By Tom Ruane
Recently, Retrosheet volunteers completed digitizing the major league boxscores for the 1920s, 12,323 in all. In light of this, I thought it might be a good idea to take a virtual tour of the first half of the decade, demonstrating the information now available on this period of baseball history.
The 1920s started, surprisingly enough, with 1920, arguably the most interesting year in baseball history. It began with one of the most important transactions in baseball history, and the season contained, among many other things, MLB's longest game, its first on-field death, biggest scandal and, just in case all that wasn't enough, the last triple- header.
When the White Sox played their last game with the players suspected of conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series on September 27th, they were only a half game behind the first-place Cleveland Indians. I've always wondered what would have happened had the short-handed White Sox won the pennant that season. It certainly would have made for one of the weirdest and most one-sided World Series.
Despite the scandal and tragedy that marred the season, the big story that year was Babe Ruth's arrival in New York. Much has been written about the impact that his first campaign with the Yankees had on the game, but Ruth started slowly that year. He hit only .226/.250/.258 in April and was hitting .210, with only 2 home runs on the morning of May 11th. That day, he would enjoy the first of 48 two-homer games he would hit during the decade, on his way to hitting 13 home runs in the next 17 games. On July 19th, he would break his previous record, hitting his 30th and 31st home runs in a loss to the White Sox. At the start of the season, the record for most home runs by an American League TEAM had been 48, set by the 1903 Boston Americans. Ruth would eclipse that mark all by himself on September 13th, and he would hit his 54th and last home run on the final day of the season. The Polo Grounds were good to Ruth that season. He hit .390 and slugged .990 there, overshadowing another historic batting performance that season as well as perhaps an even bigger home field advantage.
George Sisler had been a star before 1920, hitting around .350 in each of the three previous seasons. In 1920, however, he raised his game to a new level, batting over .400 and setting a new single season record for hits. Hitting .400 wasn't quite the story it would be today; it had been done three times in the previous decade (by Ty Cobb twice and once by Joe Jackson) and in light of Ruth's devastation of the home run record on the other side of the major league baseball world, it did not attract anywhere near the media frenzy that would accompany a season like that today. Sisler reached the .400 mark for the first time on June 14th and for the last two and a half months of the season his average was always within 10 points of .400. Sisler enjoyed his home park, Sportsman's Park, even more than Ruth enjoyed his. In his home games that season, Sisler hit .473, with 150 hits in 78 games.
Bobby Veach had quite a game on September 17th, getting 6 hits while hitting for the cycle, something that wouldn't be done again for nearly 75 years.
The top pitching performance of the year belonged to Walter Johnson, who had a pitching line that looked an awful lot like a perfect game on July 1st but wasn't (Bucky Harris spoiled the no hit, no walk, no hits baseman performance with a seventh-inning error). At 97, it was the second highest 9-inning game score of the decade (read on for the highest).
I'll mention a few other curiosities about the season and then we'll move on. Rube Benton did not have a particularly good year in 1920, going 9-16 with the second-place Giants. He did manage to string together the longest scoreless inning streak that season, going 30 innings without allowing a run. He managed only a single shutout during the streak, but that one went 17-innings. Pitchers were men back in 1920; 15 pitchers would throw at least 15 innings in games that season. Rookie Jesse Haines had a scoreless inning streak just 2/3 innings shorter than Benton's and he would also finish with a losing record, going 13-20.
Finally, no team during the 1920s could match the 10 doubles the Indians hit on May 29th. Despite the pile of doubles, the Indians got only two other hits in the game, both singles, losing 8-7 to the visiting White Sox.
For Babe Ruth, 1921, was a lot like 1920, only without the slow start. He had five hits on opening day and never stopped hitting all season long. His worst month was May when he hit 10 homers and had a slugging percentage over .700. Once again, he broke a one year-old home run record and once again, he feasted on home cooking, this time hitting over .400 with 32 home runs at the Polo Grounds. If you put his home records in 1920 and 1921 together to create a single "season", you'd have the following line:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO HBP SH SB CS AVG OBP SLG 144 459 171 184 45 13 61 152 143 72 2 7 18 15 .401 .545 .954
Of course, even his away stats from those two years were great:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO HBP SH SB CS AVG OBP SLG 150 539 164 192 35 12 52 155 151 90 5 3 13 12 .356 .500 .755
Ruth had the longest hitting streak in the majors that year, a streak that ran from the tail end of July through most of August. He would walk 29 times in that streak, the most walks in any hitting streak during the seasons covered by Retrosheet's data.
No one hit .400 in 1921, but both Rogers Hornsby and Harry Heilmann came awfully close. Heilmann was hitting over .500 as late as May 13th and at the end of July was still hitting .430. He slumped slightly in August but was still hitting .401 with three games left in the season. He went 1-13 in those games to finish below the mark. And Hornsby came even closer. With two games left in the season, he was hitting .401. Even after going 0-4, his average stood at .3997, which would round up to a .400 average. In a scene similar to the last day of Ted Williams' 1941 season, Hornsby put his average on the line in the final game. The Pirates' Wilbur Cooper gave up 11 hits to the Cards that day, but none of them to Hornsby, whose average dropped to .397.
Tris Speaker had perhaps the weirdest home-road split of the year, when he hit 42 doubles at home that year and only 10 on the road. This was similar to Paul Waner's performance in 1928, when he hit 18 of his 19 triples that season at home.
There weren't any no-hitters in 1921, but Phil Douglas would pitch 2 of the 4 one-hitters that season. At the other end of the spectrum, Douglas also tied for the most hits allowed in a game that year, allowing 20 in a loss at Philadelphia on October 1st. Earlier that year, he had given up 19 hits there as well. It is probably an understatement to say he didn't pitch well in the Baker Bowl that year, giving up 59 hits in 29.1 innings. Despite that, he still managed to complete 3 of his 4 starts there.
After losing his .400 batting average on the last day of the previous season, Hornsby entered the final game of 1922 with almost exactly the same average (.39968 compared to .39965). Again, he played the game, but this time picked up 3 hits and topped .400 for the first time. Ty Cobb also reached the .400 mark in dramatic fashion. With 10 days to go in the season Cobb was hitting .392. A hot streak (9-13) over his next four games put him at exactly .400 going into the last game of the year. He also played in that game, leaving after getting a first inning hit off George Uhle. Cobb was helped by four five-hit games, three of them within a week and a half in July. During that month, Cobb collected 67 hits. It tied Tris Speaker's performance in July 1923 for the most hits in a month during the decade. In addition to each having 67 hits, they also both had 137 at-bats (for a .489 batting average) and 18 doubles (which was also most doubles hit during a month during the 1920s).
Despite his fast finish, Ty Cobb didn't come close to leading the AL that year in hitting. That honor went to George Sisler, who would be hitting well over .400 even before he started his 41 game hitting streak in late July. But if you look at his splits that year, you'll see something odd: his at-bats, hits and batting average are different on this page (587 at-bats, 244 hits and a .416 average) than what is displayed on his main page (586, 246 and .420, respectively). The reason is that the main page displays his official statistics and the splits page displays the totals derived from our boxscores and sometimes these disagree.
Now we'll have more to say on these kinds of discrepancies in the future, but for now, I would like to make it clear that we are not challenging the official data and saying the our numbers are correct and the official numbers wrong. All we are saying is that at present there is a difference in the statistical totals. In the case of Sisler's 1922 season, the difference lies in 2 games in which we credit Sisler with one less hit than the official records: June 8th and July 23rd, and one game in which we charge Sisler with one more at-bat: July 11th. We hope to publish a more comprehensive list of these discrepancies in the next few years and similarly hope that future research can resolve these differences (resulting in corrections to either our data or the official record).
Getting back to the subject at hand, we discussed earlier how much Sisler enjoyed hitting in Sportsman Park. His teammate Ken Williams carried this to extremes. In 1922, Williams would lead the American League in home runs with 39. He would hit over 80% of them (32) at home. From 1920 until he left St. Louis after the 1927 season, Williams would hit 132 home runs at home and only 47 on the road.
Another park favored by hitters was Baker Bowl. In 1922, Cliff Lee had the most extreme home field advantage of the decade, hitting .388 with 17 homers at home (which translated to an OPS of 1.123) and .227 with no homers (and a .601 OPS) on the road. To put this in perspective, a 1.123 OPS would have been second best in the NL that season (behind only Hornsby), while a .601 OPS would have been dead last amoung NL regulars (behind teammate Goldie Rapp's .616 mark).
There were two wacky games from this year that I wanted to link to. In one, two players on the Pirates each had 6 hits during an 18 inning loss to the Giants. One of them, Max Carey had 3 walks and 3 stolen bases to go with his 6 hits. The other was a game in which the home Cubs scored 10 runs or more in two separate innings, had a 25-6 lead after 4 innings, and barely held on to win 26-23.
Bob Meusel had only 84 RBIs in 1922, but he had three games with 6 RBIs each in a three week period in July. By comparison, Rogers Hornsby had only one game with 6 or more RBIs in the entire decade.
The single game pitching honors of 1922 went to Charlie Robertson for his perfect game on April 30th. He had pitched only 19 innings in the major leagues prior to that game, having picked up his first career victory in his previous start, but he had no problems that afternoon with a lineup featuring Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann and Bobby Veach.
Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 and if Babe Ruth missed leaving the Polo Grounds, where he had slugged .847 as a Yankee, he didn't show it. Ruth homered in the first game at the new stadium. For the season, Ruth would hit .411 there, walking 92 times at home on route to a major league record of 170.
The Indians had the top offensive performance of the year when they scored 26 runs against the Red Sox in the first game of a double-header on July 7th. Lefty O'Doul pitched the middle three innings for the Sox that afternoon. At the start of the sixth inning, his team was already down 11-2 and in a classic version of "take one for the team", Lefty was left in to take a pounding as the Indians scored 13 unearned runs before he could finally retire the side. By the end of the decade, Lefty would be a star slugger in the other league and in 1929, he would hit over .400 in every month but one (a .298 mark in June) and finish with a .398 batting average. Like most Phillies hitters, O'Doul benefited from his homepark and his 144 hits there that season would trail only Sisler's 1920 mark during the decade.
One rookie who made an immediate if not a lasting impression that season was Maurice Archdeacon. He didn't play his first game until September 17th but still managed to finish the year with 35 hits and a .402 batting average. By the end of the following July, he would have a .390 batting average in his young career to go with a .462 on-base percentage. In less than a year, he had amassed four five-hit games. By contrast, Rogers Hornsby had 2085 hits during the decade but only a single five-hit game.
As July turned to August 1924, however, it seems that the American League pitchers suddenly figured out how to pitch to Maurice. Over the rest of his short career, he would collect only 20 more hits in 107 at-bats.
When Tris Speaker hit his 57th double on October 3rd, he broke the single-season mark established by Ed Delahanty in 1899. At least that's how it was reported at the time. Delahanty is now credited with 55 doubles instead of 56, so Tris actually broke the record in this game instead. He would finish the season with a total of 59 doubles and so, for a few years at least, the single-season marks for both doubles and home runs would be the same. George Burns, a teammate of Speaker's, would destroy this symmetry three years later. When Burns hit his record-tying 59th double on August 28, 1926, 70 or 75 doubles did not seem out of the question for him. He had hit at least 12 doubles in each of the four previous months, but would only hit 5 more the rest of the season, leaving the door open for Earl Webb to raise the mark to 67 five years later. The baseball world would not be in balance again until September 26, 1998, when Mark McGwire hit his 67th home run in the fourth-inning of a game against the Montreal Expos. Three innings later, McGwire would hit his 68th home run, so the balance was short-lived indeed.
But we digress. There were two no-hitters in 1923. Sad Sam Jones pitched one in which he failed to record a single strikeout. Howard Ehmke came within a questionable scoring decision of pitching consecutive no-hitters when he followed his no-hitter on September 7th with a one-hitter four days later. Most of the crowd thought that the first inning infield hit had been scored an error (the ball had bounced off the third-baseman's chest after all) and, in a display of non-partisanship that would not be seen again until SABR members witnessed Jose Jimenez of the visiting St. Louis Cardinals no-hit the home Arizona Diamondbacks and Randy Johnson over 75 years later, Yankee fans cheered each of the outs Ehkme recorded against their team in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Yankees gained a measure of revenge on both the Red Sox and Ehmke a few weeks later when the Fenway Park faithful witnessed five-hit games by Babe Ruth and Wally Schang, as well as the first big game of Lou Gehrig's career in a 24-4 drubbing on September 28th. Ehmke won 20 games that year for the only time in his career, but he would finish his season by getting pinch-hit in the bottom of the sixth inning after allowing 11 runs in the top half.
One more thing of no particular significance and then we'll move on. In 1923, Cotton Tierney played in 150 games for the Pirates and the Phillies. Due to the long road trips and home stands favored by schedulers of the era, he ended up playing 92 road games and only 58 home games that season. I'm not sure if that's a record for the most road games in a season (I suspect it isn't), but it is a record for the 1920s.
We'll start 1924 with the pitchers and, as promised, the highest 9-inning game score of the decade. It was turned in by Walter Johnson, who if you recall, also had the second highest score, when he pitched a 14 strikeout one-hitter on May 23rd for a game score of 98. Despite those two games, and a rain-shortened no-hitter later on in the year, Walter Johnson was not the dominant strikeout pitcher of the decade. That titled belonged to Dazzy Vance.
Vance took a long time putting it all together (1924 was only his third full season and he turned 33 before opening day), but he would lead the National League in strikeouts from 1922 to 1928. His 262 strikeouts and 28 wins in 1924 would be the highest of the decade in the league. That season, pitchers struck out 9 more hitters in a game 20 times; Dazzy Vance accounted for 15 of them. He struck out 15 or more batters in a game during the 1920s 5 times; no else struck out more than 14. Vance enjoyed pitching at home. His ERA was more than a run better there (2.56 to 3.71) and he struck out two more batters per 9 innings (7.4 to 5.3).
Rogers Hornsby and Babe Ruth would take the hitting honors that season, as both would lead their leagues in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. As usual, Hornsby was helped by his home park, where he hit .469 and slugged .790, but his most extreme home field advantage would come in 1925, when he would hit .478 and slug .902 at home. Earlier, we combined the two home and roads records from Babe Ruth's 1920 and 1921 seasons. Let's do the same now for Hornsby's 1924 and 1925 seasons. First his home "season":
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO HBP SH SB CS AVG OBP SLG 146 535 148 253 50 15 39 137 94 34 2 14 8 9 .473 .553 .841
And now, the sum of his two road records:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO HBP SH SB CS AVG OBP SLG 135 505 106 177 34 9 25 100 80 46 2 15 2 6 .350 .441 .602
The outstanding single game batting performance that season was probably the one turned in by Jim Bottomley on September 16th, when he went 6-6 with a double and two home runs, accounting 12 RBIs. The manager for the other team that day was Wilbert Robinson, who was believed at the time to hold the previous record of 11 RBIs in game, set in 1892 when he was a catcher for the Baltimore Orioles.
By this point. I've probably more than worn out my welcome so I'll stop here. This article has only scratched the surface of the what has recently been made available on our website and I welcome you to explore it for yourself. Enjoy.
A host of people worked on making the 1920 boxscores available to baseball researchers. Those who digitized the batting dailies include Dave Lamoureaux, Jack Myers, Tom Bradley, Bob Allen, Hugh Humphries, Bill McMahon, Bob Boehme and David Hoehns. The pitching dailies were digitized by Wade Coble, Walter LeConte and Bill McMahon. Rob Carron was responsible for digitizing the team dailies.
In addition to digitizing the various dailies, several people worked on entering each game's lineup information. They include: Dave Lamoureaux, Tom Bradley, Bob Timmermann, Denis Repp, Stu Shea, Terry Small, Chris Dial, Gary Frownfelter, John Kalous, Joe Murphy, Mark Williamson, Steve Vetere, Jeff Eby, Tom Davis, Jim Fraasch, Brad Ramirez and Trent McCotter
Pete Palmer helped in a variety of ways, including providing missing caught stealing data for the 1927 AL, and Pete and Trent McCotter helped resolve some statistical discrepancies. David Vincent provided the home runs allowed data for the pitchers.
Game scores were a method devised by Bill James in the 1980s to evaluate a start by a pitcher. You start with 50 points and add point for each hitter the pitcher retires, two points for each inning completed after the fourth inning, and one point for each strikeout. You then subtract one point for a walk, two points for hit, four points for an earned run and two points for an unearned run.