New York Giants star Babe Ruth

The photo at the left features Babe Ruth in a New York Giants uniform. He wore the uniform when he participated in a charity game in 1923. That was the same year that the Yankees moved out of the Polo Grounds and into their new stadium in the Bronx. That was also the year that the Yankees finally defeated the Giants in the World Series after losing to their in city rivals in 1921 and 1922.

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Ruth was the most popular player in all of baseball, let alone New York. The Yankees, once the irrelevant Highlanders, would surpass the Giants at the box office. And while the Giants would continue to win pennants (including four in a row between 1921 and 1924), they would see their place as the dominant team in New York fade as the Yankees became a juggernaut. The Yankees’ dominance would remain almost uninterrupted from the early 1920s until the mid 1960s. By then the Giants had moved across country to San Francisco. And most people point to the arrival of Ruth as the beginning of the Yankees’ stranglehold on the World Series (and maybe even the Red Sox’s eight decades of World Series futility!).

However, Ruth’s connection to the Giants could have been more direct than a charity game. And perhaps if a few factors had been slightly different, the Giants would remain the toast of New York and had their rightful place as the most dominant team in baseball.

John McGraw, the Federal League and the Baltimore connection

Babe Ruth’s legend began at St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore, where he had lived since his early childhood. He developed into a top baseball prospect within the school’s walls and caught the attention of Jack Dunn, the owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles. Dunn felt so strongly that Ruth could make it as a ballplayer that he not only signed him, but adopted him. Legally, the 19-year-old Ruth needed to be adopted to be released from the school. Imagine a first-round pick needing to sign adoption papers today.

His relationship with Dunn made his Orioles teammates to call him “Dunn’s Babe” and the name Babe Ruth stuck. So did Ruth’s abilities; he shone as a hitter and a pitcher for the Orioles. The problem for Dunn was not on the field but across town. A third major league, the Federal League, put big league talent in cities that had no National or American League teams. That meant the Baltimore Terrapins started playing literally across the street from the Orioles. Babe Ruth would be playing in front of crowds of 100 or less and Dunn knew he had to sell some of his players to pay back his debts.

Dunn was borrowing money from his former partner, Joe Lannin, who by 1914 owned the Providence Grays, a minor league team with connections to the Boston Red Sox. Dunn knew that Lannin could afford to purchase Ruth’s contract. But there was another interested party.

The Giants’ legendary manager, John McGraw, who had played for the Orioles when they were part of the National League, was friends with Dunn. McGraw had seen Ruth play when the Orioles played Newark and offered Dunn $5,000 for him.

However, the Orioles were about to return home and the home town hero Ruth was beginning to draw more customers into the park. Dunn told McGraw that he wouldn’t sell Ruth just yet.

Dunn then contacted Lannin and offered catcher Ben Eagan, pitcher Ernie Shore and Ruth for the total of $8,500. Eagan, who had big league experience, was the biggest prospect in the package, being worth $3,500. He would finish as a .165 hitter in 122 games over four seasons. Ruth was worth $2,900 in the deal.

McGraw read of the deal and was enraged that not only did he not acquire Ruth, but that he offered more than what the Orioles finally got for him.

When Ruth’s impact on the league became clear, Dunn tried to appease McGraw by selling him pitcher Jack Bentley, who flamed out after a few seasons. Later Dunn offered another pitcher to the Giants but McGraw was no longer speaking to him. The pitcher he was offered was future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove, who went to the Philadelphia Athletics.

Had Babe been a Giant

Had Ruth gone to the Giants, the impact on baseball history would have been seismic. Ruth would have arrived in the Polo Grounds in either 1914 or 1915, just as the Giants were on the heels of three straight pennants between 1911 and 1913. He would have been teammates with future Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Rube Marquard, High Pockets Kelly and Ross Youngs. And the wild Ruth, whose behavior eventually helped push him out of Boston, would have found his match in New York with McGraw. Like Ruth, McGraw was a tough Irishman from Baltimore. And no doubt he would have imposed his will on Ruth as well harnessed his many talents.

Under McGraw, Ruth probably would have remained a pitcher as well as an outfielder on his off days. McGraw would have seen the value of the dominant left hander on the mound every five days and the home run power into the short right field porch the other four days.

As the Mathewson era ended with World War I, it would be Ruth in the Polo Grounds who would become the biggest draw in New York. Even if the Yankees poached all of the other Red Sox stars after the 1918 World Series, Ruth and the Giants would reign supreme. Without Ruth, the Giants won five pennants in eight years between 1917 and 1924. With Ruth the gap would have been closed even further.

By the mid 1920s, as Ruth would enter his greatest years, imagine pairing him with Hall of Famers Bill Terry, Frankie Frisch and even Rogers Hornsby for the 1927 season.

As Ruth’s career waned in the early 1930s, the hitting torch would be passed to Terry, Travis Jackson and Mel Ott and the title of pitching ace would transfer to Carl Hubbell. The transition of dominance of the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s would continue through the 1930s. The Giants won the 1933 World Series as well as the 1936 and 1937 pennants. The 30s might have been even more dominant.

The Yankees played in New York?

But the chances of a Yankees dynasty without the drawing power of Ruth would have been diminished. Without the drawing power of Ruth, chances are the Yankees would have been a second class citizen in New York. Much like the Braves in Boston or the Browns in St. Louis, the Yankees would probably have had the little brother quality. Perhaps they would have won a pennant here or there. But the ability to buy the best prospects and not have to sell off their best players during the 1930s and 1940s would have been remote.

If the Giants had continued their dominance into the 1940s, it might have been the Yankees who looked west for brighter prospects. By the 1950s, it was clear that the push of the population out of the cities and into the suburbs and the west had made two franchises in most cities unrealistic. The Giants’ move was a foregone conclusion by the mid 1950s. Had they been the main attraction of the city, it would have been the Yankees flirting with Minneapolis and San Francisco for a relocation.

Maybe the expansion Mets would have been an American League team to replace the San Francisco Yankees. Perhaps New York fans would be crowing about the Giants’ 27 titles. Maybe the greatest baseball debate would have been “Who was the greatest Giant? Babe Ruth or Willie Mays?”

Maybe Ruth would have had his 714 homers and 300 wins.

These are a lot of maybes that could have been answered had Jack Dunn sold Babe Ruth’s contract to the Giants for $5,000.

References & Resources
“The Real Babe Ruth” by Dan Daniel. Baseball Reference.

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Comments

  1. gdc said...

    If the Yankees went to SF they would have brought back DiMaggio as hitting coach, assuming they had gotten him to begin with.  And maybe Tony Lazzeri as manager.

  2. J. Lincoln Hallowell Jr. said...

    Had Babe Ruth played the bulk of his career in the Polo Grounds, there’s no telling how many home runs he would have hit, with the even shorter right field line than Yankee Stadium.  800 dingers would not have been out of the question.

    Also, had the Yankees been forced to leave New York in 1957, chances are that they wouldn’t have been replaced in the American League at all. New York was a National League town in 1957, and really, through the 1980’s (the Mets frequently outdrew the Yankees, even in years when the Mets were awful.)  New York didn’t really become a predominantly Yankee town until the mid-‘90’s.

  3. BobDD said...

    A lot of what-ifs there, but the most intriguing to me is what if Ruth had stayed in shape and played defense.  In your scenario he’d have started his OF days a couple years earlier, and being in shape would have extended his awesome prime and perhaps even his career another two years.  I’ve always thought that one of the most amazing things about Ruth is that he was so out of shape the last half of his career that he looked unathletic.  Nice fantasy there Sully.

  4. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    He was out of shape and yet played for 22 seasons.

    He had 13 seasons as an elite hitter (a 200 OPS+ in 1932 at age 37!)

    He had 4 1/2 seasons as an elite pitcher.

    Most in shape people would take 17 1/2 elite seasons in the bigs.

  5. Steve Treder said...

    “Like Ruth, McGraw was a tough Irishman from Baltimore.”

    Ruth was a German-American and McGraw, though he had played in Baltimore for many years, was from upstate New York.

    But that’s a quibble.  An intriguing piece.

  6. BobDD said...

    Yeah, what he said!!!  Not only better than I said, but even better than what I was thinking.  How could the Babe do that? 

    I remember watching Satchel Paige pitch in the PCL in 1960 – only average that year – but just astounded that he could even do that in his 50’s.  BTW, I bugged my Dad to take me and my brother to that game because the Portland Oregonian sports page previewed that game with a headline calling ol’ Satch “the Babe Ruth of Pitchers” – and I still think of the two of them as the most head-scratchingly unique talents in baseball history.

    No, Morgana King doesn’t count.

  7. George said...

    In 1928 my 8-year-old father went to his first ballgame at Yankee Stadium.  Babe Ruth hit a home run and dad was hooked as a Yankee fan for the next 80 years.  Does this fantasy mean that more than eight decades and three generations of family fandom would have been given to the Giants?  It shakes my universe to its core.

  8. Dominic said...

    “the Giants would remain the toast of New York and had their rightful place as the most dominant team in baseball.”

    I like the sound of that!

  9. Brent said...

    Here’s some Ruth/Giants trivia. Babe Ruth played with McGraw’s New York Giants during a tour of Cuba in late October/early November 1920. (A Cuban baseball promoter reportedly paid Ruth $2,000 per game.) During that tour, the Cuban and Negro league star, Cristobal Torriente, famously out-homered Ruth.

  10. InnocentBystander said...

    Having trouble seeing the Yanks in SF. The Giants move was in tandem with the Dodgers…two teams from the same league needed to go west so that the travel made sense for the rest of the league. Other than that, some fun speculation in the article.

  11. Steve Treder said...

    “Having trouble seeing the Yanks in SF. The Giants move was in tandem with the Dodgers…two teams from the same league needed to go west so that the travel made sense for the rest of the league.”

    Very true.  (Which was why the AL’s actual travel scheduling with just the Angels on the west coast from 1961-67 was quite awkward.)  But in the mid-to-late 1950s it wouldn’t have been implausible to see a second AL team decide to move west along with the Yankees, such as the Senators or the Indians.

  12. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    Steve,

    you will note I said “Almost uninterrupted.”

    They won 6 pennants and 3 World Series in the 1920s
    They won 5 pennants and 5 World Series in the 1930s
    They won 5 pennants and 4 World Series in the 1940s
    They won 8 pennants and 6 World Series in the 1950s
    They won 5 pennants and 2 World Series in the 1960s

    If that isn’t an almost uninterrupted stretch I don’t know what is

  13. Philip said...

    Intriguing, to say the least! No curse! No Yankee Stadium? (not so sure about that). But certainly No Bucky Bleeping Dent.

    A few thoughts:

    If Ed Barrow saw the wisdom in taking Ruth off the mound and making him an everyday player, surely the greatest manager of all-time, John McGraw, would have, too.

    Other Ramifications?

    THE INSURRECTOS

    The Giants don’t get jealous (yet) and kick the Yankees out of the Polo Grounds (yet), so Yankee Stadium doesn’t get built (yet). But thanks to Ed Barrow’s skills, the Yankees still build a reasonably strong team in 20s and 30s, signing players such as Bob Meusel, Tony Lazzeri, Lou Gehrig and making shrewd acquisitions, such as acquiring Waite Hoyt from the Red Sox.

    However, the Yankees can’t buy or ‘trade for’ quite as many Red Sox as they would have with Ruth helping increase gate receipts. Who does have cash? Charlie Comiskey, one of the two other Insurrectos who Boston’s Harry Frazee could deal with.

    So instead of the Yankees sending $50,000 and a few bench-warmers to Boston for Herb Pennock in 1923, Chicago does. Likewise with Joe Dugan (although that will mean Lefty O’Doul might just develop as a Yankees star as the Great Depression hits, since he was part of the Dugan trade). In another ‘deal’, the White Sox bolster their pitching staff by sending a few players and $100,000 to Boston for Sad Sam Jones and Bullet Joe Bush.

    A DIFFERENT NEW YORK DYNASTY BUT NO WORLD SERIES UNASSISTED TRIPLE PLAY

    Bill Wambsganss doesn’t achieve the feat in 1920 because Clarence Mitchell and the Brooklyn Dodgers are sitting at home. The Giants are playing Cleveland instead. 1921 sees a re-match and in 1922 the St. Louis Browns win their first A.L. flag. But McGraw’s juggernaut is unstoppable and the Giants win their 4th World Series in a row when they beat Ty Cobb and the Tigers in 1923. Babe Ruth helps make it five in a row when he homers off Walter Johnson in Game 7 in the 1924 World Series.

    The Pirates break the string in 1925, edging the Giants for the pennant by a game. Cleveland returns to the Fall Classic in 1926 but gets beat by Rogers Hornsby and the Cardinals. Then in 1927, it’s the first Subway Series, pitting Babe Ruth and the Giants vs. Lou Gehrig and the Yankees. After a stunning Yankee sweep, the Giants give notice to their tenants to move out by 1929. Yankee Stadium becomes known as ‘The House That Lou Built.’

    For the first time in 15 years, the 1928 World Series sees John McGraw face Connie Mack. After defeating the Cubs in 1929, the Athletics play the Giants again in 1930. After losing to the Cardinals in 1931, Philadelphia wins their 4th straight pennant and tops the Cubs once again in 1932, becoming the second club to win five pennants in a row.

    Bill Terry takes over for an ill McGraw in 1933 and wins his second World Series in 1934 in Ruth’s final Series appearance.

    JOE DiMAGGIO

    With the Yankees no longer quite so financially dominate, their ability to secure talent is at least SLIGHTLY limited. So they pass on Joe DiMaggio after hearing the rumors of his knee injury in 1934, not spending the money for a discreet medical evaluation. Meanwhile, White Sox scout Abe Kemp is finally being able to convince GM Harry Grabiner to buy the young star’s contract from the PCL’s San Francisco Seals.

    BOSTON RED SOX

    Though competitive, without Ruth, there are likely no Red Sox pennants or championships in 1915, 1916, 1918. However, once Tom Yawkey takes over in Boston and opens his wallet, the Red Sox dominate the American League in the 1930s and 40’s.

    It’s said in 1943 that only Isoroku Yamamoto did what the American League couldn’t: stop the Red Sox dominance after Boston rolled off five straight pennants, 1939-1942. The Red Sox roll over Cincinnati in 1939 to win their first World Series since 1912.

    However, when WW2 is over, Ted Williams and company resume right where they left off, winning five more consecutive pennants 1946-1950 and a few more World Series titles before Cleveland breaks the Sox string in 1951.

    Without the free spending Yankees offering $500, Yogi Berra accepts the $250 offered by the Cardinals. Mickey Mantle ends up signing with the White Sox and eventually replaces DiMaggio in center field. Chicago wins pennants in 1952 and 1953 and then sets a new Major League record with six consecutive league championships, 1955-1960.

    If the Yankees do move (say after 1960), the Senators might be the team that joins them on the West Coast. Or maybe it’s Calvin Griffith who convinces the Yankees to move (after NY spurs them but helps O’Malley’s Dodgers and Stoneham’s Giants to build new parks in Brooklyn and Manhattan). If so, then as Paul speculates, AL expansion in 1961 adds a team in New York (besides Washington). In 1962, Houston and the Los Angeles Angels join the N.L.

  14. Steve I said...

    “The Yankees’ dominance would remain almost uninterrupted from the early 1920s until the mid 1960s.”

    That’s a bit of an overstatement.  From 1929 through 1935, they won a single pennant.  Still a good franchise, of course.

    A highly-speculative, highly-entertaining article.  Thank you.

  15. Philip said...

    CLARIFYING:

    ‘‘It’s said in 1943 that only Isoroku Yamamoto did what the American League couldn’t: stop the Red Sox dominance after Boston rolled off five straight pennants, 1938-1942. The Red Sox roll over Cincinnati in 1939 to win their first World Series since 1912.’‘

    [Which means the Cubs probably win the ‘38 series, so ending a 30-year drought - unless the Giants use their new found financial dominance to make the 5-game difference in the pennant race.]

  16. Steve I said...

    Paul,
    I did note that, and I’m a little sorry now I already deleted my spreadsheet on Yankee “uninterruptedness.”

    I was pointing out that the Casey Stengel/Yogi Berra Yankees were the uninterrupted Yankees, and was not intending to demean the Ruth Yankees (or DiMaggio Yankees, or Mantle Yankees, or whatever 1920-1965 Yankees).

    The Ruthian Yankees were interrupted quite a lot.  (I hasten to add that I haven’t crunched the numbers, and it’s entirely possible NY exceeded expectations.)

  17. Steve I said...

    It’s kind of like Detroit with Kaline and Cash and Freehan: how do you Not win the pennant?  Well, there are many ways.

  18. Ted M said...

    I don’t know… for me when I think of what would have happened had Ruth gone to the Giants and McGraw I run into two things. 

    One is that McGraw was rigid and authoritarian and Ruth would have had a huge problem with that.  I expect there would have been huge conflicts between them and that Babe’s performance probably would have suffered because of it.

    The second is Jack Bentley.  Bently, from 1920-1922, pitched and played first base for the Baltimore Orioles of the International league…hitting .371, .412, and .351 while going 16-3 2.10, 12-1 2.34, 13-2 1.73 in those three years as a pitcher.  When McGraw got him for the Giants in 1923 he immediately made him a full time pitcher and didn’t play him in the field at any other position except for 4 games in 1925 (despite his putting up a .427/.446/.573 line in 1923).  Only after the Giants traded him to the Phillies in ‘26 did he get a shot at hitting, and by then it was apparently too late because he put up a 64 OPS+ and essentially washed out of the majors (I’m not sure, but I suspect arm injury).  If McGraw wouldn’t use someone with an established history as a two way player that way, I highly doubt that he’d have used Ruth that way.

    So, maybe I’m wrong, but I think just as likely as the scenario here is one in which Ruth isn’t as good of a pitcher for McGraw as he was for the Red Sox, they don’t play him in the outfield at all, and then they dump him on someone else sometime in the early ‘20s, where he may or may not turn into the Babe Ruth he developed into with the Red Sox and Yankees.

  19. mando3b said...

    I love stuff like this! Here’s something to add fuel to the fire: What if the Browns had been able to finalize their move to LA in the early ‘40s? As I understand it, that was a done deal until WW II intervened. What would the baseball landscape look like now if BOTH fantasies had become real: Ruth to the Giants, with all the dominoes falling as in Sullivan’s piece here, AND the Browns moving to LA in 1940? The mind fairly reels . . .

  20. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Great article, thanks!

    This is another great What If with the Giants that would have had huge implications for the team and the majors.

    The other was that the Giants were reportedly close to signing Hank Aaron, before losing him to the Braves.  Maybe they never move to SF if they had Mays and Aaron drawing crowds in NY?

    Another big Giants twist, though I don’t know how it affects the majors, was that reportedly some other team was in on Mays before New York signed him, can’t recall which team though.

  21. Steve Treder said...

    “What if the Browns had been able to finalize their move to LA in the early ‘40s? As I understand it, that was a done deal until WW II intervened.”

    It wasn’t a done deal.  It was on the AL Winter Meeting agenda for Monday, December 8th, 1941, and subsequently scuttled for obvious reasons.  But a proposal was all it was; it was far from certain to be approved by the necessary majority of league owners.

    And there was a very good reason for the league to not approve it:  the travel logistics to and from the West Coast in the early 1940s were not at all what they would become by the mid-1950s, when fast cross-country commerical jet airplane travel became a reality.  In the early 1940s, the only methods of a ball club traveling from the midwest to California were via bus (extremely slow given that there were no cross-country freeways), via train (not that slow, but still quite slow), or via propeller airplane (which was faster, but still quite expensive and less than reliable).

    Each of the other seven AL teams would need to make multiple trips to L.A., complete a single series with the Browns (or whatever they might now be called), and travel back.  It would be a schedule-maker’s nightmare, and probably would not have been practically feasible.

  22. ksw said...

    very nice piece.
    the yankees would have been competitive in the lesser league, drawing nicely (400,000 a year), and stayed as the third franchise in new york.
    had the team been moved, it is likely that it would have been shifted to baltimore, a city with twice the population of bronx county.
    browns to the west coast with veech running the team, with the senators following them.
    ksw

  23. voxpoptart said...

    The notion that Babe Ruth’s pitching career would have lasted any longer looks, from here, like a fantasy.  At age 21, he was striking out close to 5 batters per nine innings, which was a lot for the time, and had a K/W ratio over 1.4 to 1, also pretty good at the time.  But by age 24, his strikeout rate was TWO batters per nine innings, and he was walking twice as many batters as he struck out.

    Looks to me like, in the tradition of young pitchers everywhere, he’d destroyed his throwing arm.  Lucky thing about the ability to slug .800.

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