clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #71 Home Run Baker

Baker helped the Yankees to some of their earliest successes, thanks in part to his penchant for his famous nickname.

Yankee Sluggers Frank Baker and Mickey Mantle

Name: John Franklin “Home Run” Baker
Position: Third base
Born: March 13, 1886 (Trappe, MD)
Died: June 28, 1963 (Trappe, MD)
Yankee Years: 1916-19, 1921-22
Primary Number: N/A
Yankee Statistics: 676 G, 2,823 PA, .288/.347/.404, 48 HR, 379 RBI, 735 H, 121 2B, 15 3B, 113 OPS+, 20.6 rWAR, 19.2 fWAR

Biography

You might expect someone nicknamed “Home Run” to have more, well, home runs than 48 with the Yankees, and 96 for his entire career. However, make no mistake: Frank “Home Run” Baker was arguably the preeminent slugger of his era. It just so happened to be that most of his era came in the “Dead Ball” period, right before Babe Ruth took off and changed the way baseball was played. That being said, for six years with the Yankees, and seven prior to that with the Philadelphia A’s, Baker was a Hall of Fame level force at the plate, and helped the Bombers to their first two ever AL pennants.

Farm Boy

Baker was born in 1886 in a town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, not far from the Chesapeake Bay. He was born into a farming family, and spent many years of his youth working the farm. Doing all that hard work on the farm helped Baker develop into a muscular young man, who first started to make waves on the baseball field while playing for his high school.

In high school, Baker was a pitcher and an outfielder, and caught some scouts’ eyes. He was signed by a local semipro team being managed by future MLB player and coach Buck Herzog. After joining the team, he was moved to third base, which would become the only defensive position he would ever play in the major leagues.

After a couple seasons playing semipro ball, Baker received a tryout with the then minor league Baltimore Orioles of the Eastern League in 1907. However, he struggled in his brief time with them, with their manager Jack Dunn claiming Baker “couldn’t hit.” That assessment would soon prove to be very incorrect.

While a run with Baltimore wasn’t on the card, Baker did sign professionally for 1908, joining the Reading Pretzels of the Tri-State League. Putting up a .299 batting average and a .417 slugging percentage, Baker was noticed Philadelphia Athletics’ legendary manager Connie Mack. With Hall of Famer Jimmy Collins nearing the end of his career, Mack was looking for a young third baseman to take his place, and gave Baker a try, purchasing his contract from Reading in September. In eight games at the end of 1908, Baker hit just well enough for Mack to not only keep him around, but to install him as the regular third baseman for the A’s in 1909.

Philadelphia A’s Legend

Frank “Home Run” Baker, Major League Baseball Player, Philadelphia Athletics, Portrait, circa 1914 Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

With a major league job fully his, Baker hit the ground running in 1909, forming part of what would come to be called the “100,000 infield.” He hit a major league-leading 19 triples and put up a .305/.343/.447 slash line (worth a 146 OPS+) in 148 games. With Baker in the heart of the lineup, the A’s went from sixth place in 1908 to second in 1909, just 3.5 games back of the pennant-winning Tigers. He also showed some of the power he would become known for, and became the first player to ever homer over the right field wall at Shibe Park, which Philadelphia had newly moved into for 1909.

Baker followed that up with another big year in 1910, helping the A’s win the American League pennant for the first time since 1905. He then went onto hit .409/.458/.636 in the World Series as Philadelphia beat the Cubs in five games. Had there been a World Series MVP back then, he certainly would’ve been in the running.

The 1911 A’s repeated as champions the next year, with Baker putting up his best season to date. He slugged 11 home runs, the first of four times that he would lead the league. In the World Series, Giants’ manager John McGraw tried to exploit Baker, who had undeservedly gained a reputation for being soft and easily intimated. That back fired, as Baker hit .375/.400/.708 in the series victory. He came up with clutch hits in Philadelphia’s wins in Games 3, 4, and 5, as the Athletics eventually won the series in six games. This series would lead to his nickname, as he took future Hall of Famers Christy Matthewson and Rube Marquard deep, leading to papers dubbing him “Home Run Baker.”

The A’s fell to third place in 1912, but Baker put in arguably the best individual campaign of his career. He again led the league in homers with 10, while he also amassed a league-leading 130 RBI. The 174 OPS+ was the best of his career, as he tallied up 9.3 rWAR and 9.1 fWAR.

He followed that up with another massive season in 1913, as Philadelphia returned to the Fall Classic. Once again, Baker led the league in homers and RBI, slugging 12 and driving in 117 this time around. Matched up against the Giants again, Baker drove home seven runs as the A’s won their third World Series in five years.

The 1915 season saw Baker lead the league in homers for the fourth-straight and final time, slugging nine. While Philadelphia returned to the World Series again, they were swept by the Boston Braves this time around, at which point Mack began to sell off many of the pieces of that great squad.

Claiming he was jettisoning pieces off a team that had been “splintered” by the new Federal League, Mack tried to keep hold of Baker, who was locked into a three-year contract. However, Baker requested to renegotiate for more money, and Mack was having none of it.

With Mack refusing to renegotiate, Baker — known as a stubborn man — decided to just pack up and go home. He spent all of the 1915 season playing for local teams around Maryland and the Northeastern US. Back in Philadelphia, Mack was under pressure from AL president Ban Johnson to resolve the Baker situation. The saga finally came to an end in February 1916 when Baker was sold to the New York Yankees.

Helping Transform the Yankees into Winners

New York Yankees Photo by The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

Following a second place finish in 1910, the Yankees had fallen off in the early/mid 1910s, finishing in the bottom half of the AL every year from 1911-15. Baker’s bat in the lineup and his presence in the clubhouse immediately paid dividends. Combining with Wally Pipp for 22 home runs between the two of them, Baker looked like he had barely missed any time in 1916. His 130 OPS+ helped the Yankees vault up to fourth in the AL in 1916, finishing above .500 and winning 11 more games than they had the previous season.

While both Baker and the Yankees fell back a bit in 1917, they both bounced back in 1918. Baker was the best player for 1918 Yankees, leading the team in hits, OPS, home runs, doubles, RBI, and both bWAR and fWAR. That would be the final truly great season of his career, but he would remain a crucial part of the Yankees as they finally started to break through.

In 1919, Baker got back to his slugging ways, hitting 10 home runs, which was tied for third in baseball. (First was some guy named Babe Ruth, breaking the single season record with 29.) In total, the Yankees’ lineup combined for 45 home runs, which led the league. They also moved up to third in the standings, finishing 7.5 games back of first place.

Tragedy and a Fall Off

The lineup that would become known as “Murderers’ Row” had started to form in 1920, and would get a massive addition when the Yankees acquired Ruth ahead of that season. With Ruth, Baker, and the rest, they were set to form a formidable lineup in ‘20, although it turned out Baker wouldn’t end up joining it. That offseason, a scarlet fever outbreak went through his family, and tragically killed his wife, Ottilie. Understandably, Baker was devastated and lost interest in baseball, sitting out the 1920 season. Eventually, later in the year, he began to get the itch again. He spent the later months of 1920 playing for a local team, and agreed to rejoin the Yankees for the 1921 season.

Babe Ruth Murderers Row 1921
Wally Pipp, Babe Ruth, Roger Peckinpaugh, Bob Meusel, and Frank Baker (L-R)

While he did come back and helped the Yankees to their first ever AL pennants in 1921 and ‘22, Baker had fallen off a bit. He became just a part-time player as the Ruth-led Yankees finally ascended to the top of the AL. After a 99 OPS+ regular season in 1921, he appeared in five of eight games of that year’s World Series, as the Yankees made it there for the first time.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite help the Yankees to a title, as he had all those previous years with the A’s. He struggled in general in the series, and sadly was the man at the plate to end the run. The Yankees were down 1-0 in Game 8, trailing the then best-of-nine series 4-3. In the bottom of the ninth, Aaron Ward drew a walk, bringing Baker to the plate as the potential game-winning, series-extending run. However, Baker couldn’t flash back to the past and his old power-hitting ways, and instead grounded into a game and series-ending double play.

In 1922, Baker was again a bit below average in a bench role, putting up a 98 OPS+. The Yankees again made it to the World Series, but again lost to the Giants. This time around, Baker got one at-bat, grounding out as a pinch-hitter in a Game 3 loss.

After that season, Baker decided to retire and return to his farm in Maryland, just missing out on the Yankees’ first World Series title in 1923. While he himself never won a title in New York and wasn’t quite as good as he had been with the Athletics, Baker played a major role in the development of the first Yankee dynasty. He teamed up with Pipp to produce the first truly great Yankees’ lineup, and those two were the franchise all-time home run leaders until the emergence of Ruth.

Post-Playing Career

After leaving New York, Baker attempted to retire to his farm, but was later coaxed into being the player-manager for the minor league Easton Farmers in 1924. There, he gave a professional debut to a 16-year-old Jimmie Foxx. Foxx quickly emerged as a star, and Baker later sold him to his old manager Connie Mack and the A’s. That sale would also be his downfall with Easton, as Baker was later fired after not receiving enough in exchange for the future Hall of Famer.

After all that, Baker returned to Trappe, MD — the town of his birth — and remained there for the rest of his life, later remarrying. The Hall of Fame eventually came calling for him in 1955, when he was voted in by the Veterans Committee. He passed away in 1963 at 77 years of age, though he did live long enough to take that wonderful photo with Mickey Mantle that led this article.

Home Run Baker’s home run totals look pretty paltry compared to today’s numbers. He finished with 96 in a career, while some of the best sluggers of today can put that up in two or three seasons. However, he deserves a lot of credit for helping the skill of home run-hitting develop. He also played a big role in helping the Yankees turn things around as the franchise morphed into a powerhouse.

Staff Rank: 71
Community Rank: 83
Stats Rank: 64
2013 Rank: 70

Reference

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

Jones, David. SABR bio

Skipper, Doug. SABR

BR Bullpen

BR Bullpen

MLB.com

Previously on the Top 100

72. Vic Raschi
Full list to date