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?


Philadelphia Has a New King; “Home Run” Baker

(October 18th, 1911) NEW YORK– William Penn and Ben Franklin were seen milling around the visitors clubhouse late yesterday afternoon. They were there to extend an invite to one “Mr. Frank Baker”, heretofore known as “Home Run”, to join that rare pantheon of Philadelphia immortals, men whose names and deeds shall be remembered in the city of Brotherly Love long after they are physically gone.

It is funny what makes men heroes in this game. We are not cheering their intellect, stamina, or charm. We are cheering their ability to lift a piece of lumber off their shoulder and hit a spheroid in an act that takes places in tenths of a second. And the later in the contest they can do perform this rather random act, the louder we cheer.

If there were any justice in this world, the real hero of yesterday’s ballgame would be the Athletics pitcher, Jack Coombs, who threw one of the greatest games in the brief history of this Fall Classic. After all, in 11 innings, the great Coombs pitched every bit as well as he did a year ago (when he won three games against the Cubs in the 1910 Series), allowing a mere 3 hits to this vaunted Giants lineup.

But perhaps part of the reason this game is so uniquely American is because we are a nation who loves instant gratification, and without a mythological past, we have to create our heroes on the fly. This combination of forces has created Philadelphia’s newest hero, now and forevermore.

He is no longer Frank Baker, young third baseman of the Philadelphia Athletics. He is Home Run Baker, the American Zeus who hit the 9th inning home run off the greatest pitcher in baseball (sorry, Cy) to change the flow and the feel of the 1911 World Series. If the Athletics go on to win this Series, he will never pay for a steak in the town of Philadelphia again.

After all, Game 3 seemed to be all but over. Sure the lead was only 1-0, but the Giants had found a way to thwart every A’s rally all afternoon. In fact, many Giants fans were headed for the exits, satisfied that their own hero was placing another feather in his cap. Through 8 innings, Matty had shut down the might Athletic lineup, and when Eddie Collins grounded out to Buck Herzog at 3rd to start the 9th, Giants fans began to discuss Game 4.

Mathewson gained two quick strikes on the left-handed Baker with curve balls. As we had learned the day before, the way to pitch to Baker was by nibbling around the plate. That is what made the next pitch so perplexing. The ink was hardly dry on the paper Matty had written that morning, questioning Marquard’s decision to throw Baker a fastball that he took out of the park in Game 2. And for some reason, Matty, perhaps thinking his fastball had a bit more sizzle than Marquard’s, tried to throw it past Baker. It is doubtful he will ever forgive himself. Baker, no doubt delighted by the straight avenue that ball was driving, swung the bat fiercely, and sent it flying the opposite direction even faster. As stunned Giants fans stared in disbelief, the ball flew through the light drizzle and the grey autumn air and cleared the right field wall (Polo Field right field wall can be seen below, with several Athletics lounging below it before the game began) by 15 feet and landed in the next to last row. As New York sportswriter Fred Lieb put it, the New York ballpark was so quiet you could hear “Baker putting his footprints in the dirt as he rounded the bases.”

The game was tied, and the momentum of the game and the Series was instantly changed. The Giants suddenly couldn’t handle routine grounders, and Matty lost the aura of invincibility he has worked so hard to create over the years. The game went into extras.

 

In the 10th inning, the bad blood that has been rising between the two teams in this season went from a simmer to a boil. With Fred Snodgrass (right) standing on second, a pitch got past catcher Jack Lapp and Snodgrass took off for third. Lapp quickly recovered, and rifled a shot to Baker. Perhaps angry about Baker’s hit the inning before, or perhaps desperate to earn the base that stands a mere 90 feet from home, Snodgrass came sliding spikes high. His sharpened spikes slashed Baker, and play was paused as Baker was tended to by

a doctor. The New York fans turned on Snodgrass, booing and hissing as he walked back to the bench after the out, disgusted by his lack of sportsmanship. Furthermore, they cheered when Baker took his place again at third base.

It was obvious at this point that New York had lost its cool. In the top of the 11th, the team fell to pieces. Collins singled to left, and Baker ran out an infield single. Giants third baseman Buck Herzog picked up the ball and threw it wildly and to first, and the A’s had men on 2nd and 3rd and no-one out. Danny Murphy hit a grounder to the shortstop Fletcher, but Art fumbled it. A run scored and all were safe. Harry Davis singled home a run and the A’s were up 3-1.

The Giants made a last ditch effort in the bottom of the inning. Herzog tried to make up for his awful day in the field (he had 3 errors) by leading off with a double. He got around to score on an Eddie Collins error. But with two outs, Beals Becker tried to reach 2nd on a steal, and Jack Lapp threw him out, the fifth baserunner Lapp threw out on this afternoon. A remarkable performance from a backup catcher against the fastest team in baseball.

And so the A’s won the most thrilling game of the Series thus far, 3-2, in 11 innings, and the Series shifts back to Philadelphia. There are talks of a long week of rain Philly, but perhaps it is just as well. For this is a game to be savored, discussed, and argued over for days and even years to come. As Mack told Lieb after the game, “That’s one game I’ll never forget if I live to be 100. I think I lived a lifetime during it.”


Snodgrass Not Shot, But Chased out of Philadelphia by Furious Fans

(October 20th, 1911) PHILADELPHIA– The rivalry between New York and Philadelphia just heated up a bit, as Philly fans have made life so miserable for Fred Snodgrass that he has left the city and returned to New York until the rain stops. Snodgrass, as you may recall, slid hard into Frank “Home Run” Baker an inning after Baker’s dramatic game tying home run. The slide was so vicious that it produced gashes in Baker’s arm and leg, and tore his trousers from knee to hip. Even the home town New Yorkers thought it a dirty ply, and booed Snodgrass when he walked back to the dugout. Well, if you think the home town didn’t like it, you can only imagine what Baker’s Philly fans thought of it. They have so aggressively hooted Snodgrass since he got off the train that McGraw thought that Snodgrass should head back to New York until the rain stops for his own safety.

The center fielder’s absence from the Majestic Hotel started a wild rumor that he had been shot by a crazed A’s fan. There was no substance ot the rumor, but a crowd gathered at the Majestic until several Giants players came out and explained the situation. As for Snodgrass? Will he even play in Game 4 in Philly if this rain ever lets up?

“My goat is not for sale,” he says. They say the crowd tomorrow will have it in for me, but there’s no danger of my going up in the air.”

Another wild rumor went out that baker had suffered blood poisoning because of that fateful slide, but this was of course hogwash. Baker is resting peacefully at his home in North Philly, and is as pleased as anyone about these rains, which have given him time to lick his wounds.

IN OTHER NEWS: Tickets for Game 4 are almost impossible to come by here in Philadelphia, and several fans braved the thunderstorm last night in the doorways of Shibe Park in the hopes of getting their hands on some tickets. Scalpers are having no problems disposing of tickets for double their face value, and Game 4 will certainly be a sellout.

*notes for this article came from the October 20th, 1911 copy of the New York Times.


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.