Charles R. “Moose” “Cy” Swain was for a short time, one of the best-known players on the West Coast and his brief time as the West’s home run king is all but forgotten.
Born in Palo Alto, California, Swain made his professional debut with San Jose franchise in the California State League in 1904. Years later, Mike Steffani, San Jose manager, told The San Jose Evening News that his “discovery” of Swain was an accident.
Steffani was in need of a shortstop, and Swain’s brother Ira, who played at Stanford University, was recommended to him by pitcher Win Cutter. Cy, who accompanied his brother to San Jose, played first while Steffani worked out Ira at short. Steffani said he told Cutter:
“I think young Cy is the best player. I like the way he handles the ground balls. He acts like (Charles) Truck Eagan to me.”
Cy Swain was signed. Ira was sent home.
Swain was called “a hard hitter,” who struck out often. He also apparently enjoyed a drink. After hitting a disappointing .239 for the Spokane Indians in The Northwestern League in 1907, Swain was traded to the Butte Miners.
In announcing the news, The Spokane Press said, “Charley isn’t exactly a temperance man.” The paper said that when the Spokane owner sent him a contract with a temperance clause, Swain wired back, “Send me two of those; I may break one.”
Swain, who also struggled with weight issues, went from Butte to the Tacoma Tigers, then the Vancouver Beavers.
In July of 1910, he was leading the league with a .298 batting average when the Washington Senators offered $1800 for his contract. The Vancouver Daily World said the offer was turned down. The club’s owner/manager/shortstop Bob Brown told the paper:
“That pennant looks awfully good to me, and until I have it clinched I intend to hold the team intact. There have been numerous other clubs after Charlie’s services, but they will all have to wait until the season is over.”
Swain slumped badly the rest of the year and finished with a .250 average (and a league-leading 11 home runs). The Beavers finished second, six and a half games behind the Spokane Indians.
Despite Swain’s sluggish finish and questions about his weight—The Seattle Star said he was “carrying 220 pounds”– Washington purchased his contract at the end of the season. Just before he reported to the team in Atlanta in February of 1911, The Washington Herald said:
“There is a reason why this man Swain should not be overlooked when the time comes for the final selection of the Nationals. It was Cliff Blankenship who was sent scouting for Walter Johnson five years ago and who signed him…and Blankenship is sponsor for Swain.”
Swain responded to a letter from William Peet, The Herald’s baseball writer, about his weight:
“I note what you say about certain of my friends on the Western papers claiming I have taken on so much weight that I am handicapped thereby. Just write them a personal letter and bet them all you’ve got that I haven’t taken on more than five pounds since I quit playing last fall…I will join the Washington club in shape and try my best to make good.”
Early reports from Atlanta in the Washington papers, The Post, The Times, and The Herald sounded promising:
“For a big fellow Swain is a wonder when it comes to covering ground in the outfield.”
“Though a six-footer, weighing 200 pounds, he runs like a sprinter.”
“He hits hard…his most distinguishing trait (is) a willingness to work and an inexhaustible fund of good humor.”
Swain was hitting .273 in spring games when he became sick (either a cold or the flu, depending on the source) and did not appear in a game, or practice with the team for a week.
On April 6 The Herald said:
“Swain and Manager Jim (McAleer) had a long talk this morning in the clubhouse and when the Vancouver husky emerged his face was wreathed in smiles.
“’It’s all right, boys,’ he said. ‘I will probably go back to the Pacific Coast. Had a nice chat with the boss and told him that if he decided he couldn’t use me to ship me (West) and he promised to do so.”
Swain was returned to Vancouver, where he hit. 309 and helped lead the Beavers to the Northwestern League pennant. After hitting .286 for the last place Sacramento Sacts in the Pacific Coast league in 1912, Swain was sold to the Victoria Bees in Northwestern League in May of 1913, setting the stage for his record-breaking season.
On August 1, The Oakland Tribune said:
“(Swain) is electrifying the natives in the Northwestern League. Playing for Victoria, up to last Sunday, Cy had connected with 17 home runs and was hitting .329.”
He hit 17 more by September 18. Swain’s 34 home runs broke the previous West Coast high—Ping Bodie hit 30 for the San Francisco Seals in 1910 (Art Bues had the previous league record with 27 in 1910)—and his .329 average was a career high.
He benefitted from the small dimensions of the league’s parks; The (Portland) Oregonian said fourteen of his 34 home runs cleared Victoria’s 270 foot center field fence and 11 more came at Seattle where the left and right field fences were just 237 feet from home plate.
After another solid season in the Northwestern League in 1914–.310 with 12 homeruns—Swain was traded to the Minneapolis Millers in the American Association for Fred “Newt” Hunter on November 24.
While most of the newspapers in Northwestern League cities shared the view of The Spokane Chronicle, that “The exchange will effect a promotion for Swain as he will play in a class AA league, which has been his ambition.” The Seattle Star, however, despite the numbers he put up, raised some doubts about Swain:
“It is not likely that Seattle will be disappointed in the trade…Swain did not deliver last season like the fans had hoped and expected. He was the joke of the league in the pinches.”
Just three days after the trade, Swain was working his off-season job for the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company in San Francisco, when he fell from the back of a company truck which ran over his right leg. On December 4, the leg was amputated.
The San Francisco Chronicle said:
“He was counting on making good with Minneapolis with the view of someday stepping into the big league, the dream of every ballplayer. What Swain will do now with one limb lost has not been decided, for the unfortunate player is overwhelmed with grief at the sudden termination of his diamond career.”
Benefit games were held in San Francisco and Tacoma, drawing 4000 and 7000 fans; the games raised more than $4000 for Swain.
He used the money to open a cigar store in San Francisco with another former player, Tommy Sheehan. The two also organized a team, managed by Swain, called the Independents. The team was comprised of West Coast professionals—including Ping Bodie, Spider Baum, and Biff Schaller–and played during the winter and early spring. One of their games in the spring of 1916 was the first game ever played by an outside team on the grounds of San Quentin Prison. Swain’s team won 15 to 10.
In November of 1916, Swain and Sheehan organized team made up of major leaguers and West Coast players to travel to Hawaii for a series of games. The team played local and military teams, as well as the All-Chinese team which included Vernon Ayau, the first Chinese player to have appeared in a professional game.
News of the games in Hawaii was sketchy; based on various reports the team played between eight and 12 games on the trip; all sources agree the only game they lost was against a US Army Infantry team.
Swain continued to manage the Independents in 1917 and ’18. He and Sheehan also sold the cigar store and opened the Maryland Bowling Alleys in Oakland with Cliff Blankenship, the former catcher who recommended Swain to the Washington Senators in 1910.
Early in the fall of 1918, Swain’s brother, Ira, who accompanied to the tryout in San Jose in 1904, contracted the Spanish Flu and died on October 21. On November 5, The Oakland Tribune said:
“Charlie Swain, one of the most popular ball players in the history of the game in the West, died here last night, a victim of Spanish Influenza. Two weeks ago today Charlie’s brother Ira fell victim to the malady.”
Swain was 36-years-old. The Tribune said:
“Good-bye, Charlie, we’re going to miss that happy smile.”