It was a game without any (earned) runs in a last-of-its-kind series between budding New York rivals in an era that changed baseball forever. One hundred years ago this week, Babe Ruth came to the plate with a chance to win the Yankees their first World Series. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t call his shot.
It’s the bottom of the third inning in Game 3 of the 1921 World Series. You’re in one of 36,509 occupied seats at the Polo Grounds on 155th Street in Upper Manhattan. It might be chilly, so go ahead and light up. You’ll get strange looks if you don’t. The New York Giants are already losing 4-0 to the upstart New York Yankees, who are playing in their first World Series after two seasons in which they’ve shown fans the future of baseball: Their power hitting is being credited with bringing baseball back from the lows of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the court dates of which the baseball world is just two months removed from.
The Giants, conversely, have played in five previous modern fall classics despite the event hardly being old enough to be considered classic. It’s the most of any franchise, though they’ve only won once. It seems they’re headed for a fifth such heartbreak. The Giants have lost the first two games of the series – which took a combined three hours and 33 minutes – and have gone the first 20 innings of the series so far without scoring a run. The New York Yankees, it seems, are about to arrive.
Forty-year-old sportswriter Grantland Rice is on the radio call because – well – there’s still no such thing as a baseball play-by-play broadcaster. It’s like being an astronaut in the 1950s. Okay, it’s not at all like that, but there is no precedent for this job. This is the first broadcast of a World Series.
Fifteen years prior, two Chicago teams met in a World Series, but this is New York’s first intracity series. Call it a subway series if you like, but there weren’t even two destinations for games. The two hosts both played their games at the Polo Grounds. The construction of Yankee Stadium would start the following May after the New York Giants essentially drove the rent-paying Yankees from the Polo Grounds and across the Harlem River to the Bronx.
So, down two games to none in the series and 4-0 in Game 3, it finally happens for the Giants: They break out for four runs to match the Yankees’ four from the top of half of the third and tie the game entering the fourth inning. They add eight in the seventh and go on to win 13-5 in two hours and 40 minutes for the longest game of the series. Yeah, this was baseball at a pace better suited for the ever-dwindling attention span of 2021 than 1921.
With Game 3 essentially out of reach for the Yankees, in the eighth inning Babe Ruth – fresh off a record-setting 59-home run regular season – aggravates his elbow by, for the second straight game, scraping it while sliding on the basepaths. In typical 1921 fashion, it becomes infected. It’s said the elbow needed to be “lanced,” a medical term that has thankfully lost some popularity in the 100 years since. Ruth was also hobbled by a knee injury, and after getting through the first five games of the series, wouldn’t play again until a pinch-hit appearance in Game 8.
With Ruth’s Yankees facing elimination in the best-of-nine series, heroics would not follow. But the game’s relevance endures. One hundred years ago, the New York Giants and their tenants, the New York Yankees, played a World Series that, while perhaps not widely celebrated, brought baseball into a more modern era in more ways than one. And with no shortage of statistical anomalies.
The 1921 New York Baseball Giants
Famed manager John McGraw, who’d been managing since 1899 and with the Giants since 1902, led his club to a 94-59 record in 1921, but that wasn’t anything all that special given that he’d led the club to at 101 or more victories four times before that.
As for his players, the ’21 campaign was perhaps the magnum opus for Hall of Famer George Kelly. The first baseman had proven himself the previous season but in 1921 hit .308 with a career-high 23 home runs and 122 RBIs. As for what he was bad at: He stole four bases and was thrown out 12 times, and, over the course of his two breakout seasons of ’20 and ’21, he was successful on 10 of his 38 stolen base attempts. Wheels, he had not, yet in perhaps the finest example of the unorthodox nature of the Polo Grounds, he managed 20 triples in those seasons. The park’s dimensions: 279 feet to left-field foul pole, 258 to right, 450 in the gaps, and 483 to center. It was a baseball field the way a Big Wheel is a rocket ship.
Fellow Hall of Famer and third baseman Frankie Frisch hit .341 with eight homers, 17 triples, 100 RBIs and 49 steals. And HOF right fielder Ross Youngs hit .327 with three homers, 16 three-baggers and 102 RBIs. That’s right: three homers and 102 runs batted in. One of 25 individual seasons in MLB history with three homers or less and 102 RBIs or more. A few others on that list, if for no reason other than to be entertained by some early-20th century given names: Cupid Childs, Spud Johnson, Kid Gleason and Chicken Wolf. Yes. Chicken. Wolf. Two HRs, 102 RBIs for the 1887 Louisville Colonels. Loyal servant of manager Honest John Kelly.
That trio of less creatively named Giants were all entering their primes with Kelly being 26 and Frisch and Youngs at 24, but for the sake of comparison, none of them would have been seriously competing for an NL MVP had the award been around at the time. That hardware would’ve gone to Rogers Hornsby that season after hitting .397 with 21 homers, 44 doubles and 18 triples with 126 RBIs.
The Giants, in summary, were a good offensive team but not great. The Yankees, conversely, were a great offensive team that hadn’t done anything significant just yet.
The Upstart New York Yankees
The New York Yankees in 1921 were comparative nobodies, but nobodies on the rise. Yeah, they went 98-55 for manager Miller Huggins. Yeah, they had this guy who was revolutionizing the sport, having hit 113 homers himself in the 1920 and ’21 seasons. Yeah, they drew over 1.2 million fans that season compared to the Giants at just under a million at the same park. Yeah, the Yankees hit 134 homers and scored 948 runs and slugged .468 as a team, which no team had ever done in the modern era or would do again until those 1927 Yankees. But we’re talking about a franchise that hadn’t done anything all that memorable in its history and was paying rent to the team they were playing in the World Series. So overall, by today’s standards, a bit un-Yankee-like in the sense that they were anything but established.
But as for the team, they were good. There was no 2006 St. Louis Cardinals-ing your way into the World Series 100 years ago. The nickname the Bronx Bombers wasn’t yet a thing, but this was the season along with 1920 that put the trajectory of the franchise in place. When we think about Yankees lore, we think about 1927, right? Or perhaps 1923 when they won their first World Series. But in 1921, this dude Ruth had just completed what was perhaps the best season of his career – to that point and beyond – and arguably of any career by any player ever. He hit 54 baseballs over a wall in 1920 and 59 baseballs over a wall in 1921, and we tend to think of all this as the evidence of the end of the dead-ball era. Those 59 homers were the single-season MLB record, and Ruth also set the career home run record in the middle of that season by surpassing Roger Connor’s total of – you can almost count them on one hand – a whopping 138 career home runs. Ruth’s 59 homers were more than eight of the 16 teams in the league. So, in 1921 Ruth hit .378 with 59 homers and 171 RBIs. Decent.
So decent in fact that it stands as the only season in which a player has hit .370 with 50+ homers and 170+ RBIs. And it stands as just one of four seasons in which a player has even hit .350 with 50 homers and 150 RBIs. Ruth did it again in 1927, then Hack Wilson did it for the Cubs in 1930 and Jimmie Foxx followed that up in 1932.
In 1921, it wasn’t good enough to win the triple crown because Detroit’s Harry Heilmann hit .394 and his teammate Ty Cobb hit .389.
Lou Gehrig was 18 and still two seasons from his big-league debut, but the Babe did have a co-slugger of note. Teammate Bob Meusel hit .318 with the league’s next-best home run total of 24 and 135 RBIs. He struck out a league-high 88 times, while Ruth was a few places back tied for third with 81. It doesn’t sound like much compared to today’s K rates, but it was in fact the all-or-nothing power hitting of the era. Only 15 players struck out 50 or more times.
One was named Hi Myers. Short for Hello – or Henry. One was named Bevo LeBourveau. Bibb Falk. Given names and nicknames in 1921 America are as precious to us in 2021 as penicillin would have been to Ruth in 1921.
Digression. Anyway, if you’re looking to praise – or blame – any duo for the power-centric trajectory of home runs and strikeouts in the game over the past 100 years, Ruth and Meusel might be your OGs.
As noted, the Yankees dominated the first two games. The Giants came alive in Game 3 for that 13-5 win, then even the series at 2-2 despite Ruth going 2 for 4 and hitting a baseball over a wall before the infection set in. The Yankees won Game 5 in Ruth’s last full game of the series to go up 3-2, and the offensive woes were back for the Giants with what turned out to be their third of four games in the series scoring a run or less. But the Giants then won games 6 and 7 with Ruth still out. So McGraw and Co. were up 4-3 entering Game 8 with a chance to close things out.
Game 8 started with the Giants pushing one across in the top of the first, technically being the away team on Oct. 13, 1921. It was windy and cold, and the hitting reflected this. Yankees starter Waite Hoyt put two runners on with a pair of walks but would have gotten out of the inning had it not been for an E6. Yankees shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh flubbed a grounder from High Pockets Kelly – please pause and imagine Grantland Rice announcing these names over a grainy 1920s radio – and Dave Bancroft came around to score. The only run of the game.
Yeah, sorry Hollywood, the Yankees didn’t win the 1921 World Series. And the Giants won the World Series by scoring a run or less in half of the eight games. The only other team in MLB history to win a postseason series with four games of scoring a run or less was the 1991 Atlanta Braves, who beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven in the NLCS.
This game is interesting because it’s the last Game 8, the finale of the Word Series’ first radio call, the arrival of the Yankees on the national stage, Babe Ruth temporarily losing efficacy in a major limb, and so on. But it’s also significant in that it’s credited with being the culmination of the series that helped bring baseball back to life. The Black Sox scandal had happened two years before, and the trial from which eight players were famously banned from the game for life ended just two months before the 1921 World Series. The public’s trust of the game was not in a great spot, but the Yankees’ home runs and a budding New York rivalry called the Subway Series saved the day. It’s reminiscent – albeit in a more innocent fashion – of the 1998 home run race. People like dingers.
If we want to look at it in the context of a single baseball game, it stands the test of time there as well. Game 8 ended on an unconventional double play in which one of baseball’s greatest faux pas played out. After Ruth pinch hit and unceremoniously grounded out, Aaron Ward walked and was on base as the tying run when Frank Home Run Baker came to the plate. Home Run Baker, whose name went out of date before his playing career was over. HRB never hit more than 12 homers in a season, but 12 was a lot in 1913 when he did it. He was one of six players to reach double digits that season – apologies for one last name-related digression – along with: Gavvy Cravath, Fred Luderus, Vic Saier, Sherry Magee and Chief Wilson. Wildfire Schulte was one off the pace with nine, but he gets to be in this story anyway – because his name was Wildfire Schulte.
Jump ahead to 1921, and it was best to call Home Run Baker by his given name: John. Wasn’t it Frank? It was that too. John Franklin Home Run Baker.
So back in the final frame of Game 8, Baker grounded up the middle, and Giants second baseman Johnny Rawlings made a diving stop in the hole and threw Baker out at first. Ward, who had been on first, must have thought the ball got through to the outfield. Perhaps he had a stiff neck. Aaron Stiffneck Ward was then thrown out at third to end the World Series. Your little league coach told you not to make the first or third out at third base, but sometimes little league coaches are bigger on the fundamentals than big leaguers themselves. This was a particularly costly one on a 4-3-5 double play.
Game 8 took an hour and 57 minutes to complete. Apparently, this was just too much baseball. The eight games totaled 15 hours and 51 minutes of ball according to our archives, which sounds pretty damn reasonable. It was the last of its kind with MLB changing the World Series to a best of seven the following season, perhaps in part because by Game 8, the city of New York was kind of losing interest. Our attendance records show 25,410 fans attended the finale after the series averaged just under 35,000 (244,567 total) for the first seven. Written reports of the game claim it was cold and windy. And we can tell you for certain there hadn’t been a dinger to speak of since Game 6.
We haven’t talked much about pitching – and why the hell would we when we’ve got 100-year-old data like that telling us not to? Hopefully this doesn’t lose you here like the 1921 World Series lost its audience perhaps in part for a lack of offense, but this is a decent lil’ fact to drop in your World Series WhatsApp chat. HOFer Waite Hoyt pitched Game 8 for the Yanks. Now, this was an interesting man – his history includes vaudeville and plenty more away from the mound. Go read about him if you’re so inclined, but we’ve had one too many digressions here as it is.
This was Hoyt’s first postseason, and he had to be frustrated with how it ended. For context, Hoyt was actually signed by the Giants when he was 15 – signed in fact by Giants manager John McGraw. Seven years later and pitching for the Yankees, the right-hander had a strong second half of the season and got the ball in games 2, 5 and 8 against his former team, winning games 2 and 5. He threw complete games in each – which of course wasn’t uncommon back then – and allowed two runs in 27 innings. The thing is, neither of those runs were earned. Hoyt pitched 27 innings without allowing an earned run and was left with the unenviable tag of losing pitcher in the deciding game of his first World Series. Earned runs weren’t recorded in both leagues until 1913, but Hoyt stands as the only pitcher from then until this very day to start three games in a World Series without allowing an earned run. Ten other pitchers have managed two such games with Whitey Ford doing it twice – 1960 and ’61.
Also dating to the beginning of recorded earned runs in 1913, 1921’s Game 8 stands as one of four World Series games in which neither team had an earned run:
That White Sox and Reds game took place in the previously mentioned 1919 World Series tarnished by scandal. None of the other three games ended a series, so 1921’s Game 8 stands as the only series-clinching game that ended without an earned run.
To bring it all together, you may guess Hoyt is the only pitcher to throw a complete game without allowing an earned run who lost a World Series game. Not true. Eddie Cicotte of the 1919 White Sox lost Game 4 of the World Series to the Reds under slightly more nuanced circumstances. The White Sox made two errors to sincerely help Cicotte lose that one. Cicotte was one of the eight men banned from baseball in the summer of 1921 for their alleged involvement in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. So you could say Hoyt’s complete-game loss without an earned run allowed is the only genuine occurrence in World Series history.
And yes, this means back in 1919 a starting pitcher was likely straight up grooving pitches to the Reds all game and they couldn’t score an earned run. Maybe it was possible to 2006 St. Louis Cardinals your way to the World Series back then.
We told you about the strange ending to the 1921 series on the basepaths. The thing is, the Yankees lost another World Series just five years later with the series ending with a baserunner making the final out. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the 1926 series, and Bob Meusel at the plate down 3-2, Ruth tried to steal second. He was thrown out. So twice in five years they had the tying run on base and didn’t give their bats a chance.
By Ruthian standards, 1921 was a below-average series for the slugger. He went 5 of 16 with a home run and eight strikeouts. Granted, he had some health issues. He returned to the World Series in 1922 and again lost to the Giants, this time in five. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call Ruth to that point in his career a postseason letdown. He ended the 1922 series as a career .182 postseason hitter with a home run, eight RBIs, 15 Ks, and an OPS of .626, which is about half of what you’d come to expect from this man.
It changed from 1923 on. Ruth and the Yankees beat the Giants in six that season – the season in which Yankee Stadium opened – but the clincher came back at the Polo Grounds, which had to be a kick to the ego of the franchise that ran the Yankees across the river.
These two teams met in three straight World Series, and the Giants played in four straight, losing to the Washington Senators in 1924. In all, 13 straight World Series games were played at the Polo Grounds before Game 1 of the 1923 series was played at Yankee Stadium. Quite the rivalry, and the 1921 World Series was the beginning.
And the end of Game 8s.
Research support provided by Stats Perform’s Tom Paquette. Additional detail sourced from the Society for American Baseball Research, and specifically a piece written by T.S. Flynn.