Tag Archives: Cotton States League

Roy Counts

30 Apr

The Arizona State League was formed in 1928—the four-team league had teams in Bisbee, Miami, Tucson, and Phoenix.

There seemed to be little information about Phoenix Senators second baseman Roy Counts in local papers.  Counts had spent the previous two years in the outlaw Copper League with the Fort Bayard (NM) Veterans where he was a teammate of banned White Sox pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams, but otherwise little was written about Counts.

fisherbayard.jpg

The Fort Bayard Veterans in Juarez, Mexico after a 1926 game, Claude “Lefty” Williams is sixth from left, Roy Counts is 14th (with arms crossed)

The Arizona Republic said after an April exhibition game with the barnstorming House of David club, that Counts and third baseman Henry Doll:

“(H)ave been working out in good style and appear in perfect condition.  Both are fast fielders and have wicked pegs to the initial sack.”

On May 20, the Senators beat the Tucson Waddies 11-0.  Counts was 1 for 4 with no errors in five chances at second—it was his final professional game.

fishercounts

Roy Counts, 1928

Roy Counts it turned out was not really Roy Counts.

Roy Counts was actually Laster Fisher—an Arkansas born fugitive who had previously played professional baseball under his given name.

Fisher—his unusual first name a result of his mother’s maiden name, Lasater—was born in Mulberry, Arkansas on October 8, 1901, and broke into professional ball with the Salina (KS) Millers in the Southwestern League in 1922.  Fisher played third base and shortstop, he hit .269.  In October, the Minneapolis Millers purchased his contract.

That same month, Fisher was arrested in Salina for passing a bad check for $10.50 at a local restaurant.  Whether he was only charged with the writing the one bad check was unclear, but The Salina Evening Journal said his father, “Settled all claims against his son.”

Despite the brush with the law, Fisher spent the spring of 1923 with Minneapolis but was farmed out to the Clarksdale Cubs in the Cotton States League before the season began.  In mid July, he joined Minneapolis, he appeared in 69 games—67 at shortstop—he hit 273 and committed 34 errors in 365 total chances.

The Minneapolis Star said of Fisher’s performance he was, “not of the double A caliber yet.”

He was let go by Minneapolis and signed by the Tulsa Oilers in the Western League—according to The Houston Post he was the first player to arrive at Tulsa’s spring training camp in Marlin, Texas—Fisher appears to have been let go before the season started.

In May, The St. Joseph (MO) News-Press said:

“Lester [sic] Fisher, former Tulsa Western League shortstop, who was reported missing a while back with a drive-it-yourself car…(was) returned to Tulsa and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary.  Fisher is only twenty-two years old and gave promise of being one of the best shortstops in the Western League.  He told the judge who sentenced him that at the time he stole the car he was drunk, and when he got sober he was afraid to return it.”

Fisher had driven the rented Maxwell automobile to Greenwood, Mississippi, and according to The Greenwood Commonwealth left the car in that town; he was later arrested in Leland, Mississippi and returned to Oklahoma.

After entering the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester, Fisher joined the prison baseball team.  On May 13, 1925, according to The Associated Press, Fisher “Kept running after a game in Holdenville.”

His three year run over, Fisher was returned to prison in Oklahoma.  He never returned to pro ball.

He moved to Texas after his release and was working as a maintenance man at the Victory Baptist Church when he died of congestive heart failure on July 5, 1959.

“If I ever get this Football Junk out of my Head”

23 May

George Henry Capron had a brief and relatively undistinguished professional baseball career.  He said football was what held him back.

Capron first made a name for himself at the University of Minnesota in 1906.  He excelled at football, track and field and baseball, The Minneapolis Tribune called him “a ten-second track man, a weight thrower, and a splendid ballplayer.”

The Golden Gophers football team was 2-2-1 that season; Capron, the starting halfback and drop kicker scored 44 of the team’s 55 points.  He accounted for all 12 of his team’s points (three four-point field goals) in a loss to Amos Alonzo Stagg’s University of Chicago team.  The Tribune said Capron “Figured in two-thirds of the offensive plays” for Minnesota.

Capron

George Capron

The Chicago Daily News said of Capron:

“(He) is an athlete of exceptional muscular development, although not above the normal size (the 5’ 10” 185 lbs).  he can punt from 50 to 60 yards with little effort with either foot.  The ball after leaving his toe acquires a most peculiar spiral motion, which makes it exceedingly hard to hold…In the work of scoring fielding goals, which appears to be Capron’s specialty, he is unquestionably a star.”

Capron kicking

Capron kicking

Early in 1908, there were rumors that Capron would leave Minnesota at the end of the baseball season and transfer to an Eastern school.  The New York Times said West Point football coach Bob Forbes was attempting to get Capron to accept an appointment, The New York Sun said he was headed to Dartmouth.

Capron chose instead to stay at Minnesota and was unanimously elected captain of the football team on September 14—although later the university would claim he wasn’t elected, but simply called local newspapers claiming an election had been held.  Two days after the “election,’ a scandal caused him to quit the team.

A story in The Chicago Tribune charged that Capron had played professional baseball for the Meridian Ribboners in the Cotton States League during the summer under the name “George Robb,” other reports said he played under the name “George Rapp.”  (The Sporting Life identified him as “Rapp” and “Robb” at various times in 1908).

The story also claimed that he met with “Captain Adrian C. Anson.  The later inquired of Capron’s ability as a ballplayer among local college men.”  Capron, the paper said, wanted to join the semi-pro Anson’s Colts.

Anson told paper:

“I didn’t sign Capron because he didn’t put on a suit and come out…I don’t remember that he said he played professional ball before.  I don’t care, anyhow.  There is no such thing any longer as a strictly amateur college team…They want their real names withheld.  I don’t care, I tell them.  (As long as) they can hit the ball on the snoot and can field decently.”

Sunday's "idol" "Cap" Anson

Sunday’s “idol” “Cap” Anson

Capron denied the charges.   He claimed he had never played professionally and “had never in his life” met Anson.  His denials were quickly dismissed, as his identity was something of an open secret in the South—his election as Minnesota’s captain was reported by several papers, including The Atlanta Constitution, The Atlanta Journal, and The (Nashville) Tennessean –each mentioned his election and that “he played (with Meridian) under the name of Robb,” and that his contract had been purchased by the Mobile Seagulls in the Southern Association.

Faced with overwhelming evidence, he admitted he had played professionally, but continued to deny that he had met with Anson.  It was also reported that Capron had been drafted by the New York Giants, The Minneapolis Tribune said:

(John) McGraw drafted Capron on the recommendations of one of the New York club scouts…but if McGraw was informed as to the real identity of the brilliant young diamond performer he has carefully kept the facts under his bonnet.”

He left school for good in September, and The Sporting Life reported he was “captaining a professional football team in Minneapolis” that fall.   He also admitted, in a letter to the National Commission that he had played professionally under the assumed names “Kipp” and “Katt” for the Mattoon Giants in the Eastern Illinois League in 1907 and in the Northern League with the Crookston Crooks 1905.

In the spring of 1909, The New York World said:

“Capron, the former diamond star of the University of Minnesota, has notified the management of the New York Nationals and of the Mobile Southern League team that he will not join either of them, but has decided to play outlaw ball.”

Capron signed with the Seattle Turks of the Northwest League and immediately went on a tear.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer said he was hitting a league-leading .324 in his first 19 games.

He also found time to elope with the former Ednah Race, a Minneapolis resident.

At the end of the season, with his average down to .275, Capron told a reporter for The Post Intelligencer:

“’If I ever get this football junk out of my head, I’ll make good in baseball yet.’”

The problem he said, was taking out his frustration:

“’When I got mad when playing football I could charge the line or make a fierce tackle and let off steam,’ continued the greatest kicker Minnesota ever had, ‘but when I get mad playing baseball it is back to the bench for me with a fine plastered on me like as not.’

“’It doesn’t do a man a bit of good to get mad while playing baseball…that rough stuff does not go.”

The paper agreed:

“So many times during the season just closed, Capron was no good to himself or the team because he could not see anything but red and he wanted to fight someone or something.

“Capron had a world of natural ability.  He is far above the ordinary as a fielder and he is a dangerous man at the bat.”

Capron

Capron

Capron was sold to the Vancouver Beavers the following season, but was limited to 35 games as the result of a knee injury.  He hit just .207.

The following spring, the 25-year-old said he was finished.  He told The (Portland) Oregonian:

“No more baseball for me.  I am going to retire.”

The paper said “His teammates sniffed” and were sure he would return, but noted that “he is being sought by several clubs of the Northwest league this year and was tendered contracts by Seattle, Vancouver, and Tacoma, but has returned them unsigned.”  He said his new wife had encouraged the decision.

Capron left baseball and football for real estate.  He sat out the 1911 season.

In January of 1912, The Pittsburgh Gazette-Times said Barney Dreyfuss, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates sent a personal letter and contract to Capron:

“The contract is a ‘blank’ paper with the salary figure to be filled in by the recipient.

“Apparently, Dreyfuss was prompted in this move by some strong boosting out on the Pacific Coast, for in his letter he told George that information had reached him that a first-class ballplayer was going to waste.”

But despite the blank contract, Capron told The Oregonian:

“I guess (Dreyfuss) knows I can murder (right-handed pitching).  My wife says no, however, so it’s me for the bleachers.”

Capron also told the paper he expected his brother Ralph—a former Minnesota Quarterback– to make the major leagues soon—Ralph played one game that season with the Pirates and two the following year with the Philadelphia Phillies.  Following in his brother’s footsteps, Ralph abruptly quit baseball at age 25, before the 1915 season.  George told The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, his brother “expects soon to marry the daughter of a wealthy Minneapolis merchant, who is strongly opposed to a professional athlete for a son-in-law.”  Opposition from his father-in-law doesn’t appear to have stopped Ralph from dabbling in professional football.

Capron moved from the Pacific Northwest to Long Beach, and later Fresno, California, and found real estate to be more lucrative than either baseball or football.  In 1964, he was worth more than $30 million dollars, when, after 55 years of marriage, Ednah was awarded a $16 million dollar divorce settlement which The Associated Press said was “the largest ever.”

He died on October 26, 1972.

“Here was the King of all the Tramps I’d ever seen”

7 Oct

In 1947, Grantland Rice of The New York Herald-Tribune told a story about how he came to know one of the most colorful pitchers of the first decade of the 20th Century:

“Baseball, above all other games, has known more than its share in the way of masterpieces of eccentricity.  Many of these I happen to know.”

Grantland Rice

Grantland Rice

Rice went on to list some of his favorites—Rube Waddell, Crazy Schmit, Dizzy Dean—“Also, Flint Rhem, Babe Herman, Bobo Newsom, Germany Schaefer, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Arlie Latham—nits, wits, and half-wits—but all great ballplayers.”  But, said Rice, “one of the leaders in this colorful field” had been all but forgotten:

“His name was (Arthur) Bugs Raymond, the pitcher John McGraw always insisted had the finest pitching motion he ever saw, including Walter Johnson.”

[…]

“I remember Bugs because I happened to have a small part in his pitching career.  I was working in Atlanta (for The Journal) when I happened to read a story that came out of Shreveport (Louisiana), about a young pitcher named Raymond who had made and won the following bet:

“That he could eat a whole turkey, drink two bottles of scotch—and win a doubleheader.  He did it.  I didn’t believe it at the time, but I believed it later.  I recommended to either (Atlanta Crackers owner) Abner Powell or (manager) Billy Smith (44 years is a long time) that Raymond looked like a good buy.  Good copy is always scarce.  Raymond sounded like good copy.”

Bugs Raymond

Bugs Raymond

Rice’s story about the bet is likely apocryphal, there is no mention of it in contemporary newspapers in Shreveport, or in Jackson, Mississippi where Raymond played in the Cotton States League before coming to Atlanta–he also names the wrong manager–Smith came to Atlanta the following season.  While Raymond probably didn’t make the bet Rice claimed, he did, on at least one occasion win both ends of a doubleheader, and he was wildly popular in Mississippi.  After he was sold to Atlanta in July of 1905, The Jackson News said:

“The regret over Raymond’s departure was not one-sided.  The big fellow was all broken up over the transaction.”

The paper said that although Raymond would make $200 a month in Atlanta and have a chance to return to the major leagues, leaving Jackson was difficult for him:

“During his engagement with the Jackson team he has made a host of friends and was undoubtedly the most popular player who ever donned a home uniform.  The plain fact is Raymond almost owned the town.  Nothing was too good for him and he always made a hatful of money on the big games, a shower of silver and greenbacks being the inevitable result of a victory in a doubleheader.”

Rice’s story about Raymond also took another real event and embellished it–either by design or through the fog of forty years.

After finishing the 1905 season with a 10-6 record for the Crackers, Raymond was picked by new Manager Billy Smith to start for Atlanta in an exhibition against the Boston Americans on March 26, 1906.

In Rice’s colorful version, he gave the incorrect date for the exhibition and wrongly claimed that he met Raymond face-to-face for the first time on the morning of the game:

“By some odd chance, before starting a mile-and-a-half walk to the ballpark, I happened to be taking a drink at some wayside bar in preparation for the trip.  A heavy hand fell on my shoulder and, as I looked around, there was an unkempt-looking fellow, around 200 pounds who wore no necktie and hadn’t shaved in at least two days.  Here was the king of all the tramps I’d ever seen.

“’How about buying me a drink, fellow?’ was his opening remark.  I bought him a drink.  Then I had to buy him another drink.

“’How do we get out to this ballpark?’ he asked.

“’We walk,’ I said, ‘if you are going with me.’ Then a sudden morbid thought hit me.  ‘Isn’t your name Raymond?’ I asked.

“’Yes,” he said ‘Bugs Raymond.’

“I figured then what my recommendation to the Atlanta team was worth.  Something less than two cents.

“’Do you happen to know,’ I suggested, ‘that you are pitching today against the Boston Americans?’

“’I never heard of ‘em,’ Bugs said.  ‘Where’s Boston?’

“On the walk to the ballpark that afternoon Bugs spent most of the trek throwing rocks at pigeons, telegraph poles and any target in sight.  People I had known in Atlanta gave me an odd look after taking a brief glance at my unshaven, rough and rowdy looking companion.”

Once at the ballpark, Rice said:

“Raymond started the game by insulting Jimmy Collins…and every star of the Boston team.  He would walk from the pitcher’s box up towards the plate and let them know, in forcible and smoking language, what he thought they were.”

In Rice’s version, the cocky, seemingly drunk Raymond shuts Boston out 3-0 on three hits.  He got those details wrong as well, and Raymond’s performance was just as incredible without the embellishments.

Bugs Raymond

Bugs Raymond

The Atlanta Constitution said on the day after the game:

“No better than bush leaguers looked the Boston Americans…yesterday afternoon at Piedmont Park, when ‘Bugs’ Raymond came near to scoring a no-hit game against the bean-eating crew, who escaped a shut-out through two errors made by (Morris “Mike”) Jacobs in the eighth inning.

“Score—Atlanta 4, Boston 2.

“’Bugs’ was there with the goods.  Boston hitter after hitter stepped up to the plate, pounded the pan, looked fierce for awhile, and then went the easy out route.

“’Bugs’ was in his glory.  It was in the eighth inning before a single hit or run was scored off his delivery

Both Boston hits were ground balls Atlanta shortstop Frank “Whitey” Morse beaten out by  Collins and Myron ”Moose” Grimshaw:

“As inning after inning went by, the Boston sporting writers along with the team began to think of the possibility of defeat, and, about the seventh inning, when it looked strangely like a shutout game, they pulled out their books of excuses and began to look for the proper one to use in Tuesday morning’s newspapers.

“The one finally agreed upon at a conference of all four writers read like this:

“’The eyes of the Boston players were dimmed by the flying moisture from the spit-ball delivery of one ‘Bugs’ Raymond, who let himself out at full steam, while our pitchers were waiting for the opening of the coming season.  It does a major league club good to be beaten every now and then, anyway.”

The Box Score

                 The Box Score

Given Raymond’s alcoholism, there might be some truth Rice’s embellishments although there is no evidence for most of his version.

The performance against Boston was quickly forgotten as Raymond just as quickly wore out his welcome with Manager Billy Smith.  On May 6 he was suspended indefinitely because, as The Constitution put it “(Raymond) looks with delight in wine when it is red.”  On May 31, Atlanta sold Raymond to the Savannah Indians in the South Atlantic leagues. An 18-8 mark there, followed by a 35-11 season with the Charleston Sea Gulls in the same league in 1907, earned Raymond his return to the big leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals.

By 1912, the pitcher, about whom Rice claimed John McGraw said “Even half sober Raymond would have been one of the greatest,” was dead.

An Umpire’s Revenge

5 Sep

In July of 1910 the Cotton States League released an umpire named Hunt (his first name has been lost to history).

A week after he was let go the first place Greenwood Chauffeurs were in Jackson, Mississippi to play the second place Tigers.  The Jackson Clarion-Ledger told the story:

“Ex-Umpire Hunt was in Jackson last night.

“If you don’t believe that statement ask some of the members of the Greenwood baseball team.

“They can testify to it.

“They can also show bodily evidence in support of the fact.

“He also had on his fighting clothes, and this is another fact they will swear to

“There are others who are willing to testify that he would have made a better show against Jack Johnson than did (Jim) Jeffries, among them Deputy Sheriff Sanders.

“Hunt was a short while back in the employ of the Cotton States League officiating in the capacity of umpire, but his performance last night demonstrated that he is better fitted for the prize ring.

“He was also fired, or at least relieved of his official duties on account of a howl made by certain players, the merits of which The Clarion-Ledger knows nothing.

“As before stated Hunt was in town and while standing at the corner of Mill and Capitol Streets, met Orth Collins of the Greenwood team, who accused him of umpiring games and betting on them at the same time.  This offended Hunt’s dignity, and on Collins reiterating the accusation, he was promptly knocked down…Hunt walked away, going to his supper in a nearby café.  Having satisfied his appetite, he proceeded to the Lemon Hotel, headquarters for all the baseballists, and where the Greenwood team had congregated preparatory to taking their game.  Entering Hunt espied his old friend Jack Law, catcher for the Greenwooders, and saluting him, asked that he use his good offices in patching up the differences between him and the mighty Orth.  But Jack, who reports say, was feeling his rye, was somewhat in belligerent humor himself, and he promptly pasted Hunt one in the face and received a knockdown in return.  Hunt then squared himself for action, but in doing so stumbled over a chair and fell to the floor and was immediately covered by second baseman (Ray) Rolling, who had gone to the assistance of Law.  In the meantime Law had recovered himself and kicked his ex-umpship in the eye, and to use Hunt’s expression ‘that kinder made him mad,’ and those who witnessed his subsequent performance, were perfectly willing to believe it.

Orth Collins--one of Hunt's victims

Orth Collins–Hunt’s first victim

“Shaking himself loose from Rolling, Hunt ‘riz’ to his feet and then the fireworks went off and the pyrotechnics shot out in every direction.  Four of the other players of the Greenwood bunch decided to take a hand against the athletic umpire, but very soon regretted their rashness in ‘rushing in where angels dare not tread,’ and were kept busy for a few minutes picking themselves up from the floor.

“Hunt backed himself up against the counter and his arms began working like piston-rods with battering ram attachments, and every time he stretched them out somebody went down.  (Clyde) Frakes, who officiates as catcher when Jack Law is occupying the bench, got into the scrap rather late, but he lost no time in getting out of it.  In fact, it is said that one lick delivered at the psychological moment started his feet to moving with such rapidity that he was unable to get any control over them until he found himself seated on in the A & V train (Alabama & Vicksburg Railroad) ready to pull out for Vicksburg.  Other players who showed an inclination to help their brothers in distress, hesitated and finally decided that discretion was the better part of valor and contented themselves with being ‘lookers on.’

“After the fight had gone some three or four round Hunt recognized that some of the men persisted in getting up after being knocked down by him, and not caring to continue the performance indefinitely, he gathered  two spittoons, one in each hand, and let one of them fly at a belligerent who was making for the stairway, and it is said that it hastened his speed to such an extent that his moving form became like Mark Twain’s coyote, ‘only a yaller streak,’ and that only lasted for a fraction of a second before he entirely disappeared from view.  The other cuspidor went in another direction, as also did most of the spectators.  Hunt was getting wild in his aim and not being able to distinguish friend from foe, and knocking down everybody and everything that came in reaching distance, the last being Jack Law, who had got back into the scrap, only to receive another swat, the like of which, spectators declared, was never before delivered to mortal man.

“Having put all his opponents hor de combat.  Hunt found himself in the arms of Deputy Sheriff Sanders, but not knowing him to be such, he was preparing himself for a last mighty effort when the deputy sheriff hastily volunteered the information that he was a peace officer intent on doing his duty, and the roaring lion subsided like an innocent lamb, and meekly announced that he didn’t ‘want to hurt any man attending to his own business.’”

Hunt and six of the Greenwood players were arrested.  Four of the players were immediately released, but Law and Rolling, along with Hunt were held over for trial the following day.  All three were fined and released.

The Clarion-Ledger said although Hunt was “out of a a job at present…his friends will insist that he go into immediate training and challenge the holders of all the championship titles in the universe.”

Greenwood held on to beat Jackson by a half game for the pennant.

It’s unclear whether Hunt ever worked again as an umpire, but The Washington Times suggested that if Ban Johnson “wants a fighting umpire, one who can take the players and administer punishment on the ball field without fear of his blouse being torn to shreds or dirtied, here is the boy.”

Stewart Strader

11 Aug

Stewart W. Strader was the son of a prominent business leader in two of Kentucky’s signature businesses.  His father, Colonel Robert Stuart Strader operated a distillery and was a prominent breeder of Standardbred Trotters.  In 1875, the elder Strader moved the family from Boone County, Kentucky to Lexington where he was involved in the founding and management of The Red Mile—the world’s second oldest harness racing track.

Advertisement for R.S. Strader and Son Distillery. The "Son" was Stewart's older brother Wilson.

Advertisement for R.S. Strader and Son Distillery. The “Son” was Stewart’s older brother Wilson.

Stewart Strader was born in Lexington in 1882, one of seven sons.  By the age of 20 he had become an important figure in baseball circles in and around Lexington, as owner, manager and one of the best players on Lexington’s local semi-pro team.

Before the 1903 season The Lexington Leader said Strader was attempting to get his team accepted into the Central League and “Lexington’s application for a franchise is looked upon quite favorably,” but days later The Lexington Herald said Strader “decided most of the cities composing the Central League were too far to enable his club to play them with profit.”  He instead entered his team in Cincinnati’s Sunday League and played against other independent teams during the week.

Stewart Strader 1903

Stewart Strader 1903

His reputation quickly spread, and while there were rumors in the press that he would be signed by the Cincinnati Reds, they did not materialize, but he did receive a letter from William Henry “Bill” Watkins, president and manager of the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association.  Watkins wrote:

“I thought I would write you and see if you had any idea of going into the professional end of the game next season.  If you will consider a trial with us, I would like to hear from you.”

Strader accepted the offer, but by the time he reported to Indianapolis in late March, Watkins had left Indianapolis to manage the Minneapolis Millers.  In his first game with the Hoosiers, an exhibition against Purdue University, Strader played right field and was 3 for 3 with a triple.  The Indianapolis News said, “Strader is a hitter of merit and with a little more work should develop into a strong fielder.”

Two days before the beginning of the regular season Indianapolis purchased left fielder Ed “Pinky” Swander from the St. Louis Browns, and right fielder George Hogriever, who had refused to sign after hitting .330 the previous season, agreed to terms with the Hoosiers.   Strader was released to the Greenville Cotton Pickers in the Cotton States League.  His hometown paper, The Herald, said he “had been holding down right field with due credit,” but Indianapolis Manager Bill Phillips felt “he was too young for the fast company.”

Strader 1904

Strader 1904

After hitting .309 for Greenville in 81 at bats, he was sold to the Macon Highlanders in the South Atlantic League where he hit just .200 in 130 at bats.

Strader spent the next five years making brief stops with seven different minor league teams, buying and selling the independent Lexington club at least twice, and tending a saloon he opened in 1905.

 

Stewart Srader

Stewart Srader

In 1908, Lexington became part of the newly formed Blue Grass League.  It was the city’s first team in organized ball in more than a decade, and Strader may, or may not, have been involved in an attempt to wrest control of the team from owner and manager Thomas Sheets.

Strader opened the season in the Virginia State League, where he appeared in 10 games for the Richmond Colts and Danville Red Sox.  In late May, he returned to Kentucky and signed a contract with Sheets’ Lexington Colts.  On May 31 he played center field for the Colts and was 0 for 3.  The following day he was released.

The Herald speculated that another player, Warren Fieber (who had purchased the independent Lexington team from Strader two years earlier and later sold it back to him) would also be released:

“Sheets admitted that an effort had been made to undermine him in the last two days, but would make no further statement.”

Fieber, who was hitting .320 on June 1, remained with the team, but his batting average plummeted to .222 by the season’s end.  Strader stayed in the Bluegrass League and signed with the Shelbyville Grays; he had the best season of his pro career, hitting .324.

Strader played his final season of pro ball the next year with the Frankfort Statesmen.  In June The Herald said:

 “Lexington fans have noted with considerable satisfaction that Stewart Strader a Lexington boy now with Frankfort is leading the Blue Grass League in batting.”

Strader was hitting .410 as late as June 23, but slumped badly in the second half of the season and finished with a .264 average.  At the end of the 1909 season Strader and Patrick Downing, a former minor league player, were appointed deputies by the Fayette County Sheriff.  The Leader said the two deputies they replaced “apparently would not play ball.”

Strader signed with the Davenport Prodigals in the Three-I League in the spring of 1910 but was released before the season began.

During the last several years of career, and the first decade after he left the diamond, the Strader family was regularly mentioned in the local press for things other than baseball.

Two brothers died tragically, one, according to The Leader, by his own hand after shooting a woman in Lexington’s “Tenderloin District.” The other was murdered during a dispute while hunting.

Strader began operating taverns and restaurants in Lexington in 1905, and the family spent the better part of a decade bringing various lawsuits against each other involving the failure of the distillery after their father’s death and other business disputes.  During one dispute Strader’s older brother W.P. had him arrested claiming Stewart Strader “would do bodily harm or injury to him.”

Despite the family drama, Strader remained a successful businessman and prominent member of Lexington society.  He owned the Berlin Café—which he originally purchased with one of his brothers in 1905–until 1940 and for seven years in the 1920s operated Third Avenue Motor Company in Louisville, which sold the Anderson Six—produced by the Anderson Motor Car Company in South Carolina.

Strader died in Lexington on August 9, 1948.

Roy Spruell

14 Aug

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century there were thousands of independent and industrial league baseball teams that operated across the country; the only distinction, in many cases, between the quality of these teams and their players and those in “professional” leagues was the “professional” teams were recognized by The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.

Given the economics of the game, which usually required players to be employed during the off season, it was often as profitable, or even more so, to play with an independent or semi-professional team that either paid the same or more as the “professional” leagues or provided the player with a job.

As a result, there are thousands of players, who while well-known names in the towns, cities and regions where they played, have been largely forgotten.

Roy Layton Spruell is one of them.

From 1920 until 1939 Spruell was a fixture in Southern baseball, specifically on the Gulf Coast, although his “official” statistics only indicate limited “professional” appearances between 1924 and 1936.

Spruell appears to have been born January 25, 1900 in Birmingham, Alabama according to state records and census data, (his grave lists his birth year as 1902, but like many players of his era, he likely subtracted a couple of years at some point during his career and the new date stuck).

Raised in Mobile, Alabama, he first made a name for himself in 1920 pitching with industrial teams at the Southern Kraft Paper Mill and White Swann Laundry Company in Mobile.

Two years later he was a member of an independent team in Mississippi, the Ocean Springs Regulars.  In addition to Ocean Springs, the loosely affiliated semi-pro league included independent teams from nearby Mississippi towns Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula  and Wiggins, and industrial teams out of New Orleans, including the Choro Colas (later renamed RC Cola), the Tokay Teas.

The following season Spruell played for another Southern Kraft Mills team; contemporary newspaper accounts alternately called the team either the Moss Point or the Kreole Papermakers—the mill was located in Moss Point, Mississippi, but the team appears to have played home games in nearby Kreole.  Spruell’s older brother Harvey was his teammate with the Papermakers.

The 1923 Papermakers, Roy Spruell is standing second from right.  His brother Harvey is in the middle of the front row.   The other players are identified as: Standing at left - Manager McGee 2nd from left  - Pat McGee 3rd from left  - Matt Delmas 4th from left-unidentified. 6th from left - Sam Leslie   Seated at left - Johnnie Cunningham 2nd from left - Brother Nelson 4th from left - John Bell

The 1923 Papermakers, Roy Spruell is standing second from right. His brother Harvey is in the middle of the front row. The other players:: Standing Manager McGee, Pat McGee, Matt Delmas, unidentified, Roy Spruell, and Sam Leslie
Seated Johnnie Cunningham, Brother Nelson, Harvey Spruell, and John Bell.

 

In 1924 he signed his first professional contract, posting an 11-12 record for the fifth place Laurel Lumberjacks, in the six-team Cotton States League.  The following season, pitching for the last place (51-70) Alexandria Reds, Spruell was 14-10.

1924 Laurel Lumberjacks.  Roy Spruell is in the top row, third from left.  The player seated on the far left in the front row appears to be future big league pitcher Ray Moss who pitched for the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves.

1924 Laurel Lumberjacks. Roy Spruell is in the top row, third from left. The player seated on the far left in the front row appears to be Ray Moss, the only member of the Laurel club to play in the big leagues,; he pitched for the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves.

Spruell had his best professional season in 1926 as a member of the Hattiesburg Pinetoppers.  He led the team to the Cotton States championship with a 22-8 record, and got his name in newspapers across the country in August.  The Associated Press said:

“Friday the 13th was far from unlucky for Roy Spruell, pitching star of the Hattiesburg club of the Cotton States League, Spruell hurled the first no hit, no run game of his career.”

Spruell allowed just two walks (shortstop/manager Herschel Bobo also made an error) to the Monroe Drillers, but still only faced the minimum 27 batters.

The 1926 Cotton States League champion Hattiesburg Pinetoppers.  Roy Spruell is standing third from left.  Manager/shortstop Herschel Bobo is kneeling far left.

The 1926 Cotton States League champion Hattiesburg Pinetoppers. Roy Spruell is standing third from left. Manager/shortstop Herschel Bobo is kneeling far left.

At the end of the 1926 season Spruell was purchased by the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League, but never played in Texas.  He started the season with the Memphis Chickasaws in the Southern Association and was released to the Knoxville Smokies in the South Atlantic League in May of 1927.  He was 10-10 in Knoxville and also appeared in 20 games in outfield.  The Spartanburg Herald called Spruell “the elongated righthander,” (he was listed variously from 6’ to 6’ 2”).

Spruell returned to the Smokies for the 1928 season, but a hand injury led to a slow start and with a 1-3 record at the end of May he was released and returned to the Cotton States League. He pitched professionally through the 1930 season, but struggled with injuries his last three seasons and pitched for several teams:  Laurel and Hattiesburg again (he also pitched for the Baton Rouge Essos when the Hattiesburg franchise relocated there during the 1929 season) as well as the Jackson Senators in the Cotton States League, and the Jacksonville Tars in the Southeastern League.

Spruell spent the next decade playing with and managing independent and industrial league teams in the South.  He played from 1931 to 1935 in the Mississippi Coast League, a strong semi-pro league with teams sponsored by union and industrial interests.

He left the Gulf Coast the following year, relocating in Savannah, Georgia where he played for and managed the Union Baggers—the company team of the Union Bag and Paper Company, operator of the world’s largest paper mill.  The team was considered one of Georgia’s best semi-pro and industrial teams, playing in the Coastal League, which included teams in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

The Union Baggers, circa 1937.  Roy Spruell, standing second from right.

The Union Baggers, circa 1937. Roy Spruell, standing second from right.

Spruell’s baseball career appears to have ended around 1940.

He eventually relocated to Pensacola, Florida and worked for the Florida Pulp and Paper Company; he suffered a heart attack at work and died in 1950

Roy Spruell shortly before his death in 1950.

Roy Spruell shortly before his death in 1950.

Like thousands of others who played baseball in small and large towns, and small and large leagues, throughout the country, Roy Spruell’s career brings to mind a passage from W. P. Kinsella’s great novel “Shoeless Joe:”

“For some reason, I recall the question at the bottom of the form sent by the Baseball Hall of Fame to everyone who has ever played professional baseball: ‘If you had it to do over again, would you play professional baseball?’  The historian at Cooperstown, Clifford S. Kachline, said he couldn’t recall even one ex-player answering ‘no’ to the question.  I wonder if any other profession can say the same?”

Thank you to Roy Spruell’s grandchildren, Paula Grady and Bob Gattis for sharing the photographs used in this post as well as a copy of Mr. Spruell’s obituary. 

Filling in the Blanks—F. Bassett

7 Jan

Baseball Reference lists the manager of the 1903 Hopkinsville Browns of the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League simply as F. Bassett—something of a slight to a man whose obituary in The Chicago Tribune called him “The Father of the Kitty League.”

Dr. Frank Houston Bassett was born in Stephensport, Kentucky in 1873, and grew up in Hopkinsville.

Bassett, who came from a wealthy family, played with semi-professional teams in Hopkinsville in his 20s.  Late in 1902 Bassett began trying to line up cities in Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee and Indiana to form a new professional league; by February of 1903 the eight-team league was formed.

Frank Houston Bassett

Frank Houston Bassett

Bassett owned, managed and played for the Browns.

Very few records survive for the Kitty League’s first season and no statistics for Bassett can be found.  The only reference to his abilities as a player came years later in an article in The Kentucky New Era which included a quote from Scott Means.  Means, a well-known amateur and professional player in Hopkinsville who played in the Kitty in 1913, saw Bassett play:

“Doc Bassett was a very good fielder.  Only trouble was he couldn’t hit.”

Bassett continued to own the Hopkinsville franchise, renamed the Hoppers for 1905 until the team was dropped from the league in July in order to keep a balanced schedule after the Henderson Hens disbanded.  The first incarnation of the league ended the following season.

Bassett maintained the Hoppers as a semi-professional team for the 2nd half of 1905 and all of 1906.  He then became an umpire in the Cotton States League and the Southern Association.  He also entered medical school.

In the spring of 1909, Bassett was the subject of a feature in The Chicago American after he had umpired an exhibition between the Cubs and the Nashville Volunteers.  The article said Bassett was worth more than $100,000 and had an income from investments of “$500 a month…and umpires for the love of it.”

The American noted that Bassett owned a car, “a forty horsepower French machine,” and drove it 72 miles from Hopkinsville to umpire Southern Association games in Nashville.  Bassett said:

 “I run over in the machine every day before the game and return in the evening.”

In 1910 Bassett helped to resurrect the Kitty League and was named President before the 1912 season; as he would continue to do throughout the league’s many incarnations Bassett used his personal fortune to keep the league afloat by financing the Evansville Yankees.

Frank Houston Bassett

Frank Houston Bassett

He was re-elected president for the next two seasons, but the financially troubled league folded again after the 1914 season.  An attempt to revive the league in 1915 failed, and after being revived again for 1916 the league folded in August.

Bassett seems to have temporarily lost interest in professional baseball in Kentucky and turned to politics.  He became a city commissioner in Hopkinsville in 1916 and became mayor in 1918; he served until 1922 when he was elected Court Clerk of Christian County.

In 1922, he again helped to revive the Kitty league; this version lasted for three seasons but was plagued by the same financial difficulties that doomed its predecessors.

Bassett tried again after a decade and was the driving force in reorganizing the league in 1935.  He was named president, secretary and treasurer of the new six-team league.

Bassett served for three seasons as president.  The league meeting after the 1937 season was contentious and several league owners felt Bassett had been a weak leader, and objected to his indifference in maintaining accurate statistics for the league and his opposition to night baseball.

There are a number of versions of what transpired.  Most sources say that after being re-elected Bassett left the meeting and team owners then voted him out; others say he, in effect, resigned by leaving—sometimes even the same source disagrees.  Some accounts in The Kentucky New Era said Bassett was ousted; others said he “became disgusted” and resigned.

In either case, night baseball was the primary issue that ended Bassett’s presidency.  The league would not survive without it and Bassett was dead set against it.   The New Era said:

 “The good doc contends that if baseball was supposed to be played after supper, nature would have made it light enough to see.”

With the exception of a few occasions when he was honored in Hopkinsville, Bassett seldom attended games after 1937 citing his hatred for night baseball.

He continued to serve as Christian County’s court clerk until his death in 1950.

Two weeks after Bassett’s death the Hopkinsville Hoppers held a memorial for him before their game with the Owensboro Oilers—it was a night game.

What Goes Around…

12 Dec

Harry “Bird Eye” Truby’s best days were behind him by 1905.  He broke in with Rockford in the Central Interstate League in 1888, had spent part of 1896 and ’96 in the National League with the Chicago Colts and Pittsburgh Pirates, and for the next decade was a solid minor league player.  But his skills had eroded and by 1902 he was playing in lesser quality leagues.

Truby started the season in the D-level Cotton States League with the Jackson Blind Tigers, by June he was either released or sold (depending on the source) to the Meridian Ribboners in the same league—he was acquired by the Niles Crowites in the Ohio-Pennsylvania League on September 1—within days his career was over.  The Youngstown Vindicator said:

“Harry Truby won’t have a chance to slug any more umpires for a while (sic) unless he makes a special appointment with them.”

In a Labor day game against the Akron Buckeyes Truby punched an umpire named List after he called a Niles player out for not tagging up on a fly ball; The Vindicator said of the resulting melee which involved at least two other players and some fans:

“It was a disgraceful scene, indeed.”

League president  Charles Hazen Morton suspended Truby indefinitely; the suspension effectively ended his career.

Harry Truby, 1898

Harry Truby, 1898

The following season Truby became an umpire, quickly worked his way back to the Big Leagues,  and was named to the  National League staff at the beginning of the 1909 season; however, he was let go or resigned in July (again, sources disagree).  In August Truby became an umpire in the Tri-State League.

Within days of joining the Tri-State,  Truby umpired a game between the Williamsport Millionaires and Trenton Tigers in Williamsport, PA.  Williamsport argued a number of calls and Truby had already ejected three of their players: Bert Conn, George Therre, Tom O’Hara, when in the seventh inning he ejected a fourth, outfielder Rip Cannell. The Pittsburgh Press said:

“(T)he crowd, enraged by (Truby’s) poor work and apparently uncalled for action against the local team swarmed  upon the diamond.  He was knocked down…and struck on the nose by a stone.  The police quickly ended the disturbance, but after the game the crowd was in waiting and ran the umpire into a shed from which he was rescued by two officers in an automobile.  The crowd tried to pursue the automobile but it pulled ahead and at 7 o’clock he reached his hotel.”

Truby worked as an umpire in the Tri-State and Ohio State Leagues through the 1913 season, and seems to have avoided any additional attacks by angry mobs.

He died in 1953 in Ironton, Ohio.

Actually, it Probably Wasn’t the Superstition

5 Dec

As with George Treadway, a story can get repeated throughout the decades while a large, key portion is lost in the process; such is the case with Billy Earle.

His career ended because of the superstitions of other players who thought he was “creepy,” as David Nemec described him in his excellent book “The Beer and Whiskey League.”  In “The New Bill James Historical Abstract,” James credulously quotes the assertion from sportscaster Bill Stern‘s 1949 book “Favorite Baseball Stories” that Earle was:

“(F)orced out of baseball, because of nothing more than superstition, the belief that he was a hypnotist with the power of ‘the evil eye.’”

For awhile even Earle tried to use it as an excuse.

But actually, it was probably the morphine.

William Moffat Earle was at times a great player, but more often impetuous and prone to jumping contracts.

He earned his nickname “The Little Globetrotter” after being part of the 1888 world tour organized by Albert Spalding.  Earle said of the trip:

“We played everywhere from the catacombs of Rome to Cheops of Egypt, under the shadow of the pyramids and out through India and the Islands of Ceylon.”

Billy Earle and the other members of the world tour

Billy Earle and the other members of the world tour at the Great Sphinx of Giza

After returning from the tour Earle joined the Cincinnati Red Stockings in the American Association.  He bounced back and forth from Major League to minor league teams for the next six years.  During that time, there were a number of humorous references to Earle’s interest in hypnotism, but none claimed it was an impediment to his career; however, in 1897, upon being released after one game with the Columbus Senators of the Western League the legend began.

In September of 1897 a fairly long article appeared in The Baltimore Sun under the headline “A Haunted Ballplayer,” and then ran in papers around the country. The story said:

“(Earle) cannot get a position on any ball team in the country, not even the small minor league teams.”

Earle told a sad story of teammates avoiding him and fearing the “hoodoo.”  He even blamed his being released by Pittsburgh  after the 1893 season on it, ignoring the fact that he was only signed because of injuries to the three other Pirate catchers, Connie Mack, Joe Sugden and Doggie Miller—and emergency catcher Jake Stenzel.

That 1897 story became the story of Billy Earle.

It also said:

 “He is, moreover, a pleasant, intelligent, strictly temperate man.”

The first two might very well have been true.  The last was not.

The rest of the story about Billy Earle has been lost, forgotten, or just ignored.

In August of 1898, The Cincinnati Enquirer told the real story of why Billy Earle had been out of baseball.  The “strictly temperate” Earle was addicted to morphine.

His friend John McGraw helped get him treatment in a Baltimore hospital; his former Cincinnati teammates took up a collection to buy Earle a ticket to Philadelphia to stay with his parents after treatment.

He kicked the habit, and then for three seasons managed and played for an independent team in Richmond, Indiana; he also coached teams in Havana, Cuba during the winters of 1900 and 1902-1904. And he returned to professional baseball; hardly the profile of a blacklisted man.

Earle signed as a player/manager with the 1903 Vicksburg Hill Billies in the Cotton States League.  He continued his playing career through 1906, and either managed or worked as an umpire in Midwest-based leagues through 1911.

Billy Earle, player/manager Columbia Gamecocks 1905.

Billy Earle, player/manager Columbia Gamecocks 1905.

Billy Earle died in Omaha, Nebraska in 1946.

Were there some players in the superstitious world of 19th Century baseball who were uncomfortable playing with or against Earle? Probably.  If he had hit .320 and not had a drug problem would he have had a 10-year or more major league career regardless of superstitions? Probably.

21 Straight

20 Sep

The Delta League only lasted two seasons, 1904 and ’05, but James Baxter Sparks made the first a memorable one.

The 21 year old Yazoo City Zoos southpaw set a professional baseball record by winning 21 consecutive games.  During one week he beat the Brookhaven team in three straight games, then after one day off shut out the Jackson Senators.  Sparks also threw a no-hitter against Clarksdale during the streak.

The Sporting Life said that Sparks appeared in 33 games during the season but there is no record of his overall record for the season.

Sparks spent the majority of his career in the low minor leagues, the only exception being 1906 with the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association where he went 8-10.  From 1910-1912 he was 49-23 for Vicksburg in the Cotton States League.  His career ended with Meridian in the same league in 1913.

Sparks coached the University of Mississippi baseball team in 1917 and returned to the Cotton States League as a manager in 1923 and ’24 with the Clarksdale Cubs and Laurel Lumberjacks.  He died in Mississippi in 1956.

One more bit of trivia from the Delta League.  The 1904 season featured a scoreless 19 inning game between Jackson and Brookhaven on August 24—the longest scoreless game to end in a tie in professional baseball until the record was tied by the Dodgers and Reds in 1946.