The line between professional and amateur athletes was often very blurry before the turn of the 20th Century. Delbert Bancroft Sayers is a good example.
Born in Ohio in 1876, Sayers first made a name for himself as a pitcher with the Ohio Wesleyan University team in 1895 and ’96 and with semi-pro teams in Galion and Marion, Ohio in 1896–local papers referred to the Marion club as a “professional” team. In 1897, he signed with the Youngstown Puddlers of the Interstate League.
Despite being described by The Youngstown Vindicator as “(A) clever young pitcher with good curves and wonderful speed,” Sayers struggled with Youngstown (no statistics survive but in a May game against Mansfield he walked six batters before being pulled in the third inning). In June, he was sent to the Guelph Maple Leafs in the Canadian League. The paper said:
“(He) had difficulty in locating the plate and it is thought a little more practice in a minor league will aid him for Interstate work. He leaves with the best wishes of all concerned.”
After the 1897 season, Sayers returned to college; this time at Ohio State University.
He played baseball and football at Ohio State and was at times a dominant pitcher. After a game in 1900 The Marion Star said:
“Sayers, who formerly played with Marion’s professional team, is doing some phenomenal slab work for the O.S.U. team.
“In the Decoration Day (May 28) game against Centre College at Columbus, he shut out his opponents, allowing them but two hits…nineteen of them fanned out at his mysterious shoots and curves.”
Known for his lack of control as a professional, he walked three and hit two batters during that game.
But he was better known as a football player.
Sayers, a tackle, was named captain in 1899, Ohio State’s first undefeated season. The team went 9-0-1 giving up only five points all season, in a 5-5 tie with Case University. In a 6-0 victory over Oberlin, Sayers returned a fumble 25 yards for the game’s only score.
By the middle of the decade, a college star’s former professional status would have been cause for controversy, but there was hardly a mention of Sayers’ minor league experience during his second college career.
After leaving Ohio State in 1900, Sayers considered offers from several teams in the Interstate League and eventually signed with the Columbus Senators. He appears to have only pitched one game with Columbus and there are no mentions of his again until 1903 when The Sporting Life reported he had signed with the Terre Haute Hottentots in the Central League—he appears to have pitched in just two games for Terre Haute, both complete-game loses; 10-2 to the Wheeling Stogies (with Branch Rickey behind the plate) on June 19 and 10 to 1 to the South Bend Greens five days later. The Louisville Courier-Journal said:
“South Bend hit Sayers at will.”
In 1904, he returned to Ohio State to finish school. After graduating Sayers was employed as chief engineer at the Stonega Coke and Coal Company in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, later returning to Ohio where, according to The Columbus Dispatch, as a civil engineer he “laid out” the town of Upper Arlington which had been founded and developed by his brothers in law. Sayers died in Columbus’ University Hospital on December 4, 1949.
A shorter version of this post appeared on November 21, 2012.