“Base Ball has cured more Cases of Insanity than any other Outdoor Sport or Amusement”

10 Sep

A small item in The Sporting Life in 1905, although vague on details, highlighted a growing trend in the first decade of the 20th Century, fielding amateur baseball teams made up of mentally ill patients:

 “Score another point in favor of the greatest of sports, base ball.  Dr. Harmon, superintendent of a famed insane asylum near New York has discovered that playing base ball has cured more cases of insanity than any other outdoor sport or amusement. The other day the trustees wanted to till all the soil belonging to the asylum, but Dr. Harmon insisted on enough ground being left intact for a base ball park. “This game has worked wonders in many cases of insanity,” said Dr. Harmon, “in that it gives these unfortunates healthful exercise and diverts their minds from the channels into which their maladies have sunk them.”

The “asylum near New York” mentioned was probably The Buffalo State Hospital,  “Dr. Harmon” was most likely Frank W. Harmon, who was not from New York, but rather superintendent of Cincinnati’s Longview Hospital, a facility that was well-known for strong teams.  They were two of many state and private asylums throughout the country to have teams; many participated in amateur leagues and received regular coverage in the local press.

The baseball team from The Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington D.C. circa 1909 (now St. Elizabeths Hospital)

The baseball team from The Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington D.C. circa 1909 (now St. Elizabeths Hospital)

The idea wasn’t entirely new; in 1890, The New York Times reported that the State Hospital in Middletown, New York considered “indulging in the national game,” the “best and most exhilarating” outdoor activity for patients.  But by 1905, the trend had exploded.

One team, from the Northern Indiana Hospital for the Insane, in Logansport, issued a challenge “to play any similar team in the United States.”    The challenge received a great deal of coverage in Midwest papers, and included the claim that the team’s star pitcher was “a young man committed from South Bend who was one of the most noted players in the Central League.”

The player was not named  but was probably Homer Tobias, who had posted a 2-0 record for the South Bend Greens in 1908.  In April of 1909, Tobias, who The Sporting Life said “was expected to be a star member,” of the team disappeared for several days and was eventually located and committed at Logansport.  He never played professionally again.

William O. Krohn, a former University of Illinois Psychology professor who left the school to become a physician at the Kankakee State Hospital used baseball as a treatment for patients.  One of his assistants was a former University of Illinois student named Francis Xavier “Big Jeff” Pfeffer, who worked with the doctor when he wasn’t pitching for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Beaneaters.

"Big Jeff" Pfeffer

“Big Jeff” Pfeffer

In a 1911 article in The Warsaw (IN) Daily Union, Krohn said:

“You might say without departing from the literal truth that baseball makes the insane sane and the sane insane.  At least the sane often give manifestations of violent insanity while the insane seem rational while under the influence of baseball.”

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