Green: 100 years ago, America battled back from a pandemic and Harry Heilmann chased .400

Detroit News
By Jerry Green |  Special to The Detroit News

The baseball season was almost over in late September, and the game was changing. There was a young phenom of a ballplayer — a prodigy who hit monumental home runs, but also had amassed precious victories as a pitcher.

The nation was emerging from the gripping impact of a pandemic. And world turmoil continued from a recently concluded war.

Baseball helped to soothe our moods. Or did it?

In Detroit, the Tigers were out of the race. But a fiery, first-year manager had modified the culture of the ballclub. And the media, and the fans, were celebrating the accomplishments of a player whose numbers supported the argument that he was the greatest right-handed hitter in the history of the franchise.

The hitter’s name was Harry Heilmann.

It was 100 years ago.

And in September of that season of 1921, Heilmann was flirting with a .400 batting average. In New York, Babe Ruth, who had entered the major leagues as a high-velocity pitcher, was flirting with 60 home runs — an amazing total for one season.

Heilmann and Ruth would finish barely short of these goals.

But they were creating everlasting baseball history.

And Baseball Americana was being revolutionized — with the obsession for the home run.

The obsession that has become heightened one century later.

More: Green: 1961 home run chase of Ruth tested mettle of Maris, Mantle and the game

Ruth, that season of 1921, would finish with 59 home runs. He would become the greatest star in American sports history.

Heilmann would beat out his rookie Detroit player/manager, Ty Cobb, for the batting title with an average of .394. Cobb would finish second at .389. Heilmann would win three more AL batting titles with the Tigers during the roaring 1920s. And in 1923, he would pass the .400 barrier, winning the title with a .403 average. The runner-up that season just happened to be Babe Ruth. Ruth hit .393 — the highest batting average of his career.

Despite his reputation for being a nasty, angry human being, Cobb showed no jealousy for Heilmann, who played right field in the same outfield and occasionally first base.

“People nowadays just don’t realize how great a hitter Harry was,” Cobb was quoted as praising on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s website. “Next to Rogers Hornsby, he was the best right-handed hitter of them all.”

I have no idea when “nowadays” was, when Cobb uttered those words. It must have been 60 or 70 years ago.

I never saw Heilmann play — just as I never saw Cobb or Ruth or Hornsby or George Sisler or Tris Speaker play. But, I did show up — with a crewcut and some attitude — to retain scars from Cobb and Hornsby in their later years.

Heilmann, I could ascertain through my passion for baseball history and research, was a nicer guy.

He was known as a line-drive hitter. He managed only 183 home runs in his 17 seasons with the Tigers and the Reds.

Harry was a relic from the pre-Ruthian, Cobb-thriving deadball era. Somehow — not a coincidence — the baseballs were juiced up just about the time, 1920, Ruth was sold from the Red Sox to the Yankees. He had been a star pitcher, a World Series winner in Boston — and he became baseball’s greatest star as a home-run hitting outfielder in New York.

September is baseball’s month of suspense — whatever the era, the juice in the baseball, the format of the races contrived by the commissioner and his supporting club owners.

And, so it was with Harry Heilmann’s bid to finish the 1921 season with a .400 batting average.

In the last days of September, Heilmann got three hits in four at-bats in Washington. He raised his average to .401, according to century-old day-by-day statistics.

Heilmann’s Detroit teammates urged him to skip the remaining three games against Washington and the St. Louis Browns. The Tigers were locked into sixth place. The games meant little.

But Heilmann was a trouper.

More: Green: Detroit played host to biggest blasts by brightest stars, Reggie and Ted

Five years earlier, he witnessed a model something-or other automobile roll into the Detroit River while he was driving on the city’s eastside. Harry braked his car. He jumped into the river and rescued two of the four passengers from the sinking vehicle. The newspapers played up the rescue. And Heilmann was greeted as a hero before his at-bats at Navin Field.

But in September and into the first two days of October, one hundred years ago, Heilmann refused to sit down.

He managed one hit in 13 at-bats in those last three games.

He spent seven points off his batting average. Still, his average led the league, with manager Cobb second. Heilmann drove in 139 runs as the Tigers suffered with weak pitching.

Cobb, 34 years old in 1921, had inherited a mediocre club from Hughie Jennings. Jennings, a colorful individual known for bellowing “ee-haw” from the third-base coaching box, was also famed as the manager of the Tigers’ first three pennants in 1907, 1908, 1909.

But Jennings never managed to win a World Series. And after the 1920 season it was time for change. History is muddled whether Jennings’ departure was a firing or a resignation.

Cobb, as a player/manager, would spark up the Tigers — or so it was believed at Michigan and Trumbull.

The Tigers, a century ago, played with one of the finest outfields in the 145-year history of the game.

Cobb, in center field. Heilmann, in right. Bobby Veach, in left.

As manager, Cobb sought to motivate the ballclub and particularly Veach. Veach was known to be lackadaisical, smiling, chatting with the umpire and the opposing catcher. Cobb ordered Heilmann, who was on deck, to razz Veach in the batter’s box, according to old-time historian Fred Lieb in the book “The Detroit Tigers.”

“I want you to make him mad,” Lieb quoted Cobb as telling Heilmann. “Real mad … while you’re waiting. Call him a yellow-belly, a quitter and a dog … take that smile off his face.”

Veach’s batting average jumped from .308 to .338.

The Tigers finished the season with a team batting average of .316 — and in sixth place.

One hundred years ago — as Heilmann battled to bat .400 and declined to sit down, and Ruth aimed toward a once-unreachable total — there were two gripping pennant races.

Genuine pennant races!

That season, the Yankees won their first American League pennant. Their first of 40 in 100 years.

Back then, the Giants and Yankees both played in the quaint Polo Grounds near the top of Manhattan Island. The Giants were landlords, the Yankees tenants.

Both clubs won the pennants that season.

Manager Miller Huggins, with Ruth in the outfield, beat out Cleveland in the American League in the final week. Ruth was the pitcher of record in two games earlier in the season; he went 2-0. And he had hit 59 home runs. At age 26 that 1921 season, Ruth had become the all-time career leader in home runs.

John McGraw was not overly impressed. An impassioned National Leaguer, McGraw had detested the American League. He had since 1902, when he became the Giants’ manager.

His Giants won the National League pennant by four games over Pittsburgh.

So, all eight games of the World Series 100 years ago were played in the Polo Grounds. It was a best-5-of-9 game World Series. The Giants won 5-3. And McGraw’s pitchers limited Babe Ruth to one home run.

It was an historically eventful season at the beginning of an historically eventful decade of baseball.

Baseball owners anointed Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as commissioner after the White Sox scandal in which several players threw the World Series. The eight suspected athletes were found not-guilty in court. Judge Landis banned the culprits for life from baseball, including Joe Jackson. Shoeless Joe’s participation— his guilt or innocence — has been debated through the 100 years since.

That same ’21 season, Cobb reached the 3,000-hit milestone, the youngest ever in that hallowed group.

And a sign of the world’s technological advancement: the first baseball game broadcast on radio occurred on Aug. 5, 1921. Station KDKA, Pittsburgh, did the play-by-play of the game between the Pirates and Phillies, for those with crystal sets. Wikipedia notes that the Pirates won, 8-5. The broadcaster was a Westinghouse engineer, Harold Arlin.

The eight-game World Series was the first broadcast via radio. It was done remotely, the famed sports columnist Grantland Rice at the microphone, using telegraph reports.

Radio would provide the introduction to baseball for a couple of future generations, Ernie Harwell’s and mine included.

Baseball history would go on throughout the Roaring Twenties.

Ruth would hit 60 home runs in the 1927 season while batting .356. The 1927 Yankees are fabled as the greatest baseball team in history.

Heilmann would win three more batting titles for the Tigers, including his coveted .403 in 1923. Later Heilmann would become a celebrated radio play-by-play broadcaster.

The noted Spanish philosopher George Santayana said once upon a time: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

One hundred years after the 1921 season, baseball flourishes.

Miguel Cabrera! AJ Hinch! Shohei Ohtani!

The past has become now!

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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