1921 World Series

The Giant vs. The Giants

Whenever Michael Jordan’s career is brought up and the narrative is created about him being the ultimate winner and the best basketball player ever part of that narrative is “The Bulls had to overcome the Bad Boys era Detroit Pistons to get to the top.” It’s always a perfectly crafted story about how the Chicago Bulls learned to not give in to the antics of the Pistons and focus on winning and after two tries the Bulls finally prevailed, and not only did they prevail they sent Detroit off the court without shaking hands. Even to this day, the animosity prevails between members of the two teams. In some ways, Babe Ruth and his New York Yankees experienced a similar trek.

To set the stage, in 1921 the New York Yankees had never won a pennant. A team was placed in New York by the new American League and it upset the New York Giants, the National League club with an already established tradition in the city. They had pennant wins in 1888 and 1889. They had a famous pennant race with the Chicago Cubs. They had a manager that wasn’t loved throughout the league in John McGraw. The club, up until 1921, had been in the 05 series, 1911, 1912, 1913, and 1917. They would have been in the 1904 Series but the team refused to play in it partially because they were angry an American League team was placed in New York.

The Staten Island Advance, Credit: silive

The styles in which the two teams played were seen as having stark contrast. The Giants played a classic small ball style with bunts and stolen bases. The Yankees had just gotten Babe Ruth in 1920 and in his transition to full-time position player he took over the league smacking dingers. In two years he had smacked 113 home runs when before the Babe was in the league the home run leaders typically finished the season with around 9 or 10. The brand of ball Ruth brought to the league was exciting but in sports, there’s always a distrust of new and flashy. At the end of the day, sure Ruth can hit the bejesus out of the ball but can the Yankees win playing this way?

They somewhat answered that by winning the pennant (back in that day winning the pennant was pretty much as exciting as winning the World Series) but now they were faced with the team who’d been in this city and who had been successful in this city. At the time they were the Clippers and the Lakers but up to the 1920s, the Yankees were the Clippers.

To add to the feeling that this was the Giants’ town all the games were played at the Polo Grounds where the Yankees paid rent to the Giants. The next three seasons the Yankees would play the Giants, just like the Bulls and Pistons, the Giants would prevail the first two times and in the third, the Yankees would finally beat their same city rivals.

Now, is this completely parallel to the Pistons and Bulls? Not exactly. For starters, the Giants only had won one World Series victory and technically Ruth already had three championships (though the first one he just pinch hit in once. The other two he was impactful as a starting pitcher). But with that said this was New York Yankees megastar Ruth. This was “I want to be an everyday player Ruth” This was the face of the franchise Babe Ruth and he needed to prove that not only could he hit for the most power ever seen on a baseball field, but he also had to show he could win as well.

The 1921 series was the last of the best of 9 formats. All games were played at the Polo Grounds with the home and away team being alternated every other game. The Yankees jumped out to an early two-game lead in the series. They actually did so with small ball with multiple steals of home plate and Ruth taking multiple bags as well. In Game 3 the Yankees got out to a 4-0 lead early but the Giants immediately responded in the bottom half of the inning and really that’s where the series flipped.

The Yankees would go on to lose four out of the next five games and the Giants would capture the crown (though the Yankees in Game 6 got off to a great start and the lead, they just couldn’t hold on. In fact the Yankees held a lead in all but the clinching Game 8 where they lost 1-0). There was definitely an overarching feeling that the Yanks just have to learn how to win as they couldn’t quite pull out the necessary wins to take the series.

In 1922, a traditional best of 7, in a season where Ruth missed a bit due to being suspended for making an unauthorized barnstorming trip. This series was again played in the Polo Grounds and this time the Giants kind of swept (there was a tie due to darkness) and once again the Yankees couldn’t hold onto leads. In the first game of the series they were up two runs late but a rally gave the Giants the win. After a tie in Game 2, they were just shut down in Game 3 but in Games 4 and 5 they held leads in both and couldn’t close out the game with the lead. Ruth was good in the 21 series but atrocious in 22 and once again the Yankees can’t win.

Babe Ruth 1921
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1923, the year in which Yankee Stadium was built, the Yankees drew more fans than the Giants (actually they had been doing so, so often they were kicked out of the Polo Grounds) but the off the field success had yet to turn to the on field success…until this season. Babe Ruth goes on an absolute tear hitting three bombs, a triple, and a double. He walked eight times for the series as well compiling an OPS of 1.555 and leading the Yankees to a 4-2 series win, their first World Championship.

Now the Giants actually end up being the New York team who goes to series the next year where they lose to Washington. Washington actually wins back-to-back pennants and the Yankees end up losing the next series they make it to vs the Cardinals (their first series win) but in winning this series the Yankees really showed where they were as a franchise. They were the top draw in the biggest city, they now had a championship to go with it and over time they turned into one of the most famous dynasties in sports history.

They took over the country, just like the Bulls did in the 90s and to this day it’s an incredible brand. For example, in my recent travels to Europe, there were New York Yankees hats everywhere in a country (Denmark) that doesn’t even follow baseball. The Yankees pushed out the Giants (and Brooklyn) and even with a “new” team in the city (Mets), it’s still a Yankees town. The level of expectations for success are still what they were for the last 100 years and all of it started with the 1923 series and overcoming the New York Giants.

Keep Reading: 1919 World Series Examination

Featured Image Credit: Library of Congress

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