(Bumped from FanPosts. --Eric)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, is keeping secrets from you. Its Roman Sarcophagi are stuffed with them. It's got them in shoeboxes under the Louis XIV bed. They're in the spokes of the silky Etruscan Chariot, and old Rembrandt just traded a 4-inch stack for Vincent Van Gogh's right ear. Yes, I'm talking about baseball cards. The Museum's got a better collection than anyone but the landfills. If only they'd let us know it.
A man named Burdick delivered 300,000 paper cards to the Met in 1947. Burdick was a gentle, sickly collector from Syracuse who had never been to a baseball game. He didn't like baseball. What he liked were paper cards. Of ballplayers, actresses, cowboys, fish, fowl, and police inspectors. Baseball players represent only a tenth of the total, but in that tenth is a nearly complete collection of all cards issued from 1880 through the 1960s (he kept giving.) The best in the world.
The Museum displays a few dozen of these cards in a corner, tucked away like the porno at Video Village. No book of them, no scholarly catalogue, no love. Anyway, today we'll remember Mr. Burdick and look at Big Dave Orr of the New York Metropolitans.
Orr was fatter than his card. At 5'11" 250, he was a couple hams shy of Prince Fielder, but like Prince he didn't exactly make a fool of himself at 1B. But already we're ahead of ourselves. There were a Mets in the 19th Century?
The Metropolitan Club was formed in the fall of 1880, "after professional ball in the metropolis had reached its lowest level, and the thousands of admirers of the game were yearning for a return to the good old days of honest ball playing." That's according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman's former paper, where you get the whole salad of postbellum news. A fellow named John H. Day put the nine together and stashed them in the Polo Grounds, and then fought a court battle to prove they weren't a sort of circus amusement. (He'd have needed a permit.)
The team received invitations to join the National League (which had expelled the New York Mutuals) and the brand new American Association. The Club accepted both invitations, but when the joke flopped Day brought a team in from Troy and entered them in the NL. They were the Gothams, later the Giants, called "The New-Yorks." Since "New-Yorks" was now taken, the Metropolitan Club was the "Metropolitans," and shortly after, the "Mets." (Typical headline: "THE NEW-YORKS, METROPOLITANS, AND BROOKLYNS WIN.") Both clubs played at the Polo Grounds on two separate diamonds with a canvas fence between them. As balls over the fence were still in play, outfielders dug tunnels.
Big Dave Orr was a star. He was born out in Queens to an Irish stonecutter and cut his baseball teeth in Newark, Hartford, and Brooklyn. (The Brooklyn "Alaskas" played in Prospect Park.) Day bought him for the Gothams in 1883 and after one game transfered the 24-year-old righty to the Metropolitans. In 1884, Orr's first full season, he led the American Association in BA (.354) and RBI (112), and with 9 HR was just two short of the Triple Crown. And, as several other cards in the Met's collection make clear, these men did not wear mitts. Nevertheless, Orr's fielding percentage reached a league-leading .985 in his peak year.
Big Dave also seems to have been a great guy. When a law clerk came to the door at 241 East 112th Street, Orr dutifully punched him in the face so hard that a tooth was knocked down his throat. Thing is, he wasn't doing it for himself. A Mrs. Heinsel, who kept the room where Orr boarded, was not of a mind to be served papers by her husband, from whom she was separated. The Eagle reports Orr's arrest but does not record what chivalry won or lost him in court.
Remarkably, the 1884 Mets won the pennant and, oddly enough, played exactly 162 games (a record), with a 75-32 record in official play. (The rest against colleges and amateur nines.) That year in the American Association a black man named Moses Fleetwood Walker played fourty-six major league games for the Toledo Blue Stockings. The Baseball Almanac mentions that he was released after making thirty-seven errors as catcher. They don't mention circumstances. Star pitcher Tony Mullane:
Walker was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I dislike a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals.
So, the Mets won a berth in the World Series. The first World Series of all, in fact, and a terrible one at that. The Mets were throttled in 3 games by the Providence Greys and, for reasons I don't really gather, the public didn't care. Total attendance for the 3 combined was 3,800, whereas plenty of newspaper accounts I read peg attendance at single games at 5,000. Maybe it was too cold in late October. I don't get it.
After 1884, the Mets sucked. Big Dave continued to jack the ball, with 193 hits in 1886 (136 games) -- 300 total bases, 31 triples, both records -- but in the same year, the sorry outfit asked its star first basemen to pitch in three contests. By that time Day had decided to use the Metropolitans as a sort of farm-team for his Gothams in the better-liked National League. He drained the Mets of their talent though, for some reason, not of Big Dave. That I also don't get. The team folded in 1887 when they finished 50 games behind the St. Louis Browns. Orr had tried rescuing the team in a stint as manager. He'd hit .368 in that dying year. But there was nothing he could do except sign with the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. There, Big Dave was cut down by a stroke at age 31.
In 1910 Ty Cobb told the New York Times:
In the old days the great hitters were Dave Orr, Pete Browning, Dan Brouthers, and Pop Anson – big fellows, who swung onto a ball with the force of a triphammer. Bring ‘em in one of the big rings to-day and the artists of modern baseball would make ‘em look like jokes.
But Ty Cobb was a jerk.
For more on Big Dave: The Baseball Biography Project.
For more on the Burdick collection: Old Baseball Cards blog.