“California Wonder”

30 Apr

Two West Coast ballplayers dubbed “California Wonder” by the press made their Major League debuts less than a week apart in 1887.  One went on to be one of the best leadoff hitters of his era; the other remains almost completely unknown.

George Van Haltren was a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher, outfielder and first baseman who had played two seasons with the Oakland franchise in the California and California State Leagues.

James McMullin, birth date unknown, had pitched for Mike Finn’s San Francisco Pioneers in 1886.

Mike Finn, manager, San Francisco Pioneers

Mike Finn, manager, San Francisco Pioneers

Van Haltren’s rights were acquired by the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, but because of his mother’s illness he said he would instead play for the San Francisco Haverlys.  The Chicago White Stockings traded for Van Haltren in April, but he still refused.  The Sporting Life said “the California Wonder will not come east,” quoted him saying:

“No, I will not play with Chicago this season; but if my left arm holds out and my parents are blessed with good health I will be open to Eastern engagements next season.”

The White Stockings threatened to have him blacklisted for not reporting but Van Haltren dug his heels in; only changing his mind after his mother passed away in May.

The Chicago Inter Ocean announced that he had arrived in town on June 25 and would be making his debut for the White Stockings on the two days later:

“(Van Haltren) at one time retired the Pioneer Club of San Francisco with a hit, and struck out seventeen men.  If he can continue this record here the Chicagos will come out of the race this season with another set of figures to put on the big flag at the park.”

Van Haltren’s debut was not good.  He walked 16 Boston Beaneaters and lost 17 to 11.  He finished the season 11-7, and would spend one more season as a full-time pitcher; going 13-13 in 1888 (he was 15-10, splitting time between the mound and outfield with the Brooklyn Ward’s Wonders in the Players league in 1890).  Van Haltren would distinguish himself as one of the game’s best leadoff men, hitting better than .300 every year from 1889-1901, except for 1892 when he hit .293.

Van Haltren ended his career in 1903 with 2544 hits.

George Van Haltren

George Van Haltren

McMullin’s debut was no better than Van Haltren’s.

He began the 1887 season with the Pioneers, but was acquired in June by the new York Mutuals of the American Association.

When McMullin joined the club The Sporting Life said:

“The Mets have got their new California pitcher and like him well in practice.  He has plenty of speed.”

McMullin made his debut on July 2 against the Cincinnati Red Stockings.  The New York Times said of his performance, under the headline, “A ‘Wonder’ Exploded.  The Mets’ California Pitcher A Failure:”

“The debut of McMullen, the ‘California Wonder,’ was made (in Cincinnati) today in the presence of nearly 7,000 people, who went into hysterics from laughing at the awful exhibition given by the Wonder and his support.  He was utterly unable to get the ball over the plate and was miserably supported in the field.  After the third inning he retired to right field and there made a couple of errors.”

He gave up eight runs, made four errors and had two wild pitches in a 21-7 drubbing.

The box score from McMullin's debut.

The box score from McMullin’s debut.

McMullin only made two more appearances for the Metropolitans, and while he was credited with wins in both games his performance was no better; in his eight-day, three-game career he pitched 21 innings, gave up  25 runs (18 earned),  25 hits, walked 19, and struck out 2.  He made a total of five errors, and had one hit in 12 at bats.  The Mets released him on July 10.

And with that McMullin disappeared—there is no record of him having pitched anywhere after he left New York, there’s no record of whether he  threw and batted left-handed or right-handed, no pictures survive, and no record of when or where he died.  Another enigmatic figure of professional baseball’s early years.

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3 Responses to ““California Wonder””

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Hence his Careless, Indifferent air when he goes to the Plate to Bat.” | Baseball History Daily - November 18, 2013

    […] and said former Chicago pitchers Pat Luby (.235), Ad Gumbert (.274),  Walter Thornton (.312) and  George Van Haltren (.316, but was primarily an outfielder appearing in 93 games as a pitcher over a 17-year career), […]

  2. “Show yourself a man, Borchers, and Leave Boozing to the Weak Fools” | Baseball History Daily - February 10, 2014

    […] losses were against the league-leading San Francisco Haverlys.  San Francisco Manager Mike Finn filed a protest with the league, claiming Borchers should be declared ineligible because he was […]

  3. “A Lajoie Bunt” | Baseball History Daily - July 22, 2015

    […] was a Lajoie bunt’ said (Giants center fielder George) Van Haltren.  Wait and see him hit one with no cap to interfere with the […]

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