If you're a Giant fan and feeling a little uncertain about your team in this rather unsettled year of 1967, cast your eyes back over half a century to the Giants of 1916. After finishing dead last the year before, that unpredictable and unprecedented outfit began its new season with a loss, a win, then eight straight losses, three of them to the archenemy Brooklyn Robins. Following this inauspicious beginning the 1916 Giants went on to set two records that still stand: they won 17 consecutive games on a single road trip and 26 straight at home. After all this they finished the season in fourth place.
Undismayed by his team's grisly showing in 1915, Manager John J. McGraw began 1916 with virtually all the old pros who had won three consecutive pennants for him still on the roster. About the only radical change he made was the purchase of brash Benny Kauff from Oilman Barry Sinclair. Sinclair at the time was auctioning off remnants of the ill-starred Federal League to recoup part of his incautious investment in that outlaw association.
Kauff, who had been billed as "the Ty Cobb of the Federal League," arrived weeks late at the Marlin, Texas training camp wearing a derby hat, fur-collared coat, one of his 75 striped silk shirts, patent-leather shoes, a diamond stickpin, a diamond ring, a diamond-encrusted watch and carrying $7,500 in cash. Kauff made no apologies for his tardiness. He told reporters that he could bat .330 left-handed in this crummy league and that he certainly didn't need any spring training to hit bums like Grover Cleveland Alexander. McGraw was delighted, and Kauff was assured of playing center field between George Burns and Davey Robertson. The somewhat less talkative future Hall of Famer Eddie Roush, who was acquired from Sinclair at the same time for far less money, was assured of nothing more than a seat on the bench.
McGraw's old infield—Hans Lobert, Art Fletcher, Larry Doyle and Fred Merkle—stayed set. Bill Rariden was the catcher. Christy Mathewson continued to head the pitching staff.
As the season got under way it became apparent that Christy, while retaining his wonderful control, had even less stuff than during the previous season, when he won eight and lost 14. But somewhat unfairly, since Giant pitching had been uniformly inadequate, most of the criticism for early failure fell on an innocuous pair of pitchers named Schupp and Schauer. Perhaps beguiled by the euphonious sound of the combination, McGraw had taken to using these two in tandem. The results were not always impressive. Said one reporter sourly, "It seldom Schupps but what it Schauers."
The old Manhattan of brownstones and broughams was fast resigning itself to a second year of baseball ignominy, and when the New Yorkers left the Polo Grounds for their first western swing it was, as a disillusioned fan said later, "with no friend except their bat boy, who was wavering in his allegiance."
Sidling into Pittsburgh on May 9 with their mouths zipped shut, for once, they surprised the Pirates with 13 runs and 16 hits. Then they astonished themselves by sweeping the four-game series. They went on to Chicago, where they won two games against Tinker's hated Cubs. A third was rained out; a fourth was called because of the cold. After that they swept four in St. Louis; Mathewson himself came in from the bullpen to save one of those.
In Cincinnati the Giants won three more. Then they routed the Boston Braves in four consecutive games. Allowing only four singles, the aging Mathewson won the last of the series, the Giants' 17th straight, 3-0. He caught one line smash barehanded to start a crucial double play.
Averaging five runs and 10 hits per game, the Giants arrived at Philadelphia's Baker Field needing only a Decoration Day doubleheader to come home undefeated. The morning game was a scoreless tie in the eighth, when Merkle, with two men on, hit a pitch that seemed about to clear the left-field fence. Claude Cooper sprawled over the wall to make the catch, and that did it for the Giants in the first game. But they won the second and returned to New York with a record of victories on the road that no team has threatened in 51 years.
Now only one and a half games out of first place and coming fast, the Giants were again the Giants of yore, leading the league in hitting and scaring opponents just by scowling hard. "That ball club didn't come out on the field to shake hands," says Club Secretary Eddie Brannick, who has been with the Giants since 1905. "They were rough." A less restrained observer referred to "McGraw's aggregation, stamping, snorting, breathing flame from their nostrils and curdling the depths of the heavens with their frenzied battle cry."
Back at the Polo Grounds, however, the snorts turned to grunts as McGraw's boys blew all but four of their next 13 games. Terrible-tempered Muggsy was at his most irascible. One day on the bench McGraw turned to Jeff Tesreau, his best pitcher, and growled, "Jeff, what was that last pitch?" "I didn't see it, Mr. McGraw," Tesreau admitted. "You better see the next one," McGraw roared, "or it'll cost you $50."
After that disastrous home stand he exploded into a fit of trading, beginning with a bizarre deal for Cincinnati's manager. To the Redlegs went Roush, Third Baseman Bill McKechnie and McGraw's best friend, Mathewson, who had always wanted to manage. In exchange New York got Manager Charley Herzog, a McGraw enemy but a fine third baseman, whose name sounded Jewish. "Mr. McGraw," chuckles Brannick, "was always looking for Jewish players." Too much so, some of his fellow Irishmen thought. One day when they announced 'Andy Cohen is batting for Shanty Hogan,' a fellow stood up in the grandstand and yelled in a loud brogue, 'And Callahan is going home!' "
At about the same time McGraw traded off Merkle to Brooklyn for Lew McCarty, a slugging catcher. Next he brought up Walter Holke to cover first base and sent reliever Schauer down to Rochester. The New York manager had also bought left-hand curve-baller Harry Sallee from St. Louis, and even Tesreau barely escaped the block by winning a 1-0 shutout.
To compensate for McCarty's admitted deficiencies as a strategist ("a dumb catcher could break the Bank of England," McGraw was fond of telling Lew) the New York manager took to flashing most of the pitching signs himself. That was more complicated than it sounds, because McGraw's normal conduct in the dugout consisted of scratching, tugging, nodding and gesturing endlessly and without meaning. He would signal his pitcher by relaying verbal orders to a stooge seated seven or eight men down the bench; the stooge then gave the real signs.
All the way around the infield, from third base to catcher, only one man remained from the original lineup—lanky, drawling Art Fletcher, a former stenographer, who was so self-conscious about his prominent chin that he had Spalding sew a special high collar on his uniform. But the trading accomplished little. The Giants went on losing.
Then, on the Thursday after Labor Day, they started winning once more, for as little apparent reason as they had been losing. The much-despised Ferdie Schupp beat the Robins 4-1 on a two-hitter. An extravagance of hits overwhelmed Alexander 9-3, and Perritt beat Philadelphia 3-1 in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader. Perritt was a normally laconic Louisianian who had suffered the inevitable indignity of being nicknamed Polly. All through that first game the Phillie fans were on him. "Polly Perritt is a cracker," they yelled. Perritt entered the New York dressing room in a quiet rage and implored McGraw to let him pitch the second game, too. McGraw demurred on the grounds that Perritt was not Iron Man McGinnity, but his heretofore docile pitcher was so insistent that the manager finally agreed. Poll responded by permitting the Phils only four hits and no runs in the nine innings that followed.
Now the Giants really did stomp and snort. Schupp, who had won only one major league game in three seasons before 1916, won six straight (four on shutouts) and finished with an ERA of 0.90. Still straight, slim and suntanned today at 75, Schupp in 1916 was the talk of baseball. Alternating a burning fast ball, what he calls "a helluva curve," a fork ball and a changeup that broke like a spitter, the little left-hander gave up exactly 17 hits and two earned runs during his streak. "But the game I remember best," Schupp says, his blue eyes crinkling wistfully, "was against Boston Sept. 28. Buck Herzog, who was playing second base, was beefing over something with the Braves' first-base coach. So when Big Ed Konetchy, their first baseman, hit a dribbler Herzog didn't even make a move for it, and I lost my no-hitter."
Close behind Schupp were the other Giant pitchers. Tesreau won seven consecutive starts, Rube Benton won five, Sallee two and Perritt two more. Bill Ritter and rookie George Smith each took one. When Benton won their 26th straight on Sept. 30 with a one-hitter it was the Giant staff's 11th shutout in the last 17 games. The toll would have been 12 if someone hadn't left a gate open in the right-field fence and let a ball skip through for an outside-the-park, ground-ball home run.
Then, true to their perverse fate, on the last day of September in their final home game the Giants resumed losing. On the third of October, in a strange and ironic epilogue to the weirdest of all seasons, McGraw himself angrily abandoned his bench and left the ball park, bitterly accusing his players of not putting out. He didn't come back. While New York finished out the season by losing its last game, McGraw, incommunicado, played the ponies at Laurel racetrack in Baltimore.
The Giants, who had started their winning streak in fourth place, ended the 26 games still in fourth. "We never moved up," Schupp says, "but we gained a hell of a lot of ground."
"They remind me," wrote Tad Dorgan of the old New York Evening Journal, "of a fighter who has just been knocked out going down the aisle licking everybody in the house."
The following year they won the pennant by 10 games.