Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
| Harry McCormick|
(Photo courtesy of National Baseball
Hall of Fame)
To be included in the top 10% of the Top 100 list, most teams have two things in common. One, the team must play in a high-powered league and two, the club must have a superb record. The Eastern League champion of 1903 scored high in both categories.
Jersey City, located in the shadow of New York City, was caught up in the baseball craze spreading out of New York in the 1860s. During this time, the best team was the Champion club who claimed the National Association’s amateur championship in 1870. Jersey City’s first pro team played 15 years later in the Eastern League. Known as the Skeeters, the team (9-27) dropped out of the league in June, one of six league members not finishing the season. The team was called the Skeeters in recognition of the pesky, ubiquitous mosquitoes that infested the region in the summertime. The next year, the team fared better, finishing the season with a 49-39 record, although a great distance behind first place Washington (70-25).
In 1887, a new Skeeters team joined the top tier International League. Here, the team finished sixth with a 48-49 record. The following season, the team dropped down to the Central League and finished with one of the finest records of any minor league team (84-25, .771). Unfortunately for the Skeeters, rival Newark (83-23, .783) was just a notch better, relegating Jersey City to second, albeit as probably the best second place team in history.
Over the rest of the 19th century, Jersey City participated in three other minor league seasons. In 1889, the Skeeters (33-23) played a partial season in the Atlantic Association, disbanding in late July. The following year, in the same league, the same scenario played out. On July 22, Jersey City (27-46) folded, its place taken by Harrisburg. In 1900, in the Atlantic League, Jersey made an aborted return to the minors, but dropped out on June 2, ten days before the entire league folded.
In an early example of “if you build it, they will come,” in 1902 Jersey City constructed a brand new facility called Skeeters Park on the west side of town near the Jersey Central Railroad Station. It seated 8,500 and was generally considered to be the best in the Eastern League. Jersey City and nearby Newark entered the league replacing Hartford and Syracuse. In 1902, Jersey City finished a respectable third, although a distant 18 games behind Top 100 Toronto. The next season, Jersey City would give the Eastern two noteworthy champions in a row.
There wasn’t much suspense to the 1903 season. Jersey City roared out of the gate, winning its first 16 games. In August, when Toronto and Buffalo came closer, the Skeeters won 24 consecutive games, which stood as the league record until Baltimore’s 25-game winning streak to end the 1920 season. Jersey City finished with 92-33, .736. Buffalo was second (79-43, .648) and Toronto third (82-45, .646). Three teams finished under .350 with Rochester (34-97, .260) bringing up the year. Jersey City led the league in runs scored (759) and was second in team batting (.281).
Jersey City was managed by 39-year-old Billy Murray, a former outfielder who never played in the majors. He broke into pro ball in 1886 and started managing in 1889. He piloted Atlanta (Southern) in 1892-93, then led Providence (Eastern) for nine years, winning pennants in 1894, 1896 and 1900. He last played in 1899. After winning the championship with Jersey City in 1903, Murray remained with the Skeeters through 1906, finishing third twice and second once. He was signed to manage the Phillies in 1907. In 1906, Philadelphia had come in fourth, but they were below .500 (71-82) and were 45-½ games behind the record-setting Cubs. The team didn’t have a lot of money to buy players, so Murray brought several with him from Jersey City. Under Murray, the Phils finished third in 1907, fourth in 1908 and fifth in 1909. The Phillies were in the thick of the hot pennant race in 1908 and were instrumental in forcing the one-game tie-breaker between the Cubs and Giants the day after the regular season ended. Philadelphia traveled to New York for a five-game series the Giants were counting on winning. The Giants’ lineup featured five left-handed batters, so Murray brought up a 22-year-old southpaw named Harry Coveleski from Lancaster (Tri-State) where he had a 22-15 record. The Giants had never seen Coveleski, who hailed from the coal mines of Shamokin, PA. He pitched the first, third and fifth games of the series and won them all, earning the nickname “Harry, the Giant Killer.” When the season ended three games later, New York was tied with Chicago. If the Giants had won just one of those games with the Phils they would have finished in first place. The Giants lost the playoff game to the Cubs, giving Chicago its third straight championship. Murray resigned after the 1909 season when new owners installed Horace Fogel, who had a reputation for being erratic and difficult to get along with, as the Phillies president. Murray was chief scout for Pittsburgh for a few years, then left baseball to enter what his 1937 obituary referred to as “the theatrical business.”
Jersey City’s best player was 22-year-old right fielder Harry (Moose) McCormick who led the Eastern League in batting (.362) and hits (172) and was second in runs (105). A left-handed hitter, the Philadelphia native received his nickname not for his size (5’11”, 180 pounds), but because of his eight-foot stride while running. He was a graduate of Bucknell University where he was a teammate of baseball immortal Christy Mathewson. He was signed by Murray after hitting .500 in his senior year in college. The Giants purchased McCormick and he made his major league bow in 1904. According to The Sporting News, early in his rookie year, Moose informed John McGraw that he was not planning to make baseball a career and the Giants sold him to Pittsburgh in June. He hit .279 in 125 games, then made good his promise to quit. Putting his engineering degree to use, he went to work for a steel company. Following a dispute with the company over salary, McCormick returned to baseball in the spring of 1908 with the Phillies, who had purchased his contract from the Pirates. After batting only .091 in 11 games for Philadelphia he was re-acquired by the Giants and hit .302 for McGraw the rest of the season.
Later that year McCormick was part of one of baseball’s most famous plays. The Giants were playing the Cubs at the Polo Grounds, September 23. The score was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth with Moose on third base and Fred Merkle on first. Al Bridwell singled to center and McCormick crossed the plate with, presumably, the winning run. Believing the game was over, hundreds of fans ran onto the field. However, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers, saw that Merkle, as was the custom then, had not touched second base, but had turned and headed to the clubhouse. Evers called for the ball, touched second base and umpire Hank O’Day called Merkle out, leaving the score tied. When O’Day tried to resume play, he was unable to get the crowd to leave the field and ruled the game a tie. That incident, along with the series with the Phillies related above, led to the Giants and the Cubs being tied for first place at the close of the regular season.
McCormick remained with the Giants in 1909, batting .291, then quit again for two years. He came back to the Giants in 1912 and in the next two seasons became one of the game’s first and greatest pinch-hitting specialists. In 1912 he batted .333 with an on-base percentage of .422 in 42 games, 35 of them as a pinch-hitter. The following season he hit .275 in 57 games, 42 as a pinch-hitter. The Giants won the pennant both years and he was 2-for-6 in pinch-hitting appearances in the two World Series. A Sporting News writer opined that McCormick was such a good pinch-hitter because “to him a ball game was nothing to get excited about. In a critical situation, he knew that someone was excited and it wasn’t he, so it must be the pitcher. The knowledge gave him just that much of an edge when he went to the plate in the clutch.” That relaxed attitude often angered Murray, who approached every game as a life-or-death battle. On one occasion, while McCormick was still with the Phillies, they were in the middle of a ninth-inning rally with the tying and winning runs on base with two outs. “Murray sent McCormick in to hit for the pitcher. The preceding batter had socked a clean hit to the outfield and the tying run was racing for the plate. McCormick was striding toward the plate, swinging his bat, when he saw the throw from the outfield coming in with no chance to stop the runner from scoring. Moose promptly swung his bat, knocking the ball into the left field bleachers. Of course, the runner was called out because of interference and the Phillies lost the game. Murray was wild. ‘What in hell did you want to do that for?’ he shrieked as McCormick came back to the bench. ‘Honest, Billy, that was the first good ball I’ve seen this season!’ replied the irrepressible Moose.” Murray disposed of McCormick soon thereafter.
After the 1913 season, McCormick retired for good as a player and went back to the steel business. He served overseas as an Army captain during World War I. He returned to baseball as varsity coach at Bucknell in 1923 and was head coach at the United States Military Academy at West Point from 1925-37. He was baseball director of the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40 and director of physical education at Mitchell Air Base during World War II. After the war he returned to Bucknell as director of housing.
| Mickey Doolan|
(Photo courtesy of National Baseball
Hall of Fame)
The 1903 Skeeter who enjoyed the longest major league career was 23-year-old Philadelphia native Mickey Doolan who hit .287 in 122 games. Doolan, a first-year pro from Villanova College, where he studied dentistry, played second base for Jersey City, then switched to shortstop the next season. He was purchased by the Phillies after the 1904 season and was their star shortstop for the next nine years. Doolan led National League shortstops in fielding twice and in most games played six times. The Sporting News said he “was overshadowed at shortstop by Honus Wagner, playing at the same time with the Pirates, only because he could not hit like the Flying Dutchman.” Doolan jumped to the Federal League with Baltimore in 1914 and was with Baltimore and Chicago in 1915. He was awarded to the Cubs in the Peace Agreement and played for Chicago and the Giants in 1916. Doolan was playing manager at Rochester in 1917, finishing fifth. He returned to the majors in 1918 one last time with Brooklyn. His 13-year major league career average was .230 in 1,728 games. He played one more season, 1919, with Reading and Baltimore, batting .300 in 139 games, the only time in his career he reached the coveted mark. He was out of baseball until 1926, then was a coach for the Cubs (1926-28) and Cincinnati (1930-32). After leaving baseball, he was a practicing dentist for many years.
Doolan’s keystone partner, 28-year-old shortstop Joe Bean, also hit .287, led the league in runs (112) and was fourth in stolen bases (44). He played only one year in the majors, 1902, batting .222 in 48 games for the New York Giants. Bean remained with Jersey City through 1908. When Murray left to manage the Phillies, Bean took over the Skeeters’ helm and led the team to a fourth place tie in 1907. He managed Jersey City the first part of 1908 before being replaced, but stayed on as a player until the end of the season. Bean was prominent in the sports world in Atlanta, GA, for many years. He was the baseball coach at the University of Georgia from 1914-17 and Georgia Tech from 1918-22 where his Yellow Jackets won two Southern Conference titles. Bean also was sports director of the Atlanta Athletic Club from 1911-28 and was elected to the Georgia Prep Sports Hall of Fame in 1958.
The third Jersey City infielder with major league experience was 30-year-old first baseman Pete Cassidy who had played in the National League with Louisville in 1896 and Brooklyn and Washington in 1899, batting .257 in 101 games. Cassidy played for Murray at Providence from 1898-1902. For Jersey City he hit .311 in 116 games and was third in the league in stolen bases (45). He played for the Skeeters through 1906.
The oldest player on the team was 34-year-old outfielder Bill (Jocko) Halligan, who had played with Buffalo in the Players League in 1890 and Cincinnati and Baltimore in the National League in 1891-92, batting .281 in 190 games. The Sporting News reported that “in 1892, Halligan was dropped from the National League for breaking the jaw of a Chicago player.” In 1902, playing for Jersey City, he led the Eastern League in batting (.351 in 138 games) and hits (182). He was a member of the Skeeters through 1907 and umpired in the Eastern/International from 1911-14.
The Jersey City player who had the most successful post-baseball career was a 24-year-old Dartmouth graduate, catcher Fred Brown. Brown had caught 9 games for Boston in the National League in 1901-02, batting .200. He caught for Murray at Providence later in 1902. He started 1903 with Providence, then joined Jersey City briefly, playing in a total of 13 games, hitting .277. He had to quit baseball that year because of a sore arm that did not respond to treatment. He went back to college to earn his law degree. Brown was mayor of Somersworth, NH from 1914-22. He also was United States Attorney. He was elected governor of New Hampshire in 1922 and served one two-year term. He was a member of the New Hampshire Public Service Commission from 1925-32. In 1932, he was elected United States Senator from New Hampshire. That same summer, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Brown’s name was placed in nomination for President of the United States and he received considerable support from New England States’ delegates. Defeated for re-election to the Senate in 1938, he was appointed Comptroller General of the United States by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. Ill health forced Brown to resign from that post after a short time and from another appointment to the United States Tariff Commission.
Jersey City had three 20-game winners. George Pfanmiller was the Eastern league leader in wins with a 28-9, .757 record. Pfanmiller pitched for Syracuse in 1900-01 and for the Skeeters from 1902-1908, but he never played in the majors, nor did he ever approach his 1903 victory total.
Gene McCann, a 27-year-old right-hander, was 26-11, tied for second in the league in wins. McCann had pitched for Brooklyn in 1901-02 with a 3-5, 2.95 record. He was with the Skeeters through 1906. He replaced Joe Bean as Jersey City manager during the 1908 season, finishing seventh and piloted the last-place Skeeters in the first part of 1909. From 1910-12 he was president, secretary and manager of Bridgeport (Connecticut League). McCann started 1913 at Bridgeport as the Class B league changed its name to the Eastern Association, but left in mid-season to take over the reins at New London in the same league. New London won the pennant in 1914. The league did not operate in 1915, but reorganized in 1916 as the Eastern League. McCann led New London to the championship with Top 100 team No. 57. He left New London in 1918 to become business manager at Waterbury (Eastern). In 1919-20 he scouted for Cincinnati. He returned to the field as manager of Eastern League teams at Bridgeport (1921-23) and Springfield (1924-26). From 1927 until his sudden death in 1943 Gene was a highly respected scout for the New York Yankees. The Sporting News said, “Always an impeccable dresser, McCann was distinguished by a white tie. He never would tell why he settled on that color, but it was his one affectation.”
Henry Thielman, 22-year-old ex-University of Minnesota right-hander, was the Eastern League leader in winning percentage (23-5, .821). (No ERA statistics were kept by the league at that time.) He had pitched for the Giants and Reds in 1902 (9-16, 3.19) and was 0-3, 4.66 with Brooklyn in 1903. His older brother, Jake Thielman, pitched for three major league clubs from 1905-08 with a 30-28, 3.16 record. Henry pitched two more years for Jersey City, then left baseball to become a dentist. Several players in the early 1900s took up dentistry as a career. In addition to Doolan and Thielman, they included: Doc White, White Sox left-hander for 11 years and a star of the 1906 World Series champions; Johnny (Doc) Lavan, major league shortstop for 12 years; Dave Danforth, big league left-hander for 10 years; Hub Pruett, who had singular success in getting out Babe Ruth in the early ‘20s; and Doc Prothro, the third baseman who also managed the Phillies.
Jersey City had an erratic existence in the league, which changed its name from Eastern to International in 1912. The city’s first membership in the league lasted through 1915. When the Federal League invaded Baltimore in 1914, Orioles owner Jack Dunn stuck it out for one year in competition with the outlaw circuit, then moved his team to Richmond, VA, in 1915. The Federal League went out of business after the 1915 campaign, so Dunn sold his team to local Richmond interests, purchased the Jersey City franchise and moved it to Baltimore. Early in 1918, amid much internal wrangling and the exigencies of World War I, the International League voted to disband, but four clubs, Baltimore, Newark, Rochester and Toronto, wanting to protect their investments, hastily reorganized. New money was found for the bankrupt Buffalo franchise. Providence, Montreal and Richmond were out, helping to ease travel problems. They were replaced by Jersey City, Binghamton and Syracuse. In the early 1920s, there was a movement, spearheaded by the Jersey City Chamber of Commerce, to change the nickname of Skeeters, which some felt was “politically incorrect,” to Colts and the ballpark became Colts Park. However, to the fans and the rest of the baseball world, Jersey City still was the Skeeters and the name change was soon abandoned. After the 1927 season, in a series of transactions, Montreal interests purchased the Jersey City franchise; the St. Louis Cardinals, who had owned Syracuse, bought the Rochester franchise and moved their operations there; and a Jersey City group purchased the old Syracuse franchise. In the end, in 1928 Montreal was back in the league and Syracuse was out. In 1933, Jersey City’s attendance was half what it had been the year before, averaging fewer than 1,000 a game, and the club was sold and moved to Syracuse.
After Murray’s excellent teams of 1903-06, Jersey City had only one first division finish from 1908-33, coming in fourth in 1922 under Ben Egan. The Skeeters finished eighth 11 times, seventh 8 times, sixth 4 times and fifth once (1907). Twice they were in last place three consecutive seasons, 1913-15 and 1928-30.
A new era in Jersey City baseball dawned in 1937. The New York Giants purchased the floundering Albany franchise and moved it to Jersey City where the team became known as the Jersey City Giants. They had a brand new home, Roosevelt Stadium, built by the WPA. The fact that Jersey City mayor Frank Hague was a power in Democratic party politics and FDR was in the White House might have helped bring the stadium to fruition. The New York Giants now had a counterpart to the Yankees-Newark relationship. Roosevelt Stadium had a steel and concrete grandstand and large concrete bleachers. The stadium was enclosed by a circular, 20-foot-high yellow brick wall. The grandstand and bleachers seated 25,000 and there was standing room for another 15,000 between the outfield fence and the stadium wall. Mayor Hague vowed that while he was in office, no team in baseball, major or minor league, would outdraw Jersey City on opening day, and he kept his promise. As became the custom, as long as Hague was mayor, city employees and party workers were assigned the task of selling tickets to the opener. On April 23, 1937, an overflow crowd of 31,234 paid their way into Roosevelt Stadium, the largest minor league single-game attendance up to that time. The only persons in the park who had not bought a ticket or had one purchased for them, were the players. This included the working press and baseball dignitaries. Jersey City and some surrounding communities declared half-holidays for municipal employees and the schools were closed for the day. The Sporting News said, “The attendance was all the more remarkable because the inaugural had been delayed a day by rain, and it was estimated that the postponement had cost the club about 5,000 customers.” The day the opener was played the weather was described as cold and raw. The fans witnessed an exciting, well-played game although the home team lost to Rochester 4-3 in 12 innings. The hero for the Red Wings was a rookie first baseman named Walter Alston, who went 4-for-5, driving in the first run of the game in the top of the first with a triple, then singling home the winning run in the 12th.
Hague didn’t rest on his laurels. In 1938, opening day ticket sales increased to 32,652 and the total kept going up year-by-year, passing the 50,000 mark in 1940. The all-time record of 61,164 was reached in 1941. Even World War II didn’t slow things down very much. In 1942 the “attendance” dipped only slightly, to 55,218. United Press described that year’s opening day scene as follows: “An hour before the game, the stands were filled and the fans waited impatiently for their annual treat. Sirens screamed. Horns blasted. Stooges cheered. With a screeching of tires and amid loud huzzahs, the mayor arrived at the wide gate in center field. The Second Ward Boys’ Club band struck up ‘America’ in swing time. The two teams shifted, wheeled and came up in a ‘V for Victory.’ Five girl drum majors began goose-stepping down the base paths. Then, surrounded by underlings and flanked by guards, the mayor began the grand march to his box. Every ten steps he doffed his hat to the crowd and accepted the homage of his subjects. After a period that seemed to last hours, he reached his box. There he posed majestically for the solemn ritual of tossing out the first ball. Once seated and sufficiently photographed, he surveyed the house. Out of what must have been pure shame at the fact that the crowd had dropped to 55,000, he beat a quick retreat to the press box and watched the game in the company of Bill Terry of the Giants.”
From 1943-49, the ticket sales varied little, ranging from 51,200 to 52,700. Actual attendance ranged from 22,000 to 35,000, usually depending on the weather. In 1943, the opening day attendance was almost one-half of the season total of 111,913! In the baseball boom of the early post-war period, Jersey City’s attendance soared to 337,531 in 1947 as the Giants finished one-half game ahead of Montreal. Three years later, the bottom fell out. In 1950, the first year after Frank Hague left office, the opening day “crowd” was only 5,567, about one-tenth what it had been in the decade of the 1940s. Total attendance for the year was 63,191, and the New York Giants moved the team to Ottawa. During New York’s ownership of the Jersey City Club, they provided the city with two first-place teams, in 1939 and 1947, although neither won the playoff. Winning in 1939 ended a 36-year-old drought.
Other Eastern/International League teams may have won more games than the ’03 Skeeters but none had a better record. In the 117-year history of the league, no team has had a better winning percentage than the .736 mark posted by Jersey City in 1903.
|1903 Eastern League standings|
|1903 Jersey City batting statistics|
|Frank McManus||C, 1B||84||287||36||68||8||4||2||18||.239|
|Henry Thielman||P, 1B, 3B||42||115||20||29||5||.252|
|Fred Brown (Pro)||C||13||47||7||13||1||.277|
|1903 Jersey City pitching statistics||PITCHER||W||L||PCT||G||GS||CG||SH||SV||IP||H||BB||SO||ERA|