Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 4, 2002
BASEBALL: 1914-17 Giants Part Two
Originally posted on Projo.com
With a team mostly composed of players in their late 20s and with substantial major league experience, and with no reigning power dominating the National League, the New York Giants must have been optimistic about a return to the top in 1916. But any illusions were rapidly dispelled as the team sank into a 2-13 funk, 4 games behind the next-to-last-place Pirates and 8.5 games behind the crosstown rival Dodgers, who were getting some spectacular pitching. Adding insult to injury, the Dodgers would go on to the pennant that year, with Chief Meyers catching and Rube Marquard posting a 1.58 ERA, both just a year after McGraw had sold them for the waiver price. The Giants at this point were misfiring on all counts: tied for last in the league in scoring (3.53 runs/game), third to last in pitching and defense (allowing 5 runs a game).
Then, just as badly as things started, they turned around. The Giants ripped off 17 straight wins on a stunning 19-1 road trip, ending the month of May just 1.5 games behind the Dodgers, and second in the league in both runs scored and fewest runs allowed. During the 19-1 run the team scored 5.65 runs/game while allowing just 2.15/game. I couldn't find individual stats for each period, but in the 2-13 run, the Giants were 2-3 with Jeff Tesreau starting, 0-2 with Fred Anderson starting, 0-2 with Pol Perritt starting, 0-2 with Emilio Palmero (who finished the season with an 8.04 ERA) starting, 0-2 with Sailor Stroud starting, 0-1 with Rube Benton starting and 0-1 with Christy Mathewson starting. Not a very stable starting rotation, although early season rain may explain some of this. On the road trip, Anderson started 5 times, Perritt (who started the team's only loss) and Benton 4 times each, Tesreau and Mathewson 3 times, and Stroud once, for something closer to a set 5-man rotation.
But the road trip, largely against the league's lesser teams (as opposed to 5 games against the Dodgers and 5 against the Phillies in the opening 15), would be the last hurrah for the old Giants. From June 1 through September 6, the team went 38-48-2 (ties happened in those days, when games would be called for darkness), scoring 3.27 runs/game while allowing 3.67. This time, the hitting was the major culprit. Merkle hit .237 with the Giants; Doyle, the 1912 MVP and still an offensive force in 1915, fell off to .268. Neither one of them did much else besides hit singles. Rariden, the new catcher, finished the season at .222 with just 13 extra base hits, and McKechnie hit .246. Kauff finished at .264, a far cry from his Federal League exploits, and George Burns, one young star from the 1913 team, wasn't much better, although both provided some power, steals and walks.
On the pitching front, the team's old faithful ace, Christy Mathewson, had also broken down for good. After the hot May road swing in which he'd figured in the rotation ended, Matty started a 6-4 defeat June 2 and a 4-0 defeat June 14, and would never start another game in a Giant uniform. Entering action on July 20, the Giants' record in games started by the various starters was as follows:
Not much to choose from here in cleaning house, but Stroud, Schauer and Palmero wouldn't start another game the rest of the year, and on July 20, McGraw made a wrenching break with the past, trading Mathewson to the Reds (who would make him the manager; he barely pitched again) along with McKechnie and the young Edd Roush (who hated McGraw) for 30-year-old Buck Herzog (an old favorite of McGraw's from the 1911-13 team, even though they couldn't stand each other either) and Cincinnati's 31-year-old left fielder, Red Killefer. Herzog was installed at third for the moment, and Killefer (who was batting .244) was sent straight to the bench; he would bat only twice for the Giants. Inserted into the starting rotation on was Schupp, who had made his first start July 13. Three days later, the Reds sold McGraw another starter, 31-year-old Slim Sallee, for $10,000. Basically, the Reds were dumping salaried veterans in favor of younger players, and gaining a manager in the deal.
Schupp and Sallee would be the most important keys to the Giants' revival, pitching as well as any two pitchers have pitched over the season's final two months. Schupp would make 11 starts (including 4 shutouts) and 19 relief appearances on the season, registering a microscopic 0.90 ERA in 140.1 innings. Sallee, struggling along at 5-5 with a way-above-league 3.47 ERA with the Reds, would post a 1.37 ERA with the Giants. Their combined stats with New York: 18-7, 1.11 ERA in 252 IP, 6.25 H/9IP, 1.68 BB/9IP, 4.32 K/9IP, and just 3 home runs allowed. From July 20 to the end of the season, the Giants' record by starter was as follows:
The primary starters in the 26-game winning streak would be Tesreau and Schupp, each starting 6 times. Opposing teams would score just 3 runs in Schupp's 6 starts during the streak, 10 runs in Tesreau's six starts during the streak (1.67 runs/game), and just 27 runs in Pol Perritt's last 13 starts of the season (2.08 runs/game).
So, the pitching was in place; now for the offense. Still languishing hopelessly in fourth place in late August, McGraw shipped Merkle to the Dodgers for backup catcher Lew McCarty, age 27 (same as Merkle but with less mileage), on August 20. On August 28, he dealt Doyle, the team's biggest star, with little-used Herb Hunter and Merwin Jacobson to the Cubs for disgruntled 29-year-old third baseman Heinie Zimmerman (a solid hitter but a player whose glove work was so poorly regarded that he finished sixth in the MVP voting when he won the Triple Crown in 1912) and reserve shortstop Mickey Doolan. Although Zimmerman was less than spectacular, the overhaul could scarcely have worked better. Here's what the Giants' starting lineup now looked like; the new additions are listed in CAPS with their final season numbers (Avg/Slg/OBP) with New York:
C LEW McCARTY (age 27) .397/.559/.453
On September 6, 1916, the Giants spilt a doubleheader with the Dodgers, Rube Benton starting both ends and losing the second game to Marquard. New York stood 59-62, 12.5 games behind the third-place Braves, 13 games behind the second place Dodgers and 13.5 behind the defending champion Phillies. But the Giants had one big ace in the hole: they were now 3 games into a 31-game homestand. And another: a 19-game stretch of that was against the league's three weak sisters, the Reds, Cubs and Cardinals, from whom McGraw had taken Herzog, Sallee, Perritt, Zimmerman, and Benton over the prior year. And then they got hot. Over the next 27 games, the Giants strangled their opponents, scoring 122 runs (4.52/game) while allowing just 33 (1.22/game). Only three of the wins in the Giants' streak were by 1 run, and one of those was a shutout by Schupp, although there was also the one tie (a 1-1 duel between Perritt and Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes) to mar the streak. Besides the weak teams, the Giants swept 4 straight from the Phillies, beating Hall of Famers Grover Alexander, Eppa Rixey and Chief Bender in the process, and 3 straight from the Braves before Sallee lost 8-3 to the Braves in the second game of a September 30 twin bill to snap the streak; a win would have finally pushed them past Boston into third place. On the morning of October 1, the Giants woke up 4.5 games back of the Phillies and Dodgers (with the Phils leading by percentage points) with four games in Brooklyn left to play. Schupp, Benton, Sallee and Tesreau started those 4, but Benton's and Tesreau's starts went badly, the Giants were shut out by Jack Coombs in the game Schupp started, and the Dodgers took 3 of 4 while the Braves took 4 of 6 from Philadelphia for the pennant. The magic was gone. In the meantime, though, McGraw's outlays of cash had paid off; the Giants' attendance was the best in the NL, recovering nearly to the 1911-13 levels from a horrible slump in the Federal League years. 26-game winning streaks at home have a way of doing that.
There are three postscripts to the 1916 run, two good, one unsavory. First, despite the speed with which the team came together, McGraw's men were no flash in the pan; they would go on to dominate the National League in 1917, leading the league in scoring, ERA and Fielding Percentage and winning the pennant by 10 games with basically the same lineup that ran the table in September 1916, except that Rariden won back most of the catching job, Anderson (who started 3 times during the streak) spent about half the year in the bullpen, and McGraw brought back Al Demaree. Kauff, Burns and Zimmerman would all hit around .300, while Schupp, Perritt and Sallee combined to go 56-21 with an ERA just a hair under 2.00. Perhaps just as amazingly as the fact that this hastily constructed team turned into a powerhouse is the fact that McGraw then tore it apart within the next two years and built a whole new team around young talent, starting with the arrival of Ross Youngs in 1918 and the emergence over the next two seasons of Frankie Frisch, George Kelly, as well as the acquisition of Jesse Barnes and Art Nehf from the Braves and Dave Bancroft from the Phillies' fire sale.
The sadder, seamier part may be connected to why (other than Schupp hurting his arm) McGraw had to rebuild the team, and perhaps even to why so many of these players were available in the first place: too many of them were crooks. The Giants lost the 1917 World Series to the Chicago White Sox of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte, and there have long been rumors (unsubstantiated, as far as I know) that that series, as well, was fixed, perhaps by the same New York-based gamblers who reached the Black Sox two years later. Zimmerman and Kauff, two of the team's best 3 hitters, hit .120 and .160 in the series. Both men would be banned from baseball a few years later for their involvement in various scandals, including links to the 1919 fix, as well as Kauff's indictment for auto theft (he was acquitted). The White Sox had shown a propensity for corruption already, as they were accused of making payoffs to other AL teams to lay down during the 1917 race. Rube Benton, who (along with McCarty) failed to cover home plate in a rundown as Eddie Collins scored the winning run of the deciding game of the 1917 World Series, was banned from the National League in 1922, and Benton alleged that Zimmerman, Hal Chase and Herzog had tried to bribe him to throw a game in 1919. Herzog and Merkle both left major league baseball under a cloud in 1920. (As far as I know, nobody has ever accused Slim Sallee of anything, but Sallee pitched terribly in the 1917 Series and much more effectively for the Reds in the 1919 series, including winning one of the games thrown by Lefty Williams.) Apparently not satisfied with such a team, McGraw went out and got Chase in 1918, after Christy Mathewson's illness rendered him unavailable to press charges that Chase had thrown games under Mathewson's eyes with the Reds. McGraw testified as a character witness for Chase, who was basically the ringleader of many of the fixes of that era and was persona non grata in baseball after 1920.
As a result, it's hard to draw too many lessons from this story. The main lesson is the genius of John McGraw; acting as his team's manager, GM and primary scout, he used both his substantial baseball acumen and his team's deep pockets to repeatedly rebuild his team on the fly, playing the hot hands and importing needed veterans while at the same time breaking in numerous young talents who would be keys to his team's ongoing success. On the other hand, McGraw clearly had some financial advantages over his competitors, and you have to wonder how he was so blind to the dishonesty pervading his roster. Was he in denial? Perhaps, as a man who liked to play the horses himself, he believed that players who ran with gamblers off the field could still be trusted to play to win? The answer is lost to history. But we know this much: from 1914 to 1917, John McGraw led the fans of his Giants on one heck of a ride.