In public, business leaders love the choices offered by a free market. Behind the scenes, they really prefer that the choices be theirs—especially when dealing with employees. Which is how, in 1915, Frank “Home Run” Baker—the Ryan Howard of early-20th-century Philadelphia baseball —spent a season playing for a semi-pro team in Upland, Delaware County.
It was about money. The Philadelphia Athletics player was one of the biggest stars in baseball. Starting in 1911, he’d led the American League in home runs for four seasons. In that year’s World Series, Baker earned his nickname with game-winning runs in the second and third matches. For his services, he earned maybe $5,000 a year, while similarly valuable players earned $12,000. (Factory workers then got about $500 annually.)
“The best way of ruining a promising ballplayer is to pay a big price for him,” said Athletics manager Connie Mack, who preferred to lose Baker than risk the precedent of bringing salaries up.
Born on a farm in Trappe, Md., Baker grew up playing baseball—first with his brothers and father after chores, later on school teams. In that rural area, everyone was a baseball fan, and a Saturday game against the team of a neighboring town was the biggest event of the week. At age 19, Baker was clerking in a local store and playing on weekends for his high school team, even though he’d dropped out. Classmate Helen Berry later described him as clumsy and “so dark that he seemed almost sunbaked, with thick black lashes and dirty hands,” but always with the “typical Baker grin, so good natured and sympathetic that it was consoling.”
In 1905, Charles Herzog, who managed and played second base for a semi-pro team in nearby Ridgley, Md., saw Baker play and signed him for $5 per week. “Baker couldn’t pitch and he couldn’t play outfield,” Herzog later recalled. “But he could everlastingly hit.”
Ridgley’s 1905 team was full of talent. The entire infield eventually went on to the major leagues. After that season, Baker went off to play for a team in Cambridge, Md. In 1909, he was spotted by an agent for the Baltimore Orioles, which gave him a five-game tryout. But the Orioles’ manager let him go, saying Baker was clumsy, awkward and couldn’t hit. Nevertheless, he seemed to have impressed sports writers, one of whom remarked that “Baker has the makings of a good player.”
Baker’s big break came in 1908, when Herzog recommended him for the Reading team. Now 22, Baker showed his seriousness by moving to Pennsylvania. Then, he created an early buzz in an exhibition game by leaping to grab a line drive that looked like a sure single. In a subsequent game against Wilkes-Barre, Baker hit one of the longest home runs ever seen in Reading. Scouts were soon coming to check him out. “All in all, he has the qualifications to go toward making him a successful major leaguer,” observed the Reading Eagle.
In August, Mack purchased Baker’s contract for $500 and told him to report in Chicago, where the Athletics were playing the White Sox. Baker won his last game for Reading with a homerun, for which the fans carried him off the field. He then boarded a train for Chicago, where he found Mack in the hotel dining room and said, “Well, here I am.”
Connie Mack (short for Cornelius McGillicuddy) was a former catcher who had started with minor-league teams in Connecticut, then moved up to play 11 seasons in the majors. As a catcher, he was a specialist at distracting batters to throw them off their game. “Mack never was mean, but if you had any soft spot, Connie would find it,” said fellow catcher Wilbert Robinson. “He could do and say things that got more under your skin than the cuss words used by other catchers.”
Mack played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1890 to 1894, then segued into management for the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1901, he became manager, treasurer and part owner of the Athletics, a new American League team. Mack spent the rest of his life in Philadelphia.
As a manager, Mack’s strength was finding the best players, teaching them well and letting them play. “He did not believe that baseball revolved around managerial strategy,” according to baseball historian Bill James.
Mack valued “baseball smarts” and preferred educated players. He traded away outfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson because of his perceived unintelligent play and bad attitude. “The college boy is educated, mannerly, tractable, teachable,” he once told a reporter. “It’s not what he knows, but what he can be taught that makes him valuable.”
Baker wasn’t a college boy, but he had the good manners of the stereotypical farm boy that he was. And his talent was undeniable. In such cases, Mack was willing to put aside his standard preferences.
Baker showed up for his tryout at the end of the 1908 season, when every game was critical. Mack threw him straight into the mix. The Athletics didn’t win the pennant, but Baker impressed everyone with his hitting, including a double that almost went over the fence in Boston. Mack kept him on.
It was a wise move. Baker’s rookie-year performance was a major factor in the team’s subsequent surge. The Athletics won 27 more games in 1909 than they had the previous year, finishing second.
Unlike many players, Baker didn’t blow his money on women and booze. Instead, he bought his father’s farm, to which he then retreated in the off-season. “Baker always considered himself a farmer and hunter first, and a baseball player second,” said one friend.
Baker often talked of quitting baseball. More than once, newspapers published stories about his retirement. After a while, nobody took this talk seriously. Even Mack didn’t argue over a contract that allowed Baker to quit baseball at any time, though not to go play for another team.
Baseball historians attribute rising salaries after 1912 to the new Federal League, which emerged that year to challenge the established leagues by luring away top players with more money. By 1913, the Federal League had six teams in the field. Mack recognized the danger and, in 1914, pushed the easygoing Baker to sign a three-year contract.
By the time Baker became aware of what others were making, he was stuck. Mack refused to renegotiate. “Mack was firm that Baker would play for the Athletics the next two years, or not at all,” wrote baseball historian Barry Sparks.
In a bind, Baker announced that he was going back to the farm. On his way out the door, he received Mack’s permission to play “local” baseball. Mack probably envisioned him spending off hours on some Maryland team. He surely didn’t expect Baker’s announcement that he’d play weekends and holidays with Upland.
Millionaire industrialist and Delco backer John P. Crozer had seen Baker’s availability as a way to build attendance. Baker would receive nearly the same pay he received from the Athletics. In Mack’s eyes, though, Baker’s suburban performances could only hurt the Athletics. “Baker can’t make a fool out of me,” he said. “If he thinks he can have a little jaunt in the Delaware County League and expect to find a place on my team, he has made the mistake of his life.”
Baker debuted in May 1915 before the largest crowd ever seen in Upland, helping defeat Clifton Heights 5-1. The Athletics, meanwhile, were in seventh place.
Mack’s fellow managers took his side. One called Baker “the biggest ingrate in baseball.” Mack complained that the Federal League’s astronomical offers caused his players to “think only of money.” Faced with a downward trend, he sold his top players and rebuilt with newcomers.
Meanwhile, Delco still loved Baker. On “Home Run Baker Day” in July, he collected two hits, scored a run and received fans’ gift of a Guernsey calf for his farm. In August, the Federal League announced that it was negotiating with 15 top players, including Baker, and that money was no object.
Still, Mack refused to release him from his contract. The Athletics ended their season with a dismal 43-109 record. Baker bought another farm (his third) and a car with his earnings.
The squabble continued through the winter. Baker declined a $10,000 bonus to sign with the Federals, but grew frustrated by stories of what other teams were willing to pay for the contract that Mack refused to sell. Finally, in February 1916, Mack sold Baker to the New York Yankees for $37,500. Baker got a three-year contract for $12,000 a year.
In memory of Baker’s year with Upland, the Delaware County League still awards a Frank Baker Trophy each year. The Athletics didn’t field another team with better than a .500 record until 1925. But Mack had kept Baker out of the majors for a year in his prime—so he figured he’d won.