SABR

Joseph Gordon

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

The Hall of Fame second baseman is not the only significant figure in New York baseball history to have the name Joe Gordon. Decades before Flash was anchoring the infield of great World War II-era Yankees teams, an earlier Joe Gordon was helping to put the franchise on the map, serving as the first president of the New York Highlanders. Even before he assumed the Highlanders post, this Gordon was a fixture on the Gotham diamond scene, having risen from a schoolboy pitching star to a principal of the Metropolitan Exhibition Company, the closely held corporation that had operated the New York Mets of the American Association and the National League New York Giants. A prosperous Manhattan businessman, New York City public official, and Tammany Hall insider, Joseph Gordon was also well known outside the sporting world, with often as much press attention being paid to his commercial and political affairs as it was to his actions as a major-league baseball executive. But few men hold the spotlight in perpetuity and Gordon proved no exception. By the time of his death in January 1929, he was so far removed from the public eye that not one of the New York newspapers that had once been so attentive to the affairs of Joseph Gordon deemed him worthy of a published obituary.

Like many baseball pioneers, Joseph Gordon was a man of humble origin. Born in Manhattan on December 31, 1855, he was the youngest child of William and Sarah Gordon, illiterate Scotch-Irish immigrants from Ulster.i While his father and older brother John found work as city laborers, Joe and brother Robert attended public school on the Lower East Side. As a youngster, Joe developed into a baseball player of some note. Years later, the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Gordon was a ballplayer himself in the old days, and considered a rising young pitcher when he twirled for the school team representing Public School No. 49 and enabled it to win the championship of New York in the games played in Central Park. A phenom was lost to the game later through the overuse of his arm, and he finally made his exit from active playing.”ii

With both parents dead by the time he reached the age of 15,iii Gordon had little chance to pursue baseball ambitions, whatever the condition of his arm. He and Robert eventually moved in with a widow named Weaman and found work in the coal brokering trade.iv As had many a Manhattanite seeking to elevate his prospects, young Joe Gordon became a member of Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine that controlled the Democratic Party in New York City. It is there that Gordon likely forged connection to another frustrated former pitcher with mercantile interests: John B. Day, a cigar manufacturer recently arrived from Connecticut.v In the summer of 1880, the already prosperous Day bankrolled the Metropolitan of New York, an independent ballclub organized by new acquaintance Jim Mutrie. A respectable 16-7-1 record in abbreviated late-season play then stoked Day’s ambitions for the team. Shortly thereafter, Day incorporated the Metropolitan Exhibition Company, taking in Tammany comrades Joseph Gordon, Charles Dillingham and Walter Appleton as minority shareholders.

By the conclusion of the 1882 season, competitive Mets performances against American Association and National League opposition had produced invitations to join from both circuits, each seeking to establish a presence in New York, bereft of a major-league team since 1876. But Day had bigger plans, namely, the operation of a New York team in each league. With Gordon installed as club president, the Mets joined the American Association for the 1883 season. Day himself, meanwhile, took charge of the New York Gothams, a separate and entirely new ballclub that would play in the more established National League. The MEC brain trust clearly intended the Gothams to be the showcase nine, with corporate favoritism reflected in sundry ways. The Gothams, for example, would play their games on the manicured diamond situated at the southeastern corner of the Polo Grounds. The Mets would be consigned to the second-rate, landfill-fortified field placed in the southwest quadrant of the stadium.vi Admission prices were also tiered. The carriage trade cultivated by management for the Gothams would be charged 50 cents general admission. The working class faithful of the Mets would get in for a quarter. Most important, the Gothams would get the elite of the player pool accumulated by the MEC from the recently liquidated National League Troy Trojans and elsewhere. Promising Troy refugees like Buck Ewing, Roger Connor, and Mickey Welch, as well as former Providence Grays standout John Montgomery Ward, were all assigned to the Gothams. The Mets had to make do with the leftovers, including hurler Tim Keefe, property of the MEC but deemed unworthy of a place on the Gothams.

As with countless other well-laid plans, the MEC design did not work out as intended. Despite their favored status, the Gothams were a disappointment, a sub-.500 sixth-place finisher in the National League standings. Meanwhile the Mets, behind the crafty generalship of manager Jim Mutrie and 41 wins from Tim Keefe, played far superior ball and placed in the American Association first division. As a reward, the Mets were banished from the Polo Grounds. The start of the 1884 season found the team playing at Metropolitan Park, a dump hastily erected amid factory smokestacks along the East River.vii But even this treatment did not reverse the order of team fortune in New York. President Day’s Gothams moved up two notches to fourth place in the National League standings. But President Gordon was now head of a league champion, the 75-32 Mets having cruised to the 1884 American Association pennant. In the first precursor to the modern World Series, MEC officials then agreed to a postseason championship match pitting the Mets against the Providence Grays, the National League pennant winner. With an eye toward maximizing gate revenues, all three games of the series would be scheduled for the Polo Grounds. The outcome of the event, a three-game Providence sweep with sparse attendance – only 300 fans attended the final game – did not bode well for the Mets future.

Before the start of the 1885 season, John B. Day made manifest his intention to mold the Gothams into a pennant winner. And in furtherance of that aim, the Mets would be sacrificed. First, Jim Mutrie, the capable Mets manager, was transferred to the Gothams. Thereafter, rule-bending maneuvers by the MEC thrust Mets stars Keefe and Dude Esterbrook into Gothams uniforms. Additionally strengthened by the acquisition of future Hall of Famer Jim O’Rourke, late of Buffalo, the Gothams – called the Giants by midseason – soared to 85-27, the best record ever posted by a nonwinner of the pennant. The Chicago White Stockings of Cap Anson/King Kelly/John Clarkson fame finished the 1885 campaign two games better. The stripped and disheartened Mets, meanwhile, faltered badly, plummeting to seventh place in the American Association. But that was a matter of small concern at MEC headquarters. In December 1885 the unloved Mets club was sold to entrepreneur Erasmus Wiman for a modest $25,000. As soon as the deal was done, Wiman relocated the club to his amusement grounds on Staten Island.viii

The shabby corporate treatment of the Mets had been the prerogative of John B. Day, the MEC’s dominant shareholder. But if Day was the company’s director of baseball operations, Joseph Gordon was its ranking politician. Unlike Day, Gordon took an active role in Tammany affairs, early hitching his star to Richard Croker, a force in ascendance at the Wigwam.ix In June 1886 Croker became Tammany chief, much to the benefit of supporters like Gordon. In 1888 Gordon was anointed the Tammany candidate for Manhattan’s 18th Assembly District and swept into office on a citywide Democratic tide. After an undistinguished one-year term, Gordon retired from the Legislature to concentrate on his now-thriving coal business and the fortunes of the New York Giants, on whose board of directors he served. And Gordon’s political influence was sorely needed. For the Giants faced the imminent loss of their ballpark.

Although Democrats were in control of New York municipal government, not all local officeholders were vassals of Boss Croker. This was particularly true in north Manhattan, where neighborhood aldermen and city planners had their eyes on the Polo Grounds, long an obstacle to completion of the area traffic grid. Throughout the 1888 season, MEC lawyers had waged a rearguard court battle to forestall the paving of a city street through the Polo Grounds outfield. But the inevitable could not be postponed indefinitely. Appreciative of that, the MEC had searched frantically for new grounds, with Gordon advocating a site in far north Manhattan owned by the vastly propertied Lynch-Gardiner family.x Unhappily, negotiations between Day and John J. Coogan, the family’s wily estate agent, foundered over terms.xi Day would not meet Coogan’s asking price for purchase of the property and declined the one-year leasehold on the grounds offered by Coogan as an alternative.xii

Without a Manhattan playing field – the original Polo Grounds were razed in March 1889 – the Giants commenced the new season playing home games in Jersey City’s dilapidated Oakdale Park. After two games the team relocated to the St. George Grounds on Staten Island, erstwhile home of the by-now-disbanded Mets. There, inconvenience of locale and dismal early-season weather had a debilitating effect on the Giants’ box office. By mid-June, Day was back at the negotiating table with Coogan, and this time agreement was reached on a lease for the targeted property, vacant meadowland situated at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, only steps away from an elevated railway stop. Within three weeks thereafter, the small army of workmen dispatched to the scene had erected a usable, if unfinished, ballpark that the MEC named the New Polo Grounds. Once playing in their new home, the Giants surged, both at the gate and in the standings. With the club closing in on a second consecutive pennant, satisfaction reigned at company headquarters, so much so that the MEC principals declined a $200,000 offer for the Giants tendered by stadium landlord Coogan. The New York Times reported, “Since the Metropolitan Exhibition Company was formed in the Fall of 1880, the profits have been enormous, and it is said that the Mets and the present New York club have cleared about $750,000. The diamond-field sport is increasing each year in public favor and Messrs. Day, Dillingham, Appleton and Gordon are inclined not to sell.”xiii Within months, MEC members, and John B. Day in particular, would be given cause to regret their retention of the franchise.

The 1889 baseball season had been conducted amid gathering troubles on the labor front. Barely a week after the New York Giants had successfully defended their world championship title (defeating the American Association Brooklyn Bridegrooms in postseason play), the players rebelled, announcing the formation of a new major league, one that would be controlled by the help itself: the Players League. This new arrival on the sports scene augured real trouble for the Giants and their corporate ownership. The organizing genius of the Players League was Giants shortstop John Montgomery Ward, assisted by New York teammates Tim Keefe and Jim O’Rourke. The premier franchise of the league would be based in New York and also called the Giants, its roster stocked with former MEC employees. And Players League Giants games would be played at Brotherhood Park, a newly constructed edifice separated from the MEC’s New Polo Grounds by no more than a ten-foot alley and the ballpark fences. The competition between the New York rivals would, therefore, be cutthroat.

Before battle was joined, John B. Day strove to recapture the allegiance of his former players. With Gordon usually in tow, Day paid personal visits to the homes of Buck Ewing (Cincinnati), Roger Connor (Waterbury), Danny Richardson (Elmira), and other wayward charges – all to no avail.xiv The MEC fared no better in court, where applications for injunctive restraint upon league-jumping players were refused.xv With fading pitcher Mickey Welch and outfielder Mike Tiernan the only holdovers from the 1889 championship nine, management replenished the Giants roster, primarily with players from the Indianapolis Hoosiers, liquidated by the National League as a wartime (the NL vs. the Players League) measure.

The issue of fan loyalty was settled on Opening Day 1890 when the Ewing-led Big Giants of the Players League attracted three times as many fans as the patchwork Real Giants of the National League. The defending champs played poorly in the field and fared worse at the gate, with game attendees sometimes numbering only in the hundreds. Soon the club began hemorrhaging red ink. Funds supplied by Day’s tobacco business did not stanch the flow and by midseason, the Giants operation verged on bankruptcy. National League team owners summoned to a private meeting in July were stunned to learn the depth of the Giants’ fiscal distress. Unwilling to see their flagship enterprise collapse, the magnates agreed to a bailout scheme quickly devised by Chicago’s A.G. Spalding. In return for their cash, Spalding and fellow team owners Arthur Soden (Boston) and John T. Brush (Indianapolis) became significant shareholders in the National League Giants. Al Reach (Philadelphia) and Ferdinand Abell (Brooklyn) also took stakes in the franchise. As the 1890 season continued, the club’s finances did not improve, eventually prompting discreet negotiations between Day and the backers of the Players League Giants. The postseason consolidation of National League and Players League operations in New York produced little benefit to the Metropolitan Exhibition Company or its principals. Indeed, the arrival in the Giants front office of Edward B. Talcott and his Players League allies served only to reduce the MEC share of the franchise and to diminish its control of club fortunes. By the start of the 1893 season John B. Day was out as team president and the MEC founders of the franchise had been reduced to little more than nominal shareholders in the club.

Unlike Day, Joe Gordon was not financially crippled by the downfall of the Metropolitan Exhibition Company. His stake in the company had been comparatively modest. More important, Gordon had not compromised his business interests to keep the Giants solvent. While MEC fortunes flagged, Gordon’s coal business prospered. He also expanded his commercial reach, becoming active in the thriving Manhattan real-estate market. Before the decade was out, Gordon would be president of his own building construction and realty company. Shrewdly, Gordon ensured his prosperity via continued service to Tammany Hall. Although he declined another State Assembly candidacy in September 1893, Gordon renewed his Wigwam vows through membership on the Tammany Hall Executive Committee and by serving Tammany interests as a delegate to state Democratic Party conventions.xvi At the same time, Gordon’s resolve to rescue a favorite social spot, the financially overextended Manhattan Athletic Club, brought him into contact with another prominent Tammany brave, Andrew Freedman. A political protégé and close personal friend of Tammany Boss Croker, Freedman was appointed receiver of the Manhattan Athletic Club in January 1893. Among the club assets that had to be managed by Freedman was Manhattan Field, formerly known as the New Polo Grounds. In time, visits to Manhattan Field would kindle interest by the wealthy Freedman in its former tenants, the New York Giants. Freedman’s subsequent entry into the baseball world as principal New York Giants owner would have many consequences. One of these was the setting off of a near-Byzantine chain of events that would propel Joseph Gordon into the hierarchy of a new diamond enterprise: the New York Highlanders of the American League.

These events unfolded over an eight-year time span. While his destiny awaited him, Gordon attended to his commercial and political interests. A longtime bachelor, Gordon also took a bride, marrying Jennie Davis, a New Yorker some 20 years his junior, in 1898. Shortly thereafter he changed the name of his building construction/real-estate business to the Jennie Gordon Realty Company. But the gesture may not have been entirely a sentimental one. It also camouflaged a potential conflict-of-interest problem, as Gordon’s fealty to Tammany Hall had recently been rewarded by his appointment as New York City Deputy Superintendent of Buildings. For the next decade, Gordon’s attachment to this lucrative sinecure would ebb and flow with Tammany fortunes at the ballot box.

The maelstrom unleashed by Andrew Freedman during his tenure as New York Giants owner involves far too complicated a tale for exposition here.xvii Suffice it to say that by mid-1902, Freedman, a capable but difficult man, had grown as weary of baseball as the game was of him. Freedman was also totally preoccupied with the building of the Interborough Rapid Transit System, the massive subway construction project that he served as catalyst-in-chief. That September Freedman divested himself of the Giants, selling his controlling interest in the club to Cincinnati Reds owner John T. Brush, once Freedman’s foremost adversary in league executive councils but a Freedman ally, if not a friend, since late 1898. The presence of Brush, a longtime and bitter foe of American League President Ban Johnson, in New York compounded the difficulties facing the fledgling circuit as it tried to relocate its moribund Baltimore Orioles operation to somewhere in New York City. The problem facing Johnson was essentially twofold: (1) identifying a prospective investor or investors with the capital necessary to underwrite the expense of franchise emigration to New York, and (2) securing grounds in Manhattan upon which a newly arrived club could build a ballpark.

In time Joe Gordon would provide the solution to both difficulties. President Johnson’s investor search was guided by New York Sun sports editor Joe Vila, an ardent Freedman critic.xviii Vila introduced Ban to Frank Farrell, a semi-shady character with hefty bankroll known as New York’s “Pool Room King,” a reference to the multitude of betting parlors operated by this investment prospect. Farrell also owned racehorses, operated casinos, and had interest in other enterprises, some of dubious legality. Worse yet, Farrell was often associated with the notorious Big Bill Devery, a former New York City police commissioner who epitomized municipal corruption in the public mind. Clearly, a more respectable front man would be required if Farrell and Devery were to finance American League operations in New York.

Enter Joseph Gordon, a personage well known and acceptable to Gotham baseball fans and one with the political savvy needed to help steer the new club through the New York political thicket. Gordon would also provide the antidote to Andrew Freedman’s obstruction of efforts to secure Manhattan playing grounds for an American League team. Although officially divorced from baseball, Freedman, whether acting upon a sense of obligation to Brush, malice toward Tammany rivals reportedly backing the new club, or for his own amusement, had decided to thwart location of an American League team in Manhattan. Having made his first fortune as a New York City real-estate operative, Freedman had thorough command of the local geography. And his connection to the subway project allowed him to encumber virtually any site that might be deemed suitable for a baseball stadium, which he did. But one desolate spot had escaped Freedman’s notice. And Joe Gordon, only recently relieved of oversight of city buildingsxix and himself an authority on New York real estate, uncovered it: a rocky mesa in Washington Heights owned by the New York Institute for the Blind. Once a ten-year lease to the grounds had been secured, the Greater New York Base Ball Club of the American League was ready for unveiling.xx

On March 12, 1903, the arrival of the American League in New York was made official, with incoming club president Joseph Gordon center stage at the press conference. During the proceedings, American League President Johnson commended Gordon for securing the team’s vital playing site. Gordon had “engineered that end of the deal from the start and greatly assisted me in keeping things quiet,” said Johnson.xxi For his part, Gordon assured those gathered that the group behind the new club was “a strong one financially, being backed by several worthy and prominent citizens” whose names Gordon left unmentioned.xxii Nor, for that matter, were Frank Farrell or Bill Devery listed as club backers in papers filed with the state in Albany two days later, the franchise being incorporated by others and capitalized at $100,000.xxiii Gordon reveled in the visibility of his new post, later escorting Johnson and the New York press corps around the grounds of the prospective ballpark, a site that would need liberal application of dynamite and a large construction crew to transform it into a venue for major-league baseball.xxiv Those requirements would gladly be filled by Thomas McAvoy, a former police inspector and Tammany district leader (whose padded bills silent team owner Farrell and the American League would ultimately be obliged to pay).

The New York club, dubbed the Highlanders for variously offered reasons,xxv registered a middling 72-62 record in its debut campaign. As the 1903 season drew to a close, President Gordon pronounced it a financial success. “We made money,” he informed the press. “We did not make only $1,000 or $2,000 either, but enough to know that our investment is a good one. … We are way to the good. Next year, we will do better.”xxvi That prophecy would be fulfilled in 1904, the season proving an exciting one for Highlanders fans and profitable for team investors. The year also yielded the highlight of Joseph Gordon’s reign as club president. Gordon’s foil in the dramatic events about to unfold was John T. Brush, the astute but cheerless new boss of the New York Giants. Brush detested Ban Johnson, his American League, and the upstart AL franchise that Johnson had managed to wedge into the Giants neighborhood.xxvii Brush had therefore given the back of his hand to Highlander proposals for a post-1903 season exhibition series between the two New York teams. As the 1904 season progressed, Brush’s satisfaction with his Giants, comfortably ahead and coasting toward the National League pennant, was tempered by foreboding. Brush, diehard in his opposition to the American League at the January 1903 interleague peace parley, had disapproved of National League participation in the highly popular World Series played by Boston and Pittsburgh at season’s end. Now, he would face pressure to match his champion Giants against the American League pennant winner. And as the 1904 season wound down, it appeared that the opposition might well be the infernal Highlanders.

Gordon milked Brush’s discomfort to maximum advantage. On August 16 he had Highlanders manager Clark Griffith issue the Giants a well-publicized challenge to a postseason series to determine the baseball champions of New York. Upon receiving a brusque rejection, Gordon upped the ante, penning a taunting missive directly to “John T. Brush, Esq.” Throwing a Brush putdown right back at him, Gordon wrote, “You say you ‘do not know who these people are.’ Let me introduce myself. When you were running a small clothing store in Muncie, Ind., I was a director of the New York baseball club, the only local team which has ever won and held the championship of the world. Inasmuch as you have been in New York barely a year, I can appreciate your lack of acquaintance.” xxviii Gordon then renewed the Highlanders challenge, informing Brush that “your conferees can tell you who we are. By playing us, you will find out what we are.”xxix But Brush, tough-minded and intensely self-disciplined, did not rise to the bait. He simply ignored Gordon. With the 1904 season coming down to the wire, Gordon reiterated the challenge one last time, but in far more respectful terms. Citing the public clamor for the match and leaving the financial arrangements to Brush’s discretion, Gordon stated that “if the Greater New Yorks defeat the Bostons in the American League race, we will have the right to defend the title [i.e., Boston’s 1903 World Series crown]. If you wish to prove to the baseball public of New York that the Nationals are capable of winning these added laurels from the Greater New Yorks, we will pave the way. The responsibility rests with you, Mr. Brush, to accept or decline this fair and square proposition, made in the interests of the national sport.”xxx

This time Brush referred the matter to Giants manager John McGraw, who dismissed the challenge disdainfully. According to McGraw, postseason play would traduce the Giants accomplishment of having won the 1904 National League pennant, “the highest honor in baseball.”xxxi Days later, any all-New York World Series was rendered a moot point, courtesy of an ill-thrown Jack Chesbro spitball that relegated the Highlanders to a close second-place AL finish. Still, the season had been a triumph for the new franchise, its sterling play on the field complemented by a public-relations victory over the entrenched Giants, as New York baseball fans and the city’s sporting press had sided almost unanimously with the Highlanders in the controversy over the postseason challenge.

The contretemps with Giants management transformed the Highlanders’ Joe Gordon into a local celebrity. And hastened his undoing as club president. In early 1907 an envious Frank Farrell demoted Gordon to vice president, installing himself in the club’s top post. Shortly thereafter Farrell dismissed Gordon from the team’s employ altogether. As Farrell admitted several years later, “I decided that I should get some of the glory. I had put up the money and done a lot of the work (to get the Highlanders established).”xxxii At first, a wounded Gordon consoled himself with vacation trips to faraway places.xxxiii Then, he struck back, filing a multifaceted lawsuit against Farrell. Alleging fraud and despoilment of club assets, Gordon laid claim to one-half the profits generated during the four-year period that Gordon had served as Highlanders president. He also sought judgment declaring him a co-owner of the club and an injunction restraining Farrell from disbursement of franchise funds.xxxiv

At the outset the suit went well for Gordon, the New York State Supreme Court denying Farrell’s demurrer and ordering the case to trial.xxxv That trial, however, proved an embarrassment to Gordon. Without documentary evidence, he had to ground his claim to team co-ownership on an oral agreement between himself and Farrell, an improbable business arrangement and one unwitnessed by any third party. The Gordon assertions, moreover, were contradicted by American League President Ban Johnson, New York Sun sports editor Joe Vila, and Farrell attorney Abram Elkus, all of whom testified that Gordon, in effect, had been “a dummy president of the club … because Farrell, being known as a ‘racing man,’ did not want to appear as sponsor for the club, and because Gordon begged to be president to benefit his coal business.”xxxvi Such revelations had a punishing effect on Gordon’s reputation in the baseball world. Syndicated sports columnist Joe S. Jackson, for example, informed readers that “the aggrieved party never cut much of a figure in baseball and would be forgotten by now” but for the association of his surname with the Highlanders “sobriquet.”xxxvii Of more import to the lawsuit principals was the predictable result of defense witness testimony. On January 19, 1912, Supreme Court Justice Henry Bischoff, Jr. dismissed the Gordon complaint on the merits. Thereafter, Gordon sought appellate review, but to no avail. In June 1913 the New York Appellate Division affirmed the judgment, expressly finding in the process that it had not been “persuaded by the evidence that any contract of partnership or joint venture was executed between the parties.”xxxviii

From that point on, Joseph Gordon largely withdrew from public life, his activities attracting only passing press notice.xxxix But Gordon lingered at the fringes of major-league baseball, his name occasionally buried deep on the roster of attendees at Hot Stove League functions.xl In October 1922, however, Joe Gordon made a brief return to prominence on the sports pages. It was reported that he had approached Giants owner Charles Stoneham with a buyout offer from a syndicate headed by Harry Hempstead, son-in-law of the late John T. Brush and his successor as Giants club president until the club was sold to Stoneham in January 1919.xli Evasive nondenials by Stoneham did nothing to refute the report, prompting heated words from Giants manager McGraw and club treasurer Francis X. McQuade, minority partners in the team ownership, who threatened legal action if Stoneham attempted to consummate the deal. That was enough for Stoneham, who promptly repaired to Cuba, where he disclaimed any intention of selling the Giants – at least for the present.xlii

Joseph Gordon spent his final years attending to his business interests, particularly the Jennie Gordon Realty Company, still an active broker of Manhattan properties. His last reported interaction with baseball was a wistful one: the making of a $25 contribution in July 1926 to a fund being collected in memory of the recently deceased Christy Mathewson.xliii Sometime thereafter, Gordon’s health began to fail. He died at his longtime residence at the Breton Hall Hotel in Manhattan on January 6, 1929, succumbing to heart failure, aggravated by prolonged anemia and general emaciation, likely the effects of cancer.xliv Gordon was 73 years old. Notwithstanding his onetime stature in the New York political and sporting worlds, not a single city newspaper published an obituary. Only terse death notices in the New York Herald and the New York Times marked his passing.xlv After services at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan, Gordon was interred at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. He was childless, and his only known survivor was wife Jennie.xlvi

Although his role in Gotham baseball lacked the impact of contemporaries like John B. Day or Andrew Freedman, Joseph Gordon played an active and mostly constructive part in the game’s establishment in New York. And another executive with Gordon’s connection to three separate major-league franchises in the same city, the New York Mets of the American Association, the New York Giants of the National League, and the American League New York Highlanders, does not readily spring to mind. If for this reason alone, Joseph Gordon deserves more attention from the game’s chroniclers than he has thus far received.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources specifically cited in the Notes below, the following works were consulted during the preparation of this profile:

Oliver E. Allen, The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993).

Burt Solomon, Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

John Thorn et al., eds., Total Baseball, 7th edition (Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, 2001).

 

i Precise biographical information on Joseph Gordon is less than abundant. Sources for the portrait drawn herein include US Census data, a brief profile of Gordon published in the New York Times, May 5, 1907, and the death certificate obtained by the writer from the New York City Department of Health. Of the Gordon clan, Joe was the only native-born American. Parents William (1815-1870) and Sarah (c.1820- c.1868) and oldest brother John (b. 1838) were all born in Ireland while brother Robert was delivered during the sea voyage that brought his mother from Newry (now in Northern Ireland) to New York in the fall of 1849. William and John Gordon had preceded Sarah, arriving in America some months earlier.

ii New York Times, May 5, 1907.

iii William Gordon died from the effects of asthma on November 21, 1870. He was predeceased by his wife, Sarah, sometime earlier.

iv As per the 1880 US Census.

v Reminiscing in the early 1950s, Blanche McGraw repeatedly identified Gordon as the brother-in-law of John B. Day. See Mrs. John J. McGraw (with Arthur Mann), The Real McGraw (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1953), 170, 189-190. That description was subsequently adopted by other Giants chroniclers. See e.g., James J. Hardy, Jr., The New York Giants Base Ball Club: The Growth of a Team and a Sport, 1870-1900 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996), 32. But the writer could find no contemporary mention of a marital tie between Day and Gordon. Although Day’s first wife and the woman whom Gordon married in 1898 both had the maiden name Davis, Ella Day of Portland, Connecticut, and the much younger Jennie Gordon of Manhattan were not related. The McGraw memoir, while charming, is riddled with factual errors. Perhaps Mrs. McGraw confused Gordon with Charles P. Abbey, married to Day’s older sister Anna Eliza and the senior partner in the Abbey & Day tobacco firm, or with Frederick Davis, a brother of Ella Day who busied himself around the Polo Grounds and later sued John B. for payment of his services.

vi On those occasions when the Gothams and the Mets played home games simultaneously, the two fields were separated by a temporary canvas fence. How often this awkward arrangement was actually utilized, however, is a matter of some dispute. For more, see Stew Thornley, The Polo Grounds: Land of the Giants (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 18-19.

vii With raw garbage used as stadium fill, Metropolitan Park was literally a dump, both unsafe and unsanitary. According to Mets pitcher Jack Lynch, a player could get malaria just by fielding a groundball there, as related in Philip Lowry, Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of Major League and Negro League Ballparks (New York: Walker & Company, 3rd ed., 2006), 149.

viii After two desultory seasons playing at the St. George Grounds, the Mets were disbanded.

ix Born in Ireland and brought to New York as a child, Richard Croker was a rough customer even by bare-knuckle 19th-century standards. He had earned his Tammany stripes as leader of the Fourth Avenue Tunnel Gang, a brutal outfit that preyed on railway freight depots. Croker later added acquittal on a murder charge to his pedigree. Determined and utterly ruthless as Tammany boss, Croker perfected the art of “honest graft,” amassing a huge personal fortune while constantly outmaneuvering the reform administrations that New York City voters intermittently placed in his way.

x New York Times, February 21, 1889.

xi Coogan, proprietor of a Bowery furniture store and twice a gadfly mayoral candidate, had married Harriet Gardiner Lynch, heiress presumptive to her family’s holdings, in 1885. Coogan assumed management of the Gardiner estates upon the death of his father-in-law, William L. Lynch, in the late 1880s.

xii In desperation, Day placed notices in New York City newspapers soliciting the intervention of an angel who would purchase the property and then grant the Giants a five- or ten-year lease at $6,000 annually. See e.g., New York Times, April 8, 1889. To no great surprise, Day’s prayers went unanswered.

xiii New York Times, September 6, 1889.

xiv As reported in the Boston Globe, February 19 and 23, 1890, the New York Times, February 22, 1890, and elsewhere.

xv For a detailed account of the legal battles between New York management and players, see Hardy, The New York Giants Base Ball Club, 115-121.

xvi New York Times, September 23, 1893, January 4 and 20, 1894.

xvii For a fuller rendering, see the SABR BioProject profile of Andrew Freedman.

xviii The gibes of Vila columns were frequently couched in only thinly veiled anti-Semitism. The easily affronted Freedman responded with legal action, instituting some 22 defamation-based lawsuits against the New York Sun, all of which he lost.

xix In the New York City municipal elections of November 1901, Tammany had been cast out of power. Soon thereafter, Richard Croker resigned his position as Tammany chief and decamped to the British Isles, far beyond the subpoena reach of the incoming reform administration. Among the election’s casualties was Deputy Superintendent of Buildings Gordon. But Andrew Freedman, a non-office-holder whose influence emanated from his close association with Croker, was a far bigger loser. Still, the canny and energetic Freedman had not been rendered impotent. Having made himself indispensable to the all-important NYC subway project, Freedman remained a force in city affairs, albeit a significantly diminished one.

xx For a particularly informative account of the situation, see Glenn Stout, Yankee Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees Baseball (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 3-20.

xxi Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1903.

xxii Ibid.

xxiii New York Times, March 15, 1903. Although Gordon’s former baseball partner John B. Day had been counted among club officials and was quoted regarding the team’s prospects in reportage of the March 12 press conference, Day was not listed as a director in club incorporation papers and played no role in the subsequent administration of the team.

xxiv As noted in the Chicago Tribune, March 16, 1903, with accompanying photo of bald-pated club president Gordon, his silver mustache shaded by a generous nose and resplendently attired in evening wear.

xxv The derivation of the team’s nickname is unsettled. At times, the Highlanders moniker has been deemed a play on the elevated site of the club’s Hilltop Park. At other times, the nickname has been traced to club president Gordon, Highlanders being taken as an homage of sorts to the Gordon Highlanders, a famed Scottish regiment. See the Atlanta Constitution, September 4, 1910.

xxvi Washington Post, September 18, 1903.

xxvii Brush’s antipathy for Johnson dated back more than a decade to when, as a sportswriter for the Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette, Johnson had regularly lambasted Brush’s stewardship of the hometown Reds. The two had also butted heads during Johnson’s subsequent tenure as president of the Western League. In January 1903 Brush was the last holdout to the peace settlement reached between the National League and Johnson’s newly arrived American League. Later that year Brush was infuriated by judicial and National Commission decisions that, in his estimation, favored the Highlanders over his Giants. For more on the subject, see W.F. Lamb, “The Ward v. Johnson Libel Case: The Last Battle of the Great Baseball War,” Base Ball, A Journal of the Early Game, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 2008, 47-48.

xxviii The Gordon letter was promptly leaked to the sporting press and widely reported. See e.g., the Boston Globe, September 4, 1904. As Gordon was undoubtedly well aware, the Brush business was actually a four-story department store in Indianapolis, reputedly the largest of the kind in the near Midwest. Brush’s baseball experience, moreover, was more than the equal of Gordon’s, originating with sponsorship of a municipal-league team in Indianapolis in 1882 and then an ownership stake in the 1884 Indianapolis Hoosiers of the American Association. Thereafter Brush became principal owner and club president of National League franchises in Indianapolis (1887-1889) and Cincinnati (1891-1902).

xxix Boston Globe, September 8, 1904.

xxx The second Gordon letter was published verbatim in newspapers around the country. See, e.g., the Chicago Tribune, October 6, 1904. For a more extensive account of the affair, see Benton Stark, The Year They Called Off the World Series: A True Story (Garden City Park, New York: Avery Publishing Group, Inc., 1991).

xxxi The full text of the McGraw response is reproduced in Stark, 174.

xxxii New York Times, November 22, 1911.

xxxiii See e.g., the New York Times, July 28, 1907, reporting a Gordon vacation in the Netherlands, or the New York Times, July 14, 1908, regarding a trip to western Canada and Alaska.

xxxiv Sporting Life, May 29, 1909.

xxxv A demurrer is a defense pleading that denies the legal sufficiency of the plaintiff’s case even if its allegations are accepted as true. In New York, the Supreme Court is a trial-level tribunal. The state’s highest judicial forum is the Court of Appeals.

xxxvi New York Times, November 22, 1911.

xxxvii As published in the Atlanta Constitution, November 24, 1911, and elsewhere.

xxxviii See Gordon v. Farrell, 157 A.D. 409, 412, 142 N.Y.S. 491, 494 (App. Div. 1913). The court’s opinion was rendered for the five-member panel by the same Justice Bischoff who had presided at trial.

xxxix See, e.g., New York Times, November 19, 1913, reporting Tammany disbursements made to Gordon as treasurer of the 15th District Committee; July 15, 1914, regarding Gordon’s donation of a ton of coal as a Friars Club outing prize; July 15, 1915, noting a trip to California with Mrs. Gordon; and January 6, 1917, regarding a Gordon appearance before a federal grand jury investigating coal prices.

xl See, e.g., New York Times, March 14, 1914, placing Gordon in the large delegation greeting the return of the Giants and the White Sox from a world tour; March 8, 1914, listing Gordon as an attendee at the ensuing banquet held at the New York Biltmore Hotel; and February 10, 1916, placing Gordon in the audience for former President Taft’s 40th-anniversary salute to the National League.

xli New York Times, October 26, 1922, and The Sporting News, November 2, 1922.

xlii The Sporting News, November 23, 1922.

xliii New York Times, July 7, 1926.

xliv As noted on the Gordon death certificate, filed January 7, 1929.

xlv Published in the New York Herald, January 7, 1929, and the New York Times, January 7-8, 1929. A year later a brief memoriam from his wife was published in the New York Times, January 6, 1930.

xlvi The fate of older brothers John and Robert Gordon is unknown. Widow Jennie Davis Gordon died in March 1953.

 

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.