Tag Archives: Baseball

A Valuable Groundball

8 Mar

Rhyolite, Nevada was one of the great boom towns of the early 20th Century.  When gold was discovered in early 1905 people flocked to the town just east of Death Valley, and a thriving community rose around the Montgomery Shoshone Mine, the largest producer in the area.

Baseball was an important part of the mining communities.  Every town had at least one team, and while the region was only part of a league recognized by the National Commission for only one season (the 1907 Nevada State League composed of teams in Carson City, Reno, Tonopah and Goldfield) semi-professional and professional leagues were present throughout the decade.

In June of 1905 the Rhyolite team was playing a game against the team from the nearby town of Beatty, on the town baseball grounds, near the Montgomery Shoshone Mine.  A wire service report that appeared around the country tells the rest of the story:

“At a baseball game the other day between the towns of Rhyolite and Beatty, William Griffith, of Salt Lake City playing first base for the Rhyolite team, reached down to stop a fast grounder, with visions of an easy put-out for his team when the ball struck a small stone and bounded away.  While waiting for the ball to be returned by one of the spectators Griffith picked up the stone, which he found to be full of free gold.

“The game was played on the flat between Ladd and Montgomery Mountain.  Griffith put the stone in his pocket, and late at night, with the aid of a lantern, prospected the region where he made his find.”

A mine shaft was sunk on the spot of Griffith’s find and discovered to be part of a large deposit of gold “It is reported that the baseball player has been offered $25,000 for his interest.”

The find contributed to Rhyolite’s growth; Industrialist Charles M. Schwab purchased the Montgomery Shoshone Mine.


Rhyolite, Nevada 1907

The town boomed quickly, and busted just as quickly.  Rhyolite’s population peaked somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 by 1907 (some sources have it as high as 8,000 and others as low as 3,500), and boasted three banks, a stock exchange, and opera house, electric lights, water mains, telephones, a daily newspaper, a hospital and a two-story school.  By 1908 the richest ore had been mined and the town started on a rapid decline.

By 1911 the town population had dropped to 1000, in another decade it would be nearly deserted. Just as quickly William Griffith and the ground ball that helped create a boom drifted into obscurity.

Rhyolite, Nevada--ghost town, 2013

Rhyolite, Nevada–ghost town, 2013

Caught a Bullet

16 Aug

Elmira Pioneers Centerfielder Milt Joffe made an unusual catch at the start of the top of the sixth inning in an Eastern League game against the Hartford Chiefs on May, 15, 1952.

A .22 caliber bullet ripped the glove off Joffe’s hand and lodged in the webbing.

Shaken but unhurt, Joffe stayed in the game which resumed after a short delay.

Police found a group of kids with the .22 rifle near the ballpark, they claimed they were firing at a target and missed.

“The Phlinging Pharmacist”

15 Aug

In addition to having one of the best names in the history of organized baseball, Phifer Fullenwider had one of the best nicknames also.

A minor league pitcher for 13 seasons, Fullenwider went to spring training with the New York Giants in 1912 after a 26-9 record the previous season for the Columbia Commies in the Sally League.

Phifer Fullenwider

A Pharmacist in the off season, Fullenwider was a fan favorite in Buffalo, where he pitched four full seasons and part of a fifth for the Bisons in the Eastern League, including a 20-win season in 1913.

The Buffalo fans and sportswriters tagged him with the sobriquet “Phifer Phullenwider the Phlinging Pharmacist.”

Fullenwider pitched until 1923 compiling a record of 192-135.  Born in Rowan, North Carolina December 13, 1886, after his playing days he returned to North Carolina where he died in Durham on June 15, 1982.

Charlie Dexter, and the Other Charlie Dexter

14 Aug
Last week I told you about Charlie Dexter, former major leaguer, and one of the heroes of Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire.  Not to be confused with the other Charlie Dexter, a minor league outfielder and first baseman of the same era.  The two were often conflated in contemporary newspaper accounts.

Charlie Dexter

The other Charlie Dexter, the career minor leaguer (1904-09), was born Oscar Schoenbecker in Ohio and was killed in a hunting accident in November of 1909 in Mount Holly, Ohio.  According to his obituary, in The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune he changed his name “fearing the jests of the old people in case he failed,” as a player.

Reading contemporary accounts of the major league Charlie Dexter is a study in dichotomies.  A year and a half before his heroics at the Iroquois theater were recounted in papers across the country, numerous papers echoed the sentiments of the Pittsburgh Press that Dexter’s release by Chicago had more to do with his being a “trouble maker” than his .227 average.

Numerous stories over the years hinted, or outright said that Dexter, like many players of the era, had a serious drinking problem. He was released by Boston after the 1903 season and returned to the minor leagues for the first time since 1895.
The end of line seemed to come in October of 1905 in Des Moines, when during what was described as a “Drinking binge” Dexter stabbed his friend, Milwaukee first baseman Henry “Quait” Bateman.  The earliest reports from Iowa papers and wire services said Bateman was either dead or near death and that “(Dexter) slashed Bateman across the breast, the blade cutting into the lung.”

Quait Bateman

Dexter was immediately arrested.  But within days the wire services were reporting that Bateman was not seriously injured and had refused to file charges.  Dexter was released from custody.  Other players who were present (none were named is stories) “Dexter and Bateman are on the best of terms and that their little quarrel had done nothing to mar their friendship.”  Without Bateman’s cooperation, a grand jury elected not to indict Dexter.

He played two more seasons in Des Moines, taking over as manager from Mike Kelly 20 games into the 1907 season and managing the team through 1908.

Dexter stayed in Iowa and was occasionally mentioned in local papers over the next few years in connection with amateur and semi-pro leagues.  Dexter shot himself in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Bateman Died in Milwaukee on January 18, 1937.

One more story about the aftermath of the Bateman stabbing next week.

The Quarter Million Dollar Wrist Injury

10 Aug

Ken Strong was a Hall of Fame running back and kicker for 12 seasons in the NFL, and the hero of the 1934 Championship game when he scored 17 points in the New York Giants 30-13 win over the Chicago Bears.  The aftermath of a wrist injury prevented him from starring in the major leagues as well.

Elmer Kenneth Strong Jr. was born March 21, 1906 (Baseball Reference incorrectly lists his birth as August 6, and his name as Kenneth Elmer).  A football and baseball star at New York University, Strong played the 1929 season at New Haven in the Eastern League before joining the NFL’s Staten Island Stapleton’s in September.

Ken Strong

In 104 games at New Haven Strong hit .283 with 21 home runs. After hitting .272 in 27 games at New Haven in 1930, he was sent to Hazleton in the New York Penn League.  Strong hit .373 with 41 home runs in 117 games at Hazelton.  Headlines that referred to Strong as the “New Babe” were greatly exaggerated given that 39 of his 41 home runs were hit at Hazleton’s Buhler Stadium, the smallest ballpark in organized ball in 1930.  Regardless, he was considered a top prospect and his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers who sent him to Toronto in the International League in 1931.

At Toronto he was batting .340 through 118 games when he broke his wrist.  Strong underwent a surgical procedure in Detroit which included the removal of part of his wrist bone and was limited to kicking during the 1931 NFL season.

Strong was given a good shot at making the Tigers opening day roster, but was slow to recover from the surgery.  When the Tigers sent Strong to New York for a second surgery it was discovered that the wrong bone had been removed during the first procedure, permanently damaging Strong’s wrist.

In 1933 Strong sued the doctor for $250,000, the equivalent of more than $4.4 million today.  Strong claimed the surgery robbed him of the opportunity to play major league ball and limited his ability in the NFL.

The trial featured former Tigers star Bobby Veach demonstrating to Federal Judge Ernest O’Brien “that good wrist action was essential in baseball.

Bobby Veach

Strong was awarded $75,000 and the verdict was upheld on a later appeal.

While Strong continued to play in the NFL through 1935, and again in 1939 and 1944-47, his baseball career was over. He attempted to come back in 1935, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but was released before the season began.

Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, Strong died in New York City on October 5, 1979.

Assumed Names

9 Aug

In the early days of baseball assumed names were common; either to avoid the stigma of being a professional baseball player—not the top of the social strata of 19th and early 20th century America–to avoid the law, or to jump a contract.  Or sometimes just because.

William McGill, listed as simply McGill on Baseball Reference, is one such case.  McGill, a  pitcher and outfielder with the 1901 Reading team in Pennsylvania State League was, as theReading Eagle reported “Born Sauers and Christened John Sauers.  Someone nicknamed him William McGill and he has gone by that name on the diamond.”

McGill was born in Reading in 1878 or ’79 and was a well known amateur and semi-pro player in the Reading area, hardly the candidate for an assumed name in his home town.

John Sauers/William McGill

Newspaper accounts seem to indicate that McGill is the same William McGill who played briefly in the Texas League the following season.

The trail of Sauers/McGill goes cold after 1902.

Filling in the Blanks-J Palatas

8 Aug

Baseball Reference lists J Palatas as an outfielder for the 1942 Washington Red Birds in the Pennsylvania State Association, hitting .278 in 107 games.

Joseph M. Palatas, a Cleveland native, born in 1921, entered the service in September of 1942 and served as a Flight Officer with the 325th Bomb Squadron.

Joseph Palatas, standing third from left

On April 11, 1944 Palatas was wounded when his plane was shot down over Germany.  He managed to bail out with the rest of his crew despite being badly injured.  Palatas was captured and died of his injuries the same day.

Heroes of the Iroquois Fire

7 Aug

The deadliest single-building fire in US history took place at the Iroquois Theater on Randolph Street in Chicago, December 30, 1903.  The  “absolutely fireproof” theater, as it was billed, caught fire just six weeks after opening.

At least 605 people died, although the actual number has never been confirmed.

Two heroes that day, credited with saving numerous lives, were former Chicago ballplayers.

Charlie Dexter, who played with Boston in 1902 and 03 after being released by the Orphans in July 1902, and John Franklin Houseman who had played for Chicago and St. Louis is the 1890s, were seated together in a box with their families when the fire broke out.

Charlie Dexter

The fire, ignited by a malfunctioning stage light, spread quickly and the estimated 2000 people in the audience panicked.

Contemporary newspaper accounts highlighted the heroics of three individuals in particular: Actor Eddie Foy, who stayed on the stage trying to calm the panicked crowd until finally escaping through a sewer, and the two ballplayers.

Several people had already jumped from the balconies as the fire spread, and Dexter and Houseman were credited with having forced open two doors on the north side of the theater and clearing away bodies to create a path to the exit.  When they were finally forced by the flames to leave their stations at the doors, where both stayed to usher people out, Houseman caught a woman jumping from a window in the theater’s gallery to the alley below.  According to reports, she was uninjured.

John Franklin Houseman

Both Dexter and Houseman downplayed their roles in the aftermath of the fire and credited Foy with “Saving hundreds of lives,” but their heroism likely saved as many lives and has, for the most part, been forgotten.

Houseman, born January 10, 1870, was the first Dutch-born major league ballplayer, he died November 4, 1922 in Chicago.

More on Charlie Dexter next week.

Murdered by an Actor

3 Aug

In 1905 Arthur Brown was a promising first baseman from Wilkes-Barre PA.  He had been discovered by Walter Burnham who managed east coast minor league teams for more than 20 years.  After spending the ’05 season with his hometown team in the New York State League.

He played for Burnham with Newark in the Eastern League the following season, and despite a .235 average he was purchased by the Detroit Tigers and then sold to Montreal.  After a .239 season with Montreal in the Eastern League and a spring training Trial with the St. Louis Browns, Brown played for Milwaukee in the American Association in 1908, hitting .192.  In 1909 he played for Trenton in the Tri State League and moved on to Albany in the New York State League in 1910.

On June 15 of 1911 Brown was in his second season with Albany, hitting .187.  He was living in Albany with an actress named Mildred Barre; the problem was she was still married to an actor from New Orleans named John V. McStea.  McStea entered the house on Pearl Street  in Albany and after being hit by Brown pulled a revolver and shot the 1st baseman four times.  Brown died that night.

McStea was convicted the following year, his wife testified for the prosecution.

“The Greatest Play Ever Made”

2 Aug

Most fans know that the first confirmed major league unassisted triple play was turned by Neal Ball of the Cleveland Naps July 19, 1909, and that one credited to Paul Hines of the Providence Grays against the Boston Red Caps May 8, 1878 has been disputed.

What most don’t know is that the first confirmed unassisted triple play in professional baseball was turned on August 18, 1902 by Hal O’Hagan of Rochester in an Eastern League game in Jersey city, New Jersey.  The New York Times called it “The Greatest Play Ever Made in Baseball.”

Patrick Henry “Hal” O’Hagan had two brief stays in the major leagues.  He played in one game as a twenty-two-year-old rookie with Washington in 1892, and trials with Chicago and New York in the National League and Cleveland in the American League in 1902.

After being released by the Giants in mid-July, O’Hagan was signed by Rochester to manage and play first base.

John Butler was batting for Jersey City with George Shoch on second and “Mack” on first (every contemporary newspaper account identified the runner on first this way, it was probably catcher/1st baseman Frank McManus).  Butler attempted a sacrifice bunt as The Times reported “O’Hagan ran in and caught the ball within a few inches of the ground, a seemingly impossible catch.”

According to the glowing account: “Having in his quick-thinking mind the possibility of a triple play, O’Hagan, with the coolness and agility which are part of a baseball player’s earning capacity, ran back and placed his foot on the initial bag thus completing a double play.”  O’Hagan then ran to second as Shoch returned from third, “It was a hot race, but O’Hagan, ball in hand, reached the bag first, thus dismissing the side.”

Diagram of the play published in The New York Times and several newspapers across the country

O’Hagan continued playing until 1908, finishing his career with Lynn in the New England League.  He passed away on January 14, 1913 in Newark, New Jersey at 43 years old.

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