On Nov. 17, 1867, George Stallings was born. Later known as both “Gentleman George” and “The Miracle Man,” he had a baseball career that spanned 40 years and launched at least that many stories.
It is possible, easy even, in baseball to be known for one thing, and one thing only. Bobby Thigpen, whom I’ve written about before, saved 57 games in a season. Bill Wambsganss turned an unassisted triple play in the World Series. Al Gionfriddo made a great catch on Joe DiMaggio in the 1947 World Series.
Among baseball fans—and trivia buffs—that is basically all the information about those men you have to present to pass as knowledgeable about them. George Stallings could easily have fallen into that category: “The Miracle Man,” who led the Braves to the 1914 World Series.
There is not much otherwise in the statistical record to mark Stallings as noteworthy. He was a lousy player, earning just two hits in 20 major league at-bats in the 1890s. In spite of his title with the Braves, Stallings finished his managerial career under .500. He never won more than 89 games outside of 1914.
Luckily for him, Stallings has much else to recommend him as a historical figure. For one, he was signed (or so the story goes—history is pretty sketchy for this period in baseball history) by Harry Wright to a professional contract.
An English-born cricketer, Wright “converted” to baseball and founded the first professional team in 1869. In the 1880s, Wright was managing the Phillies and signed Stallings away from the Virginia Military Institute. Wright evidently overestimated the youngster’s talent, as Stallings was cut during spring training.
Stallings bounced around for a bit until returning to the Phillies in 1897 as a manager and very occasional player. Taking over a team that had finished eighth the year before, Stallings led them to 10th. (The NL was 12 teams that year, including a St. Louis squad that went 29-102.)
Stalling was somewhat … let’s say abrasive as a manager through his career, but no more so than during his time with the Phillies. Stallings more-or-less instantly alienated Jack Taylor who had led the team in ERA the previous three seasons. Taylor dropped to a 16-20 record and frequently showed up for games intoxicated. After a collective 74-104 record, Stallings was relieved of his duties as Phillies manager midway through the 1898 season.
After a brief run with the Tigers in 1901, Stallings’ next job was running the New York Highlanders in 1909. Taking over a team that had gone 51-103 in ’08, Stallings drove it to a nearly .500 record the following season. Midway through an even better 1910 campaign, however, Stallings was fired after coming into conflict with Hal Chase.
Stallings had his flaws as a manager, but in this case he was in the right. Even by the standards of the time, Chase was a deceitful fellow. It was widely believed that Chase was throwing games to get Stallings fired. Later, Chase stopped showing up altogether, and Stallings announced to Highlander ownership that one of them had to go.
Improbably, Highlander management choose Chase to stay, and the team—second in 1910—dropped to sixth the next year.
In 1913, Stallings took over the Boston Braves. His first season the team went 69-82 and finished fifth. The Braves seemed to be on a similar path in 1914, sitting in last place at 26-40, 15 games out of first. Improbably, after going 18-10 in July, the Braves would go 45-11 (.803) in August and September to claim the pennant.
In the World Series the Braves swept the 99-win Philadelphia Athletics to claim their only title while in Boston. It would be the peak of Stallings’ managerial career, although he remained active managing long after his major league time ended.
And it is a good thing Stallings kept managing, because that no doubt led to the many stories about him. Stallings ripped his players almost constantly, the invective coming from the bench belying his gentle nature off the field. After the title of 1914, many of Stallings’ players bought cars with their World Series shares, prompting Stallings to invent derisive nicknames for every member of the team based solely on their preferred make.
Stallings was also wildly idiosyncratic. One source says Stallings loathed the color yellow to the extent that he would demand yellow ballpark signs be painted over before he would let his team take the field.
That’s probably more fiction than fact, but other parts of Stallings’ behavior are more widely cited. He could not suffer any scraps of garbage or pieces of paper strewn around the dugout and field. His own players, after a period of Stallings’ unique brand of encouragement, presumably learned not to leave anything lying around.
Opponents, however, quickly figured this out, and for the duration of his career Stallings was treated to a never-ending stream of assorted paper rubbish, provided by the other side and floating around the field.
Stallings was also notoriously superstitious. Supposedly, if his team began to rally while he was a particular position (no matter how comfortable or not) he would stick in that position until the rally ended. I’m not sure I entirely buy this—how did he give signs?—but I can’t rule it out.
Stallings once sent a scout out to observe Honus Wagner, only to have the scout return with word that Wagner would not cut it in the majors, but that the team should sign Kid Elberfeld instead. Elberfeld wasn’t a bad ballplayer, but Wagner, of course, was Wagner.
It only seems right to end a column about Stallings with a story about the end of his life, even one that is widely recognized as apocryphal. As Stallings was dying, someone asked what caused the bad heart was that killing him. “Oh,” Stallings moaned. “Those base-on-balls!”