It was only May, but the matchup between the Indians and White Sox at the Polo Grounds was already being billed as the Little World’s Series.
The Indians were regarded as a smart choice to win the American League pennant. The Yankees, who for their entire existence had played second fiddle in New York to the Giants, even sharing their ballpark, were starting to be regarded as more than a curiosity.
The Yankees’ purchase of Babe Ruth was seen as almost a sideshow attraction. He had demonstrated his ability to hit for power, but how long could it last? Ed Barrow suggested that Ruth would beg to pitch again when he hit his first sustained batting slump. Others suggested that his incessant cigar smoking left him in no condition to regularly patrol the outfield.
On May 1, Ruth hit his first home run as a Yankee, and it was gargantuan. It cleared the right field roof of the Polo Grounds, something that had been done just twice before since the park opened in 1911. Crowds were actually starting to come to the Polo Grounds to see the Yankees, to the point where it incensed the Giants. Manager John McGraw announced that the team would not share the ballpark with the Yankees. Within a week, Giants management reversed course, but by then, the Yankees had looking for a site for a home of their own.
Once again, rain allowed Indians player/manager Tris Speaker to start a series with Stan Coveleski. He faced off against Jack Quinn in the opener on May 15, 1920. Since the acquisition of Ruth, the Yankees had been relying on the long ball, and they did so again. But this time, it was Quinn that provided the offensive explosion, as his two-run home run was the only offense for the day. Coveleski got tagged with the hard-luck loss, his first of the season.
The largest crowd to that date to see a baseball game turned up the next day at Coogan’s Bluff. Attendance was counted at 38,600, with estimates that more than 10,000 others were turned away. It smashed the previous record, also set at the Polo Grounds, of 38,261, during the 1911 World Series.
The fans got their money’s worth, as the Indians went to work on Yankees starter Carl Mays. Jack Graney singled, followed by another single by Ray Chapman. Shorstop Aaron Ward booted Speaker’s grounder, and Graney came home to put the Indians on the board. Elmer Smith beat out a bunt to load the bases. Larry Gardner hit a chopper to Wally Pipp at first, who threw home for the force on Chapman. Bill Wambsganss hit a two-run double to left, and Doc Johnston hit a two-run single, but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double. Mays was done for the day, replaced by Hank Thormahlen, who got Steve O’Neill to pop out to end the inning. Jim Bagby was able to hold the lead, and got the win as the Indians trounced the Yankees 8-2.
The Yankees did the trouncing the next day, as Bob Shawkey only gave up three hits, but the Yankees tore the cover off the ball in an 11-0 whitewashing. Speaker went back to Coveleski, and in the seventh inning, it appeared he might be doomed to the same fate as the opener. The Indians were clinging to a 2-0 lead when Ping Bodie led off the inning by reaching on an error by Chapman. Catcher Truck Hannah doubled to left, and stood on second as the tying run. He was relieved for pinch-runner Muddy Ruel. George Mogridge hit a comebacker to Coveleski, who was able to snare the ball and throw to first for the out. He then struck out Ward on three pitches, and then got Roger Peckinpaugh to ground out to him to get out of the jam. The Indians ended up tacking on three more runs in the top of the ninth for a 5-0 win to secure the split of the four-game series. The series saw no major offensive output from Babe Ruth.
From New York, the Indians journeyed down the east coast to Shibe Park in Philadelphia. The Indians would take three of four from the Athletics, but ironically, the only game of the four-game series they lost was the one in Cleveland. A rookie named Pat Martin got his first – and as it turned out, only – major league win by outdueling Coveleski.
At the time, Pennsylvania was home to restrictive blue laws, banning most activities from Sundays (anyone who’s tried to buy beer on a Sunday in the Keystone State can experience the remnants of this). It was not uncommon for teams to play a series against the Athletics or the Phillies, leave after the Saturday game, and play at the other team’s home field.
The Tribe then headed back east for Washington D.C. for a three-game set against the Senators. And once again, the weather was decidedly uncooperative, as the Indians could only play one game, losing 13-9. After a stop in Pittsburgh for an exhibition against the Pirates (in-season exhibition games were surprisingly common then), the Indians returned home for a monthlong homestand.
But this time, Speaker wouldn’t be able to use Coveleski to reset his rotation. Covey had to go home for a death in the family.