Actually, it Probably Wasn’t the Superstition

5 Dec

As with George Treadway, a story can get repeated throughout the decades while a large, key portion is lost in the process; such is the case with Billy Earle.

His career ended because of the superstitions of other players who thought he was “creepy,” as David Nemec described him in his excellent book “The Beer and Whiskey League.”  In “The New Bill James Historical Abstract,” James credulously quotes the assertion from sportscaster Bill Stern‘s 1949 book “Favorite Baseball Stories” that Earle was:

“(F)orced out of baseball, because of nothing more than superstition, the belief that he was a hypnotist with the power of ‘the evil eye.’”

For awhile even Earle tried to use it as an excuse.

But actually, it was probably the morphine.

William Moffat Earle was at times a great player, but more often impetuous and prone to jumping contracts.

He earned his nickname “The Little Globetrotter” after being part of the 1888 world tour organized by Albert Spalding.  Earle said of the trip:

“We played everywhere from the catacombs of Rome to Cheops of Egypt, under the shadow of the pyramids and out through India and the Islands of Ceylon.”

Billy Earle and the other members of the world tour

Billy Earle and the other members of the world tour at the Great Sphinx of Giza

After returning from the tour Earle joined the Cincinnati Red Stockings in the American Association.  He bounced back and forth from Major League to minor league teams for the next six years.  During that time, there were a number of humorous references to Earle’s interest in hypnotism, but none claimed it was an impediment to his career; however, in 1897, upon being released after one game with the Columbus Senators of the Western League the legend began.

In September of 1897 a fairly long article appeared in The Baltimore Sun under the headline “A Haunted Ballplayer,” and then ran in papers around the country. The story said:

“(Earle) cannot get a position on any ball team in the country, not even the small minor league teams.”

Earle told a sad story of teammates avoiding him and fearing the “hoodoo.”  He even blamed his being released by Pittsburgh  after the 1893 season on it, ignoring the fact that he was only signed because of injuries to the three other Pirate catchers, Connie Mack, Joe Sugden and Doggie Miller—and emergency catcher Jake Stenzel.

That 1897 story became the story of Billy Earle.

It also said:

 “He is, moreover, a pleasant, intelligent, strictly temperate man.”

The first two might very well have been true.  The last was not.

The rest of the story about Billy Earle has been lost, forgotten, or just ignored.

In August of 1898, The Cincinnati Enquirer told the real story of why Billy Earle had been out of baseball.  The “strictly temperate” Earle was addicted to morphine.

His friend John McGraw helped get him treatment in a Baltimore hospital; his former Cincinnati teammates took up a collection to buy Earle a ticket to Philadelphia to stay with his parents after treatment.

He kicked the habit, and then for three seasons managed and played for an independent team in Richmond, Indiana; he also coached teams in Havana, Cuba during the winters of 1900 and 1902-1904. And he returned to professional baseball; hardly the profile of a blacklisted man.

Earle signed as a player/manager with the 1903 Vicksburg Hill Billies in the Cotton States League.  He continued his playing career through 1906, and either managed or worked as an umpire in Midwest-based leagues through 1911.

Billy Earle, player/manager Columbia Gamecocks 1905.

Billy Earle, player/manager Columbia Gamecocks 1905.

Billy Earle died in Omaha, Nebraska in 1946.

Were there some players in the superstitious world of 19th Century baseball who were uncomfortable playing with or against Earle? Probably.  If he had hit .320 and not had a drug problem would he have had a 10-year or more major league career regardless of superstitions? Probably.

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One Response to “Actually, it Probably Wasn’t the Superstition”

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  1. “Big, Good-Hearted and Foolish” « Baseball History Daily - January 9, 2013

    […] was also shot and died in the hospital six days later.  (Some recent sources, such as Bill James in “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” erroneously identify McCarthy as John […]

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