February 29th, 2012

The House That McGraw Built

Call the roll of Yankee greats, past and present, and one names so many of baseball’s all-time heroes—Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and more—that it is easy to think that they alone made the Yankees. Likewise, the unparalleled Yankee record and the pride that goes with it might lead one to believe that the club had always been successful, that its tradition truly begins with that first flag in 1921. But the path of history is not that simple, of course, and it stretches back toward a hazy and inglorious beginning—in Baltimore of all places.

Why, in an article about the early history of the New York Yankees, would we write of John McGraw and his boisterous Baltimore Orioles? Because the past matters in baseball as in no other sport, and because a special interest attaches to how the Yankees’ birth and antecedents molded their spirit and shaped their destiny. Before they came to be known as the Yankees, as astute fans know, the New York franchise in the American League was known as the Highlanders, who debuted at Hilltop Park in northern Manhattan in April 1903, twenty years before The House That Ruth Built. Few, however, know that the Yankees’ Book of Genesis begins at an even earlier page, and that the Bronx Bombers were begat from the odd couple of Ban Johnson and John McGraw.

The Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s were celebrated for their ingenuity, their championships, their great stars, and—beyond anything seen in baseball before or since—their toughness. In 1894, the first year of their championship run, they featured Wee Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, Wilbert Robinson, Dan Brouthers, and John McGraw, who was the poster boy for cheating, umpire baiting, and all-around rowdyism (as loutish on-field behavior was then termed). Their batting averages ranged from a low of .335 to a high of .393, and today all six are in the Hall of Fame. But as great as they were, they could not stem a decade-long decline in fan interest. With the 1891 demise of the American Association, which for a decade had been a formidable rival circuit, the monopolistic National League swelled from eight teams to twelve, and its postseason competitions between first- and second-place finishers drew yawns. Furthermore, in an ownership construct that would not be tolerated today, syndicates controlled the shares of several clubs at once and shuffled the players between them as the need or opportunity arose.

In 1899 the Robison brothers, who owned both the St. Louis and Cleveland clubs, denuded the roster of the latter (including Cy Young) for the benefit of the former, condemning the Cleveland Spiders to an all-time-worst record of 20–134. Brooklyn and Baltimore, too, were commonly owned—Ned Hanlon acted as manager of the Superbas and team president of the Orioles.

John McGraw had been the Orioles’ player–manager in 1899, but when he got wind of the NL’s intent to drop Baltimore in 1900 he threatened to form an American League team with Ban Johnson and assist him in mounting a major league threat. Inability to secure a ballpark in time to open the 1900 season, however (Hanlon was no longer using the Union Grounds but he’d be damned if he’d let McGraw have it), doomed the AL franchise and did nothing for McGraw’s bargaining position. In mid-February he sheepishly re-upped as manager of the NL Orioles. Only two weeks later, however, the other shoe dropped at last, as the rumored contraction of Baltimore—along with Cleveland,Washington, andLouisville—was announced as fact. The syndicate clubs hoped that by consolidating their interests they could cut their losses, and by reducing the league to eight teams they might heighten interest in the pennant race … or at least conclude the season with only seven losing teams rather than eleven.

Louisville owner Barney Dreyfuss, hung out to dry and paid a measly $10,000 for his franchise, outflanked his adversaries, borrowing money to buy a half-interest in Pittsburgh and then moving the best of his Louisville players there (including Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke), thus turning the consolidated Pirates into a dominant team. The radically reformed NL of 1900 would remain immune from further change until 1953. Brooklyn, meanwhile, was given first rights to Baltimore’s players, and Charles Ebbets and Ned Hanlon picked up the contracts of McGraw, Robinson, and rookie sensation Joe McGinnity, as they had done one year earlier with Jennings, Keeler, and Kelley.

McGraw and Robinson refused to report to Brooklyn, citing their business interests in Baltimore, which included a shared interest in the Diamond Café, a billiards parlor where, incidentally, duckpin bowling was first played. As punishment, they were sold to St. Louis. The pair held out until late May, when the Cardinals acceded to their demand that the reserve clause be stricken from their contracts, freeing them to play where they wished in 1901. Chances are that when McGraw signed with St. Louis he had already reached a tacit understanding with Johnson that the two would do their utmost to make the American League a major for 1901. McGraw wished revenge against Hanlon and the Brooklyn club that had raided the Orioles, and Johnson knew that to strengthen the new league, he would have to raid the old, not simply take its leavings.

The great consolidation, which had left many major league players suddenly unemployed, emboldened Johnson. In 1900, he had renamed his Western League—well established as a top-rank minor circuit—to become the American League, with designs on East Coast cities. Foremost among these was New York, where the Giants had fallen on hard times under the enigmatic ownership of Tammany big shot Andrew Freedman, who with John Brush, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, had been the engineer of syndicate baseball, salary caps, and other surefire tickets to dissension. The AL had to bide its time, however, as its designs on a stadium site in Gotham were foiled with even more political muscle than they had been in Baltimore. As soon as Johnson’s emissaries began sniffing around a ballpark-sized lot on Manhattan Island, Freedman’s gang made sure that a road would be cut through it.

The AL operated as a minor circuit in 1900, but then in the fall of that year Johnson made a peace overture to the NL that asked for parity as a major league, with access to certain lucrative territories while foregoing certain others and guaranteeing respect for NL player contracts. As he expected, however, the proffered olive branch was rebuffed. NL president Nick Young wished success to the AL, he said, but considered it an outlaw, not a major league. And so Johnson went to war, abrogating the National Agreement and thus opening the door to raids on NL player contracts. Johnson also placed franchises in current NL cities Philadelphia and Boston as well as former NL cities Washington and Baltimore to complement his strong Midwestern franchises in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Three of the league’s 1900 clubs—Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Buffalo—were dropped. Baltimore, as McGraw was secretly assured in 1901, was the stalking horse forNew York, ready to be moved once a ballpark site and politically connected ownership were secured.

Relying upon the adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Johnson and McGraw set aside their evident temperamental differences: Johnson had pledged that one of the main tenets of his new major league would be respect for umpires; McGraw was the game’s premier umpire baiter. As might have been predicted, they were cruisin’ for a bruisin’. As manager of the AL entry in Baltimore, the feisty McGraw and his Orioles quickly reverted to their NL ways—spitting, cussing, kicking, and even punching umpires with whom they had a difference of opinion. On August 7, Johnson felt compelled to suspend Orioles first baseman Burt Hart for belting an umpire. Never lifted, the suspension amounted to a lifetime ban. Two weeks later in Baltimore, Joe McGinnity, who had returned to town after his year in Brooklyn, spat in the face of umpire Tom Connolly. Oriole Mike Donlin, a McGraw favorite, then decked Detroit’s Kid Elberfeld, and an on-field riot ensued, involving players, fans, and police. This was not the decorous league Ban Johnson had envisioned.

The 1901 Orioles finished three games over .500 but drew poorly. Johnson couldn’t wait to get them to New York, but the Big Apple was not yet ripe. McGraw visited New York several times in the off-season to meet with potential investors and scope out possible ballpark sites. Unbeknownst to Johnson, however, McGraw was talking to NL people, too, including the hated Freedman, whose master plan to transform the NL into one huge syndicate of eight clubs, run centrally, had been defeated. Freedman wished to sell his Giants to Brush and buy into an AL franchise in New York but Johnson, once burned in his alliance with McGraw, was twice shy about welcoming an even more combative owner.

(Before we leave 1901, file this under what might have been: In preseason training at Hot Springs, Arkansas, McGraw had tried to pass off Charlie Grant—a fine African American second baseman who had played with Chicago’s Columbia Giants—as a full-blooded Cherokee, on the assumption that a Native American could be brought up to the big club despite the “gentlemen’s agreement” against admitting black ballplayers. However, Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey—also with spring-training facilities in Hot Springs—outed Grant, who had no choice but to return to the Columbia Giants. “If Muggsy really keeps this Indian,” Comiskey is reported to have said, “I will get a Chinaman of my acquaintance and put him on third.”)

McGraw marked the opening of the 1902 season by being booted out of the Orioles’ game in Boston. At the end of April he protested calls by umpire Jack Sheridan by sitting down in the batter’s box until he was expelled. Johnson then handed him a five-day suspension. The AL was still at war with the NL, but McGraw seemed now to be at war with Johnson as well, and in June all hell broke loose. Severely spiked by Dick Harley in a game with Detroit on May 24, Muggsy was forced to perch on the sidelines until June 28, when he marked his return by again tormenting umpire Connolly, getting tossed, and refusing to leave the field. Connolly forfeited the game to Boston.

This time Ban Johnson had had enough. He sent McGraw a wire on June 29: “As of today, you are suspended indefinitely.” John McGraw never wore an Orioles uniform again.

Was his provocation deliberate? Was McGraw looking to justify actions he had already planned to take? McGraw had in fact participated in secret meetings during his convalescence from the spiking—first with Frank Farrell, a racehorse owner with political connections who would become the owner of the Highlanders; then with Fred Knowles, secretary to Freedman, who asked whether McGraw might wish to consider managing the Giants. McGraw, now under the June 29 suspension he had appeared to incite, met with the Orioles board of directors, who owed him $7,000. He offered to forgive the amount in exchange for his unconditional release. Unwilling or unable to cough up the dough, the directors freed him to do as he pleased.

McGraw had somehow gotten wind of Johnson’s intent to move into New York in 1903 without him—that the managerial spot of the New York Americans had been offered to Clark Griffith, who had been Comiskey’s ally on the Chicago AL club since the 1900 season. Let McGraw tell his side of the story, as he did to Fred Lieb some eighty years ago, recounted in the latter’s The Baltimore Orioles (Putnam, 1955):

Do you want to know why I left Baltimore, and the American League, in 1902? Well, I’ll give you the real story. The move to shift the Orioles to New York had been contemplated for some time. In fact, I did much of the ground work, built up the contacts, scouted around for grounds, and was to get a piece of the club. Naturally, I assumed I would be manager. Then I suddenly learned that I no longer figured in Johnson’s New York plans and that he was preparing to ditch me at the end of the 1902 season. So, I acted fast. If he planned to ditch me, I ditched him first, and beat him to New York by nearly a year.

If revenge is a dish best served cold, McGraw’s next steps were absolutely frigid. On July 8 his four-year deal with the Giants was officially revealed. Next he set about to wreck the team and the league he was leaving, combining with Brush, on behalf of Freedman, to buy 201 shares of Orioles stock from team president John J. Mahon for $50,000. McGraw also swapped his half interest in the Diamond Café for Wilbert Robinson’s stock. On July 16, the announcement went to the press that Brush and Freedman—with McGraw’s clandestine assistance—now owned a majority interest in the Orioles and were free to send the club’s players to either the Reds or the Giants. McGraw secured for the Giants pitchers McGinnity and Jack Cronin as well as rising stars Dan McGann and Roger Bresnahan. Brush claimed Cy Seymour, Kelley, and Donlin for the Reds (though Donlin was still in jail after being sentenced to six months time for assaulting an actress and her escort).

On July 17, the day after this spectacular climax to the era of syndicate ball, the Orioles, left with only five players, forfeited a game to the St. Louis Browns and their franchise to the league, which was forced to borrow players from other teams so that Baltimore could complete its schedule. Two days later, McGraw managed his first game in New York, losing to the Phillies. On August 25, Johnson announced what McGraw had already known: the AL’s intention to move the Orioles to New York in 1903, with Griffith as the Americans’ manager. Before the 1902 season was over, Brush sold the Reds and bought the Giants from Freedman, who took the money and ran away from baseball.

In January 1903, representatives of the two leagues got together and came to a peace agreement of sorts that recognized the admission of the New York American League club, soon to be dubbed in the press as the Hilltoppers or Highlanders. Brush continued his private fight against the move, and his animosity toward Johnson and his league extended to the end of the 1904 season, when he and McGraw withheld their Giants from that year’s World Series. Lieb recalled that, for the rest of the decade, “There was a cold war between the two clubs. The Giants’ official family, and writers friendly to them, disdainfuly referred to the Highlanders as the Invaders.”

But Johnson had found two men with the necessary money and influence to push the deal through. The publicly revealed owner was Farrell, the gambler and racing-stable owner; the other, unannounced at the time, was Big Bill Devery, an ex–chief of police and political bagman. They paid $18,000 for the Baltimore franchise, selected coal dealer Joseph Gordon to act as their president, and built a ramshackle ballpark in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, in time for the home opener on April 30, 1903.

The rest is history. This has been the prehistory.