SABR

Were the Boston Braves Really Controlled by the Giants and Tammany Hall?

By Fr. Gerald Beirne

“Shocking! I am shocked that there is gambling in this place!” One of the most quoted and parodied lines from one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest movies.

However the baseball world truly was “Shocked!” two years running when the National League’s greatest star and premier player, Rogers Hornsby, was traded to the New York Giants only three months after leading the St. Louis Cardinals to their very first pennant in 1926 and subsequent World Series championship and then traded again the very next season to the Boston Braves.

How could the premier player of the league be dismissed from the first-division Giants to the seventh place and going nowhere Braves for two young but marginal players? Was it a gift? Or a dumping? Or a John McGraw mistake? Was this a ridding ourselves of a personality problem?

The Hornsby deal and the Art Nehf trade lead to the topic of this presentation – “Were the Boston Braves of the teens and 20’s really controlled and thereby a pawn of the New York Giants and Tammany Hall?” Or was it just a ‘cozy relationship’ in which one side fared much better than the other for a long period of time until the other side wised up?

We saw multiple trades favoring one side over the other in 1950s and 60s with the Yankees and Kansas City, with the Red Sox and the Browns in the 1940s to name two. For sure there was a convenient geographic tie between Boston and New York, and there were many connections on the corporate level and numerous trades between these two teams. In those days before minor league affiliates and the trading deadline rule which came in 1923 trading deadlines, these two clubs seemed to ‘help each other out’ as it were. At least the Braves helped the Giants.

First, let us look at the principal people involved in this ‘unholy trinity’ of the Braves, Giants and Tammany Hall:

  • 1. The erstwhile and formidable John Joseph McGraw, hands on and undisputed leader of the Gothamites. The determined Hibernian was friends with many of the politically established Manhattanties;
  • 2. James Gaffney was part of a New York based syndicate that purchased the Boston National League franchise in 1912. Gaffney had risen from the ranks New York of foot patrolman to brother-in-law of Charles Murphy, leader of Tammany Hall to millionaire construction magnate to principal owner of the Bostons;
  • 3. Tammany Hall was an old-time New York backroom political machine traceable back to the late 1700’s. During the Revolutionary War, a Society of St. Tammany was formed by antiroyalists as a reply to monarchist societies named after St. George, the patron saint of mother England. Under the utterly corrupt leadership of Boss Tweed, who paid Mutual players $100 a game to throw the contest back in 1865, it became the machine that ran the Democratic Party in the nation’s largest city. Tammany took special interest in currying favor with the hundreds of thousands of immigrants, especially the Irish and later Italians by finding jobs, getting relief and food baskets for the needy, and thereby winning the lifetime votes and undying allegiance of an entire family. Eventually, sons of the Irish immigrants took over and ran Tammany themselves, thereby having access to plenty of power and money. Actually, these nouveau riche Hibernians simply echoed what the big money people, a.k.a. “robber barons” (Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan and the great life insurance companies) had been doing routinely — using power, pressure and prestige to become profitable.

The Boston National league club was an up and down story. After a spectacular last quarter of the 19th century in which the then-called Beaneaters, Red Caps or Red Stockings finishing first eight of those 25 years. However the turn of the century also turned the franchise from champs to chumps. The newly arrived American League team immediately proved more popular and successful. Indifferent owners, like the Dovey brothers and then William Russell, and the inability to replace fading veterans with capable younger players led to declining fortunes. The 1905 team had four twenty-game losers. Over the 1910-11 seasons, pitcher Cliff Curtis managed to lose twenty-three straight games. The feckless Bostons managed to average 100 losses a year from 1905 through 1912.

Ned Hanlon tried to buy the team and move the the franchise to Baltimore. Instead two prominent and prosperous New Yorkers bought the club for $187,000 in December 1911. John Montgomery Ward was a baseballman, his angel, James Gaffney, was not.

“Who was Gaffney?” everyone asked. Harold Kaese wrote that he was the New York foot patrolman who turned to Tammany politics and contracting to become a millionaire several times over. He was Tammany’s Man of Mystery, a big, red-faced, healthy looking specimen, modest, quiet and retiring. Even while owner of the Braves, he was the subject of an inquiry into the awarding of lucrative construction contracts in New York. Gaffney renamed his team, the Braves, the same nickname coincidentally as Tammany Hall with the same Indian head in resplendent head dress logo.

Three days after Christmas of 1914 Gaffney and two New York-based directors arrived in Boston. They went to team headquarters on Paddock Street to review plans by Osborne Company of Cleveland for the new ballpark. The new park would seat 40,282, larger than the Polo Grounds, but modeled after Navin Field. Speculation said that the new Boston manager would be Fred Tenney, described by J. M. Ward as “a grand ballplayer and a brainy director.” Others thought Ned Hanlon would get the sachem’s job.

The team’s home field, called the South End Grounds and the second ballpark on that site, had burned to the ground and its replacement was in deplorable condition. Gaffney bought the Alston Golf Club on the western side of Back Bay and announced that he would build the grandest ballpark in America on the site. And in 1915 he did. Holding 40,000 fans, Braves Field proudly dwarfed every other park until Yankee Stadium was erected in 1923. Under Gaffney’s leadership, the famous Miracle Braves rallied from a “deader than a deer on a fender” last place to sweep to the flag and then clean house on the mighty Athletics.

Only two years after the Miracle Braves, Gaffney sold his share in the team to the famous Harvard football coach, Percy Haughton. But the cozy Boston–New York businessman’s relationship quietly persisted, through some of the team’s New York based directors. Gaffney’s connections were Robert Davis, Frederick Killeen and attorney John Toole, all of New York. Barney Dreyfuss and Clark Griffith were two of the owners who sought a trading deadline as “it will open the door for discontented players to seek a change of atmosphere. And if the magnates feel this way, imagine how the players must feel.” Carl Mays was one such ingrate.

There were many, many trades between these two teams, sometimes two or three a year, including several “Double Arounds,” men who later returned to their original club in another trade. Sort of a Lend Lease before farm systems became so common. The Giants conveniently retrieved shortstop Al Bridwell from Braves to abet a pennant drive. And it seemed a common assumption among scribes and fans that one team (the Braves) were in the pocket of the other (the Giant).

In August 1919, John McGraw’s Giants, thirsty for another pennant (and possible World Series defeat!) needed another pitcher badly, preferably a left-hander. At that time, Art Nehf was the chief sachem of the Braves wigwam. Nehf was sort of the Bobby Shantz of his day. He was coming off a mere 15-15 record (28% of his team’s wins), but a sparkling 2.69 ERA with 28 complete games in 284 innings made him a most tempting target for the ambitious Giants. Although Herr Nehf went 9-2 for McGraw, it was not enough to catch the Reds. But this type of questionable midseason deal and the subsequent outcries of unfairness and unsportsmanlike, both in the press and among the fans, led to the trading deadline rule being put in shortly after.

If Messrs McGraw and Fuchs were seemingly amazed by the hullabaloo, McGraw claimed that he had offered Hornsby to the Reds for Hughie Critz and Bubbles Hargrave, to the Robins for Dazzy Vance and was turned down with a flat “No”. McGraw said the trade was done “for the best interest of the Giants.” Judge Fuchs asserted strongly that there was “No syndicate baseball, that we have been after Hornsby for some time, and that not a single New Yorker has any money in the Braves!” Despite all these protestations, the sports writers and John Q. Public sure were greatly shocked. The New York Evening World interviewed the “Man on the Street”, here are a few responses.

Distinguished reporters questioned the deal. John Kieran wrote in the New York Times, “Was it a trade or a gift? As far as the Braves are concerned, there is a Santa Claus. In some cynical quarters the trade is viewed as a shifting of assets — from one ledger to another in the same corporation!” Kieran however believed Judge Fuchs’ repeated denials of such shenanigans. “If Hornsby were thrown into one side of a basket scale, and Welch and Hogan in the other, the latter two would go skyward in the longest stop of this remarkable era of aviation."

McGraw needed pitching to catch the pennant- and World Series-bound Reds, so — the crucial, critical question of the day — did he simply “steal Nehf away for practically nothing” or was it a fair and decent deal? Was it a New York Yankees getting Roger Maris (with Joe DeMaestri and Kent Hadley) for Hank Bauer, Don Larsen, Norm Siebern and Marv Throneberry? Or the Red Sox getting Vern Stephens, Ellis Kinder and Jack Kramer for warm bodies and lots of wampum? Actually, the Braves received $55,000 and four major leaguers (Red Causey, Johnny Jones, Mickey O'Neil and Joe Oeschger) no Palookas or washouts.

Nehf went 9-2 with a 1.50 ERA through August and into September, helping the Giants immensely that year and the next several years, compiling a record of 107-60 with New York.

If Art Nehf was the Bobby Shantz of his day, Rogers Hornsby was more like the A-Rod of the twenties — feared slugging middle infielder, moving from team to team for less than believable reasons, off-field headlines for improprieties and, arguably, the best player in his league. McGraw had huge confidence in his own ability to control, inspire and otherwise get the best out of any player, but difficulties with the fiery Fordham Flash, Frankie Frisch led to the seismic swap of Frisch for Hornsby in 1926. This only three months after Hornsby had led the Cardinals to their first pennant ever, capped by a sensational World Series win over the Yankees.

Sam Breadon had had enough of Hornsby’s meddling, abrasive ways. One of the bridges Hornsby likely burned was the one between himself and owner Stoneham and Secretary Jim Tierney. Rumors persisted that the Giants actually paid Hornsby’s 1928 salary of $40,600 to the Braves.

Third-baseman Freddie Lindstrom confided that Hornsby “tried to (a) boss around Giant players (b) to have some of them traded (c) wanted to become Giants’ manager and (d) he wrecked all semblance of harmony on the team.” “Hornsby wanted no one on the team but men he could dominate. Yes, that trade is a great thing for the New York ball club.” Dale Carnegie, Hornsby was not. Harold Kaese in The Boston Braves, 1871-1953 says “It was always a question of which talked louder and more often, Rogers Hornsby's bat or his tongue."

Just two days after signing Rogers to a two year contract, the Braves traded Hornsby to the Braves for Shanty Hogan and Jimmy Welsh. Giants management claimed “It was for the good of the Giants!” McGraw claimed that he had offered Hornsby to the Reds for 2B Hughie Critz and Bubbles Hargrave; to the Dodgers for Dazzy Vance. “We tried to trade Hornsby to other clubs with no result, so we opened negotiations with the Boston club.” McGraw also said that he was trading Hornsby “for the best interests of the team,” whatever that means.

Really, no one wanted him — so, how about the hapless Bostons, haven’t they been a convenient ‘dumping ground’ for us before? Don’t we make as many as two or three trades with them every year anyway? Don’t we have a comfortable working arrangement with them? With their sparkling 60-94, seventh place record of 1927, they can always use a heavy hitting second baseman to improve on Doc Gautreau’s .246, no home runs and 20 RBIs (in only 246 at-bats).

Hornsby went .387-21-94 in 1928 for the Braves who reliably clung to their customary place in the standings, seventh. Only the determined Phillies were lower. The ‘other’ players were not bad — the 6’1”, 240-pound second-year man Shanty Hogan clouted an admirable .333-10-71. An excellent target behind the plate, at one point he caught 120 consecutive errorless games. The Giants ‘borrowed’ OF Jimmy Welsh for only 160 games before sending him back to Boston.

Besides leading the league in batting, Hornsby managed the Braves to a .325 record. Of course, Rogers was gone to the Cubs the very next season, traded for $100,000, a second baseman and three unproven pitchers. Some of that money went for the purchase of Wally Berger. This trade was supposedly engineered by Hornsby himself. And Judge Fuchs announced that he himself would manage the team in 1929.

Was this another Tammany-inspired deal of convenience? “Here is the story. Don’t bother me with no details.” John Drebinger in The New York Times described the explanations of the principals. The Evening World called it ‘Syndicated Baseball’.

The Evening World polled “The Man in the Street” for these words of wisdom — “Craziest deal ever made,” Irving Targrove, NYC; “It looks funny to me,” L. West, Brooklyn; ”Hornsby was bought to outshine Ruth.” “I think baseball is a fake, and that McGraw and Stoneham own Boston,” Max Glassman, Brooklyn; “The Giants must have an interest in the Braves, otherwise how could they let a man like Hornsby go.” A.F. Gruenberger, Brooklyn; “Giant plans are to bolster the weak Braves. They are practically the sole owners of the Boston club.” Charles Gesner, Brooklyn; “Deal appears queer,” Thomas Brady, Hudson Heights; “Just another way of building up the Boston team ...” “Giants have an interest in the Braves.” In sum, the fans were shocked!

Judge Emil Fuchs, owner of the Braves, stated, “I promised the Boston baseball public that it would never dispose of a player of ability for money consideration, because the citizens of Boston resented their major league ball clubs being used as a farm for the larger and more prosperous cities, who had the benefit of Sunday baseball ... and could afford to purchase whatever they deemed necessary to build and continue a championship ball club.” The beleaguered judge implied that the Giants initiated the deal as they were after Hogan and Welch also protested vigorously any accusations that the two teams were connected in any way, shape or form. Boston newspapers showed a picture of Rogers “... donning the Tribal war paint ... swinging at the apple.”

Fuchs claimed that the Braves sought the Rajah from the Giants and that Judge Landis knew it was to happen. Fuchs then signed Hornsby for $40,000 a year for three years plus an extra $600 to serve as team captain. Others say that Stoneham insisted the former Cardinal go because of his antagonism toward the Giant owner and also club secretary Tierney.

Hornsby himself claimed to be “flabbergasted.” He apparently got along with McGraw. However, A cloud hung over Hornsby from a $92,000 gambling debt he did or did not owe a Cincinnati gambler named Frank Moore. A jury voted in favor of Hornsby as bets were illegal to begin with.

The Boston Post wrote — “The statement issued by Charles Stoneham, president of the Giants was taken with several grains of salt by the assembled experts. ... While innocent bystanders were still a trifle groggy from the SHOCK of the deal, ... the experts probed behind the scene for the “real reason” for what seemed on the surface like the most one-sided deal in recent years.”

Newspapers recalled the long succession of deals between the two clubs over a period of years as well as the fact that Judge Emil Fuchs, owner of the Braves, is a resident of New York.

“Hornsby’s head was demanded by the gamblers and Stoneham was in full sympathy. ... McGraw was forced to join Stoneham in putting the knife into Hornsby. That is the reason for the Hornsby trade. No one in the New York sporting world can offend the gamblers and get away with it.” Boston Post / Globe.

So I leave it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution and the defense rest their cases. How do you vote? Collusion and Control or Coincidence?

(This article first appeared in the Business of Baseball Committee's Fall 2010 newsletter, "Outside the Lines". Beirne, a retired Rhode Island priest and active member of the Boston Braves Historical Society, presented this paper at SABR 40 in Atlanta.)

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