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The Yankees in Presidential Election Years Part I: A Non-Partisan Guide to the Teams and Elections.
With the first presidential debate scheduled for Wednesday, the baseball season and election season are heading for a a roughly coterminous ending. The Yankees have had some good results during the quadrennial elections, but also some of the worst in team history. Commencing a multi-part, non-partisan guide to the Yankees in years of choice:
1904: Theodore Roosevelt (R)* vs. Alton B. Parker (D)
Yankees: 92-59 (.609), second place -1.5
Issues For the Country: Bimetallism, construction of the Panama Canal, Theodore Roosevelt's supposedly autocratic behavior.
Issues For the Yankees: First, they weren't the Yankees yet; they were still the Highlanders, a name that was assigned to them for reasons so obscure that even today most histories have at least two explanations. It must have been difficult for players to concentrate on the game when they were constantly in a state of confusion as to their identities. "Highlanders? We are? Why?" they would think as the third strike snuck across the plate. Accordingly, these proto-Yankees were a bit short on offense, particularly at catcher, where the starter, the ageless Deacon McGuire, was in the 40th year of his life and 20th year of his career (as a player-coach, he would be active, on and off, until he was 48). The pitching staff was light after starters Jack Chesbro and Jack Powell, but you only needed a handful of pitchers in those days.
Result for the Country: The Democrats didn't really have a platform or a candidate they could coalesce around, so TR romped to a 336-140 electoral college win, taking the popular vote 56.4 percent to 37.6. Roosevelt would have dearly loved to be a wartime president, but alas, the opportunity did not present itself. As such, he had to content himself with vastly expanding the National Parks system, sending the Great White Fleet around the world to show folks that if there were a war the U.S. would have the most glare-inducing battleships around, and mediating the resolution to the Russo-Japanese War in a way that earned him Nobel Peace Prize but contributed to resentments on Japan's part that would eventually help cause the Pacific portion of World War II. So, you know, it was a mixed bag.
Result for the Yankees: It was all good until 41-game winner Chesbro threw a pennant-losing wild pitch against the Red Sox in a head-to-head series at season's end. The big win total put Happy Jack in the Hall of Fame, but at the time he was regarded as the Goat of the Year.
1908: William Howard Taft (R) vs. William Jennings Bryan (D)
Yankees: 51-103 (.331), eighth place -39.5
Issues For the Country: In a rare show of unanimity, the major parties agreed that the next president should be morbidly obese. The Democrats put up two-time loser Bryan, while the main appeal of Taft to Republicans was that he was Roosevelt's hand-picked successor. The South loved Bryan, as did those who were for inflation, but it should have been clear that he was not going to convert the unconverted after 12 years of trying. The general issues of the election were basically progressivism vs. the status quo, or corporations vs. the common man, which in practice actually meant choosing which president would have the more convincing ratio of posturing ‘n' rhetoric to action where big business was concerned. The two parties were so close in this regard that the choice boiled down to fat-guy-with-mustache or fat-guy-without-mustache.
Issues For the Yankees: Pitching. They didn't have any. At all. The manager, Clark Griffith, couldn't coexist with ownership and quit after 56 games, putting a capper on a season in which the team got off to a good start but collapsed as spring turned to summer.
Result for the Country: Pretty much the same result as most every presidential election since the Civil War. Taft, who didn't particularly want to be president, took the electoral college 321-162 and the popular vote 51.6 percent to 43. Taft's administration was politically inept; it alienated both the Republican Party's right and left wing through different policies, with consequences for the two parties' alignments that resonate down to the present day.
Result for the Yankees: One of only two 100-loss seasons in team history. The Yankees went heavily into the minors in the offseason, purchasing future standout pitchers Russ Ford and Jack Quinn. They would finish second in 1910, but consistency was years and an ownership change away.
1912: William Howard Taft (R)* vs. Woodrow Wilson (D) vs. Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive)
Yankees: 50-102 (.329), eighth place -55.0
Issues for the Country: If you think I can sum up the presidential politics of 1912 in even a long paragraph, you're nuts; dozens of books have been written on this election. Basically, Roosevelt and his anointed successor Taft had had a falling out, so the former tried to take the Republican nomination. He probably did take it, but party bosses loyal to Taft made sure the convention went to the incumbent. Roosevelt and the liberal wing of the Republican Party (yes, that sounds odd) bolted and formed the Progressive "Bull Moose" party. To simplify things even further, Roosevelt advocated a robust federal government, New Jersey governor Wilson campaigned for a less active federal government, and Taft didn't campaign on anything, knowing he would lose.
Issues for the Yankees: Well, they had three players who later were banned from baseball for nefarious activities, which must be the non-Black Sox record. That sounds like trivia, but it's key, as 1912 was the result of a bizarre sequence in 1910 and 1911 when manager George Stallings, one of the best of his day, quit in part because he knew his star first baseman, Hal Chase, was throwing games. Ownership responded by making Chase the manager. The team declined by 12 games as what progress Stallings had made in building up the club was undone-the clubhouse knew Chase wasn't playing on the level, so why make a full effort? By the time the owners woke up and replaced Chase, it was too late to save the 1912 season.
Result for the Country: Taft and Roosevelt split the popular vote that would have gone to a single Republican candidate, handing the election to Wilson. The Republican left wing never did find its way back into the GOP tent and eventually becoming part of the New Deal coalition, where it became the right wing of the Democratic Party -- at least for awhile. In his first term, Wilson gave the country the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, and institutionalized racism in the federal government. He also firmly resisted getting involved in or even preparing for World War I despite the Lusitania sinking and other provocations, among them continual fulminations from Roosevelt, who spent much of his time trolling the president in any forum he could find -- books, newspaper columns, speeches, popular banjo songs, and any wedding to which he could wrangle an invitation.
Results for the Yankees: Three more seasons of losing amidst increasing liberties taken by Chase, who was finally dealt out of town by manager Frank Chance in 1913 in a clear my-problem-for-your-trash dump meant to rid the club of a malevolent personality. The owners tried to physically assault Chance when they found out their main gate attraction was gone, but that was just about their last, impotent gasp. Broke, bewildered, they would possess the club for just one more year.
1916: Charles Evans Hughes (R) vs. Woodrow Wilson (D)*
Yankees: 80-74, 4th -27.0
Issues for the Country: In a nutshell, World War I. Wilson ran on the slogan, "He kept us out of war." Hughes, who stepped down from the Supreme Court to run, did not counter with, "He'll get us into the war like now!" in fact, he went pretty far in the opposite direction, traveling about the country saying things like, "I beg your pardon?" and "Look! A rare yellow-bellied kingfisher!" when anyone even tried to raise the subject. His "Watch me crush labor with an iron fist!" come-on also didn't find many takers among, well, labor. He attempted to compensate by offering the public the most lush array of facial hair by a presidential candidate since Benjamin Harrison. Hughes could not have played for George Steinbrenner.
Issues for the Yankees: Under second-year owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston, the Yankees had more quality players than ever, including Wally Pipp, Roger Peckinpaugh, Home Run Baker, and Bob Shawkey, but the team was beset by injuries and was still at least a bat and an arm short.
Result for the Country: With the Republican Party offering just one candidate this time around, they got their voters back and made a close race of it. Wilson won the electoral college 277-254 and took the popular vote 49.2 percent to 46.1. Shortly thereafter, he took us into the war after all, in part so he could get a seat at the postwar negotiating table. Later, he had a severe stroke or two and his wife was secretly president for awhile, but that's another story.
Result for the Yankees: They were in a holding pattern, at least at a momentary loss as to what to do, but they were slowly acquiring that pieces that would coalesce with the addition of Babe Ruth in the 1920s. That's only visible with hindsight, of course, and at the time it must have seemed like they were still drifting.