In yesterday’s post I spoke about King Kelly as a rough and ready player of the old school. Here’s another in that vein. Imagine a combination of the pugnacity and tenacity of Pete Rose, the speed and acrobatic ability of Ozzie Smith, and the audacity and loquacity of Deion Sanders. Now put a handlebar mustache on the player, transport him back to the four-time league champion St. Louis Browns of the 1880s, and call him Arlie Latham.
Although other players sported better stats and better dispositions, Latham came to the ballpark to beat you. He was a speedster (in 1888 he totaled 129 steals), but he stole most of his bases through daring and disregard for his body, belly-flopping for the bag and reaching out a hand, or barreling into the base, kicking up a dust storm and kicking over the baseman. He was also something of a clown and thus a fan favorite. In a game in 1882 he scored the winning run by turning a somersault over the catcher and landing on the plate. He was famous for profanely badgering the opposition and hectoring his own players, thus earning him the enmity of both and the nickname “The Freshest Man on Earth.” His private life was as tumultuous as that on the field: his first wife attempted suicide, and his second wife divorced him, charging “perversion, assault, desertion, and infidelity.” Perhaps there was more in the complaint.
In 1909 John McGraw, who had played against Latham in the 1890s and knew how he could disrupt the opposing pitcher’s concentration, hired him as baseball’s first full-time coach (Arlie had coached part-time with Cincinnati in 1900). From his box at first base, Latham would dance around, enrage the pitcher, steal signs from the catcher, and lead the fans in cheers and jeers. More constructively, perhaps, he also instructed the Giants in the art of base stealing. In 1909, incredibly, one of the Giants’ 234 stolen bases belonged to Latham himself, who at age forty-nine was activated for four games in September. When Arlie grew too old to play or coach, he stayed on with the Giants as a press-box attendant, and he remained with the Giants in an official capacity until his dying day. His baseball career spanned an incredible seventy-six years.
Buck Ewing and King Kelly were quite a pair, though they never played on the same club. Ewing was Cincinnati’s hometown hero who made his mark in the big leagues with Troy; Michael Joseph Kelly left his birthplace of Troy to become the toast (alas, too frequently, for he drank his way out of the league) of Cincinnati and several other venues, notably Chicago and Boston. Ewing was a catcher who in later years played increasingly at other positions; Kelly began as an outfielder but wound up catching nearly as many games as he played in the garden. Ewing was a model citizen and the model for all right-thinking individuals; Kelly was a reprobate and perhaps an idol for the rest of us.
They were different in all these regards, Kelly and Ewing, but they had this in common: ordinary speed on the basepaths but cleverness and breathtaking daring. “Ewing’s Famous Slide” was the title of a popular litho of the day, memorializing an apocryphal tale of his announced intent (and ultimate success) in stealing home after he had already stolen second base and third.
Ewing was born in rural Ohio in 1859, played his first professional ball with the aptly named Buckeyes, and returned to Ohio to play with and manage the Reds in the 1890s. In fact, in a story little noted today, he’d returned there in 1883, when the Troy franchise collapsed. Suddenly finding himself without a home, Ewing signed with the Cincinnati Reds of the American Association. However, the great Harmony Conference (also known as the Tripartite Agreement) of the National League, the Northwestern League, and the American Association yielded a settlement by which Ewing (and fellow Trojans Mickey Welch and Pete Gillespie) were turned over to the newly formed New York Gothams. (New York’s National League team was known as the Gothams until manager Jim Mutrie, some years hence, exclaimed that his brawny lads were “Giants.”) Ewing scored more than a run per game and played at second, short, third, and the outfield when the catching grind wore him down.
He became a legend for his audacity, pluck, and field generalship. Intangibles went a long way with fans and sportswriters back then, more so than today when stats seem to be the sole measure of the man. But Ewing could hit: once he led in homers, another time in triples, and he hit as high as .344. He could throw: the snap throw to second from a crouch position started with Buck Ewing, not Pudge Rodriguez. And he could run, too, stealing 53 bases in the Giants’ championship year of 1888.
So how great was he, really? Twenty years after his last game, veteran sportswriters compared him to Cobb and Wagner and pronounced him their peer. And when the Hall of Fame was opened in 1939, Buck Ewing, long gone but still revered in all his hometowns, became its first catcher.
Kelly’s sliding wizardry was more scientific. He developed the hook slide, whereby he encouraged his opponent to try to tag the front leg that was away from the base while his back leg landed him safe. His exploits were celebrated not only in a Harper’s Weekly print from his Chicago White Stocking days but also in a Tin Pan Alley tune, “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” that gently mocked his vanity: “Slide, Kelly, slide! Your running’s a disgrace! Slide, Kelly, slide! Stay there, hold your base!”
Kelly was the first baseball star to milk his fame for all it was worth. Product endorsements, personality licensing, theatrical appearances, Kelly pioneered them all. With Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Ball Field, he launched what has become a staple of baseball literature, the celebrity biography. Published by Emery & Hughes of Boston, this forty-six-page booklet (ghosted by Jack Drohan of the Boston Globe) is highly entertaining if not demonstrably factual. The stories about Kelly are legion, and like the ones attaching to Rube Waddell, that other great mythic figure of early baseball, if they’re not true, well, they ought to have been. History is more than the mere recitation of fact. Scrupulous fact checkers may successfully repudiate this story or that one, but they can’t attach feet of clay to Kelly’s idol because he did such a good job of that himself, drinking himself to death before he reached the age of 37.
There are a hundred great stories about the King, but let me share with you this almost certainly fictitious classic, a story that’s so often told and so illustrative of his genius that it’s better than merely true. Once, in the days when a substitution took effect upon a captain’s announcing it, an opposing batsman lifted a low foul ball toward the Boston dugout, where Kelly was taking a day off to recover from a bruise of the day before or the booze of the night before. Kelly saw his catcher would never get there in time, so he leapt from the bench, shouted, “Kelly now catching for Boston!” and snagged the fly. Not surprisingly, the rules makers changed things not long after that. No matter–rules were not made to constrain a King.
Sober or not, he was the best player in baseball in the mid-1880s. But Kelly’s high-living, fun-loving lifestyle had him in constant hot water with his Chicago manager, Cap Anson. When Kelly was sold to Boston in 1887, at the height of his career, it was for $10,000, the largest amount of money ever paid for a ballplayer. The medal given him by his Boston fans in that year was for his 84 stolen bases, the most on the club and the third best total in the league.
Out of baseball after a few games with New York in 1893, he sought a new career on the boards. He was on his way to Boston to perform Casey at the Bat at the Palace Theater in November 1894 when he was stricken with pneumonia. As they carried his stretcher into the hospital, it is said, the attendants tripped and dumped Kelly on the floor. “That’s me last slide,” he said. A few days later the “$10,000 Beauty” died.
The Unions of Morrisania were a celebrated early team, of interest for such players as George Wright, shortstop par excellence; Doug Birdsall, who went on to play professionally with George for Boston in the National Association; and Charlie Pabor, longtime pitcher and outfielder with the most inexplicable of all baseball nicknames: “The Old Woman in the Red Cap.” [Let me make an attempt: the red cap was common headgear in the French Revolution for women, who carried knitting bags under these caps; the Unions wore puffy red caps; Pabor, baseball's first lefthanded pitcher of note, may have been viewed as a revolutionary. That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. His batterymate Birdsall, by the way, was known as "The Old Man."]
But I digress. Shown above is the 1866 group that brought honor to Morrisania and laid the ground for the next year’s national champions, despite the defection of Wright to the Washington Nationals. This carte de visite is the basis of the gloriously painted photograph that reposed in the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame for generations but now, after painstaking restoration, is available for viewing in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
Where is Morrisania, anyway? It’s a neighborhood in today’s South Bronx. In 1874, the area was annexed to New York City (then consisting only of Manhattan) as part of the Twenty-Third Ward. In former times, however, it was a part of the lower Bronx, which ran north to Eighth Street, now 165th Street, and south to Harlem Bridge. How do I know that? Well, I’m not 150 years old. I discovered in the annals of the Library of Congress an interview that a WPA worker conducted on August 18, 1938, with an old resident of Morrisania, Mr. T. Emery Sutton, of 430 East 160th Street in the Bronx. Mr. Sutton speaks to us today of Morrisania in the 1860s with an offhand specificity that no modern writer could hope to equal.
The Unions, as the team was called, played their games at the Triangle, on a lot behind Fisher’s coal yard, at what is now 163rd street. About 1868 or 1869 they moved to Tremont and Arthur avenues, and there built the first enclosed baseball grounds. The first game played was for the championship between the Unions and the Brooklyn Mutuals [known as the New York Mutuals to historians today, they in fact played their home games in Brooklyn]. The home team won. The price of admission was 25 cents; and I had the distinction of taking in the very first quarter. Ed. Wright was the cashier; I was only a boy at the time. There was no grand stand, only board seats.
The great baseball leagues had not yet been organized, and the only prize awarded a winning club was the ball with which the game had been played. We used to silver these balls and keep them as trophies. They were kept in a large case in Louis Comb’s establishment, Morrisania Hall. Thomas E. Sutton was the first president, and Henry J. Ford the first vice-president of the Union Baseball Club.
Our team made trips through the country, as do the big league teams today. Funds to defray expenses were donated by the townspeople, each one of them subscribing according to his inclination, and financial ability. The players used to be gone for two or three weeks at a time. Among the members of the Union team were C. Payne, D. Bickett, A. Abrams, B. Hourigan, T. Beals, and the great George Wright whose brother afterwards managed the Athletics [brother Harry managed the Boston team, not the Athletics of Philadelphia] when the leagues were organized.
“T. Beals,” by the way, was Tommy Beals, who–like the above mentioned Union members Pabor, Birdsall, and Wright, as well as Al Martin–went on to play in the first professional league and thus is immortalized with complete statistical lines dating to 1871 and beyond. Beals and Wright were such close friends that the latter named a son after him: Beals Wright (1879-1961), who like his father George and his uncle Harry made it to the Hall of Fame … the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Elected in 1956, Beals won gold medals in singles and doubles at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, and the U.S. Championship the following year.
My old friend–and by old I refer both to the duration of our friendship as well to his nonagenarian status–Ray Robinson has written a new book(let). It has been published more or less to coincide with Opening Day, that national celebration of hope. My hope is that one day, when I grow up, I can be like him.
As an impressionable lad I read Ray’s stories at SPORT Magazine and his annual paperback volumes, published under the rubric Baseball Stars. Ray’s role in my eventual career path is uncertain, but it couldn’ta hoit. I read his later, more substantial biographies of Lou Gehrig and Christy Mathewson when I was already hardboiled as a sportswriter and was equally impressed.
The new opus is Peanuts, Popcorn & American Presidents. It is available as an ebook, as described by its publisher here: http://www.nowandthenreader.com/peanuts-popcorn-american-presidents/. Let me offer a snippet to whet your appetite.
“Reagan never lost his affection for baseball and truly adored his annual presidential role of throwing out the opening-day ball. His form and style were proof of his athletic ability. He also watched his share of baseball on television. On the September night in 1985 when Cincinnati’s Pete Rose smacked a single in the first inning at Riverfront Stadium to break Ty Cobb’s all-time hit mark of 4,191, President Reagan was well aware of what was going on. As soon as the game ended, and while the Reds players celebrated the occasion at home plate, the president put through a congratulatory phone call to Rose.
“In his soft, low-key salesman’s voice, Reagan told Pete: ‘You’ve set the most enduring record in sports history. Your reputation and legacy will live for a long time.’
“Even at such an overwhelming moment, Pete was not at a loss for words. ‘Thank you, Mr. President, for taking time from your busy schedule,’ he said. ‘And you missed a good game!’”