This article was written by Bill Lamb
Of the more than 300 figures enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, perhaps the most enigmatic is George Davis. Although occasionally embroiled in controversy during his heyday in turn-of-the-century New York—Davis’s role in the ouster of Giants’ manager Buck Ewing in mid-season 1900 and his controversial jump back to a New York contract for 1903 precipitated considerable press censure—Davis neither sought nor received the kind of media/fan attention that his sterling 20-year playing career should have generated.
A clean, scientific-type player in a raucous baseball age and a quiet, colorless man away from the diamond, Davis was rarely the subject of a Sporting Life anecdote or a baseball press profile. And he quickly faded from public consciousness once his MLB days ended in 1909. Indeed, once separated from the game, Davis receded into an obscurity so complete that his death in October 1940 went unnoted by press and public for almost 30 years.[fn]This essay is founded on more than 25 years of research into the playing career and life of Hall of Famer George Davis. The writer’s previously published work on Davis includes the cover story for the 1997 issue of The National Pastime, and essays appearing in Nineteenth Century Committee Notes and SABRgrams. The primary sources for these writings was material contained in the George Davis file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York, US and local census data, and newspaper reportage.[/fn]
Instigated by a glowing portrait of Davis by Joe Overfield in the SABR publication Nineteenth Century Stars, a revival of interest in the long-forgotten Davis emerged in the late 1980s. [fn]Robert L. Tiemann and Mark Rucker, eds., Nineteenth Century Stars (Cleveland: SABR, 1989), 36-37.[/fn] Several years thereafter, a provocative book about the Cooperstown-induction process by Bill James (originally entitled The Politics of Glory) brought more attention to Davis. In James’s estimation, Davis was a far superior player to inducted contemporary Joe Tinker, and the best Cooperstown-eligible candidate not yet enshrined. In making the case for Davis, James re-published much of the material then contained in the Hall of Fame Library file on Davis, including an awkwardly worded excerpt about Davis’s post-baseball life contained in The Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball. In a likely misconstruction of the Dictionary’s text regarding Davis’s marital situation, James wrote, “A bachelor through his playing days, (Davis) was married in St. Louis” around 1918.[fn]Bill James, The Politics of Glory: How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 205.[/fn]
In this, James was mistaken. By the time of their arrival in St. Louis, George and Jane Holden Davis had held themselves out as married for almost 20 years. But recently discovered marriage records suggest a somewhat different story, namely, that for the first six years of their union, George and Jane were quietly flouting Victorian convention —an unmarried couple living in sin.
If a murky background leads to mutual attraction, the two were made for each other. Little is known about the personal life of either George Davis or Jane Holden. George Stacey Davis was born in Cohoes, New York on August 23, 1870, the fifth of seven children born to factory watchman Abraham Davis (born in Wales around 1836) and his English immigrant wife, the former Sarah Healy.[fn]For more detail, see the BioProject profile of George Davis by Nicole DiCicco.[/fn] George first came to local notice as a standout Albany-area sandlot baseball player and reached the National League Cleveland Spiders before he turned 20 years old. During the offseason, Davis lived in and around his home town. The little that is known about the young George Davis has been uncovered by Walt Lipka, the longtime Cohoes town historian. Among revelatory matters found by Lipka is an 1897 incident involving two female residents of a Troy boarding house, now known only as “Kitten” and “Peaches,” who each came to believe herself engaged to George Davis. A minor scandal ensued when the two discovered each other and George fled the area, leaving his younger brother Charles (later the baseball coach at West Point) to deal with the situation. By Thanksgiving 1900, however, the matter was ancient history, with the Cohoes Republican reporting that George was back in town, introducing family to his wife, Jane.[fn]Lipka’s research is memorialized in a detailed memorandum contained in the Davis file at the GRC.[/fn]
Details about the early life of Mrs. George Davis are even sketchier than those of her husband. From US Census data and her 1948 Pennsylvania death certificate, it appears that Jane A. Holden was born in Philadelphia on June 18, 1873. She was one of at least nine children born to retail grocer Henry Holden, an immigrant from England, and his Irish-born wife Mary McGeaby. The death of Henry in the early 1880s left running the grocery to his widow and put the Holden children to work at a tender age. But the whereabouts and activities of Jane are unknown until her arrival in Cohoes as Mrs. George Davis in late November 1900.
In 1900, George, by now an established star with the New York Giants, and Jane were living together in an apartment in Harlem, informing US Census takers that they had been married for the past two years. By the end of the following season, George had worn out his welcome in Gotham, having just managed the Giants to a seventh-place (52-85) finish. For the 1902 campaign, Davis donned the uniform of the Chicago White Sox, having signed a seemingly ironclad two-year contract with the Chisox upon his release by New York. Disregarding that pact at the 1902 season’s end, Davis then inked a lucrative new deal with New York manager John McGraw. Among the witnesses to Davis’s jump back to the Giants contract was his wife Jane (according to the testimony of Davis friend/attorney John Montgomery Ward during the 1911 trial of Ward’s defamation lawsuit against AL President Ban Johnson). Dueling claims upon Davis’s services precipitated litigation by Sox owner Charles A. Comiskey and countersuit by Giants boss John T. Brush, actions that, at one point, threatened to undo the fragile peace accord only recently reached between the National and American Leagues. In the end, Comiskey prevailed and Davis was obliged to return to the White Sox, for whom he played until his retirement at the close of the 1909 season.[fn]For more on Davis’s contract jumping and the litigation that it spawned, see “The Ward v. Johnson Libel Case: The Last Battle of the Great Baseball War,” William F. Lamb, Base Ball, A Journal of the Early Game, Vol. 2., No. 2, Fall 2009, 50-52.[/fn]
During the contract controversy and its aftermath, George and Jane Davis remained in residence at their Harlem apartment, assumed by one and all to be husband and wife. But recently discovered Delaware marriage records cast doubt upon the status of their union. Notwithstanding the claim to census takers that they had been married in 1898, George Davis of New York City and Jane Holden of Philadelphia applied for a Delaware marriage license on December 5, 1904, paying the requisite $3 license fee. The couple was united in matrimony on the same day by one Thomas S. Coulson at a place unknown. The personal information provided for Marriage Certificate No. 39426 (applicants’ age, parents’ names, etc.) leaves no question about the identity of the newlyweds. Witnesses to the ceremony were Jane’s older sister, Margaret Holden Grady, and her husband, Thomas.[fn]The Delaware marriage records for George Davis and Jane Holden can be accessed on-line via Ancestry.com.[/fn] Having lived together for the previous six years, what prompted George and Jane to enter a formal marriage in December 1904 is a mystery. Jane likely was not pregnant (the couple’s long union would be childless), and religious scruples (George was Episcopalian; Jane, Roman Catholic) do not appear to have been a factor. But a clue to the belated Davis-Holden nuptials may reside in a record notation made by the marriage registrar: Jane had had a previous marriage. Obviously, the existence of another husband would have kept Jane from the altar until death, annulment, or divorce had removed the impediment to her remarriage. The particulars of any earlier marriage involving Jane, however, are entirely unknown. Still, whatever the cause or case, Delaware records appear to establish a conclusive date for the wedding of George and Jane Davis: December 5, 1904.
The December 1904 marriage ceremony attracted no public notice, and the Davises apparently resumed the unobtrusive life that they had led before. The last significant sports page reportage on George Davis attended his arrival in Des Moines in late March 1910 to manage the Boosters, the local club in the Western League. On occasion, the Des Moines press noted that Mrs. Davis had accompanied her husband to Iowa, and the 1910 US Census has George and Jane Davis residing together in Des Moines.[fn]For more on the time that the George and Jane spent in Iowa, see “Disappointment in Des Moines: The Luckless Year that George Davis Spent as a Manager in the Western League,” William F. Lamb, SABRgrams, August 13, 2009.[/fn] Once at the Boosters helm, Davis repeated prior managing failures, guiding a WL pennant-defending team to a dismal seventh place (72-96) finish. In the process, the Davis character remained true to past form. As elsewhere, Davis was affable but low key, an articulate, baseball-astute man, but one seemingly incapable of inspiring his charges or otherwise asserting leadership qualities. And as was the norm, Davis’s off-the-field activities went entirely unreported. At season’s end, he was released as Des Moines manager.
Following the disappointment in Des Moines, the Davises returned to Harlem, where George, a skilled kegler, managed a local bowling alley. Each spring from 1913 to 1918, Davis coached the Amherst College baseball team. Fifty years after the fact, an Amherst alumnus recalled Coach Davis as having played high stakes bridge on campus under the watchful eyes of a wife draped in diamonds, an unlikely tale that Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen could not substantiate and one dismissed by Bill James as apocryphal.[fn]James, 205.[/fn] During the summers, Davis also did some professional scouting, first for the Yankees, later for the St. Louis Browns. By late 1918, Davis was totally out of baseball, living in St. Louis and reportedly working as an automobile sales representative.
St. Louis city directories record George and Jane Davis living at various local addresses into 1931. Thereafter, the couple relocated to Philadelphia, taking up lodgings in a Chestnut Street rooming house with Jane’s sister, Helen Holden. This move may have been necessitated by the deterioration of George’s health. Some years earlier, Davis had contracted syphilis, a then-untreatable and deadly venereal disease, which sometimes took decades to manifest itself. In early 1934, Davis was admitted to the “Nervous Ward” of Philadelphia General Hospital. Two subsequent hospitalizations followed, with Davis being placed in the “Psycho Ward” in late August. On September 13, 1934, Davis was transferred to the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases (aka Philadelphia State Hospital or Byeberry), a warehouse for the incurably insane. He never left. In the meantime, Jane, unemployed and now in her early 60s, survived via family aid and public assistance.
George Davis died on October 17, 1940. He was 70 years old. The death certificate listed his cause of death as paresis, the end game for most syphilis patients. Davis had also suffered from arteriosclerosis and cellulitis. No public notice was taken of Davis’s passing, and within a day he was buried in an unmarked grave in Fernwood Cemetery in nearby Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. The fate of Davis remained undiscovered until persistent inquiry by Cooperstown historian Allen unearthed it in 1968. Some thirty years later, a handsome headstone donated by the Northeastern New York SABR chapter was erected over the Davis grave.
Jane outlived her husband by eight years, plagued by late-life heart disease and a poorly healed right hip fracture, suffered in a fall on a city street. On January 22, 1948, she was stricken by a heart attack and died at Philadelphia Presbyterian Hospital. Jane Holden Davis was 74. Following funeral services, she was interred in the Holden-McCloskey family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery, a stately Catholic burial ground not far away from George’s final resting place. In permitting her to rest in consecrated soil, the Church evidently chose not to hold against her the long-past years that George and Jane had lived outside the bonds of matrimony.