Friday, April 5, 2013

Fathers of the Five Towns: James E. Gaffney

With the start of this year's baseball season underway, it seems appropriate to reflect on some local baseball history.  In the days when Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Cy Young were active players, James Gaffney exerted great influence in the world of baseball, as a financier and a guy who could make things happen.

The son of Irish immigrants, Gaffney became a Tammany Hall alderman and the owner of  the New York Contracting and Trucking Company, a construction company which handled such projects as the  Pennsylvania Railroad Passenger Terminal (the original Penn Station in Manhattan).  His wife, Essa Irene (nee Smith) was active in the company.  The subject of several newspaper interviews, Mrs. Gaffney is portrayed as beautiful, charming and possessing a keen head for business.   Although his home was in Manhattan, Gaffney owned a Spanish style home on the corner of Broadway and Washington Avenue in Lawrence, where he and his family spent many summers.  

Gaffney's house on Broadway and Washington
Charles F. Murphy, the powerful Tammany Hall boss, was a close friend, and this affiliation brought Gaffney many financial rewards.   Among Gaffney's many business investments were real estate interests in Cedarhurst the Rockaways as well as a string of race horses which were stabled at Gravesend in Brooklyn.  One of these, Irene's Bob (named for his daughter and her husband), was a winner at Saratoga.  The Daily Racing Form reported that Gaffney spent $40,000 in a three month period of 1909, purchasing several fine  race horses.

But baseball became Gaffney's passion.  In 1911,  It was rumored that Gaffney lent money to his friend Clark Griffith, manager of the Washington Senators  to purchase an interest in the team. (McClures Magazine, May-October 1912,  v.39, p. 241).  In December of that year, Gaffney financed the purchase of the Boston National League team for $187,000.  The team had not won since 1898 and Gaffney was prepared to put another $100,000 into it to turn it into a winning team  (Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/23/1911, p. 10).  With his partner John M. Ward, a former player and manager, Gaffney hired a new manager in 1913 (George Stallings) and beefed up the bullpen.   The team, which had been variously named the Beaneaters, the Doves and the Rustlers, now became the Braves.  New York's Tammany Society was named for  Tammany or Tammanend, a Delaware Indian chief, and the members were known as "braves".  The press had named Gaffney "the Brave of Tammany Hall" and Gaffney thought it a great joke to flaunt the New York Democratic machine in the face of the conservative Boston brahmins. 

Ward quickly lost heart and sold out to Gaffney, but the newly-energized team went from last place in early July 1914 to first place at the end of August.  They defeated the New York Giants for the National League pennant and went on to sweep Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.  

With this momentum behind the team, Gaffney took the opportunity of creating what was then the largest and most expensive ballpark in the country. Braves Field was to be built about four miles outside of Boston center and would hold 42,282 seats.
Braves Field, c1915

 16,691 [would] be in a one-story grandstand, so constructed that a second deck [might] be added later; 18,015 [would] be built in bleachers back of the first and third bases, admission to which [would]be 50 cents, and 5,336 seats [would] be provided to the right of center field for the 25-cent patrons.  (Idaho Daily Statesman, 12/29/1914, p. 2)

Gaffney wanted the playing field to be large enough so that it would be possible to hit an inside-the-park home run in any of the outfield directions.  He used his connections to erect a departure station within the stadium walls and convinced the Boston Elevated Railway System to construct a closed loop from the Field to the mainline tracks.  Easily accessible by trolley, the new steel stadium was immediately christened "the world's greatest baseball park" by Baseball Magazine.

Unfortunately, the Braves did not live up to their promise and soon declined in popularity.  Gaffney suffered the same fate, as he became implicated in graft and corruption scandals in New York State and gradually faded from the public arena.  The home in Cedarhurst was sold in 1931 to an industrialist and Gaffney died the following year while vacationing in East Hampton.

Visit our local history display on James Gaffney

Lower Level near the Reference Desk

Further Information


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful piece.

I am a descendent of James E. Gaffney; there are several errors in this article that appear in multiple sources. Gaffney was never a policeman and Murphy was not his brother-in-law.

Family stories say that Gaffney often kept a donkey on the lawn of his Cedarhurst home. There are 2 homes on W. Broadway he built on speculation, then gave to his sisters. One is still in the family.

Gaffney is the reason Gov. William Sulzer was impeached. After he sold the Braves, he remained active trying to buy other clubs and in thoroughbred racing.

Hewlett-Woodmere Public LIbrary said...

Thank you so much for your comments. I have edited the article to exclude the erroneous information. MV