Home Run Baker: The First Big Deal
by Mike Whiteman
November 19, 2023
This offseason looks to be one of the Yankees’ most consequential in years. Of significant concern is the team’s offense, among the most anemic in baseball in 2023. Fans are clamoring for Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner to “go big”, using their vast financial resources to bring in star players and push the team back into the upper echelon of the American League. This mode of operation is engrained in the franchise playbook. Throughout history, the Yankees have used their fiscal abundance to pick up pieces that other clubs could not afford. More often than not, it has worked out well for the team, propelling them to 27 World Series titles, more than double the next most franchise (St. Louis Cardinals). They started this practice over 100 years ago, in 1916.
Third baseman Frank Baker was among the game’s best players from 1909-1914 for the Philadelphia Athletics. WAR wasn’t a thing over a hundred years ago, but had it been, he would have been near the top of the American League. During this time Baker averaged over seven WAR a season, leading the A’s to four American League pennants and three World Series victories. The lefty hitter also led the AL in home runs four seasons in a row from 1911-14. Baker was reliable in the clutch too. He slashed .378/.407/.598 over the four Series appearances and smacked three home runs, including two in the 1911 series, when he was tagged with the nickname “Home Run”. Despite the extended run of success of the A’s, not all was well. Financial pressures, likely brought upon by the new Federal League, forced manager/part owner Connie Mack into selling off his top players, including fellow members of the famed “$100,000 infield” - second baseman Eddie Collins, first baseman Stuffy McInnis, and shortstop Jack Barry. Baker was in a different predicament than that of his teammates, as he was under a three-year contract signed before the 1914 season, when he made $6,667. Upon seeing the significant payday Collins received after his trade to the Chicago White Sox, Baker found his contract “no longer equal to the one he signed” and announced his retirement. It was a different time than today, and Baker gladly spent 1915 working at his farm and making decent money playing for independent baseball teams. Mack took the basic stance that if Baker wouldn’t play for his team, he wasn’t playing for anyone, and held onto his star despite plenty of interest from other teams. AL president Ban Johnson wasn’t pleased to have a premier player not in uniform, and exuded pressure on the Athletics' leader to send his star third-sacker to a team that could meet his salary demands. Baker was sold to the Yankees for the hefty (for the time) sum of $37,500 and given a raise in salary to $9,167, amongst the highest in the game. In something that today’s Yankee fans could relate to, Baker joined the Yanks and played well - when he was on the field - ripping ten home runs in 100 games with a 130 OPS+ in 1916. Injuries kept him on the shelf about a third of the season, but when in the lineup he formed a potent duo with first baseman Wally Pipp, who led the AL with 12 homers. The corner infield duo led the Yankees to an eleven-win increase over 1916 and the future looked bright. Baker had solid if not spectacular seasons in 1917 and 1918, finishing in the top ten in home runs and RBI. His team could fare no better than fourth in the standings though. He signed a contract for 1919 season with another raise, this time to $12,000 annually, and led the team to a third place finish. The historical acquisition of Babe Ruth over the winter seemed poised to push the Yankees over the top, but when the 1920 season started, their third baseman was missing. Baker’s wife died of scarlet fever in the offseason, and he didn't play all season as he dealt with grief and tended to his family.
Baker returned to New York in 1921. The Yankees meanwhile were continuing their purge of the Boston roster, adding catcher Wally Schang and shortstop Everett Scott to their everyday lineup, while fortifying the starting rotation with Red Sox aces Sad Sam Jones, Bullet Joe Bush and future Hall-of-Famer Waite Hoyt. The Yanks took home the AL flag in both 1921 and 1922. Baker's contributions to the pennants were rather minimal, as he played less than 100 games both years. He retired after the 1922 season. While it may be a reach to say that picking up Home Run Baker was among the greatest deals in franchise history, it did have great significance. The ability and desire to use their financial might has been a driving force in making the Yankees the most successful team in all of baseball history, and it started with this purchase in 1916.