John McGraw made news for an “innovation” in 1909. The Associated Press said:
“McGraw has adopted an innovation in baseball which will appeal to fandom throughout the National league circuit and probably prevent (Fred) Merkle and others from running to the clubhouse before they ‘touch second.’ The innovation is the signing of the once famous player Arlie Latham as coach for the base runners.”
Walter Arlington “Arlie” Latham, was “particularly known for his humor” in the 1880s and 90s. Primarily a third baseman with the St. Louis Browns in the American Association, the Chicago Pirates in the Players League and the Cincinnati Reds in the National League, Latham was nicknamed “The Freshest Man on Earth.”
The Associated Press said Latham:
“(B)rought much enjoyment to spectators of the Cincinnati club’s games and the Reds kept Latham a long while after he deteriorated as a player because of his drawing power as a comedian and humorist.
“Latham will don the uniform of the Giants and take his place in the coacher’s box while the Giants are at bat and between coaching the baserunner and batsmen and ‘getting the goat’ of the opposing pitchers will furnish an interesting sidelight to the New York games.”
Things did not go smoothly when Latham joined the team. During spring training in Marlin, Texas Latham and McGraw were returning to their rooms at the Arlington Hotel when Giants outfielder James “Cy” Seymour, according to The St. Louis Post Dispatch, “knocked him down, and then bit him on the cheek.” The article said McGraw and Latham did not know the “reason (Latham) was attacked,” but McGraw announced that Seymour was given his unconditional release. McGraw said:
“Seymour is done with the New York club, and that goes. It was the worst thing I ever saw pulled off. Nothing like that can go on the New York club.”
Despite what he said McGraw did not release Seymour; the outfielder was suspended for the first week of the regular season, and The Dallas Morning News said McGraw made Seymour pay “his own expenses in Texas after the unpleasant episode.”
Latham was often criticized for his antics and even more often for the quality of his work as a coach, which became such a running joke that The New York Times said after the Giants had beaten the Cardinals in a September 1910 game:
“Arlie Latham’s team won it with their eyes shut, 11 to 3. Latham’s coaching was invaluable yesterday. He advised the players to touch every base and this tip won the game for them.”
The Sporting Life said:
“(Latham) undoubtedly lost a lot of games by bad coaching. He got so unreliable that in a tight pinch McGraw would shift him from third to first and take the third line himself.”
The Sporting Life also said that Latham served as McGraw’s spy; a position that would later be filled by another colorful McGraw coach, Dick Kinsella.
Giants outfielder Fred Snodgrass told Lawrence Ritter in “The Glory of their Times,” that Latham “was probably the worst third base coach who ever lived.”
It looked like the end of the line for baseball’s first full-time coach after the 1910 season. The New York Herald said Latham “will not wear a Giant uniform next season,” and:
“He may amuse old timers, who remember him as a great ball player with (Charlie) Comiskey’s St. Louis Browns, but the new generation of fans seems to regard his efforts with disfavor.”
Despite the criticisms and predictions of his impending firing, Latham was back with Giants in 1911. After the Giants pennant winning season Latham again joined the Giants for spring training in Texas in 1912, but in March, according to The Associated Press:
“(Latham) was carried as one of the twenty-five men permitted on the payroll. McGraw did not want to let Latham go, but needed the place on the payroll for a real player.”
While McGraw didn’t want to lose his coach, most of baseball thought the end of Latham’s coaching career was a good thing; but even the New York press was not as harsh in their assessment of Latham as was Ed Remley, the baseball writer for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
“Arlie Latham has passed.
“May he rest in peace, for he is truly dead…Arlie has been called the fool of baseball and with much justice. He was not the fool in any modern sense but more like the professional jesters who were kept in the courts of kings in the middle ages.
“Today, reading descriptions of the position of the court jesters, their crude horseplay jokes, we are not filled with laughter but with pity…The crude vassals of a former generation thought the brutal jokes of the court fool were funny; the bleacherites of today laugh at Arlie Latham pretending an engrossing interest in a game which he cannot even play himself…Vale, Latham—You have our sympathy, but we are not really sorry you are gone. Figures of your kind are pathetic and pathos has nothing to do with baseball.”
Latham was next heard from when he accepted a coaching position with Patrick “Patsy” Flaherty’s Lynn Fighters in the New England League; that job only lasted until June. Latham managed to run afoul of the entire Lynn team. The Associated Press said he was forced to resign because “Players thought he was after manager Flaherty’s job and threatened to go on strike unless he was dismissed.”
Latham finished the 1914 season as an umpire in the Massachusetts and Rhode Island based Colonial League. He did not return the following season, and in May of 1915 The Pittsburgh Press reported under the headline “Arlie Latham Has Quit The Diamond for All Time Now,” that he had found a new line of work; operating a deli in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan:
“He declares that as a delicatessener he is batting only .106 at present, but that when he gets properly warmed up and learns how to shave 15 ½ ounces of ham for a pound he will hit with the best of them in the delicatessen league.”
By 1917 Latham was in Europe, for the last act of his baseball career. From 1917 to 1923 he lived in London and organized baseball leagues for military personnel. The highlight of his stay was the July 4, 1918 game between the Army and Navy teams. Latham served as umpire and greeted the most important dignitary at the game, King George V. The Associated Press said:
“It had been planned to have the king throw out the first ball, but this was abandoned because of the netting in front of the royal box, so the king brought the ball out on the field and handed it to the umpire. One of the balls used was autographed by the king with an American fountain pen and mailed tonight to President Wilson as a souvenir. “
After returning to the States, Latham first returned to the deli, then later was hired to work in the press box at the Polo Grounds, he remained a fixture at the New York ballpark until his death at age 92 in 1952.
As a result of outliving his critics and becoming one of the last surviving links to the 19th Century game by the time of his death, memories had faded about the “pathetic” figure of Latham, and only the image as “baseball’s clown prince” remained.