Saturday, December 18, 2010

Orioles Magic, Feel It Happen

You should know, if you're a baseball fan, that a forfeited game is put into the books with a score of 9-0. That's not really the whole story, though, as it takes rather extraordinary circumstances to cause a game to be forfeited. From the beginnings of pro baseball to today, there have only been 139, and only five since 1954. The most famous of these is, of course, Disco Demolition Night, in which a 1979 Bill Veeck promotion to blow up disco records between games of a Tigers-White Sox doubleheader resulted in a riot and so many fans storming the field uncontrollably that the diamond at Comiskey Park was rendered unusable and the White Sox forfeited Game 2.

That's the most famous. But I wager there's another forfeited game from way back in the old days that is perhaps even more spectacular than that.

We have to go back to 1902. The St. Louis Browns of the American League were playing the Baltimore Orioles. No, not the Baltimore Orioles you know from today; the current Orioles are the St. Louis Browns from this particular story. What about the Orioles you see here? Well, we'll get to that.

But first, we must cast our gaze on New York. In 1902, Tammany Hall, the most notorious political machine in American history, was 30 years past the arrest of Boss Tweed, the most notoriously corrupt politician in American history, and was as strong as if he had never left.

Part of Tammany Hall in 1902 was a man named Andrew Freedman, who had bought the New York Giants in 1895. In 1902, the Giants were awful. After the games of July 16, they were 22-50 and in dead last, 33.5 games back on the league-leading Pittsburgh Pirates. They would ultimately finish 48-88, 53.5 games behind Pittsburgh. Freedman wanted to pull the Giants out of the tailspin and, being a member of Tammany Hall, he had his ways.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the Orioles were in 7th place- next-to-last- 31-40, 13.5 games off the pace set by the Chicago White Sox. By the close of business July 16, they were riding a 6-game losing streak, their longest of the season to that point. John McGraw, player-manager of the Orioles, hated his job. He didn't hate managing. Just managing for the Orioles, and managing in the American League, which was at war with the National League over player contracts. The World Series would not start until 1903, and until then leagues would commonly raid the talent of other leagues. McGraw and Ban Johnson, president of the American League, were feuding. McGraw had earned multiple suspensions and gotten in multiple fights with umpires, and by June 1902, he had had about enough.

Enter Andrew Freedman. He wanted talent. McGraw, a future Hall of Famer, wanted out of Baltimore. According to Kiss 'Em Goodbye: An ESPN Treasury of Failed, Forgotten and Departed Teams by Dennis Purdy, they concocted a plan. The first thing McGraw needed to do was get himself suspended. Easy. On June 28 against the Boston Red Sox, he got the Orioles riled up enough to attack umpire Tom Connolly and forfeit the game.

That's not the forfeit we're looking at.

McGraw next had to get out of Baltimore. Done. Baltimore was fed up with him anyway. As McGraw was packing for (where else?) the Giants, though, McGraw sold some shares in the Orioles that he had purchased in 1901 when the franchise was granted. The buyer of these shares- and enough additional shares to claim majority control- was Joseph C. France, a frontman for Freedman. This was done on July 16. Effectively, the New York Giants, as of July 16, 1902, owned the Baltimore Orioles.

Freedman spent the next 20 hours thoroughly gutting the Orioles, systematically stripping the team of everyone of any quality and placing them with his Giants and, to a lesser degree, the Cincinnati Reds, whose owner, John T. Brush, had also put up some money for this little adventure and thus got some players as a thank-you gesture. The Giants sniped, among others, two future Hall of Famers, Roger Bresnahan and Joe McGinnity. The Reds' gains were led by Mike Donlin, who would go on to finish second in the NL in hitting in 1903, batting .351.

By the scheduled first pitch of the next day, July 17, the Orioles had only five players remaining on the roster: Jimmy Williams, Billy Gilbert, Kip Selbach, Harry Howell, and Wilbert Robinson. Freedman had not been overly concerned with replacing the players he had taken. It takes nine to play, and when the Browns showed up with their full complement, there wasn't anything the Orioles could do except forfeit to the Browns.

At this point, Ban Johnson stepped in and invoked a rule allowing the league to take control of any club that can't field a team, and ordered the other seven teams in the AL to send Baltimore a player each so they could finish out the year. Wilbert Robinson was asked to serve as player-manager the rest of the way. Unsurprisingly, the Orioles finished last.

So what ultimately happened to these Orioles? Freedman had until 1902 used his Tammany Hall muscle to prevent any local competition to the Giants. According to Field of Screams: The Dark Underside of America's National Pastime by Richard Scheinin, every time Johnson scoped out a site to put a team, Freedman would threaten to have a street run right through the middle of it. But later in the season, Freedman sold the Giants to John T. Brush, who in turn handed over the Reds to August Herrmann. After the 1902 season drew to a close, Freedman lost political clout in the ensuing election to a reformist slate of candidates led by incoming Tammany boss Charles Francis Murphy. Johnson had his opportunity, and took it.

The Baltimore Orioles were moved to New York for the 1903 season, and renamed the Highlanders. You know them today as the New York Yankees.

No comments: