Tagged: Old-time baseball

Catcher Bill Bergen Wasn’t a Hit Maker

Bill Bergen hit .170 in his career. Yep, .170.

Bill Bergen hit .170 in his career. Yep, .170.

By Glen Sparks

Dodgers manager Tommy LaSorda once disparaged light-hitting infielder Kurt Bevacqua thusly:

“Kurt Bevacqua couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.” (I may have eliminated some profanity from this quote.)

Bill Bergen was a worse hitter than Bevacqua. It isn’t close.

You’ll recall Mario Mendoza. He played shortstop for a few teams, most notably the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Mendoza batted less than .200 in five of his nine seasons. Slumping hitters hated to see their batting averages dip beneath the dreaded Mendoza line. (The line was usually held to be .200, but Mario himself actually ended his career at a much loftier .215, thanks to a brawny .245 campaign in 1980.).

Bill Bergen was a worse hitter than Mendoza. It isn’t close.

William Aloysius Bergen, from North Brookfield, Mass., collected hits like a slow bartender collects tips. Infrequently and not easily.

Here is a summary of Bergen’s offensive offensive stats. Be warned: They’re pretty scary. Batting coaches and .300 hitters might be especially offended. Bergen broke in with the Cincinnati Reds in 1901. He batted .179 in his rookie season (308 at-bats), was just a wee-bit better his sophomore year (.180 in 322 at-bats) and hit what would be a career high in 1903 (.227 in 207 at-bats).

The Reds shipped Bergen and his woeful bat to the Brooklyn Superbas, forerunner of the Dodgers, in 1904. He hit .162 over eight years in Brooklyn. Not too superba. Bergen retired after the 1911 season with a career batting average of .170 in 3,028 at-bats, the lowest average for any player in Major League history with at least 2,500 plate appearances.

It isn’t close.

The second most feeble bat in baseball history belongs to Billy Sullivan (1899-1916). The catcher hit .213 lifetime, .43 percentage points ahead of Bergen. (Just in case you’re wondering: Mark Belanger, .228; Rob Deer, .220 Dal Maxvill, .217)

In 1909, Bergen finished at .139, the lowest batting average post-1900 for any batting-title qualifier. Bergen didn’t help himself by taking a walk, either. He had a .194 career on-base percentage. Neither did he bring any pop to the plate. His career slugging percentage was a woeful.201.

Look at this way: Bergen hit 45 doubles in his career in 3,028 at bats, or 10 fewer doubles than the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter hit in 2013 with 2,433 fewer at-bats. Bergen drove in 193 runners in his 11 seasons, just two more than Hack Wilson did in 1931. You get the idea. Anything else would be piling on. Ok, in case you’re wondering, Bergen hit two career home runs, or as many as Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton slugs on a good night.

But, this all begs a question. How did this historically inept hitter last 11 seasons in the big leagues? He must have done something right. Right? Yes. Bill Bergen was one of the most talented defensive catchers of his time.

He ranks ninth all-time among catchers in assists despite getting into more than 100 games just twice in his career. He led the league in that category three times and recorded at least 100 assists nine times (Gary Carter and Bill Dickey did it four times, Johnny Bench did it once, Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk never got there.) Bergen also led the league in throwing out would-be base stealers in 1906 and 1909. He gunned out six Cardinals trying to steal on Aug. 3, 1909.

Woodrun’s article quotes the SABR bio article about Bergen: “Despite playing part-time, Bergen earned a reputation for the strongest throwing arm in the National League, so strong that his mere presence behind the plate was enough to intimidate base runners.”

You look up “all field, no hit” in the dictionary …

Braves’ Gowdy Was the First to Fight

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.

Vintage Card Press photo/Hank Gowdy batted .270 and was the first Major League to enlist in World War I.

Vintage Card Press photo/Hank Gowdy batted .270 and was the first Major League to enlist in World War I.

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.)

How Perfect! Red Stockings Went 57-0 in 1869

The Cincinnati Red Stockings went undefeated in 1869 as baseball's first professional team.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings went undefeated in 1869 as baseball’s first professional team.

By Glen Sparks

Forget about any other baseball team you may have heard of or read about through the years. That includes the 1927 New York Yankees. None of those teams, not one of them, was as good as the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.

On May 4, 1869, the Red Stockings pummeled the Cincinnati Great Westerns 45-9 in what many call the “first professional baseball game ever.” The Red Stockings went on to compile a 57-0 won-loss record in ’69 against teams in the National Association of Base Ball Players, the forerunner of the National League.

English native Harry Wright organized the Red Stockings, managed them and starred in center field. Born the son of a professional cricket player in 1835, Wright left his homeland at the age of three when his dad took over as head groundskeeper of the old St. George’s Cricket Club in New York City.

Harry Wright organized, managed and played for the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Harry Wright organized, managed and played for the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Growing up, Harry played both cricket and baseball. He arrived in Cincinnati in March of 1865, the Civil War winding down to a bloody end back east. Harry Wright took over as head of the fledgling Cincinnati Base Ball Club in 1866.

Right away, Wright began working to turn his team into the game’s first dynasty. He sent invitations to veterans of the famed New York Knickerbockers club and other squads nearby squads, the Midwest being something of a baseball outpost at the time.

In 1869, the National Association Ok’d professionalism. The Red Stockings’ executive board members opened their thick wallets. Some players, including Harry’s brother George, a shortstop, were signed to deals seven times the average man’s wages.

The Red Stockings did not lose until June 14, 1870, in an 8-7 11-inning skirmish against the Brooklyn Atlantics. The club lost six times that year. By November of 1870, though, the Stockings board decided against paying for an team the following season. Those ballplayers were asking for too much money, the board said.

Harry Wright, eventually a Hall of Famer, just like his brother, left town. He went from working for the Cincinnati Red Stockings to working for the Boston Red Stockings, the forerunner of the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves.

Later, Wright managed several other teams, including the Providence, R.I., Greys and the Philadelphia Quakers, the franchise that would later become the Phillies. His teams won six league championships, and Wright retired with an admirable .581 winning percentage.

Yankee Pinstripes Turn 100

Yankee pinstripes turn 100 years old today.

Yankee pinstripes turn 100 years old today.

By Glen Sparks

Do pinstripes make the man slimmer?

One baseball story you often hear is that the New York Yankees added pinstripes to their home uniforms as a way to make a rotund Babe Ruth appear trimmer. The story is worth a chuckle. But, it isn’t true.

The Yankees, actually, still the Highlanders, first wore pinstripes in 1912. At the time, Ruth was just 17 years old and ripping baseballs around the yard at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore. George Herman Ruth Jr., a truant and trouble-maker, fit the admission qualifications nicely.

Fashion often being fleeting, the Yankees ditched the pinstripes for their 1913 campaign. That season and in 1914, they stitched an interlocking “NY” onto a plain white home uniform. The pinstripes returned for good on the home unis on this date in 1915.

Ruth was 20 years old and playing in his second season for the Boston Red Sox. He went 18-8 with a 2.41 ERA (114 ERA+) in 217.2 innings. The Babe did not become a full-time hitter until 1919, and he did not move over to the Yankees until 1920, or in year No. 6 of the Pinstripe Era.

Further, images of Ruth as a beer-bellied basher tell only the story of an aging superstar. In his heyday, Ruth did not pack nearly as much weight, or girth, onto his 6-foot-2-inch frame. He was barrel-chested, along with being pigeon-toed, but he was certainly not fat. Babe Ruth was an outstanding athlete.

It also should be noted that the Yanks did not introduce pinstripes to major league uniforms. The Chicago Cubs did that with their road uniforms in 1907.

No team does pinstripes quite like the Yankees, though. Fans talk about Dodger blue, Cardinal red and Yankee pinstripes (navy blue in color). The Bronx Bombers have won a record 40 American League pennants and a record 27 World Series, not one them before going to pinstripes.

Recently retired Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter said: “You say pinstripes and the first thing that comes to most people’s mind is the Yankees. There’s just so much history there and tradition, it makes it special for us as players.”

Maybe the pinstripes did make Babe Ruth look slimmer. Maybe the Babe just looked great in a baseball uniform.


Yankees add pinstripes

Hall of Fame online uniform exhibit

Yankee uniforms and logos

Indians Made Sure They Wouldn’t Get Burned

The wall in right-field at the new League Park stood 40 feet higher, taller than the Green Monster at Boston's Fenway Park.

The wall in right-field at the new League Park stood 40 feet higher, taller than the Green Monster at Boston’s Fenway Park.

By Glen Sparks

Ballparks made of wood posed at least one big problem. They didn’t take well to matches.

More than a few old wooden parks turned into kindling overnight. National League Park in Philadelphia burned to the ground in 1894. Fire broke out at Brooklyn’s Washington Park in 1889 and Cincinnati’s League Park in 1901. Several other parks, major league and minor, also went up in flames during this time.

Frank DeHaas Robinson, owner of the Cleveland Indians, didn’t take any chances. He upgraded League Park before the start of the 1910 season. Workers took out the wooden grandstand and installed a double-decked steel-and-concrete one.

Robinson, a street-car tycoon, built the original League Park in 1891. He put it at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 66th Street, a spot conveniently served by two of his trolley lines. On May 1, 1891, Cleveland, behind the great Cy Young, defeated Cincinnati 12-3 in front of a sellout crowd of 9,000 fans at game No. 1.

League Park, both the old and new versions, had some funky dimensions. Like most parks, it was built into the neighborhood. One saloon owner and two homeowners ensured that the park would not be symmetrical. The three decided not to sell; League was built around those sites.

The left-field foul pole stood a distant 375 feet from home plate. The right-field foul pole, much to the delight of left-handed pull hitters and to the dismay of pitchers, loomed just 290 feet from the plate, inviting any number of cheap-shot round-trippers every season.

Ernest S. Barnard, president of the Indians, made the new League a bit more challenging for hitters and a bit safer for pitchers. He ordered the installation of a 40-foot-high wall in right. (By comparison, the fabled Green Monster in left field at Boston’s Fenway Park stands just taller than 37 feet.)

On this date in 1910, the Indians played their first game in the renovated League Park. The home team shut out the Detroit Tigers 5-0. League would serve as the Indians’ home until they moved to Municipal Stadium full-time in 1947. (The team began playing part of its schedule at Municipal in 1932.)

League stood as an impressive red brick building in the Hough neighborhood for decades. Much of the park was demolished in 1951, although the NFL’s Cleveland Browns still used it as a practice field for many years. Now, the site is a public park. The restored ticket house features a baseball heritage museum, while a new artificial turf field hosts youth baseball and softball games.

Babe Ruth walloped his 500th home run at League Park. Joe DiMaggio hit in his 56th consecutive game there. Bob Feller struck out 17 batters at League when he was 17 years old, and Johnny Burnett collected nine hits at League during an 18-ininng game on July 10, 1932.

Wes Ferrell, one of the all-time great Cleveland pitchers, remembered what it was like seeing League Park for the first time, as a 19-year-old in 1927.

“Biggest thing I ever saw in my life,” he said in the book Lost Ballparks by Lawrence Ritter. “They called this a ballpark? I couldn’t believe it. Then I heard a little noise in the back of my mind: major league.”

“Cactus Gavvy” Went East, Young Man

"Gavvy" Cravath led the N.L. in home runs six times as one of the Deadball era's top sluggers.

“Gavvy” Cravath led the N.L. in home runs six times as one of the Deadball era’s top sluggers.

By Glen Sparks

There was a time when southern California was a far-out place. Clifford “Gavvy” Cravath knew all about that place. And, it had nothing to do with “groovy, man.”

This was a time when southern California was a wild, still largely rural, place. Jackrabbits and coyotes ran through foothills, free from unknown suburbia. Million-dollar homes and twisting roads were still to come.

Families arrived—dusty–by wagon, later by train, after traveling past mountain passes and through scorching deserts, across some of the hottest, driest country on Earth. It was a dangerous, sometimes deadly, trip to the sea.

Cravath grew up in just this sort of southern California, born on this date in 1881 in Escondido (Some sources say he was born in nearby Poway.), outside San Diego.

Cliff’s dad served as Escondido’s first mayor. Later, he left that job to become San Diego County Sheriff. Cliff, meanwhile, made his name as one of the county’s top athletes. In 1898, he competed on the losing side of the Escondido High School vs. San Diego High School football match-up, the first gridiron prep game ever played in San Diego County. During the spring, Cliff caught for Escondido High’s baseball team.

Following graduation, Cliff went from job to job, from ballfield to ballfield. The young man swung hard. He aimed for the fences at a time when most players simply wanted to place the ball. Home runs were thought of as showy, not very gentlemanly. Maybe Clifford Cravath, playing on the far-flung west coast, didn’t know that and simply swung how he wanted.

He acquired the nickname “Gavvy” around the turn of the century. One time, so the tale goes, his swing turned lethal. He smashed a liner that dropped a seagull dead. Mexican fans screamed “gaviota!,” Spanish for “seagull.” Teammates liked it. They thought it was funny. “Gaviota.” Yep, Cliff, that’s what you killed. The name stuck, shortened to “Gavvy,” the bird killer.

Later, people called him “Cactus” or “Cactus Gavvy,” a moniker fit for a pistol-packing, hot-tempered cartoon character, but which in reality honored Cravath’s western heritage and made comment on his sometimes prickly personality.

Word got around that Gavvy could handle a bat. The Los Angeles Angels signed him to a deal, and the money paid off. The Angels won four Pacific Coast League pennants over the next five years, thanks in large part to the hard hitting of Cactus Gavvy.

Did Gavvy dare to dream about a life in the majors? What did he even know about big league ball? Baseball at its best was a long haul away. The closest team to California was the St. Louis Cardinals, nearly 2,000 miles from southern California. Was that too far?

Head East

It was the Boston Red Sox, though, a team based 3,000 miles from Cravath’s hometown, that finally signed the minor-league slugger. The Cactus was 27 years old.

Now, Gavvy didn’t exactly start racking up one big hit after another in the majors. You get the feeling that clubs didn’t quite know what they had in “Cactus Gavvy” Cravath. He was slow afoot at a time when teams liked plenty of speed on the basepaths. He was a power hitter in the era of Cobb. Managers had to scratch their heads a bit and wonder, “Who is this guy?”

The Californian got to bat 277 times for the 1908 Red Sox. He hit just .256 with only one home run, but he smashed 11 triples. Apparently, the guy could run a little bit faster than some people thought. Boston, though, shipped him to the Chicago White Sox in February 1909, where he went 9-50 (.180). Later that season, the White Sox dealt Cactus to the Washington Senators, where went hitless in six at-bats. (A young player, who also employed a mighty swing, would arrive in Boston just a few years later. Babe Ruth was on the way.)

Over the next few seasons, Gavvy regained his reputation as a power hitter, albeit as a minor leaguer. This time, he crunched baseballs in the upper Midwest for the Minneapolis Millers.

Gavvy smashed home runs and windows in record numbers. Nicollet Park near downtown Minneapolis had a short porch in right field, just 279 feet from home plate. The right-handed batting Cactus took a look at that and learned how to lift flyballs the opposite way. He hit 14 home runs in 1910 and set an organized baseball record in 1911 with 29, to go with a .363 batting average. And, the Cactus didn’t hit a bunch of cheapies, either. He ripped some completely out of the yard. Once, he broke the same window on Nicollet Avenue three times in one week.

In 1912, the Philadelphia Phillies paid $9,000 for the services of Cactus Gavvy. What, they must have asked, can this guy do while playing half his games at the Baker Bowl, a park similar to Nicollet. The right-field wall at the Bowl stood 280 feet home plate. It was a nice target for Gavvy. He was 31 years old.

Quickly, the San Diego guy turned into a star. He led the National League in home runs six of the next eight seasons. His first big year was 1913, his second year in Philadelphia. He clubbed a league-leading 19 home runs and set a major league record with 128 RBI. He also finished atop the leader board in slugging percentage (.568), OPS (.974), OPS+ (172), total bases (298) and hits (179). He ended up second in batting average (.341), nine points behind Charles “Babe” Adams of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cactus still only wound up as runner-up in the MVP voting to Brooklyn’s Jake Daubert, who didn’t have nearly as good a year.

He followed up that season with another league-leading 19-homer season in 1914. The next year, he set the 20th-century record with 24 (the most since the Washington Senators’ Buck Freeman knocked 25 in 1899) and led his team to its first pennant. After finishing second in home runs in 1916 (11 home runs, good for second in the league), Cactus came back and led the league with 12 in 1917, eight in 1918 and 12 in 1919. He retired at age 39 after getting off to a slow start in 1920.

Cactus left the game with 119 career home runs, No. 4 on the all-time list at the time. He was the first player to capture more than five home run titles. Over his career, he batted .287 with a commendable .380 on-base percentage due to his good eye at the plate. Cravath only played 11 seasons, in part because he grew up so far from the heart of big league action. … Would he have signed a major league deal at a much younger age had he hailed from Pennsylvania or Ohio? But, would he have been the same type of player?

He hit most of his home runs at home; the most he hit on the road in one season was five. That might be one reason this early baseball slugger is not in the Hall of Fame. Shouldn’t he get some credit, though, for taking advantage of the short porch available to him at the Baker Bowl? And, the dimensions were the same for everyone. It was Cactus Gavvy, though, who lead the league in home runs all those years, not any of his teammates.

Gavvy did some coaching after his playing days. He spent much of his time amid the lovely weather of seaside Laguna Beach. There, he also was elected a judge. Gavvy Cravath died May 23, 1963, at the age of 82.

He once said this of his mighty swing. “Short singles are like left-hand jabs in the boxing ring, but a home run is a knock-out punch. It is the clean-up man of the club that does the heavy scoring work even if he is wide in the shoulders and slow on his feet.”

Spoken just like the Babe.

Piece of Fruit Falls from Florida Sky!! Nails Dodger Manager!!

Bain News Service/Brooklyn Dodger Manager Wilbert Robinson's face collided with a piece of fruit on this date in 1915.

Bain News Service/Brooklyn Dodger Manager Wilbert Robinson’s face collided with a piece of fruit on this date in 1915.

By Glen Sparks

Wilbert Robinson feared that he might be dying. He was lucky it was just a piece of citrus that hit him.

The Brooklyn Dodger manager’s fruitful encounter began this way: He had heard about an incredible stunt pulled off by the Washington Senators’ Gabby Street.  On Aug. 21, 1908, Street caught a baseball thrown from atop the 554-foot-high Washington Monument. Several years later, people asked Robinson if he could do something similar.

Why, sure, Robinson said. No problem, he bragged. Why not drop the ball from an airplane, he suggested.

Now, Robinson was nearly 51 and a bit portly at that point in his life. Maybe, too, he had lost some reflexes from his playing days. Street, at least, was 25 years old and a starting catcher for the Senators when he caught a ball dropped from the sky. And, truth is, he muffed a bunch of attempts before finally landing one.

Gabby Street caught the ball.

Gabby Street caught the ball.

Robinson also was a catcher, a pretty good one, mostly for the Baltimore Orioles of the National League and for Brooklyn. The Massachusetts native played 17 seasons, retiring in 1902. He hit 18 home runs, drove in 772 and batted .273 (.316 on-base percentage).

Players loved Robinson for his outgoing, fun-loving personality. He was a story teller and back slapper. And, baseball, boy, could he talk baseball. John Kieran of the New York Times wrote that “he knew baseball as the spotted setter knows the secrets of quail hunting, by instinct and experience.”

The Dodgers hired “Robbie” to manage in 1914. The skipper’s attempt at catching a rapidly accelerating baseball happened on this date in 1915 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Ruth Law, a pioneering aviator who set several speed and endurance records, flew the plane. Apparently, and maybe luckily, Law forgot to bring along a baseball. This being Florida, she did have a grapefruit. (Another story is that Casey Stengel, then a player for the Dodgers, convinced Law to toss a grapefruit rather than a baseball. Safety first.)

Law let the ball go from approximately 525 feet. Robinson stood underneath the plane; his players stood nearby. “I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” Robinson thought.

Well, he didn’t have it. Maybe it was a last-second change in the wind direction. Maybe the Florida sun blinded him for a moment. Whatever, the fruit splattered on the manager’s face. Crash! “Ahh!!” Robinson was sure he felt blood. Had the projectile broken open his skull?!!

No, no. It was just pulp and citrus rind. The players broke up laughing. Finally, Robinson did, too.

“Uncle Robbie” managed the Dodgers for 18 years, compiling a 1,375-1,341. His teams won two National League pennants. The Old Timers Committee voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1945.

Robinson’s Hall of Fame plaque makes no mention of that one day in 1915 when he was attacked by a large piece of Vitamin C.


Which Baltimore Orioles Team Are You Talking About?

Introducing, your 1896 Baltimore Orioles.

Introducing, your 1896 Baltimore Orioles.

(Yesterday, I wrote about an episode in John McGraw’s career while managing the Baltimore Orioles in 1901. The date may have confused some readers who recall that the current Orioles team began play in 1954 after the St. Louis Browns left for Baltimore and adopted a new name. I hope this post clears things up a bit.)

By Glen Sparks

Baseball in the American Association began play in 1882, the same year that Thomas Edison flipped a switch to light parts of lower Manhattan and Robert Ford fatally shot Jesse James in the back. The Association aimed to compete with the National League for supremacy in a game that was becoming more popular every year. One of the original teams was the Baltimore Orioles.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings and the St. Louis Browns vaulted to the top of the Association hierarchy. The Orioles won some, lost some and dropped out of the league in 1889.

One year later, they were back in, replacing the Brooklyn Gladiators. This time, things would be different. First off, the American Association would fold after the 1891 campaign. The N.L., founded in 1876, simply was the more powerful, more established league, albeit just a few years older.

Some of the best AA teams had been jumping leagues for several seasons. The Pittsburgh Pirates left in 1886, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (now the Los Angeles Dodgers) and the Cincinnati Red Stocking (eventually shortened to “Reds,”) switched over in 1889 and so on. The Orioles made their move in 1892.

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Manager McGraw Wanted to Do the Right Thing

John McGraw tried breaking baseball's color barrier in 1901.

John McGraw tried breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1901.

By Glen Sparks

Baltimore Orioles Manager John McGraw surely wanted to do the decent thing when he tried to pass off his prospect Charles Grant as a Cherokee Indian named “Chief” Tokohama. The fact that the plan didn’t work does not reflect poorly on either man.

Grant was an African-American baseball player from Cincinnati. On this date in 1901, The Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper reported that McGraw had signed the hometown second baseman to a contract. Grant, 26 years old, had been playing with the Chicago Columbia Giants, a Negro League team. McGraw, always looking for talent, saw Grant while in Hot Springs, Ark., and figured the young man could make it in the majors. The color line, though, stood in the way.

Charles Grant, aka, Tokahama, at least for a little while.

Charles Grant, aka, Tokahama, at least for a little while.

Now, a little bit of background. Baseball’s color line was a bit fuzzy in the early days. When Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he was breaking the modern-day color line. There were many integrated teams in the early days of baseball. Frederick Douglass Jr., son of the abolitionist, played on an integrated team, for instance, in upstate New York in 1859, according to Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game by John Thorn.

Black players “Bud” Fowler and Moses “Fleet” competed on integrated professional teams in the 1880s, according to Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues, by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick McKissack Jr. Walker played for Toledo, Ohio, in the American Association, which did not prohibit black players.

Mostly, though, teams formed either black squads or white squads. Some of the early top African-American teams included the Uniques and the Monitors from Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Excelsiors from Philadelphia.

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Warm Up at Spring Training

The Cactus League in Arizona is a $300 million a year business, according to newspaper reports.

Arizona Travel photo/The Cactus League in Arizona is a $300 million a year business, according to newspaper reports.

By Glen Sparks

By now, just about every major leaguer is either in the desert or near the sea. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and winter is far from sight. Florida and Arizona have it good.

Spring training is the time to shake off some rust, get ready to play a full 162, and marvel at the break on a young phenom’s curveball. Fans slap on some sunscreen and cheer for their team once again, following the news and notes from another wintertime Hot Stove League.

An article on the Hardball Times web site explains how spring training started, 146 years ago. The Cincinnati Reds began the tradition, going down to New Orleans in 1869. The Washington Senators were the first team to head for Florida. They went to Jacksonville in 1888.

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