Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The 1876 Brown Stockings: The Old Leaven Of Crooked Play

The unwise policy adopted by the League Association of mixing up unreliable and "marked" men with their reorganized teams, on the principle of forgiving past misdeeds and trusting to a strict enforcement of stringent laws against foul play to prevent fraud in the professional arena, is just now beginning to show its fruit. The Eagle pointed out the error last March, in its comments on the action of the League Convention and for this all sorts of abuse was poured upon the writer, especially by the St. Louis papers. There is nothing like experience, however, as a teacher for some people, and professional club managers will not learn from any other source, as a general thing. The League Association threw the Philadelphia Club out of the arena, ostensibly on account of the "crooked play" countenanced by the Club, and yet the League Clubs have since absorbed every man who played in the Philadelphia team in 1875.

The most marked of the suspected minority of the Philadelphia team of that year, was McGeary, a fellow whom Burdock of the Hartfords openly charged with offering him $1,000 to sell a game. Another player engaged by the St. Louis Club for 1876 was Blong, who was just as openly charged by the Cincinnati Times with selling a game as Captain of the Star nine of Covington. Now here was an element introduced into an otherwise well selected team, which was calculated to be greatly demoralizing in its influence before the season was over, and results are apparently proving that it already has been baneful in its effects. But without further preface, reference is now made to the peculiar occurrences which marked the contest of Saturday between the Mutual and St. Louis nines, in which the first cropping out of the old leaven of crooked play appears.

Facts and facts only are submitted below for the consideration of the League Directory, whose attention is called to what may be termed "the play of a marked man."

In the first game between the St. Louis and Mutual nines McGeary put out five players on his position at second base, three of which were by beautiful running catches of "short high balls," or balls which are hit so as to fall between the infielders and the out fielders. He made but one error and that was on a hot ground ball from Hick's bat, his throwing, especially, being very accurate. In the second game he put out six players in his position, four of whom were by similar fly catches to those of the first game, two of them, as before, being running catches back of second base. In these games he plainly showed what he could do when he chose to play ball, his earnestness, activity and skill being noteworthy, for he is undoubtedly a fine player. But the contrast between his play in these two games and that he exhibited in Saturday's game was so striking as to elicit marked comment from all who beheld it. But for the gross and unmistakable misplays he made in the first two innings in Saturday's game the Mutuals would certainly not have scored a run. Moreover, after the game had practically been given into their hands by his errors, he played the position as well as ever, putting out four players without an error, the Mutuals not scoring a run, in the last seven innings. If the errors had been such as the exigencies of the game admitted of there would be no need of complaint; but they were not. The errors-if such they may be called-were palpable misplays. First he throws a ball with great speed to Mack at second base, when within twenty feet of him; then he throws a ball home as many feet above the catcher's head; then he drops a ball which he gets hold of, and thereby misses a catch similar to several which he made several times without difficulty in the previous games; and finally he again throws the ball in over the catcher's head, and by these errors he allows the Mutuals to escape blanks, and to score six unearned runs. After the damage is done, and the game is in the hands of his opponents, he plays his position without an error. So palpably "crooked" was his work that one of his companions left the field in disgust, though ostensibly for other reasons, and those of the crowd who had seen his brilliant fielding in the previous games could not help being struck with the contrast. If Dehlman or Clapp, or others of the nine had done this, their reliable record might have pleaded in their behalf, and led to a verdict of poor fielding being given. But here is a man who is charged with offering another player a thousand dollar bribe. Taking this into consideration, what other conclusion can be arrived at than the one in question?

It is stated that the matter is to be "investigated" by the St. Louis Club officials. It is due to the honest players of the club that this should be rigidly done. An analysis of the play plainly shows avoidable errors, and if circumstantial evidence tells anything in ball play it tells that this game was "given away" in the first two innings. It was hoped that the Centennial year would have not been marked by a single instance of "crooked play," but it looks very unpromisingly now for such consummation being arrived at while such work is permitted.

Besides McGeary's suspicious play there is an unaccountable contrast in the effect of the pitching in the first two innings compared with that in the last seven. The Mutuals led off with two base hits, the comparative ease with which they punished Bradley's delivery in these two innings to that of the previous games eliciting surprise. Singularly enough they scored five base hits in the first two innings and four afterward in seven innings. This might have been the result of the demoralizing effect of the McGeary fielding, but it was commented upon as rather peculiar.
-Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 30, 1876

Well, well, well:

-When I started this little project, I stated that one of the reasons I was picking the 1876 Brown Stockings to chronicle was that unlike the 1875 or 1877 club there was little drama surrounding the team. They weren't the first professional club in St. Louis or the one that finally defeated the Chicago professionals or the one that was tainted by scandal or the one that destroyed professional baseball in St. Louis for several years. They were just this nice, quiet, little club that went about their business and was probably the best of the Brown Stocking clubs. I guess that's all kind of out the window now, isn't it?

-I'm not familiar enough with his writing style to say for certain but I assume this is Mr. Henry Chadwick in full-fledged attack mode and an ax to grind. This was a really long, wordy piece when all he really wanted to say was "I told you so."

-Ironically, this piece is probably the best description of McGeary as a defensive player. According to Chadwick, McGeary was one hell of a defensive second baseman. He had an accurate arm, was fantastic going back on the ball and was all-around "brilliant" at the position.

-Chadwick, an eyewitness, flat out states that McGeary threw the game. He didn't mince words or dance around the question. Chadwick wrote that the game was given away by a crooked ballplayer. That's a very bold statement.

-And he threw George Washington Bradley under the bus for good measure.

-I understand that anytime anything hinky happened in a 19th century baseball game, people started yelling fix. But it gets a little tiring and you can never really be sure whether you should take it seriously or not. Considering everything that would happen in 1877, I think that this incident should be looked at more. I'm not saying anything about McGeary's guilt or innocence but only that more research is needed.

-One time, back in the day, I watched a Braves/Giants game and Bob Brenly was playing third base for San Francisco that day. He made four errors in one inning and I think two errors on one play. Not once did I think Brenly was throwing the game. Of course, I think he also went on to win the game with a home run in the ninth. And he was a catcher playing out of position. But the point is that if Chadwick had seen that, he'd have gone on to write ten thousand words on how Brenly was crooked and the game was corrupted by his inclusion in the fraternity. Then again, if I saw that Ross Barnes put on fifty pounds of muscle in the off season and was knocking the ball all over the park, I'd be certain that he was on PEDS.

-I really need to find a new picture of Mike McGeary.


David Ball said...

Chadwick does seem to have reached a verdict without a trial, and what I particularly dislike is his claiming in essence to be able to read Ned Cuthbert's mind and guess why he left the game, although Cuthbert himself didn't say so.

That said, there was a history here, both a history of general suspicions about fixed games and history of specific suspicions about McGeary. People watch athletic events because of the possibility of the unexpected, and this is what happens when the integrity of the competition comes under question -- the unexpected becomes suspicious.

And I have to say, I certainly thought of this possibility as I was reading the game story. It wasn't just that McGeary committed a lot of errors, he committed them very early and almost single-handedly took his team right out of the game in the first two innings. When error totals are so high, things like this are going to happen, but this does look suspicious, especially coming from a suspect player.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Well, it seems like he was at the game and saw it happen live. So that's a bit different than if he just saw the box score/game report and came to a conclusion from that. I've watched a few sporting events (mostly college basketball) where I would swear that I was watching a team shaving points. It would be difficult to judge that if you hadn't watched the game live. As to Cuthbert, there's a little more detail in the Clipper (which I think is going to be posted after Thanksgiving). One would have to assume that Chadwick was talking to people after the game and he was being told things.

I honestly don't know what to think anymore about this stuff and I'm trying to give the players the benefit of the doubt. If you're trying to fix a game, why would you get the second baseman involved. Pay off the pitcher, catcher and/or first baseman. They're the guys who you know are going to have the ball in their hands. There is no guarantee that the second baseman is going to touch the ball. The most interesting thing about all of this is how Bradley is subtly accussed. If I'm fixing a Brown Stockings game, he's the guy I'd want on the payroll.

I made the point in this post and I'll make it again next week about the atmosphere of suspicion in the 19th century about gambling being similiar to the modern atmosphere regarding PEDs. Everybody's guilty until proven innocent. If you're committing crucial errors in 1876, you're a fixer. If you're putting up historic numbers in the 21st century, you're on steroids. I feel sorry for the guys who are going to have to sort out the 1990-2009 era 100/150 years from now. They're going to look at Pujols' numbers, scratch their heads, and not know what to think. PEDs? Clean? How will they know when we don't even know. Chadwick was certain that McGeary was throwing this game but Brown Stockings management looked into it and said there was nothing to it. Who do we believe?

What I do know, at this point, is that during each season from 1875 to 1877, members of the Brown Stockings were accussed of game fixing. During the clubs entire existence, they had players who had been accussed of game fixing in both the past and present. That may just be symptomatic of the age or it may something more serious. The way the story is usually told is that the Brown Stockings got caught up in the L'ville scandal and the club imploaded after some righteous indignation from the fans. But they had their own fixing scandal in 1877 and other incidents that season. You have this incident in 1876 (and there may be more). You have Pearce being accussed of game fixing in 1875. There's a gambling culture surrounding the game in StL that's celebrated in the press. You have attendance decreasing each season (and there's no logical explanation for the decline in 1876). There's a great deal of smoke here and it can't all just be explained away by saying that everybody was under suspicion. There was a reason that everyone was suspected. And the situation in StL may be one of those reasons.

Another thing I was thinking about but didn't write was that the McGeary situation may not have gotten as much press if it had happened in Louisville or Cincinnati instead of in New York. I'm sure Chadwick would have heard of it and written about it but the tone probably would have been a bit different and he wouldn't have been as detailed in his accusations.