EDDIE PLANK. The Athletics will be looking to tie the Series at one game apiece this afternoon. No team wants to find itself in a 2-0 hole, knowing that they’ll be facing the legendary Christy Mathewson in Game 3, coming in with a full 2 days rest. And so the Athletics lay their hopes on the left arm of a 36-year old who grew up in Gettysburg, PA. Plank is known for his good sidearm sweeping curveball, and his long pauses on the mound. According to Eddie Collins,   “Plank’s favorite situation is two men on and a slugger up. The better the hitter the better Eddie likes it. For, if a man has a reputation to uphold, the fans would egg him on, and he would be aching to hit. Plank would fuss and fuddle with the ball, with his shoes, and then try and talk to the umpire.”  Collins, Plank’s roommate at the house on 2405 West Ontario Street, continued, “Plank is not the fastest, not the trickiest, and not the possessor of the most stuff, but he is just the greatest.”
There are some who question Mack’s decision to go with Plank instead of the great Jack Coombs (28-12 this year with a 3.53). But Plank is a nervous, excitable sort, and Mack seems to think he’ll be calmer in front of a friendly home crowd. Coombs, much cooler and even keeled, could care less where he pitches. He will shoulder the load at the Polo Grounds in Game 3.

GIANTS RUBE MARQUARD. One look at the name “Rube” Marquard and you’d think the Giants would be sending a country hayseed out to pitch Game 2. Not so. He was born in Cleveland, and is a city boy through and through. He got the nickname by a writer in Indianapolis who compared him with former Athletic great Rube Waddell. Of course, those similarities go no further than the diamond; Marquard doesn’t leave the hill to chase after fire trucks.

He has a blazing fastball, but prefers to use his forkball and a screwball he learned from Matty. “Any hitter can hit a fast one,” Marquard says, “But not many can hit slow ones.” Marquard, who was signed for the unheard of price of $11,000 in 1908, struggled in his first 3 seasons and was known as the “$11,000 Lemon” until this year. Many credit new Giants assistant coach Wilbert Robinson with turning Rube’s fortunes around. He went 24-7 with a 2.50 ERA this year, fianlly living up to the potential the Giants were looking for when they paid all of that money for him.

WATCH THE GAME HERE! We will be showing the game up on the big board at 2 p.m. today, very similar to the board the New York fans will be watching in Times Square. Be back here at 2 p.m. for first pitch!

All quotes in the previous piece are actual quotes from the actual players. In some cases I have changed the case to make it present instead of past. A lot of info in this post was supplied by the book Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball. -ed.


Frank Baker the Hero in Game 2; Plank is Unhittable

(October 17th, 1911) PHILADELPHIA –The two best teams in baseball went head to head again on Sunday afternoon in front of a packed house at Shibe Park, and when it was over, baseball’s titans were tied at one game apiece. The A’s got off to a quick start, leadoff hitter Bris Lord tagging one to right field that right fielder Red Miller mishandled, allowing Lord to get to second. Oldring moved him along to third with a bunt, and then Lord scored on a passed ball. The Giants quickly countered, scoring in the top of the 2nd on a Herzog double followed by a Chief Meyers single off of Athletics starter Eddie Plank (left). The 6th inning is where the drama truly began. In the top of the 6th, Fred Snodgrass lined a ball right down the left field line. The speedy Snodgrass thought he had a sure double. But he seemed to get slowed by the mud around first base, and was gunned down at second. Christy Mathewson, writing in the Times, blamed the out on the Philly grounds crew.

“They resorted to a trick in preparing their field that reminded me of the bushes. They’d evidently wet down the baselines within a radium of about 20 feet of all the bags so as to slow our men up…The doctoring of the field did us little damage, except when Snodgrass made a hit to left field in the sixth inning and tried to get two bases on it. He slipped in the wet turf making the turn around first base and was caught easily at second.”

The grounds crew was not pleased with Matty’s assesment.

“Mathewson is saying what is not true,” said groundskeeper Joe Schroeder, “and he is doing it to find some excuse for the Giants losing the game.”

The rivalry seems to be heating up a bit. Just a few minutes later, Eddie Collins came up for the A’s with two outs and nobody on. He doubled to almost the same spot that Snodgrass had hit the ball moments earlier, down the left field line. He didn’t have any problems rounding first, and made it cleanly into second base. That brought up Frank Baker. Giants pitcher Rube Marquard spoke after the game about what he was thinking when Baker came to the plate.

“Baker is a bad man and I had been warned against him, and I had the right dope too, but at the last moment I switched, because I thought I was working it too hard. I struck him out in the first inning with three deliveries. The first was an incurve. The second was also an incurve and he fouled. For the third strike I gave him the same thing and got him. So that when he came up in the sixth, I fully intended to follow instructions and give him curved balls. But when I had one strike on him and he had refused to bite on another outcurve which was a little too wide, I thought to cross him by sending in a fast high straight ball the kind I knew he liked. Meyers had called for a curve, but I could not see it, and signaled for a high fast ball.”

Baker (right) took that fastball for a ride, sending it over the deep rightfield wall at Shibe (you can see a picture of Shibe here to imagine how far the ball went. Right center is a pretty good ways from home, when you consider that dead center is 505 feet.) The crowd went wild, the people cheering from the rooftops screamed so loudly they would have been heard at City Hall, had there not been thousands more people screaming wildly after watching the homer on a Playograph. The crowd howled, whistled, cheered, and even banged on the roof of the visitors tin dugout with their canes and feet. The Athletics took a 3-1, and that was all Eddie Plank would need. He gave up a mere two hits after the 3rd inning, with one of those being the one Snodgrass got thrown out on.

The other pitcher, however, was taking plenty of grief. Marquard had pitched a gem, allowing only 4 hits in 7 innings, but he had made the mistake of giving Baker a fastball, and his coach was not pleased. “A good pitcher isn’t supposed to give up a home run like that,” barked McGraw after the game. Mathewson ripped Marquard in today’s Times, as the headline of his column reads, “Marquard makes the wrong pitch”. There is little doubt that the great Matty will make no such mistake against Baker at the Polo Grounds today.

PREVIOUSLY: Mathewson leads Giants to victory in Game 1.