“Lennon Violated all Rules of Decency”

6 Feb

Bill Lennon is a footnote. Best known for appearing in the first official major league game–the May 4, 1871 National Association opener between the Cleveland Forest Cities and the Fort Wayne Kekiongas–and for being the first catcher credited with throwing out someone trying to steal a base—in the same game.

When he is mentioned at all, it is said he “deserted the Kekiongas” in mid-June; actually, he was with the club through most of July and was expelled by the team. His expulsion led to charges and counter charges between the parties, and a war of words between the Fort Wayne papers and The Chicago Tribune.

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Bill Lennon

Lennon, like all 19th Century catchers, took a beating. When the club went to the East Coast in June the Fort Wayne papers reported that he was playing with injuries and the road trip got off to a rocky start on the 19th. Fort Wayne was leading the Troy Haymakers 6 to 3 heading into the seventh inning, The Fort Wayne Gazette said:

“The game was called in favor of the Haymakers by George Leroy, umpire…because the Kekiongas refused to substitute a ball for the one which had been in use, and which had become ripped.”

The Fort Wayne Sentinel said the ripped ball was a ruse by Troy catcher and captain Bill Craver, who the paper called “a noted fault finder” and was intended as a “trick gotten up to dupe the Kekies into accepting a ‘lively ball’ instead of the dead one they were at the time playing with.”

Lennon caught a game the next day in Boston against a team from Lowell, Massachusetts. Lennon caught again the following day when the Boston Red Stockings beat Fort Wayne 21 to 0.

A report of the game in The Gazette noted that Lennon, as well as outfielder Ed Mincher and pitcher Bobby Mathews played with injuries.

The Kekiongas traveled to New York the next day and Lennon umpired that day’s game between the New York Mutuals and the Washington Olympics.

On June 23 and 24 the team played two non-Association games versus the Atlantics and the Eckfords in New York. Lennon did not appear in either game.

He was back in the lineup on June 26, when Fort Wayne beat the New York Mutuals 5 to 3. The New York Herald noted that Lennon played “with a lame hand.” The New York Sun said, “Lennon did not allow a single ball to pass him,” despite the fact that his hands “are in a very bad state.”

The New York World said of Lennon’s performance:

“Lennon as catcher did splendid service; not a single passed ball could be charged to him.”

The Fort Wayne Gazette said:

“The pitching of (Bobby) Mathews was simply immense, while the catching of Lennon was wonderful, not a ball or point of the game escaping either of them.”

In early July The Chicago Tribune noted Lennon’s “Crippled condition.”

Lennon remained injured throughout the rest of June and into July, but the Fort Wayne papers never suggested his injuries were not real. The Gazette chided the rival Sentinel on July 15 after the latter paper reported a rumor that Lennon had left the club. Both papers reported that he traveled to Cleveland to umpire a game between the Forest Cities and the Philadelphia Athletics on July 23.

While Lennon was in Cleveland the Kekiongas’ expelled outfielder Ed Mincher and utility man Pete Donnelly. The team claimed the two “violated their contracts…by leaving without warning or permission, and the same Mincher and Donnelly being in arrearages to the Kekionga club.”

Both players denied the charges and claimed the team owed them money.

With Lennon still in Cleveland on July 25, it was his turn. The Gazette said: “At a meeting of the Directors of the Kekionga Base Ball Club…William Lennon was charged and found guilty,” of four accusations.

The club said Lennon deserted the team on June 23 during the game with the Atlantics and “did not return to said game.”

The second charge was that on June 24 at New York’s Hotel Earle, Lennon “violated all rules of decency,” although the charge was not specific as to the violation and that he “refused to obey orders” from the club’s directors.

The third charge was that on four occasions during July, Lennon “wholly violated all obligations and rules of said club,” and refused to practice while he also appeared “in public under the influence of intoxicating liquors.”

The final charge was that Lennon left Fort Wayne without notifying the team, when he went to Cleveland.

In addition to Lennon, The Gazette said third baseman Frank Sellman was expelled as well, having been “found guilty of the last three charges,” although the specifics of his alleged infractions were not reported.

Lennon would not go down quietly. He had previously played in Chicago for the Excelsior Club, and presented a letter rebutting the claims, to the baseball writer at The Chicago Tribune.

The expelled captain of the Fort Wayne club addressed the charges:

“On the night preceding the (June 23) game, I was informed by the manager of the club that on account of the state of my hand, I would not be required to play…Nevertheless, I went to the Capitoline Grounds with the nine and saw the game begin, Sellman acting as catcher. I then went over to the Union Grounds and saw part of the game there. On returning to the hotel I learned for the first time of the result of the game, and the management then found fault with me for not directing the movements of the nine. Any ball-player will see the absurdity of asking me to Captain a nine in which I was not playing. Neither the rules nor the opposing club would allow such a proceeding.”

For the second charge, Lennon did not address the part about violating “all rules of decency,” but claimed the entire charge amounted to misunderstanding when one of the club’s directors had told him the night before he would not play in the June 24 game against the Eckfords “on account of my hand, which was in a very bad state,” but then “An hour or two before the game,” the same club executive asked Lennon if he intended to play. “I told him I was not in condition on account of my hand. This was all the conversation; there was no order to play given,” therefore said Lennon, he had not disobeyed an order.

Lennon called the third charge “totally false. I never was under the influence of intoxicating liquor at any time in Fort Wayne, or in any other place while I was a member of the Kekionga Club. Furthermore, I never refused to practice when notified to do so.”

On the fourth charge, Lennon said it was Fort Wayne club and not him who had violated his contract.

“(My) contract stipulated that that I should receive $70 per month, $7 to be paid each Saturday, and the remainder at the end of each and every month. The Kekionga Club have entirely ignored this clause, and so far from making monthly settlements have never given me my full pay.”

Lennon claimed he had not once received the entire balance owed to him since joining the team.

His letter concluded:

“I have been known for some years to the ballplayers of this country, and I desire as a favor that all papers which have published the ‘expulsion’ will do me the justice to give my reasons for leaving the club.”

The Tribune then took up Lennon’s case.

The rest of the story, Friday.

Note:  The original version of this post was an early draft that names Lewis E. Meacham as the sports editor of The Chicago Tribune.  While Meacham was with the paper in 1871 and later served as the sports editor, he was likely not the author of the article in defense of Lennon, as he was primarily a general assignment reporter covering local news in 1871.  It has been corrected to reflect that.

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