Back in the Deadball Era, when sassafrass was the primary ingredient used to flavor root beer, just as ginger provided the flavoring for ginger ale, a baseball player who displayed “sassafrass” or “ginger” was a lively player who put forth extraordinary effort, sometimes compensating for a perceived lack of natural ability. Several players have been nicknamed Ginger, but George Winter is the only player in the history of professional baseball with the nickname Sassafrass. Another of his nicknames was Spec, probably because he stood only 5-feet-8½-inches tall and weighed only 133 pounds at the time of his entrance into the American League.
Winter’s nicknames give us clues about how he was perceived by his contemporaries. A right-handed pitcher who fielded his position exceptionally well, and also had great running speed, Winter worked hard and overcame the prejudice that a small man could not pitch successfully in the majors. He topped the 200-inning mark five times and averaged more than 10 wins per season over the course of his eight-year career in the American League.
George Lovington Winter was born on April 27, 1878, on a farm near New Providence, Pennsylvania, a tiny village in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country of Lancaster County. He is not listed in the 1880 census, and the 1890 census records were destroyed by fire, but census records from 1900 indicate that George, whose occupation was listed as “teacher,” was still living in New Providence, albeit with his stepfather and mother, Harry and Ada Paes, and their six children.
After winning 38 out of 43 games during the summer of 1900 for teams from nearby Myerstown and Manheim, George enrolled in the Preparatory Department of Gettysburg College, where one of his classmates was future Hall of Famer Eddie Plank. For the rest of their careers both Winter and Plank would be mentioned in articles about college-educated major leaguers, but neither actually attended college, and in Winter’s case he “prepped” for only one year.
Under the rules of the era, however, both were eligible for Gettysburg College’s varsity baseball team, and for most of the season the 23-year-old Winter and the 25-year-old Plank alternated between pitcher and right field and batted third and fourth, respectively, in the batting order. “Plank, the reliable southpaw of last year, and Winter, a new man, have already showed remarkable ability and seem almost unhittable,” reported The Gettysburgian on April 24, 1901. Though Plank and Winter both moved on to the American League before Gettysburg completed its 1901 schedule, the Orange and Blue compiled a 12-3-1 record, which the yearbook reported “has never been surpassed in the history of the college.”
Plank was the first to sign, joining the Philadelphia Athletics in mid-May. At the time he recommended his undersized teammate to Connie Mack, but the Tall Tactitian, according to The Sporting News, “turned thumbs down on Winter because of his size.” After making his professional debut with the A’s on May 13, Plank returned to pitch one last game for Gettysburg two days later. In that game Winter, playing right field, collided with Gettysburg’s center fielder and missed the next contest, but he returned to action on May 24. With “one eye partly closed, the knee and ankle on his right locomotor dangerously weak, the result of injuries received over a week ago,” Winter closed out his college career by pitching Gettysburg to victories over Washington & Jefferson and Bucknell.
“Gettysburg lost her other veteran ball tosser last week when George Winter left to sign with the Boston American League team,” reported The Gettysburgian on June 12. “Fortunately for Gettysburg the call came at a more desirable time than Plank’s, for the Varsity schedule was nearing completion and hence the loss, although it will be felt in the coming years, was not so disastrous for this season’s work.”
Making his professional debut with Boston on June 15, 1901, Winter won his first six starting assignments in the majors. Plank, meanwhile, had won six of his first seven, and on July 11 the ex-teammates squared off against each other for the first time at the Huntington Avenue Grounds. In a game that was shortened to six innings by rain, Winter prevailed, 4-1, but in Philadelphia four days later Plank turned the tables with a 6-1 victory over Winter. The Sporting News later reported that Winter “became a thorn in the side of Connie Mack and Plank, winning nearly every meeting with his former teammate,” which was only a slight exaggeration: Winter was 6-3 in the nine games he started against Plank over the course of his career.
Winter claimed success against another future Hall of Famer, Napoleon “Larry” Lajoie, who was in the midst of a .426 season in 1901. “The first time I ever pitched against the Cleveland Club was at Boston,” he told a reporter from Sporting Life in 1909. “Now I’d always noticed in my college ball games that when a big fellow came up to the plate and stood straight up with his feet together, he had difficulty in hitting a curve ball that broke around his knees. I didn’t know what the other fellows had been throwing to Larry, but he seemed to demand the prescription, though the catcher didn’t signal it. Larry missed the first two and rolled the third one over to [manager/third-baseman Jimmy] Collins. ‘My goodness, Spec,’ Collins said when I came in after the inning was over, ‘don’t ever hand that big fellow a low ball again. He murders it. Just shut your eyes, say a little prayer and shoot one up, fast and high.’ ‘But I got him, didn’t I?’ ‘Yes, but you were mighty lucky.’ Well, to cut a long story short, I pitched two games of one series against Cleveland and won both of them. Lajoie didn’t get a single safe hit, and, inside of two weeks, all the pitchers on the other teams were pitching him the same thing. He hits it once in a while and, now and then, somebody tries to fool him with something else, but usually wishes he hadn’t.”
After setting career highs for games started (28) and wins (16) during his rookie year, Winter got off to a strong start in 1902, but during a mid-July road trip to St. Louis he contracted typhoid fever, a contagious and, in the Deadball Era, sometimes fatal bacterial infection. (Winter was known to experiment with a spitball, and one may speculate that he contracted the disease by licking his fingers after handling a contaminated baseball.) He spent the rest of the season confined to his room at Boston City Hospital, where he met Mabel Willis, a graduate nurse from Burlington, Vermont, whom he married on October 19, 1905.
The couple made their offseason home in Burlington, where George became a partner in the city’s leading men’s store. He kept in shape during the winter by exercising each morning at the YMCA,, just down the street from his haberdashery, and training in the cage with the University of Vermont baseball team. It was as a result of those preseason workouts that Winter made perhaps his greatest contribution to Boston, recognizing the talents of UVM classmates Larry Gardner and Ray Collins, future Red Sox whom he recommended to his employer.
Winter defeated Philadelphia’s Rube Waddell on Opening Day 1903 and was the winning pitcher in Boston’s pennant-clincher over Washington on September 9, but during that year’s World Series he participated only as a ticket-taker when Collins relied on his “big three,” Cy Young, Big Bill Dinneen, and Long Tom Hughes. The undersized pitcher suffered a similar fate the following season, starting a career-low 16 games despite a glittering 8-4 record and 2.32 ERA, which nonetheless was the highest ERA among the team’s five hurlers. That offseason several sources reported that Winter would be dealt to Washington in a trade that would return Long Tom Hughes to Boston, but the Senators eventually refused the exchange and Winter came back to Boston for a fifth season.
After a year in which he reportedly “was not in good health and pitched very little ball,” Winter arrived at spring training in 1905 “in far better shape” and rebounded to post his best season since his rookie year. In his first start, at Washington on April 18, he pitched the finest game of his major-league career, a one-hitter that he lost, 1-0, when the Senators scored a run in the first inning on a two-base error, a sacrifice bunt, and a sacrifice fly. Pitching frequently to Art McGovern, who became a sort of personal catcher, Winter tied his career best with 16 wins and set career highs in innings (264⅓) and strikeouts (119). “Not even the great Cy himself has done more consistent work in the box this season than George Winter,” reported Sporting Life. “Strange, indeed, that that brace of former Gettysburg pitchers – Eddie Plank and George Winter – should be the mainstays of their respective clubs this season, and two of the finest pitchers in the country. Less doubt as to Winter’s fortune, next spring, I guess, than there was a year ago about the spring to come.”
Reminiscent of Winter’s bout with typhoid fever in 1902 after his successful rookie season, a “bad stomach” forced him to return to his farm in New Providence in July 1906 and miss nearly six weeks of the season. When he did pitch he was ineffective, compiling a 6-18 record and a career-high 4.12 ERA. Once again he rebounded, however, posting a 2.07 ERA over 256⅔ innings in 1907, his last full season in Boston. After reporting late to spring training due to the birth of his first child, Winter began the 1908 season pitching in hard luck – the Red Sox failed to score in his 36 innings up to May 2 – and on July 26 Boston placed him on waivers. That six American League teams passed on him was not surprising, given his 4-14 record and 3.05 ERA. The surprise was that the first-place Detroit Tigers claimed him. Perhaps Hughie Jennings could not resist adding Winter to a pitching staff whose ace was Ed Summers. “Spring and Fall have yet to come to terms,” quipped Sporting Life.
Winter continued his hard-luck pitching with Detroit, losing five of his six starts despite a stellar 1.60 ERA, but the Tigers held on to win the American League pennant. After failing to appear in the 1903 World Series, Winter must have been thrilled when Jennings inserted him as a pinch-runner in Game One of the World Series (“George Winter can leg it around the bases about as fast as any man on the team,” Sporting Life had reported in 1904), and when he pitched a scoreless ninth inning in relief of Summers in Game Four.
That appearance proved to be Winter’s last in the major leagues. When Detroit offered him less money for 1909 than he had made the previous season in Boston, he held out and the Tigers ended up selling him to the Montreal Royals of the Eastern League, where he went 15-12 in 253 innings. After Winter went 2-10 in 175 innings in 1910, Montreal traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose star-studded roster included player-manager Joe Kelley, veteran major leaguers such as Wee Willie Keeler, Bill Bradley, Tim Jordan, Ed Killian, and Johnny Lush, and future standouts like Jeff Tesreau and Dick Rudolph. Winter reported to spring training with his new team but refused to sign a contract when Toronto insisted on cutting his salary.
Before the Eastern League’s 1911 season opened, Winter returned to Burlington to coach the University of Vermont team. Kelley granted him a leave of absence until June 16, when the college season ended, and on June 15 Winter wrote a letter to Garry Herrmann, head of the National Commission, explaining his predicament and requesting advice: “I don’t want to bring this case to the National Commission, as I’ve never in the ten (10) years I’ve played had any trouble with magnate, umpire or players, never been put out of a game or been fined.” Herrmann forwarded the letter to American League President Ban Johnson, who confirmed that Winter “is a splendid young man and was always faithful in the performance of his duty. It seems to me the Commission should inquire how great a reduction in salary the Toronto Club wanted to impose upon this player.”
In response to Herrmann’s letter requesting that information, Winter wrote on June 28 from St. Johns, New Brunswick, where he was serving as player-manager of an independent team: “Toronto Club sent a contract of $325.00 per month but later offered me $350.00 per month. When I was traded to them I was getting $400.00 per month from Montreal which they must have known. In Montreal my season’s salary was $2,133.33?. I offered to stay with the Toronto Club for $2,000.00 allowing them to cut me $133.33? on the season, which they refused.” When that information was passed on to him, National League President T.J. Lynch wrote: “I have looked over the case of Player GEORGE L. WINTER, and my opinion is the Toronto Club has acted fair regarding the salary offered this player. The cut from his Montreal salary was so small that I think the player was at fault in not accepting it and save himself from suspension. I for one cannot see where the Commission can help him, except to suggest to him to join the Toronto Club.” In his own hand Herrmann scribbled a note to his secretary on Lynch’s letter: “Send to J [Johnson]. Tell him I agree with Lynch.” That same week Johnson wrote back to Herrmann: “I am in receipt of the letter sent you by George L. Winter. I think the Toronto Club made him an exceedingly generous offer when they agreed to give him a contract calling for Three Hundred Fifty ($350.00) Dollars per month. I believe it would be well to write the player to that effect.”
George Winter never did join the Toronto Maple Leafs, though he did play for Binghamton, Scranton, and Troy before retiring from professional baseball in 1914. He also coached the baseball teams at the University of Vermont and Princeton University. In 1916 Winter moved to New Castle, Delaware, and opened a sporting-goods store in nearby Wilmington. There he played with various semipro teams and also did some umpiring.
Mabel Winter died following an operation in New Haven, Connecticut, on January 28, 1937. After a lingering illness, George Winter died of a heart attack at the age of 73 on May 26, 1951, at Mrs. Dathe’s Convalescent Home in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, the town where his daughter formerly resided. He was buried in Wilmington’s Riverview Cemetery. His survivors included a son, George W. Winter of Mississippi; a daughter, Betty Sulloway of Portland, Oregon; and four grandchildren.
This biography can be found in “New Century, New Team: The 1901 Boston Americans” (SABR, 2013), edited by Bill Nowlin. To order the book, click here.
The author relied extensively on Winter’s file from the National Baseball Library and several sources found online, including census records, the Gettysburg College student newspaper and yearbook, Sporting Life, The Sporting News, and Retrosheet. Thanks to Peter Morris for his assistance.