BPP Book Club: 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York

At the beginning of the 20th century, baseball was practiced in the style favored by New York Giants’ manager John McGraw: Play for the single run with a base hit, followed by the hit and run, a sacrifice or a stolen base.

But by 1921, Babe Ruth was in his second season with the New York Yankees, redefining what one ballplayer could do. His 59 home runs was more than eight entire teams in the majors that year, and not only did the long ball he hit so effectively create more runs, more quickly, it also proved to be a fan favorite.

The stage was set for an epic change in baseball strategy and its ruling elite, and this shift has been recreated in Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg’s book, 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York. I give the book five stars out of five. It’s a well-researched, well-documented account of what may be the single most pivotal season in baseball history.

Spatz and Steinberg provide interesting insights into the minds of the hard-driving McGraw and his Yankee counterpart Miller Huggins. Before the season began, McGraw said of his rivals, “Unless we have bad luck, I do not fear any club in the National League.”

Although the Giants got the best of the Yankees in the 1921 first all-New York World Series, capturing the title by 5 games to 3 in the best of nine set, Huggins nevertheless managed the Bombers to the teams’ first six American League pennants and three World Series championships.

Huggins’ slugging Yankees ended the dead ball era forever and catapulted the team into number one status in the New York baseball world ahead of the Giants. Brooklyn, then known as the Robins, was nowhere as far as fans outside of Flatbush were concerned.

Before Huggins took over the Yankees in 1918, he was the player/manager for the St. Louis Cardinals. And prior to taking the helm for the Cards, the 5’4”, 140 pound  Huggins was one of the most skilled second basemen of his era. At various times during his career with the Cardinals and his native Cincinnati, Huggins handled 15 or more chances or figured in three double plays.

Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher Waite Hoyt remembered his former manager: “Huggins was almost like a school master in the dugout. There was no goofing off. You watched the game and you kept track not only of the score and the number of outs, but of the count on the batter.  At any moment Hug might ask you what the situation was.”

By 1923, when Yankee Stadium opened (see video here), the Bombers started on a seven-decade stretch of mostly dominant baseball. Before 1923, the Yankees and the Giants shared the Polo Grounds.

1921 is full of New York’s rich history as well as the colorful sports journalism of the time from reporters like Damon Runyon and Walter Trumbull. As an example of the descriptive prose found in the sports section in those early days, consider this analysis from Trumbull about Game 5: “The Giants ran bases with all the skill of a fat lady with the asthma racing for a street car.”

The book also has 53 illustrations, many never seen before, that colorfully supplement the author’s text and offer one more reason 1921 is a valuable addition to any baseball library.

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