Menacing Mathewson and Marquard
PHILADELPHIA – “If you desire one truth that is self-evident and beyond all rebuttal”, sportswriter Grantland Rice claimed, “you can stand by this: John Franklin Baker can hit.” The man from the small farming town of Trappe, Maryland had built the muscles in his back, arms and wrists by working at his father’s farm, tending livestock and harvesting crops. Those physical attributes were on display very early in 1908 – his first full season with the Athletics. In only his fourth game that year, Baker hit a grand slam homer over the right field fence in Boston. It was the first time since the 1907 season that anyone had cleared the fence of the Huntington Avenue Grounds with a homer. On May 29, against the same Boston pitcher, Frank Arellanes, he slammed a ball 340 feet, and over the right field fence and out of the newly constructed Shibe Park. He was the first person in history to do so. When the park opened, the Public Ledger reported, “As to the extent of the outfield it is sufficient to say that the first slugger to put a ball over the fence will insure that his name will have a place in baseball history.” Though the home run was all abuzz amongst fans for weeks, it was not until after the 1911 World Series that he would truly make a place for his name in the annals of the sport.
It was during Game 2 in New York against the Giants that ‘Home Run’ Baker was born. Hitting a go-ahead two run homer off of Rube Marquard’s 1-1 fastball in the sixth inning, Frank and his ‘White Elephants’ took that contest, 3-1. The defeated pitcher wrote in a newspaper column that he took full responsibility for the loss. Teammate Christy Mathewson, who had won the opener in the series, agreed. In his own ghostwritten column in the New York Herald, through sportswriter Jack Wheeler he claimed that Rube’s one pitch cost the Giants the game. “Victory hung on that one ball”, Wheeler wrote for Matty, “and Marquard served Baker with the wrong prescription.”
The next game saw the confident Christy take the mound for the second time in the series, this time in the enemy territory of a Shibe Park filled with 38,000 fans. With the Giants up by a run in the A’s ninth, Baker casually stepped to the plate with one out and nobody on. The Christian Gentleman threw two curve strikes to the slugger. Upon laying his next pitch – a fastball just like Marquard’s the game before – Baker slashed a line drive into the right field crowd, landing in the next-to-last tier of the upper grandstands. Mathewson kicked the dirt and proceeded to unravel. The A’s would eventually win that game in the eleventh, and end up taking the series in six games.
Baker had hit 11 homers during that regular season, and the two in the back-to-back World Series games made it 13 total – a kingly number during the dead-ball era.
His philosophy on hitting never had any consideration for an angle of incidence. The slugger’s train of thought was similar to that of Detroit’s Sam Crawford, who felt that the over thinking and studying of the practice would could never yield good results. “Hitting should be done unconsciously,” Crawford was quoted as saying. Waiting until the very last second to swing, Baker would use his strong wrists to snap the ball into right field. His oversized 52 ounce bat, which had a handle almost as thick as the barrel, must have only helped. He would use a closed stance in the batter’s box, legs spread 18 inches apart. He would always place his back foot on the back of the box, and never moved around.
Entering his fourth full season in 1912, Frank ‘Home Run’ Baker had made a name for himself in, and outside, of Major League Baseball. His exploits in the World Series provided exciting copy for people all across the United States. Even many New York Giants fans had an admiration for the farmer from Trappe. Though he may have single-handedly erased the hopes of another series win for Manager John McGraw, admirers had appreciated his calm, cool demeanor at the plate, and his ability to get the job done in clutch situations. Baker continued on his tear that season, again leading the league with 10 round-trippers. He also set an American League record for runs batted in, with 130.
By the time 1913 rolled around, Baker proved that he was in mid-season form at the start of the exhibition season. In his first game, he had five hits – three singles, a double, and a triple – against the San Antonio Broncos of the Texas League. He shook up Dallas five days later with two singles and a double. Then in Texarkana, he had a single, double and a triple. During his tear, the A’s ran up a 12-game winning streak. When they made it to Nashville Park on March 20, Baker hit a monster home run – one that cleared the 30 foot high wall, which itself was on a 20-foot embankment. By the time April 9 rolled around, Mack’s team had won 23 straight games.
During the regular season, the A’s got off to a quick start, racing to a 15-3 record and settling into first place on April 24. Baker on the other hand, had started slowly, and was only batting .217 into May.
It was late in that month when things turned around. Baker feasted on Yankee pitching during a series in Philadelphia, hitting three home runs in as many days. On June 2, Baker hit a solo shot off of Senators ace Walter Johnson. The A’s also found themselves in the middle of a winning streak that reached 15 games before being stopped on June 11. Despite the end of the consecutive game streak, Baker just continued to roll. He hit a homer off of Jim Scott and the White Sox on the 17. Five days later, he drove in five runs against the Red Sox, hitting a single, double, and a triple. And three days later, Walter Johnson was once again roughed up by Frank, surrendering three hits, one of which was a two-run home run. By the time the A’s swept New York, in the beginning of July, they had virtually locked up the pennant with a 51-17 record. The team was ten games ahead of second place Cleveland, and only once that first half of the season did they lose two games in a row.
Baker finished that season rapping out 190 hits, scoring 116 runs, and driving in 117 batters. He also had a total of 12 round-trippers to lead the league. His Athletics would win 96 games, and their fourth pennant.
Facing them in the World Series again were those same New York Giants, who were fresh off of winning their third consecutive National League pennant. During the first game at the Polo Grounds, Baker continued on his postseason tear. In the fourth, he drove infield-mate Eddie Collins home for the first Philadelphia run of the series, tying the game. In the next frame, with one out, Frank slammed a high and inside 1-0 pitch deep towards the right field stands. Giving chase was Giant Red Murray, but upon reaching the concrete wall, he was only greeted by the Bull Durham advertisement, half of which was inscribed with the words: “Champion of the World”. Baker’s home run sailed well over the barrier and into the crowd. Hundreds, if not thousands, of New York fans rose to their feet to cheer Frank, as did his Philadelphia teammates. Collins, who again was on base that inning when Baker hit his blast, waited at home plate to congratulate the third-sacker, shaking his hand and patting him enthusiastically on the back. The farmer from Maryland touched down the fifth run of the game, which would be all the Athletics needed for the win.
When the dust had settled that October, Connie Mack’s A’s took the series 4-1 for their second title of the still-young decade. They had outhit the Giants, .264 to .201. Baker had collected nine hits in twenty at bats – good for a .450 average – and had also driven in seven runs.
And, his home run in the first game of that series? Once again, Rube Marquard was the victim.