Thursday, December 31, 2020

How they came to be called the Yankees by Bryan Hoch

 If not for the ingenuity of a turn-of-the-century newspaperman searching to save letters, the subway station at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue might be better known as the stop for Highlanders Stadium.

Many believe that the Yankees shed their original Highlanders nickname in 1913, when they abandoned rickety Hilltop Park in favor of the Polo Grounds. They shared that ballpark with the Giants until 1923, when the team moved to a state-of-the-art facility that showcased the game’s greatest attraction in Babe Ruth.

Yet the first published reference to the upstart American League franchise as the “Yankees” occurred on April 7, 1904, when the New York Evening Journal reported on a successful Spring Training camp under the headline: “YANKEES WILL START HOME FROM SOUTH TODAY.”

One week later, the same newspaper’s coverage of the season opener was headlined: “YANKEES BEAT BOSTON,” with the term also appearing in the lead sentence of an article chronicling New York’s 8-2 victory over a team that was not yet known as the Red Sox. There were numerous references to the ballclub as the Yankees before 1913, including advertising and tobacco cards.

Historians believe that the name “Yankees” owes its success to the newspapermen, who were grateful to find a more succinct option than “Highlanders” or “Hilltoppers.” Marty Appel’s excellent franchise history, “Pinstripe Empire,” unearthed a 1922 issue of Baseball Magazine in which writer Fred Lieb reported:

“[Highlanders] was awkward to put in newspaper headlines. Finally, the sporting editor at one of the New York evening papers exclaimed, ‘The hell with this Highlanders. I am going to call this team the Yanks. That will fit into heads better.’”

A 1943 history of the franchise credits sports editor Jim Price of the New York Press for being the first to refer to the team as the Yankees.

The name Highlanders had never grown popular with fans, who found the Yankees moniker's patriotic symbolism more appealing, calling upon the Yankee Doodle days of the American Revolution. It should be noted that this was less than 40 years removed from the end of the Civil War.

Other nicknames of the time included the “Greater New Yorks,” “Invaders” and “Griffiths,” the latter of which was a reference to Clark Griffith, the club’s manager from 1903-08.

No formal announcement was made to confirm the full-time adoption of the nickname, but by 1913, it was generally accepted that the team would forever be known as the Yankees. Joe DiMaggio’s proclamation that he wanted to “thank the Good Lord for making me a Highlander” just wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and Facebook.

Saturday, December 26, 2020


Babe Ruth In 1921

By Bill Jenkinson, Baseball Historian

Throughout our nation’s history, sports have served as a welcome diversion in our darkest hours. That’s the way it was during our two World Wars, and so it is now. 2020 has been hard for almost all of us, so it’s natural to hope for better days in 2021. If we follow custom and look to the sporting world for much-needed comfort, happily, we see a dear, old friend waiting for us.

There is the smiling face of the beloved and legendary Babe Ruth. Why Babe? First, he has been there for us before. In 1918, as he evolved into baseball’s pre-eminent player, Ruth entertained the country in unprecedented fashion as the USA battled foreign enemies in Europe and a deadly pandemic here at home. Babe personally overcame the “Spanish Flu” twice during that tempestuous year. By the early-1930s, Ruth was an even bigger force in our lives as he infused America with optimism and hope during the Great Depression.

In between, he was also there during happier times in the 1920s. Babe was the perfect symbol for the unbridled joy and raucous spontaneity of those Roaring Twenties. Twice during that tumultuous decade, Ruth was credited with saving the game of baseball. First, in 1920, the Chicago White Sox were discovered to have deliberately lost the 1919 World Series while taking payoffs from a gambling syndicate. The resulting “Black Sox” scandal threatened to destroy the integrity of the sport, but Babe Ruth’s incomparable charisma and peerless ability provided the ideal alternatives to the American public. They embraced Ruth and his unbridled positivity over the gloom of the Black Sox, and baseball survived.

Then in 1926, when iconic superstars TY Cobb and Tris Speaker were implicated in yet another gambling controversy, Babe Ruth calmly inserted himself into the national dialogue. While defending his two long-time rivals, he promised to lead baseball to its greatest-season-ever in 1927. That’s exactly what happened, and the entire episode faded into the background. Only The Babe possessed the commanding leadership and benign gravitas to achieve such a stunning turnaround.

Now, as we stagger into 2021, here he is again, inviting us to celebrate the 100th anniversary of what is likely the greatest achievement in the annals of sports. It’s true that Babe Ruth’s most celebrated season occurred in 1927 when he recorded a then-record sixty home runs while leading his New York Yankees to an historic World Series championship. However, when we look closely at what Babe did in 1921, it truly boggles the mind. He performed athletic deeds that can only be described as “super human.”

That is saying a lot. So much so, that no right-thinking person should accept that implausible assertion without solid proof. This website is intended to provide that proof. As you process through the site, Babe will be with you, asking you to suspend your disbelief for a little while. He wants to share his extraordinary God-given gifts, thereby helping us to see the light at the end of the current darkness. Of all those physical gifts, his unparalleled batting power was the most transcendent. Accordingly, this narrative will primarily view Ruth’s 1921 season through the lens of that unique power.

It all started during a blizzard at New York’s Pennsylvania Station on the night of February 20, 1921. That was where and when Babe Ruth boarded a train with his wife, Helen, and headed for pre-spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Babe had been there before, formally training with the Boston Red Sox at the Spa City from 1915 through 1918. In fact, it was in Hot Springs in March, 1918 when Ruth had stunned the baseball world by hitting the first-ever 500-foot home run. Until then, such a stupendous drive had been considered not humanly possible.

For context, it should be understood that even today, after a century of vast advancements in strength and conditioning science, 500-foot homers are extremely rare. Extremely. During the first twenty-one seasons of the 21st Century, there have been fewer than five such drives recorded by the combined rosters of every Major League team. For any man to reach that performance level a hundred years in the past, it represents a compelling tale for the ages. Even 450-foot homers are unusual in MLB since the majority of Big Leaguers never hit a single drive that far in their entire careers. 

Babe remained in Hot Springs for twelve days where he never touched a baseball. Instead, Ruth wisely focused on his conditioning, playing golf and hiking fifteen miles a day over in the Ouachita Mountains. However, upon arriving to a hero’s welcome in Shreveport, Louisiana on March 6, Babe was more than ready to play ball. Shreveport’s Gasser Park had been chosen by the Yankees as their official spring training center, and Ruth showed up there the next morning with obvious determination. In his very first batting practice, The Bambino walloped nine drives out of the stadium, including an eye-popping shot high over the 424-foot sign in center field. It was instantly hailed as the longest poke in city history.

Yet, despite that impressive beginning, as well as the following six months of exceptional success, 1921 was not easy for Babe Ruth. It may be necessary, therefore, to briefly digress in the chronological telling of the 1921 Ruthian saga. Typical of his entire life, Babe had to work hard for everything positive that he accomplished that year. For starters, Ruth was badly overweight for the first time, taking the scales at somewhere over 230 pounds. As most know, Babe battled such weight problems for the remainder of his life. He had also sprained his right ankle in Arkansas, and was noticeably limping.

Due to his immense popularity, Babe Ruth’s schedule was brutally demanding. He seldom enjoyed a day of rest since the Yankees arranged unofficial exhibition games almost every time there was a so-called open date. In 1921 alone, there were ten such strength-sapping appearances during the regular season. Additionally, as early as April of 1921 and recurring again in September, there were reports of flare-ups to Ruth’s chronically injured right knee. Then in the World Series in October, Babe so badly damaged his left elbow that the resulting infection was actually regarded as a potential amputation scenario.

Upon missing the final three games of that Series, the Yanks suffered a gut-wrenching defeat to their hometown rival New York Giants. Lastly, Babe was victimized by an odious power play on the part of dictatorial commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis who forbad him to participate in his annual post-season Barnstorming Tour. When Ruth stood up to him, Landis suspended Babe for the first five weeks of the 1922 season. The Judge was soon forced to roll back the restrictions that he had so frivolously invoked to create the confrontation. But the suspension stood. It was truly galling for Ruth, but it never diminished his astounding achievements over the course of the earlier 1921 campaign.

Returning the discussion to Shreveport (specifically on March 8, 1921), Babe essentially duplicated his record drive from the preceding day during an intra-squad game. The ball rocketed past the flagpole in center field, and left everyone dumbfounded. Eight days later versus the Cardinals in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Ruth went 6 for 6, including three more home runs. The homer in the 4th inning cleared a two story house across the street in right centerfield. Babe added two more long circuit shots against the Brooklyn Dodgers back in Shreveport on March 27, barely missing a third as his colossal right field blow drifted just foul.

Ruth recorded additional powerful blasts all through the South after concluding camp in Shreveport. The Yanks worked their way north for the season opener at New York’s Polo Grounds on April 13 with games scheduled at every stop. In the process, Babe bashed terrific drives in New Orleans, Birmingham, and Winston-Salem. When he went 5 for 5 in that opening game versus Philadelphia (three singles & two doubles), it was easy to see that Ruth was poised for an historic season. By October, he had performed feats of batting power that no one has approached in the intervening one-hundred years.

When Babe and his New York Yankee buddies visited Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium on May 6, he had already belted six home runs. Then, in the 3rd inning, Ruth smashed number seven high over the right centerfield scoreboard for a 480-foot drive that was quantified as the longest-ever in the Nation’s Capital. That standard lasted precisely one day when Babe confronted the legendary Walter Johnson the next afternoon. Connecting with one of the Big Train’s world-renowned fastballs, Ruth launched an astonishing drive just to the right of center field that sailed far over the 48-foot-high ramparts before landing about 520 feet from home plate. The gracious Johnson never forgot the moment, and spoke of this event with awed admiration until the day he died.

Babe continued on his remarkable power curve within the week by smashing respective drives of 490 feet and 475 feet in Cleveland and St. Louis on May 14 and May 25. By the end of the month, Ruth’s home run tally stood at fifteen.

When Babe faced Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers at the Polo Grounds on June 13, there was an interesting sub-plot. Cobb resented Ruth for displacing him as the sport’s greatest player, and they often feuded both on and off the field. This was some years before their eventual rapprochement, so their mutual bitterness was still evident to all. Due to a pitching shortage, Babe Ruth actually started on the mound that day, and hurled five innings to record the win. Along the way, Babe clobbered the ball over Cobb’s head to the third row of the distant center field bleachers. No other batted ball had ever reached those seats, and Ty’s envy and embarrassment were palpable.

In a seemingly endless series of Ruth’s “truth is stranger than fiction” episodes, Babe bombed another Herculean drive straight over Ty Cobb’s position in center field the very next afternoon. This 480-foot home run topped the first one by about ten feet, landing in the seventh row of those same bleachers. Sadly for the Georgia Peach, Cobb’s emotional state degraded to total humiliation.

Six days later at Boston’s Fenway Park, the Sultan of Swat somehow elevated his power output, and re-visited the rarified 500-foot plateau for the first of many more times during the remainder of that improbable season. Smashing the ball to the top of a garage across Lansdowne Avenue in deepest left centerfield, Ruth enhanced his resume with a drive measured at exactly 500 feet. That ballpark is still there, as is the garage, thereby making this calculation relatively easy. Please also consider that this confirmed 500-footer was directed slightly to the opposite field. For the record, Babe drove another homer of about equal distance high into Fenway’s right centerfield bleachers just seventy-two hours later on June 23. At the end of this month, Ruth’s home run log included twenty-eight entries.

Soon after, Babe played at Detroit’s Navin Field on July 18, and did something that no one had ever done before, or since, and possibly never again. Facing left-hander Bert Cole in the 8th inning, Ruth powered a baseball which carried a confirmed minimum distance of over 550 feet. To be sure, the conditions were perfect, but that linear flight measurement is hard to fathom.

Ruth had walked in all four prior at-bats, so he must have been pumping adrenaline like a wild man when he faced Cole in the eighth. Even more importantly, a strong wind was blowing from the southwest at about 21 MPH straight toward the center field corner. That’s where Babe directed his thunderous blast. As the ball soared on and on, according to multiple first-hand newspaper accounts, the fans gasped in utter astonishment. How could they not? Ultimately, the horsehide sphere flew high over the junction of the right and left field walls which perpendicularly met at the remote corner of Trumbull Avenue and Cherry Street. Incredulous club officials produced stadium blueprints proving that the subject exit point was situated 560 feet from home plate.

Not surprisingly, there was a nearly hysterical reaction to the event, and Navin Field soon became a kind of sacred pilgrimage destination. For months afterward, folks showed up to see for themselves. That included future Hall of Fame slugger Sam Thompson who had been one of the 19th Century’s mightiest batsmen himself. Sam had actually seen the drive in person, but had been so overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude that he kept coming back with invited friends.

Estimates and alleged measurements abounded, ranging from 575 feet to a ridiculous 666 feet. Respected Detroit Free Press writer Harry Bullion eventually produced an affidavit swearing that the exact flight distance had been 585 feet. Let’s be conservative, and acknowledge that Babe’s historic masterpiece flew about 575 feet. As of 2021, it remains the best credentialed entry for the claim of the longest drive in the history of official Major League games.

By the end of July, Ruth had reached forty homers, featuring twin monstrous drives at the Polo Grounds on the last two days of that month. The first crashed into a bleacher seat just under the stadium clock in deep right centerfield, and was estimated at 520 feet. The following day, Babe substantially surmounted the right field grandstand roof near the center field end of that towering structure. The battered ball returned to earth far out in Manhattan field, about 525 feet from where it started.

Nothing changed as of August 17 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. When Babe’s monumental drive sailed high over the bleachers in deep right center, White Sox employees determined that it had left the park some 475 feet from home plate. Writers working in the press box misunderstood the data, and reported that Ruth’s homer had flown the TOTAL of 475 feet. They were way wrong, but the historical damage had been done. This blow may have rivaled the July 18 Detroit homer for the status of MLB’s longest-ever home run, but it has mostly been ignored by historians for the just-mentioned reason. It had to have flown a minimum distance of 530 feet.

Another Ruth nemesis of that time was fiery Giants’ manager John “Mugsy” McGraw. As discussed, McGraw eventually got his way in the 1921 World Series, but, for most of that year, he had been living a nightmare. Like Ty Cobb, Mugsy bitterly resented Ruth for proving that his old “one base at a time” brand of baseball was obsolete. Until Ruth had arrived in New York, McGraw and the Giants had been the unrivaled kingpins of both the city and the Polo Grounds (the stadium used by both squads). Then, suddenly with Babe in the line-up, the Yankees had taken over as the most popular team in the Big Apple. With Ruth playing half his games at those Polo Grounds, Babe regularly blasted epic home runs there. The fans loved it, but it made McGraw rabidly jealous. So it was on September 2.

Taking the field against the Washington Nationals, Ruth swung from his heels in the 7th inning, and sent a sizzling line drive toward right centerfield. A batted ball on that low trajectory should have yielded to the common laws of gravity and human limitations, and returned to field level long before reaching home run distance. However, this ball had been struck by Babe Ruth, and normalcy did not apply. It kept going and going, ultimately passing beyond the far corner of the grandstand and attached pedestrian ramp. It landed out on Manhattan Field after flying somewhere close to 515 feet. It is not unreasonable to rank this drive as the hardest-hit-ball in baseball history. Of course, nobody knows for sure, but this Ruthian monstrosity deserves to be in that conversation.

Babe’s performance never waned. He just kept slugging the baseball harder and farther than any other human being who ever picked up a bat. Competing against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics at Philly’s Shibe Park on September 9, Ruth was anxious to complete his unique mastery of every American League stadium. Up to that time, he had recorded 500-foot homers in five of the eight ballparks. There were also a couple of others nearly that far in Cleveland and St. Louis. He needed only a tape measure blow in the City of Brotherly Love to complete his long distance tour. Predictably, he got it.

His resounding drive just to the left of dead center field in the 4th inning, sailed completely over the ground level tier of bleachers and through a tree on the far side of Somerset Street. Mack’s groundskeeper visited the landing area after the game, and concluded that Babe’s homer had traveled 510 feet in the air. And ponder this, if you will: Babe Ruth may have established long-distance hitting records in all American League towns in that single year!

By the time Ruth had finished the regular season on October 2, he had amassed the new record of fifty-nine four-baggers. That was truly wondrous, but there have been a few others who have done as well in that regard (or even better). The real wonder is how far those homers soared through the skies in those eight cities. Nobody, absolutely nobody, has ever come close to the pure animal power exhibited by George Herman Ruth in 1921. Amazingly, he personally approached his own Olympian 1921 standard in other years, but no one has ever challenged him.

Who were the next strongest? That is an appropriate question. Jimmie Foxx was awesome in 1932 as was Mickey Mantle in 1956. In fact, the Mighty Mick is probably the strongest all-around power-athlete (batting, running & throwing) in baseball annals. Moving forward, Dick Allen was similarly spectacular in 1966, and contemporary Frank Howard was his equal two years later. As most of us can recall, Mark McGwire launched dozens of tape measure missiles in 1998. He has been honorably succeeded by Giancarlo Stanton who is the unquestioned prince of long distance slugging so far in the 21st Century. They have all been masterful, as have many others since Babe Ruth left the scene.

Yet, there can only be one “Greatest of All Time,” and that is the magnificent Bambino. Don’t bother trying to explain the bizarre phenomenon of his incredibly mysterious ability. Babe almost certainly possessed unusually high levels of so-called fast-twitch muscle fibers. But, he’s long gone and physical examinations are not possible. Call him a “biological aberration.” Refer to him as a “freak of nature.” Think of him as an “anthropological  abnormality.” Babe Ruth was all of those things… and more.

He also remains the greatest showman in the history of American sports. In real time, he was adored by the masses. Rich or poor. Young or old. Black or white. It didn’t seem to matter. Even the emotionally challenged Ty Cobb eventually came to care deeply about Babe Ruth. He couldn’t help himself. Over time, The Babe wore him down with basic human kindness along with the largess of his benevolent soul.

The guy had a way about him that no one else could copy. Not then, not ever. Ruth was astonishingly successful in his chosen field, but, somehow, seemed vulnerable and relatable. Babe always got back up after being knocked down, and folks loved him for it. When they saw those home runs climbing into the heavens (or simply read about them), it was like experiencing a miracle. Perhaps, they were. No mortal man should have been able to strike a baseball with such unnatural force. So, let’s celebrate this anniversary and thank The Babe for the dreamlike memories.      

Copyright, 2020