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Today in Baseball History: A new car and a batting title scandal

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On March 25, 1910, the Chalmers Auto Company of Detroit came up with a cool idea: it offered to award a new car to the batting champion of each league. After some consideration, the National and American Leagues would accept the offer.

I don’t care about the award as such, but it did lead to a pretty tasty baseball scandal I want to talk about. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, a little background.

What would become the Chalmers Auto Company started as the E.R. Thomas Company of Detroit. It was one of many late 19th-early 20th century companies trying to make a go of it in the auto business, but it was making a pretty poor go of it. In 1908 Thomas hired a bright young cash register salesman from Dayton named Hugh Chalmers to boost its fortunes. Chalmers was named president. Later that year he bought out Thomas completely and changed the name of the company, creating the Chalmers Auto Company of Detroit.

Chalmers had a knack for promotion and did a lot to increase the company’s visibility. He hired professional drivers and arranged for them to enter Chalmers cars in road races, endurance events and other sorts of contests and exhibitions. Via partnerships he got involved in the nascent Hudson Motor Company, but eventually sold off his interest there, leaving Hudson to produce smaller, more economical cars, while Chalmers increasingly focused on building larger, more luxurious cars. His crown jewel: the Chalmers Model 30 Roadster. It was a pretty sweet ride. It was also the model of car that Chalmers would award the batting champ of each league.

By the end of the 1910 season the American League batting race had come down to two legendary players: the 35 year-old veteran Napoleon Lajoie — a player so loved and respected that his team, the Cleveland Naps, was literally named after him — and the 23 year-old Ty Cobb, who despite his youth was already a three-time batting champion and, without question, the game’s best player. Unlike Lajoie, however, Cobb was not a well-liked man. Surly and, according to some, dirty, Cobb didn’t have many friends in the league.

Heading into the final couple of games of the season Cobb led Lajoie by a few points in average. Since the Tigers were over 20 games behind the mighty Philadelphia A’s in the standings the games were pretty meaningless for them, so Cobb sat out the final two contests. The Naps, also well out of the race, finished their season in St. Louis to face the Browns.

On the final day of the season a Naps-Browns doubleheader was scheduled. Lajoie had a very, very slim chance at the batting title and the car, so he played. Browns manager Jack O’Connor, no fan of Cobb’s at all, instructed his infielders to play deep so that Lajoie would have a shot. He specifically instructed Browns third baseman Red Corriden to play deep so that any ball Lajoie bunted in Corriden’s direction would result in a hit. That’s exactly what Lajoie did, going 8-for-his-first-8, with seven of those hits being bunt singles to third. Lajoie reached on an error in his final plate appearance, which caused him to fall just short. The final tally, at the time, was Cobb .385, Lajoie, .384.

But that was not the end of the story.

Cobb sitting out the final two games didn’t sit well with many. Lajoie being gifted eight hits didn’t sit well with anyone. The issue was brought to American League president Ban Johnson. Johnson thought it all stunk to high heavens, but in the end he kept the batting averages official, deeming Cobb the champion. Chalmers, not wanting to alienate anyone, awarded each of the future Hall of Famers a Model 30 Roadster. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? Chalmers was no fool, however, so the following season he changed his promotion and decided to give a car to the MVP winner, not the batting champ. Best to keep math out of it.

But that was not the end of the story either.

In the late 1970s, pioneering baseball statistician Pete Palmer was going over the old box scores and discovered a discrepancy: one of the 1910 Detroit Tigers box scores was counted twice in official records, which resulted in Cobb being given an extra 2-for-3 day, which raised his average. Instead of a .385, he should’ve finished with a .383. Given that Lajoie had a .384 average for the season he should have been the sole batting champion. At least if you don’t think Jack O’Connor having his fielders lay down for him tainted it too much. Either way, both Cobb and Lajoie had been dead for some time by then and no one went after their relatives to make them return the cars if they were still around.

Besides, there was no one to do that even if they wanted to. The Chalmers Automobile Company ceased to exist in the early 1920s after several years of financial troubles. It would be absorbed into what would become Chrysler. That company is still around, but if you want to win a car as a baseball player these days, it has to be a Chevy for being the All-Star Game MVP.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1985: An Illinois judge rules that state and city laws effectively banning night baseball at Chicago’s Wrigley Field are constitutional. After being forced to give up a home game during the 1984 NLCS, and threatened with playing future postseason games at another stadium in order to accommodate network television’s prime-time schedules, the Cubs had sued to overturn the laws. Check out what the judge said about baseball in his decision:

1997: A big trade, on the eve of Opening Day, takes place between the Braves and Indians. The Indians send All-Star center fielder Kenny Lofton and reliever Alan Embree to Atlanta in return for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. The Braves would 101 games and lose the NLCS to the Marlins. The Indians would win only 86 games, but won a weak AL Central and won the 1997 American League pennant, losing to the Marlins in seven games. Lofton would play one season in Atlanta and then return to Cleveland for 1998.

 

 

Today in Baseball History: The Yankees become The Yankees

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the Cubs became the Cubs. In the course of that post I talked about how fluid and casual team nicknaming was in the early 20th century. Sometimes the press named a team, informally, and it stuck. Sometimes the team’s owner switched the name back and forth multiple times. It was sort of all over the place.

That was true, too, of baseball’s most storied and, let’s be honest, stuffy organization, the New York Yankees. Rather than proclaim, from on high, what their name — what their brand — would be, they got their name through the same haphazard way so many other teams did. But, on this date in 1913, they became the Yankees for good. Let’s talk about how they finally got there.

They didn’t start in New York, actually. They started in Baltimore, as the Orioles. But they weren’t even the original Baltimore Orioles. That ream was a National League club — led by John McGraw — that the National League contracted along with the Cleveland Spiders following the 1899 season. McGraw cooled his heels in St. Louis In 1900 but then, the following year, the upstart Western League, led by Ban Johnson, upgraded itself to self-proclaimed major league status and reformed as the American League. They put a team in Baltimore, called itself the Orioles and brought John McGraw back via the offering of an ownership stake.

Ban Johnson and McGraw didn’t get along too well and they were in pretty constant dispute. Johnson also didn’t think too much of Baltimore as an AL city and wanted to move the team to New York — Manhattan, specifically — to compete head-to-head with the New York Giants. McGraw, seeing the writing on the wall, but not wanting to let Johnson tell him where to go, left the Orioles in the middle of the 1902 season and joined the New York Giants as their manager and part-owner. Ever the pain-in-the butt, he gave his ownership interest in the Orioles to the Giants, which was a problem given that they were a member of the rival league which wanted to see the AL crushed and eliminated. Add that to the list of many AL-NL disagreements bubbling up at the time.

It was all solved, for the most part, after the 1902 season when the AL and NL entered into what amounted to a peace treaty. They stopped the widespread practice of teams poaching each other’s players and settled various ownership and territorial disputes like the one between the Giants and the Orioles. Finally, as a part of that agreement, the NL agreed to let Johnson to move the Orioles to New York for the 1903 season. What the Giants would not permit, however, is the new AL club to play in the Polo Grounds, so they had to find a new ballpark.

The New York club hastily constructed a new wooden park seating about 16,000 fans on the west side of Broadway between 165th and 168th streets. It was originally called American League Park and housed The New York Americans Baseball Club. The place would eventually be nicknamed Hilltop Park because of its relatively high elevation compared to the rest of Manhattan. The Americans eventually came to be called the Highlanders. For years most people believed that that was solely because they played on literal high land, but more recent research reveals that it was at least in part a play on the last name of the team’s president, Joe Gordon, combined with a reference to the famous British military unit, the Gordon Highlanders. Either way, the Highlanders they were throughout the oughts.

The Polo Grounds was devastated by a fire in 1911 and needed to be rebuilt. Despite their past disagreements, the Highlanders generously allowed the Giants to share their home at Hilltop Park while the Polo Grounds were being rebuilt. McGraw and his club remembered this kindness two years later when they allowed the Highlanders, who were looking for a new place to play given that Hilltop Park was already falling apart, to move into the rebuilt Polo Grounds.

By then the whole “Gordon Highlanders” thing was no longer as amusing as it had initially been. Between that and the team literally abandoning the high ground between 165th and 168th streets, the name “Highlanders” was not really apt. As noted above, teams often had a lot of nicknames, and the Highlander’s third name — apart from that and “Americans” — was the “Yankees.” With a new home in 1913, the club decided to formally adopt it. They played their first game as The New York Yankees on April 10, 1913. 107 years ago today. They lost to Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators (Americans? Nationals? It was confusing!) 2-1.

What’s a “Yankee” anyway?

In the 19th and early 20th century it referred broadly to residents of New England those descended from the original English settlers of the region. This is how Mark Twain used the word in his novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” During the Civil War it was used broadly to anyone from up north and, when not referring to the baseball team, is still used that way today. But where did the word actually come from?

Most people who think they have an idea about it are wrong. It’s often told that the word “Yankee” is an anglicization of any number of Native American words — like “eankke” or “y’an-gee” or some such — with the story often having it be an honorary term bestowed by Native American warriors on European settlers who fought bravely. Not surprisingly, linguists have debunked that self-serving notion. There is no evidence for it at all, actually.

The best accepted theory, among linguists and historians anyway, is that it’s of Dutch origin. Sometimes used as a term of derision toward Dutch colonists after England took possession of what is now New York or, possibly, a term of derision used by Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam toward English colonists in neighboring Connecticut. From Wikipedia:

Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks argue that the term comes from the Dutch name Janke, a diminutive form of Jan (John) which would be Anglicized as “Yankee” due to the Dutch pronunciation of J as the English Y. Quinion and Hanks posit that it was “used as a nickname for a Dutch-speaking American in colonial times” and could have grown to include non-Dutch colonists, as well. Alternatively, the Dutch given names Jan and Kees have long been common, and the two are sometimes combined into a single name (e.g., Jan Kees de Jager). Its Anglicized spelling Yankee could, in this way, have been used to mock Dutch colonists. The chosen name Jan Kees may have been partly inspired by a dialectal rendition of Jan Kaas (“John Cheese”), the generic nickname that Southern Dutch used for Dutch people living in the North.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives its origin as around 1683, when English colonists used it insultingly in reference to Dutch colonists (especially freebooters). Linguist Jan de Vries notes that there was mention of a pirate named Dutch Yanky in the 17th century. The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760) contains the passage, “Haul forward thy chair again, take thy berth, and proceed with thy story in a direct course, without yawing like a Dutch yanky.” According to this theory, Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam started using the term against the English colonists of neighboring Connecticut.

That’s a lot to take in, but know that the name “Yankees” can, basically, be traced back to people calling each other names. Which, with all due respect to my Yankee fan friends, I must say is not the most inappropriate baseball team name out there.

 

Also today in baseball history:

 

1947: Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American in the modern major leagues when the Dodgers purchase his contract from Montreal. He’ll make his big league debut five days later.

1962: Dodger Stadium opens in Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. The Dodgers lose to the Reds 6-3.

1962: The Houston Colt .45s play the first major league game in Texas, beating the Chicago Cubs 11-2.  Of note:

1964: With the Mets having moved to Shea Stadium, demolition begins on the Polo Grounds to clear the way for a housing project.

1971: Veterans Stadium in Philly sees its first game ever played. The Phillies beat Montreal 4-1.

1973: Kansas City’s new Royals Stadium — now Kauffman Stadium — debuts as the Royals beat the Rangers 12-1.

1981:  In his first game for Chicago, Carlton Fisk hits a three-run home run in the eighth inning to lead the White Sox to a 5-3 victory over his his old team, the Red Sox, at Fenway Park.

1989: Ken Griffey, Jr. hits his first major league home run in Seattle’s 6-5 win over the White Sox.