On the afternoon of May 1, 1883, New York City’s new National League ball club trotted out to their positions at the Polo Grounds in the franchise’s historic opener. The first three batters for the home nine were future Hall of Famers. Can you name them?
If you can’t, don’t feel too bad. Although there are some very good sources on the subject, 19th Century baseball, for the most part, has been ignored by the media and even the teams themselves. The Giants have acknowledged their roots in publications such as their 1983 Official Yearbook and The Hall of Fame Giants (Woodford Publishing). When it comes to public recognition, however, absolutely nothing has been done.
The Giants are approaching their 125th anniversary. I can’t think of anything more appropriate to help mark this historic occasion than to retire the name of one of their first star players. The decision is not easy as the franchise has several standouts from their early years. At least one player, however, should be chosen and I believe the most deserving candidate is Roger Connor.
Here is some information I collected on Connor. The two main sources are David L. Fleitz’s chapter on Connor in his excellent Ghosts in the Gallery at Cooperstown and Bernard J. Crowley's bio in SABR's Baseball’s First Stars.
40 years before Babe Ruth became known as the Sultan of Swat, Roger Connor awed fans with his power hitting. In his first two seasons of professional ball (1878 and 1879), while playing for Holyoke, (Massachusetts, National Association) at their riverside park, Connor “thrilled the crowds with long home runs into the river.”
In his second big league season with Troy, he became the first player to hit an “Ultimate Grand Slam.” (A grand slam with two outs to win the game by one run). His sacks loaded shot on September 10, 1881 sailed over the right field fence in the bottom of the ninth to beat Worcester 8-7.
A left-handed hitter, Connor cracked the Giants first hit at that historic first game in 1883 and clouted the first ball out of the park at the original Polo Grounds (Sep 11, 1886). In 1889, the year the Giants repeated as the league champs, Connor, known as “The Mighty Clouter,” was the first batter to clear the fence at the “New Polo Grounds” in upper Manhattan.
Crowley, one of the first researchers to write about Connor, described him as a “quiet, non-controversial man,” and “a bit of a romantic.” Born in Waterbury, Connecticut and the oldest of eleven children, he worked in a factory to help support the family. Tall and handsome, Connor was a beloved figure in New York. After his retirement from baseball, he worked for a school in Waterbury and owned a family-run team.
On the field, opposing pitchers did not hold too many kind thoughts of “Dear Old Roger.” From 1880 to 1892, Connor was first, second or third in Adjusted OPS 11 times. He finished first or second in triples seven times. In the Giants pennant winning years of 1888 and 1889, Connor led the league in Adjusted OPS.
In 1885, the season the Giants got their nickname and battled Chicago in a thrilling pennant race, Connor had his best season. It’s not fully known if the Giants size and/or play that summer inspired manager Jim Mutrie to yell out something like, “My Giants, look at my Giants!” What is known is that Connor was the tallest player on the team (some sources list him as 6’2”, others 6’3”), the biggest (220 lbs) and gave the fans much to cheer about. He became the franchise’s first league batting champion with a .371 average (138 points above the league average).
When he retired in 1897, Connor sported a big league best 138 home runs. This figure stood as the most until Babe Ruth passed it in 1921. But records weren’t maintained and publicized as they would be in later years. It wasn’t until Hank Aaron’s chase of the Babe in the 70’s that fans began to ask who was baseball’s first home run king.
Principal owner Peter Magowan has done a lot for the Giants in his dozen plus years at the helm. The various ways he has paid homage to the Giants past is quite noteworthy. But a pantheon that does not include even one player from the 19th Century is a glaring omission.
So I humbly Mr. Magowan. Do the right thing. Put an end to this unfair exclusion. Add another great touch to the masterpiece. Retire the name of Roger Connor.