N.y. Town Embraces Player After Decades Of Obscurity, Shortstop Is Hometown Hero

Posted: August 05, 1998

COHOES, N.Y. — In this drab mill town where the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers meet for drinks, the only begotten - and until recently, most forgotten - baseball son is being adopted more than a half-century after his death.

George Davis left town in 1889 with major-league baseball aspirations and never returned for more than a brief vacation. He reached his goal and had a 20-year professional career that culminated in a Hall of Fame induction two Sundays ago - 58 years after he was buried in Fernwood Cemetery in Fernwood, Delaware County.

About 50 residents of Cohoes took the hourlong trip to Cooperstown for the ceremony. They wore brown George Davis T-shirts that were made by the local library, which is inside an old church.

Say the name George Davis here these days, and people's faces light up. But this time last year, few even knew he existed.

``When I started researching this guy a year ago, I told our mayor, `What if Carl Yastrzemski was born in Cohoes?' '' city historian Walt Lipka said. ``This guy has stats that rival Yastrzemski. He's one of the greats, and now that we know about him, more and more people are beginning to love him. He's back home.

``This is an old, dying town. The mill industry has been gone for years. We need something like this.''

A picture of Davis' bronze Hall of Fame plaque will be displayed at City Hall, beginning tomorrow. Officials from the Hall of Fame will present this town of 16,000 with the plaque during a morning ceremony.

But for all the accolades Davis earned as a star turn-of-the-century shortstop for the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox - the .295 average, the 2,660 hits, the stellar defensive play - he has remained an obscure figure.

For a player who was so gifted, who was at the top of his profession - a flashy, switch-hitting shortstop with a bullet arm whose deeds also included starting today's coaching signs - Davis died with so little. Researchers can find no living relatives, few signs of his existence, few footprints on the road he traveled.

Davis made the Hall of Fame after Lipka petitioned the Veterans Committee, which eventually elected Davis, and garnered the support of the Society for American Baseball Research for help. It took a year of research by both parties to gather enough information on Davis.

``In a way, watching his Hall of Fame induction was sad,'' said John Ralph, the Hall's director of communications and programs, who added that the Hall of Fame searched for six months and found few vestiges of Davis' life. ``That emotion, that excitement and feeling of being proud, was missing. And that's what makes the ceremony special.''

Davis was found dead on Oct. 17, 1940, at age 70 in his bed at a Philadelphia mental asylum. No obituary was in the newspaper.

He has that bronzed plaque, but no headstone on his grave. Davis lies in an unmarked grave in a section with five other single graves. His grave would just be ground that someone could step over if not for the artificial flowers placed on top of it by a woman who works in the cemetery's office.

His wife, Jane Holden Davis, spent $41 to bury him, and she put him in the ground a little more than 24 hours after his death. It was said she wanted to bury him so deep into the ground that he could not bother anyone else.

``And that was it,'' Lipka said. ``Everybody forgot about George Davis. We have found no recollection of him at all. For all purposes, he doesn't have a family. He was shortchanged by life.''

* George Stacey Davis was the fifth of seven children born to Abram and Sarah Davis on Aug. 23, 1870. His parents were immigrants. Abram Davis was from Wales, and Sarah Healy Davis was from England.

In 1889, at age 19, Davis began his career in organized baseball. He was an outfielder on a team of amateur and semipro players in nearby Albany.

The next year, Davis signed with the National League's Cleveland Spiders. Before the 1893 season, New York Giants manager John Montgomery Ward shocked fans by trading future Hall of Famer Buck Ewing for the 22-year-old Davis. Davis' play was superb. He hit .355 with 11 homers and 119 RBIs.

Thus began his ascension to greatness. And his descent to anonymity.

History shows that Davis - a trim 5-foot-10 fellow with a handlebar mustache, who was nicknamed ``Gorgeous George'' by teammates - shied away from recognition. Indeed, he got more press for saving a family from a burning building while on his way to a game than for anything he did on the field.

``Oh, I didn't do much,'' Davis told a newspaper reporter. ``I just went up the ladder the same as the rest of the boys and helped to carry down women and children.''

And with those words, all was forgotten. No follow-up stories on Davis. No fame.

But for a figure who is so anonymous today, at the turn of the century, he played a part in two significant baseball events.

As player-manager for the Giants, Davis acquired deaf-mute pitcher Luther ``Dummy'' Taylor in 1901. Davis had the team learn sign language to communicate with Taylor. It is believed that this is the origin of today's coaching signs.

In addition to that footnote to baseball trivia, Davis was unremarkable as a manager. The Giants went 52-85 in 1901. He was ousted as manager as the players revolted.

Davis signed with the White Sox. He flourished in Chicago, hitting .299 with 93 RBIs and 31 stolen bases in 1902.

His sudden success drew the attention of his old bosses in New York - and inadvertently threatened a fragile peace between the fledgling American and National Leagues. In the winter of 1902, new Giants owner John Brush decided he wanted to use a contractual loophole to get Davis back.

This enraged White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who eventually persuaded state and federal judges to issue an injunction to keep Davis from playing for the Giants. Davis would go on to play four games with the Giants before they honored the court's ruling and let him return to Chicago in 1903.

Three years later, Davis helped the Sox beat the crosstown-rival Cubs for the World Series title. He retired in 1909 at 39.

* A blip on history's radar during his playing days, Davis vanished from it completely in 1918, when he married Jane Holden and moved to Philadelphia. This is when, researchers say, Davis lost all contact with family members.

He lived in a house at 3815 Chestnut St., which no longer stands, before he vanished from public view.

Records show that Davis was admitted to Philadelphia General Hospital on Aug. 25, 1934. Three weeks later, he was transferred to the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases, suffering from mental impairment and generalized paralysis.

Doctors diagnosed Davis with paresis, a disease of the brain caused by advanced syphilis. The disease causes progressive dementia, which often causes dramatic mood swings and delusions. He died with no children and, baseball historians say, an angry wife.

``Maybe his illness is what caused the apparent rift between him and his wife,'' Lipka said.

* On Sept. 19, a ceremony at Fernwood Cemetery will be held to unveil a headstone for Davis' grave. The Century Monument Co. in Rensselaer, N.Y., is donating the stone, and members of the Society for American Baseball Research will attend the event. The society also is raising money to build a historical marker for Davis to be put in Cohoes.

But do a headstone and a historical marker do much to erase a mysterious past?

``No matter what, his story is still sad,'' Lipka said. ``It was really sad because this guy was such a great ballplayer. He made his mark, set some standards people had to break. If you compare his lifestyle to players today, he got nothing. . . .

``Davis didn't seem to make out very well. He just seemed to drop off the face of the Earth, got sick and died.

``That's what makes this guy a great story,'' Lipka added. ``There's nothing to him.''

He was a shortstop with a .936 career fielding percentage.

But he remained anonymous for a half-century.

He ranks second on the all-time list of career hits for a shortstop, and second in doubles (451), RBIs (1,437), stolen bases (616), triples (163) and hits (2,660).

But his anonymity for so many years makes it nearly impossible to find family. Lipka said somebody has to be out there.

He became the 18th shortstop inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But where is his family?

``Will we adopt him? Oh, you know it,'' said Charlotte St. Gelias, 53, a resident of Cohoes all her life. ``We all have. His name won't be forgotten now.''

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