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George Wagner vs. John H Roche
It is the summer of 1893; the nation is in the grip of an economic depression. The status of the game in Washington is not well either. The National League’s second entry in Washington is in serious trouble. The Wagners have done poorly and in an attempt to generate more revenue they transfer games away from Washington which triggers a fan boycott.
The headline in Sporting Life, Sad Results of Conducting Baseball for Revenue Only. The move by the Wagners brought the Washington club center stage in the baseball stage. Even newspapers from outside the District felt it necessary to comment. The Cleveland Leader, the official mouthpiece of the Cleveland club, “The most absurd statement that has been made this season is that purporting to come from the Wagners, in which the excuse for the transfer of games is based on the assertion that the League desired to have the games transferred in order to make all the money possible. This is not correct, and it is doubtful either George Wagner or his brother J Earl Wagner, ever read anything of the kind. It was agreed that a few games were to be transferred from Washington because of conflicting dates with other attractions, just has it had been found necessary now and then to transfer games from Cleveland to get away from the races. Not satisfied with that the owners of the Washington club, on their own responsibility, switched games enough to comprise one-third of their Washington series. It was not the Cleveland club that asked the transfer of games to this city as alleged by a local writer. The Wagners proposed and gave a very good reason for the transfer. Not knowing that so many games had been transferred the Cleveland club gave its consent, but would not have done so had it been cognizant of the true state of affairs.” The Wagners feel that they have been abused by the press. They feel that they were just following league policy and have implicated President Young be insinuating that the games were transferred as his suggestion, and it is even hinted that Mr. Young acted upon his own responsibility. Finally the Sporting Life adds the following, “The Washington public is emphatically boycotting the Washington club and the Wagners, and this boycott is to be maintained, we are told, in fact, so long as aliens control the club. It is not believed that the boycott will be raised, no matter what promises are made for “next year,” the public having at last become tied of being fed on the League husks in return for years of patient forbearance and liberal support. This is a bad state of affairs, and deplorable- not so much on account of the Wagners, who deserve no sympathy – but for the fact that the other eleven clubs, who are all in a way partners of the Washington club, will suffer financially and artistically. The Wagner’s think it is nobody’s business how they run their club. This would not be true even if the equal division of gate receipts rule did not prevail, because it is to the interest of the entire League that it should have no dead weight or weak spot in its circuit.” It is instructive to remember that a bad team will not draw at home or on the road. And the owners were focused on the bottom line, making money. Now in their second year in the League the Wagner’s had not only dug a hole but established a reputation with the other clubs.
Faced with a public relations disaster, in August, George Wagner and his lawyer mount a public relations campaign and deliver a prepared interview to the two afternoon papers in the District bypassing the Washington Post. This is done to bypass the Post sports writer, John H Roche.
The assessment by John H Roche baseball writer for the Washington Post and Sporting Life is revealing.
Selling the Team
“In the first place the Wagner’s did seriously consider the sale of the Washington Club, and lawyer Sutherland, of this city, was given an option on the property. At the time George Wagner was given an option on the Pittsburgh club, and even after the latter had been surrendered, the Washington Club was for sale. Yet Mr. Wagner says that he “Never for a moment thought of relinquishing our franchise or putting it in the market at any price.” Then the old gag about “the question of money as not stood in the way of strengthening the team” is again worked, when it is a fact that not a dollar has been expended for the purchase of any player during the entire season. Whatever efforts were made to get new men were so feeble that they never amounted to anything. A laughable break is this “If some of the deals we have proposed were known our statements would be easily verified.”
“Outside of paying for 26 shares of stock, we assumed over $8,000 of indebtedness, and independent of this we lost in 1892 over $9,000.”
The League paid $56,000 for the Wagner’s holdings in their Philadelphia AA team. The Wagner’s had the foresight to accumulate the stock far below its face value greatly increasing their profit and half the 1892 debt was in making necessary improvements to the ball park.
Roche goes on, “George Wagner has always admitted that last season’s business could not be taken as any criterion, owing to continual changes in the team, poor management and the low position of the club in the race. When the club played winning ball in the first division of the championship season, Mr. Wagner was perfectly satisfied with the gate receipts.”
Improving the Team
“We have been criticized for no endeavoring to strengthen the team. This is an error. When good players were available it was thought that securing them would not benefit the team. When it was found that their services were necessary the men were not available. We have had agents in all parts of the country on the sharp lookout for players and money would not have stood in the way if the deal could have been made. Last year was filled with experiments. This year a different course has been pursued, which in the beginning of the season was approved. When the weak spots developed available men were not found. Bill Joyce was offered more to play on the Washington team than any other player with the single exception of Duke Farrell, and the salary suggested to him was in excess of that paid to any member of the Philadelphia team.”
Roche responds “It is very refreshing to the people of Washington to learn the above. Whatever could have possessed the local patrons to ever labor under the impression that the Wagner’s were not endeavoring to strengthen the team? There is only the results of the efforts of the agents and the two Wagner’s to cast a damper on the spirits of the cranks. There is not even the consolation furnished by the old-time saw; the mountain labored and brought forth a mouse,” as not even as much as a mouse has been corralled.
Roche goes on to mention the holdout by Bill Joyce and the team’s weakness at third. “As it happened, however, the statement does not refer to the Danny Richardson bonus as cutting any figure in the case, but the people here do not forget this piece of evident consideration and regard for the local club.”
Transferring the Games
The Wagner’s argue that other clubs have engaged in transferring games and add that each club must make every effort to make money to pay off the indebtedness of the League and replenish the depleted club treasury.
Roche calls the statement specious adding “This may be all true enough, but it is not fair nor right to the local public that even such excuse should be urged.
The Wagner’s admit the transfer of games to Philadelphia were for purely financial reasons and the games to Chicago and Cleveland were arranged in the spring.
Roche states that the schedule prepared by League President Young and seen by him in the first week of May has the Cleveland and Chicago games scheduled for Washington.
Roche concludes, “Coming at this stage of the game, it should seem as if the statement was intended to appeal to the public to patronize the few remaining games by promise of great things next year. This has become an old tale, and the memory of the past mistakes has not yet departed.
The Wagner’s Respond
The Wagner’s in their capacity as team owners fire their official scorer, John H Roche. Roche one paper adds is the noted writer for the Washington Post and Sporting Life. The paper adds, “His firing, he was paid $3 a game, was punishment for criticizing the Wagner’s for transferring their games.”
The rest of the story
The Washington Post soon replaces Mr. Roche with Charles TK Miller.
During the course of the season Mr. Miller gets into public war of words with Joe Villa. Villa is the most distinguished sports writer of his time.
Here is the final round.
Charles TK Miller writes, “One for Vila.” Clumsy Joe Villa is getting his elephantine feet into the more deeper and deeper each day. The first game in New York last week gave him no end of amusement, apparently. He was so bitterly vindictive in his attack on Gus Schmelz and the team that he helped not a little to pull down the second day’s attendance to 1,500.then he saw that the Senators could play pretty fair ball. The funny part of it to me is that he cannot understand that by attacking the game and the players as he does, he works an injury to the attendance in his own city and thereby pulls dollars out of the pockets of the New York management. But the New York management must be just as dull and stupid as he is, or they would have taken him off to a kindergarten somewhere and tired to pound a little sense into that big bullhead of his. It is awfully amusing to read some of his alleged wit about the personal appearance of some of the men with whom he happens to differ. Does he think that he could capture anything but the booby prize at a beauty show? If there is anything graceful about his shape or walk, or anything handsome about his ‘mug,” nobody has ever discovered it. We begin to fear that his head is distending in proportion to that big, awkward frame of his. In all charity I suggest he spend part of his weekly stipend during the balance of the season to having himself literally kicked by a good strong, health man hourly, on that portion of his anatomy where it will do the most good.
Joe Villa’s Take. “The Wagners Peach.” That was a very fierce-roast by smooth Mr. Miller in last week’s Life. But, as usual with persons who are not well posted, he talked through his helmet. The smooth gentlemen should first get at the facts. When he talks about “lies” and “fakes” he gets into a class by himself. Just to show him what a base ball ignoramus he appears to be I am reliably informed that “The Sun” printed the facts about John Ward’s trouble over the use of the Washington grounds and also about the forfeited game with Brooklyn. The story of Ward’s row with the Wagners, I am told came from “The Sun’s” Washington correspondent, while the statement about the forfeited Brooklyn game was not written in New York, as the smooth-cheeked peach alleges, but was wired, so I learn, to “The Sun” by none other than President CH Byrne, of the Brooklyn Club. Right on top of this comes J Earl Wagner’s statement to me last Friday at the Polo Grounds, that Umpire Stage was perfectly justified in declaring the game with Brooklyn forfeited under the strict wording of the rule, but that “common decency should have made Mr. Stage notify Gus Schmelz that he intended to forfeit the game unless the Washington players resumed their places in the field inside of one minute.” But, of course, as any well-posted base ball man knows, “common decency” is not in it with the rules.
More from Mr. Villa. “Left at the Post.” No, just let me frescoe this smooth checked peach a bit! Who told him that he knew anything about baseball or could score a game? Where did he come from? In a nutshell, he was formerly the amateur baseball writer of the Hyattsville “Penny Whistle.” His behavior on the Washington grounds is a disgrace to the paper he misrepresents, to the Washington Club and to the newspaper profession. He is accustomed to call the umpires, robbers, thieves, crooks and other epithets, which are invariably emphasized by the foulest language imaginable. This comes straight from the Boston newspaper men, who were disgusted with the actions of the scribe. In addition to all this, the peach is never without assistance when trying to write his base ball stories (?) for the “Post.” Gussie Schmelz tells him what to say after each game, and even writes what the stuff himself when there’s a knotty point to be discussed.