The 1920 season was an extremely significant one in baseball that greatly impacted the national pastime for years to come. Taking note of the excitement Babe Ruth generated the previous year when he established a new major league record by hitting 29 home runs, the baseball hierarchy implemented two rule changes it hoped would increase offensive production throughout the sport. Firstly, the powers that be outlawed trick pitches such as the shine ball, the emery ball, and, most notably, the spitball. That this had an enormous effect on major league pitching can be seen from the subsequent careers of 17 spitball pitchers, who were allowed, under a "grandfather clause," to continue throwing the pitch legally. While ERAs in both leagues shot up in 1920, the composite ERA of the 17 spitballers remained virtually unchanged.
The second change involved the new practice of keeping clean baseballs in play throughout games. This made for a more-lively ball that traveled much farther in the air, thereby dramatically increasing home-run totals. Baseball's justification for the change was the fatal beaning of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman by Yankee pitcher Carl Mays, which many blamed on Chapman's inability to see a worn, discolored ball as it sped toward his skull.
Besides the passing of the Dead-ball Era, 1920 also witnessed the establishment of the sole baseball commissionership under Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. This replaced the old three-man commission, which had been dominated by American League president Ban Johnson since its inception in 1903. Landis made one of his first official acts the banishment for life of the eight members of the "Black Sox," whose trial for fraud had resulted in a somewhat dubious acquittal that was rumored to have been engineered by powerful White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.
Additionally, Rube Foster, who is often referred to as the “Father of Black Baseball,” created the Negro National League, which served as the first organized black professional league. A superb pitcher during the early years of the 20th century, Foster subsequently functioned primarily as league administrator and manager of the Chicago American Giants, victors of the first three NNL pennants.
In the end, though, the 1920 season was all about Babe Ruth. Sold by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees during the offseason, Ruth became a one-man wrecking crew, posting slugging numbers previously considered unapproachable. In his first season in New York, Ruth batted .376 and established a new major league record by hitting an astounding 54 home runs. He also led the league with 137 runs batted in, 158 runs scored, a .530 on-base percentage, and an amazing .847 slugging percentage. Ruth’s 54 homers not only surpassed his own record of 29 but, also, the totals compiled by each of the other seven American League teams. Finishing second to Ruth in that category was George Sisler, who hit 19 four baggers for St. Louis. Meanwhile, Ruth’s .847 slugging percentage remained the highest mark recorded in either league until 2001.
Despite Ruth’s efforts, New York finished third in the American League, three games behind the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians, who posted a regular-season record of 98-56. An extremely well-balanced ball club, the Indians topped the junior circuit with 856 runs scored, while also placing a close second in runs allowed, with 642. Tris Speaker paced Cleveland’s offense, knocking in 107 runs, leading the league with 50 doubles, and placing among the leaders with a .388 batting average, 137 runs scored, 214 hits, 310 total bases, a .483 on-base percentage, and a .562 slugging percentage. Meanwhile, Jim Bagby anchored Cleveland’s pitching staff, compiling a 2.89 ERA and leading all A.L. hurlers with 31 wins, 339 innings pitched, and 30 complete games.
The Indians subsequently met National League champion Brooklyn in the World Series, capturing their first world championship by defeating the team still referred to as the “Robins,” five games to two. Series highlights for Cleveland included Elmer Smith’s grand slam, pitcher Bagby’s home run, and infielder Bill Wambsganss’ unassisted triple play.
The defending A.L. champion Chicago White Sox proved to be Cleveland’s stiffest competition over the course of the regular season, finishing second in the league, just two games behind the Indians. But Chicago’s hopes were dashed when, late in the year, the team suspended the eight players suspected of throwing the 1919 World Series.
Other notable events from around the league and players who distinguished themselves over the course of the season included:
• In his final big league season, Shoeless Joe Jackson led the league with 20 triples and placed among the leaders with 121 runs batted in, 105 runs scored, a .382 batting average, 218 hits, a .444 on-base percentage, and a .589 slugging percentage.
• In addition to leading the league with a .407 batting average, 257 hits, and 399 total bases, George Sisler finished second in the circuit with 19 home runs, 122 runs batted in, 137 runs scored, 18 triples, 49 doubles, 42 stolen bases, and a .632 slugging percentage.
• May 1 – Babe Ruth hit his first home run as a Yankee.
• May 14 – Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators recorded his 300th win.
• July 1 - Six weeks after posting his 300th victory, Walter Johnson hurled the only no-hitter of his career, defeating the Boston Red Sox by a score of 1-0.
• August 16 - Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitch from the New York Yankees' Carl Mays in a game at the Polo Grounds. Chapman never regained consciousness, dying 12 hours later from a fractured skull. His passing marked the only fatality in major league baseball history, leading to the banning of the spitball.
• October 22 - Eight members of the Chicago White Sox were indicted for supposedly throwing the 1919 World Series. Although a Chicago jury subsequently found them innocent, Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis later permanently banned all eight players from organized baseball.
• Stan Coveleski established himself as the pitching star of the 1920 World Series, posting three of Cleveland’s five victories.
• Tris Speaker set a new major league record by hitting safely in 11 consecutive trips to the plate.
- 1920 World Series, American League, Babe Ruth, Ban Johnson, Bill Wambsganss, Carl Mays, Charlie Comiskey, Cleveland Indians, Elmer Smith, George Sisler, Jim Bagby, Joe Jackson, Kenesaw Landis, Ray Chapman, Rube Foster, Stan Coveleski, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson