Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Top 10 Greatest New York Baseball Giants

The team now known as the San Francisco Giants played baseball in New York City from 1883 to 1957. Until the Yankees won their 7th World Series in 1938 (beating the Giants), the Giants were the most successful team in the history of Major League Baseball. When they moved in the fall of 1957, they were still the 2nd-most successful team in the history of Major League Baseball.

And yet, today, they are all but forgotten. Not hard to understand: If you saw your first baseball game at the age of 7, then the youngest fan of the Giants, or the Brooklyn Dodgers, is now 62 years old. To most people younger than that, the Giants really come down to 2 games: Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" to win the 1951 National League Pennant, and Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, with Willie Mays making "The Catch" and Dusty Rhodes winning it with a pinch-hit home run -- and even Rhodes' homer sometimes gets lost in the after-the-fact hoopla over Mays' catch.

It also doesn't help that, while the Dodgers had former New York Herald Tribune Dodger beat writer, and Brooklyn native and Dodger fan, Roger Kahn to write The Boys of Summer in 1972, just as the 1950s nostalgia wave was taking off. Nobody wrote a similar book about the 1950s Giants, who did win 2 Pennants and a World Series.

And that's not fair, because the Giants were far, far more that Thomson's homer, Mays' catch and Rhodes' homer. So much that Greg Prince, author of the blog and book Faith and Fear in Flushing has declared the Giants, rather than the Brooklyn Dodgers (in spite of their "Daffiness Boys" and heartbreak similarities), to be the true precursor to his beloved Mets. Which makes some sense, since the Mets share the orange "curly-Q'ed" interlocking NY, and the Polo Grounds (their home for their first 2 seasons, 1962 & '63), with the Giants.

If we were to include the Giants' honors with the Mets, it would read as follows:

National League Champions 1888 1889 1904 1905 1911 1912 1913 1917 1921 1922 1923 1924 1933 1936 1937 1951 1954 1969 1973 1986 2000. 21 Pennants.

World Champions 1888 1888 1905 1921 1922 1936 1954 1969 1986. 9 Titles. (You can't count 1904: The Red Sox were willing to play a World Series, the Giants refused.)

Still well behind the Yankees, but a far more respectable record.

So here we go.

Top 10 Greatest New York Baseball Giants

Honorable Mention to Hall-of-Famers George Davis, Roger Bresnahan, Fred "Rube" Marquard, Dave Bancroft, George "Highpockets" Kelly, Ross Youngs, Freddie Lindstrom, Johnny Mize (didn't play with the Giants long enough to qualify for this list) and (at the beginning of his career) Hoyt Wilhelm, and managers John McGraw and Leo Durocher.

I'm also giving Honorable Mentions to 19th Century Giants Roger Connor, Buck Ewing, John Montgomery "Monte" Ward, Tim Keefe, Jim "Orator" O'Rourke and Smilin' Mickey Welch. They may have played a very different game, one not really comparable even to the game played by the Mathewson generation, but they were still among the best players of their time, and they are still in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Johnny Mize was only a Giant for 4 full seasons (interrupted by 3 years of World War II service), so I can't count him here.

Oh, why not: Further Honorable Mentions to Bobby Thomson and Dusty Rhodes. And to Sid Gordon, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who starred for the Giants in the 1940s and the Braves in the 1950s, and famously (in 1948) became the only Giant ever to be given a "day" in his honor at Ebbets Field by the Dodgers. But Dishonorable Mention to Sal Maglie: Great pitcher, nasty human being. (My Grandma was a Dodger fan, and there was no player she ever hated more than Maglie, with plenty of reason.)

10. Larry Doyle, pre-number era, 2nd base, 1907-20, with a brief stopover with the Chicago Cubs in 1916-17. He's not in the Hall of Fame, but twice led the NL in hits. In 1915, he led the NL in batting average, hits and doubles (with 40). He batted .290 lifetime (.292 with the Giants). He helped the Giants win 3 straight Pennants, 1911-13, and nearly an earlier one in 1908 (the Fred Merkle season). He received the Chalmers Award, an early version of the MVP, for the NL in 1912.

He supposedly once told the press, "It's great to be young and a Giant." At the time, that was a very justifiable statement, as the Giants were then the kings of New York sports. He was 19 when he made his Giant debut, 33 when he made his farewell, and 87 when he died in 1974 at Saranac Lake, New York -- the same town where his former teammate Christy Mathewson died nearly half a century before.

All others on this list are in the Hall of Fame.

9. Travis Jackson, Number 5, shortstop, 1922-36. He had a .291 lifetime batting average, and bridged the 1922 and '33 World Championship teams. He holds the record for longest time waiting to get into the Hall of Fame, and still living to get in: First eligible (under the rules then in effect) in 1938, and was elected in 1982 -- 54 years.

8. Frankie Frisch, Number 3, 2nd base, 1919-26. He came from The Bronx, and attended the Borough's Fordham Prep and University, and so he was nicknamed the Fordham Flash. The best 2nd baseman in the game in the Roaring Twenties, he helped the Giants win the 1921 and '22 Series and the '23 and '24 Pennants.

But after the 1926 season, he was shockingly traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Rogers Hornsby, still one of the most celebrated trades in baseball history. (It was while he was with the Cards that uniform numbers came into vogue: He wore 3 with the Cards, not the Giants.) The trade benefited the Cards a lot more than the Giants: Hornsby didn't get along with McGraw any more than Frisch did and was traded a year later; while Frisch eventually became the Cards' player-manager, leading the "Gashouse Gang" to win the 1934 World Series and nearly 3 other Pennants.

He is justifiably in the Hall of Fame, but his presence, and that of teammate Bill Terry and a couple of friendly sportswriters, on the Veterans' Committee led to the election of several of his Giant and Cardinal teammates who many consider to be unworthy. Some fans use the term "the Frisch Five" to refer to his beneficiaries, although the list is not definitive: Among those included are Giants Marquard (I think he belongs, barely), Youngs (he belongs), Bancroft (borderline) and Highpockets Kelly (doesn't belong); and Cardinals Jesse Haines (borderline) and Charles "Chick" Hafey (belongs).

Between ending his managing career and being on the Vets' Committee, he was a Giant broadcaster, famous for his exclamation, "Oh, those bases on balls!" He had a heart attack in 1956, and that not only ended his broadcasting career, but started that of his fill-in, who'd recently been released by the Yankees: Phil Rizzuto. Frisch managed to live on until 1973, however, and died as a result of a car crash, not a heart attack.

7. Joe McGinnity, pre-number era, pitcher, 1902-08. He only played 10 seasons in the major leagues, the minimum for Hall of Fame qualification (barring special cases, such as the man at Number 6 on this list). But his 246-142 record is phenomenal no matter how long he pitched -- and, on any given day, he could pitch long.

Five times, he pitched and won both ends of a doubleheader. This would seem to be the source of his nicknames "the Iron Man" and "Iron Joe," but he claimed he got them from working in a foundry. Six times, he won at least 26 games in a season.

The Dead Ball Era, you say? True, but he also won at least 28 games 4 times, and at least 31 twice. His career ERA+ was 120, meaning he was 20 percent better than the average pitcher of his time and preventing earned runs, so his Cooperstown status is very much legit. He got a late start in the majors (didn't debut until he was 28), so it's not like he burned out after only 10 years (he retired at 37). Sticking with the Giants, he worked for McGraw as, technically, the 1st pitching coach in baseball.

6. Monte Irvin, Number 20, left field, 1949-55. He was born in Alabama, but grew up nearby in East Orange, New Jersey. He was a teammate on the mighty Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues of Larry Doby, another guy born in the South (South Carolina) but grew up in North Jersey (Paterson).

By 1943, when he'd gone into World War II, he was already being talked about as, potentially, the man who would be allowed to break the color barrier in what was then called "Organized Baseball." He and Hank Thompson became the Giants' 1st black players, both making their big-league debuts on July 8, 1949. (Appropriately enough, at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers won, 4-3, and while neither got a hit, both drew walks. Technically, Thompson was the 1st, since he was in the starting lineup and Irvin was a pinch-hitter.)

In the Giants' 1951 Pennant season, he batted .312 and led the NL with 121 RBIs, and was 3rd in the MVP voting behind Roy Campanella and Stan Musial. (Teammate Maglie was 4th, and Dodgers Preacher Roe and Jackie Robinson were 5th and 6th.) In Game 1 of the World Series, he stole home plate; unlike Robinson, who did the same in Game 1 in 1955, he was clearly safe, and, also unlike Robinson, his team won the game -- but, also unlike Robinson, his team ended up losing the Series. That would not be the case in 1954.

Irvin is now 93 years old, and is the last living player in the Hall who got in on the basis, either full or partial, based on what he did in the Negro Leagues. (He played only 9 major league seasons, plus one more in the Pacific Coast League.) The Giants retired his number, even though he never played for them in San Francisco.

5. Willie Mays, Number 24, center field, 1951-57. Why so low on the list? Because he only played 5 full seasons for the New York edition of the Giants. (He spent most of 1952 and all of '53 in the U.S. Army, serving in the Korean War.) But while the most productive part of his career was in San Francisco, it can be argued that his 2 best seasons were in New York, 1954 and '55.

The debate over who was better, Willie or Mickey Mantle (or even, for those slightly deluded Dodger fans, Duke Snider), will continue forever. On May 6, Willie will turn 81, and, sadly, he's the last survivor of the trio of New York center fielders cited in Terry Cashman's song "Talkin' Baseball," better remembered as "Willie, Mickey and the Duke."

4. Bill Terry, Number 3, first base, 1923-36. Supposedly, Memphis Bill was playing for the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association, when John McGraw was impressed by him and said, "How'd you like to play for the New York Giants?" Terry said, "For how much?" Shocked by the young man's audacity, McGraw nonetheless kept the offer.

Good choice, since Terry batted .341 lifetime, including .401 in 1930, making him still the last National Leaguer to bat .400 in a season. Helped the Giants win the 1923 and '24 Pennants and the '33 Series. His number was retired, and he's in the Hall of Fame. When McGraw retired in 1932, Terry was named player-manager, and managed them to Pennants in '33, '36 and '37.

3. Carl Hubbell, Number 11, pitcher, 1928-43. The 1st National Leaguer to have his number retired, King Carl won 253 games, including 24 straight over late 1936 and early '37 – making his other nickname, the Meal Ticket, easily understandable. He led the Giants' staff to the '33 title and the '36 and '37 Pennants, and is still best known for the '34 All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds, where he struck out 5 straight fellow future members of the Hall of Fame: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.

Although Christy Mathewson threw the pitch first (calling it the "fadeaway"), Hubbell made his name (and, eventually, a twisted wreck of his left arm) by throwing the "reverse curveball" or "screwball." But, unlike the later New York pitcher who threw the pitch, Tug McGraw of the Mets, he was no screwball above the neck: He was one of those intellectual pitchers such as later New York National League hurlers Carl Erskine, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Ron Darling and Orel Hershiser. At a time when the best righthanded pitchers in the world were Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige, the best lefties were Lefty Grove and Hubbell.

2. Mel Ott, Number 4, right field, 1926-47. He made his major league debut at age 16, and until 1966 (surpassed by Mays) was the NL's all-time home run leader with 511. True, he had that short right-field fence at the Polo Grounds, but he still had a .304 lifetime batting average, 2,876 hits, and 1,860 runs batted in, so it couldn't have been all about that 257-foot RF pole.

He missed the 1st All-Star Game in 1933, but was selected to the next 12. He hit more home runs in one city than any other player, 348 in New York (at home or at the Dodgers' home of Ebbets Field). His number was retired, and he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

He succeeded Terry as Giant manager, although he was fired in 1948, in favor of Leo Durocher, who famously said, "Look at Ott, he's a nice guy and they'll finish 8th for him. All nice guys and they'll finish 8th." With 8th place then being last, this was turned into Durocher's signature phrase, "Nice guys finish last." Well, Ott (though killed in a car crash at age 49) lived long enough to see his HOF election, while Durocher did not live long enough to see his own.

Sadly, Ott in 1958, Frisch in 1973, and Hubbell in 1988, were all killed in car crashes. But the fate of the player at Number 1 on this list was worse.

1. Christy Mathewson, pre-number era, pitcher, 1900-16. Before Matty, most ballplayers were thought of as uneducated hicks (if they came from a farm or a small town) or nasty Irish hooligans (if they came from a city). "Big Six" was a graduate of Bucknell University (where he also played football and the stadium is named for him), and was New York's 1st "thinking man's pitcher" and baseball's 1st true "clean" idol.

In addition to his fadeaway/reverse curve/screwball, he had one of the fastest fastballs of his time, a great curveball, and a troublesome "slow ball" (today we would call it a changeup). He might have had the best "stuff" in baseball history, and was renowned for his incredible control.

He won 373 games, tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander for 3rd all-time and 1st in the NL. His career ERA+ was 136, and he struck out 2,507 batters, 2nd only to Cy Young at the time he retired. In the 1905 World Series, he shut out the Philadelphia Athletics 3 times, a feat never repeated in Series play. With him, the Giants won 5 Pennants and nearly 3 others.

Sadly, he went into the U.S. Army in World War I, and, during a training exercise, Captain Mathewson got a lungful of poison gas. Shortly thereafter, he fell victim to the 1918-19 worldwide Spanish influenza epidemic that ended up killing twice as many people as the war.

His lungs already severely weakened, he later developed tuberculosis, and was sent to the health spa at Saranac Lake, New York (closer to Montreal than to Albany, let alone to Manhattan), where he died in 1925, at only 45.

His son fared even worse as a result of his military service: An Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Mathewson Jr. first crashed and then, in a separate incident, was horribly burned in an explosion at an Air Force base in 1950, aged only 43.

Christy Mathewson might just have been the greatest pitcher of all time. In one way, we can say he was the Pitcher of the Century: He made his major league debut on July 7, 1900, and on October 25, 1999, during the World Series, he was announced as one of the pitchers on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, voted there by fans even though he pitched his last game 83 years (5/6th of a century) earlier. In 1936, much closer to his time, he got the most votes of any pitcher in the 1st Hall of Fame election, thus making him the first pitcher elected.


Troy Nelson said...

Fantastic article, Mike. You did your homework. As I get older, I am starting to really appreciate the history of the game and I'm glad you took the time to write this.

Paul said...


You have a couple of mistakes with the list of World Championships. 1888 is listed twice. (The second one should be 1889). Also, the Giants lost the 1936 World Series to the Yankees lowering it to 8 championships. (Incidentally, the Giants won the Temple Cup in 1894, even though they finished in second place. I don't know if you want to include that as a "World Championship" or not though)