February 8, 2019
Excerpt from Tinker to Evers - Winner of CWA’s 2019 Book of the Year Award for Traditional Nonfiction
by David Rapp
Chapter 5: Baseball Revival, 1903-1905
On the first day of spring 1903, inhabitants of Chicago had to hope against hope that an unusually warm spell was, in fact, a harbinger of a new season. For two unexpectedly balmy days, the coldest, longest, most lethal winter in memory appeared finally to be at an end. But the newsboys’ high-pitched calls that morning would send more shivers through downtown streets, most of them still walled up by tall mounds of ice and snow. “Freezing Weather Due Here Today,” the headlines cried. “Blizzards in West.”
Yet another cold wave, moving across the northern prairies toward the Great Lakes, would push thermometers back down into the red by nightfall, a plunge of forty degrees in a matter of hours, forecasters said. Not what anyone wanted to hear when thousands of people had been freezing for months without access to fuel. Not what a city government already overwhelmed by demands for food, shelter, and coal had any capacity to manage. The city’s population had doubled to two million in the decade since the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 put it on the global map, and waves of migrants were streaming into the city from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe, as well as from depression-rocked rural America.
A coal miners’ strike in Pennsylvania had lasted for six months the previous year and left many cities to the west without a stockpile of fuel for the winter. Chicago may have been hardest hit by the resulting “coal famine.” Even streetcars were without heat, prompting health officials to advise the public to shun public transportation, “it being more conducive to health to walk than to ride in the cold cars.” ….
Deeper inside that morning’s newspapers, however, lay reports of a more serene kind. Chicago’s National League baseball team was conducting its “spring training” in the California resort town of Santa Monica. The image of young ballplayers frolicking on sun-drenched Pacific beaches must have seemed like a mirage on an untouchable horizon. And perhaps that’s all it was. The caliber of this squad wasn’t much to write home about.
Anyone who knew the recent history of the Chicago Nationals had no reason to think this season would bring any better fortune than the previous year. … “[The] club this year as compared with last season is fully 50 percent better,” allowed a Chicago Daily News correspondent, already hedging his bet. … The Sporting Life weekly took note of the general drift and concluded that the Nationals “are a nice, willing set of boys, but seem rather weak with the war club.”
And yet a writer in another Chicago paper proffered a much sunnier outlook. “This has been a great day for the Colts,” beamed the anonymous dispatch in the Chicago Inter Ocean, using that paper’s preferred nickname for the team. “To begin with, the weather was just ideal for ball playing. The day was warm, with just a light breeze blowing across the park to remind them of their proximity to the coast.” The sentences were cheerful, confident, and no doubt naive, yet their forecast for Chicago and its frigid sports fans concealed an uncanny feminine intuition of better days to come.
Most Chicago baseball fans had few reasons to expect the summer to be one of joy and celebration. Their team had finished fifth in the eight-team league in 1902, another in a string of sixteen lackluster campaigns. No trophy had fallen into the team’s clutches since 1886. It was going to be a challenge to recapture the public’s interest for the bedraggled Colts or the sullied game of baseball itself. An even bigger leap was to win back the city’s faith and allegiance.
James A. Hart, the club’s owner and president, was keen to try. Hart had made the arrangements for the West Coast trip, his first spring training since taking sole financial control of the franchise the previous summer. …
Frank G. Selee, Hart’s field manager, came aboard the year before with a stellar reputation as a talent scout and turnaround artist. … They assembled seventeen players in Santa Monica, a motley crew from all corners of the nation. Among them were several holdovers—including a slick infielder named Tinker from Kansas City, and a sturdy backup catcher named Chance from California, plus a more recent pickup from upstate New York whom everyone called Little Evers.
Selee had played this rebuilding role before, a dozen years previous, when he lifted the Boston Nationals from fifth to first in just one year. And he had a brainy, methodical way of going about the task. He collected these and other prospects like marbles, tossing away the rejects and, wherever possible, buffing up the hidden jewels. “You must be on the lookout for new material all the time,” he said. ….
Though widely respected by his peers and trusted by his players, Selee was no self-promoter. He wasn’t averse to publicity—he did everything he could to promote the team…. But neither Selee nor Hart had the local Chicago connections and the public charisma of their predecessors…. Restoring the Chicago Nationals’ image and status was never going to be an easy task for them. What Hart didn’t yet know was that he had gotten a twofer—a “Team Selee” that could breathe new life into both the ball club and its relations with the public.
Selee had brought along a secret weapon of sorts, one that his Boston rooters never benefited from: his alluring, enigmatic, and entirely baseball-mad new wife, May. Mrs. Frank Selee, as she was customarily known, was a force in her own right, and in a very short time, she added an amiable touch to the burly game of baseball.
The Tribune ran a human-interest feature inside the sports section headlined, “Wife of the Colts’ Manager Is an Enthusiastic Fan.” A portrait photograph of an attractive young woman appeared inside an illustrated oval frame, its border decorated with floral designs in much the same way as a feature on an opera singer or actress. The woman had bright, clear eyes and looked directly into the camera. Her wavy hair was parted down the middle and cut short across the ears, revealing a long, graceful neckline that framed a confident but demure smile. To the right was a smaller file photo of Frank’s mustachioed face, a decidedly dour mugshot next to her sunny features. “While the manager of the Chicago National league club has been ingratiating himself in the hearts of the Chicago fans,” began the text beneath, “Mrs. Selee has made many friends during her brief residence in Chicago.”
The reader learned that Mrs. Selee, “who is many years her husband’s junior,” was born in Ireland but more recently hailed from St. Louis. She spoke with a slight brogue, “one of her many attractions.” She was tall and commanded attention “with a sparkling, even roguish eye, and beautiful auburn hair.” Unlike her unassuming husband, she was outgoing and also a musician. The unnamed Tribune writer was completely enamored: “One need only look at her to understand that she made short work of the good manager’s heart.”
But here was the most important thing about her for the reader of the sports pages: “Mrs. Selee is perhaps better versed in baseball matters than any woman in the country.” This alluring ingénue was sufficiently conversant in the arts of pitching, hitting, and double plays to fill out her own scorecard. “She can report games and also has at her tongue’s tip the history of all the league players.”
The former Bridget “May” Grant had been born on December 22, 1873, the seventh of twelve children of James Grant and Catherine Eagan of County Kilkenny, Ireland. She emigrated to America on her own on June 2, 1890, arriving in New York with a group of other girls her age—probably servant girls, or “Bridgets,” as they were dubbed back then. She eventually settled in St. Louis with relatives.
As winter turned to spring, and as Selee’s Colts made their way back from the California training excursion, Sporting Life reported that Mrs. Frank Selee had stopped off in St. Louis to visit some childhood friends. She volunteered that she had been serving as a correspondent for “several Chicago papers” while the team was in the far west, “so perhaps my opinion of my husband’s team will be worth something.” She put the city of Chicago and the entire National League on notice: “We are going to be heard from,” she said. “My husband likes his team’s chances and so do I.”
The Inter Ocean had never revealed the source of its spring training dispatches from the West Coast….. Interestingly, the Tribune, a competitor, showed no compunction in running condensed versions of the I-O spring training reports, suggesting it had pitched in to help pay for the mysterious correspondent. It’s now easy to imagine who this ever-optimistic voice might have been: no jaded sportswriter but an unabashed cheerleader. “Those scribes who are at a loss for a name for Selee’s team would still retain the old one of Colts had they seen them at practice this morning,” the I-O correspondent had reported. “They were fresh looking, full of life, energy, and vigor, and working with vim enough to gladden the heart of the most exacting manager or fan.”
From 1902 through the middle of 1905, Frank and May Selee were the toast of Chicago.
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