Tag Archives: Oakland Colonels

Ben Hill

27 Jun

Benjamin L. Hill (some sources incorrectly list his middle initial as “N”), came to Oakland in 1890; Hill was signed by Colonel Tom Robinson to play center field for the Oakland Colonels in the California League.

bhill

Ben Hill c. 1895

The Oakland Tribune said, “Hill is making a reputation as a base runner,” and he moved up in the batting order from seventh, early in the season, to second, and was batting leadoff by June. Then suddenly, he was gone.

According to Sporting Life:

“Ben was a good centre fielder, but incurred the displeasure of manager Robinson and was released.”

Hill finished the season with the San Francisco Haverlys.

He returned to semi-pro ball the following year accepting an offer to play for the Suisun Aetnas on the weekends in Suisun City, California, as Sporting Life said, he was, “given a comfortable business ‘sit’ (running a tavern) on the condition of playing with the team.”

Hill played with the Aetnas, a member of the Northern California based Valley League, for two seasons. When Suisun played a series in Sacramento, The Record-Union said:

“Ben Hill, an old Sacramento favorite, is captain and center fielder of the visitors. He is playing better ball now than he did with the Oaklands, which is saying a great deal, as he put up a fine game with the Colonels.”

While he appeared successful on the field, Hill was doing even better in the bar business and bought his own tavern. According to Sporting Life:

“He became popular and the saloon made money. Ben saw his value, borrowed some money and opened a bar and card rooms on his own account. He soon had the patronage of the whole town and was clearing from $400 to $500 per month.”

In 1892, Hill married 17-year-old Agnes Nelson.

But by 1894, the paper said, “(Hill) could not stand prosperity. He made periodical trips to the city; where his profits disappeared, no one knows how. He lost his business and is willing to play ball again.”

Hill and his wife had a two-year-old son when he lost the bar and there were no offers to return to baseball. He moved his family to Oakland in March of 1895 and took a job as a railroad brakeman. In November, he left his family in Oakland to seek work in Portland, Oregon.

Hill returned to Oakland in January of 1896, and on the evening of January 11, met with his wife on the street, they walked to the corner of Twelfth and Kirkham, where Hill pulled a revolver and shot her three times.  She died at the scene.

agnes

Agnes Hill

According to The San Francisco Call, Hill walked to the nearby Piedmont Cable Company power house, handed the gun to an employee and waited for the police to arrive.

Two days after the killing, a reporter for The Oakland Tribune spoke with Hill:

“He is now at the city jail, about the most cool and unconcerned prisoner there. He does not repent his crime. He talks as dispassionately of killing his wife as he would any ordinary everyday occurrence.”

Meyer Cohen, a long-time Northern California “baseball enthusiast,” and one-time baseball writer for The Oakland Times, told The Tribune that Hill had been born in Sparta, Wisconsin in 1860 and:

“He attended college and studied for the ministry, but instead became a ballplayer.”

Cohen claimed Hill began his professional career in 1893 and said he played in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Minneapolis, Macon, Georgia, Omaha and Kearney, Nebraska, and Portland, Oregon, although there is little or no evidence of his time in any of those cities.

Cohen said that Charlie Ganzel had recommended Hill to Oakland:

“(He) fully sustained all that was said of him. He became a great favorite and as he was a good player, he made a host of friends.”

Cohen said under Hill’s leadership the Suisun Aetnas were “one of the best amateur clubs in the state,” and that Billy Hulan, who had a brief major league career but spent nearly two decades as a minor league player and manager, played for Hill before started his professional career in 1892.

At trial, Hill’s attorney claimed temporary insanity. Hill’s wife had admitted she was pregnant as the result of an affair and struck him, and according to his defense attorney:

“These acts…might not in themselves justify killing in a sane man, but were sufficient to render a man who loved his wife as Hill did to become insane.”

The jury disagreed.

Hill was found guilty and sentenced to hang within 10 days of his conviction in March of 1896. He received a temporary stay of execution while his case was appealed.

The San Francisco Chronicle said Hill’s brother and sister in law began an appeal fund and solicited “The ball players of America,” to contribute. The paper said Charlie Ganzel “is treasurer of the fund which promises to be a good sized one.”

The fund must have done fairly well, Hill’s legal team managed to get several stays of execution while his case worked his way up to the Supreme Court, he also had his case presented to the governor twice in an effort to be granted executive clemency.

According to The Call, while his appeals proceeded:

“Ever since Hill was convicted of the murder…and brought to San Quentin under sentence of death he has devoted his entire time to reading and studying the bible. In fact, so ardent have been his religious devotions that the murderer was believed to be a fanatic.”

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Ben Hill c. 1898

Hill began preaching to his fellow death row inmates, including Theodore Durrant, the “Demon of the Belfry,” who killed two women in the church he was the superintendent of the Sunday school—the 1895 murders were called “San Francisco’s crime of the century.” Durrant had also received several stays while awaiting his appeal.

The Call said:

“Durrant is an interested listener and one of Hill’s best scholars.”

The Supreme Court denied his appeal in February, and on April 6, 1898 Hill stood on the scaffold at San Quentin.

The Oakland Tribune went into exacting detail of the execution, noting that Hill spoke his last words—admitting his guilt—at 10:32 AM, and was dead a minute later.

The Tribune declared:

“It was the most successful execution ever held in San Quentin and Hill proved to be the gamest man who ever mounted a prison scaffold.”

Like describing a ball game, the state’s executioner Amos Lunt told the paper:

“He was the gamest man I ever saw on the scaffold, and he is the sixteenth man I have worked on. Durrant (his appeals had run out and he had been hung three months earlier) was not in it with him. He was cool and spoke longer and with less trembling than Durrant did.”

Hill’s brother and sister in law adopted his son.

Eighteen months, and five more executions, after Hill was put to death, Amos Lunt, the state’s executioner went insane. The Call said:

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Amos Lunt

“His diseased imagination has conjured up the specters of those he has executed, the gibbering, mocking ghosts of twenty-one blood-stained wretches…’They are after me,’ whispered the demented hangman. ‘There are several under the bed now.”

Lunt was committed to Napa State Hospital where he died two years later.

“Dunnie’s” Narrow Escape

28 Jul

Samuel Morrison “Dunnie” Dungan returned home to Southern California in 1889 after graduating from Eastern Michigan University– the Michigan State Normal School– and joined the F.N. Hamilton’s a powerful San Diego-based semi-pro team that included 39-year-old Cal McVey, a member of Harry Wright’s Cincinnati and Boston Red Stockings teams from  1869 through 1875 (with a detour to Baltimore in 1873).

In the spring of 1890 the Oakland Colonels, champions of the California League in 1889 recruited Dungan to catch for them during a series of exhibition games in Los Angeles.  The Oakland squad did not impress Southern California critics.  The San Diego Union said:

“It is drawing it mild to say that it was the rottenest game that been played on the ground.  If it was not a fake, than the Oaklands cannot play ball.  Do they suppose up about San Francisco and Oakland that they can bring down to Southern California a lot of boys and show the Southerners how to play ball?”

Samuel Dungan

Samuel Dungan

The Union said the Hamiltons, as well as two other San Diego teams, the Schiller & Murthas and the Llewellyns “can beat the Oakland team out of sight.”

The paper said only one player stood out:

“Dungan, the San Diego catcher, who caught for the Oaklands both days, was about the only redeeming feature of that club…And he does not pretend to be a professional.”

As a result of his play during the exhibitions, Dungan was signed by the Colonels;  he still caught occasionally but was now primarily an outfielder.  Team owner Colonel Thomas P. Robinson was unable to restrain his enthusiasm when Dungan was signed, telling The Oakland Tribune:

“I believe Dungan is the greatest batter we’ve ever had here—better than (Lou) Hardie or (Vince) Dailey, the latter of whom I rank as the best of the old men.”

Fred Carroll, a California native who played with the Pittsburgh Burghers in the Players League in 1890, called Dungan “the only scientific batter on this coast.”

Statistics are incomplete for the 1890 California League season, but both The Tribune and The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Dungan was the league’s batting champion.  The Los Angeles Herald said he hit .332.  The Colonels finished third in the four-team league.  The Tribune said it was “probable that Dungan will go East.”

He was first rumored to be heading to be heading to the Washington Statesmen in the American Association but ended up signing with the Western Association’s Milwaukee Brewers.

It was Dungan’s departure from the West Coast in the spring of 1891 that led to the biggest headlines of his career.

The San Francisco Chronicle told the story:

“Sam Dungan, the ballplayer who was with Oakland last season and who led the California League in batting, is being pursued by an irate wife who says she will follow him to the end of the earth if necessary to again clasp him in her arms.  It seems that last year among the many conquests Dungan made in Oakland was Miss Mamie Bodgard.  She became wild over him, and at last was introduced to him.  After the season Dungan came south to his home in Santa Ana, but communication between himself and Miss Bodgard kept up.  She sent him many dainty perfumed notes.  Finally the marriage of the couple was announced and it created no great surprise.

“Now comes the thrilling part of this story.  Two hours after the marriage had taken place (in Los Angeles) Dungan left his bride and journeyed to Santa Ana, where he had an interview with his parents, who are well and favorably known and rank among the leading families.  Sam is a college graduate and was the idol of his parents.  Mrs. Dungan also journeyed to Santa Ana.  She did not go to the home of the Dungan’s, but went to the Richelieu Hotel.  She is a most pronounced brunette, rather petite, and is reported to have a temper.  The couple had parted, and the news of the separation soon became noised around.  Mrs. Dungan consulted a lawyer to have her ‘hubby’ restrained from leaving Santa Ana, but the heavy hitter eluded his young wife and started for Milwaukee, giving his bride the slip at Orange, she being on the same train with him that far.”

The jilted bride told a reporter for The Los Angeles Herald that she was “a grass widow,” but vowed to pursue Dungan to Milwaukee.  Mrs. Dungan’s trip to Milwaukee was unsuccessful.

A year later The Herald reported that a court in Santa Ana had awarded Mrs. Dungan $25 a month  “and she is very elated in consequence.”  She was said to have gone to Milwaukee twice the previous year and had taken to reading “Sammy’s love letters on the street corners,” of Santa Ana:

“Mrs. Dungan is an excellent dresser and is an exceptionally handsome woman.  She doubtless could be induced to kiss and make up, but the parents of her husband stand in the way of a reconciliation.  The Dungan’s are anxious to have Sam get a divorce, but he  can’t very well, and Mrs. Dungan says: ‘Never in a thousand years.'”

A divorce was finally granted in 1893.  Sam Dungan remarried in 1900.

Dungan went on to play parts of five seasons in the major leagues, mostly with the Chicago Colts and had a .301 career batting average.  He was an excellent minor league hitter, putting up several excellent seasons—including averages of .447, .424 and .372 in 1894, ’95, ’97 with the Detroit Creams and Detroit Tigers in the Western League. He also hit a league-leading .337 in 1900 for the Kansas City Blues in the inaugural season of the American League.

Dungan returned home to Santa Ana after retiring at the close of the 1905 season and participated in many old-timers games in Southern California.  The Santa Ana Register reported on his heroics during a 1924 fundraising game for former player Ed Householder who was dying of stomach cancer—Dungan joined Sam Crawford, Gavvy Cravath, Fred Snodgrass and other West Coast baseball legends for the game in Los Angeles:

“Yesterday, Dungan, now a prosperous Santa Ana resident and rancher, proved that years have not dimmed the remarkable eye nor time deprived the power from his arms and shoulders that enabled him, year after year, to outhit the other big league players of his day.

“Dungan rapped out a two-bagger with two men on the cushions in the tenth inning.  This blow broke up the game.  Previously Dungan had smashed out three other bingles.  Thus, Dungan of Santa Ana, the oldest man on the field in point of years, was the heaviest hitter just as he used to be years ago.”

Dungan died in Santa Ana in 1939.

“The Ty Cobb of Trapshooters”

15 Jul

Lester Stanley “Les” German broke into professional baseball with a bang in 1890.  The 21-year-old played for Billy Barnie’s Baltimore Orioles, a team that had dropped out of the American Association and after the 1889 season and joined the Atlantic Association, a minor league.

German was 35-9 in August when the American Association’s Brooklyn Gladiators folded in August, the Orioles returned to the association, and German returned to Earth; posting a 5-11 record for the big league Orioles.

German was a minor league workhorse for the next two and a half seasons.  He was 35-11 for the Eastern Association champion Buffalo Bisons in 1891; he appeared in 77 games and pitched 655 innings for the Oakland Colonels in the California League in 1892, and was 22-11 for the Augusta Electricians in the Southern Association in July of 1893 when his contract was purchased by the New York Giants.

Les German, 1894

Les German, 1894

German would never win in double figures again; In five seasons in the National League he was 29-52, including a 2-20 mark with the 1896 Washington Senators.

It was German’s next career that earned him the most notoriety.  A crack shot, German became one of the most famous trapshooters in the country for the next thirty years.  He won numerous championships and was often featured in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show with Annie Oakley.

A National Sports Syndicate article in 1918 said “Lester German is the Ty Cobb of trapshooters.”  The article said that beginning in 1908, when official records were first kept, German had maintained a “remarkable average,” shooting a t a better percentage than any other professional marksman.

Les German, 1918

Les German, 1918

As German’s reputation as a shooter grew, his legacy as a pitcher became inflated.

A mention of his baseball career in a 1916 issue of “The Sportsmen’s Review”, credited German, and his 9-8 record,  with “leading the Giants,” to their 1894 Temple Cup series victory over the Baltimore Orioles, there was no mention of Amos Rusie’s two shutouts .  A 1915 article in The Idaho Statesman inexplicably said German “headed the National League in both pitching and fielding” in 1895—German was 7-11 with a 5.54 ERA and committed 2 errors in 45 chances on the mound; he also made eight errors in 11 games he filled in for the injured George Davis at third base.

German operated a gun shop and continued to organize and participate in shooting tournaments until his death in Maryland in 1934.

“The Idol of the Haight Street Grounds”

11 Jun

Reuben “Rube” Levy was one of the first Jewish professional players, and one of the biggest stars in the early days of West Coast baseball.

Born in 1862 to Prussian-Polish immigrants, Levy worked as a shoe cutter and began his professional career as a teenager, playing left field for the San Francisco Californias in the New California League in 1881.

A good fielder, but not particularly fast, The San Francisco Morning Call once described him chasing a ball: “Reuben Levy, following the ball as it sped gleefully along, looked like a cow chasing a coyote across a pasture.”

Reuben "Rube" Levy, 1888

Reuben “Rube” Levy, 1888

Levy quickly became a fan favorite.

The Morning Call, and The San Francisco Chronicle called him “the hero of the kindergarten” during the years he played at Haight Street Grounds; the title referred to the section of the grandstand adjacent to left field occupied mostly by young fans.  The Sporting Life said “there never was a more popular player in San Francisco,” and called him “The idol of the Haight Street Grounds.”

Years later, The South of Market Journal recalled that the “kindergarten” fans “applauded the genial Rube for any kind of play.”  The paper said one reason why Levy was the most popular West Coast player with children was because in the days when baseballs were a valuable commodity he would:

“Get hold of a ball that he would bide and save till the game was over, when the kids would swarm down the field and gather around their idol. He would take a ball from his pocket; toss it high in the air with hundreds of healthy youngsters, among them future greats, in a big drive to capture it. Believe us, many a spunky kid emerged from this huddle with something other than a smile, yes, more like a blue forget- me-not under the eye in the struggle for the possession of the prize. Then away Rube, the idol of the Kindergarten would gallop lo the clubhouse joyful in the thought that his juvenile admirers were
made happy for the day.”

In 1890 The Sporting Life said Levy had won a contest for the most popular player in the California League, beating out popular Oakland Colonels infielder, and fellow San Francisco native, Jim McDonald:

 “(A)t the eleventh hour the friends of Rube Levy executed a grand coup by unloading three thousand votes into the ballot box, thereby flooring McDonald and other favorites ‘out of sight.’  Sixth Street and the Kindergarten by a straight stroke had outwitted Mac’s friends and landed their boy first under the wire, and distanced all others. Well, Levy deserves it, as he is a quiet, unobtrusive gentleman and first-class ball player, and Jim would rather have been beaten in the race by his old neighbor than by any other player.”

San Francisco's Haight Street Grounds

San Francisco’s Haight Street Grounds

Levy was said to have a good arm, and while with the San Francisco Metropolitans in 1892 manager Henry Harris decided to use the left-hander on the mound in an early season game.  The Chronicle said:

“The Los Angeles (Seraphs) team has a majority of left-handed batters in its make-up, and they generally hit the ball on the seam for bases. Harris is a firm believer in the theory that a southpaw is particularly effective against this class of hitters.”

The experiment failed.  The Chronicle said Levy “with the speed of a (Amos) Rusie, but without control…entered the box against (Bob) Glenalvin‘s men (and) gave them the game in the first few Innings.”

Harris used Levy three more times on the mound, but the results were no better.  He ended up 0-2, giving up 12 hits, three walks and 14 runs (although only 2 earned) in six innings.

Levy pitched at least one more game each during the 1893 and ’94 season.  The Chronicle said of his 1894 effort pitching for the San Francisco Hot Peanuts against the Californias of San Francisco:

“Rube Levy was elected to do the twirling yesterday and in consequence of the arrangement the San Francisco team was defeated.  Throughout the afternoon Reuben’s opponents at the bat straightened out his curves for long-distance jolts, and stole bases on him unawares.  Levy’s work in the box was so ineffective that the crowd was continually provoked to offering him words of cheer and comfort.”

Levy pitched a complete game, losing 18-10, the Californias had 17 hits, stole seven bases, and the Peanuts committed 11 errors behind him.

Levy was generally described as a clutch hitter, but almost no statistics survive.   Baseball Reference lists his 1892 and ‘93 averages at .237 and .283.

Levy, unlike other pioneering Jewish players seems to have been spared  of anti-Semitism and Insensitivity, perhaps owing to San Francisco’s large Jewish population (second only to New York during his career).

While the San Francisco based Breeder and Sportsman referee to his “little Hebraic curve,” in an article about one of his pitching appearances, nothing seems to have risen to the level of what Zeke Ferrias faced when pitching in the Three-I and other Midwest leagues during the first decade of the 20th Century.   It was not unusual for newspapers, like The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald to attribute a victory to Ferrias’  “Jew luck,” and conversely, when he began to fade as a pitcher to mention that “his Jew luck had quit him.”

The first part of Rube Levy’s career came to a close when he retired after the 1896 season; the second part tomorrow.