William Alexander “Bill” Lange is best known for a play that likely never happened. The legend was that he had made a spectacular catch that culminated with the Chicago Colts’ outfielder crashing through the left-field fence in Washington in an 1897 game with the Senators. It is most likely another in a long line of exaggerations and apocryphal stories from Lange’s friend, Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton—a story that first appeared in that paper with no byline in 1903, but was repeated by Fullerton many times in later years. A nice analysis of that story appears here.
Lange played just seven seasons, retiring after the 1899 season at age 28 to join his father-in-law in the insurance and real estate business in San Francisco.
During the spring of 1900, The Chicago Daily News said “The wise ones in the baseball business” were certain he’d be back, including Chicago’s manager Tom Loftus and President James Hart, and Charlie Comiskey, “’When the season opens and the sun warms up he can’t stay away,’ remarks Comiskey, with a knowing wink.”
Despite the certainty that he would, Lange never returned.
Lange, who stole 400 career bases, was called “Little Eva” because of his gracefulness. In 1909 Billy Sunday called him “the greatest outfielder in baseball history.” Connie Mack called him the best base-runner he ever saw. In fact, Mack and Clark Griffith considered Lange so good that they petitioned the Hall of Fame in 1940 to change the “rules (which) restrict membership to players of the twentieth century” in order to allow for Lange’s induction.
Griffith said Lange was “the best outfielder that ever played behind me:”
“Lange here was rougher base-stealer than (Billy) Hamilton. He used to knock down infielders. Once I saw him hit a grounder to third base. He should have been out, but he knocked down the first baseman.
“Then he knocked down the second and third baseman and scored. Connie Mack was the catcher. No he didn’t knock Connie down because he didn’t have to.”
Mack told the same story over the years.
Lange never made the Hall of Fame. He died in 1950.
In his final years the story about the “catch” had become so ingrained in the legend of Bill Lange that other players told essentially the same story Fullerton did (the most widely disseminated versions appeared in “The American Magazine” in 1909 and in Johnny Evers‘ book “Touching Second,” coauthored by Fullerton), but inserted themselves into the story. In 1946 Griffith told reporters:
“It happened right here in Washington, I was pitching for Chicago. Bill missed the train from New York, and arrived in the fourth inning. We were then with the Chicago Colts and Cap Anson fined Lange $100 before he put him in the game.
“I had a one-run lead when Al (“Kip”) Selbach of Washington hit a terrific drive. Lange ran back hard, and when he crashed into the wooden fence his 210 pounds took him right through the planks.
“He caught the ball at the same time and held it. All we could see were his feet sticking through the fence and Bill’s arm holding the ball. When he came back to the bench, he handed the ball to Anson and said:
‘This ought to cancel that $100 fine.’ It did too.”
When Lange died Griffith said:
“I have seen all the other great outfielders—Speaker, Cobb, DiMaggio –in action and I consider Bill Lange the equal of, if not better than, all outfielders of all time. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.”