Tag Archives: Jim St. Vrain

“Demoralizing a Successful Organization For the Sake of a Few Unimportant, Mediocre Ball Players”

19 Sep

When Charlie Babb jumped from the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association to the Memphis Egyptians in the Southern Association in June of 1902, he was not alone.

Pitcher Jim St. Vrain, recently released by the Chicago Orphans and under contract with the Tacoma Tigers in the Pacific Northwest League, signed with Memphis rather than going to Tacoma.

Another American Association player, Second baseman Bill Evans of the Columbus Senators, also jumped to Memphis.  The Cincinnati Enquirer said he jumped being suspended by the Senators for being “too drunk” to take the field on June 18.

Memphis manager Charlie Frank’s three new players would be a source of controversy in the Southern Association for the remainder of the season and a continuation of an ongoing feud over the league’s salary limit which The Sporting Life said: “a majority of the clubs are known to have violated.”

Charlie Frank

Charlie Frank

Southern Association President John Bailey Nicklin, acting on orders from Patrick T. Powers, president of National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL), ordered Frank not to play any of the three.  Frank not only defied the order but according to The Atlanta Constitution, gave Nicklin a “lecture in abuse,” and threatened to “break the league.”

Throughout July, the situation became increasingly absurd.

On July 11 Nicklin ordered umpire Ed Cline (the same Ed Cline who may, or may not, have initially approached Babb about jumping) to not allow St. Vrain to pitch against the Nashville Volunteers, managed by Frank’s biggest ally in the league, Isaac Newton “Ike” FisherThe Atlanta Constitution said Cline became mysteriously “sick and could not work,” although he “was upon the grounds while the game was being played.”  St. Vrain and the Egyptians beat the Volunteers 8 to 5 with “Red” Ehret and Nashville’s Bill Dammann acting as umpires.

After the game Frank was suspended for 10 games and threatened with being blacklisted if he played St. Vrain again.  Later that week Frank received a temporary injunction allowing him to continue using St. Vrain. And while Babb and Evans had been suspended by the league and were not covered by the ruling, Frank continued to put both in the lineup.  Frank also continued to manage the team despite his own suspension.

On July 25 Frank was again ordered by Nicklin not to play Babb and Evans.  This time, he complied, for one day.  The two players sat out an 8 to 4 victory over Atlanta (St. Vrain pitched for Memphis).  Both were again in the lineup the following day, and on July 27 Frank filed a suit against the league and Nicklin seeking $10,000 in damages.  He also sought and received an injunction “restraining President Nicklin from interfering with the playing of Babb and Evans.”

The Constitution began calling the team the “Memphis Injunctionists.”

The Sporting Life said Frank was:

“Demoralizing a successful organization for the sake of a few unimportant, mediocre ball players.”

Nicklin, the league, and the NAPBL blinked first.

Two days after the suit was filed an agreement was reached.  Babb and Evans would remain with Memphis and were reinstated from suspension; the fourth place Egyptians agreed to forfeit every game in which Babb and Evans participated in while under suspension—dropping the team to fifth place.

The controversy appeared to be over.  It wasn’t.

On August 4 the Egyptians arrived at Athletic Park in New Orleans to play the second place Pelicans.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune said:

“Under orders of (Pelicans) manager Abner Powell a big policeman today refused admission to St, Vrain, Evans and Babb, of the Memphis club, when they tried to enter.”

The game was canceled

The following day:

“Manager Frank again took his team to out to the park, but admission was refused to St. Vrain, Evans and Babb.”

The umpire, picked by the Pelicans, “declared the game forfeited to New Orleans,” and Powell shared with the press a telegram from the Little Rock Travelers which read:

“Congratulations upon your firm methods.  We will stand with you.”

Despite the earlier agreement, the NAPBL announced that Frank and St. Vrain were still under suspension.

Jim St. Vrain

Jim St. Vrain

On August 9 the Shreveport Giants refused to allow St. Vrain into the ballpark for a double-header.  Memphis took the field for each game with only eight players and no pitcher.  They forfeited both games to the Giants.

Memphis was due to travel to Little Rock for a three-game series from the 11th through the 13th.  The Travelers announced that they “would not play with St. Vrain and Frank in the game.  Babb and Evans will be allowed to play (but) under protest.”

On August 12 Nicklin resigned at a meeting of league owners in Chattanooga (Memphis and Nashville refused to attend).  He said he was “almost helpless to enforce the rules of the league,” because of Frank’s numerous injunctions.  He was replaced by vice president William Kavanaugh.  A motion was passed to suspend Frank and St. Vrain indefinitely, but Babb and Evans were officially reinstated.  Again.

In response, Frank filed another $10,000 lawsuit naming every team in the league except Nashville.

On August 27 in Nashville, St. Vrain started for Memphis.  President Kavanaugh fined Nashville $1000 and “suspended that club for the balance of the season,” he threatened “drastic measures’ towards Memphis as well, but for the several injunctions that kept him from acting.  Two days later the suspension was lifted.

On August 30 a Little Rock judge enjoined Frank from “playing or attempting to play St. Vrain in any state.”

The Atlanta Constitution headline summed up the opinion of most Southern baseball fans on September 22:

To The Relief of All the Season is Now Over

As an appropriate end, Memphis beat Atlanta on the final day of the season behind the pitching of the still suspended Jim St. Vrain.

The no longer suspended Nashville Volunteers won the pennant.

The Indianapolis Indians, the team Charlie Babb jumped, won the American Association pennant.

Charlie Babb

Charlie Babb

The Indianapolis papers had predicted that Babb’s career would be doomed when he jumped.  In 1903, he was purchased by the New York Giants.  He played in the National League with the Giants and Brooklyn Superbas through the 1905 season.  In 1906, he became a minor league player/manager; with the Memphis Egyptians.  He stayed with Memphis until 1910 and managed to become embroiled in one more controversy.

Jim St. Vrain was only 19-years-old during that 1902 season.  He finished 12-4 with Memphis.  He went to the West Coast in 1903.  His career was over after the 1905 season.

Bill Evans played in the Southern Association until 1906; he eventually became a member of three different teams who refused to play against him in 1902: New Orleans, Shreveport, and Little Rock.

Charlie Frank did just fine in the end.  More on that next week.

“Baseball will be in Utter Disrepute”

18 Sep

As common as contract jumping was during the first 30 years of organized baseball, there are very few cases in which the particular inducements that led to the player breaking his contract are available.  Such is the case with Charlie Babb.

Before the 1902 season, Babb, a 29-year-old journeyman infielder, signed to play with the Indianapolis Indians in the newly formed American Association (Indianapolis was a member of the Western Association in 1901).

The Sporting Life described  as “a base-hit killer,” but “anything but a graceful fielder.”  The St. Paul Dispatch said:

 “He covers all kinds of ground, and it is next to impossible to lay down a bunt and get away with it.”

Charlie Babb takes batting practice in Indianapolis in 1902.

Charlie Babb takes batting practice in Indianapolis in 1902.

Babb was installed at third base where The Indianapolis Times said he would be an improvement over previous third baseman Eddie Hickey who had committed 49 errors in 101 games in 1910; Babb told The Indianapolis News “he will try his best to make Indianapolis fans forget that there ever was a third-baseman by the name of Hickey.”

Babb quickly became a favorite with fans and the press.  When the Indians moved into second place in June The Times said Babb won games for the team with “his hands, feet and bat.” The News said:  “Babb can borrow a dollar from the left field bleacherites any time he wants to.”

Babb was hitting .308 in 182 at bats through June 22, and his popularity in the city was why a small item that appeared in several Midwest and Southern papers that day was largely ignored in Indianapolis.

Charlie Babb

Charlie Babb

It said that earlier in June, while the Indians were playing in Louisville, Babb was approached by Philip “Red” Ehret, a Louisville native who knew something about jumping, and currently played for the Memphis Egyptians in the Southern Association (some versions said it was a Southern Association umpire named Ed Cline who approached Babb).  The story said Ehret had “urged” Babb to jump and that “Babb turned him down.”

Disinterest over the story in Indianapolis turned to outrage two days later.  Babb had not turned Ehret and Memphis down; he jumped the Indians to join the Egyptians.

The News said:

“Babb, the deserter, was one of the most popular players ever in this city, and by his action it is doubtful he ever again will have such a place in the affections of any city.”

The Indianapolis papers provided precise details of just what was offered:  Babb would receive $45 more a month, a $300 bonus, $80 transportation expenses, and a winter job in Memphis.

The News said “Contract jumping is the greatest evil that afflicts baseball at present,” and warned that “baseball will be in utter disrepute,” if something wasn’t done to end the practice; Ignoring the “evil” of the reserve clause.

Orville “Sam” Woodruff replaced Babb at third base.  Within days, The News, which less than a month earlier had called Babb “the best third baseman” to ever play in Indianapolis; said Woodruff had played so well that “Indianapolis fans don’t care if he never comes back.”  The Times said “Babb has nothing on Orville Woodruff in the field or at the bat.”

Orville "Sam" Woodruff

Orville “Sam” Woodruff

Babb was not the only jumper to join Memphis is June.  Bill Evans, a Louisville native and friend of Ehret left the American Association’s Columbus Senators to join the Egyptians and Jim St. Vrain, after being released by the Chicago Orphans, signed with Memphis despite being the property of the Tacoma Tigers in the Pacific Northwest League.

Tomorrow: the fallout from Babb, Evans and St. Vrain signing with Memphis.

“The Worst Bone Play Ever Made in Baseball”

16 May

The Pacific Coast League pioneer and all-star self-promoter Mique Fisher spent his later years as a near-constant source of material for west Coast sports writers.

In 1937 William Lair Hill Gregory, who wrote for The Portland Oregonian for nearly 60 years wrote about a play in 1904 that Fisher called “the worst bone play ever made in baseball;” it involved pitcher James Marcellin St. Vrain, and happened when Fisher was managing the Tacoma Tigers to a pennant; winning both halves of the 1904 Pacific Coast League season:

“On the Tigers was a southpaw pitcher named Jimmy St. Vrain.  In a close game one day, St. Vrain singled and with two outs was on second.  The batter lashed a line drive out of the shortstop’s reach, but right over St. Vrain’s head.

“’What did that left-hander do when he should have been scoring the winning run,’ complains Mique, ‘but reach up and catch the ball! Of course he was out…hit by a batted ball.’”

Jim St. Vrain

Jim St. Vrain

St. Vrain is also known for another boneheaded play alleged to have happened during his brief, 12-game career as a pitcher for the Chicago Orphans.  The story was first told The Detroit Free Press in 1906 by Tigers outfielder Davy Jones, who had been St. Vrain’s teammate in Chicago; Jones later told the same story to Lawrence Ritter in the great baseball book “The Glory of Their Times.”  The version in the book—aided by another 50-years of telling the story, and more colorful—is included below.

 “He was a left-handed pitcher and a right-handed batter. But an absolutely terrible hitter — never even got a loud foul off anybody.

“Well, one day we were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates and Jimmy was pitching for us. The first two times he went up to bat that day he looked simply awful. So when he came back after striking out the second time Frank Selee, our manager, said, “Jimmy, you’re a left-handed pitcher, why don’t you turn around and bat from the left side, too? Why not try it?”

“Actually, Frank was half-kidding, but Jimmy took him seriously. So the next time he went up he batted left-handed. Turned around and stood on the opposite side of the plate from where he was used to, you know.  And darned if he didn’t actually hit the ball. He tapped a slow roller down to Honus Wagner at shortstop and took off as fast as he could go … but instead of running to first base, he headed for third!

“Oh, my God! What bedlam!  Everybody yelling and screaming at poor Jimmy as he raced to third base, head down, spikes flying, determined to get there ahead of the throw. Later on, Honus told us that as a matter of fact, he almost did throw the ball to third.

“‘I’m standing there with the ball in my hand,” Honus said, looking at this guy running from home to third, and for an instant there I swear I didn’t know where to throw the damn ball. And when I finally did throw to first, I wasn’t at all sure it was the right thing to do!'”

Davy Jones

Davy Jones

“Mique” Fisher and the PCL

6 May

Michael Angelo “Mique” Fisher is one of the forgotten pioneers of the Pacific Coast League (PCL).  Fisher had no given middle name, but adopted the name Angelo “after the famed painter he admired.”

Born in New York City in 1862, Fisher’s family relocated to Sacramento, California shortly after the end of the Civil War.  Fisher was a semi-pro outfielder with teams in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento, and in 1884-85 played for the San Francisco Haverlys in the California League.  Sometime later in the decade he joined the Sacramento police force.

Fisher’s only connection with baseball from 1885 until he was nearly 40-tears-old was as a fan and as a friend of a young catcher named Charlie Graham who had played at Santa Clara University and in the California League.

In 1902 Detective Captain Fisher made a career change.

The Sacramento Gilt Edges in the California League were owned by a local businessman named Arthur Beebe.  Beebe, according to The Sporting Life “incurred the displeasure of his associates in the league owing to his continual kicking against the umpires appointed by President (James T.) Moran.”

At a league meeting in February the franchise was taken away from Beebe and awarded to Fisher.  The San Francisco Call said Beebe blamed the move on San Francisco owner Henry Harris, who he said “is backing Mike Fisher.”

Michael Angelo “Mique” Fisher, circa 1905

Michael Angelo “Mique” Fisher, circa 1905

There’s no contemporary reference to why Harris preferred Fisher to Beebe, but within a year Harris would spearhead the effort to expand the California League to the Pacific Northwest—forming the PCL, and might simply have wished to pack the league with allies for the planned expansion.

The new Sacramento owner’s first move was to sign Charlie Graham, who played for Harris in San Francisco in 1901; Graham was named captain.  The Gilt Edges got off to a horrible start, but according to The Sporting Life “managed to replace the weak ones with men that worried other clubs at all stages, and finally crawled up into the .400 class.”

In December of 1902 The Seattle Times reported that Harris’ scheme was official:

“The California League will be known next year as the Pacific Coast League.  It will expand and take in Seattle and Portland.”

The Los Angeles Angels won the first PCL championship, but it was another Los Angeles team that caused the most excitement for Fisher and Sacramento in 1903.

In March three of Fisher’s players, Win Cutter, Charles Doyle and George Hildebrand jumped to the Los Angeles team, in the newly formed Pacific National League—they were said to have been recruited by former teammate Elmer Stricklett.  Hildebrand agreed to return, but Fisher took action as the other two prepared to board a train for L.A.  The San Francisco Call said:

“There was a sensational scene at the railway depot this afternoon, when Michael Fisher, manager of the Sacramento baseball nine, appeared with a police officer armed with warrants and caused Cutter and Doyle, two of the start players, to be placed under arrest on charges of obtaining money under false pretenses.”

The players were held in jail until they agreed to return to Fisher’s club, and the charges were dropped.

After the 1903 season Fisher relocated the franchise to Tacoma, Washington; the move brought better geographical balance to the league, and gave the PCL a foothold in a city that had just been vacated by the rival Pacific National League.

Charlie Graham remained team captain and the pitching staff was improved with the addition of Jim St. Vrain and Orval Overall.  Fisher’s Tacoma Tigers took the pennant, winning both halves of the split season schedule.

Charlie Graham

Charlie Graham

it was Graham, not Fisher, who was generally given credit for the success of the team.  As The Portland Oregonian later said:

“Mique Fisher in the strict sense of the term never was a great manager.  In a general way he knew baseball, but as a master of the fine points of the game as it should be played he was not up to the big thing…It was Graham who taught the players how to play the game.”

The paper did concede that Fisher was a good players’ manager:

“His players liked him and worked hard for him and that always helped a whole lot.”

Other tended to dismiss Fisher, The Spokane Daily Chronicle called him:

“The man who has acted as the original blast furnace for the hot air factory.”

Fisher not only had his baseball acumen questioned, but the move to Tacoma turned out to be disastrous from a business standpoint. The Oregonian said the Tigers won in 1904 despite “little enthusiasm,” from the city of Tacoma.  Fisher also began to run afoul of his investors, according to The Daily Chronicle:

“It is no secret  the stockholders have been losing money and blame for that is laid on the manager.”

The 1905 Tigers started strong, winning the first half—again playing to small, indifferent crowds, then fell apart in the second half, finishing last.  The Tigers were badly beaten five games to one in a postseason series by the Los Angeles Angels.

In September of 1905, Fisher announced that a six-game series with the Oakland Oaks would be played in Spokane, Washington, giving rise to rumors that the team would relocate there the following season.  The rumor also stirred up a conflict with the Northwestern League, who laid claim to Spokane and took their case to the National Commission.

Fisher initially denied that the team had designs on Spokane, but in October he this telegram to The Spokane Chronicle:

“To Sporting Editor…Spokane has been awarded to the Coast League by the National Commission.”

The San Francisco Bulletin said the league needed to abandon Tacoma and:

“It certainly seems that the admission of Spokane is the only logical course for the league to pursue.”

Logic did not win out.  By November Fisher had negotiated a deal to move the team to Fresno, California, a town with roughly one-third the population of Spokane—the PCL made it official in January of 1906 that the Tacoma Tigers would become the Fresno Raisin Eaters.

Fisher had owned a half interest in the team in Tacoma, he gave up his ownership stake in Fresno and signed a three-year contract with the club.

It turned out to be another bad decision.

Fisher, for the first time, managed a team without Charlie Graham by his side.  The catcher started the season with the Boston Americans (his only big league season), but left the team in May to return to San Francisco a month after the 1906 earthquake—various sources attributed his departure to being homesick, wanting to be near family, or to attend to his wife who was ill; in any case he never returned east and signed with the Sacramento Cordovas in the California League in August.

Fresno was a last place team from wire-to-wire, finishing with a winning percentage well below .400.

The new ownership fired Fisher, who eventually sued the team to recover $500 he said he was promised if terminated before his three-year contract expired.  He never collected the $500 and told reporters:

I was gypped out of the franchise.”

Wallace “Happy Hogan” Bray was named to succeed Fisher as manager, but Fresno was dropped from the PCL after the Seattle Siwashes withdrew from the league, in order to maintain an even number of teams.

Fisher’s managerial career was over, but his baseball career was not; more on that tomorrow.