This article was written by William F. Ross III
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the Peach State (Atlanta, 2010)
Under the punishing sun and swamp-like humidity in South Georgia, some got their only taste of professional ball for one summer.
They played six days a week, May through August, under the punishing South Georgia sun and in swamp-like humidity. They traveled by rail, seemingly always on the go. They were off on Sundays, their only day of rest before another round of games and trains. Some played for hometown pride and some played for the pay, but all of them hoped that they would find a lasting job in professional baseball. For most, one season in South Georgia would be as far as they got. For some, it was the tail end of a career. For a few—a lucky few—it was the beginning of a career. This was the Empire State League; this was South Georgia baseball in 1913.
But baseball is not just the romance of victory and defeat on the playing field; it is also a business. The game was intertwined with business promotion. Following the Cotton States Exposition of 1895 in Atlanta, town fathers, elected officials, and chambers of commerce across the state were under local pressure to get on board with the growing industrialization of the South and to attract Northern business investment to their communities. Among other tools, they sought to use baseball as a national calling card for their cities. The local team was the public face of the town. A city with a professional baseball team was a city to be reckoned with; a city with a winning professional team was a winner. This, too, was South Georgia baseball in 1913.
The Empire State League did not emerge fully formed and without precursors. The sandy soil of the region had proved to be fertile ground for baseball. The sport was long popular in South Georgia, and amateur nines had been playing the game for several decades before the league was organized. Amateur and semipro teams played in many South Georgia cities by the last decade of the nineteenth century. Most towns had a local team, as did many churches and schools. The larger towns and county seats also had teams sponsored by local businesses and associations (YMCA, Elks, etc.) or organized around certain professions (waiters, firemen, etc.). It was the “town” team, however, that proved most important to the fans. These groups of home-grown talent would play nearby towns for prizes and bragging rights, and the contests were often part of a larger celebration. The teams were organized to take on all comers and typically looked for challengers of equal status and ability, most often from a similarly sized town. County seats, such as Thomasville or Valdosta, often met one another for contests that had repercussions beyond the playing field, not unlike modern-day high-school football in the region.
Attempts to organize these “town” teams into a league went back at least to 1900, when a Southeastern Base Ball League was proposed; it never began play. In 1903, two attempts failed: a Wiregrass League and a South Georgia League. In 1906, the Georgia State League, Class D, got off the ground, played a partial schedule, and then collapsed as teams failed and dropped out. Five of the towns that would later make up the Empire State League—Americus, Brunswick, Cordele, Valdosta, and Waycross—were members of this six-team league.[fn]Seven cities were represented in the 1906 league; Columbus and Albany were the other two. The Columbus franchise relocated to Brunswick in June. Albany and Columbus were in the South Atlantic League in 1913. Thomasville’s Empire State League entry was that town’s first minor league team.[/fn] The breaking point for the 1906 league was the Fourth of July holiday. Traditionally, teams would play a doubleheader on this date, sometimes traveling between towns for a home-and-home series. With most workers off for the day, box-office receipts could be high, as games were played amid picnics and other outdoor events. Excluding any postseason play, this holiday was a team’s largest payday. For the Georgia State League, this was also the time to cash out. Following the holiday, the 1906 league collapsed, with Waycross left as the lone solvent team, issuing a challenge to other nines in a bid to keep going. It would be six years before another attempt was made to assemble a league.
Population and employment growth, spurred by civic promotion, may be the least recognized component of the drive to professionalize the town teams. New jobs, especially in the timber and related industries, attracted workers to the area; banking and other services followed. Between 1900 and 1910, population in each of the six towns that would make up the league grew by an average of 49 percent; between 1910 and 1920, each town continued to grow by an average of 26 percent. Even with high growth rates, these were still small towns, with populations ranging from 6,000 (Cordele) to just over 15,000 (Waycross). The “boomtown” of the group, Waycross, had increased in population by 145 percent between 1900 and 1910. Brunswick (11,000 residents in 1913) and Valdosta (8,300) had population growth rates of 41 percent from 1910 to 1920, and employment in Brunswick grew by 93 percent between 1909 and 1914. These high growth rates were partly the result of, and further argument for, the self-promotion of the region, with the towns vying with one another to attract Northern investment. In general, business in this era and region meant employment based on extracting natural resources, such as cotton and timber, in order to provide raw materials to Northern factories. Much like the contemporary view that a modern city is “major” if it has a major sports franchise, the presence of a professional baseball team became part of the self-image of these towns.
The Empire State League was the brainchild of one man—James Sinclair—carried to success by many other men. An executive with the South Atlantic Line Railroad in its Waycross offices, Sinclair sought to gain entry for his local team into the South Atlantic League (Sally) for play in the 1913 season. The Sally, stretching from South Carolina to Florida and including four teams in Georgia, had no room for another member, and no team was looking to be replaced. By August 1912, the rebuffed Sinclair was publicly contemplating creating a new league in the southern part of the state. He envisioned a six-team circuit that would include five of the cities that were later part of the league, with Tifton, Moultrie, or Fitzgerald originally considered instead of Thomasville. At Sinclair’s invitation, representatives from the interested cities met several times in different locations to discuss the idea. James Sinclair was elected chairman of the committee formed at these meetings. The circuit would be named the Empire State League.[fn]Georgia’s Empire State League should not be confused with the longerlived league of the same name in New York, which was operating as an “outlaw” league in 1913. The league names are the same because the root nickname is the same. New York is and long has been referred to as the “Empire State.” Georgia business promoters adopted the nickname “Empire State of the South,” a sobriquet in common use from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. The National Association denied entry to the New York Empire State League, based on the reputation of the proposed owners, at the same session where it allowed entrance to Georgia’s Empire State League.[/fn] Teams would pay $100 to the league as an entry fee, demonstrate that they had at least $300 on hand, and post a $500 bond to guarantee compliance with the salary cap. Each team was required to have local ownership. Six teams, representing Americus, Brunswick, Cordele, Thomasville, Valdosta, and Waycross, raised the required funds and formally joined the league by the end of February. In a hint of things to come, however, Americus had a difficult time raising sufficient funds in these early months.
Following their initial meetings, the group assembled in Valdosta to continue their talks, formalize the organization of the league, and elect Sinclair to the office of league president. It would be a short reign. The league’s board of directors, made up of a representative from each of the member cities, scheduled a meeting for February 19 in Brunswick to finalize plans for the season. Sinclair, however, was done. Citing his growing need to attend to his business matters, he announced his impending resignation. In Brunswick, the league quickly moved to fill his place, electing a local businessman, C. C. Vaughn, to the presidency. Oscar Groover of Thomasville was elected vice president, and L. J. Leavy of Brunswick was elected to the post of secretary/treasurer. Leavy was immediately instructed to contact the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues in order to apply for entry on behalf of the league.
An important step for the nascent league was to seek membership in the National Association, which was granted in March. The Empire State League could have gone into the season as an “outlaw” league simply by organizing a schedule for the member teams. This would not have been much different from the current situation. But the teams would still just be playing for bragging rights, not national recognition. Membership in the National Association provided a level of stability that was important to the league’s organizers. As a member of the association, the league gained protection for its players, because all association members were required to respect the contracts of other member leagues. In addition, only a limited number of players could be drafted by leagues with a higher classification, and only at the end of the season. The league was admitted as a Class D minor league; teams in this class made up about half of all the professional leagues in 1913.[fn]The classifications of minor leagues in the National Association in 1913, and the total number of leagues at each classification level, were: Class AA (3 leagues), Class A (2 leagues), Class B (9), Class C (6), and Class D (22). In all, there were 130 Class D teams, representing 47 percent of the total number of minor-league teams.[/fn]
Empire State League rosters were limited to twelve players, and no more than three of the men could have prior service with higher-classification minor-league teams (C or above). Salaries were capped at $1,000 for the season (about $21,000 in today’s dollars), though few if any of the players received the maximum allowable salary.[fn]Based on the cost to enter the league and operating costs during the season (including travel and lodging), the 10 percent of gate receipts that went to the league, and accounting for the average attendance and admission price, each team would have roughly $3,000 to $3,500 to spend on player salaries and/or retain as profit.[/fn] Because of these constraints, we can reconstruct some of the organizational logic behind the make-up of team rosters. This was the era of the player-manager, so the highest-paid roster spot would presumably go to such a player. For most teams, this accounted for one of the three spots limited by “prior service.” Any remaining “prior-service” spots, and the higher salaries that would go with them, might be used for pitching or hitting, depending on the manager’s preference. A player-manager would also typically be a position player, rather than a pitcher, meaning that seven more roster spots would be taken by position players. This leaves four roster spots, which were taken up by four pitchers or three pitchers and a utility player. Many of the pitchers could play the outfield when they weren’t on the mound, providing a little flexibility in the roster. In this league, an injury generally meant the end of a player’s season, as a roster spot could not be held while the man recuperated.
More than 180 men played in the Empire State League—enough to fill the team rosters two-and-a-half times over. Most of these players were from other Class D leagues, “on loan” or released from higher-level minor-league teams, or trying to break into professional baseball for the first time. There was no formal arrangement between the Empire State League and any other leagues, though many of the teams entered into agreements on a player-by-player basis. For example, Tom Bowden, property of the Boston Braves, was “farmed out” to Cordele, and Americus’s “Mr. Popularity,” Dick Manchester, was property of the Albany, Georgia, South Atlantic League team. Several players from Macon (Sally) “rehabbed” with a league team. During the season, more than forty men from higher-classification leagues found playing time in the Empire State League.
The creation of the Empire State League should be seen as a “professionalizing” of the game in South Georgia rather than as introducing something entirely new. Many of the players from a 1912 “town” team roster played for the same team in the league the next year. The towns that made up the league had been playing each other for years, and rivalries were well established. Some of these were continued in the Empire State League, but some, such as the fierce rivalry between Thomasville and Monticello, Florida, faded out when one of the teams involved was not part of the new league. In the seasons leading up to the creation of the league, Americus, Brunswick, and Waycross fielded the strongest teams in the region. Ironically, these three finished out of the running in 1913.
The Empire State League scheduled a 90-game season, with teams playing three home and three away games each week, taking every Sunday off. No doubleheaders were scheduled—save for the Fourth of July holiday—though several would be held in order to make up rainouts. Games would typically start around 3:30, and a nine-inning contest lasted an average of just under two hours. Average take at the ticket booth was a bit less than 50 cents per person.[fn]The per-ticket average is based on contemporary attendance and receipt accounts. The teams charged different rates for grandstand and pavilion seats and frequently held special promotions, such as “Ladies’ Day,” which introduces some variability into this average.[/fn] Teams traveled by train and dressed for the game in a local hotel or boarding house. Based on available evidence, the parks can charitably be described as “unrefined,” with sandy ground that made growing grass difficult. Seating was provided in covered band-box “pavilions” and open-air grandstands, set to one side of the field, usually along the first-base line. Bullpens didn’t exist; pitchers warmed up down the foul lines. The ballpark might also be used for other events. In Valdosta, the field was within a dirt track oval used for motorcycle races.
The Empire State League began play on May 1, with Waycross visiting Brunswick, Americus appearing in Cordele, and Valdosta hosting Thomasville. Businesses closed early, parades were held, city officials strutted, and the ballparks were mobbed. Special trains ran from each visiting team’s city and the surrounding towns. But even before the season was properly underway, there was controversy. The league had announced a contest to award a trophy to the city that had the largest home-opener crowd; determining the winner became clouded by allegations of over counting by some teams. Brunswick claimed the opening-day attendance title with 3,000 fans—exactly 3,000—and over 2,700 were claimed by Waycross for its opener on May 5. Given that the other teams reported more realistic figures for the period and ballpark sizes (1,200 to 1,500 fans), and given that the postseason games averaged 770 spectators, it seems likely that some over counting did, in fact, occur. Still, the opening-day scenes must have been impressive, and the overflow of fans would have been accommodated along the foul lines and in the outfield. When Thomasville held its first game at home, the team reported almost 1,200 fans in attendance in a park that was described to have a capacity of about 800.
The league scheduled a meeting to discuss the attendance prize, but more important matters took center stage. Two weeks into the season, it was time to change league presidents again. On May 19, C. C. Vaughn, who had been elected to the position just three months earlier to succeed James Sinclair, gave notice of his intention to resign. Actually, Vaughn had tried to get out earlier but had withdrawn his previous resignation. Now he had a good excuse—he was moving to New Orleans. Vice President Groover was elevated to the presidency and would retain that post for the remainder of the season. (And no attendance trophy was awarded.)
Like the rest of the teams, the Americus Muckalees,[fn]Team nicknames were seldom if ever used in press accounts of the games. Four of these teams would keep the same names for the 1914 season; Cordele changed its team name to the Ramblers, and Waycross became the Grasshoppers or Moguls.[/fn] named for a local tributary of the Flint River, actually began play before the regular season was underway, facing off with minor-league and college opponents in a sort of preseason exhibition tour. Americus’ 13-game schedule was more ambitious than most. In addition to the practice time, the team may have needed the gate receipts just to start the season. The Americus team was an uneven nine. They had the bats, but not the arms, to be successful. Numerous four- and fivegame losing streaks, along with a few winning streaks, gave the team a certain mediocre consistency. Three managers came and went over the course of the season: Harry Weber, Hal Griffin, and Bill Kuhlman. Weber quit after two weeks; Griffin then took over but shortly gave way to Kuhlman. The team finished fourth in both halves of the season, and its overall record also placed it fourth among the six teams of the league. The season for Americus was not without its bright spots, however. Late in the season, catcher Dick Manchester was voted the “most popular player” in the league by the fans; he won the title, and a loving cup, over the second-place finisher, Valdosta’s Otto Jordan.
With the offensive prowess of outfielder Henry Chancey, Americus should have fared much better. Chancey led the team—and the league—in batting with a .386 average and also led in home runs (10), hits (142), total bases (212), and extra base hits (46).[fn]The batting, fielding, and pitching statistics in this article include appearances in the postseason and/or tie games. The author is currently at work on calculating more accurate regular-season figures based on contemporary box scores. Suffice it to say that whether or not postseason or tie games are counted, the individuals identified here were the best on their respective teams.[/fn] He was second in the league in doubles (32) and third in runs (68). Third baseman Grady Bowen was close behind, batting .324, and was ranked fifth in the league in hits (118). The team’s pitching was led by “Red” Dacey, with a 9–3 record, and Pratt, who went 9–6. First baseman Hal Griffin led the league in putouts (983), with Bowen at third base and Kuhlman at second ranking fourth and fifth, respectively.
The Cordele Babies played in the smallest city in the circuit but in front of some of the most rabid fans in the league. “Babies” seems like an unusual team name to us today, but was a common nickname around the country for teams of the period and was also used in 1913 by the South Atlantic League (Class C) team in nearby Albany, Georgia.[fn]No formal relationship between the two teams has been found, and it is unlikely that one existed, as the two cities were bitter rivals in attracting businesses and industrial development.[/fn] The team was managed by Eddie “Rip” Reagan, a former Sally and Southern Association player.[fn]Reagan played in a different league every year from 1906 to 1912.[/fn] Reagan was well known to Cordele fans, having played for the city in the 1906 Georgia State League. The team’s strength was its pitching, led by Cleo “Kid” Wilder (16–10) and Dana Fillingim (15–10), who pitched back-to-back no-hitters in a doubleheader against Waycross on July 23.[fn]The two games of the doubleheader were each seven innings, and both games were umpired by another pitcher—Gentle of Valdosta. Also of note, Cleo Wilder has been misidentified in at least one source (Johnson and Wolfe) as “Percy” Wilder. Percy, manager of a team in Jacksonville in 1913, did play a role in the creation of the league, as a member of the committee assembled by James Sinclair, but he was not on the roster of any Empire State League team.[/fn] Evidently, the Babies had that team’s number; Wilder also recorded 15 strikeouts on May 17 against Waycross. Wilder and Fillingim had faced each other as pitchers on top high-school teams in 1912; ten years after being teammates in Cordele, Dana would be in the majors and Wilder would be pitching against Shoeless Joe Jackson in an outlaw league. However, pitching was also Cordele’s weakness; no other moundsman on the staff posted a winning record. With a 12–16 record, Hall recorded the most losses in the league. Outfielders Brazier (.308) and Wassem (.306) led the team in batting. Catcher Carl Eubanks finished fourth in the league in putouts, the only player in the top five in that category who was not a first baseman.
By the third week of the season, Cordele and Valdosta separated themselves from the rest of the league and stayed close to each other in the standings for the next several weeks. After 45 games, the halfway point of the schedule, the two teams were well out in front of the others. They seemed destined to leave the rest of the field behind, fighting it out to the end for the league championship. However, there was concern among league directors that only two teams—three if the strong Thomasville nine was included—were really in a race for the championship. At the midpoint of the season, Brunswick, Waycross, and Americus were all within a few games of each other, grouped together seven to ten games behind the leaders. The lack of interest in noncontending teams could have a negative impact at the box office. On June 11, President Groover announced that the league’s directors would gather to discuss splitting the season. At that point, Cordele trailed Valdosta by one game in the standings.
League officials met on June 13; up for discussion were possible changes to the playing schedule. The proposal for the league champion to meet the champion of the South Atlantic League in a postseason series had died on the vine. With the teams in relatively good financial health and with no other postseason opponent available, the league decided to extend the schedule from 90 to 102 games, splitting the season in order to set up a championship contest between the first- and second-half winners. There was also some hope that, by dividing the season, currently weak teams would have an opportunity to compete for the second-half crown and thus build interest—and ticket sales—in their cities. Whether or not that would be the case, the decision did have an immediate effect on the race to win the first half. At the time the new format was announced, Valdosta’s lead over Cordele was only two games, with fewer than two weeks left to play in the first half.
The Empire State League directors had more on their minds at that June meeting than just adjusting the season schedule. Umpiring had become a problem. For league officials, the math was simple. With six teams in the league, there would be three games going Professional Baseball on at any one time. Thus, to their in Georgia – 1913 minds, just three umpires would be required, with perhaps a few more identified as potential substitutes. Lamar Ham, who had played in the 1906 Georgia State League, Robert Carter, and M. J. McLaughlin were the first “men in blue” for the league. Umpires were hired and paid by the league and, given the financial uncertainties before play began, it made sense to be conservative. For the umpires, however, facing potentially hostile crowds alone, without knowing what level of support to expect from the league, could make their jobs unnecessarily difficult and sometimes dangerous.[fn]On June 28, 1913, an umpire was killed by a bat-wielding player at an amateur game in Louisville.[/fn] The umpires pushed for two-man umpiring crews, but the season began with umpires working games alone. The league turned out not to be a weak partner in this arrangement; President Groover handed out several player suspensions for actions on the field during the season. Even so, the issue of crew size came to a head in mid-June, and the umpires disappeared from the field. Players filled in, at least fourteen of whom umpired games from June 11 to June 27. Typically, these were two-man umpiring crews, drawing a player from each team, though a few games featured three-man crews. One of the players—the Valdosta pitcher Gentle—evidently found the task to his liking, and he quit his team to finish out the season as an umpire. As the season progressed, the league, recognizing that it was in good financial shape, capitulated. More umpires were hired, and two-man crews became the norm. By the end of the season, about a dozen umpires, not counting players, had worked for the Empire State League.
The Valdosta Millionaires, led by player-manager Otto “Dutch” Jordan, a former major leaguer and Southern Association All-Star,[fn]Otto Jordan played in the New York State League from 1901 to 1903; with Brooklyn (National League) from 1903 to 1904; and in the Southern Association from 1905 to 1913, mostly with Atlanta. As captain of the Atlanta Crackers, he was once arrested in New Orleans for stealing a baseball from the Pelicans during a game—but that’s another story.[/fn] were one of the best teams in the league. Jordan replaced opening-day manager “Whitey” Morse just one week into the season, to the delight of the locals, who welcomed the “prince of the second sackers.”[fn]Atlanta Constitution, 8 May 1913, 11.[/fn] The “Millionaires” nickname was the result of a newspaper contest; the team was more often referred to locally as “Otto’s Otters.” Jordan paced his team in batting with a .344 average in 96 games, but the defense showed some unevenness. Jordan at second base was second in assists in the league with 262, while third baseman Leininger was second in the league in errors (45). Valdosta’s best pitcher was Winges, who compiled a 17–7 record; also notable was pitcher “Rube” Zellars, who posted a 15–13 record, tied for the second-most losses in the league.
With a week to go in the first half, Valdosta held a two-game lead over Cordele. But was there just a week left to play? Back on June 13, Secretary Leavy had identified July 3 as the starting point for the second half. But that would have resulted in an uneven schedule, putting more games in the first half than the second. President Groover issued a statement on June 25 that the end of the first half would be June 28—three days hence. This caused an immediate outcry in Cordele. With three games left to play, Valdosta’s lead was down to one game. In the final series of the first half, Valdosta would host Cordele, who would have to win two of the three games to gain a postseason berth. In the end it wasn’t much of an issue, however, since if the first half ended on July 3 as originally announced, Cordele would have had to play three more games against Valdosta, for a total of six straight, and would have had to win four of them. As it was, Valdosta won the first two games of the set and secured a place in the postseason championship series. The first half of the season ended on a good note for the league, with half of its teams finishing above .500. So far, so good.
The second half of the season began on June 30, with Americus in Waycross, Thomasville hosting Brunswick, and Valdosta visiting Cordele. Perhaps Cordele came out of the gate looking for a little payback; in the second game of the series they prevailed over Valdosta by a score of 13–0. It would be one of the few bright spots in what remained of their season, as the team— which had been vying for a playoff berth just a week earlier—would finish the second half in last place. With the first half of the season in the books, fans were now looking forward to that Friday’s Fourth of July holiday, which would feature home-and-home twin-bills between Thomasville and Valdosta, Americus and Cordele, and Brunswick and Waycross. Team owners around the league were also looking forward to the holiday payday.
The Brunswick Pilots, their nickname derived from the river pilots who were hired to guide ships in and out of the town’s busy port, were the most poorly run team in the league. The Pilots had three managers during the season: Bert Kite, Charlie Moran,[fn]Beginning in 1902, Charlie Moran had a long and varied baseball career and was later a major-league umpire.[/fn] and “Whitey” Morse (who also had a brief managing stint with Valdosta at the start of the season). Brunswick fielded the largest number of players during the season in an ultimately frustrating attempt to find a winning combination. All the league teams rotated players on and off their rosters, but none did it with Brunswick’s verve. The team went through enough players to fill the rosters of three league teams. The Pilots had some good hitters, but many of them did not play with the team long enough to make a difference. First baseman/manager “Whitey” Morse was second in the league in putouts (873). Only one Brunswick pitcher— Hartner—had a winning record (15–8). In the first half of the season, the team had a six-game winless streak and two five-game winless streaks, which guaranteed a poor finish. The team performed better in the second half, avoiding any lengthy losing streaks, but they still could not consistently win games. Only the poor play of Cordele kept Brunswick from a last-place finish in the second half of the season. Cordele faded in the last third of the second half, suffering through an 11-game winless streak late in the season, followed by one win and then a six-game losing streak. When the 11-game streak began, the team was in second place; a week and a half later, Cordele was in last place to stay.
When the Empire State League was created, attention was paid to ensuring a balanced geographic reach for the league. In doing so, obvious rivalries were created or, as in the case of Valdosta and Thomasville, were carried over into the new league. Cordele and Americus were separated by 30 rail miles; Brunswick and Waycross were 57 miles apart; Thomasville and Valdosta had just 44 miles to travel to meet one another. Because of these pairings, the league could celebrate the Fourth of July with games in every league city. Special trains were run so that fans could see their team in both cities where they played that day. Picnics and other events were scheduled to coincide with the games.
Although the league made it past July 4 with all its teams in good shape, trouble was brewing in Americus, creating a crucial test for the league. For a number of other minor leagues, not just the aforementioned 1906 Georgia State League, the Fourth of July was often the make-or-break point. If the league lost a team now, no one could tell how far reaching the effects might be. Even if the season could be completed with a five-team circuit, the fact that South Georgia could not fully support a minor league would be embarrassing for business leaders and civic promoters, potentially affecting business recruitment in the region. Thankfully for all involved, Americus limped along, though it was forced to hold a fund-raising drive to sell subscriptions in order to keep the team in operation through the remainder of the season.
The Waycross Blowhards represented the most populous city in the circuit, but the highest average attendance in the league couldn’t help a team with the worst batting average. The origin of the “Blowhards” nickname was the result of a fan contest and reflected the major industry in town—railroad-engine construction and repair. Waycross was managed for most of the season by Charlie Wahoo, formerly of the Carlisle Indian School. He was followed in the manager’s seat by Jack Hawkins and then Willie Clark. Infielder Charles Anderson was the standout on the team, batting .301 in 85 games. Outfielder Fenton batted just .259 but was second in the league in home runs, with 7 roundtrippers. Pitcher “Wild Bill” Clark led the team with a 16–9 record, tied for third most wins in the league; no other Waycross pitcher had a winning record.
The league’s decision to split the season helped to make the races in the second half more competitive, as all the teams stayed within four or five games of each other. But with two weeks to go in the season, Thomasville took off, eventually finishing six and a half games ahead of second-place Valdosta. The team posted an 11-game winning streak from August 12 to 25, which put the top spot out of reach for any other team. The Thomasville Hornets—the nickname was literally picked from a hat—were managed by Martin Dudley, who played the previous few seasons in the Class D Cotton States League and had appeared in the South Atlantic League in 1910. Shortstop Herbert “Dummy” Murphy[fn]Murphy was deaf and received the standard nickname of the time for deaf players. His given name was Herbert Courtland, but he was called “Pat” by friends.[/fn] led the team in batting with a .338 average, followed by second baseman “Piggie” Parker, who batted .321. Murphy also led the league in errors (47 in 73 games). The team featured a strong pitching staff with three moundsmen posting winning records: Vincent Roth (18–8), who also batted .283 and led the league in wins; “Red” Day (16–6); and Larry Cheney (10–6).
Thomasville walked away with the second half of the season, which ended on August 27.[fn]The results shown for the second half of the season do not match those previously published in other sources. This variance is most likely due to several transcription errors in the Atlanta Constitution’s reporting. The Constitution’s final standings for the second half appear to have been directly copied by both Sporting Life and Sporting News. Simple addition demonstrates that the overall team totals for wins (150) and losses (149) do not agree in those results. (You can’t have a win without someone else having a loss, and vice versa.) From these sources, especially the oft-cited Sporting News, the erroneous results have been repeated in later publications. Baseball Reference cites a different set of totals also at variance with the results presented here. The “won/lost” figures shown in the included tables are based on game accounts from multiple contemporary sources. The corrections do not affect the order in which the teams finished for the second half of the season. It is also worth mentioning that one game in the second half was protested and officially dropped from the records by the league (July 9, Thomasville at Americus). The Atlanta Constitution correctly reflected this change.[/fn]
The average attendance for the regular season was about 400 fans per game, and all six teams were close to that average. Waycross led the league, with an average of 431 paid admissions per game, followed by Brunswick (411) and Thomasville (405). Cordele had the lowest average attendance for the season (364), with Americus (380) and Valdosta (394) doing somewhat better. To tell the whole story, however, these figures have to be considered in terms of the total population in each town. Waycross, for example, had the highest total attendance, but, being the largest city in the league, actually drew the smallest proportion of its population to the park on average (2.8 percent). Cordele, about one-third the size of Waycross and with the lowest total attendance, actually did the best in terms of the percentage of its total population attending its games (6 percent), with Thomasville, half the size of Waycross, coming in right behind (5.7 percent).
The championship series began on Friday, August 29, using a best-of-seven format. It was somehow appropriate that Thomasville and Valdosta were playing for the championship. Four months earlier, these two teams faced each other to open their seasons; they also faced each other on the Fourth of July. Since the two towns involved were so close to one another, the games were scheduled to alternate between the two cities, with Valdosta hosting the opener as winner of the first half of the season. That game attracted 741 fans. Otto Jordan had kept his team sharp, winning seven of nine games in the closing weeks of the regular season. In the first game, Valdosta walked away with a win. Thomasville pitcher Cheney loaded the bases in the first inning, which allowed the Otters to score a run on an error by shortstop Murphy. Thomasville came back in the next inning, scoring two runs to edge ahead. This score held up until the bottom of the fourth, when Valdosta erupted for five runs, assisted by two errors and several walks. Valdosta added two more runs in the fifth; Thomasville started a rally in the seventh but could only get two runs across. Final score: Valdosta 8, Thomasville 4. It was a good start for the Otters, and the series moved to Thomasville.
The second game of the series was held on Saturday in Thomasville before a crowd of 595. This game would prove to be a bit tighter than the first one, but the outcome was the same. Both teams scored a run in the first inning; Valdosta’s Van Landingham hit the second pitch of the contest over the center-field fence for a home run—the first in the series. By contrast, Thomasville scored its first run on a walk, a sacrifice, and a double. The Otters went ahead in the top of the second, with Van Landingham, on his way to a three-for-five day at the plate, getting the RBI. The Hornets tied the score in the bottom of the third via a double, a bunt, and a single. Valdosta went ahead for good in the fourth inning, scoring a run and then building on this lead with two additional runs in the seventh, including the second home run of the series, this one hit by left fielder Jack Hawkins. Final score: Valdosta 5, Thomasville 2. Valdosta now led the series two games to none.
There was no baseball the next day since it was a Sunday. However, it was not an off day for the Thomasville team. That day, Hornets shortstop Murphy got married to Miss Ella Sanford of Thomasville. It would make a nice story to report that Murphy, up to now hitting a combined two-for-nine, suddenly came alive at the plate. Or that he settled in and reduced his league-leading error rate. Unfortunately for Murphy, neither was the case. Fortunately for the team, on the other hand, the good spirits of the wedding party carried over to the next game of the series.
On Monday, September 1, the two teams were back at it. If Thomasville wanted to stay alive, the team needed to start winning. The series had returned to Valdosta, and the largest crowd of the series—1,018 cranks—was present to root for the teams. Special trains from the surrounding towns ran for this game, and it was the Hornets’ turn to shine—although that wasn’t immediately apparent. Valdosta started the scoring off with a run in the bottom of the second inning and increased their lead with a second run in the fifth. But the Otters’ pitching failed them late in the game; Thomasville scored five runs over the final four innings. The Hornets tied the game in the seventh, chasing Vaughn, the starting pitcher. The relief pitcher, Zellars, walked in another run, giving Thomasville the lead, and allowed single runs in the next two innings. On the mound for Thomasville, Cheney, who had a rocky start in Game 1 of the series, came through for the Hornets, allowing just two runs on nine hits. Newlywed Murphy led all players with two errors; perhaps he was tired. Final score: Thomasville 5, Valdosta 2. The Hornets had made a good showing, although Valdosta still led the series, two games to one.
On Tuesday, the contest returned to Thomasville. The 732 fans who turned out to see the game were treated to a pitching beauty. Vincent Roth went the distance for the Hornets, keeping Valdosta off the scoreboard and surrendering just two singles. He helped his own cause by swatting a home run in the third inning; Thomasville second baseman Murch also hit a home run, his coming in the first. The Hornets scored two runs in the opening frame and three in the third. The Otters, meanwhile, could not solve Roth, who struck out six, walked two, and stranded five on his way to a complete game shutout. Final score: Thomasville 5, Valdosta 0. The series was now tied at two games apiece.
Game 5 was on Wednesday, September 3, in Valdosta, before a crowd of 742. Valdosta came out swinging, outhitting the Hornets through nine innings but ultimately falling short of victory. This game was a defensive gem, with Thomasville’s “Red” Day facing off against Winges for the Otters. Both men struck out three batters; Winges walked three to Day’s two. Valdosta opened the scoring in the third inning with a run scored off a single, a sacrifice, and another single. The Hornets came back in the sixth inning, scoring two runs on a walk, an error, a single, a sacrifice, and another single. This was the epitome of “small ball” in the Deadball Era. Day made those two runs hold up, going the distance for the victory. Final score: Thomasville 2, Valdosta 1. Thomasville now led the series three games to two—just one win away from a championship.
Thomasville got that win the next day, September 4, at home in front of a crowd of 789. In his third start of the series, Cheney’s performance on the mound, combined with the defense behind him, cemented victory for the Hornets. Valdosta managed five hits off Cheney but produced no runs. The big bats of the Otters were generally silent; Jordan went one-for-four, as did Van Landingham. Thomasville got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the first, scoring one run on two singles and an error. The Hornets added another run in the second on two singles and a sacrifice and then put the game out of reach in the seventh, with three runs scored off a round-tripper hit by left fielder John Wagnon. It was his first home run of the entire season, and fans responded by collecting $30 in the stands, which they then delivered to the player. Appropriately enough, Hornets manager Martin Dudley caught a popup to end the game and the series. The Thomasville pitching staff had its second complete game shutout of the series. Final score: Thomasville 5, Valdosta 0.
The City of Thomasville was ecstatic. The Hornets had won the “rag”—the championship banner—in the inaugural season of the Empire State League. People cheered, honked horns, and rang bells. There was also cause for celebration of a financial sort. Each team received $774 from gate receipts; players on the winning team received $266 to divide among themselves, while players on the losing team got $177 to split.[fn]Members of the winning team received about $22 apiece ($462 in today’s dollars); players on the losing team got $15 each ($315 in today’s dollars). Each team received over $16,000 in today’s dollars.[/fn]
At a banquet on the day after the series win, Manager Dudley had more good news: his own wedding plans. Dudley’s announcement came in the form of a telegram; he was in Valdosta with his betrothed. Present at the banquet was the team’s shortstop, newlywed “Dummy” Murphy, who was now looking north to the major leagues.
The Empire State League made it to the finish line with all six franchises intact. This outcome was not always assured and was quite an accomplishment for a firstyear circuit. Sporting Life reported that the season “was an artistic and financial success, all of the clubs that entered the race finishing in good condition for another fling at the game next year.”[fn]Sporting Life 62, no. 1 (6 September 1913): 29.[/fn] The men who played in the league had demonstrated day in and day out that the desire to succeed at their craft could carry them through the rough times and muggy afternoons of South Georgia. More than 30 of them went on to play in higher-classification minor leagues; two— “Dummy” Murphy and Dana Fillingim—made it from the Empire State League to the major leagues.
In November 1913, the Empire State League changed its name to the Georgia State League for the upcoming season, a nod to the 1906 circuit.[fn]Two unrelated Georgia State Leagues, which operated in the Middle and Western Georgia regions, fielded teams in 1920–21 and 1948–56.[/fn] The salary limit was raised to $1,200. There was also a change at the top of the league. At the November 11 league meeting in Cordele, I. J. Kalmon of Americus was elected president, replacing Groover, who had retired. Kalmon was not the group’s first choice; J. B. Jemison, the brother of Atlanta Constitution sports editor Dick Jemison, was selected but turned down the offer. In a surprising turn, James Sinclair, the man whose idea had launched the league, returned to the fold, winning election as vice president. All six teams from the 1913 league stayed on as members of the Georgia State League, and 35 players from 1913 (70 percent of the 50 men on the “reserve” lists of the teams) returned for 1914. Seven players were drafted from the Empire State League to play in higher leagues for 1914, most going to Class C clubs.
The 1914 season was a complete success and finished with Cordele beating Thomasville in four straight games for the championship. By 1915, however, problems began to overtake the league. The major liability of the circuit was the size of its member cities. Operating costs (equipment, travel, and lodging), player salaries, and team profits were all directly related to the number of people each team could attract to its games. Smaller cities had less of a population base to draw from, even though some of these cities were fairly successful at putting people in the seats. Cordele dropped out before play began in 1915 and was replaced by a franchise in Dothan, Alabama. Americus, again struggling financially as it had in 1913, disbanded three weeks into the season; the league filled its spot with a team from Gainesville, Florida. Bowing to the obvious, the circuit was renamed the FLAG (Florida-Alabama-Georgia) League on June 15. But the changes weren’t enough; the league folded on July 17, 1915. A playoff series was attempted but not completed. It would be 20 years before the Empire State League cities were back in professional ball to stay. Still and all, two years of sustained operations had convinced many that professional baseball could work in South Georgia. By proving that Class D baseball could be successful, the Empire State League laid the foundation for later minor-league ball in the region, though events conspired against an immediate continuation of the South Georgia Class D circuit. World War I, an influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, and a second world war, each in their way, delayed the return of the six cities to professional baseball, just as those events delayed the population and business growth of the region. By the end of World War II, five of the six cities once again hosted minor-league teams; in 1951, Brunswick became the last Empire State League city to welcome back minor-league baseball. The dream of professional baseball in the region turned into a nightmare in 1906; it was made a success in 1913. The Empire State League proved that business and sporting interests could come together to field professional teams in South Georgia.
The majority of the information presented in this article is based on contemporary newspaper and other periodical accounts. Primary sources include the Atlanta Constitution, Sporting Life, and The Sporting News. The author also wishes to recognize the assistance provided by Ephraim Rotter, Curator of Collections with the Thomas County Historical Society. The following sources were also consulted:
- Baseball Reference: www.baseball-reference.com
- Retrosheet: www.retrosheet.org
- SABR Minor League Database: www.minors.sabrwebs.com
- United States Bureau of Economic Analysis: www.bea.gov
- United States Census Bureau: www.census.gov
- Anderson, Alan. Remembering Americus, Georgia: Essays on Southern Life. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2006.
- Bell, John. Georgia Class-D Minor League Baseball Encyclopedia: A Statistical History of the Georgia-Alabama, Georgia-Florida, and Georgia State Leagues. Carrollton, Ga.: Vabella Publishing, 2003.
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- Faber, Charles F., and Richard B. Faber. Spitballers: the Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.
- James, Bill, and Rob Neyer. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches. New York: Fireside, 2004.
- Johnson, Lloyd, and Miles Wolff, eds. Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. 3rd ed. Durham, N.C.: Baseball America, 2007.
- McQueen, A. S., and Hamp Mizell. History of Okefenokee Swamp. Tallahassee, Fla.: Rose Printing Co., 1992 (reprint).
- O’Neal, Bill. The Southern League: Baseball in Dixie, 1885–1994. Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1994.
- Rogers, William W. Transition to the Twentieth Century: Thomas County, Georgia, 1900–1920. Tallahassee, Fla.: Sentry Press, 2002.
- Simon, Tom, ed. Deadball Stars of the National League. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004.
- Simpson, John A. “The Greatest Game Ever Played in Dixie”: The Nashville Vols, Their 1908 Season, and the Championship Game. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007.
- Sullivan, Neil J. The Minors: The Struggles and the Triumph of Baseball’s Poor Relation from 1876 to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
- Utley, Francis Lee, and Marion R. Hemperley, eds. Placenames of Georgia: Essays of John H. Goff. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975.
- Wiggins, Robert Peyton. The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw Major League, 1914–1915. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009.
- Wright, Marshall D. The Southern Association in Baseball, 1885–1961. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.
- The South Atlantic League, 1904–1963: A Year-by-Year Statistical History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009.
WILLIAM F. ROSS III is writing a book on professional baseball in South Georgia during the Deadball Era.