Dec. 1, 2010
by Campbell Gibson, `63
On September 7, 1904, Charlie Swindells, who played on the Stanford baseball team in 1898-1899, made his major league debut, playing catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. In so doing, Swindells became the first of 86 Stanford students through the 2010 season to play in the major leagues.
Of these 86 players, only seven started their major league careers prior to America's entry into World War II. Subsequently, the number by decade generally has increased: from two in the 1941-1950 decade to 25 in the 2001-2010 decade. (For a list of these 86 players, including photographs click here)
Prior to World War II, so-called "college men" were not very prevalent among major league players for a number of reasons. First, a much smaller percentage of men attended college than is the case today. Second, playing professional baseball frequently was not approved of by parents, especially by those whose children had gone to college and for whom parents had higher (more respectable) career aspirations. And third, except for a small number of superstars (Babe Ruth most prominently), major leaguers players did not have particularly high salaries, especially in comparison to salary prospects for young men with a college degree.
The purpose of this article is to look briefly at the lives and careers of these seven Stanford students who went on to play in the major leagues, some of whom played baseball professionally for as long as they could and some of whom retired early to pursue other careers.
Three of these seven played only briefly in the major leagues (one season and no more than 12 games) while the other four played 3 to 7 years in the major leagues. With the exception of one player, who was more noted for his prowess on the football field (think of Stanford's most illustrious football player and the 1925 Rose Bowl), none of these players would likely be known to baseball fans today except for avid students of baseball history.
Charlie Swindells - Catcher
Charles Jay Swindells was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1878. He was a star baseball player at Stanford in 1898 and 1899, and was a member of the class of 1901. He was the coach of the Stanford baseball team in 1902-1903, which overlapped his seven-year minor league baseball career (1901-1907). He played for several different minor league teams, mostly in the northwest, and played in a total of 545 games, with a batting average of .245, which was respectable for a catcher in baseball's "deadball" era.
In 1904, Swindells played for Butte, Montana in Pacific National League. In August, his contract was purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals. He played in only three games (with one hit in eight at bats) in his very brief major league career.
Following his baseball career, Swindells became a lawyer and served as secretary and attorney for the Portland in the Pacific Coast League from 1931 to 1934. He died in Portland in 1940 at age 61.
"Big Bill" McGilvray - Outfielder and First
William Alexander McGilvray was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1883, but grew up in Denver, Colorado, where he was a star baseball player for West High School and various amateur teams. His decision to attend Stanford presumably was due in part to the fact that his uncle, John McGilvray, who was master stone mason, moved to Palo Alto in 1893, where he was employed by Leland Stanford to build the Quad and Memorial Church on the new Stanford campus.
Bill McGilvray was a member of the class of 1904 at Stanford and played catcher for the baseball team in 1902 and 1903. He then left Stanford, and playing under the name of William Hayes to preserve his amateur status (a fairly common practice at the time), he played outfield for Denver in the Western League where in a brief stint of 16 games, his batting average was an eye-catching .419. He played a full season with Denver in 1904, batting .274. He then gave up the idea of ever playing baseball again in college and used his real name for the remainder of his long baseball career.
McGilvray played for Pueblo in the Western League in 1906, leading the league in batting with a .373 average, and again in 1907. He was then drafted by the Cincinnati Reds and played in their minor league system in 1908 before being called up late in the 1908 season. His major league career was very brief, two games as a pinch hitter (with no hits in two at bats). He then played five years for Birmingham in the Southern Association (1909 to 1913), switching from the outfield to first base starting in 1910 due to problems with his throwing arm. His last season was 1914, with Troy in the New York State League. For his minor league career, including the two seasons that he played under the surname of Hayes, McGilvray played 12 years, batting. 297 in 1,451 games.
After retiring as a player and umpiring for one year in the Western League, McGilvray had 35-year career in Denver as an executive with Continental Oil Company. He kept close ties to baseball and was a founder of the Denver Oldtimer's Baseball league. He died in Denver in 1952 at the age of 69.
"Tillie" Shafer - Infielder
Shafer was the first Stanford student to achieve stardom in the major leagues, although he did it in unusual fashion. He attended Stanford in 1911 between a couple of two-year stints in the major leagues. He could not play baseball for the Stanford team, having lost his amateur status in the sport. Shafer is the subject of a short biography by Brian McKenna in the The Baseball Biography Project of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), which is the source of much of the following account of Shafer's baseball career and life.
Arthur Joseph Shafer was born in Los Angeles in 1889 into an affluent family and early on excelled in athletics, including baseball and track. He started college at Notre Dame in Indiana in 1906, but soon came back to California where he attended Santa Clara College through 1908 and was a star athlete.
Over parental objection, Shafer signed a contract to play for the New York Giants and their famous manager John McGraw. Shafer, who never played in the minor leagues, played for the Giants in 1909 and 1910, but it was not a happy experience. Shafer was a handsome and straight-laced young man, and according to one account, when introduced by McGraw to his Giant teammates, the veteran Cy Seymour ran over to Shafer, kissed him on both cheeks, and screamed "Hello, Tillie! How are you?" Whether or not this account is totally accurate, the feminine nickname of Tillie stuck with Shafer for the rest of his life.
Shafer, who had just turned age 20 when he started in the major leagues, was primarily
a substitute player in 1909 and 1910, playing in a total of just 67 games, sometimes as a pinch-runner (reflecting his phenomenal speed) or pinch-hitter. Shafer was a champion sprinter in college, and once was timed at 3.2 seconds from home plate to first base.
In the summer of 1908, the Santa Clara College team had played against Japan's Keio University team in Hawaii. Two years later, Shafer was invited to go to Japan to instruct the Keio University team in the finer points of baseball before its planned U.S. tour in 1911. In December 1910, Shafer and his boyhood friend, Fuller Thompson (who pitched briefly in the major leagues in 1911), sailed to Japan and worked with the Keio team, which resulted in a book titled The Art of Keio Baseball. Shafer and Thompson appear to have been very successful because the Keio team won three-fourths of its games on its U.S. tour.
Shafer returned to the United States in February 1911, and due perhaps to the possibility of being traded to the Boston Braves, he decided to quit the Giants (despite having signed a contract), and instead enrolled at Stanford where he studied geology and was part of the sailing team. In addition to being a star athlete, Shafer had academic interests and an inquisitive mind. He could read three foreign languages (Greek, Latin, and Spanish) and dissected and rebuilt a variety of mechanisms, from watches to automobile engines. Later in 1911, Shafer returned home to Los Angeles, to help care for his mother who health was failing.
Shafer reported back to the New York Giants for spring training in 1912, having taught himself to become a switch hitter to take advantage of the shorter distance to first base for a left-handed batter. Shafer was again a utility man for the Giants, playing in 78 games and batting .288. The Giants won the pennant, but lost the World Series to the Boston Red Sox, 4 games to 3. Shafer appeared in three games as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement at shortstop.
In 1913, Shafer finally was a regular for the Giants, playing in 138 games and batting .287. Perhaps more importantly, he was very versatile defensively, playing in 79 games at third base, 25 games at second base, 16 games at shortstop, and 15 games in the outfield. Again the Giants won the pennant, but lost the World Series, this time to the Philadelphia Athletics, 4 games to 1. Shafer played in all five games, mostly as center fielder, with 3 hits in 19 at bats.
Shafer had threatened to retire after the 1912 season, but in March 1913, he signed a three-year contract with the Giants for $7,500 per year, which was a very good salary for a major league baseball player. (Ty Cobb, perhaps the most prominent baseball player at the time, was paid about $12,000 in 1913 and $15,000 in 1914.) But on December, 16, 1913, Shafer announced his retirement from professional baseball. Over the years, several reasons had surfaced for Shafer not wanting to continue his major league career: he didn't care for the East
Coast, he had satisfied his ambition to play baseball at the highest level, his father wanted him to
return home to California, he didn't need to make a living playing baseball, and professional baseball was not a normal life for a young man. Perhaps the most amusing reason, which Shafer offered when he threatened to retire after the 1912 season, was that he received too many perfumed ("mash") notes from female fans, who no doubt were attracted to this handsome, modest, well-educated, and unmarried young man.
McGraw knew how valuable a versatile player like Shafer was, and the Giants reportedly offered him $12,000 to play in 1914. Shafer declined this offer and all subsequent offers, and the Giants finally released their rights to Shafer in 1926, when he was 37 years old. In retirement, Shafer was involved in several businesses, including a haberdashery that was patronized by Hollywood film stars. During World War I, he enlisted in the Navy and joined the reserve officers training program.
Shafer's retirement from baseball did not end his sports career. He took up golf seriously and won many tournaments. According to his obituary, he qualified for the state amateur tournament six times (finishing second for three years in a row) and for the national amateur tournament at Pebble Beach in 1929. He died in Los Angeles in 1962 at age 72.
Zeb Terry - Infielder
Zebulon Alexander Terry was born in Denison, Texas, in 1891; however, his family moved to Los Angles before he started college. Terry was a member of the class of 1914 at Stanford and graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics. During his four years at Stanford, Terry was the shortstop and star player on the Stanford team.
Starting around the time of Terry's years at Stanford, the annual Stanford Quad began including a little more detail (though not on a consistent basis), on the baseball team's performance. In 1912, Terry was the leading hitter, at .306, versus the team batting average of only .205. In 1913, Stanford had its "best team in many years," with a won-loss record of 15-5 (and one tie), and finished first in the local college league of Stanford, Cal, Santa Clara, and St. Mary's. In, 1914, the team's league record was 12-6 (and three ties). In addition, Stanford played the visiting University of Keio team from Japan, winning 5-0.
Over parental objection, Terry played professionally after college, starting with the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League. He played 35 games in 1914, and then was the Angels' shortstop in 1915, playing 191 games in the long west coast season and batting. 264. He played in 94 games for Chicago White Sox in the American League in 1916, batting .190, and was back playing for the Angels the next two years. In 1918, the Pacific Coast League terminated its season early on July 14, and Terry was signed for the the remainder of the season by the Boston Braves in the National League, for whom he played in 28 games.
After the season, Terry reported briefly for artillery officer training; however, the Great War (World War I) ended in November. A dispute over rights to Terry's services between the Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates was resolved in favor of the Pirates, for whom Terry played in 129 games in 1919. He was purchased by the Chicago Cubs in January 1920, and was a starting infielder for the next three seasons, playing shortstop and second base in 1920 and second base the next two years. In his three years with the Cubs, Terry batted .280, .276, and 286, respectively.
Like Shafer, Terry then chose to retire in the prime of his career (though age 31 compared to Shafer's age 24) and return home to Los Angeles. Terry then pursued various business interests (including real estate, property management, and oil leasing) in Los Angeles, where he lived a long life, dying in 1988 at age 96.
Johnny Couch - Pitcher
John Daniel Couch was born in 1891 in Vaughn, Montana, and his family moved to Palo Alto in 1902. He was a member of the class of 1915 at Stanford, but played baseball at Stanford just in 1912. His minor league career began in 1914, and a strong season with San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League in 1916 led to his major league debut in April 1917 with the Detroit Tigers. However, a cut on his pitching arm led to a case of blood poisoning, and he sat out the rest of the season. He then enlisted in the Army and was a lieutenant in the infantry in Europe during World War I.
Couch returned to minor league baseball, and pitched again for San Francisco in 1919, 1920, and 1921, winning 59 games, including 25 in 1921. This led to his return to the major leagues in 1922, when he had his best season, with a 16-9 won-loss record for the second-place Cincinnati Reds. He pitched for three more years in the major leagues (1923-1925) and four years in the minor leagues (1926-1929) before retiring. For his career, Couch pitched in the major leagues for 5 seasons, with 29-34 won-loss record, and in the minor leagues for 10 seasons, with a 135-120 won-loss record.
After retiring from baseball, Couch worked briefly in the insurance business and then joined the California Highway Patrol with whom he had a 25-year career, the last 22 years in San Mateo County. He died in Palo Alto in 1975 at age 84.
Ernie Nevers - Pitcher
Nevers was the first Stanford student to achieve national fame for his achievements in college sports. While he lettered in three varsity sports (football, basketball, and baseball) and competed also in track, it was his performance on the football field, and in the January 1, 1925 Rose Bowl game against Notre Dame in particular (which Stanford lost 27-10) that brought him national recognition. He had missed much of the 1924 football season with two broken ankles, but played all 60 minutes in the Rose Bowl, and rushed for over 100 yards. As a senior, he played the full 1925 season and was named the nation's top college player.
Nevers left Stanford and turned pro in December 1925 and started his professional athletic career in an all-star football exhibition series. In 1926, he led the Duluth Eskimos in the young National Football League, playing all 60 minutes in most of the team's 13 league games and 16 exhibition games and helped popularize professional football nationally. In spite of his commitment to professional football, Nevers managed to play baseball professionally as well.
Ernest Alonso Nevers was born in 1902 in Willow River, Minnesota. His parents moved the family to California, buying a ranch near Santa Rosa when Ernie was in high school. He was an outstanding athlete in both football and basketball and chose to attend Stanford, though heavily recruited by Cal. In his freshman year (1922-1923), Nevers competed in football, basketball, track, and baseball. On one day against Cal, with simultaneous competitions, he threw the discus in his baseball uniform, and then went back to pitch for the baseball team.
In his junior year (1924-1925), Nevers joined the baseball team in midseason after the end of the basketball season, winning the first game he pitched, 7-0. Stanford won all three of its baseball games against Cal that season. In the last game, with the score tied 4-4, the bases loaded, two out and a full count, Nevers hit a grand-slam home run to give Stanford an 8-4 win.
As noted above, Nevers left Stanford after the football season in his senior year to turn pro, to the dismay of some in the Stanford community. The roughly $60,000 that he earned in 1926, playing professional baseball, basketball, and baseball, enabled him to pay off the mortgage on his parents' ranch.
Like Tillie Shafer, Nevers went straight to the major leagues from college baseball, although his career was brief one, due at least partly to the effects of football injuries to his pitching arm. He pitched for the St. Louis Browns in 1926, 1927, and 1928, with a career won-loss record of 7-15. Perhaps most memorably, in 1927 he gave up the 8th and 41st home runs to Babe Ruth in his record-setting 60-home run season. Nevers then pitched in 1928 and 1929 for Mission (San Francisco) in the Pacific Coast League, with a won-loss record for 21-19 for the two seasons.
Nevers' football career ended after the 1931 season due to another injury, this time a broken wrist, and he coached for various teams during the remainder of the decade, including as backfield coach for Stanford in 1932-1935. He served as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II with aviation ordnance duty in the South Pacific. Subsequently, Nevers settled in Tiburon in Marin County and worked in public relations and as a television football analyst.
Nevers died in 1976 in San Rafael, California, at the age of 73. He was a charter member of the halls of fame of college football, professional football, and Stanford, is widely viewed as one of the best football players and all-round athletes in American sports history. In 1962 was named the best college football player of all time by Sport Illustrated magazine. L. Robert Davids, in his two-page biography of Nevers in the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Football said that Nevers was the "ideal American sports hero," being "talented, versatile, courageous, handsome, modest, and noncontroversial."
Bert Delmas - Infielder
Albert Charles Delmas was born in San Francisco in 1911 in San Francisco into a baseball family. His father, Bert (Del) Delmas, was an infielder, mostly at shortstop, in the minor leagues for 13 seasons (1902-1914), mostly in the Pacific Coast League. At one stage in his career, the elder Delmas was purchased by the Boston Red Sox, but refused to report, and thus never played in the major leagues.
Bert Delmas was a member of the class of 1933 at Stanford. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics and was a member a Skull and Snakes (a men's honor society). His college career paralleled that of Zeb Terry 19 years before in that Delmas was the shortstop and star player on the Stanford team. In 1931, when Delmas was a sophomore, he hit .403, and Stanford finished first in the California Intercollegiate Baseball Association - including Stanford, Cal, USC, UCLA, Santa Clara, St. Mary's, and the University of San Francisco (USF) - with a 15-3 won-loss record. In his senior year, Stanford fell to 4-5 in conference play (UCLA, Santa Clara, and USF had to drop out), but in those 9 games, Delmas had three games with 4 or 5 base hits.
After graduation, Delmas was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and assigned to their minor league team in Richmond, Virginia, in the Piedmont League, where he played 57 games and batted. 320, and played second base. He was called up in September 1933 to the Dodgers for whom he played in 12 games and batted .250, and that was the extent of his major league career. He played shortstop and second base in the International League in 1934 and 1935 before retiring. In his minor league career, Delmas played 3 seasons, batting .287 in 242 games.
Following his baseball career, Delmas went into the insurance business. At one point, he was the owner of the Benedict, Delmas, and Tatsch Insurance Company. He died in Huntington Beach, California in 1979 at age 68.
Sources: The material in this article is based on a wide variety of sources: newspaper articles, (including obituaries), communication from descendants of the ballplayers, the annual Stanford Quad and other materials in the Stanford Archives, books and periodicals on baseball and sports, a short biography of Tillie Shafer by Brian McKenna cited in the article, issues of baseball statistical yearbooks (the annual Reach and Spalding baseball guides), and www.baseball-reference.com. The last reference cited provides comprehensive major league and minor league statistics for every player from 1871 to present. For major league career records of Stanford's major leaguers, see www.baseball-reference.com/schools.stanford.shtml. I thank Niall T. Adler (Stanford Athletics Communications) and Aimee Morgan (Stanford Archives) for their assistance in my research for this paper.