1921 Orioles: Merwin Jacobson
Between two stints in the big leagues, center fielder Merwin “Jake” Jacobson batted third the Birds’ lineup, his big bat being used to advance speedsters Fritz Maisel and Rabbit Lawry who batted before him.
A native of New Britain, Connecticut, “Jake” reached the majors after only two summers in the low minors. He played the outfield for John McGraw’s Giants in 1916, then was traded to the Cubs in 1917. Trouble at the plate got him sent down to the International League, and that’s where Jack Dunn watched him play and knew he had to have him for his O’s.
Jake hit .351 his first season in Baltimore, helping the Birds win their first of seven consecutive pennants. He followed that up with .404 in 1920, becoming the first International League player in the 20th century to bat over the .400 mark. In 1921 Jake hit .340 and increased his home run output to 12, 9th best in the league. Jacobson’s high averages made him a threat at the plate and he was subject to several horrifying beanings by angry opposing pitchers. He would miss a long stretch at the end of the 1921 season due to this, adding to the woes of the injury-plagued Orioles.
His averaged dipped to .304 the next year and .328 in 1923, but he remained the team’s best defensive outfielder. He was speedy and daring, ranging far past the limits of the average center fielder. The press often wrote that if one would remove Joe Boley from shortstop and Jacobson from center field, the team would collapse without them.
Jacobson punctuated his career with occasional bursts of Ruthian power. In 1923 for instance, Jake hit three-run homers on consecutive days against Toronto, and once hit two grand slam home runs in the same game. Many asked why Jacobson was not back in the majors – surely he had the batting and defensive skills. The answer was that Jack Dunn paid and treated his players just as if the were playing in the majors, sometimes even more so. As one of the team’s most valued assets, Dunn made sure Jacobson was well compensated, earning just a bit less than the O’s top earner, Joe Boley. Another reason why Jacobson (and many other players from those great 1919-1925 teams) remained in the minors longer than usual was that Dunn refused to part with them unless his price was met. The ghost of Babe Ruth’s 1914 sale continued to haunt the Orioles owner until the day he died.
In 1924 Jacobson hit .308 with a career-high 18 home runs, but Jack Dunn believed the center fielder’s best years were behind him and traded the 30 year-old to the Jersey City Skeeters. Far from washed up. Jake hit .316 as a Skeeter, earning him a second chance in the majors. He hit .247 as Brooklyn’s fourth outfielder in 1926, but was sent back to the International League after going hitless in 11 games in 1927. Jake played six more seasons in the International League before retiring in 1933. He later returned to Baltimore and became a city official.
Artist’s Note: When I began researching photographs of Merwin Jacobson 10 years ago, I found a batting shot of him in this leg raised “whimsical” pose. I thought it was a one-off, but the more contemporary press photos and newspaper shots I found of Jake, the more I realized that this was indeed how he wound up one of his swings. Obviously, I just had to depict him following through one of his unique swings, creating one of my favorite illustrations so far.
On Wednesday we’ll check out the right fielder and cleanup hitter Bill Holden.
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