A small item in the 1913 edition of “Spalding’s Baseball Guide” reporting the death of long-time minor league player and manager Ed Ashenbach—misspelled Aschenbach by the guide—said he “coined the term bonehead.”
Robinson said it happened in 1902 when Ashenbach managed the Shreveport Giants in the Southern Association and involved an outfielder “by the name of McGowan,” whom he called “Mack.” There was no “McGowan” with Shreveport, but Monte McFarland and Frank McGuire both played games in the outfield while Ashenbach was in Shreveport:
“One of the opposing players knocked a high fly in Mack’s direction. Somehow he lost his nerve and was unable to judge it correctly. He made three or four circles and finally gave it up entirely, just as the ball came down on his head and bounded to the far corner of the field, two runners scoring.
“’Ash’ was wild. The game was lost.
“Picking up a catcher’s mask and rushing out to the bewildered fielder he yelled: ‘Here, you bone-headed mutt, come here.’ When he came up with the player he began it again. ‘Here you bonehead,’ he yelled. ‘Take this mask and put it on or they’ll knock your brains out with the next fly they put over.’”
Before his death in 1912, Ashenbach wrote a book called “Humor Among the Minors,” and reprinted a very similar version of Robinson’s story that was told by Bozeman Bulger in The New York World in 1910. While Ashenbach vouched for the veracity of the story, he said it wasn’t the first time he used the term, and had actually coined the term earlier–although he got the year wrong.:
“In 1899 [sic, 1897] I played center field for the Springfield. Ohio, club (the Governors in the Interstate League). On the team were Josh Reilly, third baseman, now retired and deputy coroner of San Francisco (It has been a matter of speculation where Reilly played in 1897–Baseball Reference lists the player with Columbus as Joseph Reilly, The Sporting Life referred to the player with Columbus as “Josh Reilly”) and a catcher to whom we gave the nickname of Zeekoe, and who was continually doing just the opposite of what he was instructed to do.
“He had a serious weakness, in that it was utterly impossible for him to catch a high foul fly. He would dance under the ball until he got dizzy. Reilly often advised that we build a wooden shed over him so that his head would not be shattered by one of those high fouls.
“One day the expected happened. The ball went high up into the air, with Zeekoe, as usual, doing his sky-dance, under it. It finally landed, not in his mitt, but right on top of his head, bouncing fully thirty feet off his bean into the bleachers. The blow would have felled and ox. Down went poor Zeekoe, but only for an instant–to pick up his mask, which had been knocked off in the encounter. That evening in the dining room
“That evening in the dining room, Reilly and I passed Zeekoe, who was enjoying his evening meal with the utmost complacency. In passing him, I playfully pressed both of my hands on his head to feel for the bump which a blow of that size should have raised. The lump was conspicuous by its absence.
“‘Are you hurt?’ I inquired of him. ‘Not a bit,’ he said with pride. Turing to Reilly, I remarked, ‘No wonder, Josh, that he isn’t hurt. His head is made of bone.’ I believe this was the very first use of the term. Ever since that night I have applied the expression ‘bonehead’ to any player guilty of unusual stupidity, and it has gained wide circulation.”