On Aug. 23, 1870 George Davis was born. He would go on to a Hall of Fame career that reflected both the excellence of the player and the era in which he played.
When I was running my old blog, I made one of the great mistakes of my young life—really, it was a terrible, terrible decision—by going through the complete list of Hall of Famers and writing something about every one I’d never heard of. Foolishly, I thought this couldn’t be more than a handful. As it turns out, there are a lot of Hall of Famers. A lot. And I had no idea about a shockingly large percentage of them.
One player about whom I knew virtually nothing was George Davis. As I worked my way through the “unknown Hall of Famers,” every player could get only a sentence or two. So I did not have time to give George Davis the credit he deserved as both a player and a figure in the history of baseball.
That credit begins with Davis’ statistics, which reflect not only his quality but the time he played. In the second year of his career, at age 20, Davis put up a .763 OPS for the Cleveland Spiders in the National League. At age 35, playing for Chicago in the American League, Davis’ OPS was just .693, a drop of 70 points. However, when looking at OPS+, which adjusts for league and park, it is clear that Davis’ seasons 15 years apart were quite similar, coming in at OPS+ of 119 and 118 respectively.
(I should point out that the mound was not yet moved to 60 feet, 6 inches during Davis’ age-20 season, which gives you some sense of how long ago he played. Nonetheless, similar comparisons between raw and adjusted numbers can be seen more than once in Davis’ career.)
All said, Davis played 20 seasons from 1890 through 1909. His career totals include a .295 average, 616 stolen bases and a 121 OPS+. That OPS+ compares favorably to that of shortstops like Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin and Robin Yount.
In 1897, Davis led the league in RBI, the first time a shortstop had ever done so. (It’s still a rare feat; Alex Rodriguez is the only shortstop to do it in the past 25 years.) While he was personally outstanding, the situation around Davis was beginning to deteriorate. A trade to the Giants—and the move of the mound to its current distance—allowed him to flourish offensively, but the franchise was one of the most dysfunctional in baseball.
The team was sold in 1895 to Andrew Freedman, who was memorably described by Bill James as a “thug who skated on thin ice over an ocean of lunacy.” Freedman battled almost constantly with nearly everyone else involved with baseball, including, but not limited to, Davis, Amos Rusie, Harry Pullman, Charles Comiskey and his own fans. Freedman ran his team with a style that suggests George Steinbrenner stripped of all reason.
Despite this, Davis continued to perform. He hit over .300 for nine straight seasons, including five seasons at .320 or better, and three over .350. In 1893, he put together a 33-game hitting streak, widely acknowledged at the time as the longest ever. Moreover, Davis grew the kind of truly outstanding mustache worn exclusively by 1890s baseball players and the sort of ne’er-do-wells who tie maidens to railroad tracks.
The only things that didn’t go right for Davis during this period were two attempts at managing. The first came in 1895 shortly after Freedman bought the team. Davis was appointed by ownership, almost literally on their way out the door, but quit after just 33 games (16-17).
In 1901, after more Freedman-related shenanigans—this time essentially combining the New York and Cincinnati clubs into one team—Davis was appointed manager in an attempt to bring some order. It didn’t work. Davis went 91-122 over parts of two seasons but failed to patch the divisions.
Of course, Davis was not above some shenanigans of his own. When the American League was founded in 1901, it offered better pay than the established NL, so many players began jumping. Davis, no doubt sick of Freedman’s reign, left for the White Sox and $4,000 a year.
After a successful season in Chicago in 1902, Freedman sold the Giants and John McGraw was installed in charge of the franchise. Davis was then offered a contract for two years and $12,600. He naturally jumped back to the Giants.
The only problem for Davis—and McGraw—was that shortly thereafter the American and National Leagues signed a peace agreement. Perhaps the most notable provision was the deal to honor the contracts of the other league. This was bad news for Davis.
Davis spent most of 1903 refusing to report to the White Sox despite being ordered to do so, and instead more or less sitting idle with the Giants. He played in just four games that season, until league president Harry Pullman made it clear any games in which Davis appeared would be considered forfeits.
Finally, in 1904, Davis returned to Chicago. As it turned out, while Davis would miss out on the Giants’ 1905 World Series triumph, he would have the last laugh over the National League. Playing for the “Hitless Wonder” White Sox, Davis batted .308 with three doubles against the Cubs in the 1906 World Series. While the White Sox pitchers, who allowed just eight earned runs over four games, were the key to the series, Davis was without question the offensive star for the South Siders.
Davis finished his career after the 1909 season, ending with 2,660 hits, still good for sixth all-time among shortstops. He faded into obscurity in the years following his playing career, eventually dying in Philadelphia at the age of 70.