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The Great Earthquake of 1906: Three Years of Recovery

On the morning of April 18, 1906, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook San Francisco and parts of Oakland to its very core. Felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles, the earthquake left incomprehensible damage to much of the financial sector and residential areas of San Francisco. At least 3,000 people perished in either the earthquake or the subsequent fire which resulted just hours after the City by the Bay was rudely awakened by nature.

At the time, San Francisco had a strong presence in the financial sector in America and the disaster not only crumbled buildings but fortunes as well as the American Dream of many. The US government immediately voted to donate $1 million to relief efforts and wealthy individuals and businesses such as Andrew Carnegie and Standard Oil donated large sums of money to help boost a once vibrant economy.

However, these payment installments were not enough to prevent thousands from becoming homeless. Nearly half of the city’s population of 400,000 were left homeless and many were forced to sleep in the 26 makeshift camps surrounding San Francisco. Initially subsisting of tents that were distributed by the military, these camps were eventually populated with wooden huts known as “earthquake cottages”. Incredibly, despite the poor living conditions, no major illnesses broke out among the thousands of homeless who were forced to live so close to each other. The monthly rent of $2 went towards at total purchasing price of $50 for the shack and at its peak the camps housed as many as 16,448 individuals.

While the city lay crumbled, chaos went about the ruins of the City by the Bay. Major Eugene Schmitz sent orders to kill any looters or others who were caught in the admission of a crime. There were moments where army officers took this too literally such as the time a grocery store owner ran out on the street while his store was burning and told everyone to take what they could. A man soon appeared with his arms full of groceries, only to be bayoneted to death. During those most chaotic of days, the people of San Francisco needed hope but they didn’t know where to look.

At the same time, the San Francisco Seals baseball team was facing a similar predicament as they were forced from their home at Recreation Park and finished their season at Freeman Park in Oakland. Times were tough and people needed a hope to cling to during those uncertain times.

In 1907, the Seals entered the newly rebuilt Recreation Park with a purpose in mind to help heal a broken city, one game at a time. With Kid Mohler managing the club, San Francisco went 104-99 in 1907, placing second in the PCL which was 18 games behind the Los Angeles Angels. Considering the fact that they had to evacuate their home field the previous year, the fact that they finished second in their league was a major boost for the fans. Oscar Jones led the team with 29 wins and a scintillating 2.04 ERA. Cack Henley followed close behind with 25 wins of his own and a 2.13 ERA. In that era, hitting a homerun was very rare and hardly seen so Frank Esola’s team leading three home runs in 1907 were seen as pretty good for the day. Two players did bat an average of more than .300, Henry Melchoir (.305) and Bill Moriarty (.301). However, pitching was truly the how the Seals won so many games as three other players won ten or more games for San Francisco including Barney Joy (17), Eddie Quick (12) and Ralph Willis (12). With the team loaded with talent at the pitcher’s mound, it was only a matter of time before their mission to fully heal their city was complete: winning a PCL championship.

The 1908 season saw the Seals stumble to a third place finish in the PCL with a 100-104 record. However, not all was lost as they had some more promise at the plate. Three players hit three or more home runs: Henry Melchoir (6), Fred Beck (4) and Ping Bodie (3). Once again, they had two players win 20 or more games with Harry Suter’s 26 victories pacing the club. Cack Henley was not far behind with 20 wins of his own but this year only had two more players win ten or more games. Ralph Willis came close to 20 wins but settled for 19 of his own while Oscar Jones won 11. The Seals were still searching for that special championship formula that they had lacked since the club began in 1903.

The 1909 season felt different. After seeing the carnage that the Great Earthquake of 1906 brought upon their beloved city and the resolve of their fans to make a better life out of the rubble, the Seals were determined to bring home a PCL championship for the first time in the club’s history. As a result, they finished with a 132-80 record, the best in the Pacific Coast League. Incredibly the team featured two 30 game winners in Frank Browning (32) and Cack Henley (31). Ralph Willis won 21 of his own while Pat Eastley (19) and Ed Griffin (12) paced a tremendous pitching rotation. Ping Bodie finished with ten home runs while Henry Belchoir slugged five of his own with an excellent .298 batting average.

Noticing how their team performed all year, the residents of San Francisco continued to rebuild their beloved city, never forgetting how they nearly lost everything. While most of the earthquake cottages have succumbed to the tests of time, there are a few that have survived. In 2006, one of the 720 square foot homes was sold for more than $600,000, a much higher price than the $100 that was needed to build the structure. Though all of the survivors of the Great Earthquake of 1906 have passed away, the memory of the great disaster still lingers within the confines of the City by the Bay. While the events of April 18, 1906 forever changed the city, in the end it was for the better as the city and its beloved baseball team were able to lean on each other during the long recovery. Together, they became stronger.

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