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April 1, 2009
Article

The colorful career of one of the state’s best baseball players

by Harry Gratwick

With the opening of the baseball season, the time has come to celebrate the career of another legendary baseball player from the state of Maine, George Gore.

Nicknamed "Piano Legs" because of the enormous muscles in his calves, Gore was born in Hartland, 20 miles east of Skowhegan. George, who showed up barefoot for his professional tryout, was a country boy who turned out to be a very good ball player. Indeed, Gore is the only Mainer to have ever won a major league batting championship, which he did in 1880 with an average of .360.

There have been 71 men from Maine who have played major league baseball. George Gore, who played in 1,310 games from 1879-1892 and had a lifetime batting average of .301, is arguably the best position player from the state.

It is important to place Gore's career in the context of the rules he played under during the latter part of the 19th century. With the exception of the American League's Designated Hitter rule, the rules of baseball have changed very little since 1900. This was not true in the 19th century, when the game was constantly evolving.

For example, until 1884 pitchers threw underhand, often from a running start, and from a distance of 45 feet. Two perfect games were thrown in 1880 when pitching completely dominated the sport. Gore won the batting championship that year, hitting .360, when the league average was a lowly .245!

In 1884 the pitching distance was moved back to 50 feet to give hitters more of chance. Baseball historian John Shiffert states that the underhand pitching technique of the day was similar to fast pitch softball, except the ball was smaller. This means that a 74 mph fastball thrown from 45 feet was the equivalent to a 100 mph fastball delivered from 60 feet 6 inches.

Gore probably used a glove towards the end of his career, although except for catchers, gloves were not common (they were considered ‘unmanly') until the 1890's and then they were tiny.

When Gore's career began, it took nine balls to get a walk. In fact, the present four-ball rule was only in effect for his last four seasons and the present pitching distance of 60'6" was not established until after he retired. With the pitcher standing so close to the hitter, walks were obviously hard to come by, yet Gore led the league in bases on balls three times, including 100 in 1886, and over 700 for his 14-year-career.

As a young man George Gore grew up playing ball around Hartland before going to work at the S.D. Warren Paper Mill in Westbrook. His exploits for the Warren team caught the attention of pro scouts and in 1877 he signed a contract with Fall River in the New England League. Playing for the New Bedford Whalers the following year, Gore hit .324 and helped them win the New England championship. Suddenly scouts from seven major league teams were clambering for his services.

Gore joined the Chicago White Stockings for the 1879 season, following what is considered to be the first holdout in baseball history. Chicago owner A.G. Spaulding offered him $1,200, whereas Gore said he wanted $2,500. Eventually they compromised on $1,900, good money for a 23-year old with two seasons of professional experience.

Gore had a highly successful big league career. He played on seven pennant winning teams, five with Chicago and two with the New York Giants. Gore's ability to get walks as well as hit for power, made him an outstanding leadoff hitter. He averaged more than a run a game for his career in an era when runs were hard to come by.

In the outfield he was an excellent center fielder who once recorded five assists in one game. His seven steals in one game in 1881 set a major league record, as did his five extra base hits (two doubles and three triples) in 1885, although both marks have since been tied.

Other aspects of Gore's career were less noteworthy. In the 1885 World Series he was suspended for drunkenness and replaced in the outfield by the future evangelist and teetotaler Billy Sunday, who was also a pretty good ball player.

A year later Gore's drinking led team owner Spaulding to sell him to the New York Giants. Baseball writer Henry Chadwick said, "Gore cannot play in harmony with team captain and Manager Cap Anson and Mr. Spaulding has wisely released a discontented player whose skills were offset by his unpleasant relations with the team captain." When he left the team Gore reportedly told Anson his team would never win another pennant under his management and they never did.

Gore played a few more years and in 1888 and 1889 he helped the Giants win the World Series. Age and his playboy ways began to catch up with him, however, and by 1892 his big league career was over. He lived to 76, which would suggest he overcame his youthful dissipations.

Baseball statistician and historian Bill James ranks Gore as the 40th best centerfielder of all time and the best player in the National League in 1880.      

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