Cooperstown Confidential: Horace Stoneham’s real legacy

As a baseball fan living in Cooperstown, I always look forward to the end of May and the beginning of June. Not only does it mean the departure of the dreaded winter weather for the pleasures of the spring and summer, but it also signifies what has become a welcome annual event since the spring of 1989.

For a fan of baseball and its history, the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture is a dream. For three days, academic presenters from around the country delve into the game, its historical associations, and the ways that it connects with our culture. When the symposium starts, you might think you know everything you need to know about Our Great Game. By the end, you realize that it’s time to get back to work because you really don’t know as much as you think.

This year marked the 25th annual Symposium, which was highlighted by Frank Deford’s entertaining keynote speech on Wednesday, May 29. Deford discussed his interest in the classic baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat,” which celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2013. Deford explained how he adapted the poem to a longer story that he once wrote for Sports Illustrated and how he still holds out hope that Casey can be adapted into a Broadway musical. Despite losing track of his notes at one point, Deford once again showed himself to be a masterful and captivating storyteller, which is no surprise given his contributions to NPR Radio over the past 30 years.

With Deford’s keynote delivered successfully in the Grandstand Theater, attention turned to the numerous presentations that took place over the next two and a half days. Of all the talks that I watched, one stood out as the most insightful. Presented by Robert Garratt, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, it focused on the legacy of New York and San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham.

As Garratt points out, history has not treated Stoneham in a particularly kind way. Part of that legacy comes from his decision to move the Giants to San Francisco after the 1957 season. Second, he has continually been overshadowed by Walter O’Malley, his rival owner with the Brooklyn Dodgers who was also vilified for simultaneously moving his team to the West Coast. But the Dodgers of O’Malley were regarded as an elite franchise, while the Giants were considered second-class citizens of the New York metropolitan era. The Giants had an aging ballpark in the Polo Grounds and declining revenues, with Stoneham deemed incapable of turning the franchise’s fortunes, even in San Francisco.

Third, Stoneham is often remembered as a drunk, a raging alcoholic who stumbled and bumbled his way through years of team ownership. He expected his managers to serve as his bar room partners, so that he would not have to spend all of his nights drinking alone.

These images represent an unfair caricature; there is much more to Stoneham than excessive drinking and running second fiddle to O’Malley. Stoneham has a far more substantial legacy.

Stoneham was a shy and lonely figure, in contrast to O’Malley, but it was Stoneham who actually lived in New York City and dared to socialize with the city’s sportswriters. A lifelong fan of the Giants, Stoneham developed a strong loyalty to his players, not a bad quality for an owner to have. And of the two owners, Stoneham was far more justified in moving his team than O’Malley was; with a shrinking fan base, attendance at the Polo Grounds had fallen off more substantially than Brooklyn’s fan support at Ebbets Field.

It is true that Stoneham was beaten to the punch by the Dodgers, specifically Branch Rickey, in recruiting and signing the first African American major leaguer of the 20th century. But once Rickey broke the seal with Jackie Robinson, Stoneham smartly followed suit. Serving as his own general manager, he signed Monte Irvin from the Newark Eagles; many talent evaluators rated Irvin as a better pure player than Robinson. Stoneham also reeled in Hank Thompson, a troubled but talented third baseman/outfielder who had been let go by the St. Louis Browns.

Stoneham then signed Willie Mays, a five-tool standout from the Birmingham Black Barons, allowing the Giants to make a bit of their own civil rights history. With Irvin, Mays and Thompson manning the outfield, the Giants of Stoneham could boast of starting the first all-black outfield in big league history.

As Garratt emphasized during his talk, Stoneham did not restrict his efforts at integration to African-American players. Realizing that black Americans were just part of the equation, Stoneham understood the importance of signing dark-skinned Latinos, who comprised the so-called “second” color line. Like African Americans, they had been affected by the pre-Robinson ban against black players.

To assist his effort, Stoneham made a shrewd business arrangement with Alex Pompez, the owner of the New York Cubans, a franchise in the Negro Leagues. As part of the deal, Stoneham allowed Pompez’ Cubans to rent the Polo Grounds at a reduced rate. In exchange, Pompez provided a funnel of Latino and black talent to the Giants. For example, Pompez sold three of his players (Ray Dandridge, Ray Noble, and Dave Barnhill) to the Giants in 1949.

Even after the Cubans folded in 1950, Stoneham hired Pompez to work for him fulltime as a scout. Pompez advised Stoneham on those players who were major league caliber, and those whom he should avoid. In 1953, Stoneham added Ruben Gomez, an effective if temperamental right-handed pitcher from Puerto Rico. Noble didn’t do much for the Giants, and Barnhill and Dandridge never actually played in the major leagues, but Gomez emerged as a major contributor to the Giants’ 1954 world championship, winning 17 games while posting a 2.88 ERA.

Stoneham wisely decided to hire several bilingual scouts, who could converse better on recruiting trips to Latin America and could communicate first-hand with Latino players themselves. As much as any team, the Giants showed legitimate interest in Latin American talent, spearheaded by Pompez and Stoneham. In 1958 alone, the Giants brought Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou to the major leagues. By the early 1960s, the Giants had added talents like Juan Marichal and the two remaining Alou brothers, Matty and Jesus.

The 1962 season represented the Giants at their integrated best. In winning the pennant, the Giants staved off tough competition from the Dodgers and Reds before coming within a whisker of beating the Yankees in the World Series. The starting lineup featured Cepeda at first base, Jose Pagan (signed out of Puerto Rico) at shortstop, Mays in center, and Felipe Alou in right field. An impressive crew of part-time players included Willie McCovey (an African American signed by Pompez), Matty Alou and Manny Mota (signed out of the Dominican).

And then there was the pitching staff, headlined by Marichal. In total, the National League champion Giants had no fewer than eight minority ballplayers.

By now the Giants had become as integrated as any National League team, including progressive clubs like the Dodgers, Pirates and Cardinals. In 1963, the Giants added three more black outfielders in Jesus Alou, Jose Cardenal (signed out of Cuba) and Jim Ray Hart. And soon to come was another wave of African American and Latino talent, led by Bobby Bonds, Tito Fuentes and George Foster.

Unfortunately, Stoneham faced obstacles within his own organization. In 1961, he had hired Alvin Dark as his manager. Though Dark was intelligent and driven, he also had little idea of how to handle an integrated clubhouse that featured a key contingent of Latino stars.

The situation came to a head in 1964. Dark noticed that the Latino players liked to speak Spanish among themselves. Not understanding what they were saying and not trusting them (perhaps he thought they were plotting against him), Dark made the foolish decision to ban speaking Spanish in the clubhouse. This edict rightly infuriated players like Cepeda, who considered it bigotry.

According to Garratt, Willie Mays correctly sensed that Dark had completely lost the Latino ballplayers. Mays decided to approach Stoneham about the problem. Stoneham chose not to do anything drastic in midseason, but at the end of the 1964 season, he fired Dark and replaced him with the more fair-minded Herman Franks.

Stoneham wasn’t done in his efforts to integrate the Giants. Though African-American and Latino players represented the two largest minority groups, Stoneham decided to dip into another pool of talent. He made an arrangement with a team in the Japanese Leagues, signing three Asian players for his minor league system. One of the three was a left-handed pitcher named Masanori Murakami, who eventually became the first Japanese player in the major leagues. Working out of the Giants’ bullpen, Murakami pitched effectively for two seasons before Stoneham’s arrangement with Japan collapsed, resulting in Murakami’s return to the Far East.

Now none of this meant to say that Stoneham was a great owner, someone worthy of the Hall of Fame. The man had his flaws. In addition to the concerns about drinking, he could have handled the move to San Francisco more smoothly and he could have done a better job holding onto the Giants’ black and Latino talent. The Giants traded off many of their best Latino and black players during the 1960s, including Cepeda (to the Cardinals), Cardenal (Angels), Pagan (Pirates), Matty Alou (Pirates), and Felipe Alou (Braves), usually receiving only pennies on the dollar. If not for those regrettable decisions, the Giants might have become world champions in the 1960s or early 1970s, and might have emerged as the game’s first heavily integrated championship team.

But Stoneham was not a buffoon. His teams pushed forward the integration movement, while winning a World Series and two National League pennants during the 1950s and 60s. Ahead of his time, he pioneered the movement toward Asian players. Horace Stoneham was far more than Walter O’Malley’s sickly little stepbrother.

References & Resources
Robert Garratt’s presentation at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as part of the 2013 Cooperstown Baseball Symposium

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    “Regrettable decisions”?

    I don’t know that it was such a terrible thing that the Giants sent the likes of Cepeda, Pagan and Matty Alou packing. The Giants had McCovey and Cepeda both, and neither could play even passably well anywhere but first base. Sure, they had two future HoFers, but what were they supposed to do with them? You could argue they should have gotten a better return but dealing from an area of strength for an area of need (Ray Sadeki) was an attempt at an efficient use of resources, and I’d certainly argue that the Giants picked the right player to deal. Cepeda was a fine player, but McCovey was a fearsome hitter.

    Matty Alou didn’t become a batting champion until Harry Walker got ahold of him. The season before the Giants traded him, he OPSed .573. He had no power at all. Walker, the story goes, taught him to slap and chop at the ball and use his modest speed to its full effect. With Clemente and Stargell coming up behind, he didn’t need to do more than that.

    The season before the Giants dealt Pagan he OPSed .554. The year before that, in more or less full-time play: .577. Even in the offensive context of 1963/64, that was terrible. The season they traded him, he turned 30. It’s hard to see where the Giants thought they were getting rid of anything of value there. They’d given him his chance, and in his BEST season as a Giant he OPSed .671. He became a good versatile player for the Pirates for many years in his 30s, but he was seldom more than a super sub.

  2. bucdaddy said...

    Interestingly, Pagan was traded straight up for Dick Schofield, another 30-year-old infielder who was OPSing .593 for the Pirates at the time (and proceeded to hit even worse for the Giants). It was like a bizarro challenge trade of two bad ballplayers. (The Pirates had Gene Alley in waiting to play SS and of course Maz at 2B, so there was really no room for an aging middle infielder. Pagan was more versatile, could play some OF and 3B.)

    Anyway, unlike Pagan, Schofield continued to be a terrible hitter, but somehow hung on in the majors until he was 36.

  3. bucdaddy said...

    *—Sadecki.

    And he DID give the Giants two fair to good seasons, in 1967/68. He wasn’t a bad gamble as a reclamation project.

  4. Steve Treder said...

    Yay Rob!  He and I are collaborating on the Stoneham biography for the SABR Bio Project.  It’s great news to hear that his paper was well received at the terrific Cooperstown Symposium.

  5. Bruce Markusen said...

    Excellent points, Dennis. Well done.

    Buc Daddy, trades ultimately have to be judged on results, not what was apparent or evident at the times. Those trades all turned out bad for the Giants. Even though they had a duplicate player in McCovey, they should have received more than Sadecki for a Hall of Fame talent like Cepeda.  The returns for Pagan and Alou (Schofield, Gibbon, and Virgil) were poor. The return for Cardenal was poor (Hiatt). The Felipe Alou trade did not turn out well.

    In no way, shape or form were those good trades for the Giants.

  6. Marc Schneider said...

    Great article.  I recently read “The Greatest Game Ever pitched” about the 16-inning duel in 1963 between Marichal and Warren Spahn.  There is a good amount of detail there about Dark’s problems with the Latin players, although his attitudes seem to have been more conflicted (and confused) than outright bigoted.

  7. Sabertooth said...

    Thanks for a nice article. Any retrospective onStoneham should include Carl Hubbel’s tenure as the Giants’ minor league director, when all of that talent was developed.

    Sadecki sidenote: a year after Cepeda won the 1967 MVP, Orlando was traded to the Braves for Joe Torre, who went on to win the 1971 MVP. I’ve always thought of Torre as a borderline HOFer as a player, and he’ll certainly go in as a manager. Nice returns for the Cards.

    Other than Frankie Frisch for Rogers Hornsby ((Giants an Cardinals again), I’m not aware of another trade where eventual Hall of Famers were swapped.

  8. dennis Bedard said...

    I think Stoneham’s being overshadowed by O’Malley is more media hype and elite romanticism than anything else (think Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamil).  The Dodger’s popularity, like JFK’s and Marilyn Monroe’s, was more after the fact myth making than a focus on reality.  The Dodgers were as much pushed out of Brooklyn as pulled.  One should read Forever Blue by Michael D’Antonio, which details the odyssey.  O’Malley went to great lengths to keep the team in NY.  The reality was that Brooklyn was a dying city and the fans were no longer supporting the team.  Here is a humorous aside.  In D’Antonio’s book, Jackie Robinson watched Willie Mays play for the Birmingham Barons, a Negro league team. Robinson advised Branch Rickey to sign Mays to a contract. Rickey refused because he had been told by a scout that Mays “could not hit a curve ball.” Stoneham was not so dumb.

  9. Northern Rebel said...

    Being a Red Sox fan, I can’t help but feel sad that they resisted integration for so long. It cost them dearly. Mays worked out at Fenway, even though they had no intention fo signing him.
    Racism grumbled along far afterwards; just ask Ellis Burks, or Jim Rice.
    The curse could’ve been reversed a long time ago.
    Also, there was a reason why the National league dominated the American league in the All-Star games for almost 2 decades.
    What a wasteful shame.

  10. Tom Dockery said...

    Why is a good Christain no vice man,such as was Alvin Dark,being seen as the bad guy,while a gun toting drug smuggler,such as was Orlando Cepeda,seen as the good guy?The article could have been written without this attack on Dark.

  11. Gary Hughes said...

    Mr. Garratt a broken down football and basketball star from athletic factory Serra High School in San Mateo, California (Jim Fregosi, Barry Bonds, Greg Jefferies, Tom Brady and Lynn Swann among many others)has done a wonderful and exhaustive job of covering a subject that has been largely untouched. He will soon (actually one of these days as he is having way too much fun as a researcher) have a book out that will cover the entire Giants move to San Francisco as well as a look at Horace Stoneham the long neglected pioneer. The baseball world awaits.

  12. bucdaddy said...

    Bruce,

    Cepeda I’ll give you (and did), but how can you fault the Giants for thinking Matty Alou and Pagan weren’t worth a bag of balls? That Harry Walker taught Alou how to hit .350 and that Pagan somehow became a better player as a part-timer after age 30 than he was as a full-timer … is that the Giants’ fault? Were they supposed to get retroactive returns on those trades based on what those players became AFTER they were traded? Were they supposed to ask for Clemente in return for either of those guys?

    Sometimes magic happens. Look at what the Pirates (in cosmic payback nearly 50 years later) got from Toronto for Jose Bautista. Look at Jose’s stat line before he looked in the magic mirror or whatever it was he did. Are we supposed to believe, retroactively, that the Pirates got supremely hosed, or do we have to look at the trades in the context of the ballplayers’ production at the time they were dealt? Because at the time the Giants unloaded them, Matty Alou and Pagan were about as worthless as Bautista seemed to be. You can’t complain that the Pirates gave up a 50-HR hitter for a third-string catcher. Nobody knew Bautista was going to become a monster. Who knew Alou would win a batting title and Pagan would be a productive sub? Sure, maybe Walker said, “Get me those guys, I can work wonders with them,” but who REALLY knew?

    Not the Giants, apparently, but can you blame them?

  13. Silverkris said...

    In commenting about Alvin Dark and religion – I think his issue wasn’t really his faith, but trying to impose it on others.  I think this came out more with Dark’s stints with the early 1970s A’s and later the Padres.

  14. Marc Schneider said...

    Tom,

    I’m not sure why you are complaining about Cepeda being shown as a good guy.  The point of the article there was that Dark had problems with all the Latin players.  The fact that Cepeda later had problems with the law has nothing do with the issue of Dark’s treatment of the large number of Latin players on the team.  The article was pointing out that Stoneham had signed numbers of Latin players well before that was common but that he had a manager that had problems managing them.  It was no secret that this was the case; it was long known that Dark had problems with the Latins.  As I noted before, it’s discussed at some length in “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched.”  It has nothing to do with Dark’s religion, unless you think that being a “Christian” confers immunity to Dark from all criticism.  It wasn’t an attack on Dark, it was simply the truth.

  15. cooldrive said...

    Stoneham wasn’t just a lifelong fan of the Giants, he inherited them from his father, Charles.  He said Christy Mathewson pitched the first Giants game he ever attended.
        As letter-writer, THT contributor and author (enjoyed “Croasroads”) Steve Treder has noted, Stoneham was always looking for more pitching.
        They got a good season out of Bob Shaw (for F. Alou), but it wasn’t enough.  They got one excellent and one very good year from Sam Jones (for Bill White), but it wasn’t enough.  Sadecki did well when ALL pitchers did well.
        Reuben Gomez and Valmy Thomas for Jack Sanford worked out great.  Jackie Brandt for Billy O’Dell helped them win in ‘62, and Eddie Fisher plus two somebodies for Billy Pierce was worth it.
        Horace may not have been a great owner in terms of results (which is what we look at, as fans), but his teams were good and exciting.

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