The New York Giants had just won Game Three of the 1922 World Series when an intruder barged into their clubhouse. The commotion that followed involved two of the most famous men in baseball, who also happened to hate each other’s guts.
The unwelcome clubhouse visitor was Yankee slugger Babe Ruth, and the intended target of his outrage was John McGraw, the volatile manager of the Giants. Only moments earlier, in the ninth inning, Ruth had grounded out, which served merely as an interruption to an explosive verbal altercation between the two men that dragged on the entire game. McGraw hated Ruth, and he spent the entire game harassing the big fella, to the delight of his team.
In 1922 the Yankees and Giants were facing each other in the Fall Classic for the second consecutive year. It was a clash of teams that begrudgingly shared a city, and at that time also shared the same ballpark. Yankee Stadium had yet to be built, and the Giants were sharing the Polo Grounds with their crosstown rival. That arrangement rankled McGraw, the patriarch of the National League, who looked down his fat nose at the lowly American League, and especially the New York team. And especially their tall slugger, George Herman Ruth.
The Yankees in 1922 were not the Yankees we know today. They were a new force in their league, having won their first pennant the season before. For years, since the AL became a professional league, the Yanks (or Highlanders as they were once called) were a meager team who finished near the bottom of the standings every season. They were the “little brother” to McGraw’s juggernaut.
By the time Ruth and the Yankees were earning their way into the World Series, McGraw was on his third dynasty. In the first decade of the twentieth century, bolstered by the pitching of Christy Matthewson and Iron Joe McGinnity, the Giants were a powerful force in the National League. They became the third team to win three straight pennants, from 1911 to 1913. After a brief retooling, McGraw brought back his team to win the flag in 1917, and now in the 1920s, the mighty Giants were in the midst of another dominant stretch. In 1921, they rolled over the Yanks in the World Series, much to the delight of their pugnacious leader.
John Joseph McGraw was an Irishman from a little town just outside Syracuse, New York. McGraw was a good athlete, but his most valuable trait was his unyielding will. He was aggressive, passionate, and most of all, competitive. In a playing career spent mostly with the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1800s, McGraw was at the epicenter of a revolution in the game of baseball. He and a few teammates helped devise or perfect many of the plays we take for granted today, like the hit-and-run, squeeze bunt, and double steal. McGraw took his vigorous style of play with him into his managerial career.
As serious as McGraw was, Babe Ruth was just as casual when it came to his approach to baseball. It was his style that most riled McGraw. When Ruth was on the field he was the focus of attention, he was larger than life. His approach to hitting was to swing as hard as he could and hit the ball as far as humanly possible. He hit it so high and far that sometimes he didn’t seem to be human. With every home run that was launched by the Babe’s bat, McGraw seethed. The tough, rugged, one-base-at-a-time style of play that he loved was under attack. For that, McGraw would never forgive Ruth.
The Yankees acquired Ruth prior to the 1920 season, placing him in the same city as the manager they called “Muggsy.“ At times it didn’t seem like there was enough room for both of them, even in New York. When the Giants and Yankees met in the World Series, it gave McGraw a chance to put a voice to his hatred of the Yankee star.
“Why don’t you go back to the jungle?!” McGraw yelled as Ruth came to the plate for Game Three. “Hey, look! It’s the fat monkey!”
McGraw’s taunts were quickly picked up by one of his henchmen, Albert “Cozy” Dolan, who had a sharp tongue himself.
“You fat bastard! You might be something in your league, but your horseshit out here!” Dolan screamed.
By the third game of the Series, Ruth had heard enough. He paused before stepping into the box and waved his fingers at the Giants’ bench. He knew being a star made him a target for bench jockeys, but he wouldn’t let it go too far without responding.
“I don’t mind some jockeying,” Ruth said after the World Series was completed. “But if it gets personal, I won’t take it!”
McGraw and Dolan were going for the jugular. Rumors swirled for years that Ruth had african-american blood in his family line. He had a broad nose, large lips, and his skin was ruddy and dark. It was a terrible thing to say, but when you’re setting home run records, opponents are going to attack any weakness. At that time, racism was often openly on display. It was an uglier time.
After Game Three, Ruth roared into the home clubhouse at the Polo Grounds and set his sights on McGraw, who was sitting in his tiny office. Upon hearing the commotion, McGraw barged into the main clubhouse area and brushed aside a few of his players. He placed himself in front of Ruth, who was seven inches taller than him and a muscled behemoth. The Babe quickly turned his venom on his agitator.
“You better stop that personal shit!” Ruth screamed.
The Babe then proceeded to tell McGraw how he was flexible enough to perform a certain sexual act on himself. He proceeded to add more vulgarities and chosen words for the Giants’ manager.
Whether he was startled or wise, McGraw held his temper in check as he listened to Ruth’s rant. He spit a few words back at the Babe and ordered him out, then spun and returned to his office. The next day the Giants defeated the Yankees again, and two days later they finished “little brother” off and clinched their second straight championship.
Maybe McGraw’s nasty insults helped: the Babe had just two hits in the five game World Series in 1922, and only one run batted in. The following season he must have been ready for the heckling from McGraw. In 1923, the Yankees finally vanquished the Giants in the Series, with Babe smacking three home runs. Sometimes the best way to beat a bully is to defeat them on the field.