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Will Harridge (1883 - 1971) never played a game of baseball, but he sure did play the hand of cards he was dealt right into the top executive ranks of Americas favorite 19th century sport. Harridge's most significant role was as president of the American League from 1931 to 1959. For all his hard work - carrying the bags of the rich and famous, pushing the League to play in the annual All-Star game, sitting at his old wooden desk for decades making the hard decisions which will grey the hair of chief executives, and for distributing a large percentage of the signatures contained in the American League archives to autograph collectors (see below) - Harridge was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, just in time for him to be dead.
Career (a.k.a. "Once upon a time...")
Will Harridge started his career in baseball over a century ago, in 1911. It was a time when cowboys and Indians still fought it out, and moving pictures were but a glint in Nikola Tesla's eye. One fine day in Chicago the American League founder and president, Ban "The Bomb" Johnson, was about to travel to Boston to harrass the million-dollar Red Sox outfield of Tris Speaker, Duffy Lewis, and Harry Hooper into putting their pants back on while on the field. After a few drinks Johnson got to talking to the railway ticket clerk who was carrying his bags. The clerk's name was Will Harridge, and, feeling no pain, Johnson hired young Will on the spot to be his personal secretary.
When Johnson sobered up and realized that Harridge wasn't his nephew, but just looked like him from the side, he kept his word anyway. Soon the railway clerk was sweeping up around the League's small two-room Michigan Avenue office. He liked to look out the window at Lake Michigan, and feed the pigeons on the ledge outside one of the office's three windows. From 1911 to 1927 Harridge fetched Ban Johnson's coffee and newspapers, procured his women, carried his bags, and listened to his drunken ramblings. Harridge kept this up day in and day out until, in 1927, he became the secretary of the entire American League when Ban Johnson was fired and Will refused to carry his bags to the curb.
Then, lo and behold, a well-known Detroit Tiger's executive, Ernest "E.S." Barnard (the "S." stands for Sassssssy!) moved into the cramped office and stuck around serving as president until 1931, when, one fine day, E.S. Barnard took a called third strike and decided to die. Harridge had hung around during those four years, busying himself answering the phone, taking long lunches, practicing his putting, and harrasing Tris Speaker. With Barnard as dead as the spitball, Harridge took a peek out his pigeon window and, seeing his ship coming in, told everyone he "wasn't going anywhere". So they named the office gofer the president of the American League.
Harridge now sat proudly at the big brown desk, as competent as any man who ever sat there. After a few days of accepting insincere handshakes and calls of feigned congratulations, Harridge realized that now someone else could be paid to fetch the coffee and sweep up around the office. So Will hired his own secretary, Mary, without realizing it was the best move he would ever make.
Now the story really begins, for what can we say about Mary that hasn't been said before? Mary was the apple of her mother's eye, the orange of her father's nose, and the lump-in-the-throat girl of her local college. She could type, file, negotiate complicated contracts, and work the phones like a banker smelling corporate money, while with her other hand sculpt mythological greek Gods out of soap, tie a four-square knot, and play bridge and three-dimensional chess while reciting Allen Ginsberg's Howl. She had an I.Q. that Albert Einstein called "Remarkable, for a girl", and had the biggest heart, nicest smile, and the quickest draw in the West.
Yet underneath Harridge's gentlemanly exterior and his secretary's polite kindness, Will and Mary were modest human beings (as opposed to the National League President and his secretary, rumoured to be immodest lemurs). For the next 28 years Will and Mary successfully promoted the American League without personally seeking the spotlight or pocketing the profits. Among their proudest moments were stopping ballclub owner Bill Veeck from using a midget as a batter, resisting night baseball because Harridge was afraid of the dark, ruling that all ballplayers must carry their own bags, and, in 1933, convincing the American League club owners to play in an interleague All-Star game - thus beginning the mid-summer classic that has bored viewers ever since.
Harridge and Mary later faced some jeers from the box seats for allowing Arnold "Lyndon" Johnson, a business associate of New York Yankees owners Dan "Sprinkles" Topping and Del "World Wide" Webb, to purchase the powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics and move them to the godforsaken rube town of Kansas City. Harridge was then accused of gleefully turning a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a receding hairline to the tight-fisted control that the sadistic Yankees had over the machocistic A's (for example, that time Babe Ruth went berserk, pantsed Lefty Grove, and gave Jimmie Foxx an Indian burn). Will and Mary unsuccessfully defended their office by saying that "Even though Philadelphia has lost the A's, they still have the Phillies."
Will Harridge and Mary held their posts during America's Great Depression, helped it get through World War II, distracted the American public from the "Red Scare" and Elvis Presley's hips. But then in 1959, after having taken a few bumps in the road, they were, ahem, for lack of a better word such as fired, "retired".
Yes, history will show that when a mere former shortstop took over the president's chair, Will Harridge was thrown a ceremonial demarrowed bone by being named President Emeritus of the American League, and Mary was thrown out with the trash by being named Secretary Emiritus. The official American League office was moved to New York City, and Will and Mary were allowed to keep their beloved Chicago office up and running for nobody to visit and no one to phone.
But here it comes, the important part, the ace up the sleeve, the Star Chamber, the yodel, the McGuffin: By some insanely incompetent decision on the American Leagues part, Will and Mary still acted as sole custodians of the American League archival documents and correspondance files. The documents - the complete historical records of the American League dating from 1901 to 1959 - were kept in a long row of file cabinets in the first of the two rooms in the small office. Mary sat at her desk in that room. Will sat at his desk in the other room. And they sat, and sat, with visitors few and far between. After decades of constant activity, and after being relegated to an "emeritus" status which gave them all the prestige of an ancestoral portrait dusted off when the family came to visit on holiday, boredom set in. "What to do?" they thought, "What to do?"
The Happiness of the Long-Distance Autograph Collector
They went nuts. A benevolent nuts, like a loony-tune Robin Hood and a loopy Maid Marion. Will and Mary decided to two-handidly destroy the accumulated documents, letters, records and manuscripts of the American League dating back to 1901 - the very heritage of one of the great American sports institutions - for the benefit of autograph collectors. They were wonderful people.
About ten collectors knew about this backdoor route to looting the American League. They'd write a letter which looked like a grocery list, listing names of players and owners whose autographs they wanted: Lou Gehrig, Ban Johnson, Charles Comiskey, Eddie Collins, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis (his signature almost a straight line, predating the athletes of today who line, scribble and loop their indecipherable names), Ed Barrow, and scores of other stars and executives - almost all of whom were in the Hall of Fame.
The lists kept coming in, and Mary would sit at her desk, grab the historical documents of the American League, and cut off the signatures with a song in her heart and a pair of dime store scissors. With Will Harridge sitting in his old-timey suit at his old-timey desk in his office a few feet from her, and with Mary snipping and clicking the hours away, the pristine archival history of the league was sent packing. For the autograph collectors, it was the perfect time to be alive. Along with Mrs. Babe Ruth sending out old bank deposit slips signed by her husband it was the best thing to happen to baseball autograph collectors in the 20th Century. Armed with an envelope and a stamp (and including a return stamped envelope if they were nice about it) their dreams came true. They'd use their own name and address, their Aunt's name and address, their cousin's home in the city, or, taking on the disguise of a president of a high school autograph club (please send 12 Connie Mack's, 10 Al Simmons...) and maybe even taking on the persona of a girl or two, they'd go on and on, thank you very much, one letter after another. All for the sake of stealing what could not be stolen without charges being filed: The signatory parts of the accumulated history of an entire baseball league.
Will Harridge and Mary died peacefully at age 87 in Evanston, Illinois, surrounded by family and autograph collectors. They were interred aboveground where the crows could get to them in Memorial Park in Skokie, Illinois.
American League Championship Trophy
The American League Championship trophy is named the William Harridge Trophy in honor of his secretary, Mary.
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