1921 Orioles: Joe Boley
OF ALL MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS throughout history, the International League Baltimore Orioles of the late teens to mid twenties were without a doubt the most dominant ever assembled. From 1919 to 1925 the Birds won a record seven straight pennants, and many baseball historians rightfully call them the best minor league team of all time. Problem is, except for brief mentions in Lefty Grove biographies, no one has really written about them. The talent stacked up on this club was unbelievable and no less than four would go on to be key members of Connie Mack’s 1929-31 Philadelphia A’s juggernaut, often called the greatest major league team of all time. Among the stars of the old Orioles was Joe Boley, hailed by contemporary sports writers as the best shortstop in baseball, at any level. All but forgotten today, Boley had the makings of a superstar and indeed was, just on a minor league level. It wasn’t a lack of talent that stood in the way of his making the big leagues; it was that Joe Boley was too good…
THE NEWSPAPERS CALLED HIM “Silent Joe” because of, well, he didn’t talk all that much. In fact, Joe didn’t do much of anything except play shortstop better than anyone else and hit like the bat was an extension of his forearm. He came from western Pennsylvania, the son of Polish immigrants, whose real name was John Peter Bolinsky. That Joe even made it to the professional ranks was something of a miracle, for he’d spent nearly half his life underground in coalmines. Working 10 hours a day in dimly lit subterranean shafts would have destroyed most people’s eyesight, but somehow Joe escaped with his vision unimpaired.
Boley began playing ball in the dim twilight evenings after his shift ended. Being from a large family, baseball equipment was not something the Bolinsky’s meager household income would allow. Joe made due by swiping foul balls from local semi-pro games and using one of his heavy work gloves as a makeshift mitt. In the fleeting summer evening light, Joe relentlessly chased down baseballs that he bounced off a barn door, honing the fielding skills that would make him famous. When their son’s superior talent became abundantly clear, Mr. and Mrs. Boley finally bought Joe a proper leather baseball glove.
By 1914 at the age of 17, Joe was a semi-pro glove for hire, the town of Girardville shelling out $2 a game for his services. Word of Joe’s prowess soon reached the bigger towns, and in 1916 he signed his first professional contract with the Chambersburg Maroons of the Class D Blue Ridge League. Boley didn’t set the world on fire, spending much of the season on the bench and batting just .209.
Despite his meager start, the next spring Boley was signed by the Harrisburg Islanders of the Class B New York State League, a few rungs higher than Chambersburg. At one point during this period Joe shortened his last name to “Boley,” making it a little easier on sportswriters and having a more “American” ring to it.
War was raging in Europe at this time, and the United States entered the fray just in time for opening day of the 1917 season. The drain of manpower and leisure time led to many minor leagues and franchises going under, and, after 33 games, the Harrisburg team was stranded in Wilkes-Barre, unable to pay for travel out of town nor meet their payroll. Joe, who had yet to receive his first paycheck, hopped a freight back to the mines.
Because of the war effort, heavy industry was booming and the larger factories and shipyards fielded baseball teams to keep their workers happy and out of trouble. Many ballplayers, from the semi-pros through major leagues, packed up their gloves and took a factory job with extra pay to play ball. Joe, too, found his way onto one of these factory teams, playing in the industrial Williamsport Trolley League. Boley’s decision to play in Williamsport proved fateful as he made the acquaintance of a fellow ballplayer named Max Bishop. The pair hit it off, with Bishop taking notice of Boley’s masterful work around shortstop. Their friendship was put on hold, however, when Joe was called up to for military service.
While Joe’s career was on hiatus, Bishop’s was not. The Baltimore Orioles signed the hotshot second baseman at the end of 1917, and the first thing he did was tell owner Jack Dunn about this crackerjack shortstop he knew named Boley.
THE BALTIMORE ORIOLES back then were an unaffiliated team, meaning they scouted and signed their own players. Dunn was under no obligation to pass along his good ones to the majors unless, of course, they met his asking price. Back in 1914 Dunn had sold his greatest find, Babe Ruth, to the Red Sox in order to keep his team afloat. Though the Ruth sale gave him a much needed influx of capital to run his club, Dunn was always bitter about having to sell the kid, which derailed any plans he had of building a dynasty based around The Babe. Now back in business in Baltimore, Jack Dunn was slowly accumulating the ball players who he would lead to an unimaginable seven straight International League pennants.
After Boley was discharged, several clubs expressed interest in signing him, but his friendship with Max Bishop convinced him to signing with Baltimore. The Orioles of 1919 went down as one of the best minor league teams of all time (as would their 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1925 editions; this team was that good). First base had Jack Bentley, a slugger who doubled as the team’s ace on the mound. Second was Max Bishop, Boley’s pal from the Pennsylvania semi-pro days. Veteran Yankee speed merchant Fritz Maisel held down third. Outfielders included Merwin Jacobson and Otis Lawry, both big leaguers and The Babe’s old catcher, Ben Egan captained a platoon of three receivers. But it was the pitching staff that really made the Orioles stand out. Besides the before mentioned Jack Bentley, Rube Parnham won 28 games and Harry Frank added 24. In a year Lefty Grove and Jack Ogden would add their arms to a squad that simply dominated the International League.
Boley immediately became the team’s starting shortstop and hit .301 as the Orioles won the pennant. After just one year in the game’s top minor league circuit, the writers were saying Boley was ready for the big show. 40 miles away in Washington, the Senators sure thought so and tried to buy the young shortstop after the 1919 season, but Dunn’s price was too steep. There was no way in hell the O’s owner and manager was going to let another dynasty slip away like he did in ’14.
When the 1920 season started, the shortstop was 23, still plenty of time to make the big leagues. Boley pounded out a .308 average and continued to turn heads at his fielding. By the time the Orioles wrapped up the ’20 pennant, knowledgeable sportswriters opined that Boley was better than 80 percent of the shortstops currently playing in the major leagues. During the winter, the New York Giants, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates tried negotiating with Dunn. Again, the price was just too high.
BOLEY WASN’T THE ONLY Oriole the majors tried to pry loose from Dunn. First baseman Jack Bentley was considered a second Babe Ruth due to his hitting and pitching and was tagged as the next big star of the game. But Dunn was reluctant to let his finds slip away easily. He set his prices just out of reach of what a major league owner would pay, so it looked as if the players were available, but they weren’t. As a club owner, Dunn first and foremost wanted to make money and put fans in the stands; if he dumped all his good players, Baltimoreans would lose interest in the team. With a good team year after year, the city would embrace his team, and that was his main aim.
While it might seem unfair that Dunn kept all these talented players in the minors for so long, he did treat his boys extremely well. The Orioles owner ran his club like a big league outfit: first-class travel and lodging everywhere they went and the best equipment. Dunn had a relaxed managerial style and left his charges on a loose leash. He wasn’t stingy with his pocketbook either; his boys were paid extremely well, many on par with what they would make in the majors. In the spring of 1922 he even broke with tradition and gave his star shortstop a two-year contract, virtually unheard of at the time.
When the Orioles won the 1922 pennant (their 4th in a row), the other International League owners cried foul. While Baltimore’s dominance was great for Charm City, the other cities in the league saw their attendance dwindle. Fans were reluctant to follow teams that were left so far behind by the Orioles year after year. By the winter of 1922 the other owners tried to force Dunn to sell Bentley and Boley to even out the playing field. The New York Giants plucked down $72,500 for Bentley, but Boley stayed put in Baltimore.
WHILE THERE’S NO sure statistic that can adequately measure fielding, by all accounts Boley was among the best shortstops at the time. Contemporary sports writers who saw him play lavished praise on his work in the infield. There was no doubt in the minds of those in the know that Boley was of major league star quality. It was just a matter of when he’d get to prove it.
For a while Boley didn’t seem to mind he was stuck just short of the majors. When he sat down to negotiate that 2-year contract in 1922, Dunn asked Joe if was happy to stay in Baltimore or if he wanted to go to the National or American Leagues. Boley replied that as long as he was paid well he didn’t mind staying with the Orioles.
By 1923, Joe was the highest paid player in the minor leagues, making in the range of $10,000 a season, almost twice the salary of a typical major leaguer of the time. He hit .343 in 1922 and then .306 in next season. Brooklyn offered Dunn $100,000 for him, but no dice. Then the White Sox threw around the figure of $125,000, but no sale.
It seems that by the end of the year Silent Joe was getting restless. Countless articles in the sporting press were proclaiming him a big league star and it probably started to wear on him that though he was treated well in Baltimore, it was still the minor leagues. After the Orioles swept to yet another pennant, Boley’s stellar play trailed off, and there were rumors he purposely slacked off during the Little World Series against Kansas City. In fact, he even left the series early, supposedly due to a family issue, but it would be a good guess that either he was so disillusioned that he bailed or that Dunn, angered over his lackluster performance, sent him home.
During the winter of 1923-24, it was announced that a blockbuster deal sending Boley to the Yankees was all but done. The Yankees were on their way to becoming baseball’s greatest dynasty and what better way to cinch it than installing the game’s best shortstop between Lou Gehrig and Joe Dugan. By Christmas the deal fell apart due to financial reasons and Joe Boley remained property of the Baltimore Orioles. Dunn’s asking price cost Silent Joe his place on one of the most famous teams in the history of the game.
Boley returned in 1924 but hit .291, his only time as an Oriole that he failed to reach the .300 mark. He was now 27 and his price was dropping accordingly. Time was running out for Boley, and he knew it. After the 1925 season, he refused to resign with the Orioles, and Jack Dunn reluctantly agreed to set him free. However, just as before, no one was willing to pay his asking price. Boley reluctantly signed on for another year, supposedly for a majestic $12,000.
All through the 1926 season Dunn continued to shop Boley around, finally agreeing to deal him to the Athletics for what was variously reported as $50,000 to $65,000.
SO, AT THE AGE OF 30, Joe Boley made the major leagues. Joining the A’s, Silent Joe found himself in company with former Orioles Lefty Grove and Max Bishop. George Earnshaw would join the club the following year, and by 1929 the A’s would be the World Champions. For his part, Boley had a phenomenal rookie year, hitting AL pitching at a .311 clip and turning plays in the infield that made even the most jaded sports writer take note. Along with Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons, Boley sparked the A’s to winning 3 straight pennants and two world championships. The 1929-1931 A’s are often considered the best team ever assembled, and Joe Boley was the center of its defense.
One cultural effect of Boley making the majors was that he was teamed up with fellow Pole Al Simmons (real name Alois Szymanski), giving Polish-American fans their first opportunity to root for star players who shared their ethnicity.
But, while Al Simmon’s star was rising, Joe’s was in descent. With each passing summer, Silent Joe’s talent decreased exponentially as injuries and age took their toll. By 1931 he was a well-used 34, and Joe Boley was at the end. He hung on in the minors as a player/manager through 1936 and then returned to the coal region from which he originally sprang forth. Joe had married sometime before he signed with the Orioles, and by now had two daughters and a son. He worked various jobs before rejoining the A’s organization in the late 40’s as a scout responsible for the Eastern Shore League. Silent Joe passed away quietly in 1962.
BOLEY WAS ELECTED to the International League Hall of Fame in 1954, the first Oriole to be so honored, ahead of even Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove. Yet, one wonders if he would have his own plaque in Cooperstown had he reached the big leagues long before the age of 30.
NOTE: Although this is a brand-new illustration, this story about Joe Boley was previously published as Booklet Number 4 of my Booklet Series.
Tomorrow swing over to the hot corner and introduce you to Fritz Maisel, the Orioles respected veteran and Jack Dunn’s right hand man.
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