Tag Archives: Emil Gross

Em Gross

5 Feb

Emil Michael “Em” Gross was one of the best hitting (.295) and worst fielding (233 errors) catchers of the 19th Century during five major league seasons between 1879 and 1884.  The Chicago Tribune’s Hugh Fullerton, no stranger to hyperbole, called Gross “perhaps the heaviest hitting catcher that ever donned a glove.”

Em Gross

Em Gross

Gross, a Chicago native, didn’t need baseball in order to earn a living.  In 1884, when he played with his hometown team, the Browns,  in the Union Association (the team relocated to Pittsburgh in August), The Chicago Daily News said he “owns $50,000 worth of real estate in Chicago.”

Gross’ professional career came to an end after the 1884 season, but he played one more year for a Chicago semi-pro team called the Heavyweights.  The Tribune said of the team:

“While they do not count a man who weighs less than 200 pounds, they have some great baseball talent.”

Fullerton is responsible for the story that was most often told about Gross’ career in the years before his death in 1921.

Like many of Fullerton’s stories, the first telling appeared more than a decade after the fact and contained vague details,  little corroboration and was likely apocryphal.

This one made its first appearance in a Fullerton column in 1907.  He said Gross’ biggest weakness “was in catching foul flies.  He tried for everything in sight, ran circles around the ball and sometimes speared it, but he never felt at ease when one of those tall, twisting fouls went up.”

The columnist claimed the story was “vouched for by two old ballplayers who watched it come off:”

“(Gross) was catching in Providence one day when a Philadelphia batter poked up a fly that looked 50 feet high.  There was a wind blowing and the ball began to twist around in circles, with Em doing a merry-go-rounder under it.  Finally, seeing that it was escaping he made a desperate effort to turn quickly and fell flat on his back.  To his amazement he discovered that, for perhaps the first time in his career, he was under the ball which was descending like a shot straight toward his nose.

“Instinctively he threw up his feet and hands to protect his face.  The ball struck the sole of his shoe, bounded up into the air, and, as it fell again, Em reached out and caught it.

“And the next morning the Providence papers had the nerve to say he did it on purpose.”

A cartoon which appeared with the 1914 retelling of the Gross story

A cartoon which appeared with the 1914 retelling of the Gross story

Fullerton continued to retell the story, with minor alterations, after he left The Tribune to join The Chicago Record-Herald, then The Chicago Examiner and The Tribune repeated the story several times over the years, with no byline, as well.

Gross was an important man in Chicago during the years Fullerton’s story circulated.  He owned several properties in the city, including two hotels, and his nephew, Fred A. Busse, was mayor of Chicago from 1907-1911.

Mayor Fred Busse

Mayor Fred Busse

Gross was known to help former baseball players in need; The Examiner called him “a refuge in time of trouble for all the old timers.”  When it was reported in 1907 that Joe Quest, a former National League, and American Association infielder, was “near death” from  tuberculosis in Georgia, he was living on, and managing a plantation owned by Gross—Quest survived and lived until 1924.

Joe Quest

Joe Quest

Gross told a story to Fullerton, then at The Examiner, about his attempt to help another player, William Henry “Bollicky Bill” Taylor during the 1890s.

“Taylor made an entre into Chicago without cash or credit and immediately swarmed upon Em and renewed old friendships. That was in November and along about midnight Em made the discovery that his friend had no money nor any place to sleep.  So he wrote a note to the manager of his hotels saying, ‘Take care of my friend Mr. Taylor, and give him what he needs.’  Em didn’t see ‘Bollicky’ again, but early in March his manager called him in the phone and inquired; ‘Say, how long do you want me to take care of your friend?’

“’What friend ‘inquired Em, who had forgotten all about it.

“Why the fellow you sent here with a note.’

“’Bollicky’ had wintered there and kept out of the path of his host, and when Em got through laughing, he ‘phoned back:

“Keep him as long as he has the nerve to stay.”

Gross never confirmed whether or not he made the catch Fullerton claimed he did.  He died in Eagle River, Wisconsin in 1921.

Sam Barkley and the Mobster

29 Oct

Samuel W. Barkley’s brief career on the diamond was highlighted by two legal disputes over his services; his life off the field was more complicated and interesting.

Barkley rose from amateur and semi-pro teams around Wheeling, West Virginia, to a solid season (.306, league-leading 39 doubles) as a 26-year-old rookie with the Toledo Blue Stockings in the American Association in 1884.  Among his teammates in Toledo were Fleetwood and Welday Walker.

Toledo was only a major league franchise in 1884—The Toledo Blade said the team had lost “nearly $10,000–and disbanded, selling five players, including Barkley, to the St. Louis Browns—the sale included pitcher Tony Mullane, who attempted to sign with Cincinnati after agreeing to sign with St. Louis, leading to his year-long suspension.  By the time all the legal wrangling was done, only Barkley and Curt Welch reported to the Browns.

After a .268 season in St. Louis, owner Chris Von der Ahe sold him to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, but Barkley had already signed a contract with the Baltimore Orioles.  The American Association suspended and fined Barkley; Barkley sued.  The dispute was settled with Barkley being reinstated and Pittsburgh paying the fine on his behalf.

Sam Barkley

Sam Barkley

After two years in Pittsburgh, he was purchased by the Kansas City Cowboys, and that’s when his life got more interesting.

In Chicago, he met an 18-year-old woman named Dora Feldman, who followed him to Kansas City, where as The Toledo News-Bee said, “most of his money was thrown at the feet of the young woman.”

Barkley later told The Chicago Inter Ocean that the day before he married Dora “she went to her room in a Kansas City hotel and took poison, fearing he would not marry her.”

He hit just .216 in 1888 but was hitting .284 the following season when he was sold to the Toledo Black Pirates in the International League.  After just 50 games there his career was over.  At some point during the 1888 season he suffered a knee injury he said ended his career:

“I knocked a safe one to left field, and was dancing around between first and second bags when (Mike) Mattimore, the Philadelphia (Athletics) pitcher attempted to catch me napping.  He ran to the base line, and as I attempted to slide back to the first bag he unintentionally gave me the ‘knee’ and it injured severely the knee cap on my left leg.”

With his playing days behind him, Barkley, who was reported to have made as much as $1,800 a season with the Alleghenys, returned to Pittsburgh with a young wife who had aspirations to be an actress and opened a cigar store.  It didn’t end well.

It didn’t end well.

After just more than a year in business, The Pittsburgh Press said Barkley’s store on Smithfield Street closed by order of the sheriff, due to “claims aggregating $3,600.”

The couple moved to Chicago.  Things initially went better there.

Barkley opened a tavern at 292 West Madison Street, and he and Dora had a son who was born around 1895.

Shortly after they returned to Chicago Dora met Chicago’s first crime boss Michael Cassius “Mike” McDonald.  Richard Henry Little of The Chicago Tribune said McDonald “never held office but ruled the city with an iron hand.”  McDonald built a gambling and protection syndicate, controlled the Garfield Park racetrack, and solidified his control of the city as leader of the local Democratic Party.  He was also heavily involved in legitimate businesses—he owned The Chicago Globe newspaper and financed the building of Chicago’s first elevated rail line.

Mike McDonald

Mike McDonald

Years later Barkley told The Inter Ocean about his wife’s first meeting with McDonald:

“She was introduced to him at a box party in McVicker’s Theater shortly after the close of the big fair (World’s Columbia Exposition), in 1893…I remember the night distinctly.  Dora came home to our place at 319 Washington Boulevard and told me that she had met a very fascinating old man (McDonald was 44), who reputed to have a lot of money.

“’Watch me get a piece of that money,’ Dora said to me, jestingly, and fool that I was I laughed at the supposed joke.”

Dora Feldman Barkley McDonald

Dora Feldman Barkley McDonald

There are several versions of what happened next.  One involves an elaborate (seemingly too elaborate) story that suggested Barkley was lured by a friend of McDonald into a compromising position involving women and drugs—only to be “caught” by his wife.  The more likely version was that he was simply paid off—The Inter Ocean said he received $30,000 to divorce Dora.

Barkley never acknowledged receiving the money and only said:

“(Dora and McDonald) had planned between them to oust me, and no matter what I might have done, it would have been all the same in the long run.  With his money and his influence, McDonald could put it over me any time he wanted.”

Dora eventually became McDonald’s second wife in 1898, (his first wife, who once shot a police officer—she was acquitted—had eloped to Europe with a priest).

By 1897, Barkley had opened a new tavern at 15 North Clark Street, which was frequently in the news.

Sam Barkley

Sam Barkley

The Chicago Tribune called it a “notorious saloon,” and The Chicago Daily News reported on several occasions that the saloon had its license revoked temporarily for various criminal activities and violations; in 1900 The Inter Ocean said a grand jury report was “almost an indictment of the city administration for its toleration of the dives, all-night saloons, and resorts for thieves and the depraved.”  Of Barkley’s location the grand jury said:

“Men and women drinking, swearing and carousing, with music; open after midnight in the past.  Several murders have been committed in front of this door.”

As with all such “clean-up” drives during that era in Chicago, nothing came of the grand jury report.

Dora again made headlines in 1907—and as a result so did her ex-husband.

The Inter Ocean said:

‘Mike ‘ M’Donald’s Wife Kills Artist in His Studio

“Dora McDonald, wife of Michael C. McDonald, millionaire, politician, traction man, and ex-gambler, shot and killed Webster S. Guerin, an artist, behind the locked doors of his studio in the Omaha Building, LaSalle and Van Buren Streets yesterday.”

Barkley was quickly contacted by reporters and told his sad story of how Dora had left him.  The paper said:

“The story that Sam Barkley slowly grieved his life away over the loss of his pretty wife is disproved by the discovery of Sam Barkley alive and prosperous in Chicago today.”

Dora McDonald was eventually acquitted, but Mike McDonald did not live to see it, he died during her trial.

Barkley fell on hard times in Chicago soon after the killing.  In August of 1908 a six-inning benefit baseball game was played at Comiskey Park between two Chicago City League teams–“Nixey” Callahan‘s Logan Squares and the Rogers Parks–“to raise enough money to start him in the cigar business.”  The Chicago Examiner said, “A fair-sized crowd turned out.”

Fred Pfeffer played first base for the Rogers Parks and “was the hero of the game with two hits besides fielding in grand style,” another former big leaguer, Emil Gross, served as umpire.

Shortly after that Barkley was operating a cigar store in his hometown, Wheeling, West Virginia.

There was one last chapter in the Barkley story.  Soon after he returned to West Virginia he was living in poverty and became ill, and died on April 20, 1912.  The Chicago Daily News said several days before his death a former baseball acquaintance was summoned to his side:

Billy Sunday called on him.  He talked baseball for a while and then religion.  At the end Sam liked both equally well.”

Billy Sunday

Billy Sunday

Dora McDonald was contacted for a comment:

“It is a closed incident—it’s so long ago that I knew him.  But I’m sorry.”

She eventually married a doctor, moved to California and died in 1930.