1920 was a fascinating year in baseball.
The deadball era was over, and before season’s end the world would see some extraordinary happenings: Eight members of the Chicago White Sox suspended by their owner just before capturing their second consecutive pennant, sluggers like Babe Ruth redefining power numbers and the first and only death to occur from an injury in a major league game.
The roaring twenties got off to a raucous start.
The official beginning of the live ball era also promised to bring about a lot of change. It had to for the good of the game, particularly in the wake of rumors that the 1919 World Series was tainted. The owners had to ensure that the public’s trust in the integrity of the game would keep going – along with the turnstiles at the ballparks.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Including some timely strategy by managers – or more specifically, player-managers like Clifford Carlton “Gavvy” Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Cravath was a solid player. The 11-year veteran amassed a career slash of .287/.380/.478 and was in the final year of his career in 1920 where he also assumed managerial duties of the hapless Phillies. His career as a skipper wasn’t much to gloat about though, having taken over for Jack Coombs in 1919 and continuing through 1920 where the Phillies finished in last place both years.
But early on in the ’20 season, there was a spark of promise from the Baker Bowl dwellers. After splitting the season-opening series in Brooklyn, the Phils traveled to the Polo Grounds for three games against the powerful John McGraw-led New York Giants. After dropping the first game 2-1, Philadelphia sent future hall of famer Eppa Rixey to the bump in game two to face the Giants’ Rube Benton, coming off one of the better seasons of his career in ’19.
A terrific duel ensued on a frigid April 20, with Rixey and Benton blanking each other’s batsmen through seven frames.
Singles by Dots Miller and Ralph Miller sparked the Phillies to begin their half of the eighth. With two men on, the 39-year old Cravath, in a surprise move not unlike the (fictional) Indians’ Jake Taylor’s genius use of general manager Roger Dorn 70 years later, inserted himself as a pinch hitter for Rixey. The strategy was bold, given that the Giants had only touched the cunning lefty for one hit.
Cravath, by this time in his career no stranger to tense situations, had other options on his bench. But something struck a chord of confidence in him in this circumstance. The gamble worked, as he unloaded on a regrettable Benton pitch and deposited it deep into the left field bleachers, giving his club a 3-0 lead they would not relinquish. It was the final round-tripper that Cravath would hit, the 119th of his career. George Smith emerged from the Phillies’ bullpen to record the two inning save and seal the heroic deed for the road team.
The tightly contested game took just one hour and twenty-five minutes.
Cravath’s cronies would win the next day as well, to snag two out of three against the Giants, who fell to a bewildering 1-4. The Phillies then followed that up with a win in their home opener against the Dodgers to sit at 4-2 and the Philly nationals were enjoying some signs of early life. But that’s where the turbulence began in earnest. A streaky season ensued, resulting in a 62-91 last-place finish and the end of Cravath’s big league career.
The Giants had a much more successful campaign at 86-68, finishing in second place, seven games behind the pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers.