“We didn’t have any High-Faluting Baseball Paraphernalia”

15 Oct

The Seattle Star said of Dan Dugdale:

“No man in the Northwest can rival the experiences in baseball that Daniel E. Dugdale has had in the national game.”

In his 1934 obituary, The United Press called Dugdale “the father of organized baseball in Seattle.”

Dan Dugdale

Dan Dugdale

Primarily a catcher, Dugdale played professional ball for more than a decade; including two stints in the National League with the Kansas City Cowboys in 1886 and the Washington Senators in 1894.  He retired after the 1897 season and made what was intended to be a brief stop in Seattle on the way to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush.  He never made it to Alaska, and in Seattle, he organized most of the city’s early professional teams and built two ballparks.

Dan Dugdale 1894

Dan Dugdale 1894

Forty years after he began playing he shared his reminiscences about in the early 1880s in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois with Seattle reporter Leo Lassen:

“We didn’t have any high-faluting baseball paraphernalia for the deciding game of the Peoria, Illinois city championship in the summer of 1883.  I can remember that we used a piece of the curbstone for home plate.  Nobody except the catcher used glove, and he only had a fingerless glove of thin leather over both hands.

“Oh yes!  Of course my team, the Double Browns, won, or it wouldn’t start this story out right.  It was in that game that I got my start as a catcher.

“I had been playing shortstop, but the regular receiver split a finger and there wasn’t anyone else to catch, so I tried it.

“We stood back for the pitches except on the third strike, and except with men on bases, catching the ball on the first bounce when standing back.

Ted Kennedy, who later helped pitch one of Pop Anson’s Chicago teams into the championship, was hurling for our side that day, and baby but he could throw that ball with plenty of swift.

“’Don’t catch if you want to keep your health,’ Ted warned me before taking up my receiving duties…Kennedy was right.  The first time I stood up close to catch, the ball hit that curbstone plate and crashed into my mouth, knocking out teeth by the wholesale and putting me on queer street.

“But in those days no one considered quitting as long as it was possible to stand up and catch the ball.

“I finished the game and we won the championship, and I felt well repaid for it.

“That game started me on my baseball career as a catcher, after which I was to serve for 15 years as a receiver for clubs throughout the country.”

Kennedy wasn’t the only major leaguer Dugdale played with while in Peoria.  In 1885, he played with one of the claimants to the title of invention of the catcher’s mitt—Harry Decker—and Dugdale talked about some of the attempts his teammate made to protect his hands four years before Decker was awarded the patent for the Decker Safety Catcher’s Mitt:

“(Catchers) had no shin guards, masks or big gloves in those days, and a fellow had to be almost a martyr to go behind the plate with fellows like John Clarkson, Amos Rusie and those old stars doing the pitching.

“The big catcher’s pad now in use in baseball, is the same glove that Harry Decker, a teammate of mine on the Peoria team in 1885, invented.

“Harry had been troubled with split fingers and he kept tinkering around with leather trying to figure out how to protect his left hand, which does the big work for all catchers.

“He had a thin, fingerless glove to start with and one day he slipped a piece of raw beefsteak between the glove and his hand and that glove gave him his first idea.  He used this protection for almost a season, using a fresh piece of meat each day.

“Then he tried shot in the pocket of the glove and put a piece of leather on top of the shot, leaving it between the two pieces of leather.

“This gave him the idea of building the mitt up bigger and lacing fingers on the back of the glove.

“One day he hit upon the idea of stuffing the glove with rags in the mitt for protection, and finally got some good felt and used that.  It has been in use ever since.”

Decker Safety Catcher’s Mitt

Decker Safety Catcher’s Mitt

Dugdale remained the most prominent figure in Seattle baseball until he was hit by a truck and killed in 1934.

Accounts vary over how much Decker received from the sale of the mitt patent to A.G. Spalding.   He  is one of the enigmatic 19th Century players for whom there is no information on the date or location of his death.

After his career ended in 1891 he was convicted of numerous crimes—most involving forgery, but also including larceny and bigamy; several of his crimes involved other ballplayers.

Throughout his career Decker had a reputation as a womanizer; The Philadelphia Inquirer called him “The Don Juan of the Diamond,” but by 1890, perhaps exacerbated by his being hit in the head by a pitch, he went from lovable rogue to serial offender.  He racked up arrests and convictions in at least six states and an involuntary commitment to the Elgin State Hospital in Illinois over the next 25 years.

Victims of his crimes included Dugdale, and Al Reach, both of whose names appeared on forged checks in separate cases, and Jack Horner and Pat Pettee, teammates of Decker’s in 1891 during his brief stay with the New Haven Nutmegs in the Eastern Association.  Decker was convicted of stealing property worth $150 from Horner and $55 from Pettee after the two had allowed him to stay in the apartment they shared.

Decker’s trail goes cold after he was released from California’s San Quentin Prison in 1915.

Leo Lassen, the reporter Dugdale spoke to, went on to become the radio voice of the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League from 1931 through the 1961 season.  Some surviving audio can be found here.

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