On July 4, 1904, Long Beach’s own George Thomas Stovall played his first Major League Baseball game for the Cleveland Blues. It was a double header, and George scored two hits in four times at bat in the morning game and three hits in four times up in the afternoon contest. The first baseman was off to an auspicious start, definitely earning his $150-a-month salary.
In 1899, 21-year-old George Stovall decided his future lay in California. He went to work on the Wilhoit ranch, on Perris Road near Anaheim Road, but baseball was his true love. Before coming to Long Beach in 1899, George (born in Leeds, Mo., on Nov. 23, 1877) played on the J.J. Foster’s, a semi-pro team in Kansas City. The Foster’s, however, got bad press when one of their players, Jesse James Jr., was arrested for having participated in a train robbery. Though James was acquitted, George, along with brothers Sam and Jesse, formed a new baseball club without James. However, the club was christened the “Leeds Train Robbers” and played under that name for some time. Upon arriving in Long Beach, George Stovall was a member of “town teams,” which played on “the flats” in the vicinity of 3rd Street and Pico Avenue– on a diamond in the neighborhood of 5th Street and Maine Avenue– and later in “Athletic Park,” which was just east of California Avenue between 7th and 10th streets. George organized a Sunday ball club, which played a series of games against San Pedro, Wilmington and other cities on diamonds in the west part of town. Their club was called the Long Beach Brownies.
The first local team, the Long Beach Nine, had begun playing back in 1893, and the team often recruited anyone willing to pick up a bat just so they would have a full contingent of players. Such was the case with the 1899 Long Beach High School baseball team. The high school had just opened the previous year, graduating a mere 15 students in 1899, the year George joined the team. It was hard to get enough players together to form a team, since many of the students lived in outlying areas and had to travel a great distance to get to the new school.
According to Long Beach historian Walter Case, George was allowed to play on the local high-school baseball team, even though he wasn’t a student. His days on the team were numbered, however, when the older and worldlier George purchased a bucket of beer for his teammates after a game with Whittier. Such an action in alcohol-free Long Beach was not to be tolerated. George was quickly dismissed from the team by Long Beach school authorities.
In the spring of 1901, the 23-year-old got a break in professional baseball, joining the Seattle team of the Northwestern League as a pitcher, but George hurt his arm in spring training and was released to Pendleton, Ore., in the Inland Empire League, where he played first base. In 1902, he started with the Walla Walla, Washington, team in the Inland Empire League, but a month later the league expired. In Salt Lake, he and other Inland Empire players organized a team they called the “Mormons” and started east on a barnstorming tour. While in Lincoln, Neb., the team attracted the notice of a fan from Atlantic, Iowa, who wrote home that Atlantic, then in last place in the Iowa Southwestern League, would do well to release its own players and sign the “Mormons” for the rest of the season. His advice was taken; Stovall and his team won seven of the eight games they played for Atlantic. Then that league, too, collapsed, but George found a home with Cleveland. He remained with the club for nine years, and in 1911 was made manager. From 1912 to 1922, he managed teams in Kansas, Ohio, Florida and California and became president of the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America.
He never forgot his friends and family in Long Beach. In 1909, while wintering at home before the professional baseball season started, he gladly agreed to give the local high-school baseball team some pointers. A new high school had opened that year, Polytechnic, replacing the older Long Beach High School. His coaching tips were certainly appreciated, as members of the team stated in the 1909 Poly High School yearbook:
“It was perhaps a question in the minds of some Long Beach baseball fans as to the reasons for the team’s unusual good batting average this season. The coach is to blame for this…Mr. Stovall, who now plays first base for the Cleveland Indians, handed out large packets of advice every night for three long weeks, and what the team doesn’t now know about the game of baseball, Spaulding doesn’t publish in his rule book.”
The Poly team that year– Douglas Coughran, Pat Fulton, Husky Young, Scandinavian Pete, Whittier Fleckinger, Harry Galbraith, Tommy Boland, Sam Wotten, Spitty Frazer and Paul Enlow– lived on success. In the yearbook, they added: “There is one very good satisfaction obtained through this year’s ball team; we have got the townspeople standing behind the high school and ready to help with finances and lusty yells– all through the assistance of Mr. Daily, who was able to secure the coaching of George Stovall.” (By the way, there were 102 high-school graduates that year, a big increase from the 15 who graduated in 1899!)
One of George’s greatest claims to fame occurred in 1913 and earned him the nickname “Firebrand.” Umpire Charles Ferguson called Stovall out on a third strike in the sixth inning of a Browns-Indians game. Stovall snatched Ferguson’s hat off his head and threw it on the ground, then spit on the umpire’s coat, according to the May 6, 1913, New York Times. American League president Ben Johnson was outraged.
“There isn’t room in the American League for players who commit offenses against public decency,” Johnson said of Stovall’s action. “I am astounded that any manager should create such a scene by losing his self-control in the presence of a large assemblage of patrons of the game. The American League will not countenance such conduct for a minute.”
Player-manager Stovall was fined $100 and suspended for three weeks. He was later fired by the team in October of that year and replaced by Branch Rickey.
For many years, George and his wife Emma, whom he married in 1904, lived at 915 Cherry Ave. in Long Beach, making frequent visits to their ranch in Casa Grande Valley, Ariz. Upon retiring from the world of baseball, George worked in the oil fields and, in his spare time, he coached the Loyola baseball team and managed the Houghton Park Baseball Club of Long Beach. He died Nov. 5, 1951, in Burlington, Iowa.
Burnett is a former Long Beach librarian who, during her 25 years of researching local history, has uncovered many forgotten stories about Southern California that she has published in nine books. She has degrees from UC Irvine, UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. For more information, visit claudineburnettbooks.com.