April 25th, 2013

Arlie Latham

Arlie Latham, 1888

Arlie Latham, 1886

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.

Arlie Latham, 1911

Arlie Latham, 1911

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.