September 27, 2021

Story of 1921 Expertly Researched and Written

July 12, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

1921: The Yankees, The Giants, & The Battle For Baseball Supremacy In New York by Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time.  Spatz and Steinberg put a lot of time and effort into their 515-page recollection of the 1921 season and it shows.  In fact, the last 115 pages are loaded with appendices of box scores and league leaders, followed by a treasure trove of source notes, followed by a bibliography that could choke a baseball historian (or the horse he rode in on).  For a baseball geek like myself, the source notes and bibliography are often as valuable as the text within the body of the work itself.

But it’s within the first 400 pages where Spatz and Steinberg really shine.  Having written two books myself, I know how difficult it is to be both informative and entertaining, but Spatz and Steinberg are both and by the end of the book I felt like I knew just about everything there was to know about New York circa 1921 and, of course, baseball in general.

The 1920s were pivotal for many reasons and, according to Bill James, “The change between the baseball of the teens and the baseball of the twenties was the most sudden and dramatic of the twentieth century.”  The abolition of the spitball and freak deliveries, the swing-from-the-heels philosophy of Babe Ruth that ushered in a new style of play, and the banishment of eight members of the Chicago White Sox for throwing the 1919 World Series placed a stamp on the 1920s that would clearly distinguish that decade from the rest.  The end of the teens was fraught with disarray as American League players fought with their teammates, managers and/or owners, causing a rift that shifted the balance of power from Boston to New York and from A.L. president Ban Johnson and his “Loyal Five” to the “Insurrectos” led by the owners of the Red Sox, Yankees and White Sox, most notably Harry Frazee.

Thanks to Frazee’s relationship with Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston, the latter were able to build a dynasty composed mainly of former Red Sox, including the aforementioned Ruth and submarine pitcher Carl Mays, both of whom were instrumental in leading the Yankees to their first postseason in franchise history in 1921.  Meanwhile, Giants manager John McGraw, who had his own feud brewing with Johnson and couldn’t stand Ruth’s style of play, was in the middle of a successful run in which he led his team to six pennants and a championship in 15 years and was on the verge of his seventh flag and second World Series title.

The Giants had been so successful under McGraw and the Yankees so woeful since their inception in 1903 that the former allowed the latter to play in the Polo Grounds beginning in 1913 with little fear of losing fans or customers.  But Ruth’s historic and much-ballyhooed transfer from the Red Sox to the Yankees prior to the 1920 season changed all that.

It’s no surprise that Ruth and McGraw are the main characters in 1921, considering their gigantic egos and personalities, and their accomplishments.  McGraw had led his teams to a .612 winning percentage in more than 2,300 games dating back to 1903; Ruth set the single-season home run record in 1919 with 29, shattered it in 1920 with 54, then bested it again in 1921 with 59.

“At hand was a long-anticipated confrontation between the two New York clubs: the Yankees, led by Babe Ruth, and the Giants, led by John McGraw,” write Spatz and Steinberg.  “They represented two very different philosophies.  Sharing one ballpark, the two teams fought for the fan base of the nation’s largest city, for the top of the baseball world, and for the future direction of the game.”

But there were many more characters that make the book such an interesting read—Mays, the reviled but successful hurler who abandoned the Red Sox in 1919, then threw the pitch that killed beloved Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920; diminutive and embattled Yankees manager Miller Huggins who once said of Mays and Joe Bush, “If they were in a gutter, I’d kick them,” and who was wanted by only one of the two Yankee owners; George “High Pockets” Kelly who, ironically enough, led the N.L. in homers in 1921 with 23 for a manager who preferred “scientific” baseball; Bob and “Irish” Meusel, brothers who played on opposite sides; and “Shufflin’ Phil” Douglas, a talented spitballer with an insatiable thirst for alcohol who would find himself banned for life only a year later after offering to abandon the team in the heat of a pennant race for “some inducement” from the second-place St. Louis Cardinals.

What I especially enjoyed about this book, though, was the authors’ liberal use of contemporary quotes and newspaper and magazine reports from the era.  I always like to know what was being written or said by those who were in the thick of The Game as it was evolving and Spatz and Steinberg don’t disappoint.  About Red Sox third baseman Larry Gardner, the Boston Globe’s Tim Murnane wrote, “Gardner had a way of rising to the occasion, as a trout rises to a fly in one of his Vermont streams.”  And after Babe Ruth was subjected to a series of tests to determine why he was so skilled at hitting a baseball, Ruth explained, “They harnessed me with wires and tubes and I felt like a cross between a fire horse and a deep-sea diver…It’s too deep for me…I don’t know any more why or how I knock home runs now than I did before.”

If I have one complaint about the book it’s that it often gets bogged down in game accounts, and before long one game blurs into the next.  But that’s splitting hairs considering how difficult it is to tell the story of a baseball season without including the blow-by-blow from most, if not all, of the games leading up to the postseason.  And when you consider that the Giants finished only four games ahead of Pittsburgh and the Yankees four-and-a-half ahead of Cleveland, the authors can be forgiven for doing what they can to extract every ounce of excitement from two close pennant races.

1921: The Yankees, The Giants, & The Battle For Baseball Supremacy In New York is an exceptional, scholarly work and I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.


One Response to “Story of 1921 Expertly Researched and Written”
  1. Al Featherston says:

    I too have read this book (and disclaimer — I paid for it myself).

    I love baseball history and heartily endorse Mike’s review. It was a fascinating, entertaining look at a pivotal season. Worth noting that Ruth’s 1921 season may be the greatest single offensive season for anybody in history — his injury midway through the World Series turned that series around.

    Really interesting were the old-line sports writers complaining about the new wide-open offensive style … early in the season, they were pontificating that fans wanted “inside baseball” and would reject the home-run oriented style of Ruth and those who followed him.

    Obviously, sports writers in 1921 weren’t any smarter than today’s sports media.

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