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Fritz Maisel

By Rob Neyer, November 29, 2015

If Fritz Maisel had spent the prime years of his career in the National League, he would at least be remembered. Because if you were well known in the Deadball Era’s National League, you were probably memorialized a half-century later in Lawrence Ritter’s seminal book, The Glory of Their Times.

But that book consists largely of interviews with National Leaguers, so the book contains relatively few mentions of American Leaguers. Especially American Leaguers with just a couple of big years.

But Fritz Maisel made a big impression during his brief time in the Majors, spoken for a moment in the same breath as “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker.

In 1889, two days shy of Christmas, Frederick Charles Maisel was born in Catonsville, Maryland, just to the west of Baltimore. Two-and-a-half years later, Maisel’s little brother, George, came along, and both would eventually ascend to professional baseball’s highest rank.

In the winter of 1909–10, longtime professional player Jack Dunn scraped together $70,000 and purchased the minor league Baltimore Orioles from Ned Hanlon.

Around the same time, Fritz Maisel broke into professional baseball with the Class D Elgin Kittens and moved up to the Class B Wheeling Stogies that same summer. And in 1911, he came back home to play for Dunn’s Orioles in the Class A Eastern League. Still only 21, Maisel didn’t hit much that season, but he stuck with the Orioles in 1912, when the franchise shifted to the Class AA International League; at that time, AA was as good as it got, with the International League probably outclassing the two other Double-A leagues, the American Association and the Pacific Coast League.

Maisel’s hitting picked up some in 1912, and then picked up a bit more in ’13. That August, Dunn sold Fritz to the New York Yankees, for the then-considerable sum of $12,000 (plus a couple of lesser players). The elder Maisel debuted on August 11 and immediately took over as the Yankees’ everyday third baseman. He’d stolen 44 bases with the Orioles and would steal 25 more in only 51 games with the Yankees, for 69 on the season.

Maisel stole 51 bases in 1915 and scored 77 runs with a career high batting average of .281.

Given a whole season in the Majors, though, Maisel became something of a household name. American League households, anyway. In 1914, he batted only .239 but still topped the American League with 74 stolen bases, easily outpacing famous AL speedsters Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, and even Ty Cobb. His manager, Frank Chance, called Maisel “the cleverest base runner in the league.”

By the way, in later years it was commonly reported that Maisel had set a Major League record with those 74 steals, but this was simply an error that somehow became popular, as Collins, Cobb, and Clyde Milan had all topped 74 steals in a season before Maisel reached that figure.

In 1915, Cobb jumped back to the top of the list with 96 steals, but “Flash” Maisel came in second with 51 steals.

By the winter of ’16, Maisel had established himself as one of the game’s top base runners. Meanwhile, Shoeless Joe Jackson was coming off a disappointing campaign with the Chicago White Sox. With White Sox owner Charles Comiskey looking for a new third baseman at the American League meetings, rumors abounded that he might trade Jackson for Maisel. Today, this seems like a lopsided deal, and it did then, too . . . just not in the way you might think. “For all the power in Jackson’s bat,” opined the New York Tribune, “there are reasons for believing he is not so valuable a player as Maisel.”

There were also reasons for believing the Yankees were amenable to a deal, as they’d recently lured future Hall of Fame third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker out of retirement.

Ultimately, a deal between the White Sox and Yankees wasn’t consummated. Nor was a deal worked out between the Yankees and the Red Sox, despite much discussion about a trade that would have sent Tris Speaker—with, it should be noted, a goodly sum of money—to the Yankees for Maisel. Afterward, Yankees co-owner Til Huston said, “We would like to have Speaker, but we won’t let Maisel go. Why should we trade a young fellow who has ten good years ahead of him for a veteran who may last only three or four years more at the most?”

At that point, Maisel had just turned 26 while Speaker hadn’t quite turned 27. So it’s hard to figure Huston’s math.

Speaker would still be playing in the Majors a dozen years later, on his way to the Hall of Fame. Maisel . . . well, he wouldn’t.

With Home Run Baker aboard, Maisel opened 1916 as the Yankees’ everyday center fielder. But he got off to a terrible start, stealing only three bases in his first 24 games. Things would get worse. On May 15, Fritz suffered a broken collarbone that kept him out of action for most of the next three months. He would start only 15 more games the rest of the season and finish with only four steals.

Maisel returned to the Yankees in 1917 and stole 29 bases, but he batted just .198. The following winter, he was included in a huge trade with the St. Louis Browns that netted veteran pitcher Eddie Plank and star second baseman Del Pratt. Maisel was more or less the Browns’ regular third baseman in the war-shortened ’18 season, but most of his speed seems to have disappeared, as the onetime “Flash” swiped only 11 bases in 90 games.

Orioles owner Jack Dunn brought Maisel back to Baltimore in 1919. With Maisel as captian, Dunn’s team won seven consecutive International League pennants.

But Fritz Maisel’s baseball career was hardly over. His old manager Jack Dunn saw an opportunity and pounced, bringing Fritz back to his hometown Orioles, with whom he would spend the next decade, perennially batting around .300 and scoring oodles of runs. Meanwhile, in his first season with the O’s, they began an incredible string of seven straight International League pennants. As Fred Lieb later wrote in his history of the Orioles—including the minor and Major League clubs carrying that name—“Fritzie played a lot of brilliant ball after returning to the Birds; the pint-sized third baseman was a stockholder in the club and deputy manager whenever Dunn was absent.”

Dunn died shortly after the 1928 season; Maisel took over as manager and held the job through the 1932 season. The Orioles were competitive during those years but never won a pennant. Outside of baseball, Maisel became involved in Baltimore County politics and served as chief of the fire department from 1938 through ’51. (His little brother George, who’d enjoyed a long career in professional baseball including a few brief stints in the Majors, also later worked for Baltimore County, apparently a good place to be a Maisel.)

In 1954, the American League’s St. Louis Browns became the Major League Baltimore Orioles, and Fritz Maisel served the club as a scout from its inaugural season until his death in 1967. By then, his son Bob was the sports editor of the Baltimore Sun, having already covered the Orioles “beat” for a number of years. In 1985, Rickey Henderson broke Fritz Maisel’s Yankees franchise record for stolen bases in a single season. Asked to comment, Bob said, “My father would have been the first to root for him.”

In 1957, Maisel had told a reporter, “A player who hustles can have a job in baseball as long as he wants one. And the public will never forget him.”

Never is a long time. But there might yet today be someone in Baltimore who remembers seeing the “Catonsville Flash” win a big game for his hometown Orioles. And Fritz Maisel did indeed have a job in baseball for as long as he wanted one.

 

 

 

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