Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 20, 2002
BASEBALL: 1914-17 Giants, Part One
I generally don't post my Projo columns here, least of all before they are up on Projo, but since the readership here is small yet and there have been some transmission problems with getting the first half posted over there (plus the Projo folks are all tied up with the start of football season), here's a treat for y'all - Part One of my column on the 1914-17 New York Giants:
The recent 20-game winning streak of the Oakland A's brought back mention of the 1916 Giants, with their 26-game winning streak, and some debate over whether the Giants should fairly be considered the record-holders when they had a tie in the middle of the streak. Fair enough. Most people who followed the story or know their history can tell you that, amazingly, the Giants finished fourth that year. Some could even point out the more astonishing fact: the Giants were in fourth place when the streak started, and were still stuck in fourth when the streak ended.
But what these pieces of trivia don't tell you is that those Giants were part of a bigger story, one of baseball's great turnaround stories and all-around roller coaster rides -- the story of the 1914-17 New York Giants.
A little history is in order. The Giants became one of the National League's perennial powerhouse franchises shortly after the turn of the 20th century when, in short succession, three significant things happened: In 1900 they traded their burned-out superstar pitcher, Amos Rusie, to the Reds for 19-year-old Christy Mathewson; Andrew Freedman, the penurious megalomaniac whose salary disputes with Rusie had ruined the previous decade, sold the team to John T. Brush; and in 1902, John J. McGraw abandoned the Baltimore Orioles of the American League (who would move to New York to become the predecessor of the Yankees the following year) to manage the Giants, bringing with him Joe McGinnity, Roger Bresnahan and a few other players. By 1904-05, the Giants had seized control of the National League.
Perhaps McGraw's best team, and certainly his favorite, was the Giants team that won three straight pennants from 1911-13 and lost three straight World Serieses, at least one of them (1912) in exceptionally heartbreaking fashion. That team was built around a fast, agressive young lineup, plus hard-hitting veteran catcher John 'Chief' Meyers, with the pitching staff balanced between two young stars (Rube Marquard and Jeff Tesreau) and three veterans (Mathewson, still one of the league's premier pitchers, and Hooks Wiltse and Red Ames).
If the Giants thought they had heartbreak in 1908 (the Fred Merkle incident) and 1912, though, they were in for even more in 1914, when the team was 52-33 on July 29, and 58-40 with a 6 1/2 game lead on August 12, and in sole possession of first place as late as September 4, but went 32-37 down the stretch while the Boston Braves (who had been in last place in the 8-team NL as late as July 18) finished the season on a 68-19 tear to become the "Miracle Braves," the first real 'Cinderella' team in the history of pro sports, and run off with the pennant by 10.5 games.
The Giants' collapse was partially just bad performances in close games: over the team's last 71 games, in which they went 32-37 with 2 ties, the Giants actually outscored their opponents 272-248, which should have been expected to produce 38 or 39 wins. But a six-game swing wouldn't have been enough to make the difference anyway, and wasn't enough to explain an 84-win season by a team that had won 99, 103 and 101 games in 1911, 1912 and 1913. The Giants' offense dropped off from 4.7 runs/game to 3.8 runs/game over those last 71 games, and while they still led the league in scoring, McGraw must have seen that he needed more sock. So, in January 1915, he made a disastrous panic move: he dealt the team's weakest hitter, 20-year-old third baseman Milt Stock, to the sixth-place Phillies along with underachieving pitcher Al Demaree, age 28 (13-4, 2.21 ERA in 1913, 10-17, 3.09 ERA in 1914) and 24-year-old backup catcher Bert Adams for 33-year-old third baseman Hans Lobert, who had batted .327 in 1912, .300 in 1913, and .275 in 1914. You can see where this was headed, but uncharacteristically, McGraw didn't. Lobert would hit a punchless .251 in 1915 on the way to losing his job, while Stock and Demaree would play small roles in the Phillies' leap to the 1915 pennant and Stock would eventually mature into a solid player, hitting over .300 five times between 1919 and 1925.
The bigger problem was the pitching, which had fallen in 1914 to sixth in the league in ERA. At age 33, Mathewson's ERA had jumped a full run to 3.00 in 1914 (above the league average) after having ERAs ranging from 1.14 to 2.12 every year for the prior 7 seasons, he allowed more than a hit per inning, allowed twice as many homers as his career high, and struck out just 80 men in 312 innings. Marquard saw his ERA also rise above 3.00, and he went 12-22 after three seasons of 24-7, 26-11 and 23-10. While Tesreau had another fine season, the decline in the team's two stars combined with Demaree's slide left the Giants' staff weak. McGraw responded with his other, wiser offseason move, buying 22-year-old Pol Perrit from the financially strapped Cardinals, for whom he'd posted a 2.36 ERA in 286 IP the prior year.
That brings us to the other bit of context that would become significant later on: the Federal League, a third major league that put severe competitive pressure on the established NL and AL in its two years of existence in 1914-15, before the Feds folded under the strain. The Giants were under a financial crunch like other teams, but when the Feds went under, the checkbook would open again with important results.
In the meantime, 1915 brought a new and unfamiliar form of humiliation to the team that had fallen just short of glory so many times in the prior 7 years: a last place finish. The Giants' mainstays through the pennant years showed the severest decay: Chief Meyers, now 34, hit .232. Mathewson, finally sore-armed after all those 300+ inning years dating back to his early 20s, was 8-14 with a 3.58 ERA. Marquard was worse. With bad pitching and bad defense, the team allowed more runs than anyone else in the NL, and while the offense could still score (3.75 runs/game, third in the league), it wasn't enough to make up.
Once it became apparent that the veterans weren't making a run back to glory, McGraw was merciless in cleaning house. Red Murray, a regular for the three pennant winners but now 31 and hitting .220, was cut loose in mid season, as was backup catcher Red Dooin. In August, McGraw sold Fred Snodgrass -- only 27 but hitting .194 and never to recover as an everyday player -- to the Braves, sold the sore-armed Marquard to the Dodgers for the waiver price, and bought the 28-year-old Rube Benton from the Reds to shore up the rotation. After the season, Meyers would also be sold to the Dodgers for the waiver price. McGraw was also looking down the road, carrying rarely used teenager George Kelly (later the Giants' star first baseman in the 1920s and now in Cooperstown) and pitcher Ferdie Schupp, age 24 and severely ineffective in limited use for the second straight season. Schupp must have been used for mopup work: between 1913 and 1915, he pitched 36 times but with just one decision.
A long, slow rebuilding process was underway, but McGraw had other plans in the meantime. When the Federal League went under, McGraw came out swinging: on December 23, 1915, he bought 2-time Federal League batting champ Benny Kauff (the "Ty Cobb of the Federal League") from the Brooklyn franchise and catcher Bill Rariden (to replace Meyers) and slick-fielding third baseman Bill McKechnie from the Newark franchise. The Kauff acquisition alone cost $35,000, a huge price tag for 1915. In February, McGraw bought starting pitcher Fred Anderson from the Buffalo franchise the same day that he sold Meyers. McGraw also bought future Hall of Famer Edd Roush from Newark. The 1916 team now looked like this on paper:
C Bill Rariden (age 28)
SP Jeff Tesreau (27)*
* - Players remaining who had major roles in the 1912 team.
IN PART TWO, to follow soon (hopefully; I haven't written the second half yet): McGraw's late summer purge, and the aftermath.