Cal McVey Goes West

This article was written by Darryl Brock

This article was published in Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles

This article was originally published in “Northern California Baseball History,” the 1998 SABR convention journal.


Described as a “most genial boniface” when he opened a San Francisco saloon in 1885, Calvin Alexander McVey (“Mac” to his friends) got a kick out of patrons who marveled at his hands: big ham fists with discolored lumps and knobs, odd-angled joints, and mangled fingers. A formidable, wide-bodied individual (5’9”, 195 pounds in his playing prime), McVey doubtless served as his establishment’s bouncer; he had a talent for bare-knuckles pugilism, and back in his Boston days was given to sparring with heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan. But it was the newly ascendant “National Game,” not boxing, that had battered his hands. For 25 years, many of them as a catcher, McVey snared rocketing balls (“finger-breakers” in the parlance of the time) barehanded.

During those pre-glove decades, digital disfigurements were the proud emblems of a “ballist,” who was expected to play through all but truly disabling injuries. Even a considerate manager might say, as Harry Wright once did, on spotting McVey’s black and blue swollen masses, “Well, Mac, the hands look kind of bad. You can rest up today. Go out and play first base.”

The game shaped Cal McVey’s life as profoundly as it did his hands. Born in 1850, he learned “base ball” (it remained two words for a quarter century) as it spread over the nation in the wake of the Civil War. A husky boy still in his mid-teens, he faced Washington’s top-ranked Nationals when they toured his hometown Indianapolis in 1867. He lashed a hit his first time at bat, but afterward “burst” his hand, according to a reporter, trying to spear a liner, and had to leave the contest, his pain soothed only by glory.

Mac’s play for the Indianapolis Westerns the next season brought him to the attention of Wright, then recruiting the first openly all-paid squad. Mac signed on as the Cincinnati Red Stockings’ rookie right fielder—at 18, easily the youngest of those pioneer pros. In 1869, taking on all comers and winning 60 times without a loss, the team rode the new transcontinental railroad over hills and plains, bound for the “Pacific Slope,” where Mac first encountered the charms of California.

Dubbed the “Invincible Nine,” their exploits flashed across the country by telegraph, the Red Stockings were eagerly awaited in San Francisco. Poster-sized chromolithographs of the players sold briskly, and advertisers were busy dreaming up new angles. One merchant announced the sale of “Red Stockings and all kinds of underwear, shirts, ties, etc.,” while an ad for a marine aquarium began, “Those lionized Red Stockings are going out to see Captain Foster’s educated sea lions!” More than 2,000 people mobbed the Broadway wharf the night they arrived by river steamer from Sacramento—a foreshadowing of what would come.

During their 11 days in the city the players enjoyed little privacy. Their rooms at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, located at Bush and Sansome, were often under virtual siege, and reporters shadowed them on their sightseeing tours through Chinatown’s alleys and across the expanse of dunes out to Cliff House near the Golden Gate. Rubberneckers thronged the music halls where they attended burlesque and minstrel shows, and gawked when they visited the bustling Mechanics’ Fair to view such Gilded Age marvels as Pullman’s opulent new Silver Palace Car and the golden spike recently pounded by Leland Stanford at Promontory Point.

The series of matches against top local clubs took place on the Recreation Grounds, at 25th and Folsom, the West Coast’s only fenced-in ballpark. Opened two years before by Australian immigrants August and William Hatton, the facility also hosted circuses and velocipede races, as well as cricket, ball and track (“pedestrian”) events—anything that would draw a paying crowd. On the Red Stockings’ game afternoons, streets around the ballpark were chaotic. Drivers maneuvered buggies, wagons, and delivery carts close to the fences, then climbed atop them, blocking traffic as they stubbornly refused to budge from their vantage points. Crowds tunneling into the ballpark’s narrow entrance gate were swelled by passengers from the Omnibus Railway Company’s horse-drawn shuttles arriving from downtown—round trip and ticket a bargain at 50 cents, coaches departing from Montgomery Street’s Metropolitan Hotel every five minutes.

Inside the grounds, over the wooden clubhouse, the rivals’ standards fluttered beneath Old Glory with her 37 stars. Next to the clubhouse stood the Ladies’ Pavilion, a covered grandstand for the fair sex and escorts, where satin-bedecked women fluttered colored team ribbons and twirled parasols. The outfield was ringed by carriages that had entered through a special gate on 26th Street. On the “bleaching boards” and in roped-off “bull pens” outside the baselines, men roared and tossed their derbies high; in these civilized times they were less prone than earlier in the city’s lurid history to distract fielders by shooting off guns.

Games were advertised to begin at two o’clock, but often started up to an hour late due to the jammed streets. Given their high scores and a 15-minute “intermission” after the seventh inning (regarded by an accompanying Cincinnati sportswriter as a “dodge” to sell liquor), most of the games required more than two hours to complete. Betting was furious—not on whether the locals would win (conceded an impossibility), but on whether they’d manage one-half (or less optimistically, one-third) the Red Stockings’ run totals.

The famed eastern visitors, playing 91 years before the advent of Candlestick Park, found the weather a greater challenge than anything posed by their outclassed opponents. The afternoon wind, “a fearful gale” in the words of the Cincinnati writer, swept over the city’s dunes, lifting clouds of sand “at times so violent that the striker was almost blinded.” Even on mild days, “a stiff breeze constantly blowing put a drawback to heavy batting.”

Heavy batting was a relative concept, however. The Red Stockings racked up 50 hits per contest and swept the six games by the average score of 56 to 6. Mac shone among the team leaders. His 50 at-bats produced 34 hits (a nifty batting average of .680), including 22 doubles, a triple, and two home runs (slugging percentage 1.280). Scoring 42 runs and stealing safely six times, he was put out on the bases only twice. In the field he caught everything that came his way except one windblown fly that carried beyond his straining fingers—not the last time a visiting outfielder would be so bedeviled.

The Red Stockings took the measure of the city and its ball clubs all too quickly. Travel-weary and increasingly bored, most were ready to depart well before the games were finished— although they did marvel at the size and profusion of local vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Few of the players would return; none would opt to resettle in the Golden State.

None, that is, except Mac.

Baseball next took him to the opposite coast. In 1871 he accompanied Harry Wright to Boston, and for the next five seasons played in the National Association, averaging .362 and helping power the Red Stockings to a string of pennants. Mac had joined an elite handful of America’s top-paid players. In 1876 he accepted $3,000—an astonishing sum during a depression-mired decade—to play for Chicago’s powerful entry in the newly formed National League. Mac and his mates promptly captured the first- ever NL flag. For three more seasons he starred, boasting later of slamming balls out of every National League park. By then he had married and begun a family. In an era when athletes’ careers were generally shorter and far less lucrative than today’s, Mac, after a decade of professional play, remained securely at the top.

Then, at age 29, he left it all behind.

It happened at the close of the ’79 season, when he brought a touring club to the Bay Area. On the way, according to one source, he “won $4,200 on a $700 flyer in mining stocks and immediately quit the baseball game for that of mining broker.” Another account had him opting for the area’s mild year-round weather, sandstorms notwithstanding. “Stricken with the climatic affliction,” a local newspaper observed, “and ignoring all offers from the East [Cal McVey has] determined to make San Francisco his home.”

Whatever the attraction, Mac sent for his family. Joining Oakland’s Bay City Club, he was soon playing on diamonds in San Francisco, Alameda, San Jose, and Sacramento. In an important late-season 1880 contest he demonstrated that his skills had not slipped. Playing the alien position of second base, he went errorless while notching five putouts and ten assists, participated in a double play, and at the plate rapped two hits and scored twice. “The palm for superior playing,” wrote an admiring San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter, “must be accorded to McVey.”

Mac’s share of gate receipts from such Sunday heroics rarely exceeded $100, however—a far cry from big-league money. Moving around, he mixed baseball with a number of enterprises: saloon keeper, stock agent, mining supervisor, cigar store proprietor. As superintendent of a Hanford irrigation company, he formed a team “for my own diversion,” he said, proudly adding, “From 1882 to 1885 we beat all the clubs in the surrounding country.” Returning to San Francisco, he played briefly for the powerful Pioneers, averaging .308 late in 1885, at the age of 35. The next year he ventured to San Diego, where he organized a new ball club, the Hamiltons, and anchored them for three seasons. Finally, in 1891, after assisting the San Jose Dukes to the California League pennant, Mac hung up his spikes at age 41.

Devastated in later years by the loss of his beloved wife, Abbie, to injuries sustained in the Great Quake of ’06, Mac lived on until 1926. He passed away at age 75 in San Francisco, his residence not many blocks from the site of the old ball grounds where he had first come to play nearly 57 years before. I withdrew from baseball, he once said, “but my heart has always been with the boys on the diamond.” The same diamond, he might have added, that had swept him from one era into another and carried him across a continent.