Melville Webb

This article was written by Charlie Bevis

As a sportswriter for the Boston Globe, Melville Webb reported on major-league baseball in Boston for nearly half a century before he retired in 1951. He was a member of the Old-Timers Committee at the Baseball Hall of Fame from 1944 to 1953, where he participated in the selection of 24 inductees. Webb is most famous, though, for what he allegedly did but actually did not do: deny the 1947 MVP award to Ted Williams by refusing to vote for him on his ballot.

Melville Emerson Webb Jr. was born in Boston on February 21, 1876, the oldest of the three surviving children of Melville Webb Sr. and Helen (Lane) Webb.1 His father was a prominent physician in Boston.2 Young Melville grew up in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, the city’s newest upper-income enclave, built upon land reclaimed from the Charles River estuary.3 He graduated from English High School in Boston in 1894.

Rather than attend college, as young men of his social stature did in that era, Webb went directly into the workforce. In 1894 William D. Sullivan, the sports editor at the Boston Globe, hired Webb to be the newspaper’s specialist in reporting high-school and college sports.4 During his tenure at the Globe, he became a nationally renowned writer of college football and a human encyclopedia of Harvard College football.

On April 9, 1902, Webb married Katherine O’Brien in her hometown of Baltimore, following their 18-month engagement.5 After a honeymoon to Atlantic City, they resided in the town of Brookline, on the western border of Boston.6 They had one child, also named Katherine, born on March 19, 1905, but she died one day later.7 His wife died a month later, due to childbirth complications, on April 29, 1905.8

Webb cut his teeth on baseball reporting by covering the Harvard baseball team, which was one of the top college teams in the country during the early years of the new century. His articles on the Harvard-Yale baseball games in 1907 were deemed worthy of front-page placement, with a subsequent jump to the sports section.9 Webb then became an understudy to Globe baseball writer Tim Murnane, who was an avid user of the baseball statistics that Webb had been compiling for the Globe since 1896.10

On November 12, 1907, Webb remarried in a private ceremony performed by a justice of the peace in Boston.11 His bride was divorcée Olive Russell, an actress from Chicago, who had ended her first marriage to actor Maurice Burns through a highly publicized divorce in February of 1907. Because her deceased father “provided in his will that his daughter should be disinherited until she was separated from her husband and had given up the stage,” Russell divorced Burns for the money, as newspapers across the country reported that “she lost a husband, won a fortune of $50,000 and left the city bound for Boston, where she will get the money.”12

After collecting her inheritance, Russell told reporters, “Most women would do the same thing. Ninety-five percent of the women in Chicago would sell their husbands for $50,000 and without a moment’s hesitation.”13 Russell did not sell her second husband, however, as she and Webb remained married until her death 43 years later. They briefly resided in Boston in the first few years of their marriage, before making their home in Brookline during the next four decades.14 They had no children.

In 1908 Webb was an occasional substitute for Murnane, as he started to cover major-league baseball from the press box at the Boston ballparks, not just compile statistics in the Globe’s newsroom. Murnane’s daily duty was to cover the home games of the city’s American League team (the Red Sox) and its National League team (the Nationals, soon to be called the Braves). Given the interlocking nature of the two teams’ schedules, baseball was played in Boston nearly every day of the week for half the year (except Sunday, when playing professional sports was prohibited by law in Massachusetts).

Murnane usually wrote all of the home-game articles for the Globe, unless he had been dispatched to cover a road game. (Otherwise, the road games were reported by a correspondent in that city.) Now in his mid-50s, though, he didn’t have the youthful stamina to go to the ballpark every day. At the July 31, 1908, game at the South End Grounds, Webb pinch-hit for the weary Murnane, who had covered a doubleheader there the day before.15 He subbed for Murnane several more times during the 1908 season.

When the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) was formed in the fall of 1908, Webb was a charter member.16 One of his celebrated duties as a member of the BBWAA was to police the Boston press box, to ensure that only working newspapermen sat there and to remove any squatters that team ownership might have situated there rather than in the stands.

At a game in 1910, Webb infamously ejected Red Sox owner John I. Taylor from the press box at the Huntington Avenue Grounds when “the Red Sox boss was given the bum’s rush as Webb’s colleagues sat thunderstruck.” Since Taylor was not only the team owner but also the son of the publisher of the Globe, Webb’s action conceivably could have cost him his job. But it was all a gag, according to Webb. “John I. did the gag up fine. A little too fine, I think,” Webb recalled years later. “He went all through the stands and told everybody how that no-good sports writer Webb kicked him out of the press box. He never did let on it was a gag.”17

Webb was a more frequent stand-in for Murnane during the 1909, 1910, and 1911 seasons.18 In 1912, when the Red Sox were marching toward the pennant, Murnane was often dispatched to cover their road games, so Webb covered many of the Braves home games. In early September, when Webb needed to return to the college-football beat, James O’Leary handled the Braves coverage for the rest of the season.

For the 1913 baseball season, Globe sports editor Walter Barnes split the baseball coverage, with the Murnane covering the Red Sox and O’Leary covering the Braves, so that each writer could report both home and road games as needed. Because he couldn’t cover both the Braves and college football (given the overlap in September and October), Webb kept the more prestigious Harvard sports beat rather than take the Braves beat. He also may have had hopes of succeeding 60-year-old Murnane as the Red Sox beat writer when Tim did retire.

Webb had just a minor role in baseball reporting from 1913 to 1918, when the Red Sox won three more pennants in the American League and the Braves won the 1914 flag in the National League. In addition to an occasional game subbing for Murnane or O’Leary, he wrote a number of feature articles for the Sunday edition of the Globe, such as “Why Are You a Baseball Fan?”19 Webb supervised the press box during the 1916 and 1918 World Series games played in Boston, as part of his duties for the Boston chapter of the BBWAA, which he headed from 1918 to 1927.

For the 1919 season, following Murnane’s death, the Globe returned to the former concept of having one man cover all baseball in Boston, when Barnes tapped O’Leary to cover both teams. Given the mediocre play of both the Red Sox and Braves during the 1920s, O’Leary rarely traveled to road games, minimizing the opportunity for Webb to be a pinch-hitter for home-game coverage.

Webb did succeed Murnane in one respect. Beginning in 1919, Webb’s primary role in the Globe’s baseball coverage was Red Sox spring training. He reported from the team’s training camp (usually in Florida, but a few years in other Southern states), covered the exhibition games on the barnstorming trip north, wrote about the city-series games against the Braves upon the return to Boston (which began in 1925), and then for about a month covered some home games in the regular season. After that two-month stint on the baseball beat (enough to maintain his BBWAA card), Webb would return to the Harvard sports beat for the rest of the year.

During the 1920s, readership of the Globe rapidly expanded into the suburbs of Boston, as radio broadcasts of the games (beginning in 1927) made results more quickly available and the legality of Sunday baseball (beginning in 1929) enabled more people to get to the ballpark to watch games. In response, the Globe expanded its baseball coverage by having Webb and Ford Sawyer write sidebar stories to augment the game accounts written by O’Leary. Webb capably filled this niche with two of his strong suits, analysis of the games and talking to people associated with the teams.

Sawyer described Webb as “a facile writer, conscientious and accurate,” but one “leaving the flowery description of games and players to others” in favor of a more “industrious” approach that was “fortified with facts and figures.” Sawyer believed Webb’s writing was well served by his statistics hobby, which enabled him “to apply his figures to make even more authoritative his comments, his coverage and his reviews of events.”20

A career turning point for Webb occurred in 1933, when the Globe promoted Victor Jones to sports editor when Barnes retired. Jones “began making moves to alter the image of The Globe’s sports pages from pro-Harvard to pro-Sports,” due to his doubts that Harvard sports were “awaited as breathlessly by the sports-reading public as they were by the Harvard-oriented Globe editors.”21 Jones was correct in his assessment, but for 57-year-old Webb, the human encyclopedia of Harvard football, his future at the Globe appeared murky. Fortunately, Webb was able to expand his role on the baseball beat as he decreased his time covering Harvard sports.

In midsummer of 1933 Jones fired Dave Egan, a young, up-and-coming baseball writer working the beat with O’Leary, when Egan was discovered shirking his duties by skipping the ballpark and holing up in a hotel room, alcoholic beverage in hand, “where he wrote his scintillating baseball reports from the radio accounts of Fred Hoey.”22 Just as interest in the Red Sox was increasing following the team’s purchase by Tom Yawkey, Webb was assigned to write more about major-league baseball. Over the next decade and a half, Webb had his greatest baseball exposure on the sports pages of the Globe.

Webb already knew dozens of people in the baseball world. He used this opportunity to cultivate a relationship with Yawkey and the new Red Sox management. Webb later expanded his existing relationship with former Red Sox owner Bob Quinn, when Quinn became president of the Boston Braves in 1936 (and immediately renamed the team the Bees). In 1939 Quinn was named to the Old-Timers Committee at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, which paved the way for Webb to soon add this responsibility to his baseball résumé.

As a BBWAA member, Webb voted in the initial Hall of Fame election in 1936 to select the first batch of twentieth-century ballplayers for induction. His top three choices – Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner – were the top three vote-getters that year among the first five players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.23 Webb knew his baseball history, which he’d eventually specialize in for the Globe.

In 1936 the Globe began to regularly cover the road games of both the Red Sox and Bees. There were now three Globe writers – Hy Hurwitz, Gerry Moore, and O’Leary (nearing 70 years old) – who worked full time on the baseball beat to report on 154 games, both home and road, of the Red Sox and Bees. This represented a changing of the guard in Boston sportswriting. “Younger writers were covering the club as it never had been covered before,” Al Hirshberg wrote in a short history of Boston baseball writing. “They haunted the locker rooms and the dugouts, broke stories the old-timers [like Webb] had but didn’t dare break, and gave the Boston press a new look while infuriating the teams.”24

Webb, as a part-timer on the baseball beat, found his niche by covering the road games. Since the two teams (not the Globe) paid the travel expenses of the writer at the time, the Red Sox and Bees preferred the venerable Webb, who was more amenable to reporting the party line of the team.25 Webb covered a number of road games from 1937 to 1941, largely those played by the Bees, as night baseball became more prevalent on the road. The two Boston teams didn’t install artificial lights for night games until after World War II.

During the war, Webb was the core of the Globe baseball beat, since O’Leary retired after the 1941 season and Hurwitz and Moore left for military service. From 1942 to 1945 “the sports department rested entirely on the shoulders of [Sports Editor Jerry] Nason, [columnist Harold] Kaese, the veteran Mel Webb” and a few newcomers.26 Webb and the new guys gamely covered the Red Sox and Braves (no longer the Bees after 1940) to fill the limited newspaper space allotted to sports during the war.

In 1944, Commissioner Kenesaw Landis named Webb to the Old-Timers Committee, where he joined Quinn on the six-man panel to select nineteenth-century ballplayers to the Hall of Fame.27 Because Webb and Quinn held one-third of the seats on the committee, they were able to influence the selection of several ballplayers who had played the bulk of their career in Boston.

Webb believed the ballplayers of the nineteenth century had a greater commitment to the game than did the modern players he was covering for the Globe. “Those old Boston fellows – Hugh Duffy, Kid Nichols, Herman Long, Marty Bergen, and Tommy Tucker – literally ate, breathed, and lived baseball 18 hours a day,” Webb said in 1939. “You would find them in the clubhouse after the crowd had left the park, living over the day’s happenings on the field, or in front of their hotel in the evenings. Ball players, as a class, are different today.”28 This experience informed his perspective about who should be honored in Cooperstown, as Webb helped to pack the Hall of Fame during the 1940s with nearly two dozen old-timers.

In April 1945, after the BBWAA elected only one modern player to the Hall of Fame during the six-year period from 1940 to 1945, the Old-Timers Committee stepped up and named 10 nineteenth-century players to the Hall.29 When no modern players were elected in the BBWAA election in 1946, the Old-Timers Committee once again filled the selection void by naming 11 more players.30

While the Old-Timers Committee helped to generate publicity for the Hall of Fame, the quality of their selections has often been criticized. “In a perfect world they would have inducted the 21 best players who weren’t already in,” Bill James has lamented about the picks in 1945 and 1946. “The problem was some of those they had inducted clearly weren’t among the top 210.”31 Webb clearly had a hand in getting several former Boston ballplayers into the Hall of Fame, with Duffy, Jimmy Collins, and Tommy McCarthy included among the 21 selections. His influence was also noticeable in 1949 when the Old-Timers Committee inducted former Boston pitcher Nichols.32

After World War II ended, the Globe sports department returned to full staff. The initial prewar changing of the guard escalated postwar as the young writers “plagued ballplayers with questions that the athletes had never faced before,” according to Hirshberg. “They wanted to know what made these athletes tick, what went on in the dugout, in the locker room, off the field in public and in private.”33 Since this aspect of the job was not in Webb’s sportswriting DNA, he returned to writing game stories.

In 1946 Webb largely covered night games at Braves Field (the Red Sox installed lights in 1947) and on the road, as he was willing to tolerate the short timeframe required to produce an article for the morning edition. He also wrote a “Today with 1918 Red Sox” series, commemorating the last Boston pennant winner as the Red Sox romped to the pennant in 1946. During the 1947 season, old-school Webb was generally balanced in his Red Sox coverage and often complimentary of the efforts by the often irascible Ted Williams. However, Webb, posthumously, obtained his greatest infamy as a baseball writer when Williams lost out on the 1947 MVP award.

Despite his Triple Crown season, Williams lost the MVP election to Joe DiMaggio by just one point, 202 to 201. In the BBWAA voting, one of the 24 writers ignored Williams completely on his ballot (they could vote for up to 10 players); a ninth-place vote by that writer would have steered the MVP to Williams. In his 1969 autobiography, Williams fingered Webb, then deceased, as the culprit who cost him the MVP. “The writer’s name was Mel Webb. He was, as far as I am concerned, a real grump, and we didn’t get along,” Williams wrote. “We’d had a big argument early in the year over something he had written. I didn’t realize until much later that he hadn’t even put me on his ballot.”34

Well into the 21st century, Webb continues to be erroneously labeled as the man who screwed Williams out of the 1947 MVP. Although cantankerous as an older writer, Webb wasn’t the man who denied Williams the 1947 MVP. In his 1993 article “The Case of the 1947 MVP Ballot,” Glenn Stout concluded that Webb had been misidentified. Webb wasn’t even an MVP voter that year. Further, Stout concluded that none of the three Boston writers who did vote was likely the culprit, since the three, all supporters of Williams, almost surely cast the only three first-place votes that Williams received in the election.35 Stout concurred with the contemporary evaluation by Globe columnist Kaese that “what licked Williams were the out-of-town votes,” most likely from either Detroit or Cleveland.36

From 1948 to 1951, Webb, by then in his mid-70s, wound down his career at the Globe by focusing on historical articles. When the Braves were in the 1948 World Series, he wrote articles about the 1914 World Series games, the last time the Braves were in the fall classic. In April 1951 he wrote pieces to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the National League and the 50th anniversary of the start of the American League. After his wife died in October of 1951, Webb retired from the Globe.37

In August of 1953 the Old-Timers Committee, with its aging membership (Webb was 77 years old by then), was replaced by a brand new 11-member Veterans Committee.38 During his 10 years on the Old-Timers Committee, Webb had been instrumental in putting 24 men into the Hall of Fame, more than one-third of the Hall’s entire total of 64 honorees at the time the committee was disbanded.

Melville E. Webb Jr. died on October 23, 1961, in Boston.39 He is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Wilton, New Hampshire, in the Webb family plot near his mother’s Lane family plot.40

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Len Levin and fact-checked by Rod Nelson.

 

Notes

1 Birth records for Boston in 1876 in the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 279, Page 49).

2 Federal census record for 1880 for Melville Webb, 233 Boylston Street, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts; “Death Claims Dr. Melville E. Webb,” Boston Globe, August 26, 1928.

3 Boston City Directory, 1882 to 1890; federal census record for 1900 for Milville [sic] Webb, 61 St. Botolph Street, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

4 Jerry Nason, “A Century of Globe Sports: The W.D. Sullivan Years, 1884-1910,” Boston Globe, March 13, 1972.

5 “Globe Man Marries,” Boston Globe, April 11, 1902; “Weddings to Come,” Baltimore Sun, March 28, 1902; “Personal,” Baltimore Sun, September 14, 1900.

6 Brookline Directory, 1903-1904.

7 Birth and death records for Brookline in 1905 in the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 552, Page 15 for birth, Volume 27, Page 126 for death). 

8 Death records for Brookline in 1905 in the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 27, Page 181); “Generous and Brave: This Tribute Paid to the Life of Mrs. Melville E. Webb,” Boston Globe, May 5, 1905.

9 M.E. Webb, “Harvard’s By a Run; Yale Beaten in 10 Innings,” Boston Globe, June 21, 1907.

10 Ford Sawyer, “Statistics Hobby with Hub’s Mel Webb, Who Has Covered the Game Since ’90s,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1939.

11 Marriage records for Boston in 1907 in the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 573, Page 317). 

12 “Gets Rid of Her Husband,” Boston Globe, February 16, 1907. 

13 “Prefers $50,000 to Her Husband,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 1907.

14 Boston City Directory, 1907, 1910; Brookline Directory, 1917, 1927, 1940; federal census record for 1920 for Melville Webb, 174 Winthrop Street, Brookline, Norfolk County, Massachusetts; federal census record for 1930 for Melville Webb, 39 Lancaster Terrace, Brookline, Norfolk County, Massachusetts.

15 M.E.W. Jr. “Cubs Produce Hits to Order,” Boston Globe, August 1, 1908.

16 Henry Edwards, “Roof-Top Perch at [World] Series Led to Formation of BBWA[A] in ’09,” The Sporting News, December 15, 1938.

17 Bob Holbrook, “He Kicked Boss Out of the Box,” Boston Globe, February 19, 1956.

18 All conclusions about Webb’s role on the baseball beat come from the author’s analysis of articles in the searchable, digital archives of the Boston Globe available through the Boston Public Library.

19 Melville Webb, “Why Are You a Baseball Fan?” Boston Globe, August 31, 1913.

20 Sawyer, “Statistics Hobby with Hub’s Mel Webb.” 

21 Jerry Nason, “A Century of Globe Sports: The Victor O. Jones Years, ’34-’41,” Boston Globe, March 16, 1972.

22 Nason, “The Victor O. Jones Years, ’34-’41.” 

23 Melville Webb, “Cobb, Ruth, Wagner Lead Webb’s List,” Boston Globe, January 7, 1936.

24 Al Hirshberg, “Press Relations,” What’s the Matter with the Red Sox? (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1973), 130.

25 Hirshberg, “Press Relations,” 123.

26 Jerry Nason, “A Century of Globe Sports: The Nason Years: 1941 – Full Steam Despite War,” Boston Globe, March 19, 1972.

27 Bill James, The Politics of Glory: How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 40.

28 Sawyer, “Statistics Hobby with Hub’s Mel Webb.” 

29 “Old Timers Committee Selects Ten for Baseball Hall of Fame,” New York Times, April 26, 1945.

30 “Committee Names 11 More for Game’s Hall of Fame,” The Sporting News, April 24, 1946.

31 James, The Politics of Glory, 44.

32 “Brown and Nichols Gain Hall of Fame,” New York Times, May 9, 1949.

33 Hirshberg, “Press Relations,” 128-129.

34 Ted Williams, My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988 reprint of 1969 original), 124.

35 Glenn Stout, “The Case of the 1947 MVP Ballot,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1993.

36 Harold Kaese, “How Ted Williams Lost by One Point,” Boston Globe, November 30, 1947.

37 “Mrs. Melville E. Webb,” Boston Globe, October 4, 1951.

38 “Spink Heads Group of 11 to Name Vets,” The Sporting News, August 5, 1953.

39 “Mel Webb Dies; Rites on Thursday,” Boston Globe, October 24, 1961.

40 Records of the Laurel Hill Cemetery, Wilton, New Hampshire, at findagrave.com website. Wilton was the location of the summer home of Webb’s parents, and was also the birthplace of his mother.