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.
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.
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.