Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Orator Shafer: The rhetorical device of never shutting up
Right fielder George "Orator" Shafer earned his nickname by engaging in long soliloquys on the nature of the game (and other topics of interest) betwixt innings. If a contest fell to doldrums, Shafer would even halt play during an at-bat to recite impromptu poetry on the connection between the ball's stitches, which held the leather hide on, and the ball itself, which held together the fabric of communities. He invented the seventh-inning stretch's precursor, regularly reading prepared pages after the fifth inning's conclusion.
Crowds enjoyed the recitations, and the roughshod partisans honored Orator's orations by hurling coins at him and, later, by insisting he run for mayor of Philadelphia under the Discourse Party ticket1. Orator also invented the phrase "Lecture Circuit" as a means of describing the 1880s National League.
He was universally loved and accepted and lived the rest of his life in glory...
...which is all patently false, excepting his name. In fact, he picked up the nickname from being a particularly chatty player2. Players of the era were almost universally suspicious of talkative players3, so Shafer was apparently not very popular. In 13 professional seasons, he played with 9 different clubs.
He not only talked to umpires, teammates and opponents, but also he apparently talked to himself. Most teammates preferred these one-person, two-sided conversations. They preferred it so much that Shafer, a top-notch third baseman4, was relegated to right field because he annoyed the living hell out of them. Orator occasionally found conversational partners, who soon wearied of Shafer's braggadocio.
Who's Who Among Base Ballists 1883 included this about Orator Shafer's screeds:
"Cleveland teammates frequently remarked that Shafer loves to talk about his own exploits, but moreso he loves to talk about the exploits of his many children from many mothers. Cleveland hurler George Bradley added that Shafer once began every statement for two hours 'My illegitimate child this...' and 'My illegitimate child that...' League rumors abound that Shafer's gonads are actually sterile and the claims are empty posturing.
Orator Shafer, ne'er in need of social lubricants, partakes in spirits nonetheless, frequently to his own detriment. In a well-known instance, he challenged diminutive second baseman Joe Quest to a drinking contest before a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds. The contest's score remains unclear, but the outcome does not. Quest, weary of Shafer's rambling tongue, ended the contest by bludgeoning the Orator with the half-empty bottle, spraying shards and brown liquor everywhere within 20 feet of home plate, where the contest was occurring."
Orator Shafer, however, was a pretty good young player5. He had his best seasons from 1877 to 1880, a period of four seasons in which he played for four separate National League clubs (Louisvile Grays, Indianapolis Blues, Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Taupes6). In that period, he hit .297/.322/.385 with an OPS+ of 129. His services were well above-average then, including a red-hot 1878 in Indianapolis.
His skills quickly declined, however, and Shafer jumped the National League ship in 1884, heading for the Unicorn Association, where he was a star for the St. Louis Maroons. When the Association folded at season's end, the Maroons returned to the NL and Shafer proved washed up. He played a little for the American Association's Philadelphia Athletics in the two years thereafter but then disappeared for three years.
He resurfaced again in 1890 to play decently in 100 games, but Orator called it quits and took his talking talents to the race track, where he worked as a bookie.
He died of verbal diarrhea in 1922.
1 Shafer lost the election due to salary concerns, which largely surrounded his inadequate pay to purchase a plurality of votes.
2 This was, however, somewhat true of Hall of Famer "Orator" Jim O'Rourke, one of Shafer's contemporaries. O'Rourke, a learned gentleman, frequently espoused his point of view through both impromptu rhetoric and well-rehearsed passages. Bill James, in his Historical Abstract, notes that Orator Jim's pregame ritual involved reciting Hamlet's famous soliloquy. O'Rourke is famous for, among many other things, playing a single game for John McGraw's New York Giants in 19042A. Orator Jim was 53 at the time, and his 1-for-4 performance gives him the legacy of being the oldest man to hit safely in a major league game. Read Orator Jim's story here. O'Rourke again made a name for himself as a prominent member of the Louisville noise/math rock community in the 1990s and later as a record producer. He still records and tours, despite being the relatively advanced age of 161.
2A At the time, Orator Jim was actually running a club in his hometown, the aptly named Bridgeport Orators of the Connecticut State League. Orator Jim played occasionally on the Orators until 1909, when he was 58. Orator's Orators also rostered his son, Queenie O'Rourke, for several years. Minor league superstar/resident giant Hi Ladd was an Orator for 10 seasons from 1902-1911 some years after a brief trial with a couple big league clubs.
3 Once again, I am unable to substantiate this claim. But really, nobody likes a man who runs his mouth constantly.
4 Perhaps it's a stretch to consider Shafer a "good" third baseman, given that his fielding percentage in 148 games there was awful: .798. Granted, third base is a tough position to play with a modern glove, let alone doing it barehanded or with the primitive mitts of the 1880s. But Orator Shafer was perhaps too busy bragging about his illegitimate children, who were far more violent than those of Dad Clarkson.
5 According to this bizarre and creepy rendering of him5A, Orator Shafer was 1877's Top Hitter or something, which is the second-most awesome champion-related title for any base ballist. The first, of course, is everybody's dream title: Champion of America.
5A That screenshot is from something called Out of The Park Baseball, a sort of game played on a video screen. I know very little about it, but would appreciate someone of experience with it pontificating on its merits and drawbacks.
6 The Cleveland club was actually called the Blues. Team nicknames at the time were mostly based around uniform color and/or attributes rather than predatory animals, mystical beings, geographical features or siblings.