One of the most bizarre episodes in Springfield history took place when the New York Giants baseball team played a game here.

One of the most bizarre episodes in Springfield history took place when the New York Giants baseball team played a game here.

Having the Giants play in Springfield would have been historic in itself. They were in the middle of a heated pennant race at the time. But it is when the game occurred that brings in the “bizarre” dimension. It was Aug. 18, 1908, just a couple of days after what has become known as the Springfield Race Riot, though it is more accurately described as a white riot against Springfield’s black population.

With thousands of troops patrolling Springfield’s streets, with the Badlands where the city’s blacks lived still smoldering and the city virtually under martial law, the baseball game went on as scheduled.

But what sends this episode in Springfield history from the bizarre to the obscene is that while in Springfield that day, legendary Giants manager John McGraw was presented with a souvenir of his visit to Springfield — a piece of the rope that was used to lynch either William Donnegan or Scott Burton during the riots.

McGraw promised the locals that he would keep the rope with him during the remainder of the season as a good-luck charm. My jaw dropped to the floor when I read that.

I came across this incident while reading “Crazy ’08,” by Cait Murphy, an excellent account of the 1908 major league baseball season. Murphy read the story of McGraw and the rope in the Aug. 29, 1908, edition of “Sporting Life,” a sports magazine of the times, while she was researching the 1908 season.

Until reading Murphy’s book, I never knew this had happened despite closely reading the August 1908 Springfield newspapers while researching last year’s observance of the 100th year since the riots.

The day the Giants came to town, the headlines and stories throughout much the rest of the Illinois State Journal and the Illinois Register were of the riot’s aftermath. Gunshots still rang out during the night. Efforts to arrest those responsible for the lynchings and the destruction were only beginning. The city was still extremely uneasy.

And into the midst of this come the mighty New York Giants. Their game against the Springfield Senators drew thousands. The Journal called the crowd 5,000, while The Register put it at 3,500.
Put in a modern context, no huge gathering such as this would be allowed in the immediate aftermath of a riot. But there didn’t seem to be any qualms about it that day in 1908.

The main reason the Giants came here to play the Senators (who were leading the Three-I league at the time) is because three of the Giants were local boys. Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity had played for the Senators. Luther “Dummy” Taylor, the mute pitcher, was from Lincoln (and eventually died in Jacksonville). Second baseman Larry Doyle was from Breese.

The Giants had played the Cardinals in St. Louis on the 17th, then had the 18th off before a game in Cincinnati on the 19th. McGraw agreed to put his team on a train to Springfield for a game on the off day. Besides having the Illinois players on his roster, he agreed to the game because he wanted a good look at Senators pitcher Forrest More with an eye toward signing him.

McGraw promised to play his starters, and he did with the notable exception of pitcher Christy Mathewson, who won 37 games for the Giants that year and probably needed a day off.

Instead, McGraw pitched the local guys, McGinnity and Taylor. In the late innings, McGraw himself took the field, taking over for Doyle at second base.

The accounts of the game in the Journal and the Register only include one indirect reference to the riot.

The Journal reported that Taylor, Doyle and McGinnity were asked what they thought of Springfield and if it had changed much since they left. They declined to answer.

“In view of the sundry unpleasant things which have occurred since they left this midst,” the Journal reporter wrote, “it is quite proper that they should refrain from such comment.”

Sundry unpleasant things.

The Giants won the Springfield game 3-0. Forrest More had a horrible day, blowing any chance he had of signing with the Giants. He later played for the Giants’ nemesis, the Cubs.

One footnote to this incredible story:

When Doyle and McGinnity came to the plate for their first at-bats that day, the game was stopped and each man was presented with a memento of his visit to Springfield — a gold and diamond stickpin. Taylor received one as well.

The presentations of the stickpins were reported with great fanfare by the Journal and the Register. But neither Springfield newspaper mentions the rope being given to McGraw.

Dave Bakke can be reached at (217) 788-1541 or dave.bakke@sj-r.com.