Babe Ruth is responsible for taking the term swinging for the fences to another level, his power numbers are absurd until this day and were even more so for the era that he played. However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t sluggers before his time — the threshold and expectation was simply different.
The next player to join our all-time team of complementary greats is a bit of an outlier within our squad’s selections.
Unlike Bill Skowron and Bob Meusel, who were integral parts and did most of their damage with the Yankees, this player had a Hall of Fame career with another team and experienced a decline with the Yankees. However, his standard was so high that he remained an effective well above-average player until the end of his career.
The left-handed batter who will help fill out 75 percent of our infield is none other than Frank “Home Run” Baker.
Career NYY stats: .288/.347/.404, 207 BB, 114 SO, 48 HR, 379 RBI, 113 OPS+
The rare left-handed bat that played third base, Baker had a rather self-explanatory nickname. One of the premier sluggers in the Deadball Era, he credited his power to growing up and working on his family’s farm near Trappe, Maryland.
After bouncing around for a few years playing for independent teams in semi-pro baseball, it was Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack who discovered Baker and signed him to play third-base as he looked to replace Jimmy Collins who retired following the 1908 season. Standing at 5-foot-11, Baker was never the biggest of hitters, but carrying a 52-ounce bat, he took advantage of his powerful wrists to really drive the ball. Those are the reports at least, to help explain some of his power.
From 1911-14, the third baseman led the league in home runs in each season and also twice led in runs batted in. After hitting bombs in back-to-back World Series games against Rube Marquard and Christy Mathewson, Baker earned himself the nickname “Home Run” and cemented his place in baseball history, but all of that came in Philadelphia for the A’s, with whom he won three World Series titles.
After a surprising Fall Classic loss against the Boston Braves in 1914, Mack began a rebuild and started getting rid of most of his stars — Baker had a long contract and wanted to renegotiate, Mack refused to. The two were at a standstill and Baker said he was perfectly comfortable in going back to his Maryland farm, which gave him the leverage to hold out until Mack was pressured to sell his contract to the Yankees.
Returning to the sport in 1916, Baker was never the same, but still remained a rather effective batter with an OPS+ of 130 and 129 in two of the next three seasons. He was arguably the best hitter for a rather mediocre time in Yankees history before the 1920s came along and a fellow named Babe Ruth began to don the pinstripes.
Pitchers recently have made headlines talking about the different ball a few years ago and that’s not something new. Perhaps feeling a bit cheated for playing his prime in a different era, Baker was adamant about the changes to the ball during the ‘20s and that a Little Leaguer could hit that ball as far as the hitters of the previous generation could hit theirs.
Baker never led baseball in any hitting category as a Yankee and a tragedy struck his family following the 1919 season, when an outbreak of scarlet fever infected his two daughters and claimed his wife’s life. He would come back after taking a year off and put in fine efforts for the Yankees’ first two pennant-winning teams in 1921-22, but one can’t even imagine how that affected him.
Following his playing career, Baker briefly worked as a player-manager for a local minor league team, and so he was the one who discovered the great Jimmie Foxx (Mack reached out to Baker himself to bring him aboard to the A’s). It took awhile for Baker to reach the Hall of Fame, but he was finally inducted in 1955, less than a decade before his passing. After being selected to Cooperstown’s finest, Baker had a perfect quote:
“It’s better to get a rosebud while you’re alive than a whole bouquet after you’re dead.”