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George Davis: From the Baseball Hall of Fame Library Player Files

The White Sox's first great offensive player disappeared from public life after his playing days with nobody to carry on his legacy.

George Davis at South Side Park in 1905.
George Davis at South Side Park in 1905.
Chicago Daily News / Library of Congress

The Baseball Hall of Fame has a problem on its hands this summer. The museum will welcome three new members, but all of them -- Deacon White, Jacob Ruppert and Hank O'Day -- are dead.

But it could be worse. They're not nearly as dead as George Davis was for his big day.

George Stacey Davis, one of the game's best shortstops at the turn of the century, enjoyed a successful 18-year career. He made his name during his 10 years with the Giants, and then gave the fledgling American League some star power when he jumped over to the White Sox in 1902.

For his career, Davis batted .295 with 2,665 hits and a 121 OPS+, and he had a well-regarded glove to go with it. It's hard to put his career in real solid context with the game's other great shortstops, but Jay Jaffe's system has him ranked fourth all-time -- ahead of Arky Vaughan, which is surprising.

The Veterans Committee eventually got around to inducting Davis in 1998, and so I figured I'd have a somewhat healthy file to peruse. I picked Davis for two reasons -- zevsenesca suggested him when I asked for old Sox subjects, and he was born in Cohoes, N.Y., which is in my neck of the woods in Albany County.

When looking through his player file, it's easy to see why he slipped through the cracks:

Nobody knew a damn thing about him.

Much of the player file consists of various historians -- the Hall's and others -- documenting their efforts to piece together his life. Cohoes' city historian found the address of the family home where Davis grew up, but it had been long demolished. He lived in the Capital Region through age 18, when a successful season with Albany's semipro team helped him land a spot on the Cleveland Spiders' roster. After that, he had no connection to the area, and no ties anywhere else. His relatives also fanned out, and the ones who knew anything of him didn't know much.

His baseball career is dotted with few anecdotes for a player of his stature, and it's alleged that he failed to provide good copy. We know he was capable of downplaying his accomplishments, because when he rescued two women and a three-year-old child in a tenement fire in New York in 1900, he deflected praise onto teammates Kid Gleason and Mike Grady.

He lingered in the game a little bit, but his ties to baseball ended when he stopped coaching Amherst College's team after 1918. After that, he faded from public, and sleuths can only fill in a few blanks -- he was married, he had no kids, he sold cars, he was a bowler, he was checked into a Philadelphia mental hospital in 1934, and he died in 1940 from paresis (dementia and paralysis born from syphilis).

Historians also presume his wife didn't like him much at the end, because he was buried within 24 hours of his death in an unmarked grave without a ceremony for the cost of $41. It was probably the insanity/syphilis combo that wore out his welcome there.

Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen discovered his death certificate ... in 1968. And that was after several years of searching. He found a niece in New Jersey who only knew that he died in Philadelphia. She also thought it was in 1934 (the year of his hospital admittance), but Allen was able to get the death certificate from the state's health department.

The details of his White Sox career are equally scant. He really only stands out in a couple of respects:

He was jumpy

Davis was one of many Giants who had grown tired of owner Andrew Freedman, who was considered something like a capricious tyrant. Charles Comiskey was able to lure him to the American League after the 1901 season for a $4,000 salary. Davis had a terrific Chicago debut as the Dead Ball Era took hold, batting .299/.396/.402 with 93 RBI and 31 steals.

After the 1902 season, John T. Brush took over the club from Freedman and put John McGraw in charge of acquiring talent. McGraw liked Davis, and Davis liked the $6,700 salary the Giants offered him. Davis said he would take the offer back to Comiskey, and Comiskey was all like, "I ain't paying that."

So Davis tried jumping back to the National League, with the Giants arguing that the reserve clause prevented Davis from jumping his National League contract in the first place (Freedman was glad to see him go, so he didn't object). Comiskey didn't give in, first winning an injunction from an Illinois court (right before Independence Day, ironically) that prevented Davis from playing in Chicago against the Cubs. A fortnight later, Comiskey then won an injunction from U.S. Court of Appeals saying that Davis couldn't play for any team besides the White Sox. From the Tribune on July 16, 1903:

The papers were served on Davis in the betting ring of the Brighton Beach racetrack. They were placed on his arm by the server and fell to the ground, but Davis picked them up and read them.

The National League's owners eventually relented to Comiskey in order to preserve the peace agreement. Davis only played four games with the Giants in 1903, and returned to the Sox for good in 1904.

He beat the Cubs

The "Hitless Wonders" White Sox beat the heavily favored, 116-win Cubs in six games, but Davis missed the first three due to the flu. He made up for his absence in the last two games. He went 2-for-5 with three RBI in Game 5, an 8-6 White Stockings winner.

While his bat helped give the Sox the lead, his defense thwarted the Cubs' last best attempt to get back in the game. Reading through a poorly reproduced Sporting News article from Oct. 20, 1906 and comparing it to the game log, Davis ended the eighth inning with a heads-up play. Jimmy Sheckard advanced to second on an infield single to the left side, and bolted for third when he saw the base unoccupied. Davis saw the ploy and raced Sheckard to the bag. First baseman Jiggs Donahue hit Davis with a throw on the run, and Davis tagged out Sheckard in a vicious collision for the third out.

He came back the next day with another 2-for-5, three-RBI performance. The Sox didn't need any of his defensive heroics, as they led 7-1 after two innings, and ran away with the clincher, 8-3.

And that's all we can really glean from Davis' White Sox career from his player file. The Tribune archives have loads of his individual game exploits, and I'll probably look through those for fun, but at a quick glance, he doesn't appear to be a media standout.

That's about par for the course for Davis, whether in New York or Chicago, professionally or personally. Fortunately, he was inducted with Larry Doby and Don Sutton to give the weekend some vitality. Reading the description of Davis' induction from this terrific Philadelphia Inquirer article about his mysterious life, apparently his induction was just as empty as everything else:

"In a way, watching his Hall of Fame induction was sad,'' said John Ralph, the Hall's director of communications and programs, who added that the Hall of Fame searched for six months and found few vestiges of Davis' life. "That emotion, that excitement and feeling of being proud, was missing. And that's what makes the ceremony special.''

Previously in this series:

Jack Harshman Part 2 | Jack Harshman Part 1 | Eddie Collins Part 2 | Eddie Collins Part 1 | Zeke Bonura | Ed Walsh | Ray Schalk | Minnie Minoso Part 1 | Minnie Minoso Part 2 | Fielder Jones | Luke Appling | Johnny Mostil | Eddie Cicotte