Gorgeous George: The first trade that shook up baseball

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The first trade that shook the game of baseball occurred prior to the 1893 season, when the New York Giants traded star catcher Buck Ewing to Cleveland for third baseman George Davis, a 22-year old phenom.

At the time, Davis was considered a matinee idol, with curly blonde hair and boyish good looks. His transfer from the Midwest to America’s biggest city propelled him to stardom and helped transform the Giants into one of the game’s most important franchises. It’s not an exaggeration to say that had Davis never been traded from Cleveland to New York, the Giants wouldn’t be the storied franchise they are today.

When baseball moved the pitching mound from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate prior to the 1893 season, it shifted the balance of power from pitchers to hitters. Davis was a slap-hitting switch-hitter, and he hit .336 in the eight seasons following the rules change. The Giants also moved him to shortstop to take advantage of his strong arm.

How well respected was Davis for his baseball IQ? At the age of 24, the Giants made him their player-manager. He held that position for less than a full year, but he continued to improve his play with every passing season as he developed into the greatest shortstop in baseball in the 1890s.

Female fans in New York loved Davis, dubbing him “Gorgeous George.” He was one of the game’s highest-paid players in his prime, and he cavorted with many ladies while he lived in the city. Later, Davis opened a popular restaurant near the current site of Central Park. In the offseason he enjoyed serving as host, welcoming politicians and wealthy citizens to dine at his establishment.

In New York, Davis was the focal point of controversy in the clubhouse too. His teammates resented George’s relationship with Giants’ owner Andrew Freedman, who was stubborn with money and often fined his players for any infraction he could label as insubordination. Teammates even took to calling Davis “Andy” because of his chummy relationship with the team owner.

In the final stage of his career, Davis inked a lucrative contract to play in the fledgling American League. In 1906, when he was 35 years old, the switch-hitter found the fountain of youth and had one final great season. He led the White Sox in extra-base hits and total bases, helping to lead “The Hitless Wonders” to the pennant and a shocking upset of the Cubs in the World Series.

In 1998, almost 60 years after his death, and 89 years after his final game, a special veterans committee elected Davis to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His advanced statistics are superb: his 84.4 career Wins Above Replacement rank 52nd all-time as of 2021, and are second to Cap Anson among position players who began their career before 1900.

RELATED: The 100 Greatest Shortstops of All-Time; the Giants All-Time Team.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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