In 1912 the New York baseball club in the American League was a sorry operation indeed. Known as the Highlanders, they played in rickety, wooden Hilltop Park at Broadway and 165th Street and finished last in the league that year.
A few blocks away, John J. McGraw's New York Giants were the most famous team in baseball—the most feared, the most loved, the most envied, the most imitated. They were also the incarnation of McGraw's vision of the game: "Inside baseball," he called it, "scientific baseball," a shrewd amalgam of bunts, steals, sacrifices, platoons and strategies. Play for a run or two, then make them stand up. This was the august old game—refined and purified, to be sure—played the way it had been since Grandpa's time. But McGraw had elevated it to an art form, and the Giants became the team to contend with.
Thus, it was seen as almost an act of charity when, in 1913, the Giants invited the Highlanders to move into the Polo Grounds as tenants. The Highlanders—they changed their name to the Yankees later that year—were threats to no one but themselves. The Giants were simply letting their little brothers use the equipment when the real ball club was away.
But in 1915 the Yankees were acquired by an aggressive new ownership and over the next few years they began playing a new kind of game, going for power throughout the lineup. They aimed for the big inning, runs in clusters, and as a result they moved toward the top of the American League standings. In his biography, Babe, Robert W. Creamer compared the 1919 Yankees to John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord.
The Lord, of course, was Babe Ruth. In 1920, Ruth's first year with the Yankees, he hit 54 home runs. Inside baseball suddenly seemed a bit dull. Why sweat and work for one run when runs could be had in bunches? Whack! Two runs. Bam! Three runs. The public loved it. Crowds flocked to the Polo Grounds in record numbers to see the Yankees shatter by almost 400,000 the old single-season attendance record of 910,000 set by the 1908 Giants.
McGraw seethed. What the public-wanted to see was not his exquisite Giants but the parvenu Ruth and the crude Yankee style of big-inning baseball. By the end of the 1920 campaign McGraw had had enough. He fought back as only a landlord could: He told the Yankees he wanted them to leave. Nothing personal, mind you, just go away. Play your games anywhere you see fit, just take leave of the Polo Grounds as soon as you can find a new home. As things turned out, the Yankees and Giants won pennants the next three years, setting the stage for one of the great showdowns in baseball history, the World Series of 1923.
The '21 Series was the first to be played all in one ballpark and the last to be a best-of-nine-games affair. The Yankees started out strongly, winning the first two games. The second game, in which Giants batters were stifled by Waite Hoyt, was particularly mortifying to McGraw. As a Brooklyn teenager, Hoyt had made his major league debut with the Giants in 1918, striking out two in the only inning he worked. But McGraw had cut him. Hoyt subsequently signed with the Red Sox, who sold him to the Yankees. Now he was back at the Polo Grounds.
In the third game an early Yankee lead disappeared, and the Giants won 13-5. That game changed the tone of the Series, and the Giants swept four of the next five. Most important, they had controlled Ruth.
"Ruth! Why all the excitement about Ruth?" McGraw said grouchily afterward. "We've been pitching all along to Rogers Hornsby and he's a three-to-one better hitter than Ruth." During Ruth's minor league days McGraw had been interested in signing him as a pitcher. Now he was openly contemptuous of the Ruthian style, predicting that the Babe would end up hitting into more double plays than grandstands. And the result of the 1921 Series seemed to bear out Little Napoleon's prediction. Ruth was held to a meaningless homer and four singles. The Giants won the championship; the new slugging style was discredited.
Over the next summer a lot of newspaper space was used to report the insults exchanged by the two sides. McGraw rarely missed an opportunity to slam the Yankees. Whenever Ruth hit a home run with McGraw present, he would turn toward the Giants skipper and bellow, "How's that for a double-play ball, Mac?" But strange as it sounds today, it was the Yankees who always seemed to be swimming upstream. They were still the Giants' tenants, after all. And in 1922 McGraw had made a few subtle moves that transformed his Giants of that year into one of the greatest teams ever.