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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #70 Home Run Baker

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Greatest. Nickname. Ever.

Library of Congress - WikiCommons

Name: John Franklin "Home Run" Baker
Position: Third base
Born: March 13, 1886 (Trappe, MD)
Died: June 28, 1963 (Trappe, MD)
Yankee Years: 1916-22
Primary number: N/A
Yankee statistics: 676 G, .288/.347/.404, 121 2B, 15 3B, 48 HR, 114 wRC+, 20.5 rWAR, 19.3 fWAR

Biography

There was once a time when home runs were considered unusual, mostly due to an accident on defense allowing a batter to circle the bases. Several years before the days of Babe Ruth though, another Maryland-born slugger emerged on baseball's greatest stage to deliver homer history's first huge moment, and fittingly, he became a Yankee himself. He was quiet, powerful, stubborn, and determined all at the same time. His name was Frank "Home Run" Baker. Naturally, Home Run Baker has 96 career home runs, or as many as middling 2000s catcher Jason LaRue.

Quiet beginnings

The son of John Adams Baker and his wife, Mary, Baker was born just as baseball was beginning to explode on a national level. Semi-pro teams were everywhere, even in farming communities as remote as Trappe, Maryland. There were barely 300 residents of Trappe, but almost everyone came together to watch townsfolk play in Saturday games. This setting on the Eastern Shore was where Baker first learned about the game, and his older brother Norman became his idol.

Using a fastball/curveball combination that dazzled hitters, the elder Baker overwhelmed local hitters enough to earn a tryout with the Philadelphia Athletics. However, he chose to avoid the city and stay close to home. Young Frank was baseball-crazed though. He was always playing the games, teaching it to others, and catching everyone's attention doing so when he wasn't in school or working as a clerk.

A local sawmill owner named Preston Day was impressed by Baker and recommended him to future major leaguer Buck Herzog, not even a year older than the phenom but already serving as player/manager of the semi-pro Ridgely club about 20 miles away. Herzog offered him $5 per week plus lodging to play for him during the 1905 season, a deal that the 19-year-old happily accepted. Baker had not played much infield before, but seeking to fill a need, Herzog installed him at third base, which would be his home for the next couple decades.

Word of Baker soon spread through the semi-pro ranks, and after stops around Maryland in Baltimore and Cambridge (where he met his wife, Ottilie Tschantre), he earned a tryout with his first legitimate minor league baseball team: Jack Dunn's Baltimore Orioles. It did not go well, and Dunn panned Baker's abilities, calling him "clumsy, awkward, and [unable to] hit." Dunn struck gold with Ruth just a few years later, but he blew it by letting Baker go after five games for nothing.

Fortunately, Baker still had a sponsor in Buck Herzog. His old skipper had been signed away from his Reading club in Pennsylvania by the legendary John McGraw and his New York Giants, so he recommended Baker to take his old position. Baker took advantage, showing manager Red Owens plenty of gumption by moving out of state just for the opportunity to make the club. He was a sensation, batting .299 with a .417 slugging percentage in 119 games with the Pretzels, even belting six homers. Veteran outfielder Socks Seybold made a trip to Reading to watch Baker and sent the Athletics' Connie Mack a glowing review, and he worked out a deal with the Pretzels to purchase his contract at the end of the season for $500.

Baker closed out his Reading tenure with some flair. Tied at 2-2 in both the game and the series during a five-game postseason showdown, Baker crushed an offering to the gap in right-center. Baker circled the bases for a walk-off inside-the-park home run, and shortly after the fans carried him off the field, he reported to the A's in Chicago. He made his MLB debut against the White Sox on September 21, 1908, smacking a single to right field off Hall of Famer Ed Walsh. Coincidentally, the spitballer had launched another Deadball Era career destined for Cooperstown.

The $100,000 Infield

After an off-season of farming, Baker won the Athletics' third base job in 1909, having impressed Mack with both his nine-game cameo the previous year and his spring training performance. He even homered on the first pitch of camp, blasting a drive that "carried fully 50 yards beyond the field" according to the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Baker had to miss Opening Day due to a strained leg he suffered in an exhibition game against the crosstown Phillies, but he hit the ground running after a shaky debut on April 21st that featured no hits and a pair of errors. A couple days later, he made the only grand slam of his career a memorable one--a clout off righthander Frank Arellanes over the right field fence in Boston's Huntington Avenue Grounds for his first home run, the first one to clear that fence in Boston in over a year. One month later he made history at the A's new home, Shibe Park, by victimizing Arellanes yet again. Baker swung and sent the pitch over the fence in right field, 340 feet away, the first player to ever do so. Philadelphia teams continued to play in Shibe Park for over 60 years, and Baker was an important part of that legacy.

Although Baker looked a little awkward at third base and "ran the bases like a soft-shell crab," he had a strong rookie year, batting .305/.343/.447 with 50 extra base hits, 20 stolen bases, and a 147 wRC+, good for 5.8 WAR. His 19 triples both led the league and tied the AL record for triples in a season by a rookie. Over a century later, Baker still holds that record.

Mack's A's had been infused with youth beyond Baker, particularly in the infield with future Hall of Famer Eddie Collins at second base and shortstop Jack Berry. Infielder Stuffy McInnis made his debut that year, too, and the four of them became Mack's famous "100,000 infield," named not because that was their collective salary (the tight-fisted Mack would never have paid them that much back in the 1910s), but because Americans weren't quite even thinking in terms of millions yet.

Led by the $100,000 Infield and a dangerous pitching staff led by future Hall of Famers "Gettysburg" Eddie Plank and "Chief" Charles Bender, Mack's A's roared from 68 wins in 1908 to second place and 95 wins in 1909, just 3.5 games behind Ty Cobb's pennant-winning Tigers. A spikes-first collision between Cobb and Baker at third late in that year led to a bloody Baker and Mack declaring Cobb "the dirtiest player in history," and the grudge was not quickly forgotten. Mack had won pennants in 1902 and 1905, but while those teams had been quickly dismantled (leading to the 1908 fiasco), he rebuilt in a hurry and now had the A's prepared to make an even stronger run for the American League title in 1910.

It turned out that Mack's 1910 A's club was so dominant that there was no pennant race to report. Philadelphia won 102 games and ran away with the American League by 14.5 games over the distant New York Highlanders. Their .680 winning percentage in 150 games would have led to a remarkable 110 wins in a modern 162-game schedule. Baker showed no signs of a sophomore slump, hitting .283/.329/.392 with a 126 wRC+ and another 20-steal season, one of five in a row for the deceptively speedy third baseman. In the World Series, the A's faced the Cubs, not a laughingstock but a recent championship club which won back-to-back titles just two seasons prior. In fact, they won 104 games in 1910, two more than the A's. Nonetheless, the Fall Classic was also no contest--Baker led the way by batting .409 with a .636 slugging percentage, and the A's won their first World Series in five games.

The 1910 championship was the first big year out of five in a row for the Mackmen. They won their second straight title in 1911, and after an off-year in 1912, they won another World Series in 1913 and another AL pennant in 1914. It was probably the most successful run in the history of Philadelphia baseball, and Baker was right in the heart of it. He led the AL in homers four seasons in a row and hit .334/.394/.496 with over 200 extra base hits and a 155 wRC+.

Baker earned his famous nickname during this time as well. He stole the show in the 1911 World Series during a six-game victory over John McGraw's Giants. Thanks to the Maryland native's old friend Herzog on the team, McGraw knew to warn his pitchers not to throw any fastballs high in the zone to Baker--that was his sweet spot. The Giants took Game 1, and Game 2 was tied at 1-1 when Baker came up in the sixth. With a runner on, Rube Marquard did not take McGraw's advice to heart, and Baker slammed his pitch over Shibe Park's right field fence for what would be the game-winning homer.

The very next day, the Giants were in an even more secure position--they led 1-0 with one out in the ninth and the iconic Christy Mathewson on the mound at home in the Polo Grounds. Just two more outs and the Giants would be up 2-1 in the series. Yet even McGraw's closest ally "Matty" would fail to heed his caution. Mathewson threw a pitch up, and Baker hit it out for a game-tying homer. Two innings later, the A's won the game, and not long afterward, they were champions again. "Home Run" Baker was born.

On to New York

The 1914 World Series was a rude awakening for Mack and the A's. The three-time champions were heavily favored over the Boston Braves, even though Boston had just completed one of the greatest season comebacks in baseball history. On July 4th, they were 26-40, mired in last place. From then on, they were absolutely unstoppable, going an incredible 68-19 the rest of the way to not only take the National League pennant, but also winning it easily by 10.5 games over the Giants. They were the "Miracle Braves," and not even Mack's mighty A's could stop them. They completed the first sweep in World Series history, holding them to just six runs in the four games.

With contracts rising and two of Mack's star pitchers, Plank and Bender, both jumping ship for higher salaries in the upstart Federal League, Mack decided that it was time to sell off his championship club. In just one year, the A's went from AL champions to 109 losses. Just one year later, they were arguably the worst team in baseball history, finishing 1916 at 36-117, a comically terrible .235 winning percentage worse than even the 120-loss 1962 Mets. The collapse was complete, and by then, Baker was long gone.

Baker saw what was happening around him during the 1914-15 off-season and demanded that Mack renegotiate his contract. Mack declined, and a stand-off ensued, as Baker flat-out refused to sign a contract for 1915. Mack was also unable to find a price that he liked from other clubs for his star third baseman, so he planned to wait Baker out for him to come crawling back to his job. (Such were the fun days of the reserve clause before free agency.) To his credit, Baker held firm on his stance and sat out the entire 1915 season, choosing instead to stay home in Trappe to farm and play for semi-pro teams.

By the time 1916 rolled around, relations between Mack and Baker were as icy as ever and AL president Ban Johnson had enough. He told Mack that he had to let Baker go for whatever the best offer would be, and he also worked to make sure the recently-christened Yankees club would be the ones to get him rather than the powerhouse White Sox. Johnson liked the new owners in New York, Col. Jacob Ruppert and Cap. Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, and he wanted to see them grow potent enough to compete with McGraw's Giants and the beloved Brooklyn club. So Mack finally agreed to sell Baker's rights to the Yankees in exchange for $37,500. Baker and the Yankees agreed to a three-year contract worth $27,500, and all sides were at last content.

Baker brought to the club what Ruppert coveted: star power. Everyone remembered Baker's exploits against the Giants in the World Series, and so many fans seemed to know that he had the strength to swing probably the heaviest bat in the league, 52 ounces. (A Louisville Slugger spokesman once called it "Short... almost like a piece of lead.") Ruppert had tried to purchase Baker from Mack the year before and he got his man. Baker brought professionalism to the young locker room and everyone on the Yankees looked up to him to set the example, even the young captain, shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh. Both Baker and up-and-coming first baseman Wally Pipp brought some much-needed pop to the lineup; Pipp led the league with 12 homers and Baker finished runner-up with 10 of his own.

Baker hit .269/.344/.428 with a 130 wRC+ in his maiden season in New York, even while missing 50 games due to broken ribs sustained after chasing a pop fly and colliding with the Polo Grounds' concrete wall. Thanks to Baker, Pipp, and ace Bob Shawkey (Baker's former teammate in Philly), the 1916 Yankees jumped from 69 wins the year before to 80, their first season over .500 in five years.

Although the main cogs of the lineup remained dangerous, the team overall slipped in 1917, costing manager "Wild Bill" Donovan his job. In his place, Ruppert chose former Cardinals skipper Miller Huggins, infuriating Huston, who preferred Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson. They still finished under .500 with Huggins in 1918, but it was only by three games compared to 11 under with Donovan the year before. Baker turned in another fine season, remaining among the game's elite third baseman by hitting .306/.357/.409, leading a lineup that was dubbed "Murderer's Row" by one columnist a decade before the 1927 Yankees all but trademarked that moniker.

American League champions

"The farmer doesn't care for the pitchers' battle that resolves itself into a checkers game. The farmer loves the dramatic, and slugging is more dramatic than even the cleverest pitching." - Frank Baker (SABR)

The 1919 campaign brought more improvements, as the Yankees finished in third place and 21 games over .500, albeit 7.5 behind the dominant White Sox for the AL pennant. Baker had the healthiest season of his career, playing in all 141 games for Huggins while notching the final double-digit home run season of his career. During the off-season, Ruppert sent shockwaves through the industry by purchasing the larger-than-life Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, but there was no joy to be found in the Baker household that winter. An outbreak of scarlet fever hit Trappe and cost Baker his wife, to whom he was deeply attached.

Heartbroken and attending to the health of his infant daughters also sickened by the disease, Baker informed the Yankees that he would sit out the 1920 season. Before the year was halfway over though, Baker saw what an exciting group was being built around Ruth in New York, and he wanted to return to action. After some semi-pro ball to get back into baseball form, Baker rejoined the Yankees in 1921. At age 35, he wasn't quite the same talent he once was, but he still brought leadership and a steady bat to the third base job, finishing the year with a league average 100 wRC+ and nine homers in 94 games. After a nearly 20-year wait, the Yankees finally captured their first American League pennant, and Baker was ecstatic, even though the crosstown rival Giants took them down in the Fall Classic.

Baker had one more year in him, as both age and injury limited him to 69 games. He still hit .278/.327/.444 as the Yankees won their second straight pennant, but he felt the game had passed him by. Ironically, even though his nickname was "Home Run" Baker, he felt that baseball had allowed the homer to become too easy. Perhaps that was just a byproduct of playing alongside Ruth, the greatest home run hitter of baseball's first century, who was outhomering teams, not just his fellow players.

Nonetheless, Baker called it a career after one more World Series at-bat, concluding a tremendously successful run that featured three championships and six pennants in just 12 full seasons. He remarried and returned to Trappe, where he lived happily as a farmer for most of his life. He briefly came out of retirement to be player/manager of the nearby Easton minor league club in 1924, where he officially linked the two famous Philadelphia A's dynasties by discovering the face of the next generation: future 500-homer club member Jimmie Foxx. The animosity between Baker and Mack was over by then, and he sold his best slugger to the A's.

Baker Mantle

Homer heroes of different generations unite. (Public domain)

It took Baker until 1955 to get elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, but thankfully, he was alive to receive the honor in Cooperstown. That was the same year his old A's ballclub cut its longtime ties with the City of Brotherly Love, moving to Kansas City. Baker also remained a constant presence at the Yankees Old Timers' Day festivities, one of the last links to the Deadball Era teams that launched sports' greatest dynasty. Eight years after his election to the Hall, Baker passed away at age 77 due to a stroke. The Deadball Era's most iconic power hitter passed into memory.

Andrew's rank: 61
Tanya's rank: 63
Community rank: 81.5
WAR rank: 61.5

Season Stats

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB rWAR fWAR
1916 30 NYY 100 402 360 46 97 23 2 10 52 15 ? 36 30 .269 .344 .428 .772 130 154 3.6 3.7
1917 31 NYY 146 613 553 57 156 24 2 6 71 18 ? 48 27 .282 .345 .365 .710 116 202 4.6 4.1
1918 32 NYY 126 558 504 65 154 24 5 6 62 8 ? 38 13 .306 .357 .409 .765 129 206 4.9 4.5
1919 33 NYY 141 623 567 70 166 22 1 10 83 13 ? 44 18 .293 .346 .388 .734 106 220 4.0 3.7
1921 35 NYY 94 369 330 46 97 16 2 9 74 8 5 26 12 .294 .353 .436 .789 99 144 2.4 2.3
1922 36 NYY 69 258 234 30 65 12 3 7 37 1 3 15 14 .278 .327 .444 .771 98 104 1.0 0.9
NYY (6 yrs) 676 2823 2548 314 735 121 15 48 379 63 8 207 114 .288 .347 .404 .751 113 1030 20.5 19.3

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Istorico, Ray. Greatness in Waiting: An Illustrated History of the Early New York Yankees, 1903-1919. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008.

SABR

Sparks, Barry. Frank "Home Run" Baker: Hall of Famer and World Series Hero. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006.

Steinberg, Steve and Lyle Spatz. The Colonel and the Hug: The Partnership That Transformed the New York Yankees. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

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