SSTN Interviews Baseball Author Barry Sparks
We are here with Barry Sparks, author of Frank “Home Run” Baker: Hall of Famer and World Series Hero. Barry’s biography of Frank “Home Run” Baker was published in 2005 by McFarland Publishing. He has been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research since 1994 and a freelance writer for more than 50 years. His articles have appeared in more than 70 national and regional publications, including Baseball Digest, The National Pastime, Orioles Gazette, Phillies Report, Sports Collectors Digest, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer and many others. He also is the author of EARL: The Greatest Bowler of All Time, published by Luby Publishing in 2019.
Barry, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
I enjoy your blog very much, and it’s my pleasure to be here.
Please tell us about your biography of Frank “Home Run” Baker. What made you decide to write a biography of him?
I was interested in writing a biography of Frank “Home Run” Baker because he was born and lived in Trappe, Md., which is just seven miles from Cambridge, Md., where I was born. Growing up as a baseball fan, I was very aware of him. Although Baker died in 1963 at age 77, I did meet him at a Little League banquet in 1960, when I was 11 years old.
I read as much as I could about Baker, but I grew tired of reading the same cursory information. I felt he needed a biography, but I doubted if I had the time to research and write it. Finally, in 1996, my wife, Ann, told me to “Just Do It.” The next week I began my research at the Reading, Pa., library.
Can you tell us a little about your research process? What’s it like learning about a player from so long ago?
Baker played from 1908-1922, an era when there was no radio or television coverage. Newspapers and magazines were the only source of sports news. During that time, sportswriters focused on the game on the field, not so much what was said afterwards. Baker also was a modest and quiet person. In 1914, a sportswriter wrote that Baker was one of the most difficult people to interview because “he didn’t like to talk about himself and he didn’t said anything bad about anyone.” Because he had played his final game in 1922, there was no one who had played with him that I could interview when I started my research. I did, however, talk to some friends and townspeople who knew him.
Most of my research was conducted by going to libraries to view back issues of newspapers on microfilm, obtaining microfilm through interlibrary loan, going to historical societies and reading books about that era. One of the things I enjoy about research is learning things I didn’t know before. That happened many times while working on the Baker book. Then, you get satisfaction when you can pass that information along to readers.
To write a non-fiction book, you must enjoy research, be able to deal with frustrations and not lose sight of your long-range goal. I spent nine years researching and writing the book. I worked full-time and the book was not one of my top priorities.
When people ask me why no one else had written a book about Frank “Home Run” Baker, I tell them because it’s too damn hard. Consider that Baker was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955 and his first biography wasn’t published until 2005.
Home Run Baker was an early legend of the game who was famously part of the Philadelphia A’s $100,000 infield. Can you tell us a little about those players and Baker’s role with that team?
The $100,000 infield consisted of Baker at third base, Jack Barry at shortstop, Eddie Collins at second and Stuffy McInnis at first base. Baker and Collins became Hall of Famers. The $100,000 label didn’t refer to their salaries, but rather to the amount of money manager Connie Mack could get if he sold them. All four players were talented and intelligent baseball men. They played together well and served as the core of the A’s. Baker, the A’s power source, often appeared awkward at third base, but he was a much better fielder than people think. Barry was a fine defensive shortstop, who didn’t hit for a high average. But, he was a great clutch hitter. Baker advocated for Barry to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Collins was a leader, a top base stealer and a player who could beat you a lot of different ways. Although McInnis was only 5-9, he was an excellent first baseman who had a lifetime batting average of .302.
Baker was on six World Series teams (four with the A’s and two with the Yankees). As such, he was one of early baseball’s most successful players. Why do you feel he was so successful?
Baker batted .363 in those six World Series. He was at his best when the pressure was the most intense. He enjoyed coming to bat when things looked bad and a big hit was needed. Baker cemented his fame in the 1911 World Series when he hit home runs off the Giants’ Rube Marquard and Christy Mathewson in consecutive games. Fans were in a fever pitch for the 1911 World Series, the most publicized series to date. In Game 2, with the score tied, 1-1, Baker unloaded a two-run homer off of southpaw Rube Marquard (24-7), who tried to sneak a fast ball past him, contrary to Giants manager John McGraw’s orders. In Game 3, with the A’s trailing 1-0 with one out in the top of the ninth, Mathewson (26-13) got two quick strikes on Baker. But, like Marquard, he tried to sneak a fast ball past Baker, who blasted it over the right field fence in the Polo Grounds. Baker had homered off two of the National League’s best pitchers in crucial situations. Mathewson had surrendered only one run to the A’s in 44 1/3 innings going back to the 1905 World Series. After the 1911 World Series, Baker was known from coast to coast and was truly one of the game’s superstars.
What were the events that brought Baker to the Yankees?
The Athletics were embarrassed in the 1914 World Series when they were swept by the Boston Braves in one of the greatest upsets in baseball history. Many observers believed the A’s were overconfident, distracted by Federal League recruiting, and fragmented during the World Series. Mack, declaring he wouldn’t be able to compete with the Federal League, started to break up his team. Baker, who had signed a three-year contract prior to the 1914 season, stated that he was going to retire. But since he still had two years remaining on his contract, he still belonged to the A’s. Mack saw Baker’s retirement as a move to renegotiate his contract. Baker asked for Mack’s permission to play independent ball in 1915 and Mack granted his request, not knowing Baker was planning to play for Upland in the Delaware County League, just 10 miles from Philadelphia. This would certainly cost Mack at the box office. Mack was furious when he found out and a bitter feud erupted between the two. Although several other clubs were interested in signing Baker, along with a number of Federal League clubs, Mack refused to sell Baker. Mack vowed, “I wouldn’t sell Baker for $1 million dollars. I’m through with Frank Baker as a player. I hope I never see him again.” It seemed obvious Mack was punishing Baker by not selling him and keeping him out of the game. He wanted to prove that no one player was bigger than the game. Finally, almost a year to the date of Baker’s announced retirement, Mack sold Baker to the Yankees for $37,500.
The Yankees had expressed great interest in Baker, a left-handed, dead pull hitter who always played well at Polo Grounds. The Yankees also needed a box office draw and Baker, an established superstar, was an ideal candidate. With the Yankees, Baker was never surrounded by the same level of talent that the 1910-914 A’s had. Consequently, his production never matched his earlier years. In mid-July of 1916, Baker was chasing a foul ball and ran full speed into an iron gate that led to the left field section of the grandstand. He hit the gate and was knocked to the ground. The next day it was revealed that he had fractured three ribs and he would miss the next two months. Baker said his swing was never the same after he broke his ribs. This was the first of a series of injuries that decreased Baker’s productivity with the Yankees.
Baker sat out two seasons (1916 and 1920) during his career. Please explain the circumstances around those absences.
Baker failed to play in 1915 because of a contract dispute with manager Connie Mack (See the first part of the above answer).
Baker missed the 1920 season when his wife died from typhoid fever in February. It was close to the start of the season and Baker could not find anyone to take care of his two daughters, Ottilie and Janise. He said, “My children are dearer to me than baseball and the Yankees will just have to get along without me this season.” He did return for the 1921 and 1922 seasons.
Babe Ruth gets a great deal of credit for bringing winning baseball to the Yankees, but it wasn’t just the Babe. Players like Home Run Baker were also winners who came to the Bronx. Were you able to determine what Baker’s leadership role on those first Yankees pennant winning teams?
Frank Baker, who turned 35 prior to the start of the 1921 season was a veteran player on the 1921 and 1922 Yankees. He had played on championship teams with the Athletics, was knowledgeable and offered veteran leadership. Although Baker and Ruth were as different as night and day, they both respected each other. When Ruth was a young pitcher, he faced Baker, who had great success against him. Manager Miller Huggins had his hands full with Ruth and several other Yankees who marched to the beat of their own drum. He could always count on Baker to be a steady influence on the team. If Huggins was sick, or had to be away from the team for a game, he put Baker in charge. Baker was a valuable asset on the field, at the plate and on the bench.
Do you have any other works in progress?
I’m just starting to work on a book that has a Yankee connection, but it’s too early to discuss.
Yankee history is replete with great names and moments. Is there a particular Yankee story you would like to see written about?
The rich history of the New York Yankees has been well mined and thoroughly chronicled, probably better than any other team in baseball. So, nothing in particular comes to mine.
In the book and the movie, The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who is the best baseball player you ever saw?
I would say Frank Robinson of the Orioles, particularly in 1966. He could do it all, but I think he’s often underrated.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers.
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
The Baltimore Orioles.
Who was your favorite player?
Diamond Jim Gentile.
What is your most prized collectible?
I have a Negro American League baseball autographed by Jackie Robinson. A relative gave it to be when I was 15 because he knew I liked baseball.
What is your favorite food?
Seafood, particularly shrimp and crabs.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
The Goo Goo Dolls.
Thank you so much Barry for joining us here today. It has been such a pleasure talking with you. Best of luck always, please don’t be a stranger! We hope to see you soon to talk more baseball history.