Glenn Uminowicz - September 2007
Baseball is Baseball Anywhere
and I Love It
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
He was quiet, shy, gentlemanly and polite. Modest and backward like the storybook version of the farm boy he was, he appeared embarrassed when interviewed. He didn’t like to talk about himself, didn’t gossip about others, and never said anything bad about anyone.
Barry Sparks describing the subject of his biography Frank “Home Run” Baker: Hall of Famer and World Series Hero (2006)
The headlines in a local newspaper above the Associated Press story on Barry Bonds becoming the new major league home run king raised two questions. Where have all the heroes gone? And, were they ever really there at all?
In addition to the steroid controversy swirling around Bonds, the writer alluded to the dog fighting allegations against quarterback Michael Vick. In addition, ball players now regarded as “exemplars of some golden age” were not without flaws. Babe Ruth drank excessively and Ty Cobb was surly.
By contrast, baseball historian Barry Sparks has identified a hero, who played with the Babe and against Cobb. He is the subject of Sparks’ biography Frank “Home Run” Baker: Hall of Famer and World Series Hero (2006).
Like many youngsters, Frank Baker dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. In the 1890s, Baker’s inspiration came from watching the play of Eastern Shore town teams. Frank and his brother Norman both played for the local high school team. In 1905, Frank Baker’s baseball skills, especially his ability to whack a ball deep into a cornfield, caught the attention of Charles “Buck” Herzog, manager of the Ridgely town team. The twenty-year-old Herzog turned Baker into a third baseman and became a lifelong friend.
From Ridgely, Baker moved on to several minor league teams. In 1908, he caught the eye of the legendary manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, Connie Mack. At the end of the minor league season, the manager purchased Baker’s contract.
Connie Mack was gentlemanly and soft spoken. He also possessed considerable teaching skills. He had determined to build a championship club around youthful talent. In 1909, for example, in addition to Baker, the Athletics featured the agile shortstop John J. Barry and second baseman Eddie Collins. With the addition of John “Stuffy” McInnes in 1911, Mack created what became known as the “$100,000 infield.”
In 1909, the Athletics contended for the American League title, but faded at the end of the season. In 1910, a strong infield combined with good pitching and a solid offense earned the Athletics a spot in the World Series against the Chicago Cubs. By far the more experienced team, the Cubs were the clear favorites over Mack’s youngsters.
The Cubs built a dynasty through intelligent play, excellent pitching, hard hitting and tight defense. This was the club with the famous double play combination of Tinker to Evers to Chance.
The Cubs mastered the right formula for success in the Dead Ball Era (1900-1919). Players concentrated on hitting the ball through the infield or sending line drives over an infielder’s head. Players wielded heavy bats. Baker, for example, swung a fifty-two ounce bat, roughly twenty ounces heavier than commonly used today. The emphasis was on what we now call “small ball.” Intelligent players mastered the arts of the bunt and the stolen base, anything to move runners along. For his entire career, Baker enjoyed this brand of baseball.
In the Dead Ball Era, home runs were a rarity. The quality of the ball combined with spacious ballpark dimensions to limit the number of long balls. In the Athletics’ Shibe Park, for example, it was five hundred and fifteen feet to the fence in dead center, three hundred and seventy eight feet down the left field line and three forty down the right field line.
Baker fit the Dead Ball Era perfectly. He was an intelligent ballplayer. At bat, he made the pitcher work. A dead pull hitter, he looked for an inside pitch that he turned on quickly, sending line shots through or over the infield.
Because of his hitting prowess, Baker’s fielding skills were sometimes overlooked. He knew opposing batters’ propensities and positioned himself at third base accordingly. He could knock down hard drives and possessed a strong and accurate arm. In the Dead Ball Era, fielding proved no easy task. The use of foreign substances on the ball by pitchers was permitted. Throwing a ball covered in saliva or tobacco juice was no easy task. Only one baseball might be used during an entire game. The constant pounding with heavy bats could make it lopsided by the late innings. Unlike today, playing surfaces were not well manicured, resulting in numerous bad hops. Finally, the gloves used in the era were small and had no pre-formed pocket.
Despite these challenges, Baker led all American League third basemen in fielding percentage in both 1911 and 1912. Many years later, a Cambridge sports editor marveled at the glove Baker used to accomplish the feat. He recalled, “I thought it belonged to his grandchild. It looked like a kid’s glove you buy in a dime store.”
The rest of the Athletics’ infield displayed similar abilities to Baker’s. A “cigarette card” from 1912 observed, “In 1910, this quartet of ball players, for offensive and defensive strength combined, was regarded as the equal of any that ever played an infield.”
In the 1910 series against the Cubs, the young Athletics outplayed the veterans, exhibiting tight defense and the ability to adjust to any kind of pitching. They were rewarded with a world championship. One year later, they made it back to the series versus the New York Giants. The New Yorkers relied on speed and pitching. Pitchers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard had won fifty games between them in 1911. Baker belted two home runs in successive games against these hurlers. The Athletics won the series and “Home Run” Baker earned a nickname and became a national hero.
During his time with the Athletics, Baker appeared in four World Series in five years, three of which Philadelphia won. He finished his career in 1922 with the New York Yankees, batting cleanup behind Babe Ruth. Baker witnessed the ending of the Dead Ball Era and the birth of the modern power game. Over his Hall of Fame career, he batted .307 and hit ninety-six home runs.
Sparks biography introduces the reader to a ballplayer who epitomized the game. The popularity of baseball reflects an American propensity that historian Neil Harris labels the “Operational Aesthetic.” Americans enjoy figuring out how things work, from automobiles to kitchen appliances. Think of the questions a baseball fan can ask between pitches. Is the pitcher going to throw a fastball or a changeup? What about location? Is the runner going to try and steal second? Is the shortstop going to cover? Is the third baseman positioned properly? Is the batter looking for a pitch he can pull? Moreover, a fan can create a permanent record of what transpired on their scorecard, documenting what worked and what did not.
Baker loved the intricacies of “small ball.” He later observed that the home run chase of the 1950s and 1960s ruined some young hitters because they failed to learn the subtleties of the game. For Baker, the Operational Aesthetic shaped his love of baseball.
Baseball is also defined by its pastoral imagery. The game is played in places named Wrigley Field and Fenway Park on a lush green carpet in the middle of a city. As the farmer who played the national pastime, Baker embodied the game’s identification with the countryside.
In retirement, Baker played for Trappe in the Talbot County League, whose players were mostly farmers. He later remembered, “People wonder why I’m content to play on a farm team. The game of baseball itself, and not the particular setting, is what interests me. Baseball is baseball anywhere and I love it. I get far more out the game by spending most of my time farming and playing baseball for recreation.” In short, to be a hero, you have to love the game.
Copies of Barry Sparks’ biography of “Home Run” Baker can be purchased at the Historical Society of Talbot County Museum Store located at 25 South Washington Street in Easton. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm. For information, call (410) 822-0773.