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DISAPPOINTMENT IN DES MOINES: GEORGE DAVIS’ LUCKLESS YEAR AS A MANAGER IN THE WESTERN LEAGUE

By William F. Lamb, wflamb12@yahoo.com

“It looks like we have the pennant cinched.” So declared the Des Moines Daily News on the morning of March 7, 1910 in announcing that just retired Chicago White Sox star George Davis had been engaged to manage the Des Moines Boosters, defending champions of the Class A Western League. Other Des Moines papers were equally enthused with the Register and Leader congratulating team owner John F. Higgins for securing the services of “one of the shrewdest field generals in the business”1 while the Daily Capital predicted that Davis’ hiring would be “received with rejoicing by the Des Moines fans.”2

Unhappily for Davis and the Des Moines faithful, the celebrations proved premature. Seven months of uninspired baseball later, the Boosters staggered home in seventh place, 36 games behind pennant winning Sioux City. Notwithstanding that, the Des Moines press largely absolved Davis of blame for this debacle and Higgins offered his manager a post-season vote of confidence. But Davis would not get a second chance in Des Moines. Or anywhere else. His failure in 1910 would prove a death blow to Davis’ long held but unfulfilled aspirations for success as a manager on the professional level.

Davis Before Des Moines: Davis and Des Moines had had a reasonable basis for the expectation of success that pervaded the spring of 1910. Only weeks before his hiring, Davis had sought and obtained his release from the White Sox thus bringing to a close a brilliant 20 year major league playing career. Davis was at his peak as a New York Giant, averaging .332 at the plate over a nine season span [1893-1901]. Davis also hit for power, leading the NL in RBIs in 1897 and he stole as many as 65 bases in a season. Davis was an equally superb player in the field, particularly after a mid-career shift to shortstop put his great range and strong throwing arm to optimum advantage. On top of all this, Davis was both articulate and smart.

Despite these attributes, Davis was viewed coolly in New York. This was most likely due to Davis’ readiness to do the bidding of Giants owner Andrew Freedman, an abrasive Tammany Hall politico and probably the most despised man in turn of the century baseball. Twice during his Giants tenure Davis had agreed to accept the manager’s job following the severance of a Giants icon from Freedman’s employ.3 Davis’ second installation at the helm had been a particularly nasty affair with ousted Giants manager Buck Ewing publicly accusing Davis of engineering his removal. Davis’ standing with New Yorkers was further eroded in December 1900 when Dirty Jack Doyle, a former Davis friend and still a current Giants teammate, loudly castigated Davis as a managerial incompetent who lacked the respect of his players.4

Davis escaped to the Chicago White Sox in 1902 but spent all but four games of the following season on the sidelines evading court orders secured by Sox owner Charles Comiskey to enjoin Davis from jumping back to the Giants. Although initially reluctant to stay with the Sox, Davis played well in Chicago. He also made friends among the low key and savvy veterans who dominated the Pale Hose roster. Davis’ standing with the Chicago fans rose as well, especially after his clutch play helped the “Hitless Wonders” upset the rival Chicago Cubs in the 1906 World Series.5 By early 1910, Davis’ troubles in New York were ancient history and the announcement of his retirement was greeted with expressions of regret and generous testimonials to his outstanding career. Nor was Davis’ departure from the major leagues scene considered permanent with many commentators predicting his rapid return to the bigs as a manager.

Turmoil in Des Moines: The Des Moines Boosters were a charter member of the Western League and had won WL pennants in 1905 and 1906, the latter coming, ironically, under the tutelage of Davis’ old nemesis Dirty Jack Doyle. In 1907, the franchise was purchased by John F. Higgins, a Chicago printing magnate and reputedly the wealthiest man in the WL. Exuberant and opinionated, the 300 pound Higgins reveled in his ownership of the team and spent freely to keep the Boosters competitive. This meant running the club at a financial loss, as attendance at Des Moines’ East Side Park was a consistent and puzzling disappointment.6

In 1909, Des Moines captured the WL crown on the season’s final day, edging out Sioux City by .002 in the standings. Despite a thrilling pennant race, the Des Moines team lost money again that season. Still, Higgins refused to unload the franchise, turning down several handsome offers during the winter, including one from local hero Frank Gotch, the world’s heavyweight wrestling champion.7 Another thing turned down by Higgins was the pay raise demanded by Bill Dwyer, the 23 year old first baseman whom Higgins had thrust into the manager’s chair in 1909. In response, Dwyer threatened to sit out the 1910 season. Then, Dwyer provoked Higgins’ wrath by accusing the Des Moines owner of colluding with his old friend Comiskey to prevent Dwyer’s ascension to the majors. The National Commission’s rejection of the charge did little to mollify Higgins and the Boosters need for a new manager was manifest as opening day for spring training in 1910 approached.

Davis Takes the Helm: The timing of the Higgins/Dwyer falling out could not have been better for George Davis. Given their respective connections to Comiskey, it did not take long for Higgins and Davis to find one another. In short order, Davis was on board as the new Des Moines manager – and at a salary well in excess of what Higgins had refused to pay Dwyer. Higgins even went so far as to insure Davis for $25,000 against any off-the-field mishaps.8

When he returned to Des Moines, the voluble Higgins seemed unable to suppress his delight with his new field leader, praising Davis as “a fine fellow. Never drank a drop in his life, gets along with the fellows and knows his baseball.”9 The local papers agreed, running effusive laudations about Davis. Applause for the Davis hiring, however, was not confined to Des Moines. Newspapers throughout WL territory and the baseball world at large chorused the approval of the new manager, invariably citing Davis’ quick-wittedness and baseball acumen. The only cautionary note was that sounded by the New York Evening Telegram which noted Davis’ previous failures as a manager. Critical of his laid back and non-confrontational personality, the Telegram admonished Davis to toughen up and to be more demanding of his new charges.10

An Uncertain Spring: Winding up personal affairs in New York City delayed Davis’ departure for Des Moines until late March. In his absence, the players went through desultory intra-squad workouts and loafed about town. Nevertheless, Higgins pronounced the present team a “good fifty per cent better” than last year’s pennant winners and confidently forecasted a championship repeat for Des Moines.11 Davis was far more circumspect. When he and his wife12 finally arrived in Des Moines on March 30, Davis allowed as how he was glad to be there but declined to make “any predictions at the present time.”13 Davis then set about getting his new team in shape.

Belying his easygoing reputation, Davis worked the Boosters squad hard when he could but frequent bad weather hampered team conditioning and practice. And problems seemed to abound. The infield, for example, was unsettled with star third baseman Bert Niehoff reporting late and shortstop Clyde Williams tied up with his duties in the athletic department at Iowa State College. Williams would not be able to join the team until early June. The same applied to outfielder Art Bader who had received Higgins’ permission to remain in St. Louis until he completed the spring semester course work on his law degree. The catching corps, a weak spot on the 1909 team, remained a question mark and before pre-season ended, Davis would have no less than nine backstop candidates in camp. Des Moines players and fans were also shaken by news that the popular Dwyer, still reserved to the Boosters, lay gravely ill in a New York City hospital following major surgery.14

Davis’ biggest headache, however, was a depleted pitching staff. Arms were needed to cover the 600+ innings supplied in 1909 by Frank Lange [29-12 and in camp with the White Sox] and Frank Miller [24-16 and graduated to the Class AA Pacific League] with staff returnees like soft-tossing lefthander Clarence Biersdorfer [16-11] and spitballerArt McGregor [7-5] unlikely to fill the void. Efforts to expand the Des Moines rotation, moreover, were undermined by an almost weird local confidence that the Higgins/Comiskey relationship would produce the return of workhorse Lange to the Boosters at any moment. Expectation of Lange’s return would persist through spring training into the early campaign [but it would never happen, as Lange would remain with Chicago into the 1913 season.]15 In the meantime, Davis settled upon Andy Owens, a hard throwing White Sox prospect from Massachusetts, and Fred “Bugs” Herche, a well-fed righthander whose girth rarely eluded press mention, to complete his pitching staff.

Over time, Davis’ pre-season concern about his team was sensed by local sportswriters. A brutal Des Moines schedule, which commenced with a 16 game road trip, was also factored into predictions. Hence, as opening day neared, press enthusiasm for the Boosters’ prospects was tempered with an advisory that the team might get off to a slow start. Nevertheless, earlier forecasts for a successful pennant defense remained unshaken in the Des Moines papers as Davis and his team boarded the train for the opener in St. Joseph.

A Bad Start: Des Moines began the 1910 season in a fashion far worse than even the most dire prognostication in the press. But opening day provided an auspicious start with the Boosters trouncing St. Joseph 24-12 behind strong stick work by Bill Raftis, subbing at short for the unavailable Williams, and stout relief pitching by Owens. After the game, manager Davis was reported to be “well pleased with the way in which his team welcomed him to the Western League” while owner Higgins gushed that he would “rather have won this game of ball than have been presented with $1,000.”16

The joy was short-lived. Des Moines promptly lost seven of the next eight games and fell to the WL cellar. The Daily Capital cited poor pitching and a team slump at the plate as cause for the team’s standing but extolled the “spirit of fellowship” among the Des Moines players.17 Team spirits were soon raised higher by word that Bill Dwyer was recovering and would, with all forgiven by Higgins, be rejoining the Boosters in mid-May.

Near the close of the road trip, Des Moines lost a 4-3 heartbreaker to Denver when Jack Dalton was called out in the eighth inning for failure to touch second on an apparent game-tying homer. When Raftis was ejected for arguing the call, a reluctant Davis took the field at the shortstop position. But Davis was back in the dugout the following day for another loss to Denver. The team’s ragged play was evidently having its effect on the normally placid Davis who, according to the Daily News, was “given the imperial hook for telling [umpire] Clarke that he was a better pink tea artist than judge of balls and strikes.”18 Days later, the Boosters limped home, their 4-12 record good for last place.

Undaunted, Des Moines welcomed the team home with a large downtown parade. The date of the home opener was declared a half-holiday by Des Moines Mayor James R. Hanna and more than 7,000 fans crowded into East Side Park to see the Boosters pummel St. Joseph 11-4. Thereafter, home attendance fell off sharply but the team’s play showed improvement, winning nine of thirteen games during the homestand. Unfortunately, the Boosters’ pitching staff remained unsettled and owner Higgins’ latest acquisitions, former Washington Senator Eli Cates and ex-American Association standout Leo Sage, would both prove to be a bust on the mound for Des Moines.19 Still, Des Moines, now with a 13-16 record, had crept to within four games of first place in the tightly bunched WL race.

With Dwyer about ready to return to the field, Des Moines began its next road trip by selling utilityman/first baseman Phil Koerner to WL rival Wichita – a move that would later be faulted when Koerner went on to outhit Dwyer and every other batsman in the Boosters lineup. Shortly thereafter, Raftis and his .302 average had to leave for Massachusetts to attend the shortstop’s dying mother. In his absence [and Raftis would remain East and eventually be sold to Binghamton in the New York State League] and until Williams reported, Davis switched Niehoff to short and put rotund but athletic hurler Herche at third.

Despite the makeshift lineup, Des Moines continued to play decently and kept in touch with the leaders in the WL standings. Booster fans were alarmed, however, when the Des Moines Evening Tribune reported that Brooklyn scout Larry Sutton had come to town to look over the team’s talent.20

On June 2, 1910, the 1909 championship banner was raised at East Side Park. But only 900 fans were on hand to witness the event and to see Biersdorfer driven from the mound early in an 11-2 loss to Omaha. The following day, five errors and a bruised thumb ended the Herche experiment at third base. By now, thankfully, both Williams and Bader were back in uniform and although the Des Moines record stood only 20-23, the Register and Leader remained optimistic, telling its readers that “Manager Davis has a great team about him and Des Moines is sure to climb high. There is not a weak spot on the team and the outfield is the best in the league. The team is better than last year in every respect.”21 Within a week, this rosy assessment would be shaken to its core.

More Danger Signs: On June 7, Brooklyn scout Sutton was spotted in the Des Moines grandstand sitting next to owner Higgins. Days later, Higgins heatedly denied a Daily News report that star outfielder Dalton had just been sold to the Superbas. “I want to strengthen my team, not weaken it,” protested Higgins.22 The next morning, Des Moines papers announced the sale of Dalton to Brooklyn for $3,000 and the rights to pitcher Frank Schneiberg. Amidst the tangle of his explanation of events, Higgins promised that no other Boosters would be parted with that season and that he would “spend every cent I received for Dalton for new players if we need them.”23

That need would not be long in coming. Three days after the departure of Dalton, his replacement in the lineup’s leadoff spot, shortstop Clyde Williams, had his arm broken by a fastball from Jim Freeman of Sioux City. On June 18, outfielder Pete Curtis left the team to attend his brother’s funeral in Philadelphia while the newly acquired Schneiberg, disgruntled by his return to the minors at age 28, announced that he was going home to Milwaukee. This latter development was a real blow to Davis who was down to two reliable pitchers, Owens and Herche. Soon Davis and Higgins were in Chicago seeking help from Comiskey. But aid was not forthcoming as Comiskey delivered the bitter news – whether truthful or not – that he had been unable to obtain waivers on Lange or any other Chisox hurler. Salt was then rubbed in the Des Moines wound when recent major leagues box scores revealed that Jack Dalton had just gone 5 for 5 off none other than Christy Mathewson.

Still, the June news was not all bad. True to his word, Higgins had set about gathering new talent for Des Moines. The pitching staff was bolstered by the acquisition of ex-Cincinnati Reds righthander Del Mason and promising Mississippi collegian Bob Mitchell. And an increase in salary had induced the truculent Schneiberg to report to Des Moines. With a 32-35 record at month’s end, the Boosters were still within hailing distance of first place Sioux City [37-24].

The Season Collapses: July would prove to be a cruel month for Des Moines. Mason and Schneiberg were shelled in their initial mound appearances and an eight game losing skein quickly put the Boosters 19 games back in the loss column to Sioux City. Yet the Des Moines faithful, while clearly worried, continued to believe that their Boosters “have it on every other team in the circuit and find it hard to understand why the worm does not turn.”24 A lack of pepper, however, was noted in a 9-1 loss to Lincoln and on July 15 Davis succumbed to mounting fan pressure and placed himself in the lineup.

As he stepped into the batter’s box the first time to face Sioux City ace Marty O’Toole, Davis was presented a large floral bouquet, compliments of Mr. And Mrs. D.F. Adams of Chicago, recent house guests of the Davises. Davis then promptly struck out. So did nine others in a Boosters lineup that managed only one hit in a 1-0 loss. Press accounts of the team’s play, however, were positive and the salutary effect of Davis’ presence in the field was duly noted. Several days later, the Boosters, behind five-hit pitching by Schneiberg and crisp all around play, bested O’Toole in a rematch, 6-3. Such performances greatly heartened the local press. As Des Moines prepared to depart on a four week long road trip, the Daily News reported that “the team left today looking more like a championship aggregation than they have at any time this season.”25

Des Moines would return from that trip a thoroughly beaten bunch. Things started badly when Davis was injured sliding home in a 9-4 loss to Lincoln. The following day, the hobbled manager was run from the game by the umpire. This precipitated a rare show of spleen from Davis who publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the work of certain WL arbiters. Davis was not alone in his disdain as WL umpiring was a sore spot throughout the circuit. Even the Lincoln Star seem embarrassed by the incompetence that had benefited the home side and expressed the hope that “the work of the umps in the succeeding games will be fair beyond a shadow of a doubt, for Davis is a good sport and will take a beating with good will if he thinks that it is deserved.”26

Davis had to take more such beatings as the team continued its grueling road trip. Particularly hard was a 6-4 loss to Omaha where a ninth inning Boosters rally was stifled when pinch hitter Davis made the last out with the bases loaded. Des Moines ended the road trip in seventh place at 46-65. By this time, the WL race was strictly a two team affair between Sioux City and Denver with Des Moines reduced to fighting to escape the second division.

Playing Out the String: Owner Higgins was not incapable of comprehending mid-August WL standings but he refused to give up on his team. Thus, the stream of hopefuls signed to improve the Boosters continued their auditions. By season’s end, at least 49 players had donned a Des Moines uniform. One of these, Red Kelly, a collegiate star at Notre Dame but a washout in a brief trial with the White Sox, made enough of an impression to permit the release of fading fan favorite Art Bader.27 Days later, Kelly made a sterling eighth inning catch in right field to preserve a 3-0 Bob Mitchell no-hitter against Topeka. The only blemishes in the line score were two errors charged to manager Davis, filling in at second base for hospitalized regular Eddie Colligan. Davis redeemed himself the following afternoon by handling twelve chances without an error while getting three hits in twin bill wins over Topeka.

Davis remained in the lineup for a 2-1 Des Moines triumph over St. Joseph on August 23, going 2 for 4 at the plate and handling 6 chances flawlessly at second base. Press accounts of the game highlighted Kelly’s clutch two run single in the ninth for the Boosters. Unmentioned was the fact that Davis had celebrated his 40th birthday with a win.. Eight days later, it was Davis himself who supplied the late game hit that gave Andy Owens a 1-0 victory over St. Joseph. But age and injuries were taking their toll on Davis and shortly thereafter he put Kelly at second and retired to the dugout.

The games of September were essentially meaningless to Des Moines. But they were not without incident, particularly a September 18 contest in Omaha where manager Davis and pitcher Owens were ejected for protesting a “shady” safe at home call by a local barber named Wood pressed into service as umpire.28 After the game, Wood added insult to the injury by imposing $10 fines on Davis and Owens. The fines went uncollected before the start of the next day’s game in Lincoln and subsequent demands for payment made upon Davis and Owens were refused.

At the start of a doubleheader against Omaha on September 28, WL umpiring chief Jack Haskell renewed demand for payment of the fines but again Davis refused. Haskell thereupon forfeited the first game to Omaha. At this point, things threatened to turn ugly until Davis consented to leave the grounds and let Dwyer manage the second game. Boosters fans then got most of their money’s worth watching Herche pitch Des Moines to a 13 inning 2-1 victory. Against Lincoln the following day, Davis, exhibiting the obstinate streak that had almost scuttled the NL/AL peace agreement of 1903, still refused to pay and watched Mitchell shut out the Antelopes 6-0 from a box seat behind the Boosters bench. Thereafter, Davis returned to the dugout but whether he or the Western League finally gave in on the $10 fine is unknown. In any case, the schedule played out uneventfully with Herche pitching Des Moines to a 4-1 win over new WL champs Sioux City in the season finale.

Post Mortem and Epilogue: Under Davis’ leadership, Des Moines had gone 72-96 over an expanded 168 game schedule with an everyday lineup built around the cast that had been a WL best 93-59 in 1909. Player performance in 1910, however, was down almost across the board. The mid-season sale of Dalton had cost the Boosters their lone .300 hitting regular and only Niehoff [.293], Curtis [.291] and Colligan [.273] had posted improved batting marks.29 The pitching had also declined. Herche [19-18 in a WL leading 50 appearances] and Owens [18-16] had been stalwart but Biersdorfer [13-17] and Mitchell [8-12] had been erratic while the mid-season imports had proved largely useless. Surprisingly, the fall in the Boosters fortunes was not blamed on Davis. To the contrary, his reviews in the Des Moines press positively glowed as reflected in a post-season Register and Leader piece that called Davis “one of the grandest sportsmen in the game and the fans of Des Moines will be glad to see him at the helm another year.” 30 Owner Higgins apparently felt the same way and publicly promised to do his utmost to ensure Davis’ return as Boosters manager in 1911.

The glow evidently faded over the fall and by late December the Register and Leader was informing Boosters fans that it was “hardly likely” that Davis would return as manager.31 Still, the name George Davis appeared on the reserved list submitted by Higgins for the 1911 season and the Evening Tribune reported negotiations between Davis and the owner in March. The growing suspicion that the manager’s job would revert to Dwyer, however, was ultimately confirmed by an official announcement issued by Higgins on April 7, 1911. The season began shortly thereafter and turned into a nightmare for Dwyer. The Boosters posted a 49-113 record and finished dead last, some 60 ½ games behind league champion Denver.

In the meantime, Davis returned to New York City where he managed a bowling alley for several years. He also lingered on the fringes of organized baseball, doing some scouting for the Browns and Yankees and coaching the Amherst College team. By 1919, George Davis had drifted from the public scene into obscurity. He died quietly in a Philadelphia mental asylum in October 1940, his mind gone and his disappointment in Des Moines not even a distant memory. .

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