Unser Fritz

21 Dec

Fred Pfeffer made 30 errors in 32 games for the Chicago Colts in 1897. The 16-year veteran, “Unser Fritz” (our Fritz) had removed himself from the starting lineup in mid-May after making three errors in a 10 to 1 loss to the Beaneaters.

The Chicago Inter Ocean said:

“Pfeffer, walking with Captain Anson across the diamond toward the clubhouse yesterday after the eventful game with Boston, asked the old man to put him on the bench for a while.”

The paper said of the three-error performance

“No one who witnessed the disastrous game that had just closed and seen the pathetic downfall of the man whom the Chicago public had so long worshipped as the king of the diamond…could but feel that it was the occasion of the passing of a veteran.”

Pfeffer

The Chicago Chronicle said Pfeffer had been ill all spring and came back too quickly:

“Malaria has been the disease, and of late his inroads have become mare marked. His skin has taken on a yellow hue and every sign has been of Illness.”

The Chicago Tribune said at least five of the 6-14 club’s losses were “directly traceable” to Pfeffer.

Finally, on June 30, his career came to an end.

The Chronicle said, 15 minutes before the game started:

“Pfeffer, hero of a thousand games, the worshipped of the bleachers for 15 years, was called into the private office of President (James) Hart and given his unconditional release.”

After speaking with Hart:

“Pfeffer was in uniform, the white cap and stiff visor, the loose smoking-style jacket and the white blouse, knickerbockers and stockings that have been sacred to the Colts from the immemorial time of baseball…he was slow to go from the field.”

The paper said in eulogizing his career:

“In the final passing of Fred Pfeffer, the king of all second basemen has been relegated to history. The single and united hope of every baseball enthusiast the country through is that he and his deeds may live in story. They will, for while baseball exists as a national game the praises of he who was in his day the greatest player of them all will be sung and resung.”

The Tribune also called Pfeffer “The king of all second basemen,” and said:

“He was fast and shifty on his feet, and no matter where the ball was thrown always tagged his man.”

No sooner had Pfeffer been released and eulogized, when just days later, the struggling Colts had struggled because of him. By July 4th “Unser Fritz” had become a clubhouse cancer:

The Chronicle said:

“One of the reasons for the team’s poor showing early in the season was the unpopularity of Fred Pfeffer with his fellow players. The men realized that the veteran second baseman’s days were about over and Anson’s persistence in keeping Pfeffer in the game and Jimmy Connor, evidently a far better player, on the bench, tended to engender the spirit of dissatisfaction among the men.”

The Tribune called Pfeffer,” a disturber” who in spite of giving advice to teammates in “the most friendly manner and with the kindest intentions” his opinions “affronted the youngsters” on the Colts.

Despite the opinion of the Chicago papers in the days following his release, Pfeffer was in demand. The Inter Ocean said he had, “a pocketful of offers,” including the Washington Senators and the Louisville Colonels in the National League and several minor league clubs.

Pfeffer rejected all offers to continue playing and began to make plans to open a “twelve-table billiard hall” on the corner of Clark and Madison in Chicago.

He also appealed to National League President Nick Young to make him an umpire. The Chronicle said, “a hundred or more telegraphic endorsements and recommendations” were sent to Young on Pfeffer’s behalf.

The push on his behalf, failed; Young said, “he appreciated Mr. Pfeffer as a gentleman and a player,” but here would be no job as an umpire and suggested Pfeffer take a minor league umpiring position. Young told Pfeffer in a letter:

“Without skill and experience they would have you rattled and standing on your head in less than two weeks. Of the many old league players that I have tried—fresh from the ranks—I have never succeeded in holding one yet.”

The Inter Ocean accused Young of, “Another bit of resentment toward this city,” after he turned Pfeffer down. The paper also said Young’s motives were borne out of “resentment which still clings in Young’s craw because of Fred’s part in the brotherhood fight.”

Pfeffer worked as an umpire in several Chicago City League games throughout the summer and was called upon as a fill in to work the August 3 game between his former team and the St. Louis Browns. The Chicago papers universally praised his effort as umpire.

The Tribune said he was “roundly cheered” when he first appeared on the field and:

“During the game he proved his competency as a judge and got away with half a dozen close decisions without a murmur of disapproval.”

The Chicago Daily News said he “Filled the bill satisfactorily,” The Chronicle lauded him for his “gentlemanly bearing” and took a shot at two National League umpires who were not popular in Chicago:

“(Pfeffer) was proof conclusive that the rowdyism of a (Tim) Hurst and a (Jack) Sheridan is not a necessary adjunct to the official position.”

The Inter Ocean said he “umpired splendidly,” and called on Young to “add with all dispatch,” Pfeffer’s name to league’s umpire staff.

Pfeffer worked the next day’s game as well, but was not added to the league staff.

Despite Pfeffer having enough money to open a business, a benefit game was planned for him in September. The day consisted of a concert and a double header; a three-inning first game between a team made up of “old timers,” including Ross Barnes, Jimmy Wood, Joe Quest, Patrick Quinn and Emil Geiss (who local papers all noted had gained nearly 100 pounds since his active days a decade earlier) playing a team of local actors, and the second game, with Pfeffer as umpire, between the Marquettes of Chicago’s City League and the Chicago Unions—the city’s first organized black team.

The Inter Ocean said:

“They gave Fred Pfeffer quite a blow-out, and Unser Fritz went home last night with so much money that he will have no need to labor, or even think, during the coming winter.”

More than 8,000 fans attended and Pfeffer took home more than $2,000; the old timers beat the actors 17 to 0; the game featured a home run by Geiss, who The Chronicle said:

“(W)as able to drag his weight to second—he could not get himself any further and stopped by very inertia.”

 The Unions beat the Marquettes 12 to 5.

Pfeffer made another attempt to join the National League umpire staff in 1898, but was again rebuffed by Young; instead, he spent 1898 umpiring local games and running his tavern/billiard hall—he would own several during the rest of his life.  He also appeared that season in two games with the Minneapolis Millers against the Chicago Unions—the teams split the two games.

He made a comeback in 1902, at 42-years-old he became the player/manager of the Decatur Commodores of the Three-I League.

Pfeffer doubled in his first at bat in Decatur and the team won their opener.  Things went downhill from there. The team quickly settled into last place in the eight-team league and were decimated by injuries all season. The eighth place Commodores finished 39-73.

He intended to return to Decatur in 1903, but on October 19, having been hired to play with a team from Kenosha, Wisconsin for a game against the team from Racine, Pfeffer, after being “greeted with cheers” as he took the field, broke his arm making a throw in pregame warmups.  Kenosha lost 10 4. 

Pfeffer returned to his tavern business until Prohibition shut him down; he spent his later years in charge of the press boxes at Chicago area racetracks, The Tribune said of the job:

“There were duties to be performed and a need for such service, but Pfeffer held the position principally because he had once been Unser Fritz.”

He died in Chicago in 1932.

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