SABR

Claude Davidson

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

Claude Boucher Davidson played thirty-three major league games as an infielder in an injury-shortened playing career that spanned just two years, 1918-1919. With his playing days behind him at age 23, Davidson became a baseball administrator. He led the New England League as president from 1926-1949, overseeing three revivals of one of baseball's oldest minor leagues. During his tenure as NEL president, Davidson contributed to advances in night baseball, Sunday baseball, and racial integration.

Davidson was born in the Dorchester section of Boston on October 13, 1896, the son of Mayberry and Mary (Boucher) Davidson. His father, a printer, worked his way up to an executive-level position as president of Wilkins Press. Davidson played baseball for two years at Dorchester High School before attending a prep school, the Volkmann School (now the Noble & Greenough School), where he played two more years of baseball. Upon graduation from Volkmann in 1915, Davidson enrolled at Brown University.

Under the tutelage of Brown baseball coach Harry Pattee, the left-handed hitting Davidson refined his baseball skills as a third baseman in two years of varsity play at the school. A rainy day on May 2, 1917, when Brown played at Boston College provided the big break Davidson needed to advance into the professional ranks. "Davidson had at least two big league scouts giving him the 'up and down'," the Providence Journal reported the next day. "Several members of the Philadelphia Athletics ball club, whose game with the Red Sox was called off on account of rain, watched the game with interest, centering their attention on the Brown infielders." Davidson was 1-for-4 at the plate that afternoon, also executing a squeeze bunt in the seventh inning to score a run in Brown's 9-5 victory.

Having gained the attention of Connie Mack, Davidson was slated to join the Athletics for the 1918 season, so he left Brown after his sophomore year in the spring of 1917 even though he had been elected captain of the Brown baseball team for the 1918 season. In the summer of 1917, he worked as a clerk at Fisk Rubber Company in Chicopee, Massachusetts, but more importantly played on the company's baseball team, the Fisk Red Tops, which played many of the top semi-pro teams in the region. In October he married his cousin Abigail Ruth Davidson before embarking on his professional baseball career in the spring of 1918.
Davidson garnered his first major league hit on April 27, in his second big-league at bat, and went on to play in 31 games for the Athletics, mostly as a second baseman and outfielder for the last-place Athletics. Davidson batted just .185 in 81 at bats, however, so Mack released him.

Cincinnati signed Davidson for the 1919 season, but soon released him to the New Haven club of the Eastern League, where he played out the season. In September, he joined the Washington Senators. Davidson responded to the second chance with 1-for-3 and 2-for-4 efforts in games on September 3 and the first game of the doubleheader on September 4. He badly injured his foot, though, and never played another major league game.

In a September 14 article entitled "Claude Davidson Laid Up With a Poisoned Foot," the Boston Globe reported, "He has been in bed for a week, and yesterday was the first time he had been able to stand on the foot. Davidson does not expect to go back to the Washington club this season, as his physician has advised him not to play again this year." His professional baseball career was over, as he voluntarily retired from baseball in the spring of 1920. His playing career was over, that is; his administrative career in baseball was just beginning to warm up.

Davidson worked mornings as a clerk at Commonwealth Trust Company during his first year out of baseball in 1920. In the afternoons he pursued a baseball-related occupation as freshman baseball coach at Harvard University, a position he would hold for eleven years. As an ambitious person like his father, Davidson sought upward mobility. He also needed more income to support his growing family, as his son Robert was born in December 1920.

As a personable fellow who knew many people, Davidson in 1922 became president of the Boston Twilight League, a semi-pro league composed of teams from the Boston neighborhoods and suburban towns within the immediate vicinity of Boston. By 1925, through Davidson's promotional efforts, the circuit was known simply as the Twilight League and included teams as far away as 30 miles outside Boston as well as two teams in New Hampshire. Clubs also began to play games on Sunday in 1925, skirting the Massachusetts law that then prohibited professional baseball games but permitted amateur games. Pass-the-hat contributions at Twilight League games were a gray area in the law.

After his success in expanding the Boston Twilight League, Davidson assumed a greater challenge for the 1926 season by reviving the New England League, a minor league that had last operated over a full season ten years earlier in 1915. "The youngest minor league in Organized Baseball - the Class B New England circuit - also has the youngest president," The Sporting News touted the 29-year-old Davidson.

In the era before farm systems, Davidson's sales pitch to potential owners of NEL teams was the expected change in the Sunday baseball law for the 1927 season. The conservative Massachusetts legislature had adamantly opposed changing the law prohibiting professional baseball on Sunday. In August of 1925, through organizing efforts led by Davidson, enough signatures were obtained to put the Sunday baseball question before the voters as a referendum question on the 1926 ballot. If a majority of voters approved the referendum, which Davidson believed was almost certain, it would automatically become law. Club owners only needed to get through the 1926 season before a big financial payback started in 1927 with the huge crowds expected for Sunday games during a time when most people worked six days a week.

The fifteen-month lag time before voters went to the polls in November 1926 for the next statewide election, however, afforded the Sunday baseball opposition a chance to quash the referendum. The opposition forces succeeded in getting the state Supreme Court to de-certify the ballot question on a technicality. This was the first of several instances in which Davidson seemed to be snake bitten trying to make the NEL revivals a success, to rival the league's heydays in the early 1900s.

Left in a lurch before the next possible referendum in November 1928, Davidson's creative mind went to work to keep the NEL alive. He adopted a split-season schedule for 1927, with first and second halves to the season, to stimulate attendance over the second half of the season, a tactic used only by lower-level minor leagues to attract fans. He also worked with General Electric engineers at the nearby Lynn GE plant to experiment with night baseball, which if financially viable would create a true competitive advantage for the NEL. On the night of the appointed exhibition game under the lights, with Babe Ruth in Boston with the Yankees and expected to attend, rain cancelled the evening's event. The experiment went on the next night, June 24, when Lynn defeated Salem, 7-2.
"The first night game ever attempted by organized league teams" was declared a success by Davidson, who "predicted that within five years, night baseball would be played in all leagues," according to the Lynn Daily Evening Item. Installing lighting facilities was just too expensive a proposition, though, for NEL owners to consider.

Davidson kept the NEL together for the 1927 and 1928 seasons while he also worked diligently as president of the Outdoor Recreation League to secure passage of the Sunday baseball voter referendum. Voters overwhelmingly approved the Sunday baseball law in the 1928 election. After a successful 1929 NEL season, Davidson lobbied hard to advance up to the vacant presidency of the Class A Eastern League, but was rebuffed in his effort. With the NEL getting in only one year of Sunday baseball before the Great Depression hit in 1930, owners couldn't tolerate more financial losses, so the NEL disbanded in June 1930.
Even with Sunday baseball, it was difficult to position the NEL as a profit-making enterprise in the New England baseball market in the 1920s. There were two major league teams in Boston, the Red Sox and the Braves. Larger cities like Worcester and Providence already had teams in the high minors, while smaller cities hosted semi-pro teams that were strong draws due to their use of local players. Most cities in New England were also largely dependent on the declining textile and footwear industries, adding further economic challenges for minor-league baseball teams.

Davidson revived the league again in 1933 when the economy seemed to be past its worst. The six-team league limped through the 1933 season, however, and failed to last another season.

For most of the 1930s, Davidson focused on his non-baseball profession as a construction engineer, working for the U.S. Forest Service. But Davidson held onto his dream of rebuilding the NEL into a successful minor league. In the late 1930s, he started canvassing potential club owners about another league revival, but Davidson was only able to generate enough interest to revive the NEL as a semi-pro league in 1941. The United States entered World War II, and Davidson spent the war overseas as a civil service engineer in Newfoundland, Alaska, and Brazil while Bob McGarigle marshaled the semi-pro NEL circuit.

When the war ended in 1945, Davidson, like many people, thought the minor leagues were poised for great success. What they didn't anticipate was the detrimental impact that television and suburbia would have on the minors. Davidson charged forward to move the NEL back to full professional status for the 1946 season, attending the minor league meetings in Columbus, Ohio, and securing a place in Organized Baseball along with thirty other minor leagues that initiated operations in 1946.

For the 1946 season, the NEL was quite successful as teams played night baseball while only the Boston Braves played any major-league night games in the area (the Red Sox began night games in 1947). Another factor was the presence of the first black players to play on a U.S.-based team in Organized Baseball in the 20th century, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe with the Nashua Dodgers. Davidson as league president helped to implement racial integration of baseball by fostering a receptive environment in the NEL for the black players.

Davidson tried to leverage the NEL success in 1947 by attempting to organize a Class A minor league, the Atlantic Coast Baseball League, which would have operated in 1948 with clubs in the larger cities in New England. The league never got off the ground, as the market for minor league baseball in New England quickly dried up. Baseball fans could now see the Red Sox and Braves play night games during the week and watch the teams' weekend games on television.

With these secular changes in baseball, the NEL lumbered through the 1947 and 1948 seasons before the nation's recession (which was especially tough among the mill cities in New England) decimated the league mid-way through the 1949 season. With four of the eight teams disbanding by July, the league crumpled after Portland defeated Springfield to win the 1949 NEL playoffs. "League President Claude B. Davidson presented the $1,200 for which the two teams played - winner take all - to manager 'Skeeter' Newsome, whom the Pilots lugged off the field to his obvious embarrassment," the Portland Press-Herald reported of Davidson's last formal appearance as NEL president.

The 1949 collapse of the NEL marked Davidson's farewell to baseball. His wife died in 1949, and he married Jane Borck in 1951. At age fifty-nine, Davidson died on April 18, 1956, at the South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts. His legacy was to be known as the Don Quixote of minor league baseball in New England.

"For 25 years, he has remained a baseball addict until today he stands as the ranking crusader for minor league baseball in New England," the Providence Journal described Davidson in 1941. "Through feast and famine, war and peace, depression and recession, he, more than any other individual, has worked untiringly to keep alive the minor league idea in New England."


Sources

Bevis, Charlie. "Last Days of the New England League," The National Pastime, 2000.

__________. Sunday Baseball: The Major Leagues' Struggle to Play Baseball on the Lord's Day, 1876-1934, McFarland & Company, 2003.

Boston Globe. "Claude Davidson," April 19, 1956. [obituary]

Boston Globe. "Claude Davidson Laid Up With a Poisoned Foot," September 14, 1919.

Brown University Library Archives, alumni biographical file.

Lynn Daily Evening Item. "Floodlight Baseball Game at G.E. Field Draws 5000 Fans," June 25, 1927.

Portland Press-Herald. "Pilots Take Cup Series, Blank Springfield 11-0," September 19, 1949.

Providence Journal. "Claude Davidson's League Battles for Its Foothold," August 10, 1941.

The Sporting News. "Claude Davidson: New England Head Formerly a Player," May 20, 1926.

The Sporting News. "Claude Davidson Mentioned as New Eastern League Head," November 7, 1929.

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