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The Champions: 1923

This is part two of twenty-two on the championship seasons before 1996. My goal was to learn a little about the role players on these teams- we all know Babe Ruth played right field, but who played third? We know Red Ruffing and Superchief Allie Reynolds, but what about the guy who had a career year and put the Yanks over the top?

I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had researching and writing it. If I write about a year that you remember or a player you know a lot about I want to hear the story, so share in the comments.

So let's step back to that first great season: 1923.

Yankee Stadium was brand new; Babe Ruth had what could have been his best season; and the two time defending AL champs went on to capture their third pennant and their first World Series crown.

Much more after the jump...

To understand 1923, you have to know a little bit about 1922. In '22 the Yankees lost the World Series to their landlords- the New York Giants- for the second straight year; however, the Yankees reportedly outdrew the Giants thanks to Babe Ruth's tape-measure shots and Colonel Ruppert's willingness to buy a better ball club. When third baseman Frank Baker "began to show his age" cash and a few scrubs brought Joe Dugan to the team. The trade deadline was introduced the next season to prevent the Yankees from making such moves.

So the Yankees and Giants met in the World Series. And the Yankees got destroyed. Swept. There were allegations that pitchers Joe Bush and Carl Mays (pictured right) threw the Series. The 1919 Black Sox were recent news- many people expected Shoeless Joe Jackson to be reinstated soon.

The 1923 season started amidst controversy: the Giants sent a telegram to the National League president saying that "no harm could come `by having as many conflicting Sunday dates as possible'" [2]. The Giants wanted to play as many Sunday doubleheaders as possible, to make up for the lost rent, because everybody knows that doubleheaders are the best way to make money at the gate. By their estimate, 5 extra doubleheaders could mean as much as $100,000 additional revenue [3].

The Yankees' protest of this move is two fold: first, it protects their own game (why would you pay to see one game in the Bronx when you could see two games across the river?); second, it ensures that the powerhouse Giants suffer a monetary loss for evicting the Yanks.

Barney Dreyfuss, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, co-founder of the World Series, and NL schedule maker (conflict of interests?), created a stir by arguing that there's no "baseball law prohibiting conflicts just because they are not welcome to a certain club" [4]. How times have changed! 85 years later, the Yankees and Mets can't even close their ballparks on the last day of the season. Yankees general manager Ed Barrow would have agreed: "When we are scheduled for this city, that is our territory, and there can't be any major league games in it without our permission" [5].

Miller Huggins (pictured left) was in the 6th of his 11 and a half years as a Yankee. After twice leading the team to the pennant, only to lose the World Series to their cross town rivals (and former landlord) the Giants, Huggins was really on the hot seat- Colonel Ruppert had spent a lot of money to put together a winner and anything less than a championship was a disappointment. There was a lot of pressure on the players, rumors that people would be traded, because in the quest for their first championship it was starting to look like the Yankees simply couldn't win a game they had to have.

One often mentioned name was White Sox' Hall of Fame second baseman Eddie Collins. While I'm sure his .360/.455/.453 line (age 36, test him for `roids) would have helped the Yankees, they would get through the season with Aaron Ward playing nearly every day and putting up a .284/.351/.422 line that was merely league average for that era. Collins would have been groomed as a player-manager to succeed Huggins.

The Yanks could have used the extra muscle, because they started Wally Schang at catcher (.276/.360/.342), Wally Pip at first (.304/.352/.397), Joe Dugan at third (.283/.311/.384), and Everett Scott at short (.246/.266/.325). All three were below average, with Scott posting a 54 OPS+, but had a "never-say-die spirit" [7]. That's Prohibition slang for `gritty'.

Left fielder Bob Meusel and center fielder Whitey Witt were solid offensive players. Meusel would go on to be the original number 5, batting behind Gehrig.

The real (only?) star of the Yankee offense was Babe Ruth. The myth that has developed about Ruth is that he used the short porch at Yankee Stadium to set homerun records. The truth is that he set the record at 59 at the Polo Grounds in 1921. He would `only' hit 41 homers in 1923 (still more than the Red Sox, Tigers and Senators). For a left-handed hitter, Yankee Stadium was the norm in the 1920s: 290' in Cleveland, 310' in St. Louis, 329' in Philly, 320' in DC, 325' Detroit, 258' at the Polo Grounds, and 295' at Yankee Stadium.

Ruth was galvanized by the critics who called him a choker because he showed a Soriano-esque willingness to chase breaking balls in the dirt during the World Series. He'd gone 2 for 15 with 1 RBI in 1922 and was 8 for 44 in the postseason in his career. Sound familiar? He spent the offseason working at his farm in Massachusetts, and came to camp a lean 210.

1923 might be his most underrated season- he walked 170 times (career high) while hitting .393. He had a .545 OBP. Read that again. If you were lucky enough to go to the ballpark and see Babe Ruth play, you were more likely to see him reach base than make an out. And they call this a game of failures? 1923 would be Babe Ruth's only MVP season, but he would be a unanimous choice.

The pitching is the real story of the '23 club. A five-headed beast of Bob Shawkey, Joe Bush, Waite Hoyt, Sam Jones, and Herb Pennock would start 144 games, each pitching more than 230 innings.

The papers were squawking that the Yankees got swindled in trading with the Red Sox for Pennock (pictured right). The Yanks gave up a backup third baseman, a backup outfielder, and a 23 year old right hander with potential for a below average 29 year old lefty. Pennock was the last member of the 1918 Championship Red Sox still on the team, and current Yankee GM Ed Barrow had put together than 1918 team. 10 of the 1923 Yankees were fewer Red Sox- including 4 of the 5 main pitchers (Shawkey was the exception), Schang and Scott, and famously, Ruth [1].

But the Yankees knew something the papers hadn't figured out yet: a left handed pitcher at Fenway Park pitches toward the Green Monster, but a left hander in Yankee Stadium pitches toward a centerfield that was 80 feet deeper than the Polo grounds. Pennock had posted ERAs above 4 his last two seasons with the Red Sox- in the 6 years after the trade, he would go 3.13, 2.83, 2.96, 3.62, 3.00, and 2.56 in 1488.1 IP.

These pitchers would lead the league in innings pitched, in complete games, in ERA, in Ks, allow 100 fewer runs than the next closest opponent, and allow fewer hits than innings pitched as a staff. Ironically, they would tie with the Philadelphia A's for most home runs allowed (and the Yankees didn't have to pitch to Babe Ruth).

This pitching edge would turn the regular season into a laugher. The Yankees would win the first game in their new $2.5 million stadium. You know the story- Ruth homers, Red Sox lose. 74,000 people pack the park [6]. By May 5th the Yankees would move into first place and stay there for the rest of the season. They'd be 7 games up by May 31st, 14 up on July 30th, and 18 games up after the last game of September despite losing a double header to the Red Sox.
They never lost more than three games in a row, and they had winning streaks of 4 games or more eight different times.

Higgins employed an odd approach with his pitching staff: he used 5 starters and only 3 more pitchers the entire season. The big five didn't start many games by the standards of the 1920s, but they were brought in for relief a lot: Shawkey 5 times, Bush 7 times, Hoyte 9 times, Jones 12 times, and Pennock 8 times. For comparision, the second place Tigers used a three man rotation with 3 other guys making more than a dozen starts. The Tigers carried 12 pitches over the course of the season, 8 of whom appeared in at least 17 games.

"Horsewhip" Sam Jones led the Yankee staff with a brutal curveball. While the Jones' ERA was the highest of the five starters, he was the most consistent pitcher through the season. Huggins gave the ball to Jones in more big spots than any of the other pitchers- started 27 games and pitched another 12 in relief.
Jones responded with the second lowest WHIP of his career, and he finished with a 21-8 record.

On September 4th, Jones threw one of the oddest no-hitters in baseball history against the 7th place Philadelphia A's. He faced 29 batters without striking out a single one. Only a series of incredible plays kept the no-hitter alive. As shortstop Chick Galloway strode to the plate in the bottom of the 9th, A's fans were rooting for the no hitter so hard that fans called for Galloway to intentionally strike out. Instead, he performed one of the unspeakable sins: he bunted. Third baseman Joe Dugan made a great play to charge the ball and nip the runner at first.

The only set back the Yanks would suffer was the repeated injuries to starting catcher Wally Schang- who missed a week when he tripped over his own bat running out a grounder.

Yanks vs Giants; Round 3

The Giants had gone 95-58 to capture their third straight pennant.

Game One of the World Series seemed like simply more of the same for New York baseball. The Yankees jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, but youngster Waite Hoyt couldn't hold down the Giants and gave up 4 runs before recording a second out in the third. Despite those rumors that he'd intentionally blown a late lead the previous year, Joe Bush was back on the hill and pitched out of the jam. The Yanks tied the score in the bottom of the 7th when Bush singled to lead off the inning and scored on Dugan's triple. Bush was still on the mound with two outs in the top of the ninth when Might Casey Stenel stepped to the plate. Though not yet the Ole Perfressor, Casey was still something of a joke- the way he ran around the bases on his inside the park homer and collapsed at home plate would become legendary:

This is the way- His mouth wide open. His warped old legs bending beneath him at every stride. His arms flying back and forth like those of a man swimming the crawl stroke. His flanks heaving, his breath whistling, his head back... The warped old legs, twisted and bent by many a year of baseball campaigning, just barely held out under Casey until he reached the plate, running his run home. Then they collapsed.

In Game Two, Hank Pennock did his best Andy Pettitte impression allowing only 2 runs in a complete game win. Babe Ruth provided the fireworks 2 for 3 with 2 walks, both hits were solo homers.

Art Nehf of the Giants did Pennock one better, winning Game 3 in a complete game shutout. He pitched around Ruth, walking him twice. Sam Jones wasn't quite as fine as Nehf- Jones pitched 8 innings and only allowed a run on another Casey Stengel homer. This one left the park, and the Yankees were down 2-1.

By the fourth game, the Yankees had seen enough pitchers duels. I can't confirm that a team meeting was called, but I suspect Higgins pulled a Joe Riggins and threw some bats into the shower. The Yanks came out swing and piled up an 8-0 lead by the 4th inning.

The bats came out hot in Game 5, also. Up 7-1 after two innings, Joe Bush coasted through the complete game. The Yankees pounded out 14 hits off of 4 Giants and set the stage for their first championship. All they had to do was win game 6.

But the Giants came back with Art Nehf again, and for seven innings the baseball world prepared for game seven. Ruth blasted his third solo homer of the Series in the top of the first, but after that Nehf faced only one more batter than the minimum into the top of the 8th inning.
Meanwhile, the Giants pecked Pennock to death. They scored one in the first on a string of singles. A bunt single and a line drive to right plated the go-ahead run in the fourth. Catcher Frank Snyder homered to lead off the 5th, and a triple and single brought home a fourth run in the 6th.

Finally, in the top of the 8th the Yankee bats sprang to life. With one out, Schang singled to left and Scott singled to right. Fred Hoffman (.290/.350/.403) pinch hit for Pennock (prospect Lou Gehrig had been left off the postseason roster despite a homer, a triple, and four doubles in an impressive 26 AB call-up). Hoffman walked to load the bases, and pitcher Joe Bush pinch hit for centerfielder Whitey Witt. Nehf was clearly out of gas, and after walking Bush to forcing in a run John J. McGraw removed him in favor of Rosy Ryan. Ryan rewarded his managers faith by walking Joe Dugan to force in another run and put the tying run on third with the bases loaded and only one out.

Oh yeah! The number three hitter was up... what was his name again?

In the opinions of many sportswriters penning their columns, this one AB could provide a microcosm of Babe Ruth's career- hero or chump, G.O.A.T. or goat.

Ruth struck out.

Fortunately, Bob Meusel laced a single to centerfield, and he cleared the bases when centerfielder Bill Cunningham made a throwing error trying to nail the runner at third. From the precipice of defeat the Yankees had roared back, and they now let the game 6-4. Cunningham would be traded by the Giants to the Boston Braves during the offseason.

Joe Bush closed out the first Yankee World Series victory by retiring 6 of the 7 batters he faced- the only ball to leave the infield was a single to center.

1923 was a great year for the Yankees, and the future looked brighter still. There were a pair of promising rookies just bought from minor league teams during the season: a centerfielder named Earle Combs and first baseman Lou Gehrig. Who could beat a team with both money for veterans and some can't miss prospects?

[1]SOUTHPAW PENNOCK TRADED TO YANKS :Boston Red Sox Veteran LeftHanded for Murray, McMillan and Skinner. LAST OF THE 1918 CHAMPIONS New York Club Has Ten Former Hub City Players on Its Roster.. (1923, January 31). The Washington Post (1877-1954),p. 19. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877 - 1991) database. (Document ID: 193155322).

[2, 3]GIANTS AND YANKS START ACTIVE WAR :Open Rupture Develops Over Question of Sunday Games for Next Season. STONEHAM FOR FREE HAND Tells Heydler He Favors as Many Conflicting Dates Here as Possible. COLONEL HUSTON OBJECTS Calls Stoneham "Mercenary" -- Says Yanks Outdraw Rivals, but Fears for Cause of Sunday Ball.. (1923, January 6). New York Times (1857-Current file),p. 10. Retrieved October 19, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 105840128).

[4, 5] SAYS YANKEES CAN'T PREVENT CONFLICTS :Dreyfuss Declares They Have No Voice in Arranging Sunday Games for 1923.. (1923, January 9). New York Times (1857-Current file),29. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 104959703).

[6] 74,200 SEE YANKEES OPEN NEW STADIUM; RUTH HITS HOME RUN :Record Baseball Crowd Cheers as Slugger's Drive Beats Red Sox, 4 to 1.. (1923, April 19). New York Times (1857-Current file),1. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004) database. (Document ID: 105992746).

[7] By FRANK If. YOUNG (1923, May 3). HOLDS YANK MAULERS TO, 3 SCATTERED HITS :Goes Great in Pinches and Gets Stellar Support -- Denby Presents League's Honor Medal to Scott for 1,000th Game. Denby Makes Presentation. Triumph for Johnson. Saved by Double Plays. Yukee Start Omious.. The Washington Post (1877-1954),p. 16. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877 - 1991) database. (Document ID: 193439382).