This article was written by Nelson ‘Chip’ Greene
On July 7, 1910, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the hometown New Bedford Whalers squared off against the Lowell Tigers in a Class B New England League game. On the mound for the Whalers was 20-year-old Tommy Griffith who, in his second professional season, was on his way to winning 19 games for the pennant-winning New Bedford club. That performance, coming a year after his 14-win debut campaign in 1909, made the young right-hander a rising star among the league’s pitchers. This showdown at New Bedford was destined to be perhaps his singular mound achievement. After the Whalers scored two runs in the first inning, Lowell tied the game in the second, and there the score remained for the next 16 innings. In each of the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 18th innings, Lowell almost forged ahead, but in each inning they had runners cut down at either third or home. Finally New Bedford pushed a run across in the bottom of the 19th inning and gave Griffith the victory, 3-2. The next day, the press lauded not only the young hurler’s ironman effort, but also, in a sign of things to come, his defensive skills.
“Griffith,” wrote a reporter for the Lowell Sun, “… had a remarkable fielding record, taking part in 20 plays without an error. He had three putouts and 17 assists. He allowed 12 hits, but outside of the second inning, when two came together, he kept them well scattered.”1 Over those 19 innings, Griffith struck out six and walked only three.
Where had the Whalers found such a bright pitching prospect? Little is known about the life of Thomas Herman Griffith before his arrival in New Bedford, or about how he came to join the team. We do know he was born on October 26, 1889, in the small town of Prospect, Ohio, 40 miles north of Columbus. His was the third generation of Griffiths to call the Prospect area home. Griffith’s grandfather, also named Thomas, a farmer, had settled there after emigrating from Wales; and the ballplayer’s father, David, was a carpenter. Tommy was the youngest of four children born to David and his wife, Mary. Throughout his life he always remained close to the place of his birth.2
In four seasons with New Bedford, Griffith won 58 games and lost 45. As he developed as a pitcher, he also proved quite skilled with the bat (in 42 games in 1912 he batted .286 and had a slugging average of.381). In 1913, with the Whalers in desperate need of hitting, Griffith was moved full-time to the outfield. It was a move that ultimately propelled him to a 13-year major-league career.
On July 7, 1913, the Sun wrote that “Griffith, the Whalers’ right fielder, is developing into a star. He was a great pitcher not long ago and now is doing equally well in the field and at the bat.”3 After 95 games that season, usually batting fourth, the left-handed hitter was batting.346 and had a .474 slugging average. Six weeks later, on August 17, the Boston Braves purchased his contract for $1,300. 4 Two days later, in Boston, Griffith made his major-league debut, batting second for the Braves and playing right field against the Cincinnati Reds. The Lowell Sun wrote that Griffith “gave a good account of himself in his opener with the Braves yesterday. In the first game [of a doubleheader, he] connected for a brace of singles. The Boston critics think that Griffith will be a fixture in the Braves’ lineup.”5As it turned out, though, his time with the Braves was short-lived.
While Griffith possessed abundant skills on the baseball diamond, he also displayed another natural talent. One afternoon, after he had had a particularly bad day at the plate, manager George Stallings alluded to the young outfielder’s gift when he told Griffith, “Listen here, young feller, you can’t sing your way through this league.”6 In truth, Griffith possessed a very good singing voice; he even led the Braves’ quartet. After the 1913 season he and teammate Rabbit Maranville went on the vaudeville circuit and sang songs that Griffith himself had composed. Their partnership lasted about a month before Maranville quit the stage to coach basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s unclear whether Griffith continued as a solo act.
Griffith batted .252 in 37 games for the 1913 Braves. The 24-year-old made the 1914 squad in spring training at Macon, Georgia, but when the season began, he got off to a miserable start. By the middle of May, his average hovered around .100, and he showed no signs of breaking out of a batting funk. James McGill, president of the American Association’s Indianapolis Indians, offered to buy Griffith’s contract. Manager Stallings gave his consent, but Griffith balked, demanding that McGill raise his salary. McGill offered to match Griffith’s Boston salary but not exceed it. When Griffith still refused, the deal was off. Several days later Griffith changed his mind and decided to join Indianapolis after all (leaving his former Boston teammates to win the World Series without him). He played his first game with the Indians on May 23; hit a game-winning home run on the 28th, and finished the season with a.340 batting average for the Indians. The young man seemed too talented to remain in the minor leagues for long. Playing in a period that spanned both the Deadball and lively ball eras, Griffith was a solid if unspectacular hitter (it was once reported that he “never was strong against southpaw twirling”), finishing his career with a .280 batting average and .711 OPS (on-base average plus slugging average). The 5-foot-8-inch, 180-pounder had little home-run power but was a classic line-drive, contact hitter, usually putting the ball in play and rarely striking out—he averaged just 26 whiffs per season in the eight years in which he played over 100 games. Two additional skills made him an extremely valuable commodity: his tremendous defense and outstanding speed.
Throughout his career, the press often highlighted Griffith’s play in the field. “Tommy Griffith raced far for and captured a line drive while running at full speed,” said a game review in 1914.7
“One of the fastest players in the field and getting down to first base,” observed another reporter a year later, adding that Griffith “played the angles in right field better than any man the Indians have had in the position in the last two seasons … one of the league’s leading outfield assists men.”8
In 1919, when Griffith was playing for Brooklyn, sportswriters rhapsodized that Griffith was “covering the difficult sun field in the Flatbush stadium in a manner that is far better than his many most ardent admirers have anticipated”;9 and that “few members of Brooklyn have played right field as well as Tommy. … He plays the ball off the right field wall better than Casey Stengel.”10
Even at the age of 32, while still with the Dodgers, Griffith continued to field his position “like an antelope.”11 All in all, as one headline described it, Griffith never failed to deliver “Some Brilliant Defensive Work.”12
As the 1915 season dawned, Griffith had returned to the National League. During his outstanding 1914 performance in Indianapolis, the outfielder had attracted the interest of the Federal League, which had “tried hard to lure [him] away from the Indianapolis club but without success.” 13 (Griffith must have at least been intrigued by the Federal League overture, because accounts indicate that they “offered him a salary far in excess of the amount an Association club could pay.”)14 Not wanting to lose his right fielder without compensation, in January, Indianapolis manager Jack Hendricks sent Griffith to the Cincinnati Reds “in exchange for three players who were regulars on American and National League clubs last season.”15 (The identity of the three players obtained by Indianapolis is unclear.) As he was then living in Radnor, Ohio, 120 miles from Cincinnati, the trade must have undoubtedly pleased Griffith.16 And as subsequent events unfolded, he had a reason far beyond baseball to celebrate the transaction.
On the field, the 1915 season was arguably Griffith’s finest. While leading the league in games played (in addition to their regularly scheduled 154-games schedule, the Reds had six tie games that season, so Griffith played in 160 games), he batted .300 for the first time and set personal highs in seven offensive categories. That season he married Dette Louise Bidenharn, whom he had met when both were rooming at the same Cincinnati boardinghouse. (They were married for 51 years, until Griffith’s death in 1967, and had three daughters.)
The Reds were barely more than a mediocre team during Griffith’s time there. Then, in February 1919, he was traded to Brooklyn with shortstop Larry Kopf for disgruntled Brooklyn first baseman Jake Daubert. (Kopf refused to report to the Robins and just before the season began, Cincinnati reacquired him.) It was the second time in Griffith’s career that he had been traded away from a team that was about to win the pennant and World Series. (The first time was when the Miracle Braves shipped him to Indianapolis.) As Brooklyn struggled through a sub-.500 season in 1919, Cincinnati rose from third place to first, and defeated the Chicago White Sox in the infamous 1919 Black Sox World Series. Whether or not their victory influenced the 29-year old Griffith’s decision, after the season the ballplayer said he planned to retire. “Griffith has started the Winter league’s string of retirement yarns; he says that he will play baseball no more and will go into business in Columbus, Ohio,” a sportwriter proclaimed.17
Earlier, Griffith had become a stock salesman. During the just-completed season, in fact, he had sold stocks while traveling with the team and had been doing well, reportedly making enough money to make the venture a “pleasant and profitable pastime.”18 (His decision to retire was also undoubtedly due to lingering resentment over his trade the previous year, as it was reported that “intimate friends say he is peeved because he was traded off the Cincinnati club.”)19 When Brooklyn opened spring training camp in Jacksonville, Florida, in March 1920, Griffith was a no-show. He wasn’t going to stay away for long, however. In 1920, after hovering around .500 for most of the first month, the team climbed into pennant contention and stayed there all season long. In May, manager Wilbert Robinson and team owner Charles Ebbets got Griffith’s new employer to guarantee that Griffith would not lose his chance for advancement or seniority if the ballplayer returned to the club. Griffith, who’d been playing with a local semipro team to stay in shape, agreed to come back. When he returned on May 27, Brooklyn’s record was 16-13. Over the remainder of the season the team played .616 ball (77-48) and finished with a record of 93-61, to win the National League flag. Although they lost to the Cleveland Indians five games to two in the World Series, Griffith finally got to play for a pennant winner (he hit .190 in the seven games, going 4-for-21, with three RBIs). There was no further talk of an early retirement.
The next two seasons were Griffith’s best statistically since his breakout year with Cincinnati in 1915, particularly where his power was concerned. However, injuries and age also began to slow him down. During Griffith’s “retirement,” Robinson had stocked the club with some promising young outfielders, so as Griffith battled to get into shape during the spring, he found himself each year sharing playing time in right field with much younger men. As he got older, it was harder to stay in shape. A sportswriter reported in 1921 from the team’s training camp in Hot Springs, Arkansas, that “Tommy is a chubby party and the older he grows the more difficulty he experiences in taking off the extra pounds.”20 Nonetheless, Griffith accepted the challenge presented by the younger prospects and posted the best batting and OPS averages of his career. On August 4, 1922, he suffered his first serious injury when he wrenched his knee while running the bases. At the time he was batting .312. He was out until September 3, and finished the season having played in just 99 games. That October Griffith turned 32 and it was questionable how many effective years he had left.
in 1923,Griffith was healthy again, and spent all of that season in right field, hitting a solid .293 with 66 RBIs. In 1924, his average slipped to .251 but he helped as the Dodgers fought for the pennant all season long, finishing 1½ games behind the league champion New York Giants.21
The 1925 season was Griffith’s final one as a major leaguer. As the team convened for spring training in Clearwater, Florida, it was apparent that Robinson intended to make a change in right field. During the offseason he had signed from the Pacific Coast League an outfielder named Dick Cox, who in 1924 had hit.356, with a .565 slugging average and 25 home runs for Portland. As camp progressed the press reported that “Cox remains in the outfield while Tommy Griffith is hitting harder for the second team than he ever did before in spring practice.”22 For his part, Griffith had “paid stricter attention to his condition in the winter”23 in an effort to keep his job. Nonetheless, he couldn’t regain his position. He went north with the team as the fourth outfielder, yet after playing just seven games for Brooklyn (two in the outfield), on May 9 Brooklyn traded the veteran to the Chicago Cubs for infielder Bob Barrett. Griffith did well in his final 76 major-league games, batting .285 with a .780 OPS. After the season the Cubs dropped him and he spent 1926 with Little Rock and Atlanta in the Southern Association, then retired from baseball.
Griffith and his family continued to live in Cincinnati. In the 1930 US Census he listed his occupation as a dealer in radio, and on his World War II draft registration, he said he was employed at the Hamilton County Court House. Sometime later, too, he also owned an insurance agency. There is no record that Griffith ever held a baseball position after retiring as a player, but in 1945, it was reported that he was one of a group of former players backing Ohio Supreme Court Justice Charles S. Bell as successor to the late Kenesaw Mountain Landis as commissioner of baseball.24
Thomas Herman Griffith died of pneumonia on April 13, 1967, at the Jewish Hospital, in Cincinnati. He was 77 years old. One year later, his wife, Dette, died in a long-term care facility at the age of 78.
This biography is included in “The Miracle Braves of 1914: Boston’s Original Worst-to-First World Series Champions” (SABR, 2014), edited by Bill Nowlin.
My sincerest appreciation to SABR member Bill Mortell for his invaluable genealogical research.
1 Lowell Sun, July 8, 1910
2 Tommy’s mother died some time before 1900, when he was about ten years old. In 1901 David married Annie Mass, who was also from the Prospect area. They had three daughters.
3 Lowell Sun, July 7, 1913
4 Griffith’s player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame
5 Lowell Sun, August 20, 1913
6 Canton Repository, November 7, 1926
7 Indianapolis Star, July 12, 1914
8 Indianapolis Star, January 9, 1915
9 Fort Wayne News and Sentinel, May 17, 1919
10 The Sporting News, December 13, 1923
11 The Sporting News, September 14, 1922
12 Indianapolis Star, July 12, 1914
13 Rockford (Illinois) Republic, October 2, 1920
14 Indianapolis Star, January 9, 1915
16 Griffith listed Radnor as his residence on his World War I registration.
17 Portland Oregonian, November 5, 1919
18 Rockford (Illinois) Republic, October 2, 1920
19 Waterloo (Iowa) Evening Courier, January 12, 1920
20 The Sporting News, February 24, 1921
21 On June 3, 1924, Griffith was the right fielder when the author’s grandfather, Nelson Greene, a pitcher, made the only start of his 15-game major-league career.
22 Adrian (Michigan) Daily Telegram, March 10, 1925
23 The Sporting News, February 26, 1925
24 Zanesville (Ohio) Signal, April 7, 1945
Thomas Herman Griffith http://dev.sabr.org/?p=61695
October 26, 1889 at Prospect, http://dev.sabr.org/?post_type=event&p=18219 (USA)
April 13, 1967 at Cincinnati, http://dev.sabr.org/?post_type=event&p=18219 (USA)
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