This article was written by Paul Greenwell
This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal
As perhaps the greatest of all baseball managers, John J. McGraw had proven himself to be a genius at evaluating talent and developing his teams into commercially successful ventures. He even had some success in off-the-field investments, but he got in over his head when he chose to sponsor a large-scale Florida land development during the mid-1920s. This ill-fated venture damaged his credibility in New York, and also might have been a contributing factor to his gradually deteriorating health.
As far back as the mid-l 890’s McGraw had ventured successfully into businesses other than baseball. With Hall-of-Fame catcher Wilbert Robinson, he had opened “The Diamond” in downtown Baltimore. It was a combination saloon, bowling alley, and gymnasium and is often credited with being the birthplace of “duckpin” bowling in America. McGraw later was a part owner in Baltimore’s first American League entry in 1901 and was eventually a minority owner in the New York Giants. During the off-season he often spent time in Cuba and in fact was an owner of several successful race horses at local tracks. The Florida land boom appeared to be yet another opportunity for John McGraw to make money.
The beginning of the beach area land boom had started shortly after World War I with resorts springing up at Palm Beach, Miami, and Coral Gables. Original purchasers now enjoyed sharply higher values for properties with vast stretches of undeveloped land still available. For example, a lot purchased for $800 in Miami sold only a few years later for $150,000. Another piece of commercial property rose from $240,000 to $4,000,000 in two years. The real frenzy began in 1924 and continued through 1925. Eventually this boom was to reach ridiculous proportions. Of the 75,000 persons living in Miami during 1925, nearly 25,000 were real estate agents. Persons living in Miami actually were forced to put signs on their front yards informing real estate agents their houses were NOT for sale! In the summer of 1925 one Miami newspaper ran a 504-page edition dedicated entirely to real estate ads. Enter John J. McGraw in January 1926.
For several years, McGraw had been very interested in Florida, particularly the West Coast town of Sarasota where his Giants had trained since 1924. At the insistence of John Ringling, the circus magnate, McGraw had purchased a home in Sarasota and apparently expected to spend a great deal of his off-season in Florida. Few in New York who knew him, however, were prepared for just how involved he had become in the land boom.
During the first week of January 1926, each of the New York newspapers ran a full page advertisement with a picture of McGraw saying in bold letters: “You’ve followed me in baseball, now follow me in real estate!” To capture the fancy of the fans he had named this prospective development just north of Sarasota, Pennant Park. The development was designed to eventually include 2,000 residents. John McGraw was a partner with A. S. Skinner, a prominent Sarasota developer. Lot prices ranged from $2500 to $5000, not a tiny sum in 1926, and was to include use of a magnificent yacht club.
As a personal whim, McGraw had asked for the main thoroughfare to be known as Mathewson Park after his favorite ballplayer, Christy Mathewson, who had died during the World Series of 1925. All the other streets were to be named after famous ballplayers – usually Giants – and Bresnahan Boulevard was cited as an example. McGraw went so far as to personally guarantee every investor’s total satisfaction and asked every investor to have complete confidence in his opinion. All this for property in which the streets existed only on blueprints and in the imagination of McGraw and Skinner.
Offices were opened in Sarasota for persons who might venture down to see the property – what there was to see of it. The investors placed their trust in McGraw, and few individuals felt the necessity to travel to Florida despite the late stage of the boom. Checks and money orders poured into the offices at 104 West 42nd Street in New York and were quickly processed by Jack Bentley, the Giants pitcher, who was acting as local agent for the development.
By April, amazingly, the operation went from boom to bust. A dropoff of speculation earlier in the year had turned into a mad panic to sell throughout Florida and solid, quality projects were collapsing in price, leaving developments like Pennant Park to be reclaimed by the jungle. By the spring of 1927 those who had followed him into investing were looking toward McGraw or if necessary the courts to make good on refunding their money. It seemed that in the heat of sales the agents had in fact sold more land than actually existed.
While McGraw should have been priming his club for another pennant push in 1926 he had to spend time satisfying disgruntled investors. Probably no one knows just how much Pennant Park was to cost John McGraw. In financial cost it was plenty, including his Sarasota home. There also were intangible losses involving his reputation, his piece of mind, and the ball club with which he had long been associated.
The Giants slipped to fifth place in 1926 and McGraw nagged team captain Frank Frisch so much the Fordham Flash jumped the club. After the season ended, Frisch was traded to St. Louis for second baseman Rogers Hornsby, who had just managed the Cards to the world championship. In 1927 McGraw placed Hornsby in charge of the Giants on those occasions – and there were several -when the Old Oriole was not with the club. Hornsby’s heavy-handedness caused quarreling and dissension among the players and the result didn’t reflect much credit on McGraw. The next year Hornsby was traded to Boston, but the marginal material the Giants got in return didn’t help the club very much.
Back in New York, McGraw was no longer invincible and his following shrunk. His health, which had been poor for a couple of years, began to deteriorate further and he was forced to miss several road trips. Even with stars like Terry, Ott, Hubbell and Lindstrom, he could not win another pennant. He had a losing percentage when he resigned as manager on June 2, 1932. He went to Havana the following winter to try to recover his health. After watching the Giants regain the world title under Terry in 1933, he fought the gradual encroachments of cancer until February 25, 1934, when he died at age 60. He had been a Big League manager more than one-half of his life. Too bad there was no Pennant Park where he could be appropriately memorialized.