In my book, Seeing Home, I mention the late Yankee owner George M. Steinbrenner, who was a wonderful person. I call him one of life’s hall of famers, a guy who quietly and consistently helped those in need.
Unfortunately, for reasons I’ll describe below, he isn’t yet a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
It reminded me of another should be Baseball Hall of Fame owner that is mentioned in Seeing Home, Horace Stoneham of the New York Giants.
While he was never the household name that Steinbrenner was, Stoneham had just as big an impact on New York baseball. It was his last move in New York, however, that might be the thing that’s unfairly keeping him out of the Hall.
Most of the stories about Mr. Steinbrenner center around his public image as an owner. The media painted him as a tyrannical owner who dismissed people on a whim and was bent on winning at any cost. While he did fire more than a few managers and could sometimes be a tough boss, George wanted nothing more than for his staff to work at their highest level. He wanted them to fulfill their potential, and was disappointed when they didn’t. He cultivated a climate of excellence.
What’s not often reported is that George rarely cast anyone completely away from the Yankee family. He was bighearted and loyal. Even when someone was let go, Mr. Steinbrenner kept them on the payroll, with another position. He supported the descendants of former players, coaches and staff. The Yankees were his pride and joy. Their employees were like family to George. That passion- though it helped him to win – unfairly led to Steinbrenner being labeled as too controlling; the wrong model for any baseball owner.
This is one of the things that has kept George from taking his rightful place as one of the members of The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Hopefully, he will get in soon, once the “bad owner” myth is dispelled among The Hall’s voters.
Horace Stoneham suffered the same fate.
In 1957, Stoneham moved the Giants from their home in the Polo Grounds, in upper Manhattan, 3,000 miles west to San Francisco. It was a move that broke the hearts of Giant fans. The soft spoken owner was immediately vilified. What fans didn’t realize was that his heart was breaking even more than theirs.
The Giants were the toast of baseball. They were a proven winner. Horace, who had worked in several capacities for the team, acted as de facto general manager and kept them at or near the top of the league during his tenure.
Unfortunately, attendance was declining by 1956. Fans just stopped showing up at the Polo Grounds, even though the Giants actually won the World Series in 1954. For other owners, this wouldn’t be a major crisis, but for Stoneham it was a disaster. The Giants and the Polo Grounds were his primary business, they were the sole income stream for his family. Less tickets sold meant a dip in revenue.
Adding to the misery was the departure of the New York Football Giants, who left their longtime home at the Polo Grounds to become tenants at Yankee Stadium, just across the Harlem River. The city of New York wasn’t offering assistance, so Stoneham began looking elsewhere.
Realizing the potential for western expansion in baseball, Horace first explored a move to Minnesota. When that fell through, he was courted by the Mayor of San Francisco. He signed the deal to move to California even before the Brooklyn Dodgers signed theirs. (That’s a common myth, that Stoneham was duped by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley into leaving New York. It’s the other way around. The Dodgers could afford to stay if they wanted to. The Giants had no choice but to move. Stoneham was actually the pioneer, not O’Malley – who is in the Hall of Fame.)
Yes, fans were upset. The Polo Grounds became funereal in 1957 as the clock ticked down. Horace Stoneham, who had strong ties to the New York/New Jersey area, was downcast but hopeful. He knew that the wounds would run deep in New York, but that he would be helping the league out as a whole by bringing professional teams to the west coast. He was a true pioneer. Without Stoneham, it might have taken a lot longer for baseball to recognize the value of markets in California, Texas, Washington, Colorado and Arizona.
Stoneham wasn’t just a pioneer in that regard. What I think puts him in the conversation for Hall of Fame induction, beyond his sterling character, was his enthusiastic embrace of integration in baseball in the 1950s. Branch Rickey of the Dodgers gets the credit for signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the color barrier, but Horace Stoneham had the Giants already moving in that direction long before Robinson donned Dodger blue.
Monte Irvin came close to being the first African-American in major league baseball, but had to wait until 1949 before being signed by the Giants. Shortly after that, Stoneham signed the greatest of all Giants, Willie Mays. Combined with Hank Thompson, Irvin and Mays made up the very first all black outfield in the majors. They led the team to four pennants and one World Series victory in New York.
Once in San Francisco, the Giants stayed near the top because of Stoneham. He kept cultivating African American stars (at a time when Hall of fame owners like Tom Yawkey of the Red Sox were resisting integration on their teams) and also realized the potential for players from latin America. Horace Stoneham was the first to hire bilingual scouts to seek out talent in countries like Puerto Rico, Panama and the Dominican Republic. The result was the signing of Hall of Famers like Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal, among other players. It paved the way for the influx of ballplayers from those countries that continues today.
Stoneham even signed the very first Japanese player to play in the Major Leagues. Pitcher Massanori Murakami played for only two seasons with the Giants, but he and Stoneham helped to prove that the game was truly international.
Was Horace Stoneham a perfect owner? No, he wasn’t. Like many others, including Hall of Famers Jacob Ruppert, Charlie Comiskey and Bill Veeck, he made his series of bad trades and blunders. Overall, however, Stoneham’s contribution to baseball in his forty years of service as head of the Giants is a powerful one.
This quiet, humble and charitable man from Jersey gave his life to baseball and did everything he could to bring his beloved game to greater heights. For that alone, Horace Stoneham deserves to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
I hope that we get to see him and Mr. Steinbrenner have their special days in the Cooperstown sun soon.