Ruth Makes Cleveland Debut, but Indians Cling to Lead
Vince Guerrieri | On 12, Dec 2014
The Yankees, an also-ran in the American League since they relocated to New York from Baltimore in 1903, might not have fully formed in 1920 as the dynasty they would become, but they were already the biggest draw in Major League Baseball, thanks to Babe Ruth.
Ruth, the pitcher whose bat had become too valuable for him to hit only on every fourth day, clouted 29 home runs in 1919 to establish a major-league record. And in 1920, he was on his way to proving that was no fluke. By the time the Yankees made their first visit to League Park, Ruth had already swatted 16 home runs – a number that would have led the American League in every year since the start of the World Series. Even more incredibly, he’d done it in less than six weeks; his first home run as a Yankee came May 1. It was an auspicious debut, with Ruth clearing the right field roof at the Polo Grounds, something that had been done just twice since the stadium opened in 1911.
The Yankees had become the most popular team in baseball. There was talk of building a new stadium just for them (they shared quarters with the Giants at the Polo Grounds in Coogan’s Bluff in Harlem), and a million fans, once scoffed at as necessary just for the Yankees to break even from the purchase of Ruth, was starting to look possible.
When the Yankees arrived in Cleveland, taking a boat across Lake Erie from Detroit, they brought with them the 25-man team, the two owns, Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston and eight reporters. New York City had 11 mass-market daily newspapers at the time, but it was still regarded as the largest media contingent ever to visit League Park for a baseball game (by comparison, Cleveland had three daily newspapers: The News, the Plain Dealer and the Press).
Yankees manager Miller Huggins skipped Jack Quinn for his scheduled start against the Tigers, saving him for the opener against the Indians. Speaker countered with Slim Caldwell, who had spent nine years with the Yankees before his drinking and carousing started to catch up to him. The Indians were able to sign him out of the minor leagues in 1919, and he had gone 5-1 for them down the stretch.
“How could any such discard hope to beat the sluggingest team in the world,” Henry Edwards asked in the next day’s Plain Dealer. It was a rhetorical question, as Caldwell scattered eight hits – none to Ruth – in a 5-4 victory. But in the sixth inning, Ruth hit a chopper to Bill Wambsganss at second. Wamby bobbled the ball, and Ruth reached on the error. Wamby then nearly threw the ball into the outfield, and Bob Meusel came home from first as Ruth ended up on third. Del Pratt’s single scored Ruth and all of a sudden the game was tied at 4.
But the Indians pushed across what turned out to be the winning run in the eighth, as Ray Chapman came home on a single to center field by Larry Gardner. The win gave the Indians a little breathing room, as they moved to a game up on the Yankees.
The next day saw a Sunday crowd of more than 29,000, a record at League Park. The fans who passed through the turnstiles saw Ruth hit his 17th home run as the Yankees positively clobbered the Indians, 14-0, putting the two teams back into a tie for first place.
“What Wellington did to Napoleon at the well known Waterloo, what the allies did to the Germans at the Argonne, what Jack Dempsey did to Jess Willard at Toledo – that’s what the Yankees did to the Indians at League Park yesterday,” Edwards wrote in the Plain Dealer.
“The Indians had just as good a chance of winning the contest as (Wisconsin Sen. Bob) La Follette did of landing the Republican nomination for president. But even La Follette got a few votes.” That day, U.S. Sen. Warren Harding – a newspaper publisher from Marion, Ohio – was named the Republican nominee for president.
The Yankees tagged Indians pitching early. George Uhle got Roger Peckinpaugh to fly out to Charlie Jamieson, but gave up back-to-back doubles to Meusel and Wally Pipp, which scored Meusel. After intentionally walking Ruth, Uhle unintentionally walked Pratt to load the bases. Ping Bodie hit a two-run double, and Elmer Myers relieved Uhle. Myers fared little better as the Yankees batted around and took a 6-0 lead before the Indians had even come to bat.
In the sixth inning, with the Yankees holding an 8-0 lead, Myers pitched to Ruth, who pounded the ball over the fence in right field and across Lexington Avenue. It landed behind a house on the other side of the street. “I gave Ruth only one fastball,” Myers said after the game. “And you saw what he did with it. Never again.”
But the Indians came back the next day in front of 17,000 fans – a record for a Monday afternoon crowd – and won 7-1. The Indians got another stellar outing by Stan Coveleski – who was pitching without his usual catcher. Steve O’Neill was called home. His wife May had given birth to twins the week before, and was ailing afterward. He was expected to be gone around a week. Jim Bagby closed out the series for the Indians and got the win as the Indians won 10-2. They had taken three of four from the Yankees, and now had a two-game lead.
It was the biggest lead they’d have for a month. The Indians dropped two of their next three to fall back into a tie with the Yankees, and they were able to win three in a row from the Red Sox to leave Cleveland June 25 for a monthlong road trip with a 1 ½ game lead.
“Wooers of the Goddess Chance, who are reported to have wagered that Cleveland will not come home in first place were betting on a pretty sure thing,” Edwards wrote as they left, “for there is not a team in either big league that can go away from home for thirty-one days, play several doubleheaders and maintain a lead that is less than two games, unless it performs the miraculous.”
Babe Ruth, meanwhile, kept hitting home runs. By the end of the month, he had hit 22 round-trippers, leading some to wonder what kind of damage he was doing to the owners’ bank accounts.
“The magnates are wondering how much longer their coffers can stand up under the strain of having a lot of $2.75 perfectly good baseballs pounded into the never-never land – from which none e’er returns,” the Plain Dealer wrote.