Even though I left Baltimore over 17 years ago, I still have a soft spot for its ball clubs, the 1920's International League Orioles being a particular favorite. From 1919 to 1925 they won a record seven straight pennants and many baseball historians 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 A's juggernaut, often called the best major league team of all time. Among the stars of the team 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 the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the son of Polish immigrants whose real name was Bolinsky. Working underground since the age of 10, Boley began playing ball in his spare time using one of his heavy work gloves as a makeshift mitt. Being from a large family, such niceties as a baseball glove were not something the Bolinsky's meager household income would allow. Eventually, when his love of the game and talent became evident, his parents finally bought him the coveted piece of equipment. With foul balls swiped at local semi-pro games, Joe sharpened the fielding that would make him famous by throwing them against a barn door and chasing them down. By 1914 at the age of 17 he was being paid $2 a game and two years later he was playing for Chambersburg in the Blue Ridge League. Somewhere he shortened his name to Boley, making it a little easier on sportswriters and having a more "American" feel to it. Catching on as a pro seemed to elude him as he bounced around the lower rungs of the minor leagues throughout the northeast. Somewhere in the Pennsylvania semi-pro circles he became friends with Max Bishop, a Baltimorean and aspiring second baseman. When Bishop was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in 1917, the first thing he did was tell owner Jack Dunn about this crackerjack shortstop named Boley.
The Baltimore Orioles back then were an unaffiliated team, meaning they grew their own players and 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.
Boley joined Baltimore after a stint in the army at the tail end of the war. He'd had interest from a few other clubs, but it was his friendship with Max Bishop that led Boley to becoming an Oriole. 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 became the team's starting shortstop from the start 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, the New York Giants, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates were 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 loose interest in the team. With a good team year after year, the city would embrace his team and that was his 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 reign. He wasn't stingy with his pocketbook either, his players were paid extremely well, many were 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, 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 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 if he was happy to stay in Baltimore of 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 he 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. All through the 1926 season he shopped 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 finally 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. Boley for his part 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 29-31 A's teams are often considered the best team ever assembled and Joe Boley was the center of it's defense.
With each passing summer, Silent Joe's talent decreased rapidly as injuries took their toll. By 1931 he was a well-used 34, and Joe Boley was at the end. He hung on in the minors through 1936 and then returned to the coal region he originally sprang from. He worked various jobs before rejoining the A's organization in the late 40's as a scout.
Boley was elected to the International League Hall of Fame in 1954, but one wonders if he would have his own plaque in Cooperstown had he reached the big leagues long before the age of 30. Instead of being a footnote in baseball history, perhaps the name Joe Boley would be mentioned along side Honus Wagner, Ozzie Smith, Pee Wee Reese and Barry Larkin...
- Hanson, Darrell, Joe Boley (SABR Online Biography)
- Bready, James H., Baseball in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins Press, 1998)
- Bready, James H, The Home Team (Self-Published, 1959)
- The Sporting News, 1919-1927