January 10th, 2012

Mack’s White Elephants, McGraw’s Black Cats

“I ain’t superstitious, but a black cat’s crossing my trail.” It’s easy to imagine bluesman Willie Dixon singing this, but it’s also a line John McGraw might have penned on the eve of the 1905 World Series. He was about to square off against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, who had proudly adopted the epithet White Elephants, hurled at them by McGraw during the war with the National League in 1902. In Mack’s own words, from his 1950 autobiography:

In 1902 the Baltimore Club forfeited its franchise in the newly formed American League. Its spot was filled by the New York Highlanders, “the acorn from which sprung the mighty Yankee oak.” The astute John McGraw took advantage of the opportunity and jumped from the crumbling Orioles to the New York Giants, a leap to fame and fortune. When the sportswriters gathered around McGraw to fire a barrage of questions, one of the questions was, “What do you think of the Philadelphia A’s?”

“White elephants!” quickly retorted Mr. McGraw. “Mr. B. F. Shibe has a white elephant on his hands.”

When peace was declared in 1903 and the first modern World Series was played, it was Boston, the American League representative, which emerged victorious. After McGraw and Giants’ owner John T. Brush killed the World Series in 1904 by refusing to play the defending champion Boston Americans (today’s Red Sox), the National and American Leagues formalized the World Series as an annual postseason event; the agreement that had produced the 1903 Series was a one-time thing. When the Giants won the NL flag again in 1905, McGraw had no choice but to play his counterpart in the AL. When that turned out to be Mack’s White Elephants, the superstitious McGraw decided he would take the upper hand by going black against white.

For many years the Hall displayed a black Giants jersey that was thought to have been worn in the 1905 World Series by George “Hooks” Wiltse, a pitcher who had a fine year in 1905 (15–6) yet didn’t get into the World Series because Christy Mathewson tossed three shutouts and Joe McGinnity one in the Giants’ five-game victory. Hooks may have been given his nickname for his fine curve, or for his misshapen nose, or maybe just because he was left-handed and thus, in that age of superstition, twisty, serpentine, even sinister (the Latin for left is sinistra). His brother Lewis, also a lefty—who had pitched well for the A’s in 1901–02—was nicknamed “Snake.”

Hooks was a man destined for bad luck, McGraw’s wiles notwithstanding. On July 4, 1908, in the first game of a twin bill with the Phillies, Hooks took a perfect game into the ninth inning and retired the first two batters. The last man up figured to be a pinch hitter for the weak-hitting pitcher, George McQuillan (lifetime batting average in ten seasons, .117). But McQuillan too had not allowed a run, so his manager permitted him to bat. Strike one. Strike two. Then poor Wiltse tried to get cute and threw an 0–2 hook to McQuillan … and hit him, erasing his perfect game. Although the Giants won the game in the tenth and Hooks retained his no-hitter, it was cold comfort. In the history of Major League Baseball there has never been another game like it.

When the Giants next returned to the World Series, in 1911, McGraw revived the black uniforms, but the charm was off, as his team lost to the A’s in six games. Hooks Wiltse made two relief appearances and was clobbered, allowing eight hits and runs less than four  innings’ work.

In the rematch of the clubs in the 1913 World Series, the Giants wore white yet lost in five. But Black Cat Wiltse, fading out as a pitcher, played a vital part in their only victory. Forced into action as a first baseman in the late innings of Game 2 because of an injury to Fred Merkle (talk about a bad-luck charm!), Hooks made back-to-back excellent throws home in the last of the ninth, each time nailing the potential winning run. The Giants won in ten innings.

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