An 1899 E.R. Williams
baseball card featuring Mike Griffin,
who is pictured on top.
Glorious in his
time: Utica native was 1890s star
Base stealer Griffin
heads to Utica Hall
Originally published May 9, 2004
Mike Griffin died nearly a century ago.
But his great-great nephew is keeping
his memory alive.
On May 23, Griffin -- one of the first
Major League Baseball players from Utica,
a turn-of-the-century star who was among
the finest base-stealers and defensive
outfielders of his time -- will finally
be inducted into the Greater Utica Sports
Hall of Fame. And a large part of the
credit goes to Steven Griffin, the great
grandson of Mike Griffin's brother.
"I feel it is my responsibility to
keep Mike Griffin's history and everything
he did in his life alive," says Steven
Griffin, 32, who has invested countless
hours researching Mike Griffin's career
and ancestry. "And I am the only
one here to do it."
And he's got the paperwork to show for
his time -- Manila folders containing
thousands of printed-out genealogy forms
documenting Mike Griffin's family history,
photocopies of newspaper articles, beautiful
color reproductions of rare photographs
from that era. All of which paints an
interesting picture of a man that, without
Steven Griffin's efforts, time would likely
"He's probably the most overlooked
and forgotten ballplayer from this area,"
says Scott Fiesthumel of the Oneida County
Historical Society. "He was one of
the top 50 players of the 19th century.
But he's long forgotten."
Seated at a large conference table, with
documents and photographs spread out in
front of him, Steven Griffin readily shares
the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated
on Mike Griffin. The research is so detailed,
so thorough, that it's easy to become
lost in the 1880s, when baseball was far,
far different than it is today.
A great career
Mike Griffin was not the first major-leaguer
from Utica -- that distinction belongs
to Juice Latham, who played in the National
Association as early as 1875, a time when
pro baseball was so nascent that his occupation
was listed as "baseballist"
in the 1877 Utica City Directory -- but
he certainly remains among the most accomplished.
Mike Griffin's career ran from 1887 to
1898, the first three years spent with
Baltimore of the American Association.
After one year with Philadelphia of the
Players' League, Griffin went to Brooklyn
of the National League, playing there
from 1891 until he left the game following
a dispute over salary, among other things,
after the 1898 season.
Records from that time period are hazy
-- depending on the source, his career
batting average ranges from the mid-.290s
to about .307. Total Baseball lists his
career average as .303 (1,810 hits in
5,978 at-bats) with 1,406 runs, 108 triples,
42 home runs and 473 stolen bases.
Born in Utica on March 20, 1865, the son
of a cigarmaker, Griffin made a name for
himself with several area amateur clubs
in the early 1880s, including a team called
the Nine Spots from East Utica. In 1885,
he signed a contract to play with the
Utica franchise of the New York State
League -- a minor league -- hitting .279
in 75 games.
The following season, the New York State
League annexed two Canadian franchises
and became the International League, which
endures to this day as one of baseball's
two Triple-A leagues. After another solid
season with Utica (.286 average, 86 runs
in 96 games), Griffin got his chance.
The story is a strange one. According
to his obituary, which appeared in the
Utica Daily Press following his death
on April 10, 1908, Baltimore manager Billie
Barnie had come to Utica to scout a player
known as "Sandy" Griffin but
signed Mike Griffin instead, in part due
to the similarity of their names. But
there was soon no doubt that the Orioles
had their man.
Griffin made an early splash in Baltimore
-- according to the April 18, 1887, edition
of the Daily Press, "Mike Griffin,
the new center fielder of the home team,
who was with the Uticas last year, was
enthusiastically applauded for his heavy
batting. He drove the ball over the fence
in the first inning for a home run."
Griffin quickly became known as one of
the finest outfielders in the country,
compiling a .366 batting average with
142 runs, 215 hits and a rookie-record
94 steals in 1887. That record would stand
for nearly a century until Vince Coleman
swiped 110 bags in 1985.
While Griffin didn't approach those numbers
his next year in Baltimore -- he hit .256
but scored 103 runs and stole 46 bases
in '88 -- he led the American Association
in runs with 152 in 1889.
The Players League formed the following
season, and Griffin left Baltimore to
play for the Philadelphia club in that
league in its lone season. He hit .286,
scored 127 runs and stole 30 bases. He
joined Brooklyn the next season.
Over his time in Brooklyn, he was among
the top base-stealers in the league, consistently
stealing in the 25-50 range. And while
stolen base rules were much more liberal
than they are today -- a player could
be credited with a stolen base for, say,
advancing from first to third on a single
-- Fiesthumel says that doesn't diminish
"That was the rule," he says.
"A lot of things have changed in
the way baseball stats have been kept
over the years.
"If he had only had 200 lifetime
stolen bases, it wouldn't be that impressive.
But he had over 500. He still had to have
a lot of (real) stolen bases."
Griffin also became recognized as a fine
defensive player -- according to the book
"Who's Who in Baseball History"
by Lloyd Johnson and Brenda Ward, "many
historians consider Griffin the best center
fielder of the 19th century." He
led the National League in fielding percentage
five times during his tenure in Brooklyn.
His career, however, ended amid much acrimony.
The team captain the last two or three
years of his term in Brooklyn, Griffin
was signed as Brooklyn's player-manager
for the 1899 season. But the Brooklyn
and Baltimore franchises of the National
League merged that season, and Brooklyn
president Charles Ebbets chose to make
Orioles skipper Ned Hanlon his manager.
And even though Ebbets offered Griffin
a raise -- from $3,500 to $3,800 -- Griffin
refused the offer, citing his original
contract. Ebbets tried to rid himself
of the problem by selling Griffin to St.
Louis, but he again refused and quit the
game to enter the business world.
Griffin sued Ebbets to recoup some of
the money he lost. Citing failure to honor
his contract, the New York State Court
of Appeals awarded Griffin $2,250.
Digging through the past
Steven Griffin's efforts to keep Mike
Griffin's memory alive are far from complete
-- helping to get Mike Griffin inducted
into the Greater Utica Sports Hall of
Fame is just the first step in the long
process of getting him considered for
National Baseball Hall of Fame induction,
and he harbors ideas of writing a book.
While Steven Griffin's interest in his
great-great uncle has existed for nearly
20 years, he has dug up much of the information
in the last six years, when the Internet
changed how research is done.
"In 1987, I was 15 years old. I had
become a pretty good player playing Babe
Ruth in South Utica," says Griffin,
a 1991 graduate of Notre Dame High School.
"When I became pretty good at it,
they told me that Mike Griffin was a baseball
player in our family history.
"After that, I decided to do research
on him, but at that time period in the
late '80s there was really nothing I could
do about investigating his history except
learn about his ancestry here in Utica.
"From 1987 to 1997, I did research
around this area, Utica and Cooperstown.
But in 1998, in March, when I first got
online, I really started investing a lot
more time and as a result I was able to
get all this information."
His research is confined not just to Mike
Griffin and his career, but to the genealogy
of the Griffin family. Mike Griffin was
born in Utica, as was his father, Patrick,
but his paternal grandparents were from
Cork and Fermoy, Ireland, and Mike Griffin's
mother was from Limerick. Steven Griffin
beams with pride when speaking of his
Irish heritage and has a deep appreciation
for where he came from.
"After playing baseball, I wanted
to keep the feeling of baseball alive
in myself, so I thought, why not learn
about Mike Griffin and in turn I could
learn about Ireland?" Steven Griffin
says. "I can not only learn about
Mike Griffin, I can learn about his ancestry,
which matches mine, and I know where in
Ireland he came from and where I came
Mike Griffin's story didn't end with baseball.
Well-known in the community following
his return to Utica, Mike Griffin dabbled
in a number of business interests, including
local breweries. He was a member of the
Utica Elks Lodge and a regular parishioner
at St. John's Church.
But in early April 1908 he fell sick,
and after a five-day illness he succumbed
to pneumonia at the age of 43.
His obituary from the Observer-Dispatch
reads: "To all, he was the same --
genial, smiling, and of good cheer. He
loved companionship and was pleasant to
meet. Although he had much success in
base-ball, Mr. Griffin preferred not to
talk of himself and on this subject the
friends who had closely followed his record
had to talk for him. He was devoted to
his home and his family."
Whoever wrote those words never forgot
Mike Griffin. Thanks to his great-great
nephew, history will remember him as well.
Back to the Mohawk Valley Hall of Fame