Major League Baseball was at a crossroads in 1920. After weathering the storm of the Federal League, the American and National Leagues – then run as separate businesses – were facing a crisis of leadership and issues that could tear apart the game itself.
The Indians represented one of the most stable clubs in the American League, but it looked like other teams in the junior circuit were coming apart at the seams.
At the time, the game was overseen by a national commission of three men: American League President Byron “Ban” Johnson, National League President John Heydler and Reds owner Garry Herrmann. Johnson was issuing directives that were being ignored, and ignoring problems that threatened the foundation of the sport.
A new system was needed to govern baseball, with one man at the top instead of a committee of three. In fact, former President William Howard Taft – who had inaugurated the tradition of throwing out a first pitch at a baseball game and, legend had it, was the origin of the seventh inning stretch at that same game – had been offered the position. He politely declined, pursuing his real goal: to be the Chief Justice of the United States.
The White Sox had put together a season for the ages in 1919, but surprisingly succumbed to the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series – or maybe not so surprisingly. At the time, the game of baseball was rife with connections to gambling and gangsters, and even as the 1920 spring training season dawned, there were rumors that the 1919 World Series had been fixed – even after rumors hadn’t been put to rest about games of the 1918 World Series being thrown as well.
But when White Sox owner Charles Comiskey suggested after the 1919 World Series that his team might have thrown games, Johnson suggested it was sour grapes from a loser. Comiskey and Johnson were both instrumental in the founding of the American League, but the clash of personalities had led to a falling out.
Johnson had also banned the Red Sox sale of Carl Mays to the Yankees in 1919, but it was ignored as well. The Red Sox were in the middle of a massive fire sale. Owner Harry Frazee was willing to invest in Broadway productions, but not his team – and in fact, raised capital for Broadway by selling off pieces of the team.
The Red Sox appeared not to miss a beat after dealing Tris Speaker to the Tribe, with World Series appearances in 1916 and 1918, and after winning the World Series in 1918, it appeared the sky was the limit for the Crimson Hose, who had a Baltimore native named George Herman Ruth. He started his professional career with the Baltimore Orioles, and became known as one of owner Jack Dunn’s babes. The nickname stuck.
Babe Ruth came up as a pitcher, but started to demonstrate some hitting ability. He hit 11 home runs to lead the major leagues in 1918, and another 29 in 1919. In 1920, before spring training, Frazee announced Ruth’s sale to the New York Yankees for a record $125,000.
The Yankees were second fiddle in New York, sharing the Polo Grounds with the Giants, managed at the time by the legendary John McGraw. But in 1915, the team was purchased by Col. Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston. Both men, like Jim Dunn in Cleveland, were committed to spending money, and were always willing to buy players from the Red Sox.
The Ruth purchase was seen as a potential folly. The Plain Dealer said that adding Ruth to the Yankees still didn’t address the team’s primary need for speed. “If a rule could be adopted barring double plays in baseball, the Yankees would have a great chance to cop.”
What’s more, the paper stated it would be very difficult to recoup the money spent on Ruth. The $125,000 cost represented roughly 166,667 admissions at 75 cents each. Some back of the envelope calculations indicated that the Yankees, who were tenants of the Giants at the Polo Grounds, would need to draw 1 million fans just to break even, something that seemed impossible at the time. The Major League attendance record for a season was 908,000, set by the Giants in a pennant-winning season of 1908. In fact, the entire American League drew 3 million in 1919.
The White Sox had put together a year for the ages in 1919, and many people believed they would repeat. Billy Evans, the former sports editor at the Youngstown Vindicator who had become a major league umpire, still wrote a syndicated column. He thought the White Sox would win the pennant, but said of the Yankees, “there is so much offensive strength on the club that it seems unbeatable.”
Bookmakers installed the Yankees and Indians as 5-to-2 favorites for the pennant. In the National League, the favorites were the Giants and Reds (the defending National League champs) at 2-to-1.
Athletics manager Connie Mack saw 1920 as the Indians’ year to finally break through, saying, “If they have the average hard luck a ball club encounters through the season, they should still finish on top.”