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November 4, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Throwing The Series Away

by Steven Goldman

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Among the many taunts offered by Phillies fans to visiting Yankees supporters during Monday's game was one that insinuated that the Steinbrenner family had ordered the Yankees to throw Game Five of the World Series so that they could reap the benefit of an extra day's gate receipts at Yankee Stadium. This is, of course, preposterous, but these kinds of rumors actually go back to the earliest days of the World Series.

The suggestion of trying to pack an extra day into the World Series seemed most realistic in the 1922 World Series between the Yankees and Giants, held entirely at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, a series that had many bizarre features and came at the end of a strange year for both teams. This was the first time in a few years that the Series was back to the best-of-seven format after shifting to an interminable best-of-nine after World War I (which is how the Black Sox had time to consider reversing themselves after the gamblers failed to come through with promised payments in 1919). The Series was controversial on several levels. There was the intense rivalry between the leagues, the rivalry between the Giants and their increasingly popular tenants from the junior circuit, the personal rivalry between Giants manager John McGraw and Babe Ruth, and finally, but most importantly, suspicion about game-fixing had not instantly disappeared with the installation of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as Commissioner and the arrival of Ruth in New York. The 1919 World Series was three years in the past, but it had taken longer than that for the story to emerge and for the Chicago trials to proceed; Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, and pals had only been blacklisted about 13 months before. Worse, one of the Giants, pitcher Shufflin' Phil Douglas, had that very seasons been banned for life for threatening to throw games. The corrupt culture of Prohibition and the Harding years held reign; nothing could automatically be assumed to be on the level, least of all baseball.

Appropriately, the Giants took Game One in controversial fashion. Yankees starter Bullet Joe Bush, winner of 26 games and a hurler who had posted a strong 3.31 ERA during the regular season (the league average that year was 4.74), had given up seven hits and a walk in seven innings, but had still kept the Giants off the board. The Yankees, meanwhile, had tallied single runs on a Ruth RBI single and Aaron Ward's sacrifice fly, which had scored Bob Meusel. (Meusel had singled, but moved to third base when the Giants twice threw the ball away trying to retire the next batter, Wally Schang.)

Bush had done some fancy footwork throughout the game. In the Giants' first, they had put runners on second and third with one out after back-to-back singles and a passed ball, with two of their best hitters, outfielders Irish Meusel (Bob's brother) and future Hall of Famer Ross Youngs. Both had hit .331 on the season, but Bush got both on infield popups. In the bottom of the seventh, Bush began to struggle. After getting Youngs to fly out to open the inning, he allowed consecutive singles to George Kelly, Casey Stengel, and Pancho Snyder to load the bases. McGraw sent up tough catcher Earl Smith, a left-handed hitter to pinch-hit, but a 4-6-3 double play ended the inning with the score still 2-0 Yankees.

Perhaps Yankees manager Miller Huggins should have seen the action in the bottom of the seventh as a sign that Bush was tiring, but he did not. In fact, he was convinced that Bush was cruising along in such great form as to have the victory locked up. The Yankees went in order in the top of the eighth, and Bush was back on the mound for the bottom of the frame. The game unraveled quickly from there. Prior to the game, McGraw had told his team to try to tire Bush out by waiting and working counts. Now he changed strategies and told his batters to attack first pitches whenever possible. The inning opened with three consecutive singles to load the bases and bring Irish Meusel to the plate.

Because this was 1922 and going to the bullpen was still a move of last resort, Huggins made no move. (Five years down the road, Huggins would help make a short-term star out of reliever Wilcy Moore, but that was in the unforeseen future.) Meusel punched a ball into center field for two runs, to tie the game and put runners on first and third. Huggins finally pulled Bush and brought in young starter Waite Hoyt. Youngs greeted him with a fly to center that scored the third run of the inning. No further damage was done, but the Yankees were unable to come back.

Game Two was the contest that would provoke outrage at baseball trying to squeeze in an extra gate. The game was tied 3-3 through 10 innings, and both starters, Jesse Barnes for the Giants and Sailor Bob Shawkey for the Yankees, were still in the game. The contest had moved at a brisk clip by today's standards; having started at 2 PM, the teams were in position to start the top of the 11th at about 4:45 PM. Before they could, home-plate umpire George Hildebrand had wandered over to the sidelines, where Commissioner Landis sat in the stands. They exchanged a few words. Hildebrand then turned, looked up at the sky, where the sun still shone brightly, and shouted "Game called on account of darkness."

Given the apparent lack of darkness, attendees-coincidentally the most in Series history (37,020)-were outraged. Given the conversation between Hildebrand and Landis, they reasonably assumed that the Commissioner had conspired to close out the game early. The concern of both men was that the inning should not finish in darkness, even if it began in light, but the fans were not privy to that reasoning and might not have accepted it in any case. It took a police escort to get the judge out of the Polo Grounds. Later, he announced to the press that the receipts from the truncated game would go to charity. The Yankees and Giants owners were less than thrilled, but Landis was keen on avoiding the appearance of impropriety, and also wanted to be able to see the rest of the Series without being stoned.

Games Three and Four went to the Giants, but the fifth game, also involving Joe Bush, stank far worse of a kind of corruption than Game Two being called on account of sunlight. Once again, Bush took a lead, 3-2, into the Giants' at-bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. With one out, Heinie Groh singled and Frankie Frisch hit a double, moving Groh to third. Irish Meusel tapped a grounder to Everett Scott at short. He came home, Wally Schang applying the tag on Groh to prevent the run, but Frisch went to third and somehow Irish Meusel made it to second base on the play. This brought Ross Youngs to the plate. Huggins held up four fingers for the intentional pass-Youngs was hitting .375 in the series, but the next batter, first baseman George Kelly, was a punchless 4-for-18. Bush was outraged. "What for, you [incredible obscenity]," he shouted at the dugout ("incredible obscenity" was how sportswriter Fred Lieb put it). Huggins insisted, and Bush threw four wide, audibly cursing at Huggins with every pitch. Then, in an act of spectacularly selfish petulance, he grooved his first pitch to Kelly. Kelly singled to left-center, scoring two runs. He also threw a fat one to the following batter, a seldom-used outfielder, Lee King, enjoying his first and only postseason at-bat. King's single scored Youngs, making the score 5-3. Pancho Snyder finally ended the inning, but the score was now 5-3. The Yankees went in order in the top of the ninth, and the Giants had won their second consecutive championship.

After the game, McGraw praised the decision to pass Youngs for Kelly, calling it "The best piece of strategy in the series" due to Kelly's World Series slump. "But Kelly broke the law of averages and hit. That was bad luck for the Yankees and a great bit of work by our first baseman… We had the breaks and we took advantage of them."

Huggins said, "Bush kicked on my order to pass Young, but that was natural. I followed the dictates of my judgment and lost." Privately, he was not nearly so calm. Years later, he told Lieb, "Any ballplayers that played for me… could come to me if he were in need and I would give them a helping hand. I made only two exceptions. Carl Mays and Joe Bush. If they were in the gutter, I'd kick them."

Thus, in 1922 there was no effort to force extra World Series revenues, just an incredibly poor decision by an umpire and/or Commissioner Landis. There was, however, a game that ended in less than clean circumstances because a pitcher didn't like his manager's call. For those looking for an instance in which ownership did sort of pickpocket some extra dough, they need to go further back and look at the first World Series involving these same Giants, in 1905. The third game of that Series between the Giants and Philadelphia A's was scheduled to be played on a dark day in Philadelphia. There was a bit of precipitation, but nothing more than a light, intermittent drizzle, insufficient to delay or cancel the game. The skies, though, were a shade of gray somewhere between "threatening" and "apocalyptic." This was enough to hold down the attendance to a negligible figure.

Just before game time, McGraw and A's captain Lave Cross came out onto the field and counted the crowd. They figured about 4,000. McGraw turned to Cross and said (I paraphrase in the absence of a precise transcript), "Damn these torrential rains, Mr. Cross." Cross agreed, "Deplorable field conditions, Mr. McGraw." They conferred with the umpires, one of whom, Hank O'Day, would in a few years render the deplorable Merkle decision. They apparently had no problem with agreeing among themselves to postpone the game, so they too went on the field and tut-tutted the horrible weather. "Ladies and gentlemen," they announced to the crowd. "As this Series is a very important one, and as the grounds is wet [sic], we have decided to call the game."

As the crowd departed with surprising good nature, Giants utilityman Sammy Strang appeared on the field and did a kind of Singing in the Rain-dance, splashing around the puddles that weren't there. Some fans shouted that the game should be played. "Don't kick," Strang shouted back. "We need the money!" This explanation was accepted, which goes to show that subterfuge in the name of greed is deplorable, but naked greed is something we all can understand.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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