Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Frank "Home Run" Baker: Taking his ball and going home since 1915

His eyes1 shot a fleeting glance into the Polo Grounds stands, but they didn't see anything in particular. His mind instead dwelled on the stitched white ball in Christy Mathewson's leather mitt, just as it had the day before in Rube Marquard's. He dug into batter's box and took a strike from the beloved "Matty," who was just two outs away from a 1-0 shutout and a World Series lead for the Giants. The next pitch buzzed in, and with a crack of the bat, the ball flew high over Red Murray's right field patrolling grounds and into the right field stands2. John "Frank" Baker had tied Game 3 of the 1911 World Series with a home run in the top of ninth inning. He would later score one of the Philadelphia Athletics' two runs in the 11th inning to give the A's a win in the game and a 2-1 lead in the World Series over the New York Giants.

A day earlier, he had given the A's the lead with a similar home run to right off Rube Marquard. It was a magnificent feat in the Deadball Era; in the six game series, only one other home run was hit3. Baker had crushed two pitches at monumentally important times in consecutive games, helping the A's to their first championship. Frank Baker was christened "Home Run" by the press, and the name stuck.

At first blush, Home Run Baker's career home run totals don't impress: just 96 home runs in 13 seasons. But in the Deadball Era, Baker's power was enough to lead the league in home runs for four straight seasons from 1911-1914. The totals say a lot about the era: 11 in 1911, 10 in 1912, 12 in 1913 and 9 in 1914. Baker played in that stretch as part of the $100,000 Infield, which led the A's to three American League pennants in four years.

But third baseman Baker featured more weapons than the long ball. He batted better than .319 in all seasons between 1911-1914, and his patience at the plate helped him eclipse a .400 on-base percentage twice. His career triple slash of .307/.363/.442 was great for the era, and his exploits earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame4.

Baker's career numbers would probably have been better if he hadn't sat out 1915 because of a contract dispute with A's owner/manager/robber baron Connie Mack5. Baker wanted a pay raise, so he held out the whole year and played semiprofessional ball in the backwaters of the budding Northeast Megalopolis.

Mack sold Home Run's contract to the New York Yankees in 19166. Baker's year off led to him falling from superstar status to a very good player, and he hung up his spikes at the end of the 1919 season. However, he returned in 1921 to play on the Yankees' first two pennant-winning teams of the Roaring Twenties before hanging it up for good. As the Pinstripes' part-time third baseman, Baker hit at essentially the league average. He was replaced by Joe Dugan, who had actually played third base in Philadelphia shortly after Home Run's departure.

So Baker had Dugan murdered by former A's catcher Ossee Schrecongost in 1923. Baker was indicted and incarcerated for his crimes and sentenced to life in the gulags7.

And he never hit a home run again8. The end.

1 Baker holds the all-time record for most furrowed brow.

2 The Polo Grounds was a stadium of extreme distances. The short left-field and right-field corners captured what were essentially pop-ups for home runs, while the power alleys and straightaway center were absurdly deep and essentially impossible to reach. Willie Mays' famous catch in the 1954 World Series was so deep in the Polo Grounds' right-center gap that it would have cleared most fences of the time by a considerable margin.

3 The other homer was also hit by an A's player; center fielder Rube Oldring drove home all three of the A's runs in Game 5 with a shot into the left-field seats at the Polo Grounds. The A's lost this game 4-3.

4 Baker was inducted into the Hall in 1955. His career numbers don't have the aggregate totals that many other HoF'ers of the era do, but his offensive domination as part of the $100,000 Infield lends itself to legend.

5 The robber baron part is pretty uncharacteristic, at least compared to some penny-pinching owners of the day. By all accounts, Mack was considered a gentleman of the game.

6 Perhaps the link at this point is a bit excessive, particularly because I don't much care for the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry. But it is funny to see and/or hear children doing obscene things.

7 OK, so I made this part up. But I thought the narrative needed it. I mean, somebody named Ossie Schrecengost probably should kill people for a living; Schrecengost actually died in 1914. Home Run Baker, however, lived to see his Hall of Fame induction; he died in 1962 in Trappe, MD, where he'd grown up. As best as I can tell, he never spent time in the gulags, although I can find no Internet source that specifically says he was never sent to Siberia for internment.

8 This is also untrue, but less untrue than the previous fib. Baker never hit another home run in the majors. He did, however, play for the Easton Farmers in the Eastern Shore League in 1924, where he hit 6 more home runs. Also on Baker's Eastern Shore club was a 16-year-old catcher named Jimmie Foxx. The league also featured a young Red Ruffing pitching for the Dover Senators.

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