From Society for American Baseball Research
This article was written by Will Anderson
George Henry Magoon had two nicknames – Maggie having obvious origins, and Topsy, presumably so-called because of his spinning top-like movements around the infield. He was born in St. Alban’s, Maine, on March 27, 1875. His father James was a boot and shoemaker. He and his wife Mary moved their three daughters and young son to South Lebanon, Maine, while George was an infant, and it was there that he did his growing up.
From grammar school on, young George was a whiz on the diamond. His only problem appeared to be which position to play. He loved to gobble up ground balls as an infielder, but he loved to pitch, too. It was as a pitcher, as a matter of fact, that he began his career, twirling for a Milford, Massachusetts, semipro outfit in 1891 at the tender age of 16.
Magoon’s fielding abilities, however, were to be his ticket to the big leagues. He honed those skills in the ballfields around South Lebanon and neighboring East Rochester, New Hampshire, in 1892 and 1893. In 1894, he set out for the more challenging pastures of Camden, Maine, where he held down second base for a strong semipro nine. Somewhere along the line he was spotted by Doc Keay, a former top-flight centerfielder for Portland in the New England League. Doc arranged a tryout with the Portlands. Result: Topsy was signed to play in the Forest City in 1895.
For Portland, Magoon played third. And he played it exceedingly well. “Brilliant” is how the Portland Sunday Telegram characterized his fielding. Topsy’s hitting was timely, too. “A batsman of far more than average ability,” was how the paper put it. He hit in the middle part of the order all season, and occasionally even batted cleanup. On one such occasion, on May 18, he responded by, as the Sunday Telegram so wonderfully phrased it, “lifting the spheroid over the left field fence.” Translation: he socked a homer over the left-field wall. In that same game, incidentally, the Telegram couldn’t resist chiding Bangor, losers of the game by a rather lopsided score of 15-3. “The Bangor league team has at last reached bottom, and the bubbles where the team went down have about quit coming up. Poor Bangor!” crowed one of the Telegram’s scribes, adding that the “Penobscot farmers” were the poorest excuse for a team that the Portlands had seen in quite a spell. (Note: the “Penobscot farmers” ended up third in the league at season’s end. The Portlands? Well, they finished a little further on down the road ... seventh in an eight-team loop.)
The year of 1896 saw Magoon again playing a mean third base for the Portlands. He also played some second base in July. By mid-August, though, he wasn’t playing anywhere for Portland. He was playing in Massachusetts for the Brockton Shoemakers.
But let’s back up. On August 9, the Sunday Telegram was especially generous in their praise. Commenting on a 3-1 loss to Bangor, the paper noted that: “The feature of the game was the magnificent playing of Magoon at third. He made three stops and one running catch that were little short of marvelous.” The paper further reflected that Walter Woods (a Portland pitcher who would later spend three seasons in the majors) and Magoon “should be in a faster club than the Portlands.” In those days, “faster” meant “better” – and, lo and behold, within a week Magoon severed his connection with the Portlands - who were on the verge of dropping out of the league, anyway - and signed up with Brockton, one of the powerhouses of the New England League. He resumed his clever fielding and more-than-satisfactory batting. For the season he ended with 105 hits in 397 at-bats, an average of .264. In the field he led all league third basemen with a .922 fielding percentage. He was a right-hander, weighing in at 160 pounds and standing 5-feet-10.
After another year at Brockton, in 1897, Magoon was ready for the majors. But it didn’t appear as if the majors were ready for him. The 1898 season opened with him still holding down the hot comer for Brockton. The National League’s Brooklyn Bridegrooms were in a pickle. Manager Charlie Ebbets had tried a handful of players at that most pivotal of positions, shortstop. None of them had done the job. The Bridegrooms, as the New York Times put it rather ungently, were “lamentably weak at short stop.” Charlie - the man for whom Ebbets Field would later be named - decided Topsy was the man for the job. He was right.
Magoon came aboard the last week in June, and played his first game on June 29. The Times was not long in acknowledging his presence, writing on July 10: “The addition of Magoon at short stop has greatly strengthened the team.”
In that first year in the bigs, Topsy played in 93 games. He batted a disappointing .224 ... but was rock-solid in the field. He undoubtedly would have continued to call Brooklyn home were it not for a heavy dose of what could only be termed intra-club collusion. Before the start of the 1899 season, Ebbets and Harry B. Von der Horst - owner of the original Baltimore Orioles (then in the National League), worked out an arrangement whereby Baltimore shipped most of its best players to Brooklyn. Von der Horst, while still in charge of ‘the Orioles, was allowed to purchase a controlling interest in the Brooklyns. Virtually half the Orioles - excluding John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, both of whom refused to be part of the charade - suddenly found themselves wearing Brooklyn uniforms. Conversely, of course, a like number of Ebbets’ charges suddenly found themselves in the Star Spangled City.
Magoon, who went to Baltimore, was in effect swapped for veteran Bill Dahlen, who made the move north. While such shenanigans would never be countenanced today, Von der Horst and Ebbets’ moves had their desired effect. Brooklyn, on the strength of a 12-game winning streak, moved into first place on May 22 and never lost the top rung thereafter.
In Baltimore, meanwhile, the switcheroo worked out well for John McGraw. He was given his first taste of managing and liked it. Even with a weakened club he turned in a fine 86-62 record, good enough for a strong fourth-place finish (in what was a 12-club circuit, it should be noted). Magoon was right beside Muggsie - who held down third base as well as managing - for the first half of the season. During that first half, Baltimore led all dozen clubs in turning double plays - undoubtedly one of the major factors in the Orioles’ positive performance. In the heat of the Baltimore summer, Magoon was traded to Chicago on August 2 in a deal which brought Eugene Demontreville to Baltimore. All told, for both clubs combined, he batted .242, up 18 points from his 1898 mark.
The year 1900 found him living in Rochester with his wife Helen (eight years older than George) and their one-year-old, George Jr. A couple of years later, the couple had another son, Malcolm. He signed with the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the brand-new American League. It was so brand new, in fact, that it was not considered a major league. Under the guidance of Ban Johnson, however, it soon would be. Ban had taken the old Western League and was steadfastly shaping it into a league to rival the National. In 1900 he was close to that goal, close enough for him to unveil the “American League” name. Topsy was part of the excitement of it all. In addition, he turned in a whale of a season for Indianapolis. Portland’s Daily Eastern Argus was filled with glowing reports of his work, both in the field and at the plate. In one column he was referred to as “electrical.” That’s powerful stuff!
Magoon’s second tour of the bigs began with the Cincinnati Reds in 1901. His average increased again ... up to .252. He played 127 games, knocking out 116 hits in 460 at-bats, and stole 15 bases. It was his most successful season. “A wonderful one-handed catch by Magoon of Leach’s liner, on which he made a double play, was easily the [game’s] feature,” applauded the New York Times on May 12. It typified the appreciation shown Topsy’s work with the glove. But the weak-hitting Reds also appreciated his steady work with the bat, too. He batted fifth for most of the summer, was even the cleanup hitter on at least one occasion (July 14, on which he responded with three hits in a 7-0 win over Brooklyn).
A highlight of a different sort in Topsy’s 1901 season took place on May 4. The Reds were playing the Cardinals in St. Louis. The score was tied, 4-4, in the 10th inning ... when the grandstand caught fire and burned down. In the earliest days of the century, with grandstands almost universally constructed of wood, such conflagrations were not all that unusual. Still, it must have made quite an impression on Magoon. The players of both teams, incidentally, were credited with saving the day when the fire broke out. They remained calm and collected, and the Cincinnati Times-Star lauded the manner in which they lined up and assisted the fans out of the stands. “The encouragement of the players had not a little to do to avoid a panic, and to their coolness and advice is largely due the quick and effective emptying of the stands,” wrote the reporter who covered the game.
Magoon’s average rose once again for 1902. He hit a career-high .272. Unfortunately, though, his hits were spread across but 162 at-bats in 45 games, mostly played at second base. On July 15, Topsy rapped out a pair of doubles - off the great Christy Mathewson, no less - in a 10-2 rout of the Giants. The next day, July 16, he supplied a single in a 7-2 Reds win. Then he disappeared from box scores for the remainder of the season. A thorough reading of the three Portland newspapers of the time, The Rochester (New Hampshire) Courier, the Cincinnati papers, and the New York Times provides no reason for the disappearance. Our second-sacker was most likely injured, but no mention was made of it. Nor do the current Cincinnati Reds have a clue as to what happened to Topsy all those summers ago. He signed early for 1903, according to the September 20 Boston Globe.
Magoon returned to the Reds, but got off to a slow start, and on June 9, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Cozy Dolan and second baseman Tom Daly. He failed to ignite with the White Sox either, batting .228 in 94 games, virtually all at second.
That was to be it for Topsy’s major league career, though he yet had many seasons of meritorious minor league ball left in him. In 1904, he was again with Indianapolis in the American Association. In 1905 it was Toronto in the International League. Then it was off to Des Moines (or “DeMoines,” as the Rochester Courier spelled it) of the Western League. Next came Trenton, New Jersey in the Tri-State League for three seasons, 1907 through 1909. He last played some - and managed, too - for the Savannah Indians in the South Atlantic League in 1910 and 1911.
Magoon’s involvement with baseball continued on after his professional playing days ended. He coached the game at the University of Maine in 1912 and 1913; the 1912 team was state champion. He was coach at the University of New Hampshire in 1915. And he umpired many a game in the semipro leagues that abounded in eastern New Hampshire and southwestern Maine in the years prior to World War II. From 1917 through 1920, Magoon served the City of Rochester as City Marshal, the equivalent of Chief of Police. He later was employed as a special officer at the Rochester Fair and at Rockingham Park Race Track.
On December 6, 1943, George “Topsy” Magoon died of a heart attack in his sleep at his home in Rochester. He was 68 years old. In his 16-plus seasons in the majors and the minors he most likely scooped up more ground balls than any other native-born Mainer ever has, before or since – quite a distinction. His major-league career batting average was .239, with enough walks to earn a .321 on-base percentage. He hit two home runs and drove in 201 runs, scoring 199.