Baseball’s 100 Most Important People, Part 3
Continuing from yesterday (http://goo.gl/s9hUYE), in today’s installment we provide five more of the longer biographies, bringing us up through No. 16. As mentioned last time, the accounts for those not in the top 20 will be briefer, commensurate with their rankings. To revisit the list from 1 to 100, go back to the launch of this series: http://goo.gl/5171CX.
Baseball’s 100 Most Important People
Alan Schwarz and John Thorn
11. JOE DiMAGGIO
Of the great players in baseball history, only a handful have possessed a unique, inimitable style. Joe DiMaggio was one of those players. His grace, almost princely elegance, and a diffidence born of painful shyness truly set him apart … and made him, oddly, a hero for his age: the more distant he was, the closer his fans felt to him.
His 1941 record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games might be called a freak statistic, but in some ways it is the perfect Joe DiMaggio stat. DiMaggio was both “the Yankee Clipper,” a quiet, effortless batter who moved like a graceful sailing ship, and “Joltin’ Joe,” the potent slugger. Gifted with an incredible batting eye, DiMaggio struck out only 369 times in his career. His rookie year was his worst for whiffs, with 39. In his sensational 1941 season he hit 30 homers and struck out only 13 times. But it was as a fielder and baserunner that his intelligent style of play was most obvious. Manager Joe McCarthy said simply, “He was the best baserunner I ever saw.”
In 1932 Joe’s older brother Vince was playing for the minor-league San Francisco Seals in the DiMaggios’ hometown, and the team needed a new shortstop. “Why don’t you try my brother, Joe?” Vince suggested. “He’s pretty good.” The 17-year-old Joe played just three games for the Seals that year, but in 1933 he tore up the Pacific Coast League, hitting .340 with 28 homers and a league-leading 169 RBIs. He also hit safely in 61 consecutive games, foreshadowing his 1941 feat.
His strong season sparked the interest of scouts. But the Seals stalled. The team needed cash, like so many others during the Great Depression, and management figured DiMaggio would be worth even more, perhaps as much as $100,000, if he played another season for the Seals.
After DiMaggio broke his knee getting out of a cab in 1934, the scouts stopped calling for a while. But prior to the 1935 season the Yankees offered the Seals $25,000 and five minor leaguers for DiMaggio. San Francisco agreed, on condition that DiMaggio play one more season on the coast. Joe’s performance indicated that the Yanks had gotten a bargain: he batted .398 and led the league in RBIs and outfield assists.
DiMaggio’s big league debut with the Yankees came on May 3, 1936. He set American League rookie records that season with 132 runs scored and 15 triples. He hit .323, belted 29 homers, and drove in 125 runs. His 22 assists led all AL outfielders. He had 21 assists the next season and had managed another 20 in 1938 before runners wised up.
Like many Americans, DiMaggio served during World War II. He missed three full seasons, from age 28 to 31. Before the war he had been the model of consistency—from 1936 through 1942 batting over .300 every year, bettering .350 three times. He had more than 100 RBIs each season, including 167 in 1937. He was the AL’s Most Valuable Player in 1939 and in 1941. For the first seven years of DiMaggio’s career, his Yankees only once failed to make the World Series—and they won the world championship five times.
After his stellar 1937 season DiMaggio made what was probably the only public-relations gaffe of his career. After reminding team management that his 151 runs scored, 46 homers, and .673 slugging percentage led the league, he asked for a substantial raise, from $15,000 to $45,000. When his bosses told him that all-time great Lou Gehrig was making only $41,000, DiMaggio’s answer was terse and to the point: “Gehrig is underpaid.”
DiMaggio held out for more money until late that April, but the fans didn’t like it. He got nasty letters and was booed when he returned to play after signing for $25,000. But he earned his raise. DiMaggio won back-to-back batting championships in 1939 and 1940, and he hit more than 30 home runs and drove in more than 125 runs both years.
On May 15, 1941, DiMaggio started his streak of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, during which he batted .408. The streak came to an end in Cleveland on July 17 in front of 67,468 fans, when Ken Keltner made two great plays and Lou Boudreau made another to keep DiMaggio off the bases. DiMaggio’s streak had lasted 12 games longer than Willie Keeler’s 19th-century effort (subsequently tied by Pete Rose).
The next day DiMaggio hit safely again, and continued for 16 more games. His record-breaking hitting streak helped him win his second MVP Award. He finished the season with a .357 average and 125 RBIs. Ted Williams’ outstanding .406 average that year earned him a mere second place in MVP balloting.
DiMaggio batted “only” .305 in 1942, and was out for the next three seasons because of the war. After he returned to play, a series of injuries hampered his effectiveness. He never won another batting title and only twice reached the 30-homer, 100-RBI level that he had topped in five of his first seven years.
Prior to the 1947 season DiMaggio underwent surgery on his left heel and on his right elbow to remove bone chips. Despite the surgery, he won the American League MVP that year. In November 1948 he once again underwent surgery to remove a bone spur on his right heel. This time DiMaggio’s comeback was slow and painful, and he missed the first 65 games of the 1949 season. Reports came in that fans were praying for him all across the country, and one day in June the pain suddenly and miraculously disappeared. He began an intense period of rehabilitation.
He rejoined the lineup for a series in Fenway Park. The Yanks were locked in a tight battle for first place with the Red Sox after Boston had won nine of its last ten games. Back to his old tricks, DiMaggio belted four homers and drove in nine runs in the three-game Yankee sweep. He finished the season with a .346 batting average with 14 homers and 67 RBIs in only 76 games. The Yankees went on to take the 1949 world championship.
In 1950 DiMaggio’s average fell to .301, second-lowest in his career, but he still swatted 32 homers, drove in 122 runs, and led the league in slugging average. That year he became the first player ever to homer three times in one game in Washington’s mammoth Griffith Stadium.
With the new decade, DiMaggio’s physical problems returned; his body was wearing out. He struggled to play 116 games and batted only .263 in 1951. He decided to retire. The Yankees offered him a full $100,000 salary if he would play in only home games during the 1952 season, but the great DiMaggio declined.
Joe never left the American consciousness, even in retirement. In 1954 he married movie star Marilyn Monroe. Their marriage didn’t last long, but the couple remained close friends for the rest of Monroe’s life. For decades after her death, fresh flowers appeared at her grave each day—many speculated that they came from DiMaggio.
The man who had been celebrated in song throughout his career was once again honored in songwriter Paul Simon’s ballad, “Mrs. Robinson,” in the late ‘60s. And in the 1970s and ‘80s Joe DiMaggio showed up on television screens across the country as a spokesman for a coffeemaker in TV ads.
DiMaggio worked as a coach and front office executive for Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s in 1968 and 1969. In 1969 he was honored during baseball’s centennial celebration as the greatest living ballplayer.
12. HANK AARON
Henry Aaron combined exceptional natural physical ability and lightning-quick reflexes with a professorial study of opposing pitchers to break Babe Ruth’s “unbreakable” record of 714 home runs. In fact, he surpassed Ruth’s record by 41. The African-American Aaron made waves well beyond baseball. That he moved almost overnight from a segregated environment into the white major-league baseball world had a deep impact on Aaron. When he realized he could use his talents as a springboard to speak out effectively against racial intolerance and inequality, he became more than just a highly skilled athlete. He became a man with a mission.
His approach to hitting was scientific but not technical. As Aaron described it, “Ted Williams concentrated on the things he had to do himself. I concentrated on the pitcher. I didn’t stay up nights worrying about my weight distribution or the location of my hands or the turn of my hips; I stayed up thinking about the pitcher I was going to face the next day.”
The success of his relaxed style confounded many observers. Pitcher Robin Roberts once said, “Aaron is the only batter who could fall asleep between pitches and still wake up in time to hit the next one.” Some misjudged him as lazy. An article on Aaron in Time magazine was titled “The Talented Shuffler.” According to Time, “Thinking, Aaron likes to imply, is dangerous. But by now everyone knows that Aaron is not as dumb as he looks when he shuffles around the field.” As Lonnie Wheeler, Aaron’s collaborator on his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, reflected, “It was odd that Joe DiMaggio was also quiet and deliberate, and yet in DiMaggio’s case these traits were perceived as dignity and grace, which translated into American heroism. In Aaron’s case, the same qualities translated into comparative invisibility.”
Aaron’s rise from Alabama teenager to major league star happened quickly. He signed with the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 for $200 a month. A shortstop, he batted cross-handed, but on the Clowns of that time no one bothered with his style, probably thinking it was part of the show. The truly competitive era of the Negro Leagues had ended with the integration of the majors. The Clowns were barnstormers like their basketball counterparts, the Harlem Globetrotters, and featured players with names such as King Tut and Spec Bebop. Why they were called the Indianapolis Clowns was a mystery to Aaron. “We never made it to Indiana the whole time I was with the team.”
It was with the Clowns that the young Aaron got a bitter taste of racial hatred. On a northern trip, the team was rained out of a Sunday doubleheader at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. “We had breakfast while we were waiting for the rain to stop, and I can still envision sitting with the Clowns in a restaurant behind Griffith Stadium and hearing them break all the plates in the kitchen after we were finished eating. What a horrible sound. Even as a kid, the irony of it hit me: here we were in the capital in the land of freedom and equality, and they had to destroy the plates that had touched the forks that had been in the mouths of black men. If dogs had eaten off those plates, they’d have washed them.”
Signed by the Boston Braves for $7,500, Aaron played 87 games for Eau Claire in 1952, hitting .336 with nine home runs and 61 RBIs. The following year Aaron, outfielder Horace Garner, and infielder Felix Mantilla were sent to Class A Jacksonville to break the color line in the South Atlantic League.
Aaron was expected to play the 1954 season at either Class AAA Toledo or AA Atlanta. He was hoping he would not have to help integrate another Southern league when his hero, Bobby Thomson, broke a leg in spring training. The next day Aaron started for the Braves in Thomson’s place in left field against the Red Sox in Sarasota, Fla. He came to the plate against pitcher Ike Delock, who had given up a prodigious minor-league homer to Aaron the year before. Aaron said, “I cracked one over a row of trailers that bordered that outfield fence—hit it so hard that Ted Williams came running out from the clubhouse wanting to know who it was that could make a bat sound that way when it hit a baseball.”
Aaron’s major league debut was typically understated. The Braves’ highlight film of their 1954 season featured only one shot of Aaron, hitting a foul ball. But the next year marked the first of 20 years in which he would hit 20 or more home runs, and the year after that he led the league in batting average. But 1957 was the real breakout year for Aaron and the Braves as he delivered a league-leading 44 homers and 132 RBIs, and the Braves became world champions.
With St. Louis challenging in a wintry late September, Aaron hit an 11th-inning homer that clinched the pennant for the Braves. “I galloped around the bases, and when I touched home plate the whole team was there to pick me up and carry me off the field…. I had always dreamed about a moment like Bobby Thomson had in ‘51, and this was it.” After Aaron’s career ended he said that this had been his most satisfying homer. Milwaukee set a league season attendance record, and Aaron was elected MVP.
Although Aaron maintained his standard of excellence over the next ten years, Milwaukee’s fortunes plummeted. When the team moved to Atlanta in 1966 things changed forever for Aaron. He found the southern air to his liking, slugging 44 and 39 homers, respectively, in his first two years there. He was 34 years old and had 481 lifetime home runs, and neither he nor anyone else was thinking about Babe Ruth’s mark.
In spring training of 1969 the Braves invited Satchel Paige along as a goodwill gesture. Aaron looked around at all the youngsters and felt “as old as Satchel.” He began to think of retirement. Then legendary baseball historian Lee Allen pulled him aside. Allen explained the place Aaron was about to create for himself in baseball history. With his second home run that season he would pass Mel Ott. He had a good chance to get more at bats than anyone else in history, and with 2,792 lifetime hits he had an excellent chance to reach the 3,000 level attained by only eight players. Aaron listened.
A quarter-century later, it is hard to comprehend the enmity that Hank Aaron inspired as he entered the 1973 season 41 home runs behind Ruth. Atlanta police had to assign a bodyguard to him. It was rumored that Aaron’s daughter had been kidnapped from her college dorm, and Aaron told sportswriters about the hate mail he’d received. It became big news, and before long Aaron was receiving more supportive letters than threatening ones. At the end of the year he received a plaque from the U.S. Post Office for having received the most mail of any nonpolitician during the year—930,000 letters. Aaron finished 1973 with 40 homers, leaving him at 713.
The next year began with a minor brouhaha. The Braves wanted to hold Aaron out of the lineup for their first three road games so he could tie and break Ruth’s record in Atlanta. The commissioner’s office and many sportswriters felt that such maneuvering was a travesty. Ordered to play at least two of the games, Aaron hit homer No. 714 off Jack Billingham in his first at bat of the season. He sat out the second game, and in the third he struck out twice and grounded out once against Clay Kirby.
Aaron’s tie-breaking home run came at home against Al Downing of the Dodgers. In Aaron’s first at bat, Downing had walked him. When Aaron finally came around to score, he broke Mays’ NL record for runs. But no one noticed. The Dodgers were ahead, 3-1, in the fourth and Aaron was again at bat. With a man on first, Downing didn’t want to walk him again. Aaron deposited a low slider into the Braves’ bullpen in left field for home run No. 715. Teammates, fans, and Aaron’s mother met him at the plate. The game was halted for a brief ceremony, and the next time Aaron batted the stands had nearly emptied.
Aaron ended the season with 733 homers. He was traded to the American League Milwaukee Brewers, where he added 22 more for a career total of 755. Aaron once said, “I believed, and I still do, that there was a reason why I was chosen to break the record. It’s my task to carry on where Jackie Robinson left off.”
The last player from the Negro Leagues to play in the white majors, he left a legacy much greater than his remarkable playing record.
13. JOHN McGRAW
“There has been only one manager and his name is John McGraw,” Connie Mack once observed. That quote alone gives baseball fans a good indication of McGraw’s place in baseball history. But not only was he one of the national pastime’s most respected and feared tacticians, McGraw was also a scrappy infielder with a lifetime .334 average on one of baseball’s greatest teams. Another accomplishment not noted in his lifetime was his lifetime on-base percentage of .466, surpassed in baseball history only by Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
John Joseph McGraw’s mother and four of his siblings died in a diphtheria epidemic, and he was sent to live with relatives. He still came under his father’s supervision, however, which was no help to his baseball career. His father hated the game and walloped young McGraw once for breaking some church windows beyond right-center field. To protect his hide, McGraw became skilled at hitting to the opposite field.
McGraw pitched for local teams before signing a $40-a-month contract with Olean, New York, of the New York and Pennsylvania League in 1890. Converted into a third baseman by manager Albert Kenney, McGraw then bounced around the minor leagues before impressing Billy Barnie of the American Association Orioles in August 1891.
That Baltimore team was perhaps the toughest squad of all time, and the young McGraw soon emerged as the toughest and meanest Oriole. In those days rookies were as welcome on a club as a case of typhoid, and McGraw’s arrival wasn’t greeted with huzzahs. The diminutive 120-pound rookie was jeered as a “batboy,” and one day found himself literally shoved off the Oriole bench. The brash McGraw proceeded to punch out his tormentors in full view of the Orioles’ bewildered fans.
That incident gained him acceptance from his teammates. Soon McGraw was trying out new tricks. In those days only one umpire called each game, and McGraw developed such tactics as grabbing an opponent’s belt as the player rounded third, causing runners to play with their belts loosened, or just physically blocking a runner from the base.
He also was a master at fouling off balls, waiting until he got just the right pitch to hit and tiring out the pitcher, for in the nineteenth century a foul ball was not a strike. “There wasn’t any of them that could foul ‘em off harder than McGraw,” teammate “Wee Willie” Keeler said. “He could slam ‘em out on a line so fast that even the umpire couldn’t tell he was doing it on purpose.” In spring training of 1930, a rapidly aging McGraw purposely fouled off 26 straight pitches.
If McGraw couldn’t get on base that way, he had other options. He might, for example, just lean over the pitch and allow himself to be hit by it. Years later on seeing the introduction of batting helmets, Casey Stengel would remark, “If we’d had them when I was playing, John McGraw would have insisted that we go up to the plate and get hit in the head.”
The Orioles captured three straight National League pennants from 1894 through 1896. Manager Ned Hanlon pioneered a tricky style of play that emphasized the hit-and-run, the delayed steal, the Baltimore chop, and anything any of his players could think of that might lead to scoring a run or saving one. McGraw may have learned the ropes from “Foxy Ned,” but he extended the science of baseball into a managerial dynasty that descended directly to Casey Stengel, Billy Martin and Whitey Herzog.
In 1899 McGraw became the Orioles’ player-manager, but when that franchise was lopped off from the National League in 1900 he was sold along with two other players to St. Louis for $15,000. He hated the idea of playing in that city and refused to report until the reserve clause was stricken from his contract. He played in only 99 games, but still hit .344.
In 1901 he became manager of Ban Johnson’s American League entry in Baltimore. McGraw and Johnson were an odd combination. Johnson had pledged that one of the main tenets of the new league would be respect for umpires. McGraw was the premier umpire-baiter in the land. Throughout 1901 and 1902 McGraw and Johnson clashed. Finally in July 1902 McGraw was suspended indefinitely.
In retaliation, McGraw conspired to deliver the Baltimore franchise to the forces of the National League. As part of the bargain he was named manager of the New York Giants. “McGraw was one of the hardest men in the league to control and now that he has left I cannot see how the American League has lost anything,” Ban Johnson said at the time.
McGraw immediately began a house-cleaning of the New York franchise. One of his first moves was to return promising young Christy Mathewson to full-time pitching duty. A McGraw predecessor, Horace Fogel, had attempted to shift Mathewson to first base.
The Giants were a last-place club when McGraw arrived in 1902. By 1904 they were league champions. Although peace had been declared between the National and American leagues, and a World Series had been played in 1903, McGraw and Giants owner John T. Brush so hated Ban Johnson and his upstart circuit that they refused to take part in any postseason play that year.
In 1905, however, they relented, and it was a wise choice. Christy Mathewson pitched three shutouts against the A’s, and the Giants became world champions. McGraw won pennants again in 1911, 1912, 1913, and 1917, but lost the World Series each year. “Not that this record reflects upon the system I have maintained as a manager, for frankly, I am not willing to concede that it does,” McGraw wrote in Baseball Magazine in 1919.
McGraw’s teams played “scientific” baseball, manufacturing runs instead of swinging for the fences. He was a teacher first and a manager second. “The Little Napoleon,” said spitballer Burleigh Grimes, who pitched for McGraw’s Giants in 1927, “taught me more about pitching in the first 15 minutes than I had learned in 11 previous seasons.”
One of McGraw’s methods was to sign as many college players as possible. McGraw, who had attended St. Bonaventure University, once said, “The difference is simply this—the college boy, or anyone else with even a partially trained mind, immediately tries to find his faults; the unschooled fellow usually tries to hide his. The moment a man locates his faults he can quickly correct them. The man who thinks he is keeping his mistakes under cover will never advance a single step until he sees the light.”
McGraw had his share of disappointments in the game. His club lost the 1908 pennant in heartbreaking fashion on the famed “Merkle Boner,” in which Fred Merkle forgot to touch second base. In the 1912 World Series he had victory snatched away from him on Fred Snodgrass’ “$30,000 Muff.” He saw his young favorites, pitcher Christy Mathewson and outfielder Ross Youngs, die early.
McGraw truly relished his role of Little Napoleon, the baseball genius who directed each move and countermove on the diamond. One of his favorite activities was to call every pitch thrown by Giants hurlers. “I signaled for every ball that was pitched to Ruth during the last World Series,” he said in 1923.
McGraw was at his cockiest in a crucial 1921 series against the Pirates. With the bases loaded, George “Highpockets” Kelly came to the plate for New York. Kelly worked the count to three balls and no strikes, and traditionally McGraw never allowed batters to hit on 3-0. Now determined to outflank the opposition, he flashed a sign for Kelly to swing away. Kelly did a double take but followed orders and delivered a grand slam. “McGraw comes strutting in [saying] if my brains hold out, we’ll win it,” Kelly recalled. The Giants swept the five-game series from Pittsburgh and won the pennant by four games.
McGraw captured world championships in 1921 and 1922, but lost the World Series in both 1923 and 1924. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he became increasingly irascible. “He could be very unfair at times,” said long-time Giants third baseman Freddy Lindstrom. Often McGraw would not even bother to show up at the ballpark. Finally in 1932 he called first baseman Bill Terry into his office to turn over the manager’s responsibilities to him. McGraw resigned on June 4, taking the headline from Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, who hit hit four home runs in that day’s game.
McGraw died of cancer and uremia on February 25, 1934, and was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously.
14. CONNIE MACK
It is often said that baseball managers are hired to be fired. Many managers have even been dismissed from a first-place team or one that had just earned a pennant. But for 50 years Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack didn’t have to worry about where he would work the next season. Whether he won a pennant, as he did 9 times, or finished last, as he did on 17 occasions, he knew the boss would have him back, because Mack also owned the team.
In later years many believed Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy had adopted the name “Mack” as a kindness to newspaper typesetters, but Mack himself told writer Fred Lieb, “Except when we voted, our people always called themselves Mack.” Mack’s father, a Civil War veteran, worked in the cotton mills and shoe factories around Brookfield, Massachusetts. When he died, his son left school and worked in a shoe factory to help support the family. He also played ball with some local teams.
Mack’s career as a major league catcher is often described as undistinguished, but this perception stems largely from his mediocre batting average. The 6-foot 1-inch, 150-pound stringbean was never a strong hitter, compiling a .245 average in 11 seasons. But the most important part of a catcher’s grueling and dangerous job was not hitting but calling the pitches and throwing out base stealers.
While Mack wasn’t a Buck Ewing or a King Kelly with a bat in his hands, he was generally considered a strong defensive player, very smart and very tricky. He learned to brush players’ bats with his glove, and he apologized with such sincerity that the batters often believed the interference was accidental. A caught foul tip was an out, and on swinging strikes Mack often mimicked the sound of a foul tip, thereby retiring many batters who never touched the ball.
After catching for Washington through 1889, Mack joined Buffalo of the Players League. He invested some of his own money in the team, which may explain his appearance in a career-high 123 games. When the Players League folded after one season, Mack joined Pittsburgh in 1891, the same year the team became known as the “Pirates” for its tricky maneuvers to acquire players.
Pittsburgh made a strong run for the pennant in 1893, finishing second as Macj fractured his ankle in a collision at home plate that reduced him to part-time work for the rest of his playing days. When the Pirates tumbled in the standings in 1894, Mack was named manager late in the season. The team had few good hitters, so one of his first moves was to freeze the baseballs in the clubhouse icebox before each game, thereby deadening them. Mack posted a winning record as the Pirates skipper in 1895 and 1896 but was fired after a dispute with an interfering owner.
Mack became manager of the Milwaukee team of the Western League in 1897 through his friendship with league president Ban Johnson. In 1900 the league changed its name to the American League, and in 1901 Johnson proclaimed that it would compete directly with the National League. Sporting goods manufacturer Ben Shibe was granted a franchise in Philadelphia. Mack became manager and owner of 25 percent of the club. He called the team the Athletics, after a Philadelphia team of the old American Association during the 1880s and a celebrated amateur nine that went back to 1860. When John McGraw said that a team in Philadelphia would be “a white elephant,” or heavy money loser, a confident Mack took the white elephant as the team’s symbol.
Known as “the Tall Tactician,” Mack always managed in his street clothes. Another of his idiosyncrasies was his practice of moving his players around on the field by waving his scorecard. To the public he seemed like a fatherly, and later grandfatherly, figure. But Mack could make hard decisions. His players most admired his honesty.
Mack led the A’s to their first pennant in 1902, largely behind pitchers Rube Waddell and Eddie Plank. Pitching, Mack often said, was 75 percent of baseball. Strong pitching always marked his winning teams, and Mack developed a reputation for turning young pitchers into stars. Both Plank and Chief Bender went directly from the college campus to the majors under Mack’s guidance, and his patience with the talented but highly eccentric Waddell made possible the pitcher’s greatest seasons.
In 1905 Mack won another pennant, but in the World Series, the second between the American and National Leagues, the Athletics were the victims of pitching. Although Bender shut out McGraw’s Giants in one game, New York’s Christy Mathewson threw three shutouts against Philadelphia and Joe McGinnity tossed a fourth to give the Giants the Series. Waddell was unable to pitch in the Series due to an injury.
Mack rebuilt the Athletics during the next few years. In 1910 he developed his best team to date and won pennants in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914. Plank and Bender were still outstanding. Jack Coombs, another former college star, was the staff ace until an illness derailed his career in 1913. The team also featured the “$100,000 Infield” of Stuffy McInnis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, and Frank Baker. The Athletics won the World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1913, twice defeating McGraw’s Giants. Although the A’s were heavily favored in 1914, the lightly regarded “Miracle” Boston Braves swept them in four games.
Despite being a success in the standings, the Athletics struggled financially. Attendance dropped dramatically in 1914 as Philadelphia fans took the club’s success for granted. Meanwhile, the outlaw Federal League was offering huge contracts to NL and AL stars and Mack could not compete. Before the 1914 World Series he told Plank and Bender, both of whom had been loyal to Mack for years, to accept the more lucrative Federal League offers for the following season. The outbreak of war in Europe also cast the future of Organized Baseball in doubt. Many believed the United States would become involved and that baseball would be suspended.
Mack decided to sell off most of his stars, maintaining that the A’s nucleus of young, inexpensive players could keep the team in contention. He was wrong. In 1915 Philadelphia nosedived to last and stayed there for seven seasons.
Beginning in 1922 Mack slowly brought the team back into contention. One player at a time, he added future Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx to his existing stable of stars that included Jimmy Dykes, Bing Miller, George Earnshaw, Mule Haas, Rube Walberg, and Max Bishop. After finishing second in both 1927 and 1928, the Athletics won the pennant in 1929.
Mack surprised the Chicago Cubs in the World Series by starting veteran righthanded sidearm pitcher Howard Ehmke. Once a star hurler, by 1929 Ehmke was thought to be washed up and appeared infrequently for the A’s. But Mack believed that Ehmke’s sidearm deliveries coming out of the white-shirted background at Wrigley Field would baffle the Cubs.
Ehmke won the game, 3-1, striking out 14, a Series record that lasted 23 years. The A’s trailed, 8-0, in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 4, then rallied for 10 runs to win. They won the Series in Game 5 when, behind 2-0, they scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth. After the season Mack received the Edward W. Bok Award as the individual who had rendered the greatest service to Philadelphia.
Mack’s star-studded A’s won a second world championship in 1930 and a pennant in 1931, but the St. Louis Cardinals upset them in the World Series. By then the Depression held America in its grip. With the highest-paid team in baseball, Mack had no choice but to sell his stars once again. By 1935 the Athletics were back in the cellar.
During the next dozen years the team finished last nine times and never got out of the second division. Mack was still able to find and develop some good young players, but he was often forced to sell them before they reached stardom.
In 1948 Mack managed his last first-division team, a veteran crew that edged into fourth place. By then he was 85 years old, and subordinates did most of the real managing. After the 1950 season, when the A’s again finished last, Mack stepped down. In 53 seasons he had won 3,731 games and lost 3,948, both all-time records. Mack died in 1956 at age 93. By then, Shibe Park had been re-christened in his name, but his beloved A’s had moved to Kansas City under new ownership.
15. WALTER O’MALLEY
Probably no man in baseball history has ever been so hated in a community as Walter O’Malley, who hijacked Brooklyn’s beloved Dodgers and moved them to Los Angeles. When Brooklyn-born writers Jack Newfield and Pete Hamill once decided to list the three most despicable villains of the century, each wrote down Hitler, Stalin and O’Malley. But a less villainous view of O’Malley has taken hold in recent years, and there are even those who proclaim him a Johnny Appleseed of baseball, taking it West from New York as Alexander Cartwright had in 1849. (Dodger Stadium is located at 1000 Elysian Park Avenue.)
Walter O’Malley was born in the Bronx, attended Culver Military Academy, and earned an engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from Fordham. He began to practice law in New York City in 1931, and in 1941 George McLaughlin, president of the Brooklyn Trust Company, which held the Dodgers’ substantial loans, appointed O’Malley as the club’s attorney.
Under club president Larry MacPhail, the once-pathetic Dodgers had become a competitive team, but their finances were still a mess. O’Malley stepped in to straighten them out and did a marvelous job. By 1944 the franchise was in the black. When stock held by the Ebbets and McKeever families was made available in 1945, O’Malley, general manager Branch Rickey, and John L. Smith, president of Pfizer Chemical Corporation, each ended up with 25 percent of the franchise.
Both Rickey and O’Malley were strong-willed men, and it is not surprising that they clashed on virtually every issue. Rickey had an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball on his side, but O’Malley had Smith. When Smith died, however, his widow decided to sell out. By prior agreement the stock had to be offered to both O’Malley and Rickey before it could go to any outsider.
Only O’Malley had the money to acquire the shares, but before Rickey left for the Pirates he rigged a scheme that jacked the price up to $1.05 million. O’Malley grudgingly paid because it gave him control of the franchise. He was able to purchase the Smith stock because the Dodgers were not his only financial undertaking. He owned the New York Subway Advertising Company, which had an estimated value of $7 million, and he was a partner in the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company. O’Malley’s other holdings were part ownership of a $5-million building materials manufacturing company, partial ownership of a building block company, and 6 percent ownership of the Long Island Railroad.
Once O’Malley had control of the club, the “Rickey people” were pushed out. This didn’t affect the Dodgers’ team, which continued to dominate the National League. O’Malley was making good money, but he wasn’t making enough to be satisfied. Ebbets Field may have been cozy and lovable, but it could only hold 31,902 fans. O’Malley also felt that the neighborhood surrounding Ebbets Field was declining, a legacy of the middle-class exodus to the suburbs.
By 1956 O’Malley was working overtime on a plan to leave Ebbets Field, and he was planning on more than one level. First there was the local angle. He had the engineering firm of Clarke and Rapuano develop plans for a new ballpark on Atlantic Avenue near the Long Island Railroad Terminal. Wherever the Dodgers ended up, O’Malley was intent on building the first privately owned stadium in 30 years. The city fathers, not aware of how serious O’Malley was about moving the franchise, made two counterproposals. The first involved a site at Brooklyn’s Parade Grounds. The second was at Flushing Meadow in Queens, where Shea Stadium was later built. O’Malley wasn’t interested.
At a banquet in 1956 Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley made a rare public appearance, and O’Malley took advantage of the opportunity to offer Wrigley a swap: the Cubs’ Los Angeles Angels franchise for the Dodgers’ Fort Worth Cats. The deal was consummated in February 1957, paving the way for the Dodgers’ shift to Los Angeles.
In the mean time, O’Malley had been in contact with Los Angeles officials. Early in the 1956 season Los Angeles County supervisor Kenneth Hahn had visited New York in an attempt to secure a team for Los Angeles. He had no thought whatsoever of cajoling the defending world champs into moving west. His real target was Calvin Griffith’s Washington Senators. Instead O’Malley contacted Hahn and stunned him with the news that he intended to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles.
After the season O’Malley secretly visited Los Angeles and toured the city in a sheriff’s department helicopter, looking for an acceptable stadium site. He found it in a place called Chavez Ravine a few minutes’ drive from the downtown area. O’Malley was understandably tight-lipped about his plans, but word eventually leaked out. On May 29, 1957, the National League gave approval for both the Dodgers and the Giants to move to the West Coast. Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham was also eager to leave New York. The Polo Grounds was crumbling and the neighborhood around it was in seemingly irreversible decline. New York baseball fans were devastated, but calamity provided opportunity as O’Malley’s nemesis Branch Rickey combined with such folks as Bill Shea and Joan Payson to announce a rival Continental League as a stalking horse for MLB expansion.
On October 7 the Los Angeles City Council voted to swap Chavez Ravine for nearby Wrigley Field, which O’Malley had acquired in the franchise transaction with the Cubs. The city agreed to spend $2 million to upgrade the area, and the county to sink $2.4 million into access roads. The next day O’Malley announced that the Brooklyn Dodgers were no more. His team took temporary quarters at the huge Los Angeles Coliseum until Dodger Stadium, built with a $10-million advance from Union Oil of California, was completed in 1962. O’Malley made sure his franchise was as profitable as possible. There were no water fountains in Dodger Stadium until loud protests were made. Likewise there was no free television coverage of Dodgers home games at first. O’Malley hated to give away anything. But even with water fountains and free TV, the Dodgers prospered beyond his wildest dreams.
Because of his wealth, success, and brains he became Organized Baseball’s most powerful owner. “It’s just a lot of bunk to say I run baseball and am more powerful than the commissioner,” O’Malley once argued. Yet it was an open secret that O’Malley had installed Bowie Kuhn as commissioner in 1969, and had then prevented Kuhn’s unseating in 1975 during an owners’ revolt. And it was also O’Malley who had Kuhn call off the owners’ spring training lockout in 1976.
O’Malley died of cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 1979. His son Peter owned the Dodgers franchise until it was sold in 1997.