Dave Danforth was known as “Dauntless Dave” and “Dandy Dave’ during a professional baseball career that stretched from 1911 to 1932 and was filled with controversy. You might say this left-handed pitcher, known as the father of the shine ball, was the baseball ancestor of Gaylord Perry in terms of playing havoc with a batter’s mind.
More on that later.
But first, Danforth’s grandson owns a dandy of a baseball relic, a 1914 Baltimore News Orioles card that is a new discovery in an already rare set that includes the first card of Babe Ruth, then a 19-year-old rookie pitcher.
“I don’t think anyone knows how many cards there are in the set,” said Rob Harmon Jr., 72, of Olney, Maryland.
It’s certainly the first known card of Danforth from that set. Harmon consigned the card, given to him by his grandmother 50 years ago, to Heritage Auctions, where it will be sold later this year.
1914 Baltimore News Baseball Card Set
The set of newspaper promotional cards included members of the International League’s Orioles and players from the Federal League’s Baltimore Terrapins, two teams that were competing for the fans’ entertainment dollar in 1914. For many years, there were only 12 known Orioles in the set, but one of them was Ruth, fellow pitcher Ernie Shore and manager Jack Dunn. There are 13 known Terrapins in the set, with Neal Ball and Jack Quinn the most recognizable names. A similar set was issued in 1910 with Orioles players.
The PSA registry has only three cards from this set in its census report, and all of them are of Ruth. SGC has 10 cards in its census, and five depict Ruth. Ungraded cards from all three sets are known to exist in private collections but the total population of 1914 Baltimore News cards is probably less than 75, according to long-time collector Dan McKee who has been chasing them for years.
The Card’s Provenance
Dave Danforth died Sept. 19, 1970, in Baltimore. He was 80 and spent his post-baseball career as a dentist, having graduated from the University of Maryland Dental School. Harmon’s grandmother, Margaret, gave him the card, which was pasted in a scrapbook.
“It had been sitting in a box in my closet for 50 years,” Harmon said after looking at the card again in December. “There was still the black part of the scrapbook on the back of the card.”
The card shows the 6-foot, 167-pounder in his southpaw follow-through, wearing an Orioles road jersey. The blue-bordered card measures 2 5/8 inches by 3 5/8 inches, while the card back features a team schedule with “Home” and “Abroad” games.
Baseball and Beyond
Danforth had a fascinating baseball career, and controversy followed him at every stop.
Although the shine ball was legal when he began pitching, opposing players accused Danforth of throwing an emery ball, which was not. As vigorous as foes in their claims Danforth was a cheater, his teammates defended him just as passionately.
“He never cheated,” former teammate Herschel Bennett told The Birmingham News in 1931. “He is just pulling the wool over your eyes.”
“If a ball club thinks you are doctoring the ball, make them feel sure of it by resorting to unusual mannerisms that savor of trickery,” Danforth told umpire-turned-sports columnist Billy Evans in a syndicated column published in 1926. “Instead of tending to their knitting, the hitting of the ball, the batters play right into my hands by fussing about my delivery.”
“He played a head game with them,” Harmon said. “He wasn’t denying that.”
Danforth once struck out 18 batters in an American Association game, and 54 in 29 innings. According to baseball historian Steve Steinberg, on Sept. 20, 1930, Danforth set an International League record when he struck out 20 members of the Rochester Red Wings.
The current league record is 22, set in 1962 by future major-leaguer Bob Veale.
The owner of massive hands, Danforth aspired to become a dentist. That’s because the only adult allowed to take the day off to play baseball during the day in his hometown of Granger, Texas, was the dentist.
“The general belief was that Dave Danforth had such powerful fingers he could wrinkle up the cover a bit near the seams,” Ralph McGill wrote in the Atlanta Constitution in 1936. “But they could never prove it.”
Harmon certainly witnessed it one day when his grandfather found him rummaging through his old baseball equipment.
“He took a baseball and twisted it and raised the seam,” Harmon said. “He got a little ridge and made it move. And he was 70 years old at the time.”
Born in Granger, Texas, in 1890, Danforth attended Baylor University in 1910-1911. According to Steinberg. Danforth went 10-0 for the Bears in 1911 and threw a no-hitter as he led the school to the Texas Collegiate championship.
Danforth caught the eye of Hyman Pearlstone, a grocer and banker from Palestine who was an informal scout for Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack. With the promise of a $500 signing bonus, Danforth took a train to Philadelphia and arrived on the morning of Aug. 1, 1911.
“He got there in the middle of the night with a duffel bag,” Harmon said. “There was nobody waiting for him so he went to sleep.
“A few hours later he was awakened by a man who said he was with the Athletics, and he took him to Shibe Park.”
Mack inserted Danforth into the game that day in the ninth inning against the first-place Detroit Tigers, who were winning 13-6. Danforth pitched a scoreless inning. Six days later he earned his first major-league victory, pitching the final inning of the Athletics’ 2-1, 14-inning victory against the Chicago White Sox.
Danforth would pitch in 14 games down the stretch, carving out a 4-1 record and helping Philadelphia rally past Detroit for the American League pennant.
However, Danforth only appeared in three games early in the 1912 season before he was shipped to Baltimore in the minor leagues.
The move was a good one personally for Danforth, who met his future wife, Margaret Florence Oliphant, the daughter of a Baltimore police detective.
“He’d bring ballplayers home for dinner,” Harmon said.
Harmon said his grandmother never particularly liked Ruth, who was Danforth’s teammate in Baltimore.
“She said he was crude and vulgar, out of shape and a womanizer,” Harmon said. “But she also said he had a kind side.”
Danforth and his wife eloped to Ellicott City just before the pitcher began a stint with the Louisville Colonels. He made it back to the majors with the White Sox in 1916, armed with a fastball “that does everything but talk,” Evans wrote.
Danforth pitched in the 1917 World Series and was part of the infamous 1919 White Sox squad — but was sent to the minors before the Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
Danforth re-emerged in the majors when the St. Louis Browns sent 11 players to the Columbus Senators of the American Association to acquire him in late 1921. Danforth was sent to the minors for good in 1925 after compiling a 71-66 record in the majors.
Harmon is hoping the 1914 card he is consigning to Heritage Auctions will shine some light on his grandfather’s career. His son, Robert Harmon III, is a screenwriter in California and has been compiling information for a possible biography or documentary.
“I want people to know the importance of the role that my grandfather played in the early days of the game of baseball,” the elder Harmon said.
Even in death, Danforth could not escape notoriety. “Dave Danforth, Old ‘Shine Ball’ Pitcher, Is Dead,” ran a headline in the News-Star of Monroe, Louisiana, in September 1970.
“Dave Danforth was in league with the devil and was doing secret things to it (the baseball),” McGill wrote 34 years earlier.
“When I was right, opponents claimed my pitching was illegal,” Danforth said in a 1944 interview with The Associated Press. “But you never heard a squawk on my bad days.”