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World War I overshadowed baseball's 'tour to end all tours'

10:50 a.m., July 10, 2003--While the world teetered on the brink of war in the fall of 1913, two major league baseball teams and their entourages took off on a tour that captured the imagination of kings and commoners around the world.

James E. Elfers: “This was the most extensive baseball tour ever, and people thought it would be remembered for a long time. The problem was that World War I broke out in 1914 and pushed everything else off the front pages.”

Billed at the time as one of the greatest events in the history of sports, the tour that pitted the New York Giants against the Chicago White Sox was soon overshadowed by events that began with an assassin’s bullet in the Balkans.

The spirit of that long-go time and the men who played the game has been captured in a new book, “The Tour to End All Tours: The Story of Major League Baseball’s 1913-1914 World Tour,” written by James E. Elfers, a library assistant at UD’s Morris Library, and published by the University of Nebraska Press.

“This was the most extensive baseball tour ever, and people thought it would be remembered for a long time,” Elfers said. “The problem was that World War I broke out in 1914 and pushed everything else off the front pages.”

In his introduction, Elfers offers readers a flavor of the times by noting some of the events and personalities that marked the era.

There were 48 states—Arizona and New Mexico had been admitted to the Union in 1912.

The consumer culture had just begun, and must-have items included disposable shirt collars, Colgate toothpaste, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Henry Ford’s automobiles.

The federal income tax had just been introduced, the Panama Canal was nearing completion, the hottest entertainment ticket was escape artist Harry Houdini and the national preoccupation with professional sports—and the superstars who played them—was in its infancy.

“America was a different place in those days,” Elfers said. “The only place where football was played was in college—and there was no professional basketball league.”

There was, however, major league baseball, and the tour to end all tours was the brainchild of two of its most influential figures, New York Giants manager John McGraw and Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.

Conceived on a cold winter’s night over drinks in the back room of “Smiley” Mike Corbett’s bar on Chicago’s East Side, the tour would be one of the most ambitious sporting exhibitions ever staged.

The 27-city American leg of the tour alone would draw 100,000 fans as the teams played 31 games in 34 days. Overall, the tour began in mid-October in Cincinnati and ended with a celebration in Chicago the following March.

During this tour, the teams would visit 13 nations, traveling 30,000 miles as they demonstrated their considerable athletic talents before such notables of the day as Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea millionaire, Abbas II, the last khedive of Egypt; and King George V of England.

Elfers’ interest in the subject began a few years ago, while he was doing a research project for Kevin Kerrane, UD professor of English and author of several baseball books, including “Dollar Sign on the Muscle,” rated by Sports Illustrated as one of the 100 greatest sports books of all time.

“I saw an article called ‘The Glory of Their Times’ in Base Ball Magazine,” Elfers said. “The real attraction was that there were no other books out there on the subject. I had the field all to myself.”

Because of his subject, Elfers said, he decided to structure the story chronologically, following the exploits of the main characters as events unfolded.

Among the most notable of these colorful characters was John “Mugsy” McGraw, arguably the greatest manager in the history of the National League. During his career as a manager from 1905-24, the man—referred to by detractors and admirers alike as “Little Napoleon”—amassed 2,763 wins (second only to Connie Mack’s 3,731) and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.

McGraw’s American League counterpart was White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. Considered the richest man in baseball, Comiskey picked up most of the $90,000 steamship travel tab. He also carried with him a letter of credit in the amount of $121,000 to meet overseas expenses.

The tour roster included future Baseball Hall of Fame members “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, Urban “Red” Faber, Tris Speaker—who had a lifetime batting average of .345 (fifth highest ever), with 3,514 hits during a 22-year career—and Christy Mathewson, who won 373 games while finishing with a career earned run average of 2.13.

However, the most recognizable personality on the tour was Jim Thorpe, who had been the sensation of the 1912 Olympics and was the only American athlete to excel at both the amateur and professional level in track and field, football and baseball.

After his Olympic medals were stripped because it was reported he had played minor league baseball, Thorpe became even more popular with most Americans who sympathized with his plight. His Olympic medals were returned posthumously almost 70 years later in 1982.

On the heels of this controversy, Thorpe opted to begin his professional sports career with McGraw’s New York Giants, signing a three-year contract for the then considerable sum of $6,000 a year.

Thorpe, who would eventually become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the first president of what would become the National Football League, was treated as a celebrity almost everywhere he went. His fame in Shanghai, Elfers said, surpassed all the rest of the players on the tour combined.

“The reception he got around the world was most interesting,” Elfers said. “When the ship pulled up to the dock in Shanghai, the crowd was waiting, chanting ‘Thorpe, Thorpe, Thorpe.’”

Thorpe’s wife, Iva, who accompanied him on the tour, was almost as sought after a personality as her husband, and her picture often accompanied that of her husband on the front pages of newspapers at home and abroad.

“The biggest surprise and the biggest kick I got out of doing the book was the response of Jim Thorpe’s daughters, Grace and Gail,” Elfers said. “When Jim and Iva divorced, it was so bitter that she cut his picture out of every photograph she owned. I was able to put everything back for them.”

While the crowds and the media were paying attention to the players, the focus for the team members and their companions was often one of surviving the many hazards posed by a transoceanic voyage.

“During the trip to Japan, the ship, the Empress of Japan, was hit by 60-foot waves while encountering a late-season typhoon,” Elfers said. “It was so dark, and the waves were so high, that nobody, including the captain, had any idea where they were.”

In addition to Tokyo and Shanghai, tour stops included the Philippines, Australia, Egypt, the capitals of Europe and the first-ever baseball game played in Hong Kong.

Although the Giants took the tour opener 11-2 in Cincinnati, the White Sox won the most games, besting their New York rivals by a 25-21 margin.

The return trip proved to be smooth and uneventful, but there was a touch of irony in the fact that the tour participants returned from Europe to America on the Lusitania. Two years later, on May 7, 1915, the luxury-liner was sunk by torpedoes from a German submarine.

In comparing the abilities and attitudes of players from 1913-14 to today, Elfers, who describes himself as a life-long Philadelphia Phillies fan, notes that some things about the sport remain the same while others have changed.

“I think the game itself is the same but that the athletes are probably in better condition,” Elfers said. “I don’t know if they have the same love of the game that the old players had.”

A member of the UD staff since 1988, Elfers said his 1986 bachelor’s degree in geography proved a valuable asset in putting the book together.

“The geography background certainly helped in writing and researching this book,” Elfers said. “I was able to combine my two greatest loves, geography and baseball, in a unique way.”

Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Kathy Atkinson

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