Baseball fever swept Melbourne in January 1914 when the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox pulled into town as part of the two teams’ ambitious Grand World Tour. After having arrived in Brisbane on New Years Eve, and played exhibitions there and in Sydney, the then Australian capital city would be the last stop on a whistle stop visit south of the equator.
Greeted like visiting dignitaries, upon arrival the players were swept away from Spencer Street Station in a 35 car motorcade to a civic reception hosted by the Lord Mayor. Despite being due to grace the MCG the following two days, their social commitments did not end with the welcome party. An afternoon appointment in the gardens of Government House with the Governor General and his wife had to be kept before an evening of entertainment at the Savage Club.
The seeds of the idea that saw the MCG play host to this baseball exhibition were sown during a boozy night half a world away, in an east side Chicago bar. In the middle of a 16-week speaking tour across the country, New York Giants manager John McGraw was sharing a drink or three with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. Over the course of the evening the the two men devised their audacious plan to take baseball around the world.
Inspired by a similar undertaking almost 25 years earlier by sporting goods manufacturer Albert Spalding, the daring and entrepreneurial duo set about planning an even bigger and wide reaching expedition. The tour would begin at the completion of the Giants World Series against Philadelphia, with a barnstorming 35 games in 33 days across 31 US cities. Australia would be the fifth international stop after games in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Manila, before the tour would end with visits to Colombo, Cairo, Paris, Rome and London.
While it would be teams representing the White Sox and Giants that took the field across the baseball fields of the world, the tour wasn’t restricted to just players from both clubs. This meant that future Hall of Famers Tris Speaker and Sam Crawford were added to the already bulging caravan of superstars. Arguably the brightest star of them all though, was the Giants multi-sport champion Jim Thorpe. An Olympic champion in the Decathlon and Pentathlon and a future American Football Hall of Famer, he would be voted the Greatest Athlete of the first half of the 20th Century by a panel of US sports journalists.
Not surprisingly this trio and, the future hall of famers already in the Giants squad, Christy Matthewsen and Red Faber, played starring roles at the MCG. Across two days, crowds in excess of 10,000 flocked to the famous old ground for a pair of double headers. The main event each afternoon was an exhibition between the two travelling rivals but prior to each game a Victorian representative team was given the opportunity to test themselves against each in turn.
If the inquisitive sports fans in attendance were hoping to see the local team prevail they might have quickly changed their expectations when the teams took the field. The Argus described the vast contrast between the teams to their readers the following day. “The players representing this State in physique seemed almost like underdeveloped and weedy youths compared with the thick-set, stocky athletes they were called upon to face.”
The difference in physical size was reflected in the scores with the Vics comprehensively beaten by the Giants 18-0 on Wednesday and 16-3 by the White Sox on Thursday. The three runs scored by the Victorians coming when the infielders Germany Schaefer and Dick Egan were given pitching duties. The 38-year-old Schaefer spending his time on the mound playing up to the crowd with outlandish windups adding some entertainment to the one sided affair.
The two exhibitions between the Giants and the White Sox were understandably much closer. On the Wednesday the Giants got the better of the White Sox 12-8, perhaps as a result of having had a taste of ground conditions in the curtain raiser against the Victorians. Played just four days after the completion of a Sheffield Shield contest between Victoria and New South Wales, the turf played faster than any ground either team had seen John McGrath said post match.
Buck Weaver of the White Sox, who would become better known to history for his role in the Black Sox scandal five years later, was one of very few players whose defensive play was of note in the shoot out. Jim Thorpe was another, but his performance with the bat were even more impressive with two home runs. One of which is said to have been hit from in front of what is now the Olympic Stand into a group of drinkers in a bar on the opposite side of the ground. Their astonishment completely understandable given it is said they were standing 170 metres away from the Giants outfielder when he hit the ball.
The White Sox looked to have gotten their revenge the following day when they led 3-0 with the Giants down to their final out in the bottom of the ninth. Joe Benz and Tris Speaker having been the stars for the Chicagoans, the latter’s offence giving the former a chance to complete a shut out victory. Unfortunately for Benz it was not to be, with the match going to extra innings after a late burst from Larry Doyle and Fred Merkle. Lee McGee would bat in Hooks Wiltse two innings later to secure their Melbourne sweep over the White Sox.
The tour quickly moved on from Melbourne, with the teams travelling to Adelaide the following day to catch up with the steam ship that would take them to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). To the great disappointment of the South Australians, there was no time for a match to be played which resulted in a number of negative headlines. The Adelaide Advertiser perhaps the most emotive with the front page screaming “Discourteous Visistors; Local Baseballers Snubbed”.
Before they made it back to the US in March they would play a game in the shadows of the Pyramids, and infront of 35,000 fans, including the King of England in London. Three years later the two teams would be reacquainted with one another when they met in the 1917 World Series. Unlike the result in Melbourne, the White Sox would prevail in six games to claim their second World Series title. They were favoured to win their third just two years later but instead suffered the ignominy of defeat and of having eight players banned for life for accepting money to throw the series. It would be another 86 years before they got their hands on the Commissioner’s Trophy.
After being bested by the White Sox in 1917, the Giants fourth World Series defeat in seven years, McGraw and his team would taste success in 1921 and 1922. They would win two more before leaving New York for San Francisco in 1958.
For the MCG, one of the grandest sporting arenas in the world, January 1914 would be its last taste of serious Baseball until the 1956 Olympics. The exhibition match played between the US and Australia would be played in front of a crowd of 102,000. This figure would represent a world record attendance for a baseball game until 2008 when 115,000 watched the Dodgers and the Red Sox at the LA Colloseum.
In 2014, Major League Baseball returned down under when the Arizona Diamondbacks and LA Dodgers opened the season in Sydney. Unlike the intrepid visitors a century earlier, Sydney would be the only stop on the itinerary before both teams jumped on the plane back home for the remaining 160 games of their regular season schedule. It would mean that the MCG would have to continue its wait for an opportunity to reclaim their world record that they held for 52 years.