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Yesterday in Oakland A’s history (4/26): First game in franchise history

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The Philadelphia A’s play their first game in the brand-new American League

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Nap Lajoie Batting
Nap Lajoie

The 2020 MLB season is on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, so we’ve got some time to burn and a baseball void to fill. Fortunately, there are decades of Oakland A’s history to look back on, and even rerunball is better than no ball at all. Let’s reminisce!

Here’s the latest “this date in history” from A’s info manager Mike Selleck:

Over the past couple weeks, we took a closer look at the Oakland A’s first-ever game back in 1968, their first-ever win a few days later, and their first-ever game in Oakland a few days after that. Now we’re dialing it way back, to the franchise’s first-ever game, when they began as the Philadelphia A’s.

There isn’t a box score available for this game, so there’s not a whole lot to say about it. (Update: Found the box score! See below.) As Selleck noted, they lost 5-1 to the Washington Senators — that is, the version of the Senators that later became the Twins. (That’s as opposed to the Oakland A’s first win in 1968, which came against the version of the Senators that later became the Rangers.) Three days later, in their third overall game, the 1901 A’s earned their first franchise win, against the Boston Americans (now the Red Sox).

The star of the 1901 team was Nap Lajoie, a future Hall of Famer who went on to such an iconic career in Cleveland that they renamed the team the Cleveland Naps while he was there. The second baseman had started his career with the Phillies in the 19th century, but he jumped to the brand-new American League in ‘01 and joined the cross-town A’s. In that inaugural season, Lajoie batted .426, which is still the all-time American League record. His salary that year was $4,000 per Baseball-Reference — or, Wikipedia says he signed a $6,000 contract that more than doubled the NL maximum salary at the time.

According to John Hickey of Sports Illustrated (citing Selleck), Lajoie had three hits in the franchise’s first game. Hickey also notes that Opening Day had been scheduled for April 24, but was moved back to the 26th due to two days of rain.

Also on the 1901 A’s was pitcher Eddie Plank, another future Hall of Famer who helped lead the franchise to their first three World Series titles in 1910, 1911, 1913. The lefty was a 25-year-old rookie in ‘01, and threw “only” 260 innings that year (career high: 357, three years later). He didn’t pitch in the opener, though, as his debut wasn’t until May 13.

I’m not immediately familiar with any of the other players on the 1901 roster, but there are a few great old-timey nicknames. After Lajoie, the A’s second-best hitter was outfielder Socks Seybold. In 1902, Seybold would lead the league with 16 homers, an AL record that wasn’t broken until 1919 (by Babe Ruth). Also on the ‘01 squad were players called Bones Ely, Farmer Steelman, Snake Wiltse, Dummy Leitner, and Doc Powers.

The 1901 A’s finished in fourth place in their new league, but they won the pennant the next year. In 1903, the AL had grown serious enough and poached away enough star players that the NL was forced to recognize them as a peer, and the winners of each league began playing a World Series against each other.

Even from their very origins, the always-revolutionary A’s have been at the center of innovation in baseball. Connie Mack was a major figure in the creation and strengthening of the American League, helping legitimize it by luring away so many expensive NL stars that his AL club was derisively nicknamed the White Elephants — you know, back when the A’s were financial bullies instead of the ragtag underdogs they are today.

On yesterday’s date 119 years ago, it all began, on the field at least.

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Update: We found the box score! Thanks to community member Notcom for the assist.

Box score from Newpapers.com

A few notes about the box score. First, it has an entirely different set of stats in the box. There are at-bats and hits, but then what appears to be outs, assists and errors. The minorly important matter of runs scored doesn’t show up until the extra details at the bottom, along with strikeouts, walks, and double plays, among others. And it doesn’t actually say who walked or struck out, just how many each pitcher recorded. There are also no RBI, which didn’t come around until 1907 (unofficially) or 1920 (officially).

What’s more, there is no pitching section of the box score. But does there really need to be? Presumably each pitcher threw the whole game, and the rest of the info (runs both earned and unearned, BB, Ks) show up in the notes section. Also, there was only one umpire (or at least only one listed), and the game lasted just 1:55 — doesn’t take as long without all the pitching changes and ad breaks and adjusting your batting gloves after every pitch, etc.

As for the game itself, Washington gradually built a lead, scoring in the 4th, 6th, and 7th. The A’s finally answered back in the bottom of the 7th, but Washington held on and tacked on one more for insurance in the 8th. Philly’s run was scored by Lajoie, who, as noted before by Hickey, notched three hits in four at-bats to lead the team.

Just like the current A’s tend to do, it appears the 1901 lineup went through some evolution as the season progressed. The first two batters, Jack Hayden and Phil Geier, each ended up playing around 50 games apiece that year, and 1B Charlie Carr played just one more game that summer and didn’t show up again in the majors until 1903 in Detroit. In their places, 1B Harry Davis, SS Joe Dolan, and OF Matty McIntyre got more substantial playing time (while SS Dave Fultz switched to the outfield for most of his season/career).

The A’s pitcher was Chick Fraser, who led the team that year with 331 innings over 40 games in his only season for the club. He made 37 starts and completed 35 of them, posting a 3.81 ERA that ranked around league-average. He posted a 22-16 record, but his 22 wins were only tied for seventh in the majors, lagging behind league leader Cy Young with 33.

Perhaps the thing that sticks out to me the most is that the A’s committed seven errors in this game. They finished the season with 337 in 136 games, averaging around 2.5 per contest, and that put them almost exactly at league-average. Dolan led the team with 56, but that was a relatively modest total, ranking just 16th in the league — the leader had 97. That’s 97 errors by one player in one year, which was more than half of all MLB teams racked up in 2019. It was simply a different game back then, with a much lower level of skill than we see today, and we should remember that when we’re comparing the accomplishments of different eras.

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Selleck’s tweet also notes that April 26 had been the latest Opening Day in franchise history. The record was tied in 1995, when the tail-end of the ‘94 strike caused a delayed opening to a slightly shortened season. As Selleck said, hopefully we can break that record soon with the beginning of a 2020 campaign.

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Last time on This Date: Tony Phillips and 40-year-olds on the Oakland A’s