By Russ Walsh
One could argue that the 2021 Atlanta Braves would have struggled to make the playoffs, let alone win three playoff series on the way to a World Series title, without a major assist from three other teams. The Cleveland Indians, the Miami Marlins, and the Kansas City Royals were willing to part with, respectively, Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall, and Jorge Soler for next to nothing in return.
In July, the Braves were reeling from losing outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Ronald Acuña Jr. With the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets also vying for the top spot in the NL East, Atlanta needed to act quickly. These three midseason deals saved their bacon. After helping the Braves to the division title, Rosario, Duvall, and Soler then powered them through the playoffs to a World Series championship.
A similar scenario played out for the World Champion New York Giants exactly 100 years ago in 1921. John McGraw’s 1921 Giants team would never have won the NL pennant, let alone defeat the Babe Ruth-led New York Yankees in the World Series, without a major assist from that infamous doormat of the league, the Phillies. On the field, the Phillies contributed by losing 16 of their 22 games against the Giants. It is off the field, however, in a series of one-sided trades, that the Phillies and their parsimonious owner, William F. Baker, made their greatest contribution. Three key members of the champion Giants -- shortstop Dave Bancroft, second baseman Johnny Rawlings, and outfielder Irish Meusel -- came via trades with the Phillies.
Bancroft was the first of the trio to be traded. The future Hall of Fame shortstop went to the Giants on June 7, 1920, in a deal for Art Fletcher and that most valued of commodities for Baker, cash. Bancroft was 29 years old and at the peak of his career. As a rookie, he had been a key member of the Phillies’ 1915 pennant run. Fletcher was a good player, but at 35 he was nearing the end of his career. He did not play at all for the Phillies in 1921 and returned for his final season in 1922. By contrast, in 1921, Bancroft was arguably the most valuable player on the Giants, putting up a team-leading 7.4 WAR.
During the 1921 season, Baker showed even more generosity to the Giants. McGraw was looking for an infielder because rookie Goldie Rapp wasn’t cutting it at third base, hitting just .215 through the end of June. At that point, the Giants were 4.5 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. On July 1, Baker obliged McGraw by sending him Rawlings and disgruntled outfielder Casey Stengel in return for Rapp, reserve outfielder Lee King, and Minor Leaguer Lance Richbourg.
Stengel was injured and played in only 18 games for the Giants in 1921, but acquiring Rawlings allowed McGraw to move star infielder and future Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch to third base. McGraw then installed Rawlings at second, where he formed a fine double play partnership with Bancroft. In Philadelphia, Rapp never did hit and was gone from the Majors after 1923. King had minimal impact and eventually went back to the Giants, and Richbourg played in only 10 games for the Phillies. He resurfaced several years later as a productive player for the Boston Braves.
Two weeks later and in search of pitching strength, McGraw pried pitcher Red Causey loose from Baker and the Phillies for a Minor League pitcher, Jesse Winters, and rookie infielder John Monroe. Causey took a place in the Giants’ bullpen, but was hit hard in early outings and appeared in only seven games.
On July 25, with his team still four games behind the Pirates, McGraw went to the Philadelphia well once more to get the slugging outfielder that put his team over the top in the National League. He obtained the Phillies’ best hitter, Irish Meusel, from Baker for Curt Walker, Minor League catcher Butch Henline, and yes, $30,000 in cash. At the time of the trade, Meusel was hitting .353 with 12 home runs. Both Walker (who fell ill and missed the rest of the season shortly after the trade) and Henline turned into good players, but Meusel was one of the leagues’ premier sluggers.
A story widely reported in the papers was that Baker had soured on Meusel. In fact, two days before the trade, Baker suspended Meusel for indifferent play. Apparently, as Meusel was walking off the field between innings, a gentleman in the stands razzed him for lack of hustle on a fly ball. Meusel reportedly replied, “Why should I go hard after that ball?” The heckling fan was apparently a stockholder in the Phillies, and he reported the exchange to Baker, who suspended Meusel and then traded him to the Giants.
From the time of the Meusel deal onward, the Giants steadily ate into the Pirates’ lead until they finally overtook the Bucs with a 6-2 victory over the Brooklyn Robins (now Dodgers) on Sept. 9. In that game, Meusel was 3-for-4 with a double. The Giants eventually won the pennant by four games. Meusel hit .329 after coming over from the Phillies, Rawlings batted .267 while solidifying the infield, and Bancroft hit .318 for the year.
In the best-of-nine World Series, the Giants fell behind the Yankees two games to zero after being shut out in the first two games by Carl Mays and Waite Hoyt. Their bats got going in the third game, and the Giants won 13-5 behind the hitting of Meusel, Rawlings, and Ross Youngs. Meusel and Rawlings joined with outfielder George Burns to power the Giants to a Game 4 win, 4-2, behind the pitching of veteran Phil Douglas.
The Yankees took Game 5, 3-1, with Hoyt again the pitching star. The Giants then won the series by winning the next three games in a row. In Game 6, Meusel, Bancroft, and High Pockets Kelly were the hitting stars. In Game 7, Douglas again pitched very well, as Meusel and catcher Frank Snyder drove in the only Giants runs in a 2-1 victory. The Giants faced nemesis Waite Hoyt in Game 8. Bancroft scored an unearned run in the first inning after he walked and scored when shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh bobbled High Pockets Kelly’s ground ball. Giants hurler Art Nehf then shut out the Yankees on four hits to seal the championship.
In the series, Rawlings, Bancroft, and Meusel played every inning. Meusel led his team with seven RBIs, while hitting .345. Rawlings hit .333 with three doubles and four RBIs. Bancroft hit just .152 in the series, but he had three crucial RBIs and played his usual solid defense.
Like the 2021 Braves, the 1921 Giants were a team with a chance to win that needed to fill some weaknesses. The Braves found three teams willing to help them. The Giants only really needed one, the cash-strapped Phillies, who in a little over a year sent their three best players north to help the Giants become World Series champs.
Hot Stove League rumors in the fall of 1921 had the Phillies sending their best pitcher, Lee Meadows, to the Giants. Fortunately for Phillies fans, that deal never came about.
Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, die hard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1.