By Glen Sparks
Frank Baker swung a mighty bat.
The dead-ball slugger wielded a 52-ounce piece of lumber (nearly 20 ounces heavier than the typical major-league bat used today). Just 5-feet-11 and 173 pounds, Baker took a solid rip. He credited the strong wrists he developed while working on the family farm in Maryland.
Baker, born March 13, 1886, signed a pro baseball contract in 1905 for $5 a week. He tripled that figure one year later by cutting a deal with the Sparrows Point Club in Baltimore. Baker, a third baseman, hit .299 in 1908 for the Reading (Pa.) Pretzels of Class B Tri-State League. Philadelphia A’s manager and executive Connie Mack liked what he saw and bought Baker’s contract.
The left-handed batter hit .305 and led the American League in triples (19) in his rookie season of 1909. He popped four home runs and drove in 85 runs. Baker’s numbers dipped across the board in 1910; he still tripled 15 times, hit .283 and drove in 74. Baker also hit .409 (9-for-22) in the World Series as the A’s beat the Chicago Cubs.
Now, baseball historians call the dead-ball era the “dead-ball era” for a reason. Teams counted on stolen bases, hit-and-run players and other “small-ball” tactics to score runs. Between 1900 and 1920, the league leader in home runs hit 20 or more just four times. Thirteen times, the leader finished in single digits.
Ballparks were huge (635 feet to the center-field fence at the Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston), the ball was mushy and pitchers loaded up those mushy balls with spit, tobacco juice and anything else to make it dip and do other funny things. Some baseball people sneered at “show-off” home runs. Fans marveled at the rare sightings.
That brings us back to Frank Baker. He played on the $100,000 infield with the A’s, along with first baseman Stuffy McInnis, second baseman Eddie Collins and shortstop Jack Berry. (Note: Yes, being part of a $100,000 infield in the early years of the 20th century was quite a compliment.) In 1911, Baker was as good as anyone in that quartet.
Baker drove in 115 runs and batted .344. He also hit an AL-leading 11 home runs. The A’s once again made it to the World Series, this time against the New York Giants and skipper John McGraw. Always looking for an advantage, McGraw wanted to intimidate Baker.
A few years before, Ty Cobb had spiked Baker while sliding into third. Mack stood up for Baker and accused Cobb of playing dirty. A photograph, though, showed that Baker had reached across the base to tag the Detroit Tigers superstar. Some people thought Baker was soft.
McGraw ordered his runners to go hard into third base. Rough up this Baker guy, McGraw said. Get him off his game. The Giants tried. It didn’t work. Baker at least did not let the Giants’ antics bother him at the plate.
Baker smashed a home run in the sixth inning of Game 2 as the A’s evened the Series at a game apiece. The next day, Baker belted a ninth-inning homer off the great Christy Mathewson. That round-tripper tied the game 1-1. Philly won the game 3-2 in 11 innings.
The A’s celebrated their second straight World Series championship by beating the Giants in six games. The Series included a week-long rain delay. Baker hit .375 (9-for-24). He didn’t hit any more homers after those first two, but that was enough. He would be forever known as “Home Run” Baker.
And, Baker did his best to live up to his new nickname. He slugged one more World Series homer, in 1913 as the A’s beat the Giants again. He also led the league in homers in 1912 (10), 1913 (12) and 1914 (nine).
“Home Run” Baker retired after the 1922 season with 96 career homers. He is 870th on the all-time list, with Bernie Carbo, Rick Dempsey and a handful of other guys. Baker hit one fewer career home run than Tim McCarver. Only, Baker, though played dead-ball baseball.