Santa Clara Magazine

A Good Baseball Man

A Good Baseball Man

By Jeff Gire

View full image. Photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
A cup of coffee in Boston, San Francisco’s first love in baseball, and five generations of Broncos

The Clever Catcher

The best catching prospect in the country was just a few years removed from teaching Greek and Latin. It was 1904, Charlie Graham was 26 years old, and he had won a pennant and a championship with the Tacoma Tigers of the Pacific Coast League, a minor league that many considered was where you could find the best baseball played outside of the majors. Despite his age, Graham was the man in charge; along with his catching duties, he was the team’s manager. 

Catching is a position both mentally and physically exhausting. Crouching behind home plate, the catcher has a view of the entire field. He calls pitches and watches base runners. In that way, the catcher is a conductor, the person who must survey the play before him and determine a correct course of action—all while trying to corral 90-mile-per-hour fastballs, curves that snap through the air, and the occasional foul tip that could break a finger. 

It’s the position on the baseball diamond that might require the most intelligence and the least regard for self-preservation. Graham was a 6-foot, 190-pound, rock-solid athlete who had taught and coached at Santa Clara College for a year following his graduation in 1898. He played the position well.

Following the Tigers’ championship season, The Sporting News gushed: “The success of Tacoma’s pitching staff is largely due to Captain Charlie Graham’s clever catching and coaching. Graham appears to be ripe for major league company.” The Sporting Life called him “the best catcher in the minor leagues.” It seemed only a matter of time before Graham would trek east to join turn-of-the-century stars like Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, and Three Finger Brown in the major leagues.

Graham played another season in Tacoma, this time guiding the team to a third-place finish and another playoff appearance. The same year he married Clara Frances Black. He was being pursued by another suitor as well, John Taylor, owner of the Boston Americans (now Red Sox). Following the season in Tacoma, he signed with the Americans.

On April 16, 1906, just 10 days before his 28th birthday, Graham made his debut in Boston. Here is what we know of his big league career. He caught the Americans’ star pitcher, Cy Young. He hit a home run off of Cleveland’s 20-game winner, Bob Rhodas. And then, after just 30 games with Boston, the prized young catcher caught a train home to San Francisco and never played in the majors again. 

The Grandsons 

Fran Smith, S.J. ’56 and his older brother Michael Smith ’54 have a disclaimer before they begin their story.

“This is lore,” Fran says. “Family lore.”

Michael nods in agreement. The two brothers are sitting on the third-floor terrace of Lucas Hall, their backs to the afternoon sun as it fades in and out behind clouds. Fran, the philosophy major and Jesuit, is a bit taller and his hair a bit longer than his older brother’s. Michael, the retired lawyer, looks every bit the second baseman he was in his youth—even in his 80s it’s easy to imagine his body might still have the compact quickness demanded from baseball’s keystone position.

In their family, the two brothers represent a fulcrum in a five-generation SCU legacy. Their father and grandfather preceded them on the Mission Campus, while Michael’s daughter and two of his grandchildren followed. 

But today the Smiths will be talking about their own SCU story, starting with a great-grandfather who bought a quarter of the block that fronts Franklin Street on the north side of campus. It was a large lot, with “a place for wagons and horses,” Fran says. 

“Have you been researching these things?” Mike cuts in. 

“I remember them,” Fran quips. “And if I don’t remember them, I make them up.”

In particular, the Smith boys are here to talk about one link in their ancestry: their grandfather who kicked off the whole Bronco legacy they find themselves in the middle of—Charlie Graham. 

The cup of coffee

Opening day, 1937: Seals Stadium in San Francisco—considered the park of parks in its day. This was the Giants’ first home by the bay, too. Photo courtesy of Jack McGuire.

There’s an alternate universe where the story of Charlie Graham is appearing not in these pages but in Boston College Magazine. Maybe a street around Fenway even bears his name in this parallel baseball timeline.

The movement of the Pacific and North American Plates made sure this never happened.

Charlie Graham arrived in Boston with his wife, following a cross-country train trip. The couple had left their young daughter, Mary Claire, with a family member at their home near St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in San Francisco. 

The season began with an inauspicious start; Boston dropping its first three games. Then on April 18, 1906, the Americans and New York Highlanders (now Yankees) played 11 innings that ended in a 3–3 tie. The New York Times isn’t specific as to why the game was called, but it could have been outright fatigue. New York had burned through three pitchers, and the team had already played a few extra-inning tilts in the season’s opening week. Graham didn’t do much at the plate on April 18 and made a wild throw that led to New York’s first run. 

That same day, the Great Quake struck San Francisco. One of Mary Claire’s first memories is standing outside and holding one of her aunt’s fingers, surrounded by the confused and displaced people of the city.

In Mike and Fran’s estimation, there are three possible explanations for why Charlie Graham left Boston to return home. The first would be: He just couldn’t make it against major league competition. Yet Boston had already invested a decent salary in their new catcher. Charlie Graham’s .233 batting average doesn’t look so bad as a catcher on a team that hit .237. The second possibility is that Tacoma had offered Charlie Graham an even higher salary to return to the team as a player/manager. The third is that Charlie Graham returned to San Francisco to reunite his family.

“It’s always been something of a mystery,” Fran says. 

The Seals

“Your father is dead.”

There was no way for Mike Smith’s mother to sugarcoat the news. Mike and Fran’s father, Francis Smith ’26, a graduate of Santa Clara and a lawyer, had an aneurysm during the night. Mike and Fran were ages 7 and 5 at the time. Mike remembers leaving immediately for their grandparents’ house, about a mile away in St. Cecilia’s parish in San Francisco, where they had dinner the night before. The next day he got in the only fight from his childhood, punching a classmate in the street when they returned home the next day to pick up some things. He doesn’t recall why he threw the punch, just that he only swung once and ran like hell.

From then on, Mike, Fran, and their mother Mary Claire lived with Charlie. When Fran and Michael talk about their grandfather, there is still a certain awe, as he was very much a father to them. The first thing they remember are his hands—the twisted knuckles and broken fingers, “the scars of catching,” as Fran puts it. Neither of them remembers their grandfather ever cursing or losing his temper. If you let him down you were “a chump.” Fran wonders aloud whether Michael had ever been busted by their grandfather for smoking in the house. 

The older brother’s eyes widen for a second. “Never,” Mike says. “I would remember that.”

By the time Mike and Fran had moved in with their grandfather in the late 1930s, Charlie Graham was a longtime owner of the beloved San Francisco Seals, one of the Pacific Coast League’s more successful franchises. Here’s how he got there.

In 1918, following his career in the minors, Charlie Graham was part of a group of investors—including George Putnam, a Sacramento sportswriter, and Charles “Doc” Strub, a dentist and 1902 Santa Clara grad who also played on Graham’s college team—who purchased the Seals. “Personally, I have the utmost faith in the future of baseball,” Graham told the San Francisco Examiner.

A four-bagger for rookie Seals outfielder Joe DiMaggio in 1933. He hit in 61 straight games that season—a league record. Photo courtesy of Jack McGuire.

Each member of this trio brought a different and vital skill set to the ball club. Putnam was the marketer, Strub the business and entrepreneurial mind, and Graham the baseball man and the face of the team. According to the Examiner at the time of the purchase: “Charley is to be the first walking gentleman, as they spoke of the leading man in the old-time mellerdramas [sic].”

The 1920s was a decade when the country roared and the Seals barked. In the first decade under the ownership of Graham, Strub, and Putnam, the San Francisco Seals took home four PCL Championships. The baseball business boomed as well. Strub and Graham negotiated the sale of players to the majors to keep the team’s coffers full. Their biggest deal came when third baseman Willie Kamm was purchased for a record $100,000 by the Chicago White Sox in 1922. The check for the transaction was framed in the Seals’ front office until the team was disbanded in 1957. Fans came in droves; the Seals regularly led the league in attendance, drawing as many as 365,000 fans some years.

And the minor leagues were wild. Consider epic tales like “the longest home run in baseball history,” a supposed 618-foot moonshot off the bat of the Oakland Oaks’ Roy Carlyle that cleared the fence, a street, and two houses before landing in a rain gutter. Or the time that Paul “Big Poison” Waner, the 5-foot-8, 140-pound Seals outfielder became the first player in PCL history to bat .400. He nearly missed this feat when he succumbed to a mysterious illness late in the season. His batting average plunged until the source of his weakness was found: He had been playing the entire season with buckshot lodged in his jaw from an offseason hunting accident. Seals catcher Joe Sprinz once tried to catch the highest pop fly ever—a baseball dropped from a blimp. He missed the first four, which left crater-like impacts around him. The fifth glanced off his glove and hit Sprinz in the face, knocking out several teeth and nearly killing him. 

The decade ended with Graham and company looking to a bright future for the Seals, and a new ballpark in San Francisco’s Mission District: Seals Stadium. 

The park opened to immense fanfare, on Friday the 13th of March, 1931. Ty Cobb and other baseball legends made it out to the opening, as did some 20,000 fans. When New York Giants Manager John McGraw visited the park after its opening, he was just as impressed as the throngs of Seals fans. He told his friend Charlie, “You’ll have major league baseball here someday.” It was a good call, but the big-time baseball wasn’t to be played by the Seals. A quarter of a century later, the major leagues’ first West Coast teams—the newly relocated San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers—opened the 1958 season in Seals Stadium. 

While the new stadium excited fans, it put Graham in a financial bind when the Great Depression hit. The stadium still had to be paid for even though attendance dwindled. Compounding matters, in 1934 Strub left the ownership team to found Santa Anita Park, a horse racetrack made famous by the exploits of thoroughbred Seabiscuit. 

“The Depression hit with double-barreled blows,” in the words of Bill Nowlin of the Society of American Baseball Research. “The financing to build the park was based on valuations that had deteriorated, and attendance was understandably down. Strub lost a considerable part of his holdings, and Putnam died. It was all up to Graham.”

Selling players to the majors became a vital source of revenue for Pacific Coast League teams. P.J. Dragseth, in his book The 1957 San Francisco Seals: End of an Era in the Pacific Coast League, wrote how “Charlie Graham became a master of ‘the deal,’ as many of his transactions helped the organization remain financially solvent in tenuous times.”

The Sporting News had equal praise for Graham at the time: “The heavy mortgages on the Stadium kept Graham busy scraping together cash to remain in operation. He accomplished this with some of the most skillful financial tight-rope walking in the history of the Coast league.”

The tight-rope walking at times was truly ingenious. The New York Times notes that in 1933 Graham traded “a case of mammoth Santa Clara prunes for first baseman Jack Fenton, who would play 10 seasons in the minors.”

Outfielder Joe Bravia had a quick bat and hit .300 with the Seals in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Jack McGuire.

Growing up in the Graham house, Mike and Fran had little idea of the financial pressure their grandfather was under at the time, but baseball was always in the air, always part of the conversation. Sometimes players would even drop by the house, including the irrepressible Moe Berg, a graduate of Princeton, one of the smartest men in baseball, and a part-time spy for the U.S. government. Ballplayers just naturally glommed onto Graham. Years later, Mike’s daughter Michelle would see the all-time Yankees great (and native of Martinez, California) Joe DiMaggio, who played his first organized baseball with the Seals, at a restaurant in Moraga where she worked. When she finally coaxed up the nerve to introduce herself to DiMaggio as Charlie Graham’s great-granddaughter, the sullen and famously introverted DiMaggio looked up at her.

“He was a good baseball man,” DiMaggio said.

“To Charles Graham, baseball, like family and religion, was a worthy and necessary social institution,” writes James Joseph McSweeney in The Development of San Francisco and the San Francisco Seals from 1918 to 1931. Mike agrees with this assessment, citing the fact that Charlie Graham himself was the son of working-class Irish immigrants. He was able to use the sport of baseball to lift him up, to provide for his family. 

Both Mike and Fran Smith became regulars at Seals Stadium, especially in the front office, located on the third floor of the stadium past the right-field wall and decorated with antlers and stuffed birds. Friends from Charlie Graham’s playing days were constantly in and out of the stadium. The Seals’ manager, Hall of Famer Lefty O’Doul, would have an annual meeting in these offices with Charlie Graham that always ended with a handshake and a promise from O’Doul to return the next season as manager and for Charlie Graham to pay him. The two never bothered with a contract.

Fran recalls overhearing one conversation his grandfather had in detail. A former ballplayer wanted to hear some stories from Boston and the big leagues.

“I just had a cup of coffee,” Charlie Graham said.

The friend pressed for more information. What happened up there? What was it like? 

Walter Mails earned the nickname “Duster” pitching for the Seals in the 1920s–30s. He became team greeter and PR man. Photo courtesy of Jack McGuire.

“Just a cup of coffee,” Charlie Graham said, his tone implying there was nothing else to say about the subject.

The Giant legacy

Charlie Graham continued to work for the Seals until his death from pneumonia in 1948. O’Doul wrote at the time of his death, “Charley Graham was the greatest man baseball ever knew ... I played for him, and managed for him, and there never was a man who loved the game more sincerely or spent as much time helping it grow by his deep-hearted devotion.”

Ten years after Graham’s death, the New York Giants moved to San Francisco and brought Major League Baseball to the Bay, which meant the end of the Seals. For their first two years in San Francisco, the Giants even played in Seals Stadium before moving into Candlestick. Fran and his mother never made it out to a game at Seals Stadium to see the Giants. Mike made it out once, but he sat in the back of the left-field bleachers. “You could barely see the ball from there,” he says. 

Yet, in many ways Charlie Graham’s legacy is still seen with every sold-out game of the 2014 world champion San Francicso Giants. Charlie Graham helped to plant the seeds for a fervent love of baseball in the Bay Area. His legacy is found in more concrete ways, too. Fran has heard about the statue and plaza dedicated to the Seals outside of AT&T Park. “Haven’t seen it though,” he says. “Not sure I will.” Several decades ago, Santa Clara University had the Charlie Graham Club for people who supported Bronco Athletics. And, of course, there’s Graham Hall.

So how exactly did Graham Hall come to bear his name? After all, for much of his life, Graham was counting pennies to pay off a stadium mortgage. To the knowledge of Fran and Michael Smith, Charlie Graham never donated a dollar to Santa Clara University.

That said, among the many people who knew Charlie Graham and respected him for his character, friendship, and leadership was Vara Strub, the widow of his old teammate and business partner. When Santa Clara University admitted women in 1961, the first all-female dorms were to be named after SCU’s greatest female benefactors, one of whom happened to be Strub. As it turned out, there was a bit more money in horseracing than baseball.

When Vara Strub was approached by SCU President Patrick Donohoe, S.J., about this distinction, she demurred; she didn’t want a building named for her. But she had someone in mind whom she considered worthy of the honor.

“After all that time, she selected our grandfather,” Fran Smith says.

Some years after that, Fran approached Fr. Donohoe and asked him about the decision. The president replied, “Charlie Graham was the kind of person we hope to produce at Santa Clara.”

Postscript: The incentive

Graham plays ambassador: accepting a ball signed by all four Australian teams in 1938. Photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Patrick Coutermarsh ’13 is the first Fellow of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. He graduated with a double major in economics and philosophy. Now he helps with the Center’s business ethics blog, and he edited some of the videos for the University’s first Massive Open Online Course, Business Ethics in the Real World, that the center hosted. He’s also Charlie Graham’s great-great-grandson. 

The topic that most interests Coutermarsh currently is inversions. That’s when a corporation will handpick a country with a low tax rate and then choose to reincorporate there. If a business is based in a country with a high corporate tax rate, like the United States, this can help save on the amount of tax the company owes on money that was made overseas. In this way the profits never have to come home.

“It’s an incentive problem,” Coutermarsh says.

For corporations, decision making can often be boiled down to the most basic incentives. A smart CEO will choose what’s best for shareholders while weighing things like risk and return. Incentives on a personal level will always be much more complicated.

Maybe Charlie Graham came back west for a bigger contract. Maybe he just couldn’t make it in Boston. But maybe, when the clever catcher viewed the balance sheet of his life and he weighed the merits of the various entries, he packed his gear and left the majors for good. Charlie Graham gave just about everything he had to the game of baseball. But he may have given just a bit more to his family.

 

Jeff Gire is a writer at Santa Clara University. He has covered Bay Area sports and events for more than 10 years, including editing the official magazine for the San Francisco Giants.

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