“There were Absurd Errors, Collisions, Accidents, Spectacular Batting”

2 Mar

William Henry “Josh” Reilly had a memorable big league debut for the Chicago Colts in 1896.

Josh Reilly

Josh Reilly

Reilly filled in at shortstop for Bill Dahlen in a May 2 game against the St. Louis Browns.  The Chicago Tribune said Dahlen was “(E)ngaged at home in holding a hot water bag against a turbulent tooth.”

While the toothache story was reported in the Chicago papers, The Sporting Life was not sold on the reason for the hard-drinking Dahlen’s absence:

“Dahlen laid off—was sick, or—well, you know Dahlen.”

Bill Dahlen

Bill Dahlen

The Chicago Inter Ocean called the game “Worse than cough medicine,” and said:

“Of all the untabulated, unscheduled, unexpected, terrible, heartrending, frayed-out exhibitions of something or another that must be classed under the head of baseball, yesterday’s game with St. Louis was the worst.”

The Tribune said:

 “There were absurd errors, collisions, accidents, spectacular batting.”

Reilly was responsible for three of those “absurd errors,” and some of the “spectacular batting,” going 2 for 6 in his debut; he was also responsible for what The Tribune called “The electrifying feature of the game.”

The Inter Ocean described what happened:

(Monte) Cross got to first because (Chicago first baseman) George Decker thought his arm was as long as the legs of a man who has to stand on a ladder to comb his hair.  His arm was short by about six feet.  Then (Tom) Parrott made a single to center… (Duff) Cooley knocked a hot liner, and everybody started to sprint.  Reilly was playing at short, and stuck his finger nail into a loose stitch just as the ball shot past him.  He slammed it to (Harry) Truby, where Cross should have been, but was not, and Truby in turn, tossed it over to Decker to fondle while Parrott endeavored to correct himself.”

That game was the only highlight in Reilly’s major league career.  He played a total of nine games in Chicago—the other 8 at second base—and made a total of 11 errors.  And, after going 2 for 6 in his debut, he was just 6 for 36 thereafter.   Then, in late May Reilly became ill—accounts varied regarding what the illness was, The Sporting News said it was typhoid fever, The Sporting Life, and The Chicago Daily News said pneumonia.

Reilly returned home to the West Coast.  By September, his debut heroics were long forgotten, The Tribune simply said:

“(Reilly) was a disappointment and he was released.”

Despite his brief and relatively inauspicious big league career, Reilly was a popular minor leaguer for more than a decade.

An often told story about him, alleged to have taken place the year before his short trial in Chicago, illustrates just how superstitious 19th Century players could be.

The earliest telling was in 1897 in The Tribune, and it appeared on several occasions, in several papers, over the next 15 years with various embellishments.  There was no byline on the original story, but it was likely written by Hugh Fullerton–who retold it himself several times.

Reilly spent the 1895 season in Texas, playing with the San Antonio Missionaries and the Fort Worth Panthers in the Texas-Southern League.  Reilly opened the season with the Missionaries, who got off to a horrible start; they won just three of their first 28 games:

“The team was discouraged and sore.  They held a meeting and were on the verge of firing their mascot or committing violence upon his person when Josh Reilly…came to the rescue with a new proposition.  The mascot was put into a full dress coat, with gray baseball trousers and a silk hat, and the bats, some half a score of them, were pulled upon his back.  Then the team formed in line and marched down to the hotel, where “The Divine Healer,” Schlatter was stopping.”

Francis Schlatter was, at that time, walking across the American Southwest gaining fame and followers.  Three years earlier he had come to believe he received a “directive from God” to heal the sick, and became a messianic figure for many during his brief time in the spotlight.

Francis Schlatter

Francis Schlatter, “The Divine Healer”

“The divine was brought forth and made to pronounce a blessing upon the bats…and through all the season those inspired bats continued to give out base hits., and the team went close to the top of the league.”

While Reilly never disputed the story–and seemed to tell it himself on occasion–Fullerton’s ending was pure fiction. San Antonio continued to struggle and blessed or not, the Missionaries’ bats were mostly silent all season–the team never left the cellar and was 21-72 in August when they disbanded.

Josh Reilly, 1930--he died in San Francisco in 1938.

Josh Reilly, 1930–he died in San Francisco in 1938.

In different versions of the story, it was claimed that Reilly still used one or more of the “blessed bats.”  In another, Reilly “Hit .344” with one of the bats “and after he broke that bat he hit .189 for the rest of the season.”

Fullerton had one more Reilly story that he told often–first appearing in 1906 but recycled frequently for two decades–this one about his fielding troubles during his brief stay in Chicago and the impact the ire of fans has on a struggling player:

“(Reilly) was pretty bad as a fielder, and getting no better rapidly.  the jeers, hisses and hoots of the crowd merely made him mad.  He wanted to fight back.  His Irish blood was boiling.  For a time it seemed as if he would win and prove himself a great ball player merely by his nerve in playing at all under such a constant shower of criticism.  But one day Josh got through.  I found him frothing at the mouth out at the club house.  He was done.  He never would play again–unless he got a chance to kill a certain man.  When he grew calm enough.  I discovered the cause of it.

“‘He was a big man sitting in the bleachers’ said Josh.  ‘While they were all yelling at me for booting a hot one, he sat still.  I saw him and  said to myself ‘there’s one friend of mine up there.’  He never said a word until the seventh inning.  Then he stood up, stretched himself, walked down two or three steps and yelled:  ‘Reilly, you’re a disgrace to the Irish!’  If I had him I’d killed him.'”

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