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In the Spring a Young Woman's Fancy Lightly Turns To Baseball

May Grant Selee with husband Frank G. Selee

“Freezing Weather Due Here Today,” the newsboys cried. “Blizzards in West.” Not unlike the storm that just blanketed the Midwest, these were the headlines Chicagoans woke up to on March 21, the first official day of spring 1903, just after two days of unexpectedly balmy breezes had led them to hope against hope for better days to come.

That year had delivered the coldest, longest, most lethal winter in Windy City memory—leaving Chicago and other upper Midwest cities in a debilitating coal famine—and it was not over yet.

Deeper inside that morning’s newspapers, however, lay a more serene report of the city's National League baseball club. “This has been a great day for the Colts,” beamed the anonymous dispatch in the Chicago Inter Ocean, using that paper’s preferred nickname for the team. “To begin with, the weather was just ideal for ball playing. The day was warm, with just a light breeze blowing across the park to remind them of their proximity to the coast.”

The sentences were cheerful, confident, and no doubt naive, yet their forecast for Chicago and its frigid sports fans concealed an uncanny feminine intuition of happier days to come.

The Colts had traversed the country to conduct their “spring training” in the California resort town of Santa Monica. The team's owner had taken them there to pump new life into a moribund franchise. Manager Frank G. Selee, a renowned baseball mastermind from Boston, had assembled a group of 20-somethings from various parts of the country—among them a nervy Irish kid named Evers from Troy, N.Y., "pretty boy" Tinker from Kansas City, and a tall, muscular back-up catcher from California, name of Chance.

“They were fresh looking, full of life, energy, and vigor, and working with vim enough to gladden the heart of the most exacting manager or fan,” came the oddly effusive observation by the anonymous I-O scribe.

Back home in Chicago, the image of young ballplayers frolicking on sun-drenched Pacific beaches must have seemed like a mirage on an untouchable horizon. And perhaps that's all it was. The Chicago Nationals of 1903 were mired in an identity crisis. No one could even agree on what to call them. The franchise had long abandoned the original "White Stockings" nickname from its earlier heyday. A subsequent rebuilding effort under aging player-manager Cap Anson had spawned the nickname “Colts” from sportswriters amused by the players’ youth and inexperience.

When “Pop” Anson finally departed the diamond after twenty-two years as the unrivaled father figure of Chicago baseball, some of the more sarcastic writers referred to the team he left behind as the "Orphans," while others tried out "Remnants," nodding at the has-beens picked up on the cheap from other failing teams. The Inter Ocean clung to "Selee’s Colts." The Chicago Daily News, again seeing so many young faces, was the first and only paper in 1903 to call them "Cubs."

Selee had come aboard in 1902 after winning five pennants in Boston in the 1890s. For this rebuilding effort he brought along a secret weapon—his new wife, the former May Grant, a young, Irish-born beauty whose passion for baseball was unmatched by any woman of her era. They were a mismatched couple, but their complementing personalities seemed to feed off each other. She was the young, effervescent id to his middle-aged, deep-thinking ego. She made a day at the ballpark seem like family fun even while he introduced “scientific” precepts to a game better known at the time for its "hoodlumism" and rank vulgarity.

While Frank Selee set about to revive the team's skills, May worked on its chemistry. She soothed the young players through their growing pains, cajoled them to stand tall against more experienced opponents, and even showed them how to have some good, clean fun off the field. (In one hilarious instance, she led the team on a jaunty horseback ride to Pike's Peak, Colorado, that left the locals in stitches. Leading the way at full gallop, May was the only one who could stay in the saddle, the rest "bounding about their mounts like monkeys riding ponies at a circus.”)

This alluring lass was also sufficiently conversant in the arts of pitching, hitting, and double plays to fill out her own scorecard. “Mrs. Selee is perhaps better versed in baseball matters than any woman in the country," the Tribune noted in a star-struck profile. "She can report games and also has at her tongue’s tip the history of all the league players.”

The Inter Ocean never revealed the source of its spring training dispatches from the West Coast. Interestingly, the competitor Tribune showed no compunction in running condensed versions of the I-O reports, suggesting it had pitched in to help pay for the papers' hopeful correspondent.

On the way back from California, Mrs. Selee stopped off to visit childhood friends in St. Louis. She slyly volunteered to the Sporting News that she had been serving as a freelance reporter for “several Chicago papers” while the team was in the far west, “so perhaps my opinion of my husband’s team will be worth something.” She proceeded to put the city of Chicago and the entire National League on notice: “We are going to be heard from,” she said. “My husband likes his team’s chances and so do I.”

Top photo: Library of Congress reproduction of Chicago Tribune article, August 31, 1902. Second photo: A typical Chicago snowstorm (1925) pictured at the Art Institute of Chicago.

May Selee left Chicago with her husband in mid-1905—just as his rebuilt Colts were on the rise—to help him combat a debilitating case of tuberculosis in the desert climes of New Mexico and Colorado. (The Cubs won their first of four pennants in 1906. Frank Selee died in 1909.) Read more about Mrs. Frank Selee and her husband's rebuilding efforts in Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Chicago Cubs and the Dawn of Modern America.

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