While his career totals in the namesake category can be surpassed by modern sluggers in two years, Frank "Home Run" Baker made the most of the game as it was played in the Dead Ball Era, and then some. He became a member of Connie Mack’s vaunted “$100,000 Infield” on the Philadelphia Athletics, led the American League in round-trippers for four straight seasons, and won three world championships in the process. For Baker, who could have been a Hall-of-Famer for his nickname alone, the story of his baseball life began and ended on, and often took detours through, the Delmarva Peninsula.
John Franklin Baker was born and raised in Trappe on the Eastern Shore. He inherited his father Franklin’s athletic prowess, which he got to show off as a pitcher and an outfielder for Trappe High School. In 1905 his performance on the mound attracted attention from a scout named Preston Day, who recommended him to Buck Herzog, manager of a semi-pro team in nearby Ridgely. Herzog, whose baseball path would cross with Baker’s multiple times on the game’s grandest stage, moved the 19-year-old to third base. Baker would never play a professional game at any other position.
Baker eventually joined another semi-pro team in Baltimore, the Sparrows Point Club, in 1906, and soon after returned to the Eastern Shore to play in Cambridge. While with Sparrows Point, he caught the attention of the New York Giants, who arranged a trial run for him with the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles (Class-A Eastern League) in 1907. It did not go well: Baker only managed two hits in 15 at-bats and was released with the verdict of “could not hit.”
Fortunes reversed for Baker in 1908, who put up excellent numbers for the Reading (Pa.) Pretzels of the Class-B Tri-State League. A’s owner-manager Connie Mack was looking for a third baseman to replace veteran Jimmy Collins, and Baker looked like the right candidate. Mack purchased Baker’s contract, and the latter made his debut on September 21 against the White Sox. He hit .290 with three doubles over the final three games of the year.
The 1909 season saw Baker installed into Mack’s everyday lineup. He blossomed in the brand-new Shibe Park, which housed both the A’s and the National League’s Phillies, smashing the stadium’s first home run over the right field fence on May 29. The blast was one of four homers for Baker in his official rookie season, but it was his speed – Baker led the AL with 19 triples – that made the most impact for an A’s team that just missed out on the pennant.
By 1910 the A’s were ready to take the American League by storm thanks to an elite core known as the $100,000 Infield. Baker joined first baseman Stuffy McInnis, second baseman Eddie Collins, and shortstop Jack Barry in perhaps the greatest infield ever assembled; the group’s nickname came from its speculated market value, which would equal approximately $2.7 million in today’s money. The foursome would dominate the Junior Circuit with powerful offensive numbers, with each member leading the league in at least one major category for the next five seasons.
Despite a lukewarm regular season in 1910, Baker caught fire in his first World Series, batting .409 with four extra-base hits and four RBIs in a five-game series win over the Chicago Cubs.
Still known simply as Frank, Baker earned his famous nickname in the 1911 World Series. That year saw the A’s pitted against the New York Giants, the team that scouted and gave up on Baker four years prior. In a remarkable twist of fate, Baker’s third base counterpart on the Giants was his first semipro manager, Buck Herzog. The Giants wasted no time trying to get into Baker’s head – in Game 1 New York outfielder Fred Snodgrass intentionally tried to spike his arm, resulting in a few minor cuts. Baker internalized the slight, and much like Michael Jordan during his Last Dance at the end of the century, it was all the motivation he needed.
In Game 2 with the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth, Baker hit a go-ahead two-run homer off future Hall-of-Famer Rube Marquad, powering the A’s to a 3-1 win. The next day in Game 3 at the Polo Grounds, Baker came to bat in the top of the ninth with his team down 1-0 and the legendary Christy Matthewson on the mound. Unphased by the certified October hero, Baker cracked a game-tying home run to force extras; the A’s won 3-2 in 11 innings, dealing Matthewson his first World Series loss. Philadelphia went on to win the series in six games, thanks largely to the hero the press dubbed “Home Run” Baker.
Baker lived up to his nickname, leading the AL in home runs every year from 1911 to 1914, pounding a grand total of 42 with a career-high 12 in 1913. Aided by a stellar supporting cast he also led the league in RBIs in 1912 and 1913 and finished in the top 11 in MVP voting all four years, losing out to future Hall-of-Famers (Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson, and his teammate Eddie Collins) each time.
After missing out on the pennant in 1912, Baker and the A’s again beat Herzog and the Giants in the 1913 Fall Classic; Baker hit another home run off Rube Marquad in Game 1 and batted .450 with seven RBIs over the five-game series. The next year Philadelphia won another AL pennant but ran into the Boston Braves in the World Series, who completed their “Miracle” turnaround with a four-game sweep.
After the 1914 season, financial troubles forced Mack to finally cash in his $100,000 Infield. He sold off his best players, including Baker, who after holding out for the entire 1915 season and playing semipro ball close to home saw his contract purchased by the New York Yankees.
Though the Yankees of the late 1920s best embodied the “Murderer’s Row” image, Baker and his teammates originated the nickname in 1919. That year New York led the AL with 47 team home runs, including 10 from Baker.
Tragedy struck in 1920 when Baker’s wife Ottille died of scarlet fever. Frank sat out the major league season before playing a few local semipro games later that year and returning to the Yankees in 1921. By then, the man nicknamed Home Run had taken a backseat to the man who personified the home run. Babe Ruth led New York to its first two AL pennants in 1921 and 1922, and a diminished Baker retired from the majors after the 1922 World Series in which he took just one at-bat. He finished his big-league career with 96 home runs.
After remarrying and returning home to the Eastern Shore, Baker became the player-manager of the Easton Farmers of the Class-D Eastern Shore League in 1924; the 38-year-old hit the final six home runs of his storied career that season. That same year he discovered and signed a 16-year-old slugger from Sudlersville named Jimmie Foxx. Connie Mack came calling that summer, and Baker sold Foxx to his old boss, thereby touching off another great Philadelphia A’s dynasty.
Displeased with the low $2,000 price Easton received for the future Hall-of-Famer, the Farmers fired Baker in 1925. Out of pro baseball for good, he settled down on his farm in Trappe and became a model citizen of that community, joining the Trappe Town Board and also serving as director of the State Bank of Trappe, tax collector, and volunteer firefighter. He especially loved duck hunting, a hobby he took up every offseason from baseball and enjoyed through the rest of his life. Baker died in 1963 at age 77 following a stroke and was buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Easton.
After years of egregious snubs, Baker finally earned induction into Cooperstown through the Veterans Committee in 1955. It came as no surprise to original inductee Walter Johnson, who called Baker “the most dangerous hitter I ever faced.” Admired and respected by peers and historians alike, famed sabermetrician Bill James ranked him the fifth-greatest third baseman of all-time in 2001.
While Baker no doubt would have appreciated the recognition from James and others, the man who so often returned home to the Eastern Shore, in good times and in bad, received his highest honor nearly 40 years after his passing. In 2002, the town of Trappe named Home Run Baker Park in his honor.