Saturday, November 14, 2020

On the Shoulders of Giants

New York Giants third baseman and former N.C. State football player/coach Art Devlin. 

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© Tim Peeler, 2020 

For decades, before outrageously rich million-dollar, multi-year contracts, professional baseball players took off-season jobs to make ends meet. Low-level minor leaguers who don’t get big bonuses still do.

There’s a reason that the beloved fictionalized character Archie Graham from “Field of Dreams” was called “Moonlight.”

Famously, Pittsburgh Pirates corner infielder Richie Hebner spent his off seasons digging graves at $35 a plot. Waite Hoyt, the “Merry Mortician” was a funeral director who, legend has it, once drove his Hearse to New York’s Polo Grounds with an unembalmed cadaver in it, pitched a shutout on that hot summer day then drove on to the mortuary, nose properly pinched. Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Denny McLain taught organ lessons. Warren Spahn was a cattle rancher. Old North State legend Smoky Joe Burgess ran his own filling station in Forest City, N.C.

And, among the best of all, lefthanded pitcher Don Rudolph spent his off-season as a “part-time clothes catcher” for his wife, 1950s stripper Patti Waggin.

Many times they were make-work jobs in which companies benefitted from athletes’ celebrity. Jim Palmer went to work selling suits right after outpitching Sandy Koufax in the 1966 World Series. Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra moved a lot of merchandise for a Newark, New Jersey, clothing store while winning five consecutive World Series with the Yankees. And Jackie Robinson sold dozens of televisions in his two-day-a-week shifts at an electronics store.

Few players have ever worked harder at multiple jobs, however, than Washington, D.C., native Arthur McArthur Devlin, a stalwart from North Carolina’s earliest days of professional baseball and college football. Devlin was born into blue collar family that worked its way into social prominence in the nation’s capital. The son of an Irish immigrant harness maker, Devlin was a two-year, two-sport legend at his hometown Georgetown University at the turn of the 20th century, and was once named the school’s all-time fullback despite his short college career.

He left school because of John McGraw, Hall of Fame manager of the New York Giants, who encouraged him to head south to hone his baseball skills in the rogue baseball leagues of eastern North Carolina.

How could Devlin know he would end up playing college football again and serving as head coach at the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now called NC State)?

For two years, while playing in North Carolina’s first professional baseball leagues, Devlin had a side job as head coach the A&M football team. In the first of those seasons, Devlin enrolled as a student in the A&M textiles program and was both player and coach the Farmers, lining up with team captain and future North Carolina Governor O. Max Gardner to drill and instruct the team on the finer points of the game. Football was less than 10 years old at the small agricultural and technical school and Devlin was just its second paid coach, which, had there been an NCAA at that time, would surely have been a violation. Those were certainly the rogue days of college athletics – the same year Devlin started at NC A&M, North Carolina was kicked out of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletics Association for using paid players.

Head coach and player Art Devlin is on the back row wearing the hat and trench coat. Future governor of North Carolina O. Max Gardner is holding the '02 ball.

Devlin’s biggest claim to fame in his lone season as an A&M player was being named star of the game its 0-0 tie against rival UNC-Chapel Hill on Nov. 8, 1902. Playing at the old North Carolina State Fairgrounds across the street from State’s campus, Devlin helped dig his team out of a whole when its offense was marching backwards against the University defense. Devlin decided to punt the ball away on second down. He fumbled it and took a loss of yardage. On third down, he tried to punt again – what was the coach thinking? – but missed the backwards pass from center. Running out of territory, Devlin tried a third time and kicked the ball 40 yards to push the pre-Tar Heels back in their own territory. Devlin continued to put North Carolina in poor field position with his kicks, including a reported 75-yard wind-aided punt in the first half. Neither team scored, which was a great victory for the A&M team since, at that point, it had never beaten its larger rival.

“After supper the boys made a big bonfire on the athletic field, and, amid much shouting, beating of drums, blowing of horns, great rejoicing, and a general clamor of noise, the boys bore Devlin, our coach, on their shoulders through the crowd,” wrote team captain Gardner in the Red & White newspaper, for which he was the sports editor. “The band was also out and made music for the crowd.”

With good manners, the students did not burn down the school outhouses, as they had done the first time the football team tied the rivals from Chapel Hill in 1899, but they did travel with the band from campus to each of Raleigh’s three girls’ schools and on to downtown before disbanding the torch-lit parade. It was the second time Devlin participated in a 0-0 tie with the Tar Heels, having been Georgetown’s punting and running star against Carolina in a 1900 game in Washington.

Coaching football was a job he took to pay the bills, while waiting to find a viable professional league to hone his skills or to get his shot at the majors. He not only was a player-coach for the Farmers, he also served as the head baseball coach at Virginia Military Institute in the spring of 1903, a resume entry that defies credulity in the days before automobile and air travel.

Left to right, Back to front: Arthur Devlin, Coach; C. A. Seifert; J. H. Koon; H. M. Hunter, Manager; T. R. Buckly; C. D. Welch; J. A. Miller; W. Shannonhouse; L. G. Lykes; V. L. Neal; E. W. Gaither; A. W. Gregory; J. P. Gully, Captain; S. W. Asbury; W. L. Darden; J. H. Squires; R. O. Wilson; O. M. Gardner; F. W. Hadley; L. F. Abernethy.

In the summer of 1901, just after leaving Georgetown, Devlin traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina, to play for the coastal city’s entry in the ill-fated and short-lived Virginia-Carolina League, which included teams from Wilmington, Raleigh, Newport News, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Richmond. After joining the team in May, he took over as the starting first baseman midway through the season when a teammate defected to a Virginia team. He was a lone bright spot for Wilmington in the league’s incomplete 11-game championship series for the league pennant. Raleigh was declared the league champion after winning the first four games, and the league went belly-up the next day.

Devlin and four teammates were immediately recruited to join a semi-professional team representing the town of New Bern in a loosely affiliated conference that also had teams in Kinston, Tarboro, Wilmington, Raleigh and Durham.

Their signing put them directly in the middle of a fracas that for nearly half a century was called the “the most notable sporting event” in the history of eastern North Carolina. (This was years before the teacher’s college established in Greenville in 1907 organized its football team.)

What was slated to be a two-day series between the town rivals in Kinston turned into a city-wide melee that ended with punches thrown, eyes blackened and, at one point, shots fired. Newspaper accounts in North Carolina and Virginia were published for both the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the free-for-all.

“Bribery, intimidation, and general mayhem flourished hereabouts, and a good time was had by all,” wrote a Raleigh News & Observer columnist.

Apparently, both teams loaded up with ringers for the contest. The New Bern consortium had five players from the late Wilmington team, including Devlin. Kinston signed a handful of players from Raleigh and Tarboro just before the Thursday and Friday games, including Charlie Jones, North Carolina’s first major league star who was well past the prime of his black-balled professional career, and Frank Smith, a pitcher of some renown who later won 139 games and pitched two no-hitters in the major leagues.

“Just how many hired men New Bern had is not recalled by local baseball historians, but they are frank to admit that Kinston’s sole ‘home player’ was Charlie Jones,” reported the Kinston Free-Press with a semi-straight face.

More than 400 New Bern businessmen paid the 75-cent train fare for the 35-mile trip along the old “Mullet Road” rail route to Kinston to see the games, both to be played at Parrott Park across the Neuse River from downtown. And, according to the local news, “all of Kinston took the day off for the first game,” with a total of some 1,500 spectators surrounding the field.

“Kinston would give a couple of tobacco warehouses to down New Bern, and the common remark here is that New Bern would not lose to Kinston for money,” said The (Raleigh) Morning Post, Aug. 21, 1901.

Trouble started in the fifth inning, with Kinston leading 1-0. Before the game, a band of bruiser Kinston fans set up camp behind first base and berated New Bern’s sacker – one of the suspected ringers – the entire afternoon.

“He was told in advance that at the first false move he made the ex-officio umpires would ‘go on him,’” according to a 1921 newspaper account. “He sweated profusely and played like the artist he was, asking between innings, ‘Am I doing all right?’ The game was the fastest and most exciting ever seen here. At the end of the fifth inning the score stood 1 to 0 in Kinston’s favor. Then was when the thing wound into free-for-all, the most spectacular inter-community affray ever staged. It was a riot that will be remembered until the last survivor draws a pass to the celestial bleachers. Even then the second and third generation will have the tradition down by heart.”

According to the next day’s papers, railroad engineer William B. Coleman, who later became Kinston’s city clerk, struck the first blow. The first game ended before the start of the sixth inning and the next day’s game was canceled altogether.

“There were fights galore,” according to a 25th anniversary newspaper account. “Fans in a milling mass socked each other and wrestled over the Caswell Street bridge. There were black eyes in many a Kinston home that night. A special train carrying the New Bernians back looked like a signal corps picture of hospital transport in the late war.”

A few days after the brawl, Devlin took Coleman’s train from New Bern to Kinston en route Raleigh. Though he was trying to stay low-profile, Devlin was looking out a window from the passenger car as the train pulled into the station when he heard a gunshot. Certain the bullet was intended for him, Devlin crawled under the seat and stayed there all the way to La Grange before a porter explained that the gunfire was aimed at someone else.

Devlin completed the season with New Bern and went back home to Washington. He returned to New Bern in 1902 to play for its entry in the state’s first true minor league, the North Carolina State Professional Baseball League (NCSPBL), with teams in Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, Greensboro, New Bern and Durham. The president of the league was Raleigh lawyer Perrin Busbee, who leveraged his prominent family’s name into a position of athletic power despite his young age.

Busbee helped start UNC’s baseball program shortly after he arrived as a freshman in Chapel Hill and coached what turned out to be NC State’s first football game (a 14-6 win over the Raleigh Male Academy in 1893) while still a student at A&M’s most bitter rival. After graduating law school, Busbee returned to the Aggies in 1896 as an unpaid volunteer head coach for the next two seasons, before devoting his time to his Raleigh law practice.

Busbee’s first love was always baseball and in 1902 he was both the founder and president of the NCSPBL. The New Bern Journal newspaper owner and editor Charles L. Stevens was the vice president, and Devlin was one of the first players Stevens signed to play for his New Bern Truckers. And, thanks to a binding agreement through the newly established Professional Baseball Leagues of America, that contract bound Devlin to the team for the season.

Devlin played for three different New Bern managers that year, starting with Luke Bryan, followed by Stevens as an interim and former town mayor William Ellis as the final on-field director. And the team was successful, compiling a 26-22 record in the season’s first half. However, just like the Virginia-North Carolina League, the NCSPBL quickly developed financial troubles, as the Wilmington and Charlotte franchises failed just after the start of the second half and the other four teams decided to disband. Three days after the league folded, Devlin signed with the Newark (N.J.) Sailors of the Eastern League, hitting just .212 in the season’s final 52 games.

Devlin was one of the top players in the NCSPBL and, despite his modest numbers for Newark in 1902, was signed by New York Giants manager John McGraw to be his National League team’s third baseman of the future.

Still, Devlin needed something to do during the off-season, and he had not yet married his Georgetown sweetheart, Ilma Wilk, the heiress to a Chicago banking fortune. Likely, his relationship with Stevens opened the door for the former Georgetown football and baseball star to enroll at NC A&M as a player-coach and part-time student in the school’s textiles program. While there, he conferred with the team’s elected captain, future governor of North Carolina O. Max Gardner, to run the team, which won three of its final five games and managed a hard-fought 0-0 tie with heavily favored North Carolina.

He played in all eight games that season for A&M at left tackle, fullback and punter, though he withdrew from action in the final half of the final game of the 1902 season, a 30-5 blowout of Richmond.

Devlin went to spring training with the Giants, trained his VMI baseball squad for a month and then reported back to the Newark Sailors for the summer of 1903. Playing in 127 games, Devlin batted .271 with 51 stolen bases, something he did with great success throughout his baseball career.

He returned to Raleigh for the 1903 football season just five days before the team’s first game, a 50-0 win over Guilford. Knowing he would likely be playing with the Giants the next season, Devlin decided to no longer play football for the Aggies, to avoid the risk of injury. As a coach, he was hailed as a hero for expanding the scope of the program, lining up games with bigger out-of-state opponents and for leading the team to a school-record four wins in the fall of 1903. (It was seldom mentioned that he also tied his school record of four losses from the previous season.) After two seasons, his football coaching career ended with a 7-8-2 record.

Devlin left Raleigh and began an amazing career in professional baseball, making his major league debut in spectacular fashion. In his seventh career game, after getting four hits in his first 26 at-bats, on April 22, 1904, Devlin had an inside-the-park grand slam, the first of four hits he had that day in an 18-3 victory [Boxscore]. The Giants were superb all season and won the National League pennant, though the team refused an invitation by the Boston Americans to play in a proposed 1904 World Series. (The year before the winners of the senior National League and junior American League played a non-sanctioned end-of-season championship that was won by the Boston Americans.) Devlin played a stellar third base throughout his rookie season, batting .281 and stealing 31 bases.

His defense remained strong in 1905, while his batting average dipped to .244. He still managed to share the National League lead with 59 stolen bases, a record for an NC State-affiliated major leaguer that only Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner has approached in the 114 seasons since then. On June 29 of that season, Fayetteville native Graham, whose lone at-bat was made famous by the W.P. Kinsella novel and movie “Field of Dreams,” made the lone plate appearance of his baseball career. The Giants went on to win the first sanctioned World Series that season, with Devlin getting four hits and stealing four bases to assist pitchers Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity, who combined to pitch 44 of the 45 innings in New York’s 4-1 series win.

Devlin was an anchor at third for McGraw’s team until 1911, when he fell into disfavor with the manager and was replaced in the lineup by Art Fletcher and later by Buck Herzog when Fletcher moved to shortstop. Devlin was on the postseason roster for the 1911 World Series, but did not play. Herzog, meanwhile, set a World Series record with 12 hits. After the season, Devlin was sold to the Boston Braves. He finished his decorated career with a .269 batting average, 1,185 hits, 10 home runs and 505 runs batted in.

His legacy in New York, however, has remained strong for 11 decades. Giants historian Frank Graham named Devlin the best player at that position in the franchise’s first 100 years in his 1952 book The New York Giants: An Informal History of a Great Baseball Club. In its list of Greatest players of the 1910, Devlin was named best third baseman of the decade – one of only two players on the list not in the hall of fame.

And legendary New York writer Damon Runyon wrote in 1943: “When I was a baseball writer, the only argument among the old-timers on third basemen was as to whether Arthur Devlin or [Jimmy] Collins was the greatest and most of the veterans said Collins. I never saw Collins play at his best, but I have seen them all since Devlin, and I know that if any man could have been rated better than Devlin, he must have been a veritable wonder. The only third baseman I ever saw that I would mention in the same breath as the great Arthur was Buck Weaver of the so-called Black Sox.”

Even today, Devlin is considered the greatest Giants’ third baseman to play at the Polo Grounds. (Matt Williams, who played decades after the team moved to San Francisco, usually gets the nod as the franchise’s overall best third baseman.)

A Renaissance man, Devlin was known to be an excellent mandolin player, entertaining company at his Washington, D.C. estate during the off-season. However, he was never able to shake the reputation he earned in 1911, his last season with the Giants, when he charged into the stands with two teammates to attack a fan who yelled out “Devlin, you old dog, will you never stop?”

Devlin was arrested for assault and battery on fan Bernard J. Rossier Jr and was briefly suspended by the league. Teammates Larry Doyle and Josh Devore were fined $50 each.

He and his wife divorced in 1911, and Devlin began a gypsy life, first by playing with the Braves. After singling in his final at-bat as a major league player on Aug. 25, 1912, Devlin was released to the Rochester minor league team.

“I wonder where they would have sent me if I’d struck out – Medicine Hat?” Devlin said, according to author Harold Kaese The Boston Braves (1948). He was a player-coach for Oakland’s last-place entry in the Pacific Coast League team. He stopped playing midway through the season but, just as he had done with NC State football, he continued as the team’s manager.

“I find I am getting too old,” Devlin said of his decision to hang up his spikes. “When I play I feel sick and not myself. I think that I can also manage the club better by sticking to the bench. I have been in the game for 14 years and most of that time was spent in the big leagues, where you go at top speed. It certainly wears a fellow out, and I find that I cannot stand the pace like I could a couple of years ago.”

He then continued as a player coach for minor league teams in Toronto, Rochester and Norfolk over the next four summers, ending his stellar career at the age of 38.

Devlin went to work as a scout for the Giants, beating the bushes in both Carolinas and Virginia for baseball skills, and served as head baseball coach at Fordham University from 1919-21. He had an acute eye for talent.

One of his players was Frankie “The Fordham Flash” Frisch, who played four sports at his hometown school. Devlin recommended him to McGraw and advised Frisch to ask for a $2,000 signing bonus. Frisch met with McGraw and signed a contract.

“I got the bonus,” Frisch told his college coach, proudly.

“How much?” Devlin asked.

“Three hundred dollars,” Frisch said, in a somewhat mumbled voice.

“Hmm,” Devlin said. “I collected $1,000 just for tipping them off about you.”

Not all of his advice was good, however. He advised McGraw not to pay the Norfolk minor league team the $10,000 it demanded for a young third base prospect named Harold Joseph Traynor, better known as “Pie” on his plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“No jerk-water ball player is worth $10,000,” Devlin told McGraw.

Pittsburgh’s management thought differently, paying Norfolk the money it wanted for Traynor, who played his entire 18-year major league career for the Pirates and is often considered the greatest third baseman of all time. McGraw, who claimed the mistake cost the Giants $200,000, fired Devlin as a scout.

On April 8, 1925, Devlin received a hero’s welcome in, of all places, Kinston, where he returned to umpire an exhibition game between the Boston Braves, for which he as a coach, and the AAA Rochester Kodaks of the International League, one of many games the Braves played on its spring training train trip from St. Petersburg, Florida, back to Boston. The tune-up contest was also used to promote the establishment of Kinston’s first minor league team since the failure of the old NCSPBL. The Braves roster not only included future Hall of Famers Dave Bancroft, Casey Stengel and Rube Marquard, but also former NC State football and baseball standout Dick Burrus, the only major league baseball player born and raised on the Outer Banks.

Art Devlin, right, with Boston Braves player-manager Rogers Hornsby, left, and club owner Judge Emil Fuchs, center.

After holding coaching jobs for four franchises through 1935, Devlin eventually strayed away from baseball, marrying for a second time and establishing a home in Bayonne, New Jersey, where he helped start a semi-pro baseball league and worked in various jobs. He and his wife Gertrude never had a family, but he had the same devotion to her as he had to baseball. He never lost his love of the game, nor his connections to North Carolina. Throughout his life, he remained a dues-paying member of the New Bern Elks Club.

By 1940, Devlin suffered the worst indignity for an old ball player and occasional umpire: His eyesight failed, following botched surgery to remove cataracts.

“Still this side of 60, the veteran baseballer is heart-sick at the thought of rounding out his life in darkness,” wrote New Bern publisher and poet J. Gaskill McDaniel in the June 2, 1940, edition of the News & Observer. “Not that he’s complaining about it. No one knows better than Devlin that in any kind of a game you’ve got to take the breaks as they come and make the most of it.

“Yes, the grass is growing green in Bayonne these days, and the sky is bluer than blue. Over on West 39th Street, the neighbor kids choose sides for a bit of baseball, while, unnoticed, a lonely man sits on his porch and listens for the familiar sound of wood meeting horsehide.”

Weeks after Gertrude died at their New Jersey home, a despondent Devlin died of a heart ailment on Sept. 18, 1948, in Jersey City hospital. He is buried in Congressional Cemetery in his hometown of Washington, D.C.

Many obituaries were written about the old-time third baseman who helped the Giants win the first officially sanctioned World Series. Many memories were shared of his two years as a Georgetown football and baseball star and of his antics as a baseball player. No mention was made of his two years of moonlighting as football coach at NC A&M, a school where he won seven career games and was carried around campus on the shoulders of his teammates and players for tying North Carolina.

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