Outsiders in the Ragtime Era
This guest column is by Scott Simkus, author of the new Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950, available at all booksellers. If it is not at your local bookstore, become irate. As I say on the back of Scott’s dustjacket, “This is the best baseball book you will read this year.”
The early morning phone call wasn’t much of a surprise. Inebriated, the star first baseman stumbled into a downtown Chicago theater, where he attempted to accost his wife backstage. Handlers gained control before the situation unraveled, and had the 29-year-old slugger ushered into a taxi cab.
At four o’clock in the morning, James “Nixey” Callahan, manager of the semipro Logan Squares club, sauntered across the cobblestones of 34th street, bailing his man out of the local police station. His man was none other than Mike Donlin, one of the most feared hitters during the deadball era, and a world-class carouser off the field. Eight years earlier, Donlin was actually locked up in a northern California prison when he first learned he’d been signed to a major league contract, and he’d spend several more times behind bars before his career was over. Truly, the only surprising thing for manager Callahan on that muggy August day was the fact Mike Donlin had made it almost five consecutive months without a major incident.
Just two years earlier, in 1905, Donlin had had the best year of his career, when he batted .356 (third highest in the NL, just a few points behind Honus Wagner) with 16 triples and 33 stolen bases. His 1906 campaign began exactly where it had left off the previous season: Donlin was leading all National League batters with a .364 mark before breaking his ankle during a game in Cincinnati. He’d eventually return near the end of the year, and while playing with a noticeable limp, managed only 1-for-14 in mostly pinch-hitting situations, lowering his overall batting average to .314 in 37 games.
The outfielder fully recovered over the winter, then began a spirited public contract negotiation with his employer. Seventy years before free agency, a reserve clause ballplayer didn’t really have much in his arsenal, in terms of dickering over compensation. The Giants were offering $3300, the same figure Donlin had been paid the previous two seasons, even though he’d been injured. Donlin wanted a clause added, effectively having both parties wager on his off-the-field behavior. If he could stay out of trouble during the championship season, Mike wanted New York to pay him an extra $600 bonus, bringing his total salary to $3900. If he fell off the wagon, he would be docked $600 by mutual agreement, lowering his annual compensation to $2,700. The Giants balked.
Donlin threatened to join the theater, if the Giants didn’t agree to his terms. His pretty young wife, Mabel Hite, was a nationally known actress, and Mike had already performed with her on the vaudeville circuit. Reporters wondered if Donlin was upset over how he had been treated when injured the previous season; although he admitted that he had paid the $75 medical bills from his own pocket, he wasn’t the sort of fellow to hold a grudge over such a small dollar figure. The Giants officially rejected Donlin’s proposal on February 13, and two days later, reports surfaced that the outfielder was entertaining offers from Chicago-area semipro teams, where Donlin had been spending his offseason.
With spring camp just around the corner, New York Giants ballplayers living in the Midwest were instructed to meet in Chicago, where they would connect with John McGraw and the rest of the team, on their way to Los Angeles. Roger Bresnahan was the first to arrive, where he joined Donlin, who was hoping to hammer out a deal before heading out west. Sammy Strang, Cecil Ferguson, Frank Bowerman and a couple of rookies arrived shortly thereafter. Within a couple days, Donlin had convinced everybody (with the exception of Bresnahan) to hold out for more money. He was trying to drag one quarter of the club into his own contract negotiation. When McGraw and the rest of the Giants arrived, the miniature player rebellion almost immediately collapsed. Everybody got on the L.A.-bound train, with the exception of Donlin and Bowerman, who were both being offered $400 a month to play for a Kewanee, Illinois semipro outfit.
The newspapers sizzled with conflicting reports on March 11. One story claimed Donlin and his wife had purchased the St. Joseph franchise in the Western League and that he’d run the club from the bench. On the same day, another report said Donlin and McGraw had worked out their differences and that Mike would be rejoining the Giants in the near future. Both were erroneous.
On April 4, after meeting with McGraw in Louisville, Mike Donlin officially ended negotiations and accepted a deal to stay in Chicago, where he’d play baseball for the independent Logan Squares during the day, then work nights at the Whitney Opera House. He’d kept in shape by exercising at the Bartlett Gymnasium on the University of Chicago campus and was ready to go. His wife was the female lead in a musical comedy called “A Knight for a Day,” and had signed a 62-week contract with the Whitney Opera House, reportedly worth $1,400 per month. Her husband was being kept on retainer by the theater, being paid $50 a week to stay in town. Sometimes he collected tickets at the theatre door, other times he appeared on stage during the performance, and still other times he’d simply show up drunk and try to start fights with his wife.
During the day, he was playing first base for Nixey Callahan’s team in what was arguably the most controversial baseball league in the country. For his services, Donlin was collecting an annual salary of $1500, on top of his $50 weekly stipend from the theater. For the remaining 39 weeks of 1907, he could see an income of $3450 from his two jobs, slightly higher than the $3300 offered by the New York Giants. His wife was scheduled to earn $13,728 thru December 31. Combined, the Donlin–Hite team would earn more $17,000, or twice what the highest-paid baseball players, such as Napoleon Lajoie and Honus Wagner, were making at the time.
Mike Donlin’s manager with the Logan Squares, Nixey Callahan, had broken into the major leagues in 1894, then became player-manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1903, at the tender age of 29. The next year, Callahan resigned his post as manager in midseason to focus on his role as an everyday ballplayer. Then after 1905, Callahan surprised White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey by quitting altogether. He was going to build his own ballpark on the city’s north side, joining the ranks of the independent professionals. At 32 years old, he was still a productive ballplayer when he walked away, and the National Commission blacklisted him. During his first season at the helm of the Logan Squares, Callahan claimed to have earned $12,000 for his efforts, probably three times what he would have earned had he stayed with the White Sox.
By the time Mike Donlin joined the Logan Squares in 1907, they were performing in what was more a loosely organized coalition of ball clubs than an actual league, but the talent in Chicago was legitimate and the money green. Callahan and Donlin’s arch rivals during the summer were Rube Foster’s Leland Giants, the “colored” champions of the Midwest, and the Havana Stars, featuring the best baseball players from Cuba. The other local clubs, such as the Gunthers and West Ends, featured former and future big leaguers. Cap Anson even had a team in the circuit. A teammate with Callahan and Donlin was former major leaguer Harry “Moose” McCormick. McCormick played under an alias (“Harrison”), then returned to the big leagues in 1908, becoming a central figure in the famous “Merkle Boner” incident late in the season.
Another rogue free agent who signed with the Chicago City League, rather than play in the majors, was Jake Stahl, who’d served as player-manager of the Washington Senators the previous year. Callahan, Donlin, McCormick, and Stahl all suited up for the same all-star team in a heated championship series with Rube Foster’s Leland Giants. The all-star team’s line-up was comprised almost entirely of former and future major leaguers, but lost their hotly contested set with the Leland Giants.
On the field, Mike Donlin was dominant. After a slow start, he turned on the afterburners, smoking line drives throughout the summer. In 50 surviving box scores, Donlin batted .419 with 27 doubles and 3 home runs. He was one of the best players in the world, performing in a baseball environment on par with a high minor league. Against the black teams, Donlin’s average was .321 in eight games played. Callahan batted about .339 in 62 games in 1907, including a .303 mark versus the Cuban and black clubs.
This is what free agency looked like in the ragtime era: active major leaguers carving out niche opportunities in large cities such as Chicago, where the population’s thirst for baseball far outstripped the ability of its two existing major league clubs to service it. And at the neighborhood level, the game was colorblind. Even Cap Anson, the so-called architect of professional baseball’s color line, suited up once and played against the Leland Giants. (He went hitless.)
Callahan, Donlin, McCormick, and Stahl all paid heavy fines, but eventually returned to the big league ranks. Mike Donlin and Mabel Hite patched up their differences and together had another successful theatre run later on, but the actress tragically succumbed to stomach cancer in 1912, after a twelve-month struggle. She was only 29 years old. Donlin remarried, but never really changed his partygoer ways. After his playing days were over, he forged a decent career as a film actor in Hollywood, but squandered much of his earnings. He passed away in 1933, virtually penniless.