Mike Griffin

Mohawk Valley connection:
Born and raised in Utica, NY

Claim to fame:
Played Major League Baseball

Did you know?
Griffin was among the finest base-stealers and defensive outfielders of his time.

"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." -an excerpt from Griffin's Observer-Dispatch obituary

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Photo submitted by Steven Griffin
Mike Griffin in his Brooklyn Bridegrooms uniform

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

UTICA - 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 have forgotten.

"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 his accomplishment.

"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 from."

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.

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