This article was written by Brian McKenna
The idea of a winter retreat appealed to many in the baseball business. The men the game attracted were by their nature sportsmen. Unless a man resided in a remote area during the winter, he gravitated towards his baseball companions, especially if he was a bachelor, to partake in any number of activities such as sports, the theatre, or just plain old story swapping.
Take the Chicago Colts, for example. Clark Griffith and teammates Bill Dahlen, Jimmy Ryan, Fred Pfeffer, and Cap Anson lived in or near the city during the off-season. They could often be found together at a local billiards parlor, a theater, or trying to one-up each other in bowling, indoor baseball, association football, that is soccer, or bagging the largest deer. They took their meals and drinks together, all the while talking about the game they loved.
Later Griffith, even after marriage, would do the same with executives Charles Comiskey, Ban Johnson, and Tom Loftus to name a few; however, by this time Griffith had purchased a ranch in Montana. The men would congregate there for weeks at a time to relax, play cards, talk shop, transact business, and especially hunt. Griffith was born in the Missouri countryside. Fatherless, he was catching and killing the family’s meals before he was big enough to hoist a rifle. Basically, the men enjoyed each others’ company; they enjoyed others with similar interests.
George Stallings was another with his own ranch. Stallings was a baseball man through and through. Forget the fact that he only played in four major league games prior to becoming a manager. He began managing his hometown club, Augusta, in the Southern League at the age of 25 in 1893, giving him twenty years of experience prior to taking over the Boston Braves in 1913.
During that time, he became quite familiar with those in the industry. He started managing in the Western League in 1894, working with future major league heavyweights Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey. After managing Detroit in 1896, he was promoted to take over the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League. After that stint, Stallings returned to Detroit and oversaw operations as the league ascended to major league status and through its initial season at the top level. He would then spend years at the helm of International League clubs and managed the New York Highlanders for two seasons.
Around the turn of the century, Stallings purchased an old plantation (called The Meadows) in Haddock, Georgia, outside Macon in Jones County. There, he raised peaches and livestock. It was also a hunting and fishing hangout for his family and friends, many within the game.
In 1913 Stallings was installed as manager of the Braves. He brought the club south to Georgia for part of spring training. As he had always done, Stallings talked up the hunting and fishing environs available in his home state. Another Georgian major leaguer often did the same — Ty Cobb.
Stallings often took men to his property to experience the outdoor activities, namely hunting and fishing. Because many sportsmen of the era were already enamored with these endeavors, some began to show interest in purchasing their own spread in the woods. The idea to do it as a group soon began to percolate.
Stallings took them to an available property that he knew quite well from his youth. His father had actually lived, at one time, within a mile of an old cotton plantation outside Brunswick, in Glynn County, called Dover Hall. Stallings himself had often passed the site as a child while rounding up and transporting cattle.
The idea of purchasing the property continued to brew through the season and the following year. During that time, Stallings lured others to the area for brief vacations on his farm and took several more groups to Dover Hall for an inspection. Stallings’ property became a popular respite after his Braves won the National League pennant and World Series in dramatic fashion in 1914. At one point that winter Stallings took a party of about twenty to Dover Hall for a three-day stay.
By the turn of 1915, a few baseball men were definitely interested in purchasing the property, especially Detroit owner Frank Navin and New York Giants president Harry C. Hempstead. They were drawn in even deeper after hearing Stallings’ other thoughts for attracting men to Georgia.
The idea began to evolve beyond the notion of just a vacation spot and winter headquarters for conducting business. For some time, Stallings had advocated a combined American and National League spring training. The idea was rooted in economics, but included some tangible training perks as well.
The plan called for the teams to train separately in the morning and play amongst themselves in the afternoon. The organizations could, of course, save quite a bit in travel and housing costs. At the time teams trained all over the country prior to Opening Day. The eight American League clubs alone based spring activities in six different states and Bermuda in 1913. In addition, they often moved from site to site and from state to state to find competition that would yield an attractive payday. In essence, the Dover Hall site became the first potential national baseball training camp. It’s interesting to note that this is basically what we have today with the camps centered in Florida and Arizona.
The Dover Hall property was large enough to house a number of clubs. As 1915 rolled around, at least a half dozen clubs were seriously interested in the idea. They included the major league Braves, Tigers, and Giants, and Stallings had sold the idea to some of his International League cohorts, particularly Providence and Buffalo.
The men took a final deciding look at the property in mid-January 1915. Stallings, Ty Cobb, George Whitted, Braves owner James E. Gaffney, and several sportswriters spent a few days there taking in the sights and taking out a little wildlife. On the 13th they were courted by the locals as the special guests at a banquet at the Elks Club in Brunswick. Garry Herrmann, Ban Johnson, and John Tener of the National Commission and other delegates were expected to arrive a few days later for meetings to discuss the upcoming playing schedule and other topics.
Dover Hall is currently located on Highway 99 just north of Highway 82, near the Sea Islands on the mainland of Georgia’s eastern shore. It lies about fourteen miles by land (ten miles by water) outside Brunswick, Georgia. Back in 1915, the area was easily reachable from a nearby railway and via water off a branch of the Turtle River. The land sat near the nationally famous private resort known as Jekyll Island and adjoined the DuPont estate.
Dover Hall included 2,436 acres, much of which had been cleared by timber and planting companies and by decades of cotton farming. However, hundreds of acres were still wooded with live oak and pine trees, permitting extensive hunting opportunities. There were also expansive cornfields and smaller vegetable and fruit gardens on the property.
There was a renowned old six-room country home on the grounds and various other cottages and other buildings that had been added in the last two decades; however, the quarters weren’t as luxurious as the baseball men would prefer and certainly not in the league with the Jekyll Island Club. There was also an array of docks and piers along the beach areas. The entire tract was fenced and bordered a road that led to Jacksonville, Florida, on one side and Turtle River and various creeks on the other. In a few years, the Yankees would be taking that road to Jacksonville for spring training.
The baseball men had designs on building a massive $50,000 clubhouse for all the players, sportswriters, and executives to congregate in after a day on the ball fields. Individuals also set their sights on building their own bungalows. Captain T.L. Huston would be the first to do so. (Huston would be promoted to colonel, the title by which he is usually known, for his service during World War I.)
For the purpose of hunting, the acreage was ripe with deer, wild turkey, quail, doves, rabbit, snipe, duck, rail, plover, raccoon, possum, and even bear and wildcat. The baseball men also planned on restocking the area with indigenous animals and adding pheasants and other game. And, of course, they planned on bringing in a stock of hunting dogs. The waters provided extensive oyster beds, four miles worth, rich shrimp supplies and plenty of drum, trout, bass, whiting, and sheepshead.
On or near the property was a tiny island called Cemetery Island, also known as Shadow Island. This island’s exact location is a mystery to modern researchers. Cemetery Island was the final resting place for the plantation’s slaves. Local legend claimed it to be haunted. Ty Cobb historian Wesley Fricks notes that stories abound describing the haunted nature and mysterious occurrences relating to Dover Hall. Also on the Dover Hall site were three headstones, one of which belonged to its namesake Thomas Dover.
Dover Hall was named for one of the first settlers of Glynn County, Thomas Dover, who was a county judge for some time. The property itself was an old English holding. Dover and his wife Catherine, who died in 1829, ran a profitable cotton plantation, famous for its “Sea Island” cotton, a form of long-staple cotton. At maximum production Dover utilized well over a hundred slaves to pick, clean, and transport the crop and maintain his household.
Dover died in 1845, leaving the property to his nephew William Dover Jenkins. In May 1855 typhoid fever ravaged the area. Of the 125 slaves living on the plantation, forty-eight became ill. The treating doctor later wrote that, “Dover Hall is one of the most delightful and healthy places in the country. The (slave) quarters were comfortable, and the Negroes better fed, better clothed, and less worked than any others in that section [of Glynn County].”
After Jenkins died in 1859, the plantation was bequeathed to Leighton Wilson Hazlehurst who sold the property to George Washington Wright. Upon his death, the property would transfer to his son, George W. Wright Jr. The baseball magnates purchased it from Wright in 1915.
During the Civil War in September 1864, Dover Hall along with the nearby plantations came under attack. The Union ship USS Saratoga anchored off the Atlantic coast and sent armed boats up Turtle River. The soldiers shelled at the plantation homes as they passed. George Wright’s daughter, Bessie, gave an interview in her later years about the incident. Her father was in the Confederate Army at the time, but her mother was with “…three little boys when the gunboats came up to shell Dover Hall and that was the time that she gathered the three little boys and ran across Cabbage Bluff to a farmer’s home…and when she got there she fainted dead away.”
In 1902 Wright leased the property to Cave and Company, the largest planter in South Carolina. The company, which had an office in Brunswick, developed the land to grow and ship watermelons and cantaloupes. To do so, they built barns and pathways and cleared land to facilitate production and distribution. They also had to erect cabins, outhouses, and other amenities to support their workers. These buildings were still standing when the baseball men purchased the lot. A few years after leasing the property, Wright sold the timber rights, which further cleared much of the area.
Near Dover Hall sat Jekyll Island. In 1886 Jekyll Island was purchased as a private sporting and beach resort by some of the wealthiest men and their families in the country. The Jekyll Island Club included the elite of American business and politics: Richard Teller Crane, Marshall Field, Jay Gould, James J. Hill, Henry Hyde, Everett Macy, J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William Rockefeller, Frank Seiberling, and Cornelius Vanderbilt among others. U.S. Presidents and their families were also known to vacation at the resort. This is the aura the baseball men were trying to recreate.
Plans to purchase the Dover Hall property by the baseball men needed a push — a financial godsend so to speak. That came when Frank Ferrell and William Devery sold the New York Yankees at the turn of 1915 to Jacob Ruppert and Captain T.L. Huston. The wealthy new owners may have seen Dover Hall as a continuation of their entry into the game. Since the Yankees traditionally trained in Georgia, the acquisition of a permanent training site may have seemed natural.
Huston, a Buffalo native, took up his father’s trade of a civil engineering, finding work as such in Cincinnati. During the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Huston led a group of volunteer engineers to Cuba in service of the American government. After his commission ended, he remained in Cuba and formed an engineering and construction company. By 1914, he had made a fortune building sewer systems and dredging Havana Harbor.
Final closing on the Dover Hall property occurred on January 1, 1916, money was put down, the title was transferred, and the property changed hands. The deed was entered in the name of Tillinghast L’Hommideau Huston, familiarly known as Cap. He also had to purchase the valuable timber rights to the property.
The Dover Hall Club was set up chartered under the laws of the state of Delaware and incorporated on July 31, 1915. Membership was capped at fifty slots costing $1,000 each. This money was earmarked for the construction of an expansive clubhouse. Ban Johnson himself purchased five shares. The group, however, had plans to add associate members. The following is a list of the initial members of the club:
Captain T.L. Huston, New York American League owner
George Stallings, Boston National League manager
Frank M. Stevens, New York National League owner
Ban Johnson, American League president
Charles Comiskey, Chicago American League owner
Irvin S. Cobb, New York sportswriter
Damon Runyon, New York sportswriter
Jacob Ruppert, New York American League owner
James Gaffney, Boston National League owner
Bud Fisher, cartoonist and screenplay writer
John Tener, National League president
Robert Lee Hedges, St. Louis American League owner
Ty Cobb, Detroit American League player
John McGraw, New York National League manager
Harry Stevens, Polo Grounds concessionaire
John C. Toole, National League counsel
Robert Davis, Boston National League owner
Howard Trumbo, business associate of Huston’s from Cuba
Norman H. Davis
Ed Barrow, International League president
Harry N. Hempstead, New York National League owner
Among the group is Bud Fisher who created the nation’s first successful comic strip, Mutt and Jeff, in 1908. Georgia native Ty Cobb was the only player to put up money. Harry Stevens, father of Frank M. Stevens, made millions after securing the concession rights at the Polo Grounds in 1887. He developed the modern stadium fare of hot dogs, peanuts, and soda. The Dover Hall Club also involved bankers from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Buffalo, among other localities.
A list of visitors to the retreat reads like a who’s who in the baseball community and would be too numerous to mention. Naturally, all the men’s wives frequently accompanied them as well. Heavyweight champion Gene Tunney spent a couple of weeks at Dover Hall on vacation with Wilbert Robinson in January 1928.
Wilbert Robinson spent his first off-season at Dover Hall in late 1915. After that, he never wanted to leave. He spent much of the next eighteen winters there. Despite his managing the cross-town Robins (as the Dodgers were known from 1914 to 1931), Robinson and Huston became good friends. Robinson, Huston, and New York sportswriter Bill McGeehan would later become inseparable.
Most know the story of the breakup of the Yankees ownership team of Ruppert and Huston. In early 1918 Huston was overseas during World War I when the team’s field manager slot opened with the firing of Bill Donovan. Huston wanted to hire Robinson; Ruppert preferred St. Louis spitfire Miller Huggins. Ruppert, the one tending the store, hired Huggins over Huston’s objections. Many say that the rift between the owners never healed. Ruppert eventually bought out his partner in 1922.
After the 1931 season, Robinson was ousted as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers after eighteen seasons by owner Stephen McKeever. At the time, Robinson was at his hunting lodge at Dover Hall. Robinson and his wife Mary, known to all as “Ma,” retired to Dover Hall. They had purchased 500 acres from Huston some years before.
At the end of 1932 Colonel Huston purchased the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association and installed Robinson as president, and later field manager. Robinson died in August 1934 after a brain hemorrhage at his Atlanta hotel. Some stories say he was buried under an oak tree at Dover Hall or on Sea Island, but his body rests at New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore near John McGraw’s tomb.
The idea of a national baseball training facility at Dover Hall faded, even though Huston was still giving lip service to the notion of a Yankees’ camp there in the early 1920s. In truth, the men were much more interested in the recreational activities and the benefits of vacationing together and talking shop during the winter months. The expense to level the ground and build baseball diamonds may have been daunting as well. Official baseball meetings took place at Dover Hall for the first few years. The National Commission and the National Association were known to drop a gavel there to discuss pressing topics. The major league schedule and rules committees would also finalize details at Dover Hall’s clubhouse for upcoming seasons.
Baseball was always roundly discussed at the retreat; however, Dover Hall’s focus quickly became social and recreational in nature. Scores of baseball men visited the Georgia hunting grounds well into the 1920s. By the mid-1920s, though, Dover Hall became known more as the winter homes of Wilbert Robinson and Captain Huston. Visitors to the retreat were typically invited at the request of one or the other. Sportswriters Bill McGeehan, Bozeman Bulger, and Ralph McGill were among the frequent visitors.
Besides the usual hunting and fishing, some of the men played golf on nearby Sea Island. Others, who were not particularly fond of outdoor activities, would bide the day swapping stories on the porch or at the beach. Some spent the day doing family activities such as swimming, shopping, and playing with the children. Others merely waited for the return of the others for the evening festivities to kick off, which naturally included a hearty dinner, drinking, storytelling, and card playing, with perhaps a little business on the side.
The men also had some work to do to liven up the grounds. An article in the April 2, 1917, issue of the Fort Wayne Sentinel jested that Ban Johnson would rather spend his vacation with a paint brush sprucing up a two-story cabin at Dover Hall than fishing with companions. “Johnson…found one of the buildings in need of paint. Instead of hiring the work done, Johnson donned overalls and…undertook the job himself. The task required six days of back-stretching toil.”
Food was abundant. There was also an artesian well which provided refreshing water. The well would overflow creating a small pond frequented by ducks and geese. Of course, the liquor cabinets were stocked. No group of sportsmen could live without such. Huston insisted on having his staff of servants wake the men every morning with a strong hot toddy. That would be followed by huge plates of eggs, boiled and fried, bacon and hotcakes. The morning fare never varied. Many of the men would then set off to bag some ducks, quail or deer or seek some other adventure.
The place could be quite dangerous when many inexperienced hunters were milling about. New York photographer Izzy Kaplan once shot one of the lead hounds, mistaking it for a deer. Babe Ruth shot a scrawny cow one day believing it was an elk.
New York Times reporter John Kieran had a witty piece, under the subtitle “The Noble Sport of Deer Hunting,” about adventures at Dover Hall after he spent a little time there with Wilbert Robinson in 1927. Kieran was particularly amused by the marginal exertion Robinson and company seemed to expend on a hunting trip. “They don’t have guides in a Georgia deer hunt. They have chauffeurs. When the first stand is reached, the chauffeur…lifts out a hunter, leans him against a tree, climbs into the machine and drives on…This is continued until all the hunters have been lifted out and leaned against trees. Then the chauffeurs park their cars, play a few games of pinochle, go to sleep, wake up and go back to collect the hunters. As each stand is reached, the hunter, still leaning against the tree, is picked up gently and put back in the car.”
All had a good time, and the memories lasted a lifetime. The Syracuse Herald Journal noted Babe Ruth’s fondness for the retreat at the time of his passing. “There has been one spot Babe Ruth had loved but it is gone now, and, with it, most of the friends with whom he had shared it. That was Dover Hall on a plantation near Brunswick, Ga. The Dover Hall Club, they called it and its only purpose was fun in the fall and early winter; hunting, fishing, drinking and sitting around the fireplace at night swapping lies. Those were great days…and nights…in the Babe’s life back in the early twenties…”
Among the stories told at the campground, Fred Lieb described one particular night drinking rum and Coke at Dover Hall. He was sitting around the fire with Wilbert Robinson, Huston, and a few others. Huston got a little loose with the tongue and told Lieb, after the others went to bed, about Yankees’ pitchers allegedly tossing the World Series in both 1921 and ’22.
Wesley Fricks tells the following story about the haunted lore of the old plantation and a bit of frivolity that was one of Ruth’s favorites. “Here is one story involving Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth. On this particular afternoon Tris and other players decided to go down the river on a fishing expedition, Ruth decided to stay behind at the lodge. Before the fishermen realized it, darkness had come up on them and they started back to the lodge. As the men were approaching the docking area, it was believed that they heard chains and saw visitants near the island. Speaker was so frightened that he jumped into the water and swam to the banks and ran all the way to the lodge. Tris busted open the door and Ruth busted out laughing and said to Speaker, ‘You look like you just seen a ghost.’”
On the serious side, longtime New York sportswriter Bill McGeehan was a frequent visitor to Dover Hall and a personal favorite of Wilbert Robinson and Huston. In October 1933 McGeehan had a heart attack while visiting Robinson at Dover Hall. The 54-year-old died a month later in a local hospital.
As noted, Huston loved the Dover Hall area. Even after he left the Yankees, he still hosted baseball men and sportswriters during the off-season. In 1926 Huston and his wife Lena Belle purchased another piece of land by Darian, Georgia, not far from Dover Hall, called Butler Island. It was an old rice plantation. At one time the Butler family owned more than 500 slaves that worked between two plantations cultivating cotton and rice. With finances dwindling in 1859, Pierce Mease Butler sold 429 slaves for over $300,000 to restore his wealth. It was the largest sale of humans in American history.
Huston commissioned extensive building on the property, erecting a $15,000-family home and a dairy farm that used “prize-winning Friesian cows.” The Hustons later built a home on Sea Island as well. The dairy farm eventually failed and was switched to a truck farm specializing in iceberg lettuce. Huston managed his hunting lodge at Dover Hall and his Butler farm until his death.
In 1934 Huston attempted to purchase the Brooklyn Dodgers and reinstall Wilbert Robinson as the club’s manager. Even after Robinson died, Huston made another unsuccessful play for the club in 1936. On March 29, 1938, the 70-year-old Huston was at his desk at his Butler estate working with his secretary. Suddenly, he slumped over his desk, dying of heart failure.
Huston’s wife continued to live in the area until her death in November 1949. In 1948 she sold the Butler farm and property to the R.J. Reynolds Company. Today, it is part of the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area. The Huston home still stands on the island.
Dover Hall now belongs to a paper company, but part of the land is still used as a hunting club. The area is earmarked to be developed in the near future.
Hopkins, Dr. T.S. Atlanta Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume 13. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1876.
Kavanagh, Jack, and Norman L. Macht. Uncle Robbie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Lieb, Fred. Baseball as I have Known It. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
McGill, Ralph. The South and the Southerner. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Purdy, Dennis. The Team-by-Team Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball. New York: Workman Publishing, 2006.
Contemporary newspapers, the GlynnGen.com Genealogy and History website and the Coastal Georgia Genealogical Society.