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The Yankees in Presidential Election Years Part II: A Non-Partisan Guide to the Teams and Elections
Tonight the Yankees and the Presidential election will once again clash as the potential final game of the ALDS coincides with the debate between Vice-President Joe Biden and Mitt Romney's running mate Paul Ryan. As we saw in part one, the Yankees have had mixed luck in election years ...But then, so has the country.
1920: Warren Harding (R) vs. James Cox (D)
Yankees: 95-59, 3rd -3.0
Issues for the Country: Who can we elect who isn't Woodrow Wilson? The Republicans were pretty sure that whoever they nominated would meet that qualification, so they weren't particularly choosy, and since Theodore Roosevelt, the presumptive nominee, had died in 1919, they had no obvious standard-bearer. After nine ballots at their convention failed to produce a nominee, there was a backroom conversation among party bosses that must have gone something like this:
"We gotta have somebody to run for president already."
"Yeah, but who?"
"Say... How about Warren?"
"Warren? Gee, that's funny."
"No, really. Warren. Everybody likes Warren."
"Ol' Puddin'head Warren? Guy who keeps bringing in sandwiches?"
"Well... Alright. My wife expected me home two hours ago, so go ahead."
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Ohio Senator Harding called for a "return to normalcy," that last not having been a word before he said it and therefore open to definition, or no definition at all. In practice it was a condemnation of Wilson's internationalism. The Democrats put up former Ohio governor James Cox as a sacrificial lamb. More notable to us was his running mate, a young former Assistant Secretary of the Navy named Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Issues for the Yankees: Maintaining discipline for new acquisition Babe Ruth, living down the death of Ray Chapman, and figuring out how to improve a team that couldn't quite win the pennant despite Ruth personally out-homering every team in the league and three dominant starting pitchers. Ruth aside, the lineup was just not that strong. He alone was almost enough, but not quite.
Result for the Country: Cox was annihilated, losing the electoral college 404-127 and the popular vote 16.1 million to 9.1 million. Roosevelt seemingly retired from politics, a decision that was thought to have become irreversible when he polio (or something like it) paralyzed him from the waist down in August, 1921. Harding's administration was possibly the most corrupt in American history. Teapot Dome was only the tip of a mountain of slime that took in most of the upper levels of government. The Veterans Bureau was a particularly sour spot, seeing as it was operating in the direct aftermath of a major war-Harding's cronies were almost literally yanking the blankets off the beds of disabled veterans and selling them out the back door. Pursued by scandal, Harding took off on a long tour of the country. He never returned, dying in San Francisco on the way back from Alaska.
Result for the Yankees: They finished a very close third, three games behind the pennant-winning Indians and a Chicago White Sox team that had lost most of its best players to the Black Sox scandal at the very end of the season. They upgraded at catcher, changing out Joe Girardi-type Muddy Ruel for OBP machine Wally Schang, got Home Run Baker back from an injury, and made Bob Meusel a full-time player. They got deeper on the pitching side as well, acquiring "the Brooklyn Schoolboy," Waite Hoyt, from the Red Sox. They would add only three wins in 1921, but it was enough for the team to win its first pennant.
1924: Calvin Coolidge (R)* vs. John W. Davis (D) vs. Robert LaFollette (Progressive)
Yankees: 89-63, 2nd -2.0
Issues for the Country: Warren Harding having died in office, the presidency had fallen to his taciturn Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge, the former governor of Massachusetts. Now voters had a chance to affirm his presidency. The Democratic Party tore itself to pieces in choosing their candidate, the relatively obscure Davis, but there was probably no point. The economy was cooking along and the world was relatively quiet, so there wasn't a lot for the Democrats to attack with; compounding this was the two parties being fairly close ideologically at this time. No one was pulling hard from the right or the left. That's why Robert LaFollette's breakaway (from the Democrats) third-party bid on the progressive ticket was doomed. When the major issues were child labor and German war reparations, there was just no reason to make a change -- or so people thought.
Issues for the Yankees: The Yankees were coming off their third straight pennant and first World Series championship, so for them too there was no reason to make a change-or so they thought.
Results for the Country: Silent Cal romped, taking the electoral college 382-136-13 (that last 13 representing Wisconsin, which went for native son LaFollette. The popular vote for Coolidge, Davis, and LaFollette was 15.7 million to 8.4 million to 4.8 million, respectively. The economy boiled over, the 20s got "roaring," and Coolidge didn't do much to tamp it down-when some economic mind would say, "Hey, Mr. President, seems like the economy is getting a bit overheated. We've got a lot of loose credit fueling a stock market bubble, you're cutting taxes so there's even more money out there... Maybe you ought to tell people to take it easy." Coolidge would say, "Okay, watch this: ‘My fellow American: Buy! Buy! BUY!'" and then gloat as the stock market went up another thousand points. On the foreign policy front, Coolidge's administration did negotiate and sign the Kellogg-Briand pact, which committed all signatories to renouncing war as a policy option. Soon after, and continuing down to the present day, this seemed like a tragic joke. The pact is still in effect.
Results for the Yankees: Well, they didn't win. The Yankees finished two games behind an upstart Washington Senators club run by "Boy Manager" Bucky Harris. Twenty-three years later, Harris would pay the Yankees back by managing them to the 1947 championship. There was really nothing wrong with the Yankees. Ruth had a great year, but the rest of the offense was lackluster. The pitching staff was strong. The Yankees were in first place as late as August 27, clinging to a half-game lead, but the Senators came to New York and took three out of four games, passing them for good.
1928: Herbert Hoover (R) vs. Al Smith (D)
Yankees: 101-53, 1st +2.5
Issues for the Country: As would be the case in 2000, no one thought much was at stake in the 1928 election. With incumbent Calvin Coolidge deciding not to run for a second term of his own, the race devolved into a referendum on New York governor Al Smith's Catholicism. Anti-Catholic sentiment was at an all-time high in the country, to the point that the Ku Klux Klan had become a national political force in part because they incorporated it into their extensive list of prejudices. Smith, who was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, had a strong New York accent and was, in the parlance of the time, a "Wet," in favor of the repeal of the prohibition on alcohol. This was one of the first campaigns to be heavily influenced by radio, and Smith's roots came through loud and clear. His religion, his birthplace, and his positions enabled opposition propagandists to portray him as a Pope-controlled alien from Sodom-on-the-Hudson. Even had they not, Smith would have been in trouble because the stock market bubble was still keeping the economy afloat and Hoover was a popular national figure, "The Great Engineer" who was credited with saving Europe from starvation in the aftermath of the World War and organizing relief for the victims of the great Mississippi flood of 1927. As Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge, Hoover acted like a Chief of Staff, interfering in every government function - often whether the president liked it or not. Since Hoover had not been strongly affiliated with either party before his rise to prominence, both courted him - Franklin Roosevelt was a particular fan - and he was almost a post-partisan figure even though he eventually chose the GOP. He didn't stay that way for long -- though the election seemed unimportant, trouble was coming in a big way.
Issues for the Yankees: Coming off of the amazing triumphs of 1927, they weren't worried about too much. They had one of the greatest teams of all time, one that didn't make a roster move all year, and could expect to continue winning pennants indefinitely.
Results for the Country: Hoover romped, taking the electoral college 444-87 and the popular vote 21 million to 15 million. It was pretty much all downhill from there, as the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression set in soon thereafter. A popular bit of doggerel about Hoover and his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon: "Mellon pulled the whistle. Hoover rang the bell. Wall Street gave the signal. And the country went to hell." It wasn't necessarily their fault, but they were ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. They tried a top-down approach that rescued railroads and banks while avoiding direct aid to individuals. "No one has starved," Hoover said, but starvation was a real issue for those that lost their jobs, their savings, their homes. Once, during the Depression, a teacher asked a young girl if she was sick. No, she said, just hungry. "Today is my sister's turn to eat." There is no knowing if Smith would have done anything differently. Chances are he would have been as lost as everyone else and as trapped in the ethos of self-reliance as Hoover was. It would fall to the man who gave Smith's nominating speech at the Democratic convention, Franklin Roosevelt, to haltingly untangle the problem.
Results for the Yankees: They didn't do too well in the short term either. Though they won their third straight pennant and second consecutive World Series in 1928, they were closely trailed by a rising Philadelphia A's team that would dominate the league for the next few seasons. Manager Miller Huggins felt the roster had gone all beer and fried chicken and needed to be rebuilt. We'll never know what he would have done because he died towards the end of the 1929 season. The Ruth-era Yankees would have one last hurrah in the next election year, but that was an exception for the 1929-1935 period. It would take a little while to find the right manager, Joe McCarthy, for that manager to take a firm hold of the club, and, though it seems counterintuitive, for Ruth to leave.