This article was written by Joseph Overfield
This article was published in the 1989 Baseball Research Journal
Least known of the three major leaguers by that name, he pitched a no-hitter for the Miracle Braves and had an equally fascinating life outside of baseball.
There are three George Davises in the Macmillan Encyclopedia. Best known is George Stacey Davis, a shortstop for 20 seasons with a .297 lifetime average. This George Davis, much in the public eye for many years, literally disappeared late in his life, and it was not known when and where he died until the late Lee Allen discovered he had passed away in obscurity in a Philadelphia mental hospital in 1940.
George (Kiddo) Davis was a good-field, little-hit centerfielder who played for five clubs in eight seasons in the majors.
The last of the triumvirate was George Allen Davis Jr., whose major league record shows seven wins and ten losses for the years 1912 to 1915. Astronomer, lawyer, no-hit pitcher for the Miracle Braves, he may have been the most interesting George Davis of all.
The “Other George Davis” was born March 9, 1890, in Lancaster, New York, just east of Buffalo. His father, George A. Davis Sr., was a lawyer, a man of some affluence and at one time a member of the New York State Senate. Young George graduated from St. John’s (later Manlius) Military Academy, near Syracuse, and entered Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1908. The transition from the strict discipline of the military school to the freer and easier atmosphere of college was a problem, if we are to judge from a sketch of Davis in the 1912
Williams Class Book: “How George occupied himself his freshman year is more or less a mystery, and the class almost lost him. At any rate, he got eligible at Easter in time for baseball. Four of Champ’s [he had three other nicknames – Iron, Joe, and Jarge] roommates have resigned from the college and the other two are feeling nervous, but we attribute all this to chance.”
Once past his freshman year, Davis began to shine in the classroom, on the diamond, and in the gym. The Class Book continues: “After smiting Latin-I, his work rose steadily to Phi Beta Kappa rank, but lack of hours made him ineligible for the Gargoyle.” Davis, a righthander, pitched brilliantly and was captain his senior year. He had an intimidating fastball, a blazing curve and many strikeouts.
(His best was 20 against Wesleyan in 1910; he also had 18 against Trinity and 15 against both Princeton and Dartmouth.) He is also credited with beating Yale after the Elis had won 19 in a row.
Although just 5 feet, 10 inches and 165 pounds, he was considered the strongest man on campus, having set a Williams weightlifting record that stood for years. To improve his dexterity he participated in fencing. When he graduated in 1912, he was vice president of his class.
While he pitched for Williams, coached by former major-league pitcher Andy Coakley, Davis’s work caught the eye of Doc Barrett, trainer for the New York Highlanders, who worked in the Williams athletic department in the off-season. Barrett tipped off his bosses, who sent Arthur Irwin to look him over. On July 12, 1912, Davis signed a $5,000 contract, most generous for those days.
Four days later he made his major-league debut, losing to the St. Louis Browns 3-1. According to one account, Davis displayed “a sweeping curve, a fast jump ball and worked almost exclusively without a windup.” He finished the season with a 1-4 record and an ERA of 6.50 in 10 games for the last-place Highlanders.
In the spring of 1913, he joined the Highlanders’ (now Yankees) spring training junket to Bermuda. Frank Chance, who had succeeded Harry Wolverton as manager of the hapless Yankees, was pleased with the Williams graduate in the early drills, but was infuriated when Davis said he was going back to the mainland to get married. This defection sealed his doom with the Yankees, who ticketed him for Jersey City of the International League. Davis, who by now had enrolled in Harvard Law School, agreed to go, but grudgingly, saying he did not like the minors and did not have to play ball for a living.
Davis was 10-16 for the Skeeters, who were as pathetic as the `12 Highlanders had been. They finished last, after having lost 19 in a row in one stretch. According to the 1914 Reach Guide, Davis fanned 199 in 208 innings, but exhibited the wildness that plagued him throughout his career, walking 98, hitting eight, and unleashing 15 wild pitches. In late August, the Yankees, more concerned about his wildness than impressed with his strikeouts, released him to Rochester, also of the International League. John Ganzel, the Hustlers’ manager, boosted Davis to skipper George Stallings of the Boston Braves, with whom Rochester had a close relationship. Before Davis made a single pitch for Rochester, he was on his way to Boston, where he appeared in two late-season games with no decisions.
Because of obligations at law school, Davis reported to the Braves late in 1914. The first thing Stallings told him was to work on a spitball. For most of the season, he was used in mop-up roles. After one sharp relief performance, reporters nudged Stallings about giving Davis a start. Stallings said he was waiting for the right moment. That moment came on September 9, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Phillies. This was far from a meaningless game. After losing the first game to Grover Cleveland Alexander, the Braves, who had emerged from last place on July 19 in their “miracle” run for the flag, were now in first place but just a game ahead of the Giants.
The Braves scored twice off Ben Tincup in the second and added two more in the fourth. Reliever Eppa Rixey yielded a fifth run in the seventh and Joe Oeschger gave up two more in the last of the eighth. Meanwhile, George A. Davis Jr., the Harvard law student, using the spitball Stallings had urged him to learn, shut out the Phillies without a hit or a run. His one rough moment came in the fifth, when he walked the first three batters. He worked his way out of that jam by fanning Ed Burns and forcing pinch hitter Gavvy Cravath to hit into a double play. In later years, whenever Davis talked about his “Pitchers’ Hall of Fame” performance, he always took pains to point out he was 3 for 4 at bat that day. What he did not say was that those were the only hits he had all year.
Mac Davis, writer, broadcaster, and inventor of many baseball myths, once told the dramatic story of the Davis no-hitter. His punch line was that it was the last game Davis ever won. Actually, he won two games in `14 and then won three in `15. Davis did not see the action in the `14 Series. The Braves swept the Philadelphia Athletics, four games to none, using just three pitchers in the process, Dick Rudolph, Bill James, and George Tyler. The New York Times, after a 1950 survey, called the Braves’ victory the greatest upset in sports history.
In 1915 the Braves were unable to repeat their miracle and finished second. As for Davis, who once more reported late because of law school, he had 10 starts and wound up 3-3 with an ERA of 3.80. For all practical purposes, this was the end of the baseball line for Davis. He made two appearances for Providence of the International League in `16 and then was released by the Braves. A compilation of his record in his Cooperstown file credits him with a 13-15 mark for Columbus in `16, but this record actually belongs to Frank (Dixie) Davis.
Meanwhile, Davis gained his degree from Harvard and became a lawyer. How he ranked in his class is not known, but it is certain he was the strongest man on campus, just as he had been at Williams. In 1914 he set a strength mark of 1,427.6 points, breaking a record set earlier by legendary football star Huntington (Tack) Hartwick. A year later, Davis broke his own record, totaling 1,693 points.
Why was his baseball career so short – over at 26?
Perhaps the jump from campus to big leagues was just too much for him. His lack of honing in the minors and his missing of spring training each year probably were factors. There is also the suspicion that his heart was not completely in baseball and that he was eager to get on to other things. If he had any hopes of a comeback after his release by the Braves, they were dashed by the onset of World War I. Early in 1918 he reported to Fort Lee, Virginia, and in ninety days he was a second lieutenant. During his training he was outstanding in bayonet drills, probably because of his great strength and the dexterity he had learned in fencing. Before long he was in charge of bayonet training for replacement troops who came through Fort Lee. He was discharged a captain on January 14, 1919, having seen no overseas duty.
His Army service behind him and his baseball career over, Davis settled in Buffalo with his wife, the former Georgianna Jones. His profession was the law, but it never seemed to challenge him intellectually. In the early 1920s he began to take graduate courses in philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Buffalo. He was greatly challenged there by a Professor Boynton who encouraged him to acquaint himself with the sciences in order to better understand the philosophers. This led him to astronomy and opened new horizons that were to radically change his life. He avidly pursued his new interest in the arts, taking some courses at the University of Buffalo, but for the most part educating himself through reading and study. As he began to accumulate an astronomy library that was to grow to 1,500 volumes, he soon learned that many of the books were written in strange languages. To meet this challenge, he taught himself Sanskrit, Greek, Latin (his nemesis as a Williams freshman), Arabic, Persian, German, and French. He never claimed fluency in all of them, but did master them sufficiently to understand the astronomy texts. He even delved into the arcane world of Egyptian hieroglyphics. For thirty years he conducted astronomy classes at the Buffalo Museum of Science, where he was also a trustee. He lectured at the University of Buffalo and wrote widely on the subject. His paper, “The Pronunciation, Derivation and Meanings of Star Names,” published in “Popular
Astronomy,” is considered definitive in its field. He was a member of the American Astronomical Society, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of England, and an honorary member of the Canadian Astronomical Society.
He also found time for public service and was a member-at-large of the Buffalo Common Council from 1928 to 1934. In 1934 he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for mayor, then threw his support to the Democrat, who was elected. He had a great love of books and, in a natural course of events, he was appointed to the Erie County Library Board (later Buffalo and Erie County Library Board), where he served 14 years.
In the Davis scheme of things, the law always seemed to be of secondary importance. At first he practiced with his father and later formed his own partnership. In 1929, with egregiously bad timing, he gave up law to join a brokerage firm. Eventually he returned to the law, specializing in real estate. For many years he was associated with Hodgson, Russ, Andrews, Woods and Goodyear, one of Buffalo’s largest and most prestigious firms, which traced its beginnings to the law offices of Buffalo’s two-time president, Grover Cleveland.
On January 1, 1961, shortly before his seventy-first birthday, Davis retired from the law firm. In an interview with the Buffalo Courier-Express, he said he planned to concentrate on his magnum opus, a two-volume work on the origins and history of the constellations. “I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life,” he told the interviewer. Unfortunately, what was left of his life was much too short to complete his project. On June 4, 1961, George A. Davis Jr., student, athlete, major-league pitcher, lawyer, soldier, astronomer, bibliophile, linguist, teacher, author, and public servant, went to the basement of his Buffalo home and hanged himself. He left his second wife, Grace 0. Butler Davis (his first wife had died in 1952), a son, and two daughters.
What caused George Davis to end his life? No public explanation was ever given, nor have any former associates been able to give me a reason. The one member of the family I was able to talk to (a son-in-law) told me the family was not even told it was a suicide. One must look closely at his personality to try to find a reason. He was an intensely proud man, almost to the point of arrogance. He had spent most of his life in a profession he did not particularly like. He had wanted to be a doctor, but his father had persuaded him to follow his own profession, the law. Academia probably would have been a better choice.
He was also an impatient man who did not suffer fools lightly. More than once, he stormed out of Erie County Hall when he thought other lawyers involved in a real estate closing were wasting his time with trivialities. He was known to respond waspishly to students in his astronomy class who asked “silly” questions. On the other hand, he often exhibited great patience with young lawyers who came under his wing, and it is told he delighted in playing mentor to neighborhood youngsters who came to his yard to view the wonders of the heavens through his telescope.
Davis had hoped to become full-time curator of astronomy at the Museum of Science after he retired from the law firm, but the job went to another man. He was not a partner in the law firm, so when he retired he apparently had to rely solely on his income from Social Security. He had accumulated very little of this world’s goods, except for his library, which was eventually sold to the Museum of Science. According to his son-in-law, Davis had inherited a substantial sum from his father, but lost it all in the crash. The appraisal of his estate in the Surrogate’s office of Erie County lists two bank accounts, both only in the hundreds of dollars; three small insurance policies and no real estate.
It is the guess here that George Davis could not face a future of impecunity and found escape through suicide.
JOSEPH M. OVERFIELD, an old friend of George Davis, is a semi-retired businessman, historian for the Buffalo Bisons of the American Association, and author of “The 100 Years of Buffalo Baseball.”