White Elephant

Ever wonder why the A’s occasionally wear an elephant on their uniforms? The story goes back to the founding of the American League and involves John McGraw, Connie Mack, Ban Johnson, and an old expression you don’t hear much anymore.

When the American League was formed in 1901, league president Ban Johnson wanted a team in Philapdelphia. Ben Shibe, who is supposed to be the man who invented the machine that allowed for standardizing baseballs, agreed to take on the Philadelphia franchise along with old time catcher Connie Mack as a partner. Shibe ran the business end of the enterprise and Mack ran the team (that changed quickly with Mack in control of both). John McGraw was a friend of Mack’s and a man who absolutely hated Ban Johnson. When asked about Mack taking over the new team in Philadelphia, McGraw told the press he thought Mack had gotten a “white elephant.”

You don’t hear that phrase anymore. I remember my grandparents using it, but not so much from my parents. I don’t use it at all. A ‘white elephant’ is something that has a cost way out of step with its worth and that can’t be gotten rid of easily. In other words, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. McGraw had just told Mack, in front of the entire baseball world, his team wasn’t worth having.

Mack took it well, he had a better sense of humor than McGraw (well, most people who have ever lived had a better sense of humor than John J. McGraw). He had the white elephant sewn onto the A’s uniforms where it has stayed for most of the team’s history (Charlie Finley not withstanding). The two teams met in the 1905 World Series and Mack presented McGraw with a stuffed white elephant prior to game one. McGraw accepted it (and as far as I can determine didn’t smile) as the gag it was meant to be, then went out and won the series 4 games to 1.

Mack did manage to finally win the contest with McGraw. They faced each other in the first All Star Game and Mack won. More importantly, they faced each other in the 1911 and 1913 World Series. The A’s won both. If you look at pictures of the two World Series, you’ll find the white elephant on the A’s uniforms. Game, set, match.

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One Response to “White Elephant”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Someday someone has to put a book of old sayings together, along with where the phrase came from (if it hasn’t already been done.) Sometimes, if I’m watching very old cartoons from the ’30’s or ’40’s with my kids, the characters will say something that is entirely foreign to their experience. The history of those phrases is, in a way, a history of American culture. Nice post, as usual, Bill

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