Rarely has a ballplayer turned such an infrequent hallmark into one of the most famous—and hyperbolic—nicknames in sports history. But home runs in consecutive World Series games in 1911 forever turned Frank Baker into Home Run Baker.
We can chuckle at the sobriquet tagged on a man who, with 93 career home runs, stands god-knows-how-low on the all-time list (it’s so far down that the top-500 list falls far short of even reaching 100).
Yet we must remember how infrequent were round-trippers in the Deadball Era. And Home Run Baker had a penchant for them even before he earned his moniker.
One of the best hot-corner men in baseball, Baker anchored Connie Mack’s vaunted $100,000 infield. Swinging ludicrously heavy bats (sources vary, but nearly all confirm in excess of 50 ounces), Baker provided both power and high average.
He paced the American League in homers for four consecutive years, while also twice leading the Junior Circuit in RBIs. A complete player, Baker not only could field and hit—he could run, as evidenced by a league-high 19 triples in 1909 and 88 three-baggers in a six-year span.
More importantly, Baker’s slugging and fielding served as the cornerstone of Mack’s first Philadelphia A’s dynasty, leading the White Elephants to four World Series in five years. One of the great big-game players, Baker—in addition to the hitting that transformed his identity—batted a hefty .363 in six Series, including three championships.
Only 28 years old and his reputation as the best third baseman in baseball—and perhaps history, at that point—already secure, Baker astonished Mack and fans everywhere by retiring. Numerous sources cite a salary dispute between Baker and Mack, although the New York Times of February 16, 1915, quotes the A’s manager as explaining that Baker was “sick of traveling” and wanted to “settle down on his Maryland farm.”
Although many a manager might hesitate to divulge that he’s being stingy toward a star player and could concoct a story like this to save face, Mack’s version may well be true for two reasons: first, if it were more money that Baker was truly after, he certainly could have jumped to the Federal League for a pay raise.
Second, Mack reported that Baker had two years left on a three-year contract (very rare for the time but easily verifiable), and not honoring contracts in that age was unheard of.
Then again, Mack, angry after his mighty A’s had been swept by the Miracle Braves—amid whispers of game fixing—began selling off his best players or losing them to the Federal League.
In any event, Baker retired to Maryland in 1915, and the effect on Philadelphia was calamitous. Without Baker, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender and the great Eddie Collins, the pennant-defending A’s went down the drain and wouldn’t recover for a decade. Philadelphians took it hard.
Equally calamitous was the effect on Home Run Baker’s career. One year after Mack’s quotes appeared in the Times, he sold Baker to the New York Yankees. Alas, Baker, who was eager to return to baseball, had short-circuited his greatness.
Baker still played well, but in only one of his six years in Pinstripes did he hit .300, and his run production was a shadow of what it had been in Philadelphia, even though Baker hit exactly as many home runs in New York—and all of this playing in the Polo Grounds, a much more favorable stadium for hitting.
Baker received deserved credit for helping build the Yankees into contenders, even before Babe Ruth’s arrival, and he enjoyed the fruits of that labor, twice returning to the World Series—although he may as well have been renamed Pair of Singles Baker for what was left of his October prowess by then.
One wonders how many more years of dominance Home Run Baker could have enjoyed had he not permitted his skills to languish at the height of his powers. Never the same ballplayer after 1915 (he actually retired again, in 1920, only to return for two more seasons), his desire for personal contentment over fame and fortune is admirable.
Still, Baker did make it up to Mack and disenchanted Philadelphians by discovering a young Jimmie Foxx and recommending him to the A’s.