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Looking Back at Frank "Home Run" Baker

By Sal Maiorana

April 3, 2024


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It was a different time in Major League Baseball at the beginning of the 20th century, a period when the ball flew about as effectively as a wounded bird, hence it was nicknamed the Deadball Era.

That, coupled with the oversized nature of many ballparks, made the home run barely an occasional happening. In fact, many home runs were inside-the-park jobs, line drives that rolled forever into the deep and distant alleys with the batter racing around the basepaths rather than jogging because he hit one over the fence.

Starting in 1901 when the American League was born and pushing through the 1918 season, the most home runs anyone hit in one season was 24 by Gabby Cravath of the Phillies in 1914. It wasn’t until 1919 when Babe Ruth began to transition away from pitching to concentrate on playing the outfield and hitting for the Red Sox did the home run become an integral part of baseball.

So how did Frank Baker, a third baseman whose career began in 1908 with the Philadelphia A’s and ended with the Yankees in 1922, earn the nickname “Home Run Baker?”

Because before Ruth came along, Baker was as prolific as any home run hitter in baseball as he led the AL four consecutive years between 1911 and 1914. Impressive, huh?

Well, being No. 1 in anything is impressive, but here were Baker’s league-leading totals in those years: 11, 10, 12 and 9. Do the math and that’s 42 home runs across four years. In 1920, when Ruth joined the Yankees, he hit 54, yet no one was calling him “Home Run Ruth.”

Baker was a power hitter, at least by its definition at that time, but playing in massive Shibe Park where it was 346 feet down the left-field line, 340 feet to right, 384 and 392 to the alleys, and 481 to center field, the home run was only part of his arsenal.

In that four-year period when he led the AL in homers, he also hit 139 doubles and 54 triples which helped him drive in 454 runs including league-leading totals of 130 in 1912 and 117 in 1913. And with Baker leading the way, the A’s won three World Series titles in 1910, 1911 and 1913 and an AL pennant in 1914.

It was during the 1911 World Series when Baker was first tagged with his nickname. He hit a pair of home runs - one in Game 2, one in Game 3 - to help lift the A’s past the New York Giants, and when he was asked about his home run prowess, Baker, who grew up on a farm in Maryland, said, “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.”

Yeah, he was Ruth before there was Ruth.

Legend has it that Baker used a 52-ounce bat which was the equivalent of a war club. Consider the bats that players use today, about 18-20 ounces lighter, but Baker was a powerful man even though he stood just 5-11 and weighed a mere 173 pounds.

After playing amateur ball following his high school years, Baker was toiling for a semi-pro team in Reading, Pa. when he was discovered by A’s manager Connie Mack near the end of 1908. Needing a replacement at third base for aging Jimmy Collins, Mack signed Baker to a contract and used him in nine games in September. He batted .290 and that was enough to earn him a spot on the roster in 1909.

His rookie year he led the AL with 19 triples, hit .305 and totaled four homers and 85 RBI. One of the highlights came on May 29 when he became the first man to hit a ball over the right field fence at Shibe Park and that was a sign of things to come.

Baker stayed with the A’s through 1914, but Mack began selling off his key players because the franchise was short on cash, and Baker didn’t appreciate the dismantling of a championship club. He was locked into a three-year contract and when he tried to renegotiate a higher salary, Mack refused. So at the age of 29, Baker decided to quit baseball and he headed home to Maryland where in 1915 he played for his local town team.

That year, as he traveled around to play, he was a big attraction because of his MLB stardom and many local towns feted him with Home Run Baker Days and presented him with gifts for playing. In 1916, AL commissioner Ban Johnson, realizing one of the stars of the game needed to be back in the majors, pressured Mack into selling Baker’s contract to the Yankees and Mack did so.

However, Baker was not the same player in New York that he was in Philadelphia. His hitting declined, though he did swat 10 homers in both 1916 and 1919. Those 10 in 1919 helped the Yankees to a league-high 47 homers, the last year before the arrival of Ruth.

Baker’s career was interrupted again in 1920 when his wife and two daughters came down with scarlet fever. His wife died, the children survived, and a grieving Baker informed the Yankees that he would not play that season. It seemed like he might just retire, but he rejoined the team in 1921 and played through 1922.

One would think Baker would have been thrilled by the change in the composition of the ball that was happening as the Roaring Twenties began because it greatly helped the hitters, particularly Ruth. But several years after he retired, Baker denounced what he called the “rabbit ball.”

When he was asked about the home run heroics of Ruth and others, Baker said, “I don’t like to cast aspersions, but a Little Leaguer today can hit the modern ball as far as grown men could hit the ball we played with.”

He also added that had he played with the livelier ball during the prime of his career with the A’s, he could have hit 50 homers each year. “The year I hit 12, I also hit the right-field fence at Shibe Park 38 times.”

He retired just prior to the 1923 season and therefore missed out on playing in new Yankee Stadium with the team that won the franchise’s first World Series. His 13-year career included 1,575 games, 96 home runs, 991 RBI, a slash line of .307 average/.363 on-base/.442 slugging and an OPS of .805.

Interestingly, he actually hit more home runs on average with the Yankees (48 in 2,823 plate appearances) than he did with the A’s (48 in 3,854), partially because the Polo Grounds where the Yankees played their home games was a more friendly home run environment than Shibe Park.

As a final act, 32 years after he retired, Baker was elected by a veterans’ committee into the Hall of Fame in 1955. At the time it probably seemed right, but today there would have been no way Baker would have ended up with a plaque in Cooperstown. “It’s better to get a rosebud while you’re alive than a whole bouquet after you’re dead,” Baker said of getting into the Hall of Fame.

1 kommentar

Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
03 apr.

Nice piece, with one small tweak: Cravath's nickname was "Gavvy."

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