Selecting the 20 greatest blunders of the Deadball Era
Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Deadball Era Research Committee's October 2011 newsletter, "The Inside Game." You can view any SABR committee's current and past newsletters by clicking here.
Dictionary.com defines “blunder” as “a gross, stupid, or careless mistake.” MerriamWebster.com defines “blunder” as “a gross error or mistake resulting usually from stupidity, ignorance, or carelessness” and probably should not use the benefit of hindsight. A list of blunders is always debatable; that is part of the fun. As The Inside Game editor Mark Ruckhaus noted, “Depends on who writes the history.”
Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders has probably triggered a lot of discussion and debates. Rob defines a blunder this way:
- “Premeditated” — not a mistake or error, but a move someone thought was a good idea. Rob does not consider Bill Buckner’s famous error as a blunder, nor would he consider Jack Chesbro’s famous wild pitch as one (on the list below).
- “Contemporary questionability” — at the time (not simply with hindsight), the move was questioned.
- “Bad results”
Rob discusses a couple of Deadball Era blunders: the White Sox’ replacement of Jack Fournier with Chick Gandil and the Red Sox’ sale of Babe Ruth. He also discusses some Deadball Era trades: the 1903 Cardinals’ Mordecai Brown trade (on the list below), the A’s 1910 trade of Joe Jackson, John McGraw’s 1913 trade of Heinie Groh and his 1916 trade of Edd Roush.
In the spring of 1912, an unattributed syndicated article, “Twenty Greatest Blunders in History of Baseball”, appeared in a number of newspapers. Dennis and I want to use this article to have a “Deadball Era Blunders” feature in the next couple of issues of The Inside Game. Our goals are to:
- List, identify, and explain each of the blunders. Many of the blunders are quite obscure, almost one hundred years after this list first appeared. We want committee members to submit explanations of the blunders that we have not fully explained below and add facts to better understand the ones we have.
- Evaluate which of these blunders still deserve to be on a “Top Twenty Deadball Era Blunders” list. This list was put together just over halfway through the Deadball Era.
- Propose other blunders which deserve to be on the Top Twenty Deadball Era list. We do not want to rank the blunders. It will be challenging enough to come up with the list!
In order to minimize “clutter” on our Yahoo group and to have a feature for this newsletter, we are asking that you send:
- your explanation of the unidentified blunders and supplemental info on others (first point above)
- your evaluation as to whether one or more of the blunders on this list really aren’t blunders (second point above)
- your proposed blunder or blunders that belong on a Deadball Era Blunders list (#3 above)
to Dennis at email@example.com. We can then organize the input for the next issue of The Inside Game.
I will get the ball rolling by proposing a Deadball Era blunder:
When Frank Farrell, co-owner of the New York Highlanders, fired George Stallings late in the 1910 season and replaced him with their first baseman, Hal Chase.
The team had struggled, finishing in last place in 1908 with a 51-103 mark. Stallings took over the following year, and the Highlanders came close to the .500 mark, with 23 more wins than the previous year (74-77). In 1910, Stallings led New York to the first division. The team was 78-59 after play on September 20, just a game out of second place. They had been in second recently and would finish there at the end of the season.
Stallings had demanded that the team get rid of Chase, whom he had accused of “laying down” on them. Instead, Farrell let Stallings go. Chase had orchestrated the “coup” behind the scenes. The corrupt star first baseman not only got rid of Stallings; he got the job himself. Two years later, after Chase had been relieved of his managerial duties, the New York Americans sunk back down to last place and a 50-102 record in 1912.
In 1914, Stallings led the Miracle Braves to the World Championship, while the Yankees continued to struggle.
Here are the twenty blunders, in bold. They appear exactly as they were written nearly a hundred years ago. Our identifying comments follow. We need help to identify some of them and expand on others.
"Twenty Greatest Blunders in History of Baseball"
Duluth News-Tribune, March 4, 1912
Boston Daily Globe, March 7, 1912
- When Cincinnati traded a kid named Christy Mathewson for a great pitcher named Rusie.
This December 15, 1900, trade is technically just before the start of the Deadball Era (1901-1919). Amos Rusie never won another game; Mathewson won 373. This was not a “blunder” as much as a “backroom deal” involving owners Andrew Freedman and John Brush. It is interesting that the Mathewson biographies (by Ray Robinson and Philip Seib), as well as the Rusie biography (More Ghosts in the Gallery, by David Fleitz) give somewhat different perspectives on the deal. The extent to which the backroom deal was known in 1912 has never been determined.
- When St. Louis traded Three-Fingered Brown to Chicago for Jack Taylor.
On December 12, 1903, the Cardinals sent Mordecai Brown and Jack O’Neill to the Cubs for Jack Taylor and Larry McLean. Brown had just completed a 9-13 rookie season, with a 2.60 ERA. While his record was not good, he pitched for a terrible team (43-94), and his ERA was more than a half run better than the league average of 3.26.
In 1902, the St. Louis Browns had a successful inaugural season, only five games short of first place. Their lineup was led by virtually every star of the 1901 Cards, except for player-manager Patsy Donovan. The Robison brothers, owners of the Cards, were not active in protecting their personnel, with devastating results.
When the two leagues settled after the 1902 season, the National Agreement allowed American League teams to keep the players they had pulled from the established league in the previous two years. The Cardinals finished 44 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning Pittsburgh Pirates in 1902.
Taylor won 23 games in 1902 while leading the league in ERA at 1.29. He won 21 in ’03 and would go on to win 20 with the Cardinals in ’04. The Cards' attendance had dropped by around 150,000 from 1901 to 1902 and remained there in 1903 while, in 1903, the Browns' attendance was 150,000 more than that of the Cards. Now realizing that they had to do something to bring back the fans, the Robisons traded for the 29 year-old veteran star.
Neyer covers this trade and notes that the Cubs’ president, James Hart, suspected Taylor of throwing games in the 1903 Chicago City Series though, in Dan Ginsburg’s SABR BioProject article of Taylor, the charges didn’t come out until 1904. Were the Cardinals aware of this?
Ginsburg noted that, while Taylor was acquitted of the charge, he was also accused of fixing games in the 1905 St. Louis City Series. But “no action was ever taken ... and he returned to the Cardinals for 1906.”
The Lou Brock-Ernie Broglio trade is often considered one of baseball’s all-time bad trades though Rob Neyer points out that the trade did not seem so imbalanced at the time. When the Cards got Brock from the Cubs, he led them to three pennants. But the Cubs still “owe 'em” one more pennant: Brown led the Cubs to four NL pennants!
- When Charles Webb Murphy stood in the lobby of the Waldorf and called Rajah Bresnahan a policeman.
In the 1910 meetings, Bresnahan and Murphy got into a heated shouting match in the hotel lobby. (Fleitz mentions this showdown in his Bresnahan chapter in Ghosts in the Gallery). There is no mention that Murphy called him a policeman or why that was an insult.
Commentary: We need more information on this blunder.
In 1912, Murphy, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, accused Bresnahan, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, of conspiring to let John McGraw and his New York Giants (Bresnahan’s former team) win games against Bresnahan’s Cards, to help the Giants win the pennant.
- When John Anderson stole second with three on.
Peter Morris discusses the search for the source of the play that generated the phrase, “John Anderson play.” It referred to a player trying to steal an already-occupied base. (A Game of Inches: The Game behind the Scenes). Morris finally tracked down the play in question: On September 24, 1903, with the bases loaded, the St. Louis Browns’ Anderson was thrown out when he broke for second on a strikeout. In his Anderson BioProject bio, John Stahl notes that Anderson actually may have been taking too large a lead at first and/or broke with the pitch. Baseball lore may have unfairly charged Anderson with attempting a steal when that may not have been the case. (Was the play a hit-and-run?)
- When Jack Chesbro lost a world’s championship on a wild pitch.
On October 10, 1904, the final day of the season, Chesbro’s New York Highlanders needed to sweep a doubleheader against Boston to win the AL pennant. His ninth inning wild pitch in a tie game let Boston score the go-ahead run in Game 1 and clinch the pennant. (New York won the second game, 1-0, in ten innings.) Besides the fact that the pennant and not the world championship was at stake, had he not thrown the wild pitch, the game would have remained tied--no guarantee that New York would have won the game.
- When Merkle failed to touch second base and lost a pennant.
So much has been written about Merkle’s “boner” on September 23, 1908. Was it really Merkle’s mistake, since umpires had not enforced the rule that cost the Giants? Moreover, the season still had a couple of more weeks to play out―plus the one-game playoff―before the Giants lost the pennant.
- When Marquard grooved one for Baker.
In Game 2 of the 1911 World Series, Frank Baker’s two-run home run off Rube Marquard broke a 1-1 tie, and the Athletics beat the Giants, 3-1.
- When Matty grooved one for Baker.
In Game 3 of the 1911 World Series, Frank Baker’s ninth inning home run off Christy Mathewson tied the game at 1-1 and sent it into extra innings. The Athletics won in eleven innings, 3-1.
The wording “grooved one” suggests that the pitchers served up “fat” pitches. Mathewson’s (ghost-written) column of the morning after game two was critical of Marquard’s serving up Baker’s blow: “Baker’s home run was due to Rube’s carelessness.” Continuing, “Marquard was told just what not to pitch to Frank. Well, Rube pitched just what Baker likes.” Ironically, the very day that column appeared, Mathewson served up a home run to Baker, too. Marquard (his ghost) then wrote, “Just what happened, Matty?” (Fred Lieb, The Story of the World Series.)
- When Charles Webb Murphy panned the National Commission.
The Cubs’ owner was often critical of the National Commission. His criticism of the Commission can be considered a blunder because ultimately he alienated the baseball establishment and sold the Cubs. While it was often assumed that he was driven out of the game, Lenny Jacobson explains in his Deadball Stars and BioProject bio of Murphy that he got such a high price from Charles Taft for his Cubs (more than $500,000), that he readily sold of his own volition.
Commentary: Was there a specific incident this refers to?
- When Clark Griffith allowed Miller Huggins to leave Cincinnati.
On February 3, 1910, Griffith, the manager of the Reds, sent Huggins to the Cardinals with Frank Corridon and Rebel Oakes for Fred Beebe and Alan Storke. Huggins went on to lead the league in walks twice and in on-base percentage once. Oakes also was a strong performer for both the Cards (four seasons) and the Federal League’s Pittsburgh Rebels, where he was player-manager. Beebe won only 12 games for the Reds and had only one more season as a regular. Storke died just six weeks after the trade (“a victim of grip (sic),” New York Times, March 19, 1910).
Because Huggins, a Cincinnati native, was so popular in his hometown and because Griffith did not have great success managing the team, there was some discussion at the time that he traded Huggins to get rid of a potential replacement. (Griffith had managed the Reds to fourth and fifth place finishes. After he led them to a sixth place finish in 1911, he moved on to the opportunity with the Nationals.)
- When Bill Hinchman loafed on his grounder to Bobby Wallace at St. Louis, Oct. 4, 1908.
On October 4, 1908, two days after Addie Joss’ perfect game, Hinchman’s Cleveland Indians played a 3-3 tie with Wallace’s Browns. Joss came in to relieve and was on third base (Bill Bradley was on second), when Hinchman came to bat in the ninth inning with the score tied. He grounded through the box, and shortstop Bobby Wallace knocked the ball down and then threw to first. Shortly after Joss crossed the plate, Hinchman was called out at first; the run, of course, did not count.
During the ensuing argument with umpire Jack Egan, Egan explained that Hinchman should have beaten the throw but “didn’t hustle.” (John Phillips, Who Was Who in Cleveland Baseball, 1901-1910). After two more scoreless innings, the game was called and was made up as part of a doubleheader the following day. The Browns won that game, and a few days later, the season ended with the Indians just one-half game behind the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers.
- When Sherwood Magee belted Finneran on the bugle.
On July 10, 1911, Sherry Magee punched umpire Bill Finneran after he was called out on strikes. He was suspended for the season, an unusually harsh penalty. At the time, Magee’s Phillies were just one-half game out of first place, tied with the Giants and trailing the Cubs. While Magee was reinstated a few weeks later (August 16), by then the Phils had fallen to fourth place, 6 1/2 games out of first.
- When Pittsburgh and Detroit passed up Grover Cleveland Alexander.
At Syracuse, of the New York State League, Alexander had a spectacular 1910 season: a 29-11 record with a 1.85 ERA. He gave up only 254 hits and 74 walks in 345 2/3 innings pitched. The Tigers' scout suggested they not sign him since he threw sidearmed. (John Skipper, Wicked Curve). Jack Kavanagh's biography, Ol' Pete, mentions a Baseball Magazine account (January 1915) that Clark Griffith and his Cincinnati Reds had a "string" on Alexander, but let him go, based on reports from a scout. Kavanagh questions the name of the scout cited in the article, but not the heart of the story—Griffith's mistake to let Alexander go.
Commentary: What about the Pirates? Neither biography mentions them.
Fred Lieb would probably consider this a key Deadball Era blunder, not faulting just one or two teams. As he and Stan Baumgartner wrote in their A.S. Barnes team history, The Philadelphia Phillies (reprinted by Kent State University Press), “There is no greater indictment of the scouting departments of four decades ago than the fact that no big league club purchased this great youngster before his name was dropped into the draft mill. For Grover hadn’t exactly hid his light under a bushel in Syracuse.” The Phillies didn’t purchase Alexander; they drafted him instead and were lucky to have landed him.
- When Cincinnati allowed Marty O’Toole to get away without a trial.
O’Toole is most remembered as the “$22,500 Lemon” for the money the Pirates paid for him in the summer of 1911 (they bought him from St. Paul). However, almost three years earlier, he appeared in three games with the Reds. In his BioProject bio of O’Toole, Dick Thompson suggests that O’Toole threw his arm out, tossing too many innings in the minors. Between 1908 and 1911, O’Toole won 91 games in the minors. Thompson also says that a minor salary dispute over $109 angered the Reds’ owner Garry Herrmann, who did not bring O’Toole back in 1909. While O’Toole did appear in three games for the Reds (he won one of them), his 15 innings were not much of a “trial.”
Commentary: Since O’Toole went on to win only 27 Major League games, is this a Top Twenty Blunder?
- When Hughey Jennings underestimated Babe Adams in 1909.
Adams was a rookie in 1909 (he had appeared in a handful of games in 1906 and 1907), when he won three games for the Pirates in the 1909 World Series against Jennings’ Tigers. The Tigers (and the baseball world) were surprised when the Pirates had Adams start Game 1 of the Series, and not one of their more heralded pitchers (Willis, Camnitz, Leifield, Leever, and Philippe).
Commentary: Just how did Jennings underestimate Adams?
- When Cleveland let Ed Killian go to Detroit.
Killian won 100 games for the Tigers between 1904 and 1910 and was a key starter in the pennant-winning seasons of 1907-09. He started with Cleveland, where he won three games in 1903. That winter, the Indians traded him and Jesse Stovall for Billy Lush, coming off a fine season (.274, 14 triples and a .379 OBP) and who, as it turned out, played just one more professional season (.258, .359 OBP in ’04). Indians’ manager Bill Armour (who would manage Killian with the Tigers in 1905-1906) felt he needed another outfielder for 1904 and Lush apparently fit the bill.
At the time of the trade, Indians fans were more critical of the loss of Stovall, who had gone 5-1 for the 1903 Indians. He, too, would play only one more season―he was 2-13 for the ’04 Tigers. His brother, George, started a long career with the Indians in 1904. (John Phillips, Who Was Who in Cleveland Baseball, 1901-10.)
- When Bresnahan made faces at umpire Billy Klem.
In June, 1911, Klem hit Bresnahan in the head with his facemask. (Klem was just fined $50. When Magee was suspended for the season a month later―see Magee/Finneran entry―the disparity in severity of penalties led Phillies president Horace Fogel to charge that the league and its umpires were favoring the Giants, whom the Phils were fighting for the pennant.)
Commentary: Just what does “made faces” refer to?
- When Horace Fogel switched his famous Hermann (sic)-Murphy letters.
The president of the Phils, a protégé of Cubs’ owner Murphy, was critical of the National Commission and its president, Garry Herrmann. During the 1911 or 1912 season, Fogel mistakenly mailed a letter intended for Murphy (which was critical of Herrmann) to Herrmann, and the letter intended for Herrmann to Murphy. After the 1912 season, the National League banished Fogel for making charges about the integrity of the game.
Commentary: Does anyone have more information on the letter?
- When McGraw parted with Mike Donlin prior to the 1911 world’s series.
On August 1, 1911, McGraw’s New York Giants sold Donlin to the Boston Braves. After a two-year absence from baseball (1909-1910), Donlin had returned to the Giants during the 1911 season, but appeared in only 12 games before the trade. Playing regularly for the Braves, Donlin hit .315 the rest of the season. The Giants lost the World Series that year to the Philadelphia Athletics, four games to two. They hit only .175 in that Series.
- When Lou Criger touted Ty Cobb as a bonehead.
Criger, the longtime catcher of the Boston Red Sox (1901-1908), played 16 seasons. In his biography of Cobb, Charles Alexander writes that in Spring Training 1909, Criger (then with the Browns) was bragging that Cobb didn’t bother him and that “I’ve got his ‘goat.’” Alexander goes on to discuss the showdowns between the two, when Cobb tried to run on Criger. While Cobb claimed that he ran wild on Criger, writes Alexander, the catcher held his own against Cobb (throwing him out twice in a June game). Cobb never stole second, third, and home in succession on Criger. In his book, Peach: Ty Cobb in his Time and Ours, Richard Bak has a spectacular 1909 photo of Cobb sliding safely into home, “under Criger’s unprotected shins.”
Dennis Pajot is the author of "The Rise of Milwaukee Baseball: The Cream City from Midwestern Outpost to the Major Leagues, 1859-1901," which won The Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award in 2009. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the SABR Deadball Era Research Committee, visit http://sabr.org/research/deadball-era-research-committee.
This page was last updated December 16, 2011 at 11:55 am MST.