Old time San Francisco Sports writer Abe Kemp once wrote of Fitzgerald,” There is speed and cunning in those legs of Fitzgerald’s; he can field and cover territory with the best of them, and is one of the sweetest hitters that ever carried a seasoned ash to the plate in this league(PCL), but the arm that hangs from the right shoulder is a hollow mockery. It has reduced to a minor league existence a career that would have been brilliant.”
Justin Howard Fitzgerald was born in San Mateo, California on June 26, 1891. San Mateo was a long way from Major league baseball. Nonetheless, San Mateo was a trolley car ride from the largest city west of the Mississippi–San Francisco. In the early 1900’s San Francisco was home to the San Francisco Seals, and the greater San Francisco bay region was a hot-bed for baseball talent.
Justin was attending Santa Clara University when he caught the attention of Hal Chase and other big league scouts. Justin wasn’t an impressive physical specimen. His frame was slight (listed at 160lbs) and he stood only 5’8” tall. What Chase saw was a young man who possessed incredible natural speed, and a keen eye for the game. Throughout Justin’s career he would mix talent and a knowledge of the game with an aggressive style of play. It was this style that would carry him when some of his physical attributes would fail before their time.
Not wanting to leave college early Justin chose not to accept Hal Chase’s offer to accompany the highlander’s manager back to the hill top in New York. It was reported that during Jutsin’s collegiate days he turned down as many as six offers to play baseball in the big leagues.(2). Opting to stay in college he promised the New York manager he’d give the Yankees the “first call for his services”(1). From the very start Justin would strive to make his own deals in an era where player’s had very little leverage to make demands. Summer was approaching and justin’s school days would soon come to a close. Justin signed with the New York Highlanders for a reported $385 dollars a month. An unpresidented amount for an umproven ameatur from the west coast. Bypassing the minor leagues and heading straight to the majors is an impressive feat for a player in any era of the game. Justin was obviously feeling pretty confident that he was destined for stardom. Confidence was an attribute Justin was never lacking. Playing in a semipro game for San Mateo against Modesto, he portrayed the arrogance of his youth and the confidence of a young big leaguer. “Fitz” was one for five and scored two runs, all the while he was failing to winning over any Modesto fans. On April 24, 1911 The Modesto News stated,
“Fitzgerald, playing right field for the visitor’s, showed a great deal of fat-headedness during the game for the reason that he has been signed by an Eastern team. He demonstrated throughout the contest that he thought he was the whole team, while he did not play half as good of ball as many others.
In late June, young Fitzgerald joined the Highlander’s in New York. Six days before he turned 20 years of age, Justin was now ready to show his wares. Little fanfare followed this budding youngster to the Hilltop. The New York Times made little mention of his first game on June 20, 1911. Nothing more than a simple mention in the accounts of the game. “Fitzgerald, a smooth-faced youngster, new to the yankees sent a grounder to Larry Gardner.” On his first day Justin went 0-for-3. Over the next six days he went 8-for 18, batting .380 in his first seven games. His first week included an impressive 2-for-4 against Washington and the great Walter Johnson. Years later it would be told, that Justin once hit a triple off “the big train”. Truth be told, he did reach third but was only credited with only a single. The New York Times’ account read as follows, “The Yankees lost a chance in the opening round, when Fitzgerald hit to left and made three bases, only to be called out for cutting second.”
From June 29th through July 13, fitz appeared in only six games. Most of his duties came in the role of as a pinch hitter. He gathered only one hit in nine at bats. Failing to crack into the starting line up, Justin soon found himself part of a trade. On July 18 the Yankees traded for George Clark from Sioux City (Iowa) of the Western League, paying $5000 and the loan of two players. The players to be loaned where Eddie Klepfer and “Flash” Fitzgerald the little outfielder. Playing for the Sioux City Packers Justin started off well until he found himself bench after the return of Cy Neighbors to the lineup. Cy had hit .333 for the Packers in their championship season of 1910. Despite being regarded as possibly the fastest at running and a top base stealer, Justin was again only to make irregular appearances as a pinch hitter. His batting average begain to slump. On Sept. 27 Hal Chase exercised an option on fitz, sending word for Justin to join the Highlanders in St Louis.(*Neb) Justin arrived in St Louis in time to start in Friday’s game on the 28th.
There has always been one anecdote associated with Justin’s career, and it adds to his mystique. It has always been said the he had a “dead arm”. It is the sad truth that Justin couldn’t throw. After 1911, whenever sports writer wrote of his arm they did not categorize it as merely weak, it was by every account “dead”. In Justin’s case a runner was safe taking his time back to base, or confidently strolling into second. They did not fear his ability to toss them out. There would be moments during his career where he surprised a base runner. These moments were rare, and made headlines when they happened. No one will ever know how capable his arm would have been if it had stayed healthy. We have nothing really to gauge it by. As his legend grew they would say his arm was once tempered like steel. Reality is that he never had a chance to show fans what could of been. His career had just begun when the tragedy occurred. The story has always told that when he was with New York, he fielded a ball on a hop and threw to home plate to nail the runner. Justin would say he heard his arm pop, and from that day forward nothing would cure it. It was as if his arm had caught a cold.
The only assist Justin recorded while in the major leagues in 1911 was on the 28h of August. His first day back in the lineup. He was 1 for 4 at bat, 1 stolen base and 1 assist. His return to the lineup virtually went unnoticed. Ironically, the New York times listed him as Fitzpatrick in the box score and in the game account he was referred to as Daniels. “The fence stopped Hogan’s drive. Daniels picked it up, threw to johnson, who relayed it to Hartzell, but Hogan had passed third base and was headed for home. Roy forwarded the leather to Sweeney at the plate. The play was close — a regular eyelash finish–but the umpire said he was out.” Daniels, a regular in outfield, didn’t play in that game, and no Fitzpatrick played for NY in 1911. Better for Fitz if Daniels or some guy named Fitzpatrick had played. This is probably the tragic throw that looked to have ended a promising future in baseball. He made only two more appearances in a New York uniform. Soon he was sent back to the minors, finishing his season with Jersey City of the Eastern League.
Justin’s injury should have put him out of baseball. But He had faith in his other abilities, and an ever present confidence. His confidence was justified. His ability to run the bases and to hit for average, would over compensate for the fact that he could, for the most part, only roll the ball back to the infield. Over the next ten season’s Justin baffled those who knew his weakness. All who saw him play marvelled at his speed and cunning. But it would be the proverbial question that managers and team owners would ask, could he continue to be in the lineup and yet be such a liability in the field? Truly a credit to how great his other talents. He proved he could suffice. So much so that he was recognized by John Spalding in his book “Pacific Coast League Stars: 100 Of the Best 1903 1957.”
Prior to the 1912 season, Justin was part of a trade between the Major League New York Highlandes and Oakland of the PCL. Justin and two other players were sent to Oakland exchange for Harry Wolverton, who would be the highlander’s new manager. Justin bocked at joining the Oakland team. He wasn’t happy with the terms being offered for his services. Justin held out for a better deal.
Off the field, Fitz was not a ballplayer that would be taken advantage of. Throughout his career he would work to get the best deal he could. Despite being traded by New York he felt the major league team still hadn’t fully compensated him for the 1911 season. Jersey City’s season ended a month earlier than the major leagues. Justin filed a claim for one months salary. Claiming that he signed a contract for one year with the Yankees at $384 a month. So, even though he didn’t play the final month on the hilltop, he felt he was still under contract and entitled to compensation. In early March of 1912 the National Baseball Commission ruled in his favor. The New York Yankees owed young Fitzgerald one month’s salary.
By mid March Justin informed Sharpe, Oaklands new manager, that he was willing to accept the terms of his contract. Sharpe was already trimming his rooster and did not need Justin’s services. Justin spent the beginning of the season playing Semipro in Watsonsonville, CA. It wasn’t long before another professional team would give Justin an opportunity in professional baseball. Justin played 52 games for the PCL Portland Beavers in 1912, and peppered the ball for an average greater than a hit per game (55 hits in 52 games, .355).
No contract negotiating for Justin in 1913, fitz had a signed contract by January and was ready to continue to try and make his mark on the PCL. He had quickly became touted as “the fasted man in organized baseball…even mercury never had anything on Fitz.” There were three attributes to Fitzgeralds game that could always be counted on: His blinding speed, his sure eyes at bat, and his ability to make doubter forget about his sore arm. But in 1913 he was not able stay in the lineup on a regular basis, Justin batted under 200. Now the big question was, could he remain in organized baseball with speed as his only asset. Especially if he failed to get on base. The arm was showing no signs of rehabilitation, and his bat had failed him.
A poor 1913 performance did not deter the San Francisco Seals from showing interest in the speedy outfielder. The Seals’ home field, Recreation Park, was tailor made for a cunning fielder. The short right field was even more suited for a week armed outfielder. The seals management felt the promise of Fitzgerald’s stardom still shined. Playing the right field fence became another one Fitzgeralds specialties.
Justin joined the Seals in 1914. Justin annually would be in the hunt for the PCL batting title.
[Work In Progress]
On November 20, 1929 Justin found himself in the midst of a scandal that involved 3 of his star players at Santa Clara University. The young stars were John Casanova, Guido Simoni, and Marv Owen. They were accused of signing a professional contract to play baseball. The players maintained that they had only entered into an agreement to assure Seattle they’d sign after they finished college. No money was accepted. Fitzgerald was well known for helping young stars get started in professional baseball. He was also a scout for the Seattle team on the Pacific Coast League. Everyone went on the defensive. The young players moved to be reinstated and Fitzgerald to keep his reputation from being tarnished. Fitz denied having any knowledge of Seattle signing his players. The boys had been dealing directly with the President of the Seattle organization. Those who knew Fitzgerald found it ridiculous to think Justin would do something that would hurt the school and its baseball program. It was said that Justin had an “Intense” loyalty to Santa Clara. The general feeling was, why would Fitzgerald do anything that would hurt his chances of having a winning team in 1930. In 1928 Justin wanted Johnny Casanova to pitch Semipro for his San Mateo Blues team. Not wanting Johnny to forfeit his college eligibility, Justin checked to see what effect playing semipro would have on the young star. He found that it would end Cassanova’s playing days on the college baseball diamond and football gridiron. Having concerns for all his players he then warned Marv Owen about lossing his ameratur status because he was playing with San Jose’s semipro team. As a scout Justin surely recommended the three young stars be given a chance in the PCL, as their mentor he would not have done anything to hurt their college careers. Justin was not asked to resign, although he did lose three of his top players.
I’m working on a biography of Justin Howard Fitzgerald. I’m looking for stats for the Western League, where he briefly played for Sioux City in 1911, and the Eastern League where he played a few games for Jersey City in 1911 as well.
1 The Fort Wayne Sentinal,March 22, 1911
2 April 11, 1911, Syracuse Herald