Shortstop Joe Boley played for 11 pennant winners in his first 16 professional seasons. Contemporary observers considered him a key player on the Philadelphia Athletics teams that won three consecutive pennants and two consecutive World Series from 1929 through 1931. Throughout his career, sportswriters described him with superlatives like “brilliant,” “sensational,” “sparkling” and “great.”
He is virtually unknown today, possibly because he earned the nickname “Silent Joe.” He was portrayed as a hard-nosed, durable performer who played with enthusiasm and an obvious love of the game, but he seems to have been one of the quietest and most colorless players of his time. Sportswriter Shirley Povich once called him “the second least talkative player in the big leagues” behind Ossie Bluege. In fact, it is very difficult to find a direct quote of any kind from Boley in the national newspapers of the time. When he was sold to the A’s in 1926, one sportswriter said he had “won the title of ‘Philosophical Pole’” because of his “calm and unruffled temperament,” adding that he was “taciturn, but by no means grouchy.” According to a January 15, 1931, Sporting News article, his Philadelphia teammates called him “Ol’ Silence-And-Fun.” But in the major newspapers of the day he was almost always just plain Joe.
In a Sporting News article titled “Foibles and Fancies of the World’s Champion Athletics,” Philadelphia sportswriter Bill Dooley listed the amusing quirks and colorful antics of the A’s players: Jimmie Foxx’s frequent manicures, Bill Shores’ love of driving 80 miles per hour, an incident in which an ape threw a bowling ball at George Earnshaw, Cy Perkins’ unusual interest in electrocution, and Eddie Collins’ tendency to shriek in fear when he rode in a car going more than 30 miles per hour. The most interesting things Dooley could write about Boley were that his “principle worry” during the 1930 World Series was to find a ticket to the Penn-Notre Dame game; he was one of only three tobacco chewers on the team; and he had driven mules in the coal mines at the age of 14. Boley evidently had a fun-loving side; he and Jimmy Dykes spent a lot of time at a dance hall on 22nd and Clearfield in Philadelphia. But he rarely did or said anything off the field that found its way into the public eye.
Boley didn’t appear in a major league game until he was almost 31 years old and past his peak. His big league career ended after only six seasons and 540 games. He spent the heart of his career in the highest level of the minor leagues as a star with what was arguably the greatest minor league team of all time, the International League Baltimore Orioles. He remained with the Orioles for eight years because the International League was exempt from the major league draft. While many minor league teams were forced to choose between selling their star players or allowing them to be drafted by big league teams, the Orioles’ owner, Jack Dunn, could hang on to star players for as long as he wanted.
During Boley’s career, sports pages were full of news about minor league games. The top stars of the minors were highly regarded by sportswriters and familiar to the fans in their regions. Boley was a prominent player on the “Endless Chain Champion” Orioles that won seven consecutive pennants, so his minor league status didn’t stop him from being a familiar name in the 1920s. Over the years, however, the accomplishments of those players have faded from common memory, until the stars of the independent minors have become obscure figures known only to baseball history fanatics.
Joe Boley was born on July 19, 1896, in the east central Pennsylvania town of Mahanoy City, in what Westbrook Pegler described as “the god-forgottenest region of the Pennsylvania coal belt” where “they love to play ball and fight in those hills.” With a population of only 4,647 in the 2000 census, Mahanoy City has produced more than its share of major leaguers, including Joe Dugan and Ron Northey, who grew up as Boley’s next-door neighbor.
Boley came from a large Catholic family with parents who were recent Polish immigrants. Joe began working in the coal mines at the age of 10. On February 4, 1923, after Boley had become one of the highest-paid minor league players in the country, the Atlanta Constitution reported that he still “spends his winters mining coal at his home in the Pennsylvania coal fields.” In 1947, long after Boley’s playing days, Ernie Landgraf, president of the North Atlantic League, named Boley to his all-star team of former coal miners.
His real name was John Peter Bolinsky, but he evidently changed it to Joe Boley sometime between 1916 and 1919. A few reporters speculated that the new name was thrust upon him by linotype setters who abbreviated his real name to make it fit into standard box score columns. In fact, at least two of Joe’s siblings also changed their last names to Boley. According to one Schuylkill County resident who was a friend of Joe’s brother Pete, Joe simply wanted a name that sounded more “American.”
Reporters used Boley’s adopted name but they frequently pointed out that he was of Polish descent and his real name was Bolinsky, just as they repeatedly reminded readers that his Philadelphia teammate Al Simmons had been born Aloysius Szymanski. In 1929 New York Times writer John Kieran playfully wrote, “A double play from Simmons to Boley set an all-time geographical record — from Pole to Pole.” Simmons and Boley were among the first prominent major leaguers of Polish descent and became very popular among Polish-American fans.
When Boley was growing up in Mahanoy City, several local baseball leagues played in parks at the east and west ends of town. However, it wasn’t always easy to acquire proper equipment. According to William C. Kashatus in Diamonds in the Coalfields, the young Boley would practice with leather work gloves from his job in the mines. “I pleaded with my mother and father to buy me a baseball glove,” Boley recalled. “At first they thought it was a waste of money, but finally they agreed to buy it. My love for baseball was so great, there were times I just threw the ball against a barn door or concrete wall and ran over and fielded it.” He acquired baseballs by stealing foul balls from the local semi-pro games.
As a teenager Joe landed a position as an infielder on a Mahanoy City team playing in the northern Pennsylvania anthracite leagues. According to Kashatus, by age 15 Bolinsky was the top hitter on the team and the best shortstop in the anthracite leagues. The following year he joined a team from Girardville where he received his first baseball paycheck of $2 per game. Even after becoming a bona fide professional player, Boley returned to play in occasional Mahanoy City games on Sundays because of blue laws prohibiting professional baseball games on the Sabbath.
He also played some football in his hometown. In 1914 Boley played for a Mahanoy City football team that competed against a Morea team for a side bet of several thousand dollars and won, 27-10.
Boley began his professional career in the Class D Blue Ridge League. Mark C. Zeigler, in his upcoming book Boys of the Blue Ridge: The Early Years, has confirmed that Boley played with the Chambersburg Maroons in 1916. He was still playing under his birth name of John Bolinsky at that time, which probably explains why his first pro season has been so often overlooked in later years.
His career did not get off to a good start, to say the least. Chambersburg won the league championship in 1916, but Boley didn’t contribute much. According to Zeigler, he joined the team after the start of the season, appeared in his first game on June 3 and was released on July 1 after Chambersburg signed veteran shortstop Mike Fuhrey. In 24 games, Boley had a .209 batting average and .291 slugging average in 86 at bats, with 3 doubles, one triple, no home runs, one stolen base, 3 sacrifices, 8 runs, and 4 RBI.
Boley’s 1917 season with the Harrisburg Islanders in the Class B New York State League was equally inauspicious. He played only 33 games before the Harrisburg team folded on July 4 with a record of 11-41. Boley then took a job in a Williamsport, Pennsylvania, plant related to the war effort and joined the company team. Williamsport baseball historian Lou Hunsinger Jr. reports that he played in the Williamsport Trolley League, a semi-pro league consisting of industrial teams and neighborhood teams, in 1917 and 1918. Pennsylvania-born Max Bishop played second base on the same team as Boley in 1917 when Max was only 17 years old and a Baltimore high school student. (Bishop’s brother Clair was an executive with Lycoming Motors in Williamsport, which helps explain why a Baltimore high school student would have been playing in an industrial league in northern Pennsylvania.) At some point Boley and Bishop became friends, although it is unclear whether they first met in Williamsport or had known each other before then.
According to William Kashatus, Boley joined the service during World War I but never talked about his military experiences. That military service may have delayed his debut with the Baltimore Orioles by a season. In 1918 Jack Dunn, owner of the Orioles, signed Max Bishop to play second base. When Baltimore’s shortstop went into the service, Bishop recommended that Dunn sign Boley. Dunn contacted Boley but Joe was on the verge of being drafted so he turned down the offer. During the winter Bishop reminded Dunn about Boley. According to Dunn, several other people had recommended Boley as well and he signed him without ever seeing him play. The St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association also tried to recruit Boley, but reportedly the deciding factor in Boley’s decision was his desire to play with Bishop again.
During Boley’s early years with Baltimore, Dunn liked to tell a story that he felt illustrated Joe’s character. When Dunn was reviewing his players’ contracts just before spring training, he discovered that he had lost the contract signed by Boley in January. He was forced to notify Boley that he needed Joe’s signature on a new contract. This gave Boley some leverage to hold out for more money or sign with a different team, but Joe promptly signed for the same amount as in the original contract.
Boley immediately became the Orioles’ starting shortstop and held that job throughout their string of seven straight pennants. Teammates included future major leaguers Bishop, Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw, Jack Bentley, Tommy Thomas, Jack Ogden and Dick Porter. The team was so full of talent that it was once rumored the hapless Philadelphia Phillies franchise would be merged with the Orioles to create a new major league team based in Baltimore.
Joe hit above .300 every year he was with the Orioles except 1924, when he hit .291. Over his eight-year Baltimore career he compiled a .313 batting average and .450 slugging average. Judging from the testimony of his contemporaries, he was considered one of the best fielding shortstops of his time. After his solid 1919 debut, he was pronounced “the sensation of the [International] circuit, and ready for faster company.” Joe led the league’s shortstops in fielding average three times during his eight years as an Oriole. He also led the league three times in putouts and twice in assists. It didn’t take long for major league owners to notice. In 1920 the Senators were trying to pick him up and the White Sox, Giants and Pirates were said to be interested in 1921.
Beginning in 1920 the International League pennant winner faced the American Association champions in the annual Junior World Series. Baltimore defeated the St. Paul Saints in the 1920 series, 5 games to 1. The Orioles won the final game 1-0, thanks to Boley’s inside-the-park home run in the second inning. The hit would normally have been a single, but the St. Paul outfielder slipped and fell as he ran after the ball, allowing Boley to round the bases and narrowly beat the throw to home plate to give the Orioles their only run.
Boley finished the 1922 season with a .343 batting average (sixth best in the league), 34 doubles, 13 triples, 11 homers, a .509 slugging average, and an on-base average of nearly .400. In late 1922, International League president John Conway O’Toole commented that Boley “has the appetite of an ostrich. He eats baseballs. They never get away from him. Any ball he can touch he can catch. Any ball he can catch is a ticket for a certain putout. Oh, he’s a very elegant player, indeed, is Joe Boley, from the coal mines.”
Since he was free from the major league draft, Dunn showed no interest in breaking up his club. By the summer of 1922 Baltimore had won three consecutive league championships and was running away with a fourth. Some of the other teams in the league claimed that the Orioles’ dominance was hurting ticket sales. The Rochester club led a faction that threatened to reinstate the major league draft if Dunn didn’t sell some of his stars. The other teams agreed that the league would remain exempt from the draft if Dunn would sell Boley and pitcher/first baseman Jack Bentley, plus a third undesignated player. The question of whether Boley or Bentley would be in more demand in the majors was bandied about in the press, with The Sporting News theorizing in September that Boley would be more marketable because he “has batted almost as well as Bentley, and is younger and faster; also the experts say he can play short or second with equal ability.” (Boley claimed to be 24 years old when he was actually 26.) Dunn did sell Bentley to the New York Giants for $72,500.
Dunn talked to several teams about Boley during 1922 but never completed a deal despite repeated pressure from the rebellious International League teams. Dunn certainly could have sold Boley if he had wanted to. By then it seemed that almost every big league team was after Joe. The Sporting News labeled Boley “the greatest shortstop in the AA leagues” and “the main cog in the Oriole machine” and wrote in November 1922 that “Boley is content to remain with Baltimore or any other club if he is paid what he thinks he is worth. But Boley or any other player if given the chance would naturally prefer to perform in the big show if he can. There is no doubt that Boley would make good in the majors. More than that — he would be a sensation. The time is now ripe for the shortfielder to advance. He is 24 years old, and has had four years of AA experience, during which time he has been the best batter and fielder in the International League.” Between late 1922 and the end of 1923 there were reported attempts by the Cardinals, Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees, Giants, Cubs, A’s and Dodgers to acquire his contract. The Rochester ownership complained that Dunn wasn’t living up to his end of the bargain, while he insisted that he was trying to sell Boley but wasn’t going to accept less than the player was worth. After entertaining a number of offers at the 1922 winter meeting of major league clubs, Dunn called off the negotiations and announced he was keeping Boley for the 1923 season. Other International League teams continued to complain but the threat to submit to the draft was eventually dropped.
Boley was reported to have been interested in moving up to the majors after 1922, but he apparently decided against holding out and signed a contract that made him the highest paid player in the minor leagues. Boley later claimed that he had agreed to the contract in return for a promise that he would be sold to a major league team after the 1923 season. Dunn let it be known that he had purchased an insurance policy of $75,000 to $100,000 to protect himself if Boley was hurt in 1923. According to the Washington Post, Brooklyn offered Jack Dunn $100,000 for Boley early in the 1923 season. The Brooklyn offer did contribute to one of the few nicknames to be publicly attached to Boley during his career, as sportswriters began to refer to him as Dunn’s “$100,000 Beauty.” In June the White Sox reportedly raised the ante to 125,000, but Dunn continued to say no.
Boley had another good season in 1923, but his batting average dropped to .306. By the end of the season his market value seems to have slipped, as there were no more reports of teams offering $100,000 or more for his services. Dunn continued to demand at least that much, but that may have been a tactic to ensure that he didn’t have to fulfill his promise to the other International League owners to part with Boley.
One explanation offered for Boley’s perceived off-year was that he was disappointed at not moving up to the majors after his 1922 season and was less motivated. Whether he truly was a less enthusiastic player in 1923 or was simply the victim of unfair expectations after his excellent 1922 season, there were hints of friction between Boley and Dunn during the 1923 Junior World Series. The Orioles had seemed unbeatable as they won their fifth league title by 11 games over Rochester, but they lost a tune-up series against the Class A Eastern League champions, 2 games to 0, and then lost the Junior World Series to the Kansas City Blues, 5 games to 4.
There were reports that some unnamed Baltimore players were insubordinate during the postseason. Whether or not Boley was one of them, his performance against Kansas City was inconsistent. Kansas City led Baltimore by 3 games to 2 after the first five games. In the sixth game Boley hit a ball out of the park for a solo home run, but uncharacteristically committed three errors that all led to runs as KC beat Baltimore 12-5. Boley didn’t stick around for the final games of the series, leaving Baltimore “under a cloud” according to a November 8, 1923, story in The Sporting News. The official reason for his absence was an illness in the family, but The Sporting News commented, “Baltimore fans, after hearing that excuse so often in regards to absences of Orioles, received it with a grain of salt. Rumors persist that Boley’s poor performance before a Sunday crowd caused him to be sent home.” Boley had let it be known that he felt he was promised a major league deal by the end of the season, and that he hadn’t heard any word about a pending sale. In that context, it was probably easy for Baltimore fans to be skeptical about the reason given for Joe’s early departure.
Boley remained with the Orioles in 1924 and 1925 and Baltimore kept winning championships. In 1925 The Sporting News said he was “being generally hailed as the outstanding shortstop of the International League, if not of the minors…Boley is a natural ‘ball-hawk,’ and hails from the mining regions of Pennsylvania. Boley hit better than .330 this season, was fast on the bases, and gave a finished performance at his position.” Some major league teams were still reported to be interested, including the A’s and White Sox, but no team would meet Dunn’s price and some observers felt that Boley might be past his prime.
Dunn may have been in no hurry to send him to the major leagues, but that didn’t mean Boley was treated badly. In fact, Dunn was noted for treating his stars like major leaguers. They were paid as much or more than typical major leaguers and they enjoyed first class transportation and hotel accommodations when they traveled. By 1921, The Sporting News reported that Boley and three other Baltimore stars were “drawing big league salaries.” (The others were Jack Bentley, Jack Ogden and Merwin Jacobson.)
In December 1922 the Chicago Tribune reported that Boley, “for whose services several major league clubs have been dickering,” signed a contract with Baltimore that paid him $6,000 per year. By the time he left the Orioles, his salary was variously reported at levels ranging from $9,000 to $12,000. By one estimate the average major leaguer made less than $5,000 in that period. At the time of his death in 1962, his local newspaper stated that one reason he didn’t go to the A’s earlier was that Connie Mack was reluctant to pay his salary.
In 1926, Boley demanded more money and balked at signing his contract as the Orioles prepared to leave for spring training. When Dunn said he was already paying Boley as much as he could, Joe made it clear he wanted to move up to the major leagues, and Dunn told Boley “to sell himself if he could.” Within a few weeks Boley signed on with the Orioles for another year. Before the start of the season there were rumors that the Chicago Cubs and Brooklyn Dodgers were trying to acquire him, but The Sporting News reported on March 18, “Two or three years ago Brooklyn would have paid Jack Dunn a fortune for Joe Boley, but no staggering price would be paid now.” In June, the Reds made an offer, but Dunn was unwilling to sell Boley as long as the Orioles were still in contention for the International League crown. Then in August, a rumor cropped up that Dunn had finally agreed to sell Boley to the A’s after the season.
The Orioles’ string of pennants came to an end as they finished in second place, eight games behind the Toronto Maple Leafs. On October 14, 1926, The Sporting News confirmed the rumor under the front-page headline “Connie Mack Goes To Rescue Of Joe Boley At Baltimore.” Dunn had finally sold Boley for a purchase price that was variously reported as $65,000, $60,000 or $50,000 cash plus three players. Former major league manager George Stallings, owner and manager of the International League’s Rochester club, was quoted as saying Boley “has been a major leaguer in the minors for five or six seasons…[I]n the International League, with runners on third and second and two out, Boley would be almost sure to come through with a base hit. He always gave us more trouble than anybody else in the Baltimore batting order.” Throughout the Orioles’ “endless chain” of championships, only Boley and former major leaguer Fritz Maisel had played on every pennant winner.
At the time Boley’s sale was announced, some were apparently suspicious about his real age but Boley stuck to the story that he was only 28. In the October 28, 1926, Sporting News, the 30-year-old Boley “cleared a lot of misinformation circulated concerning himself. He is not past the 30-year mark, but was born in Mahanoy City, July 16, 1898. That would make him 28 years old last July.”
In the baseball world of 1927, the Athletics’ acquisition of Boley was a Really Big Deal. The 1927 Yankees are often considered the best team of all time, but most of the sportswriters covering spring training picked Philadelphia to win the 1927 AL pennant. After finishing third the previous year with a solid team, Connie Mack made headlines by acquiring Ty Cobb, Zack Wheat, Eddie Collins and Joe Boley. A commonly held opinion was that these four players, added to the already solid A’s lineup, made Philadelphia the best team in the league.
A Feg Murray cartoon entitled “A Rampaging Elephant” showed Connie Mack riding an elephant (the symbol of the A’s) running toward “Pennantville” while using its trunk to vacuum up the A’s competitors, shown as tiny mice. The cartoon included drawings of the four star acquisitions who were expected to lead the A’s to the pennant. The Metropolitan News Service put it this way: “Think of the strength that Mack has along that famous line from the plate to center field, with Cochrane, Grove, Gray, Ehmke, Rommel, and Quinn; Collins and Boley; and Al Simmons.”
Boley impressed sportswriters in spring training, but he started his major league career by committing two errors on opening day. He was out of the starting lineup for 18 days in May with a broken finger and was considered to be somewhat inconsistent in the early part of the season. He soon found his stride. Among regular American League shortstops, he finished second to Joe Sewell in batting average (.311), on-base percentage (.361) and slugging average (.411), and continued to earn praise for his fielding.
The Sporting News raved about his first major league season in the December 15, 1927 issue, claiming Boley “developed into the best shortstop in the American League in one season. Being totally without color, however, it will take one or more seasons for his skill to sink in, as he makes every play look easy…There is no infielder living today who can work on a bad-bounding ball as Boley can do, and nobody who can get a throw off quicker. He can also hit in a pinch.” Detroit manager George Moriarty called Boley “undoubtedly one of the best shortstops in the game.” Unfortunately for Joe’s career, he also turned 31 in July, and 1927 would turn out to be his best overall season in the majors.
Boley had always been considered a tough and reliable player. He once played a Junior World Series with two broken fingers on his throwing hand. And as a major leaguer, he was more than willing to play despite injuries. However, the combined effects of injuries and age started to take a toll on his playing time in 1928. He came to spring training with a “dead” arm. He was out of action for part of July because of a strained side. He missed the last weeks of the 1928 pennant race (which the A’s lost to the Yankees by 2 1/2 games) with a possible broken bone on his throwing hand, although Boley refused to have it X-rayed and treated until the end of the season in case Mack needed him to play an inning or two down the stretch. His batting average fell almost 50 points.
His “dead” throwing arm returned at the beginning of 1929 and seems to have become a chronic problem. On May 11, Cleveland fans threw bottles onto the field in protest of an umpire’s call, injuring Boley as well as umpire Emmet Ormsby and A’s coach Kid Gleason. One fan suffered a fatal head injury during the barrage. Ormsby had a concussion and was out of action until early July. Boley spent a great deal of the 1929 season on the bench with injuries and played in only 91 games. In mid-season he suffered from a “charley horse” but kept playing with the injury through several doubleheaders, until Connie Mack came into the locker room on July 4 and discovered that Boley couldn’t even put on his uniform.
Offensively, he wasn’t able to rebound from his disappointing 1928 production. Nonetheless, as the A’s prepared to meet the Cubs in the World Series, he was still regarded as a top-notch fielder and an important player on the team. Shirley Povich wrote that Boley “hasn’t been hitting as reliably as he used to,” but “Joe is a steady hand after such long experience and a great comfort in double plays” and described him as “smooth and often brilliant afield.” Despite Boley’s mediocre offensive statistics, Connie Mack still considered him a good hitter under pressure and said “he got a lot of his hits with the hit and run sign hanging out.” Mack’s evaluation was that “even in a mediocre year, for him, Joe has been a darned good shortstop.”
The A’s won the first of their three consecutive pennants in 1929, and on October 12 Boley played a role in perhaps the most dramatic comeback in the history of the World Series. Philadelphia was leading the Cubs 2 games to 1, when they met for the fourth game in Shibe Park. Heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, it looked like the Cubs were cruising toward a lopsided victory that would tie the Series. Chicago had scored 8 runs off of three A’s pitchers, and Cub starter Charlie Root was pitching a three-hit shutout. But Al Simmons led off the inning with a home run, followed by singles from Jimmie Foxx, Bing Miller and Jimmy Dykes to make the score 8-2. Boley was now up to bat. Connie Mack instructed him to swing at Root’s first pitch, saying, “I think he’s losing his stuff.”
Joe did as he was told and hit a single that scored another run and started some activity in the Cubs bullpen. One out later, Max Bishop’s single drove in the A’s fourth run, sent Boley to third, and chased Root from the game. Boley and Bishop scored when the next batter, Mule Haas, hit a fly ball to center field that turned into an inside-the-park home run when Hack Wilson lost the ball in the sun, making the score 8-7. Before the inning was over, the A’s had taken a 10-8 lead. Lefty Grove came into the game to shut down the Cubs for the last two innings, giving the Athletics a commanding 3-1 lead in the World Series. They finished off Chicago in the fifth game.
Before joining the A’s for spring training in 1930, Boley reported to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for preliminary training sessions that involved mountain climbing and spending time in the thermal baths. Many players went to Hot Springs to get into shape, but it isn’t clear whether Boley was there to lose weight or to rehabilitate his injuries in the hot baths.
Boley staged a comeback early in 1930. His batting average hovered around .300 for much of the season. On May 5 he blasted two solo homers in a 4-3 victory over the Browns. (He hit only seven homers in his entire major league career.) The Athletics scored their other runs on solo homers by Al Simmons and Mule Haas, giving Boley a share of an unusual record: the most runs in a game scored exclusively by solo home runs. The Giants broke that record only six weeks later by hitting five solo homers, but the A’s kept the record for the American League. Six weeks later, Boley was involved in another game that tied a home run record.
On June 18, the A’s roughed up Cleveland pitcher Wes Ferrell with three consecutive homers by Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx and Bing Miller, tying the all-time record for consecutive homers in a game. As Al Simmons recounted the incident for the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1949, “The next batter was Joe Boley, and Joe occasionally could hit a long ball. We were eager to see if we could establish a record and waited to see what Joe would do. Know what he did? He bunted, and beat it out. We were way ahead and I asked Joe why he didn’t try for a homer. He says, ‘Well, they weren’t expecting a bunt.’”
Boley’s arm problems returned and he missed significant playing time during the summer. Toward the end of the season his hitting tailed off, and offensively he ended up in the middle of the pack among American League shortstops.
In the first game of the 1930 World Series, Boley made headlines with two plays in Philadelphia’s 5-2 victory over the Cardinals. With Philadelphia leading by only one run with one out in the seventh inning. Cardinals pitcher Burleigh Grimes reached base on a single, bringing up Taylor Douthit. According to Alan Gould of the Associated Press, Douthit hit a “hard smash between short and third that Boley just managed to grab. He fell in doing so, but from a prone and awkward position managed to get the ball to Bishop ahead of Grimes for a force play at second base.” That was widely reported to be the turning point of the game, because the next batter, Sparky Adams, hit a hard single that would have scored Grimes with the tying run. Connie Mack said Boley’s play gave him the biggest thrill of anything he had seen in baseball — even bigger than the A’s 1929 world championship — and described it as “one of the greatest I have seen in my long baseball career.”
Boley’s second headline-grabbing play was a perfectly executed squeeze bunt in the bottom of the seventh that scored Mule Haas from third and warmed the hearts of old-timers who thought the game just wasn’t as “scientific” as it was in their day (A headline said, “Boley’s Stunt Awakens Veterans to Words of Praise”). Commenting on the first squeeze play in a World Series game in 17 years, Harry Davis, captain of the champion 1910 A’s, said “It looked like old times. I never thought I would see that again.” Joe Bush said “It was as smart as anything I have seen in years in the world series.” Philadelphia beat the Cardinals in six games for its second straight world championship.
Joe was only a few months away from his 35th birthday when the 1931 season opened, and he played like it, with a .228 batting average, . 295 slugging average, and .282 on-base average. He struggled with injuries all season and only appeared in 67 games. He left the lineup with a leg injury in the second half of the season, and his replacement, Dib Williams, performed well enough to win the starting job for the rest of the year. When the A’s played their third consecutive World Series that fall, Boley’s only appearance was a single trip to the plate as a pinch hitter. He struck out to end the fifth game, a 5-1 A’s loss.
In the off-season, Cleveland reportedly wanted Boley to plug their hole at shortstop. Even before the 1931 season was over, rumors had been floating that Mack intended to break up the A’s and sell or trade his higher-priced players, just as he had broken up his earlier dynasty after the 1914 season. Boley was the first veteran to be jettisoned when he was sold to the Indians in February 1932 in the midst of rumors of a contact disagreement. Cleveland was interested in him primarily as insurance in case their young starting shortstop wasn’t up to the job.
The deal was an unusual “try him — buy him” sale in which the Indians paid a $5,000 down payment, with another $5,000 due on May 15 if they kept him. If they decided not to pay the second installment, he would return to the A’s. However, on the eve of spring training Commissioner Landis voided the sale because it violated the rule against one team having an option on another team’s player in the same league. Boley had already signed a contract with Cleveland but was ordered to report to the A’s training camp.
At first, it looked like the commissioner had done the A’s a favor. Dib Williams may have run Boley out of the lineup in 1931, but Williams played poorly in spring training in 1932 while The Associated Press described Boley as “a rejuvenated player.” Williams opened the season as the starter, but he was benched after a few weeks and Boley won back the job.
His return to the lineup didn’t last long. He struggled at the plate and sustained a shoulder injury while sliding in his tenth game of the season. A week later, in what was described as a surprise announcement, the A’s gave Boley his unconditional release. Monte Cross, who had played shortstop for the A’s 25 years earlier, commented that Boley was still very mobile when moving to his right, but was having trouble going after ground balls to his left because of a “kink in the left thigh.” Boley was allowed to continue practicing with the team while he tried to catch on with another club. Cleveland picked him up a month later and Boley appeared in his first game as an Indian on June 29. He started at shortstop, went 1 for 4 with three putouts and two assists. That would also be his last game as an Indian; he was released on July 6. Two weeks before his 36th birthday, his major league career was over.
Boley returned to the minors in 1933, revisiting the scene of his early playing days in Williamsport. He batted .283 in 18 games for the Williamsport Grays, the Athletics’ affiliate in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League. In the spring of 1935 he signed on as the manager of the Mount Carmel team in a newly formed Class D Keystone League. However, that league failed to get off the ground and later that year he was reported to be out of organized baseball. According to his obituary in The Sporting News Boley played for the Portsmouth Pirates in the Class C Middle Atlantic League for at least part of the 1936 season.
After his playing career Boley returned to his hometown. In 1936 the Chicago Tribune reported that Boley “has made his tavern the social center at Mahanoy City, Pa., a coal mining headquarters.” Friends of the Boley family still living in the area are unaware of any tavern run by Boley or his family, so this story may be apocryphal. Whether or not he ever ran a tavern, he returned to baseball as a manager and in 1938 he was managing the Pocomoke City (Maryland) Red Sox in the Class D Eastern Shore League. Once again Boley was linked to his old teammate Max Bishop. Bishop had originally been hired to manage Pocomoke but was released from his contract when he received an offer to coach at the U.S. Naval Academy. Bishop recruited Boley to take his place.
Listed at 5’11” and 170 pounds during his playing days, Boley was now reported to weigh 210 pounds. Joe was fired midway through the season with the team on its way to a 41-71 record. Later that same year the Chicago Tribune reported that he was managing a team in Mahanoy City. There is no record in Minor League Baseball Standings of a team in Mahanoy City that year, so this may have been a semi-pro or industrial league team.
Boley resided in Schuylkill County the rest of his life. During 1943 and 1944 he worked at the Cressona Alcoa Works. He was a member of St. Mary’s Slovak Church, the Mahanoy City Social Club, the Eagles, and the Mahanoy City Elks lodge. He served as an officer of the Elks lodge, and worked as the Elks’ caretaker from the late 1940s until his death.
He remained connected to major league baseball, appearing frequently at old-timers games and other special occasions. After an old-timers game held by the Phillies in December 1948, The Sporting News reported, “Joe Boley, once a slim shortstop for Connie Mack, was round as a barrel.” Joe renewed his association with Mack in later years by scouting the Eastern Shore League for the A’s organization from 1948 until he was released along with nine other scouts when the team moved to Kansas City in 1955.
In 1954 Joe was elected to the International League Hall of Fame. In 1960 Frank Shaughnessy, president of the league from 1936 through 1955, named Boley as the shortstop on his all-time International League team. In 1965 he joined Lefty Grove, Babe Ruth, Home Run Baker, Jimmie Foxx, and Max Bishop in the Maryland Shrine of Immortals sports hall of fame.
Boley died at age 66 on December 30, 1962 in Locust Mountain Hospital in Shenandoah Heights, near Mahanoy City, where he had been a patient since November 27. In a fitting coincidence, his old friend Max Bishop died the same year. He was survived by his daughters Helen Zukowski and Justine Walchak and his son John. His obituary in the Pottsville Republican reported that he was also survived by “his wife, the former Ann Christoff.” Boley is buried in Blessed Virgin Mary (Slovak) Cemetery outside of Mahanoy City.
Was Boley as good as his contemporaries said, or did his reputation with the minor league Orioles create a halo effect that stayed with him even when he was a below-average major leaguer? Boley compiled a career batting average of .269 during his six seasons in the majors, with a slugging average of .354 and on-base percentage of .323. In an era when the batting average for starting position players was around .290, it is clear that Boley was not a very productive major league batter after his debut season in 1927. Perhaps the 1927 season shows what he could have done if he had reached the majors before he was slowed by age and injuries, but the fact remains that he never came close to being even an average hitter after that. Whether or not his reputation as a good hitter “in the pinches” and a good hit-and-run man was deserved, that perception may have helped him stay in the lineup much longer than his overall offensive stats would seem to justify.
Of course, what really kept him in the A’s lineup was his reputation as an exceptional fielder at the most important defensive position. Evaluating fielders has always been subjective; fielding statistics don’t provide as clear a picture of performance as batting or pitching statistics do. Boley had one of the highest fielding percentages among regular American League shortstops of his time, but he was consistently below average in total chances per game. His opportunities in the field may have been limited by his team’s pitching staff: The Athletics’ pitchers struck out more batters than any other team in the league and appear to have given up the fewest ground balls in the league (based on infield assist totals and the ratio of outfield putouts to infield assists). Boley’s International League fielding statistics, reported by Kashatas in Diamonds in the Coalfields, reveal a different picture; he recorded a significantly higher number of putouts and assists per game as a Baltimore Oriole than he did when playing behind the A’s pitching staff.
Whatever the statistics show, or don’t show, many people who saw him play considered Joe Boley to be one of the best fielding shortstops of his day.
I would like to acknowledge the following people for special assistance given to me in preparing this article:
Warren Corbett, for editing assistance, useful ideas and correction of several errors during the early stages of this project.
Lou Hunsinger Jr., for information about Boley’s activities in the Williamsport Trolley League and minor league career after 1932.
John Murtin for information on Boley’s life after his playing career and location of his burial site.
Dr. Peter Yasenchak, Director of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County, PA, for Boley’s obituary in the Pottsville Republican and referring me to local residents with information about Boley.
Mark C. Zeigler, author of the upcoming book Boys of the Blue Ridge — The Early Years, for verifying that Boley played for the Chambersburg Maroons in 1916 and for providing his batting statistics for that period.
Sources include contemporary articles in The Sporting News, The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Constitution, Kansas City Star, The Daily Courier (Connellsville PA), The Bridgeport (Conn.) Telegram, The Daily Messenger (Canandaigua NY), and Indiana (PA) Evening Gazette, as well as these publications:
Bready, James H., Baseball in Baltimore, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998
Campbell Bartoletti, Susan, Growing Up in Coal Country, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996
James, Bill, The New Bill James Historical Abstract, New York: The Free Press, 2001
Kaplan, Jim, Lefty Grove: American Original, Cleveland: SABR, 2000
Kashatus, Bill, Connie Mack’s ’29 Triumph, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999
Kashatus, Bill, Diamonds In The Coalfields: 21 Remarkable Baseball Players, Managers, and Umpires From Northeast Pennsylvania, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002
Kern, Bill, “Sports in Mahanoy City,” supplement to Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania 1863-1963, A History, a centennial pamphlet transcribed and contributed to USGenWeb Archives by Shirley E. Thomas Ryan
Kuklick, Bruce, To Every Thing A Season: Shibe Park And Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976, Princeton University Press, 1993
Lieb, Frederick G., The Baltimore Orioles, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955
Neyer, Rob, and Eddie Epstein, Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000
Sumner, Benjamin Barrett, Minor League Baseball Standings: All North American Leagues, Through 1999, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2000
Thorn, John, Phil Birnbaum and Bill Deane, Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia (8th Edition), Wilmington: Sport Media Publishing Inc., 2004
Wright, Marshall D., The International League: Year-by-Year Statistics, 1884-1953, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998
Websites and Databases
Mike McCann’s Minor League Baseball Page
Sinins, Lee, Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
Weiss, Bill, and Marshall Wright, “100 Best Minor League Teams ,” MiLB.Com: The Official Site of Minor League Baseball