1921 Orioles: Harry Frank

 

Who the heck was Harry Frank?

That’s exactly what I wanted to know. I stumbled on his name over a decade ago when I first started taking a deep-dive into the record of the Baltimore Orioles from 1919-1925. I was marveling at the staggering records the Baltimore pitching staff racked up during those years: Grove had seasons of 25, 18, 27 and 26 wins, Rube Parnham won 28 then 33, Tommy Thomas won 32 in another, then of course there was Jack Bentley with his .412, Triple Crown season while also leading the league in pitching winning percentage! Those teams were just stocked with unbridled mound talent – and then I saw the name Harry Frank.

In 1919, his first season with Baltimore, Frank was 24-6, good enough to be the team’s second best after Rube Parnham who won 28 games that year. What makes it all the more impressive was that 1919 was not only Harry Frank’s first season with the Orioles, it was his first season in professional baseball! While the International League wasn’t the majors, it was the highest level of the minors at that time and all the other teams were stocked with both seasoned veterans and rising stars waiting for an opening spot on a major league roster. Winning more than 20 games in any league was pretty impressive, but to have a stellar record like that in his first season as a professional in the best minor league against first-class talent – well that deserved some further investigation.

To make sure it wasn’t a fluke, I looked up 1920. No sophomore jinx here, Frank was 25-12!

Who the heck was Harry Frank?

The first place I looked for Harry Frank was in Fred Lieb’s 1955 book “The Baltimore Orioles” where I found this: “…but a little Jewish chap, Harry Frank, playing his first season of pro-ball, was the marvel of the staff, winning 24 games out of 30.” And that was it. The other go-to book when it comes to the Orioles International League days, James Bready’s “Baseball In Baltimore: The First 100 Years” only mentioned that he was in fact a native Baltimorean. The sports information superhighway, baseball-reference, had his minor league record but absolutely no biographical info except the name “Harry G. Frank.”

So I set to work, determined to find out all I could about this mysterious Charm City ace.

Turns out Frank was a local boy, son of a Baltimore cop who made a name for himself pitching semi-pro ball for an insurance company when he went 8 straight games and allowing just 1 walk. Within in months he was wearing the pinstripes of his hometown Orioles.

To say Harry Frank must have been impressive that first summer would probably be an understatement. He quickly emerged as Baltimore’s number 2 starter, and the August 10, 1919 edition of The New York Times singled out Frank for his impressive 17 win and 4 loss record to date. Box scores began to make note of his sweeping curve ball that shot outwards with pin-point control that would help him win 24 games that year as Baltimore claimed the first of seven consecutive pennants.

Our boy Harry Frank finished up his second season in pro-ball with the aforementioned 25-12 record while also leading the league in appearances. Beside his regular place in the starting rotation, Frank established himself as the team’s premier relief specialist due to his control ability. Relief pitching was still in its prehistoric stages and no statistic was available for the save back then, but suffice it to say Frank probably would have led the league in that category a well.

At a time when most pitchers relegated to bullpen duty were has-beens or never-were’s, the Orioles relied on Frank’s coolness under pressure to get them out of jams, and he in turn elevated what was looked upon as a lowly assignment to one of pride. The Baltimore fans showed their appreciation to Frank and his pioneering role by presenting the hometown boy with a gold watch and chain bearing the inscription:

“Harry Frank: The King Of Relief Pitchers.”

A great example of Frank’s relief work came on September 23, 1920 when the New York Yankees came to town on an off day. Major League teams commonly made extra money by scheduling exhibition games with minor league teams, and the Yankees were no exception. Besides, Babe Ruth was a Baltimore boy and was sure to bring in a huge crowd. With the bases loaded in the 8th, Harry Frank was put into the game and struck out The Babe to preserve the Orioles 1-0 win over the Yankees.

The Birds won the pennant again in 1920 and met the St. Paul Saints, winners of the American Association pennant, in the Junior World Series. In a series marred by fan violence Baltimore swept the last 3 strait games to take the title.

As for Harry Frank, it seems he was a bit cocky coming off those two great seasons, as of course he should have been. That winter The Sporting News reported Baltimore’s young ace as a hold out. It seems the pitcher liked the fat $600 Junior World Series check he received in October, and wanted a pay raise to make sure he covered the spread in case the O’s didn’t repeat in ‘21. Owner Jack Dunn pushed all worries aside and made an addendum to Frank’s contract stipulating that he would personally cover a $600 bonus if the team failed to make the post season. The Sporting News reported that none of their scribes had ever heard of such an unorthodox contract bonus.

In 1921 Baltimore took the pennant by a staggering 20 games, but two years of leading the league in games pitched finally took its toll on Harry Frank’s arm. Plagued by injuries and a tired arm, he managed only 13 wins against 7 losses. Although he appeared in 36 games, it was mostly as a spot reliever. The Sporting News, reporting on the Orioles woes, mentioned that Frank didn’t have the same form after literally pitching his arm off in 1919 and 1920. With Ogden, Thomas and Groves holding down the pitching rotation, Dunn was able to ease up on the youngster and let him work out of the bullpen for an inning or two at a time.

In the first game of the Junior World Series against the Louisville Colonels, Frank relieved a battered Lefty Grove after he gave up 5 runs in the 3rd inning. Louisville manager Joe McCarthy, taking note of Frank’s full wind-up despite men on base, ordered a steal of home, showing up the pitcher on the way to an embarrassing 16-1 win. The Colonels went on to upset the heavily favored Orioles and take the 1921 title. Some whispered that a few of Baltimore’s star players, unhappy at Dunn for keeping them from advancing to a Major League club, simply dogged the series.

What ever the reasons for the disappointing loss, the Orioles arrived in Winston-Salem, South Carolina for spring training determined to put it behind them. The New York Times specifically mentioned that “pitcher Harry Frank had signed his contract for next season.”

Frank and the Orioles roared back to life in 1922. His light use the previous season and his recent marriage to literally the girl next door, Ida, reinvigorated the pitcher. By the end of June, Harry Frank regained his form and was leading the league in wins. Ending the season boasting a nice 22-9 record, he appeared in 45 games to lead the league once more. Beating out Rochester again for the pennant, the Orioles faced off with St. Paul in the Junior World Series and won, 5 games to 2.

A close look at the box scores reveals something amiss: despite being the Orioles control specialist and ace fireman, Harry Frank made no appearance in the series. Sometime during the summer he had severely injured his back sliding into a base. These were the days before hot tubs and sports medicine and whatever treatment Frank received failed to work. His dominance on the mound was at its end.

1923 found Frank working almost entirely out of the bullpen. He scattered 179 innings of work over 49 appearances and while his record was a respectable 9-2, his ERA ballooned to 4.68. By the end of the season it was evident that the back injury had ruined any chance Harry Frank had of making it to the major leagues.

After pitching in 8 games for the Orioles in 1924 he was traded to the Jersey City Skeeters. The Skeeters were the International League’s cellar dwellers and Frank ended the season with a losing record for the first time in his career. At the end of the summer Frank hung up his spikes for good. After six years at the top level of the minor leagues, Frank could look back on a record of 99 wins against 48 losses. He was a dependable cog in one of the greatest dynasties in minor league history and had helped pioneered the specialized role of relief pitcher.

Frank returned to Baltimore where he and Ida had a son, Frank, Jr. He tried to stay in the game by umpiring in the class D Blue Ridge League in 1928 but 2 years later began working as a race track auditor, first in Maryland, then Florida and finally New York. The old back injury never healed and for the rest of his life the old pitcher walked bent over from the waist at a 25 degree angle. Late in his life when he needed chest surgery doctors couldn’t proceed because Frank could not lay flat on his back.

Not long before he passed away in 1965, the old pitcher and his wife were visiting Baltimore and the couple stopped into his favorite clothing store. After placing an order for a tweed suit, the young clerk looked at the name on the order form and exclaimed “you are not THE Harry Frank from the old Baltimore Orioles, are you?” Old Harry responded with a sheepish smile and said “yes.” After Frank and his wife left the store Ida realized she’d forgotten something on the counter and returned to overhear the clerk excitedly telling his co-worker all about the old ballplayer who just came in. He knew who Harry Frank was.

And now, you do, too.

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This is one of my favorite stories since I started my website in 2010. Part of it has to do with that it reminded me of being a young art student in Baltimore, with my whole life ahead of me, and how eager I was to learn the history of that unique city. The 1919-1925 Orioles always held a special place for me, and when I began seriously writing and illustrating old ballplayers, Harry Frank was the first subject that I went full-researcher on, compiling a thick stack of contemporary newspaper features and game summaries. It was rewarding to piece together a ballplayer that had fallen through the cracks, dicovering that he was actually a pioneer of relief pitching. But, the best part of my first Harry Frank story was that one of his nephews wrote and shared several really poignant memories of the old ballplayer with me. These personal insights enabled me to craft a story that went beyond a standard biography of statistics and helped bring Harry Frank the man and ballplayer alive again. It is my original Harry Frank story upon which I based not only the style of my subsequent writing, but also the way I conduct my research. Just like without Harry there would not have been the first four Orioles pennants, I can say without him there would not have been The Infinite Baseball Card Set, no Tony Salin Award from the Baseball Reliquary, nor my book, The League of Outsider Baseball. I hope you enjoyed learning about Harry. There ain’t many people who know who he was – that is, except you and I.

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On Monday we’ll start to wrap this series up with the Birds’ talented corps of utility and relief men. Although Baltimore on 119 games, they did so while suffering injuries to many of the key starters. Without their deep bench, the Orioles pennant streak could have been stopped at just two.

You can see the whole 20-card index of players HERE.

The set of 20 art cards are available for pre-order HERE IN MY STORE

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