By Glen Sparks
Jackie Robinson retired rather than play for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ arch-rival, the New York Giants.
That’s the myth, anyway. The reality is a little different.
Yes, the Dodgers traded Robinson, the first African-American player in modern baseball history, to the Giants on Dec. 12, 1956. (Exact dates differ.) Brooklyn General Manager Buzzie Bavasi engineered the deal. He got left-handed relief pitcher Dick Littlefield and $35,000 in return from the Giants.
Reporters pounced on the story. Few athletes enjoyed the popularity of Robinson. He played 10 seasons in Brooklyn following a distinguished career in the Negro leagues and at UCLA (baseball, football, basketball and tennis).
No. 42 hit .311 as a Dodger with a .409 on-base percentage. He won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and the league MVP in 1949. Robinson played on six pennant-winning teams and the world championship squad in 1955.
Bavasi’s trade news upset Robinson, according to the 1997 biography Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad. He put up a good front, though, and told Horace Stoneham, president of the Giants, that he looked forward to joining the Giants in upper Manhattan.
Robinson remarked to one reporter, according to the Rampersad book, “I’m going to do everything I can to beat them (the Dodgers) next year.”
Robinson, in truth, already had decided to retire. He had played just in 117 games in ’56 due to injuries. He still hit a respectable .275 (.382 on-base percentage); his body, though, felt much older than his 37 years.
William H. Black, the president of Chock Full o’ Nuts, offered Robinson a job. Would you be interested in working for my company as director of personnel, Black asked. Robinson mulled it over, took a tour of Chock Full o’ Nuts in New York City, met with Black a few more times and decided, yes, he’d take the job. (Chock Full is still around. It’s actually a coffee company. Black originally founded a series of shelled nut shops. Later, he began offering coffee.)
Look magazine held the exclusive rights to the Robinson retirement story. Its next issue wouldn’t be coming out until Jan. 8, 1957. That left lots of lead time for double-talk. Not surprisingly, word of the trade leaked out. Robinson wrote a letter on Jan. 14 to Stoneham (who was to pay his new ballplayer $35,000):
“I am going to devote my full time to the business opportunities that have been presented. … I assure you that my retirement has nothing to do with my trade to your organization.”
Robinson stayed at Chock Full o’ Nuts for just more than seven years. He officially resigned from the company on Feb. 28, 1964, to work as a deputy national director for Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign.
By Glen Sparks
Fred Snodgrass died a successful businessman on April 5, 1974, in Ventura, Calif. The New York Times really let him have it in the obit: “Fred Snodgrass, 86, dead. Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.”
Snodgrass, born on Oct. 19, 1887, played nine years in the big leagues, mostly with the New York Giants. He hit .275 over his career, with a .367 on-base percentage. Fleet afoot, Snodgrass stole 212 bases. He played in three World Series.
The center-fielder is most remembered for one play, the aforementioned “muffed” one. It all went down in the final game of the 1912 Series against the Boston Red Sox. Snodgrass, not yet 25 years old, was in his third full season in the big leagues.
Giants manager John McGraw discovered Snodgrass in the spring of 1907. McGraw’s ballclub had set up spring training in Los Angeles. Snodgrass was playing for St. Vincent’s College, the school now known as Loyola Marymount University.
Impressed with the young ballplayer’s talent and spunk, McGraw signed Snodgrass to a contract. At first a catcher, Snodgrass later settled in as an outfielder, in large part because of his blazing speed. Snodgrass played in six games for the Giants in 1908 and 28 games in ’09.
The right-handed hitter earned a regular job in 1910 and batted what would be a career high, .321. He followed that up by hitting .294 in 1911. His average went down again, to .269, in 1912. He still stole 43 bases, giving him 127 in his first three full seasons.
The 1912 Giants won their second straight National League pennant. They finished 103-48, 10 games in front of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates. They had compiled a 99-54 record in 1911 and lost the World Series in six games to the Philadelphia A’s.
These were the Giant teams of Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard, of Chief Meyers and Larry Doyle. McGraw, the great taciturn man from nearby Truxton, N.Y., known by many as “Little Napoleon,” led this group.
New York and Boston were tied 3-3-1 after seven games in 1912 World Series. (The umpires called Game 2 on account of darkness with the score tied 6-6 after 11 innings.) Fenway Park was half full for the deciding match-up. New York scored a run in the third inning, and Boston plated one in the seventh. The game was tied 1-1 after nine.
Red Murray doubled for New York in the top of the 10th. Fred Merkle (yes, that Fred Merkle) singled him home. The Giants were now up 2-1.
Clyde Engle led off the bottom of the 10th for Boston with a fairly routine fly ball to center field. Snodgrass camped underneath the ball, stood ready to catch it and … watched as it dribbled off his glove and to the ground. The Red Sox now had a runner on first.
Snodgrass made an excellent running catch on the next play, a line shot from Harry Hooper. Engle, though, tagged and sprinted to second base. Mathewson then walked Steve Yerkes.
The great Tris Speaker, batting next, lifted a pop up. Several Giants players converged onto the scene, but no one caught the ball as it bounced in foul territory. Speaker, given another chance, hit a single to score Engle and advance Yerkes to third. Mathewson waked Duffy Lewis to load the bases.
Larry Gardner ended the game and the Series with a one-out sacrifice fly to bring home Yerkes.
Afterward, Snodgrass said, “It (the ball) just dropped out of the glove.” Some baseball people began calling Snodgrass’s error, “the $30,000 muff,” in reference to the approximate difference between the total winning and losing teams in the Series.
McGraw, though, didn’t blame Snodgrass for the Series loss. In fact, he supposedly gave his maligned player a $1,000 raise in 1913. Snodgrass hit .291 in ’13, and the Giants went to the World Series for the third straight season. Once again, they lost, to the A’s for the second time in three years.
Snodgrass played for McGraw and New York until being traded mid-way through the 1915 campaign. He retired after the 1916 season.
Returning to California, the former player began a second career as a banker. He also served for a time as mayor of Oxnard, Calif. Later, he grew lemons and walnuts on his ranch in Ventura.
Snodgrass was one of the players profiled by Lawrence S. Ritter in his wonderful book, The Glory of Their Times. In it, Snodgrass mentions that even 50 years after “the play,” he’d be introduced as the guy who dropped an easy fly ball in the World Series. The cutting comments didn’t bother him. “If I had a chance, I’d gladly do it all over again,” he said, “every bit of it.”
By Glen Sparks
King Gustav of Sweden stood before the great Jim Thorpe following the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and said what everyone else was thinking. “You, sir,” his majesty declared, “are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe, born on May 28, 1887, in the Oklahoma territory, the son of a blacksmith and the grandson of a Chippewa warrior, had just won gold medals in the decathlon and the pentathlon. He finished first in eight of the 15 individual events.
Thorpe to Sweden’s monarch: “Thanks, king.”
A ticket-tape parade down Broadway in New York City followed Thorpe’s triumphal return to the United States. Martin Sheridan, a great Irish-American track star and five-time Olympic gold medalist, declared Thorpe “the greatest athlete who ever lived.”
Sports fans had found a new hero. But, nothing lasts forever. In January of 1913, a story in the Worcester Telegram spoiled the good cheer. Thorpe, the newspaper reported, had played in some professional baseball games in 1909 and 1910. Indeed, he had.
On this date in 1909, Thorpe made his pro debut, taking the mound for Rocky Mount, N.C., of the Eastern Carolina League. A pitcher, Thorpe beat Raleigh 4-2. He violated his amateur status—an Olympic requirement–with that first toss.
Officials from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) went nuts. They reported The World’s Greatest Athlete to the International Olympic Committee, which ordered Thorpe to give back his medals. Thorpe pleaded his case.
He had only made chump change playing ball, he said, as little as two bucks a game ($51 in 2015 money). He didn’t know any better, he insisted. “I was not very wise in the ways of the world,” Thorpe confessed. It didn’t matter. Thorpe, in the eyes of the IOC, would now be an ex-medal winner. And, that wasn’t all bad. Pro teams began calling.
Football called first. Thorpe had played college ball at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa., established by the U.S. Army in 1880. He began going to the school at age 16, in 1904.
The young man made quite an impression. He not only competed in baseball, football, track and lacrosse, he also won the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship. On the gridiron, Carlisle Coach Pop Warner—yes, that Pop Warner—started Thorpe at defensive back, running back, placekicker and punter.
In 1911, Thorpe led Carlisle football to an 11-1 record. He scored every Carlisle point in an 18-15 win against a stacked Harvard squad.
The following year, Carlisle won the national championship. It even beat a powerful Army team 27-6 thanks in part to a 97-yard touchdown run by Thorpe (just after his 96-yard scoring run had been called back). That season, Thorpe ran for 25 TDs and scored 198 points.
By 1913, the Pine Valley Pros of Indiana were calling. Thorpe played football for two seasons with that club before moving on to the Canton Bulldogs of the Ohio League. Thorpe led the Bulldogs to three titles (1916, 1917 and 1919). He later played in the NFL, from the league’s inaugural year of 1920 through the 1928 campaign.
Baseball was a bit trickier. Thorpe’s big-league career lasted from 1913-1919, mostly for the New York Giants. His old pitching days behind him, Thorpe settled in as an outfielder, usually in reserve. The World’s Greatest Athlete couldn’t hit a curveball. Thorpe batted just .252 in 289 games and hit only seven home runs.
Thorpe spent most of the last few decades of his life in southern California, working at times as a ditch digger for WPA projects and as an extra in the movies. During the closing days of World War II, he served on an ammunition ship with the Merchant Marines. He died March 28, 1953, in Lomita, Calif., south of Los Angeles, at age 65. His death certificate listed him as “athlete.”
In 1983, following a long campaign led by Thorpe’s daughter Grace, the IOC reversed its 1912 decision and re-issued the two gold medals won by “the greatest athlete in the world.”
By Glen Sparks
The Fighting 42nd marched into northeastern France in March of 1918. U.S. soldiers from the Rainbow Division settled into those terrible trenches. Hank Gowdy was among the doughboys.
Gowdy, born Aug. 24, 1889, in Columbus, Ohio, signed up to serve in the Ohio National Guard on this date in 1917, the first Major Leaguer to do so. A catcher and first baseman with the Boston Braves, Gowdy already was in his eighth season and had been one of the heroes of the 1914 World Series against the Philadelphia A’s.
The right-handed batter went 6-11 in the Series as Boston swept Philly. He hit three doubles, a triple and a home run. He also drove in three runs and just missed hitting for the cycle in Game 1. (Gowdy hit his home run in Game 3. No one has ever hit for the cycle in a World Series game.)
Gowdy came up with the Giants in late 1910 as a 20-year-old and recorded three hits in 14 at-bats. Early in the 1911 season, the Giants traded him, along with Al Bridwell, to the Braves for Buck Herzog. Over the next few years, Gowdy split time between the minors and the big leagues, trying to improve his hitting as well as his catching skills.
In that pennant-winning season of 1914, Gowdy finally saw significant time with the big club. He only hit .243, but he got into 128 games for a Boston team that finished 94-59, 10 ½ games over the second-place Giants.
Following his big World Series, Gowdy settled in with the Braves as the team’s starting catcher for the next few years. He batted .247 in 1915 and .252 in 1916.
The Great War had broken out in the summer of 1914, shortly after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28. By the end of summer, just about every country in Europe had taken up arms. Later, the war spilled into Asia and Africa. Much of the world turned into a bloody mess.
The United States stood on the sidelines even after a German U-boat blasted a torpedo into the RMS Lusitania, a British liner, on May 7, 1915. The explosion killed nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. German U-boats continued to sink U.S. merchant ships, and Congress declared war on April 6, 1917.
Enemy cannon hit Gowdy and the Rainbow Division hard. Artillery shells pounded the soldiers. Inside the trenches, war was horrific. Besides enemy fire, the men battled dysentery, trench foot and other diseases. The Rainbow Division suffered thousands of casualties.
An article in baseball-almanec.com reports on Gowdy the ballplayer as well as the soldier. Col. B.W. Hough, commander of the 166th, said, “Every outfit ought to have somebody like Hank. The boys idolize him and he gets them all stirred up with his baseball stories. He helps ‘em forget about the terror of war.”
Gowdy missed much of the 1917 season and the entire 1918 campaign due to the war. He arrived back in the United States as a hero and went back to baseball. For the next few years, he continued to catch for the Braves, batting .317 in 1922.
The Giants re-acquired Gowdy in 1923. New York Manager John McGraw used his veteran player wisely as a part-timer. Gowdy hit 328 in ’23 (122 at-bats), .325 in 1924 (191 at-bats) and .325 in 1925 (114 at-bats).
Despite those high batting averages, the Giants released Gowdy, who promptly reported to the minors. Gowdy finally made it back to the big leagues as a player-coach for the Braves in 1929. He batted .438 (7-16). In 1930, as a 40-year-old, he went 5 for 25 (.200) and called it quits as a player, a .270 career hitter. Gowdy later coached for the Giants and the Cincinnati Reds.
The old soldier didn’t leave his Army days behind in the trenches of World War I, either. When the United States entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, Hank Gowdy declared himself fit for duty. The Army commissioned him as Maj. Gowdy. The former ballplayer served faithfully as chief athletic officer at Ft. Benning, Ga. Even today, soldiers can play baseball on Hank Gowdy Field at Ft. Benning.
(Gowdy died Aug. 1, 1966, age 76, in Ohio.)
By Glen Sparks
Look fast enough and you’ll notice an elephant figure stitched onto the left sleeve of the Oakland A’s uniform.
New York Giants Manager John McGraw set this design idea in motion more than a century ago. Philadelphia A’s skipper Connie Mack smiled and said “thank you very much”—or something like that.
The A’s elephant story goes back to 1901 and to the team’s first days in Philadelphia. McGraw wanted Baseball to stop skipper Mack and team owner Benjamin Shibe from buying up ballplayers fleeing the National League. The great hitter Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, for instance, jumped from the Philadelphia Phillies to the brand-new A’s following the 1900 campaign.
Those A’s, McGraw said, they’re a bunch of “white elephants.” Or, as some sources say, McGraw told Mack that the A’s had “a white elephant on their hands.” A white elephant being, in this sense, something that costs more than it’s worth and is difficult to maintain. (The term originated long ago in Thailand, then called Siam. Kings there gave sacred white elephants to royalty in nearby countries. They were nice presents, but a bit impractical, elephants being so large and possessing enormous appetites.)
The A’s quickly adopted the white elephant figure as a mascot. In fact, before the start of the 1905 World Series between the A’s and Giants, Mack gave McGraw his very own stuffed elephant. McGraw, in the spirit of the occasion, accepted the gift.
In 1909, the A’s began wearing an elephant logo on their pre-game sweaters. Nine years later, the elephant made it onto the A’s actual game uniforms. Retired as a mascot in 1963, the pachyderm reappeared in 1988. Known in the mid-1980s as Harry Elephante (Get it?), the mascot now performs under the name of Stomper. And, yes, he works for peanuts.
(Doing research on the elephant and the A’s prompted me to look into the story behind the elephant mascot tradition at the University of Alabama. Here is the short-form version on that one: During at least one game in 1930, the Crimson Tide started their second team. At the beginning of the second quarter, Alabama Coach Wallace Wade ordered his first-team onto the field. Journalist Everett Strupper wrote that he could hear the rumble as the players bounded to their positions. A fan yelled, “Hold your horses, the elephants are coming.” Struper and others began referring to the team as “the Red Elephants.” The reference stuck. You often see elephants on Alabama gear. The name of the mascot is Big Al.)
By Glen Sparks
Pitcher Johnny Allen featured a fastball, a curveball and a temper. New York Yankees trainer Earle “Doc” Painter once said, “He expects to win every time he pitches, and if he doesn’t win, he may turn on anybody.”
Fortunately, Allen did a lot of winning, especially early in his 13-year career. He put up some snazzy won-loss marks. In his rookie season of 1932, the right-hander went 17-4 (.810 winning percentage) for the Yanks. The following year, he finished 15-7 (.682).
Allen put together a 20-10 season (.667) for the Cleveland Indians in 1936 and a 15-1 campaign (.938) in 1937 for the Tribe. Through his first seven seasons, he was 99-38. The native of Thomasville, N.C., retired with a 142-75 (.654) career mark.
Now, the hurler did get some help. His New York teammates included the original bash brothers, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Allen didn’t worry about losing 1-0 or 2-1. He could give up some runs and still win.
In fact, after recording a solid ERA of 3.70 in his rookie campaign (ERA+ 110), he posted a tepid 4.39 number in his sophomore year (ERA+ 89). Of course, Allen fans can point out that the pitcher finished with a 3.44 ERA in ’36 (149 ERA+, second in the American League) and a 2.55 ERA in 37 (176 ERA+, third in the A.L.). So, yes, Johnny Allen could pitch.
He could also throw a fit. Allen’s “sour attitude” led the Yanks to trade him following the 1935 season despite going 50-19 in four seasons with the Bronx Bombers. He didn’t work and play with others.
Allen was at his most stubborn on June 7, 1938, pitching against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. Boston’s Jimmie Foxx ripped a two-run home run in the first inning, one of 534 dingers that “Double X” would hit in his great career.
When the inning ended, Boston’s player/manager Joe Cronin walked out to umpire-in-chief Bill McGowan. Those tattered sleeves on the sweatshirt Allen is wearing underneath his jersey are a distraction to the batter, Cronin said. (Apparently, they didn’t bother Foxx.) McGowan agreed; he told Allen to get rid of the sweatshirt.
Allen left the mound and headed to the clubhouse. But, he didn’t go in there to change. He went in there to simmer. He had no intention of changing. Indians Manager Ossie Vitt fined Allen $250 and put in Bill Zuber to pitch.
Later, Allen said Cronin only complained as a gag. He also said McGowan was out to get him. “Whenever McGowan works a game I pitch, there’s always been a lot of petty, sniveling stuff going on.” McGowan, for his part, said he read the rulebook word-for-word to Allen. No tattered sleeves allowed.
The following season, during the 1938 All-Star break, Allen suffered an arm injury. He was 12-1 at the time, but he went just 2-7 the rest of the way with an ugly 6.29 ERA. In the final six years of his career, Allen pitched for Cleveland, the St. Louis Browns, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. He went a combined 43-37 and once attacked an umpire on May 27, 1943, in Forbes Field. Of all the loose cannons in the baseball world, Johnny Allen was among the loosest.
Allen left baseball to get into the real estate business in Florida. He also became a part-time minor-league umpire, much to the shock and delight of some sportswriters. One guy wrote that Allen in an ump’s uniform looked “about as much at home as a camel in a camel’s-hair coat.”
The temperamental pitcher/umpire died March 29, 1959, at the age of 54. His famous sweatshirt, tattered indeed, is part of the permanent collection at Cooperstown. Allen sold it to Higbee’s, a Cleveland department store, for something between $50 and $600. The store wanted to put the quickly famous garment on display in a window. “This is the shirt that cost Johnny Allen $250,” a sign read. Higbee’s donated the sweatshirt to the Hall of Fame in the offseason.
McGowan, elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1992, said he fined Allen $250, that in addition to the club fine. The umpire said later that Allen sold the sweatshirt for $600, on the high end of the estimates. “So,” McGowan concluded, “he made $100 on the deal.”
This is the first of a two-part follow-up to my three-part series on the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves. (Yep, the math gets crazy sometimes.) You can read parts I, II and III here. This post reports on the franchise shuffling in major league baseball that followed Boston’s departure to Milwaukee. My next post will cover the Seattle Pilots-Milwaukee Brewers drama/fiasco.
By Glen Sparks
Next stop …
The Boston Braves’ move to Milwaukee in 1953 ushered in a round of franchise relocations that lasted more than a decade. Suddenly, owners were looking at U.S. maps, trying to swap problem markets for shiny, new ones. The following is a rundown on the relocations that followed the Boston-to-Milwaukee move, the first one in major league baseball since the Baltimore Orioles moved to New York in 1903 and became the Hilltoppers, (later, the Yankees).
The St. Louis Browns. Oft-forgotten in a city with the powerful Cardinals and usually buried in the standings, St. Louis’s American League franchise called in the moving vans in 1954. In this case, a bit against the prevailing grain, those vans headed east rather than south or west. The rechristened Baltimore Orioles played to great success following some early struggles.
The Philadelphia A’s. The team had fallen on hard times after winning five championships under legendary manager Connie Mack. Following a 107-45 campaign in 1931 and a 94-60 one in 1932, the A’s suffered through six 100-loss seasons (plus six with at least 95) over the next 20-plus seasons. They moved to Kansas City in 1955. The Midwest’s version of the A’s never had a .500 season and lost at least 100 games four times in 13 years.
Brooklyn Dodgers/New York Giants. You could write an entire book on this, and many people have. The bottom line is this: Major League baseball was going to be in Los Angeles at some point. Dodger owner Walter O’Malley negotiated with New York City officials—faithfully or not—and couldn’t come to an agreement. L.A. officials opened their arms and offered O’Malley some premium property on a hill north of downtown. The Dodgers needed another team out west and invited the Giants, who were playing in the dilapidated Polo Grounds. The teams began play in L.A. and San Francisco in 1958. Each franchise draws more than three million fans every year. That’s the very, very short version. Roger Kahn can give you the long version. Be careful, though. He had a dog in this race.
Washington Senators. “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.” That’s what many people said about Washington, D.C., and Senators baseball. The team that once boasted the great pitcher Walter Johnson, that won back-to-back World Series in 1924-25 and that took the pennant in 1933 (losing to the Giants in the Series) crashed hard. Plenty of losing seasons were wrapped around a few winning ones in the years following the ’33 campaign. Owner Calvin Griffith moved his club to Minneapolis-St. Paul before the 1961 season and changed the team name to the Twins.
Milwaukee Braves. The fun didn’t last forever. Before long, the team fell both in the standings and in the stands. The team left for Atlanta in 1966. Read more about it more in Part II.
Kansas City A’s. Like the Braves, the A’s played in their new home city for 13 seasons. The A’s, though, didn’t enjoy nearly as much success as the Braves did. Attendance in Kansas City topped out at nearly 1.4 million, in the team’s inaugural season of 1955, and began on a gradual slope downward after that. Eccentric owner Charles O. Finley took his team to Oakland in 1968. The result: 16 division titles, six A.L. pennants, five World Series titles and an organization synonymous with Moneyball.
Seattle Pilots. It didn’t work out. (More about this in my next post.)
Washington Senators II. The nation’s capital got a new team as soon as the old one left. From 1961-71, the latest version of the Senators lost an average of 90 games every season. Two cool things: Frank Howard, all 6-feet-7 of him, hit some monstrous home runs. The so-called “Capital Punisher” won two home run titles. Also, former Red Sox great Ted Williams managed the club for a few years. His tenure including an 86-76 (.531) campaign in 1969. The team still finished fourth, but it was the best year for a Washington Senators Part II squad. Before the 1972 campaign, the team left for Arlington, Texas, in suburban Dallas and became the Rangers.
Since then, just one baseball team has left its home city. The Expos departed Montreal for Washington, D.C., in 2005 to become the Nationals, the third team since 1900 to make a go of it in the District.