Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 9, 2003
BASEBALL: 75 Years Ago Today
This weekend's series between the Yankees and the Red Sox was a classic of the genre in one sense -- high tension, important games, surprising results -- and a dud in others, given that two of the games were entirely lopsided routs by the Sox.
Yankee Stadium has seen high drama before, and 75 years ago today was one of the most dramatic scenes ever set in the Bronx. Let's set the stage:
1. The Yankees
The Yankees, of course, had been a doormat of a franchise before the 1920 arrivals of Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel and the lively ball era, with an ignominious defeat by Boston in 1904 as the Yanks' only pennant race exposure. After a wild three-way race in 1920 (involving Ruth breaking his own single-season home run record in June, a deadly beaning by Yankee hurler Carl Mays in August and the September suspension of half the White Sox' lineup for fixing the World Series), the Yanks rose to win consecutive pennants in 1921-22 (losing in the Fall Classic to the rival Giants), and christened their new stadium with a World Championship in 1923. After setbacks in 1924-25, the Yanks won the pennant in 1926 (losing a 7-game series to the Cardinals), and then put on a legendary show of dominance in 1927: 110 wins, first place from Opening Day to the clincher on Labor Day, out-homering their opponents 158-42, a .307 team batting average and a 3.20 team ERA, scoring 6.33 runs/game and allowing 3.89 runs/game. As I've noted previously, the 1927 Yankees were the greatest slugging team in modern (post-1888) baseball history, with the Ruth/Gehrig/Meusel/Lazzeri/Combs "Murderer's Row" blasting opponents into submission. They cemented their place in the firmament with a sweep of the Pirates in the World Series.
1928 . . . the Yankees roared out of the gate at a 39-8 clip, and through a July 1 doubleheader sweep of the A's, they looked every bit as devastating as they'd been in 1927: 52-16, a .765 winning percentage (a pace to finish 8 games ahead of their 110 wins in 1927), and a 13.5 game lead in the American League. The Yanks were scoring 6.49 runs/game while allowing 4.24. George Pipgras, the weak link in the Yankees' pitching staff in 1927 (10-3, 4.11 ERA), had won 14 games already (Pipgras was 8-1 at the end of May), a 32-win pace; Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock had won 10 apiece, rookie Al Shealy had won 7, 22-year-old rookie Hank Johnson 5, and newly acquired veteran Stan Coveleski 5.
The new acquisitions were important because the Yanks couldn't rely on three mainstays of the 1927 staff. 33-year-old Dutch Ruether, a hard-drinking veteran, had been let go before the season, to be replaced by Coveleski. Sidearming swingman Wilcy Moore, who'd won 19 games and saved 13 with a 2.28 ERA as a 30-year-old rookie in 1927, came down with a sore arm (50 games and 213 innings split between starting and releiving will do that); Moore threw just 60.1 innings in 1928 with a 4.18 ERA (the league ERA was 4.04, down slightly from 1927). Worst of all was Urban Shocker, one of the AL's best pitchers in the 1920s (his average record from 1920-27 was 20-12) and 18-6 with a 2.84 ERA in 1927; Shocker, suffering chest pains so severe he couldn't sleep lying down, had to be released by the Yankees July 6 having made just one appearance, so he could move to the thin air of Denver in hopes of regaining his health.
From July 2 through September 8, though, the Bronx Bombers just weren't the same team, going just 36-31 as they frittered away their lead. As the season wore on, the pitching depth evaporated: Shealy and Coveleski won just 1 more game all season between them. Pipgras also slowed down, highlighted by a 24-6 loss in Cleveland on July 29 and -- amazingly -- a 4-2 loss when Pipgras returned to start against the Indians again the next day. But the real problems were on the offensive side; the pitching was actually better in this period (allowing 4.00 runs/game), but the offense fell off badly, to 4.25 runs/game. I don't have dates for the injury, but Tony Lazzeri, who batted .332 and slugged .535 with a .397 OBP, separated his shoulder and wound up missing 37 games, in which the Yankees went with rookie Leo Durocher at second; Leo's bat couldn't keep up with his glove or his mouth, and he managed to slug just .338 with a .327 OBP, both figures below the league average. Bob Meusel fell off from .337 in 1927 to .297 and missed some games, and Earle Combs and the catchers were off as well. On the other hand, the Babe cracked 24 home runs between May 29 and August 1, and Gehrig batted .374, so neither of them seems to have faded much in the summer sun. Growing worried, the Yankees started to turn over the roster in late summer, bringing in rookie catcher Bill Dickey on August 15 and veteran Senators starter Tom Zachry (who'd surrendered Ruth's 60th homer the year before) on August 23.
2. The A's
If the Yankees had risen to dominance in the 1920s, the A's were still recovering from falling on hard times. One of the dominant franchises from the AL's 1901 founding until Connie Mack's 1914 fire sale, the A's crawled up from 7 straight last place finishes to become a perennial also-ran in the pennant races from 1925-27. 1928 looked the same, as the A's rolled out to a workmanlike 39-30 start, good for a respectable second place to the mighty Yankees. This was one of the strangest teams ever assembled. The young talent was astonishing and already in its prime: Jimmie Foxx was just 20, but Al Simmons was 26, Mickey Cochrane 25, Max Bishop 28, Mule Haas 24, Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw 28. But then there were the super-veterans: Ty Cobb, acquired the previous season (when he'd played regularly and batted .357), was 41; new acquisition Tris Speaker was 40; Eddie Collins, in his second season back in Philly, was 41; ageless pitcher Jack Quinn was 44 (Quinn would pitch until he was 49).
Mack intended to open the season with Simmons in center field and Cobb and Speaker at the corners, but spring training made clear that this would be a defensive disaster; Bill James, in the Historical Abstract, quoted a writer at the time who remarked that Cobb couldn't come in, and Speaker (once the greatest of defensive players) couldn't go back. Simmons was hospitalized with tonsilitis and swollen ankles to start the season, an inauspicious beginning.
Speaker left the lineup for good after a May 21 collision in the outfield with Bing Miller, and Cobb -- hitting .332 at the time and still playing daring baseball on the basepaths -- followed suit after being hit by a pitch on July 27. Meanwhile, Simmons had taken Speaker's place, and Mack worked Foxx into the lineup more as the season progressed, first as essentially a utility player at first, third and even (on 19 occasions) catcher, and ultimately as the everyday third baseman while Jimmy Dykes platooned at first with former minor league slugging legend Joe Hauser.
After the doubleheader sweep on July 1, the A's caught fire in a very big way, going 50-17 heading into their September showdown with the Yankees. While the offense surged from 5.26 to 5.81 runs/game, it was the A's' pitching that really made magic, cutting the team's runs allowed per game from 4.62 to 3.37. Through July 1, the A's were basically leaning on 3 pitchers: Quinn had 9 wins, Grove and Rube Walberg 8 each, with 5 wins for Howard Ehmke, 4 for Ossie Orwoll (who doubled as a part of the first base mix when Hauser and Dykes were injured in late August), and 3 for knuckleballer Eddie Rommel. When the A's got hot, though, Grove was ascendent, winning 14 in a row, including all 13 starts in this stretch. Here's the breakdown of the A's record in each of the pitchers' starts (including Grove's and Rommel's wins in relief):
(I'm leaving out a few spot starts). As you can see, Grove's hot streak wasn't a coincidence; he was the one who really carried the team, along with Quinn and Rommel -- the team was a combined 26-2 and allowed 2.5 runs/game in their starts during the run, while Grove and Rommel won 6 games in relief in this period. The emergence of Earnshaw, who was purchased from the minor league Baltimore Orioles May 28 and didn't win a game before July 1, was also a factor, replacing the ineffective Orwoll in the rotation (Orwoll started just once, in a doubleheader on September 8).
By the morning of Sunday, September 9, the Yankees' lead was gone, and the A's stood at 89-47, a half game ahead of the Yankees at 88-47. The new upstarts had taken the champs by storm, setting the stage for an epic doubleheader at Yankee Stadium to kick off a four-game series.
3. The Scene
As reported in various sources, 85,265 people crammed into Yankee Stadium that afternoon to watch these two titanic teams, loaded to the gills with baseball immortals, grapple for the pennant. Although I'm not sure if the news had reached New York, the drama was underscored by the fact that Shocker died that day in Denver, from what was later revealed to be a severely enlarged heart (he was 38).
The first game, matching Quinn and Pipgras, was something of an anticlimax, as Pipgras tossed a shutout to win 5-0. The second featured a less exciting pitching matchup of Walberg and Fred Heimach, but the two teams took no chances, with Rommel relieving on just one day's rest (he started September 7) for the A's, and Waite Hoyt doing the same for the Yankees. The Yankees took advantage, with Meusel -- on a hot streak by then -- cracking a grand slam in the 8th off Rommel for a stirring 7-3 victory. After a day off on Monday, the teams matched up again on Tuesday, September 11, Grove against Hank Johnson, but the Yankees beat Grove 5-3 on Babe Ruth's 49th home run, a 2-run shot in the 8th (for the season, the Yankees were 6-1 against Grove, who was 24-8 overall, which helps explain why he didn't draw a single MVP vote). The A's beat Hoyt the next day, but the damage was done, the tide turned back, and the Yankees cruised the rest of the way (and went on to sweep the Cardinals in a massively lopsided World Series) while the A's stumbled through the rest of their season-ending 24-game road trip.
The A's would have the last laugh, winning the next 3 pennants and two World Championships while the Yankees' pitching unraveled over the next 3 seasons. But on September 9, 1928, it was the Bronx Bombers who held the day in one of baseball's great pennant race showdowns.
SOURCES: Some of the material here was taken from Retrosheet, baseball-almanac.com, baseball-reference.com, baseball-library.com, the Historical Baseball Abstract, Baseball Dynasties, and Charles Alexander's bio of Ty Cobb.