This article was written by Stephen Constantelos
At one time there was probably no figure more popular in the American League than the outspoken but amicable George Stovall, a gifted first baseman and team leader who would later go on to a stormy managerial career culminating in a prominent role in the establishment of the upstart Federal League. F.C. Lane of Baseball Magazine accurately described him: “There is a homely grace in his six feet-one of solid tendon and muscle….There is an impressive power in his firm, protruding jaw, a seasoned endurance in his entire physical makeup. He has a keen brain, ready wit, a blunt philosophy. But he is no man to be trifled with.”
George Thomas Stovall was born on November 23, 1877 (reported in his playing days as 1881), in Leeds, Missouri, a town now part of Kansas City. He grew up on a farm and was brought up by his sister after his American-born Scotch-Irish parents died while he was a youngster. After a public school education he went to work for his butcher brother and continued to work the family farm. Another brother, Jesse Stovall, would go on to pitch briefly in the American League from 1903 to 1904.
Legends would later tell of Stovall playing baseball with the descendants of Jesse James, and his having pitched and caught for the local Leeds Train Robbers on weekends did nothing to quell the rumors. In 1901 he toured Kansas and Nebraska pitching for the J.J. Foster company team. That same year he pitched for Seattle of the Northwestern League, and won his first game 6-0. He injured his arm in his second game and was released, never to pitch again.
George returned to the West Coast in 1902, now a first baseman. The lean 6-foot-2, 180-pound Stovall threw and batted right handed, and played for Pendleton of the Inland Empire League, supposedly wearing an Indian blanket for promotion. He then moved on to Portland of the Pacific Northwest League, who released him on the first day of training in 1903. From there he rapidly played for a succession of four teams, and then barnstormed his way east with a team called the Mormons. When this pick-up team reached Atlantic, Iowa, they defeated the local team and the Mormons were adopted wholesale by their opponents’ manager.
1904 brought Stovall stability and much more. Playing for Burlington of the Iowa State League, Stovall hit .299 and fielded .986 in 47 games. Made manager in June, he was sold to Cleveland in July for a figure reported between $700 and $1,000. Stovall was proud to debut on July 4, and on October 7 hit his first big league home run–off his brother Jesse, pitching for Detroit in his last game. It was the first time a player had homered off his brother. George hit .298 for the Naps, playing five positions. After his season ended he capped off his meteoric year by marrying Burlington’s Emma Senn on October 19.
Stovall was an excellent-fielding first baseman who sometimes played second and third when the starters were injured. On August 7, 1912, Stovall made a seven assists at first base, an American League record that still stands. He hit .265 for his career, but his power and patience at the plate were problematic. Fielding and leadership were his talents. Stovall was also clever, perpetrating five documented hidden-ball tricks.
Stovall played beside Nap Lajoie, the eponymous manager of the team. In later years, Stovall praised Lajoie’s hitting, but added He wasn’t what I would call a good manager. ‘Bout all he’d ever say was ‘let’s go out and get them so-and-so’s today.’ He knew he could do his share but it didn’t help the younger fellows much.” Stovall also criticized Nap’s lack of on-field managing savvy, including not having any signs worth mentioning.
During a 1907 road trip in Philadelphia, Lajoie dined with a fan and reporter who had no end of managing advice for the Cleveland skipper. Lajoie stayed quiet. Later at the hotel, Stovall (already upset with being juggled in the batting order) confronted Lajoie for not sticking up for his players. Nap fined George $50, and George dared him to double it, which Nap promptly did. This angered Stovall more, and picking up a heavy oak chair, he let fly with it, the chair just grazing Larry’s head.” Stovall was suspended, but then was quickly reinstated. Some were mystified by this, but the placid Lajoie said, “Why not? He’s a good player and we need him. That chair episode was just one of those things.” An older Stovall related that “it never amounted to as much as they said. Guess we’d be good friends now if we met.” In 1908 when Stovall enjoyed his best season with a career-high .292 batting average, Lajoie confided to the Washington Post that he would not trade his first baseman for star Hal Chase, a comment that the Post thought to be a “needless declaration on the part of Napoleon.”
Stovall’s salary rose steadily from $1,500 to $3,500 a season as the years passed and he developed into a popular team leader. When Joe Jackson joined the team in 1910, Stovall became his roommate, and mentored him about matters on and off the field. Jackson, who had endured an awful time when first called up by Philadelphia two years earlier, joined others in calling the popular Stovall ‘Brother George.’
When Cleveland ace Addie Joss died right after the start of the 1911 season, Stovall, now team captain, defied Ban Johnson and his manager, Deacon McGuire, who wanted the club to play their scheduled game in Detroit on April 17, the day of Joss’s funeral in Toledo. Stovall declared his team on strike, proclaiming, “I may be captain, but I’m still a ballplayer.” In the end, Johnson approved their funeral attendance, postponing the game for one day. Naps owner Charles Somers even paid the team’s fares to Toledo. It was the first time the ballplayers had budged the Great Ban, and it would not be the last time Stovall would try.
The unsuccessful McGuire resigned after a 6-11 start, and on May 3, Brother George was summoned to replace him. Stovall immediately cancelled morning practices, which he felt took an edge off the team. He also gave his players more latitude off the field, figuring out that no one could compel a player to take care of himself if he did not want to. He was friendly with his men, something he saw as a necessity for a playing manager. In the Los Angeles Times, Stovall explained how he set his team up with drinks, so they would be less inclined to go out behind his back. This was in keeping with his oft-quoted slogan: “Two kegs of beer if we win, boys, and one keg anyway.”
All of this led to results on the field, as his inexperienced charges struggled and learned to play together as a unit, free from McGuire’s “incessant tinkering.” Brother George led his mates from seventh to third place, with a record of 80-73, their best showing since the near miss of 1908. “The team lacked pepper, but Stovall got them all up on their toes, and today they jabber away like a lot of poll parrots,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer remarked at the end of the season. “They are full of fight, back up each other like champions, and you can look for them to be very much in next year’s pennant race.”
But 1911 would be Stovall’s only year at the Cleveland helm. Throughout the year, it was well known throughout the league that Stovall was only a temporary replacement, as Somers had his sights set on Philadelphia’s Harry Davis to manage in 1912. Despite the fans sending a petition to Somers, Stovall was let go. His appreciative parting letter to the fans and his teammates only enhanced his popularity.
Stovall hoped to buy his release outright, possibly with money provided by Cubs owner Charles Murphy, who could use Stovall in case first baseman Frank Chance did not last the season. Somers, on the other hand, wanted Stovall to manage his Toledo American Association club in 1912. Stovall could not buy his outright release, and Somers could not get Stovall through waivers, so the first baseman was traded to St. Louis for pitcher Lefty George, who went 0-5 for the Naps and was dropped after 11 games.
Stovall stabilized an infield that in 1911 had used ten first basemen. Beleaguered Bobby Wallace, who had administered the team to a 45-107 cellar finish in 1911, had never wanted the job, and after the 1912 Browns started at 12-27, Stovall took the reins on June 2. He was well paid at $6,250 and began shaping the team he envisioned. He liked fast, young players with good arms, and emphasized defense and pitching. He waived ineffective veteran pitchers and by 1913 the whole pitching staff was under 30 years of age.
The 1912 season was not without its controversies. Stovall once again delved into the unprecedented by joining managers Nixey Callahan and Harry Davis against Frederick Westervelt, an umpire they felt to be incompetent. The three conferred in New York in July, after Stovall had been suspended due to an argument with Westervelt, who had been moved from Chicago to Cleveland games when Ban Johnson had given in to protests earlier in the season. Westervelt, who had been promoted to the majors in 1911, “was not asked to continue” in the majors after the 1912 season. Stovall led the Browns to a seventh-place finish, and there was reason for optimism in “that Siberia of the ball players, St. Louis.” Owner Robert Hedges raised his salary to $7,500.
Controversy continued to stalk Brother George during the 1913 season. On May 3, Stovall was ejected from a game for grabbing the cap of umpire Charlie Ferguson and throwing it on the ground. When Stovall took too long retrieving his glove, Ferguson told George to hurry it up. As teammate Jimmy Austin later recalled for Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, “I guess that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, because George let fly with a big glob of tobacco juice–p-tooey!–that just spattered all over Ferguson’s face and coat and everywhere else. Ugh, it was an awful mess. It was terrible. George always did chew an uncommonly large wad, you know.”
Stovall had, as Austin put it, “expectorated himself right out of a job”–but it would take some time. Ban Johnson, trying to preserve his fledgling league’s reputation for clean baseball, deposed and indefinitely suspended him on May 5. “When the suspension will be lifted, if ever, or whether or not he will ever be allowed to resume his place at the head of the club, is a question I cannot answer now,” Johnson told the press. Stovall was contrite, but it did nothing to alter Johnson’s course–and Johnson would not meet with him in person. On May 22, however, Stovall was reinstated, on condition that he write Ferguson a letter of apology; he was fined a mere $100 by Johnson.
Meanwhile, the Browns had improved but were still mired in or near last place. Up-and-coming Branch Rickey was seen consulting with Hedges. Stovall complained that he had not been given enough control of the club. He was disappointed with what he considered to be Hedges’ amateurish approach to finding talent, not letting Stovall get the men he wanted. “I wasn’t running a primary school of baseball in connection with my work as manager of a big league club,” said Stovall. Hedges countered that Stovall would not develop the players sent to him, particularly college boys recommended by Rickey. After two months of the cold shoulder from Hedges, Stovall was finally discharged on September 6.
Although relieved of his managing duties, Stovall was still under contract as a player. Told by Hedges that his salary would be forwarded if he returned home, the mistrustful Stovall asked the owner to put this in writing, which offended Hedges. Stovall reported every morning, despite new manager Rickey asking him not to. There was some talk that Stovall was courting other players to consider joining him in a new rival league, the Federal League.
Hedges refused to release him, and Stovall refused to be sold “like furniture,” arguing, “No white man ought to submit to be bartered like a broken-down plow horse.” He claimed an unconditional release was his right after ten years in the American League and two managerial “unfortunate experiences.” He was denied by Ban Johnson. As Stovall later explained, “I had contempt for the reserve clause as a barbaric and unjust rule.”
Despite his protests, spitting on an umpire, and hurling a chair at his manager, George Stovall was not called Firebrand until he became the feared incarnation of the upstart Federal League. The firebrand was “the red symbol of insurrection and anarchy,” and the papers of late 1913 and early 1914 were full of rumors of Stovall scouring the country for baseball talent that could be taken from the two established leagues.
In October 1913 he participated in the meeting in Indianapolis that organized the Federal League’s run at major league status. Ignoring the reserve clause he so despised, Stovall signed to manage an unspecified club, with a generous contract for $7,000 a season for three years, plus a signing bonus of $5,000 to $10,000. “No player had yet broken his reserve contract to go with the Federal League. But I argued that somebody had to be the first and it might as well be I,” he said. Joe Tinker came along two months later, followed by Mordecai Brown, both at the urging of “The Jesse James of the Federal League,” Firebrand Stovall. It was announced that Brother George would be back in his hometown, as player–manager of the Kansas City Packers.
It was Stovall and Tinker who landed more than half the Federal League players for the 1914 season. Though failing to sign big stars, Stovall got a kick out of costing teams money by forcing them to pay players more to stick with the established leagues. He usually went after unsigned and reserve list players, but was also known to loiter around hotels at spring training sites. He especially delighted in aggravating Hedges, Rickey, and Ban Johnson while courting hurler Earl Hamilton, who committed himself to Stovall but jumped back to the Browns after they offered him a substantial raise. Stovall commented in his usual homespun way, “I can go out and get these ball players, but I can’t chain ’em down.”
With the Packers, Stovall was reunited with some former Naps, and played well, tagging seven home runs. The team finished in sixth place, with a 67-84 record, but helped foil the Chicago team’s pennant hopes by taking two of four from them at season’s end, thus handing the pennant to Indianapolis.
In October 1914 an article by Stovall appeared in Baseball Magazine defending the Federal League. He admitted that three of the eight teams were losing money, including his own, but declared that the league was here to stay. He defended the league’s backers: “The money that stands behind the Federal League is clean money, made by legitimate businessmen, which is more than can be said of a lot of the boodle back of the two other major leagues.” That winter Stovall served as the Federal League’s recruiting agent on the West Coast, where, according to one newsman, “his presence here is relished by Coast League magnates about as much as a German spy would be in Paris.”
Not one to alter his habits, Stovall had the occasional run-in with league officials and umpires, but a suspension he earned in July 1915 was lifted a couple of days later as the Packers held a Stovall Day on July 31. After the season Stovall revealed that he had been offered money to not start pitcher Nick Cullop in a season-ending series against St. Louis, which was fighting for the pennant. Stovall started Cullop anyway, he defeated St. Louis, and the Chicago Whales went on to tie the Terriers for the pennant. Again, Stovall’s team had played spoiler down the stretch, improving to an 81-72 record and fourth-place finish. The Federal League dissolved after the 1915 season, and Stovall praised the league’s officials as square dealers. Ban Johnson had declared that he would not allow FL players back into the American League, and this was true for many, including Stovall.
After playing and coaching for Roger Bresnahan‘s Toledo Iron Men of the American Association in 1916, there were rumors Stovall might manage in the majors again. Brother George ended up working out West, though, where he had settled and taken up orange farming. He managed the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League, starting spring training with a bang by climbing a fence with a ladder to get his men onto the field after a miscommunication with management. “The Human Torch,” as he was dubbed by the Los Angeles Times, lasted only one season with Vernon, finishing in last place with an 84-128 record.
In 1918 Stovall began swinging a sledgehammer for the Los Angeles Shipbuilding Company as part of the war effort. He played and managed independent semi-pro teams in California and Arizona from 1918 to 1921, and did the same for Jacksonville of the Florida State League in 1922. In the 1920s Stovall was featured in popular annual old-timer’s games at LA’s Wrigley Field. Stovall’s Sons of the Revolution played against Cap Dillon’s 49ers, the latter team later managed by Mike Donlin and Charlie Deal. Brother Jesse played too, along with many top-notch old-time stars. The games raised money for the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America (APBA), helping injured and indigent players, and took place throughout the 1930s. Stovall also served as president of the APBA, stepping down in 1937.
From 1931 to 1932 Stovall managed a well-drawing Houghton Park (California) semi-pro team, coached the Loyola University team in Los Angeles from 1933 to 1934, and then scouted for Pittsburgh from 1935 to 1940. During World War II Stovall returned to the shipyards, working as a foreman throughout the war. Afterwards, he would visit the Pittsburgh spring training camps in San Bernardino to meet up with his old pal Honus Wagner. Even in old age Stovall was still “spry and straight as a poker.”
George Stovall died on November 5, 1951, back in Burlington, Iowa, his wife Emma’s hometown. Emma had died on October 11 the year before.
This biography originally appeared in David Jones, ed., Deadball Stars of the American League (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006).
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