Yankees Make Most of Four-Game Set; Tribe Falls into Tie for First
Vince Guerrieri | On 19, Dec 2014
Aug. 5, 1920, was a happy day for Indians fans. The Yankees had gone 4-8 in their last 12 after keeping pace with the Tribe for so long, and had dropped to four games back of the Indians in the American League standings. In fact, they were in danger of being overtaken by the third-place White Sox, who were just half a game back of the Yankees.
The four-game lead was the largest of the year for the Indians, and three days later, they held a 4 ½ game lead as the Yankees were coming to town again. The Yankees limped into Cleveland, having lost eight of their last 13. It represented a chance for the Indians to finish off their pesky pursuers, who like the Indians, had never won a pennant.
By the time the Yankees came to town, Babe Ruth had clubbed 41 home runs, a number that was simply incomprehensible to fans. Ruth was hitting more home runs than entire teams were that year. He had become one of the biggest draws in sports, so much so that he was offered an all-expense paid trip to Cuba in the offseason to play baseball. The Plain Dealer suggested that the series would break attendance records for an all-weekday series.
When the Salvation Army gave tickets to kids for one of the Indians games against the Yankees, team management – without the knowledge of owner Jim Dunn, who was out of town – announced the youths’ tickets would be honored at an Athletics game. The Indians would then sell the tickets they had promised to the children. When Dunn returned, he was furious.
“These young fans have just as much right to see Ruth as the rest of us have,” he said. “When I gave those tickets to school children, there were no strings attached to the gifts. I want them to be present and I hope that Ruth makes a home run each day, providing, of course, the Indians win each game.”
Ruth’s mammoth home runs were starting to change the fabric of the game, as he received intentional walks – sometimes over the objections of fans at visiting ballparks. Even on the road, people wanted to see him hit.
“Babe Ruth has introduced a new factor into baseball,” the Plain Dealer wrote. “No player in the history of the game has attained such nation-wide fame or attracted so many persons through the turnstiles. This feature, undoubtedly, will be considered by the magnates at their winter meeting. They may change the rules so as to prevent or penalize intentional passing. They probably will do so if they think it means more jingle in the cash box. Meantime baseball fans might as well reconcile themselves to the fact that Babe Ruth will be passed in a pinch by any manager who thinks his team has a chance for the pennant.”
The Indians came out in the first game and absolutely laid an egg. Committing five errors – as many as they’d had in the previous two weeks – they lost 6-3. Ruth was held hitless, but scored twice as he walked three times – only once intentionally. The Yankees were staked to a 4-0 lead before the Indians came to bat for the first time.
The next day’s game was halted after two innings with the Yankees leading 1-0, sending home 21,000 fans – including American League President Ban Johnson – as the heavens erupted. The starters for the rain-impeded game were Stan Coveleski for the Indians and Jack Quinn for the Yankees. They didn’t come out for the game the next day. Indians manager Tris Speaker went with Jim Bagby, and Yankees skipper Miller Huggins picked Carl Mays, who continued to alienate everyone in Major League Baseball on a regular basis. A month earlier, he had to apologize for hitting a Philadelphia fan with a ball. A warrant was sworn out for Mays’ arrest, but the apology was accepted and charges were dropped.
Ruth twisted his knee sliding into second and had to be carried off the field in the top of the first inning, changing the tenor of the game. The Indians exploded for four runs in the third inning, including a three-run home run by Elmer Smith.
But the Yankees chipped away, scoring three runs in the fifth, including an RBI double by Mays. In the sixth, Duffy Lewis singled to score Bob Meusel, who came in for Ruth in the first, and the game was tied.
Mays led off the top of the 10th with a double to center field, and came around to score on a Meusel single. Del Pratt hit a bouncer to Ray Chapman at shortstop, and Chapman threw to second to force Meusel. But Bill Wambsganss’ throw to first went into the dugout, and Pratt took second. He came around to score when Lewis singled. Larry Gardner reached first on an infield hit in the bottom of the 10th, but was stranded as Mays set down the next three batters for the win. The Indians’ lead had been cut to two games.
Ruth returned to the lineup for the next day’s game. He walked twice, but came around to score both times as the Yankees won 5-1. The Indians were now just a game up on the White Sox, and 1 ½ games up on the Yankees. The Yankees completed the sweep the next day with a 4-3 win. Of cold comfort was that Ruth got just two hits in the series – both singles. Ironically, Plain Dealer coverage before the series suggested that Ruth was the only player on the team hitting at that point.
The Browns then came to town for a brief two-game series. The Indians split, but were tied for first place as they left for another eastern road trip. Within 10 days, they’d find themselves in second place, down 3 ½ games.
And it would be the least of their worries.