Mr. Seery and Mr. Bat

One day in 1970, a customer walked into a Boston bookshop and inquired of two men working there about purchasing a book about baseball cards. When Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris realized there was no such book that they could sell, they eventually came to the conclusion that they should write that book themselves.

So, armed with no writing experience, a few contacts in the publishing world and a stack of baseball cards, they did just that.

The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, published in 1973 and several times afterward, was an instant classic. It was also one of the most significant books about the hobby, because it was less about baseball cards and more about the experience of growing up as a baby boomer in the ’50s and ’60s. Baseball and collecting baseball cards were an essential part of that experience. With wit, warmth and more than a little snarkiness, Boyd and Harris returned a generation of grown-up collectors back to the hobby of their youth.

The book was divided into three parts, opening with a reminiscence of a baseball-card-driven childhood in the ’50s, followed by a visit with Sy Berger and an impromptu history of Topps at its corporate offices, and ending with the heart of the book, “Profiles.” The two authors divvied up their baseball cards and wrote a string of essays inspired by them, Boyd handling the American League and Harris the National. Some of the pieces were about the specific card, some were about the specific player pictures, others were on themes inspired by the pasteboard art. Some were a page long, some were a single line, but just about anyone who owned the book will tell you they’ve gone back again and again to re-read this or that portion of it.

And there was one entry in particular that stuck with me.

It was devoted to Gus Zernial of the Philadelphia Athletics and his card in the 1952 Topps set. Maybe you know the card, but reading the book as a teenager in the ’70s, I’d never come across it. But it’s one of those cards that makes your jaw drop. There’s Gus, holding his bat in his right hand . . . with six baseballs attached to its barrel, looking like the branch of a particularly robust fruit tree. Meanwhile, Gus has the thumb and forefinger of his left hand shaped in a circle with his other fingers unfurled, in the universal language of A-O-K.

Zernial

If you sort through a pile of cards featuring portraits, posed pitching shots and players with their bats on their shoulders, this one would stand out every time.

Boyd, in his analysis, was just as gobsmacked:

This is one of my all-time favorite cards. How do you suppose they got those baseballs to stay up there anyway? Nails? Scotch tape? Postage stamp hinges?

And why do you think Gus is giving us the high sign? Is he trying to assure us that everything is OK? Is he trying to indicate to us that he thinks the Athletics are a big zero? Does he want a cinnamon doughnut to go?

And why is he wearing a pink undershirt?

And what the hell is it supposed to mean, anyway?

Boyd goes on to point out that Zernial was one of the class of bulky sluggers of Eastern European ancestry that seemed to dot the roster of just about every American League team in the 1950s. Beyond that, he had little explanation about what Gus and his baseball tree were all about.

Didn’t matter . . . I thought it was one of the neatest, most surreal things I’d ever seen come out of a wax wrapper with a slab of gum. I had to have a copy . . . but this being the pre-Internet era, you couldn’t just go on to eBay and do a “Buy It Now” purchase.

About 10 years later, I found a placeholder in my collection for the Zernial card: In 1983, Topps went to great lengths, trouble and expense to do an official reprint of the 1952 set, an effort that pretty much fell flat. Within a year, Topps was trying to unload the balance of the product for $25 a set through a national advertisement in USA Today. Three decades later, the unopened sets are finally pretty valuable. The Zernial card looked good, but the reprint set was on thin stock and sized at modern dimensions. It just wasn’t the same as the thick, larger-sized originals.

I finally got my ’52 Zernial another couple of decades later, on one of the rare West Coast appearances by the National Card Collectors Convention. There it was, just sitting on a dealer’s table in reasonably good condition for a reasonable price. It’s held an honored place in my collection ever since.

The reality behind hobby legends like this aren’t usually as interesting as the speculation, but the true story of the Zernial card is kind of instructive.

In May of 1951, Zernial had only been in Philadelphia for a few weeks, having been acquired by the Athletics from the Chicago White Sox in an early-season trade for Minnie Minoso. The A’s were finishing up a home series with the Yankees on Sunday, May 13, and Zernial hit a pair of home runs, off Spec Shea and Fred Sanford. After a day off, the St. Louis Browns rolled into town, and in the series opener Zernial had a first-inning, inside-the-park home run off Dick Starr and added another shot in the ninth, off Ned Garver. On Wednesday, he victimized Cliff Fannin and Duane Pillette.

By now, Gus was getting plenty of attention, and on Thursday an enterprising photographer from a wire service arranged to shoot a picture to commemorate Zernial’s feat of six home runs in three games. The secret of how the balls were attached to the bat has apparently been lost to the ages. Epoxy? Elmer’s Glue? Contact cement? Alas, we’ll probably never know, but the picture was taken and sent out on the wires to be used by newspapers all over the baseball-playing world.

GusZernialB&WPhoto

For good measure, Zernial went out that day and hit his seventh home run in four games, off the Browns’ Don Johnson. He added 26 more over the course of the season and led the American League with 33 home runs.

Topps’ 1952 set was ground-breaking, much larger than the company’s small inaugural set of the previous year, bigger-sized cards than had ever been seen and real color photos . . . well, colorized black and white photos. Needless to say, the Brooklyn company didn’t have a battalion of photographers at that point, so a number of pictures used had been bought by photographers shooting for the wire services. And that’s how Gus, his baseball-bearing bat and his pink undershirt, ended up in the most famous set of the latter half of the 20th Century.

About that undershirt . . . why pink? As you can see, the original picture was black and white . . . apparently someone at Topps’ art department must have thought that the pink complemented the other colors in the . . .

Waaaaait a minute . . . it just occurred to me . . . all of those attractive maroon, scarlet and garnet ties that are featured on players in Ars Longa’s Pioneer Portrait II series, was that all just an aesthetic decision by Jesse to add some vibrancy to a stuffy pose? Huh! Well, they look great . . .

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So why am I taking up so much space talking about a 60-something-year-old baseball card on a site devoted to art cards of the early days of professional baseball? It’s because for the longest time, I thought that 1952 Topps Gus Zernial was the coolest card ever. Until recently . . .

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce to you Mr. John Emmett Seery, originally of Princeville, IL, lately (well, as of 1887) of Indianapolis, IN, And his friend, Mr. Bat, originally of Louisville, KY (probably), and also lately of Indianapolis.

I will admit that the first time I laid eyes, briefly, on Emmett Seerey’s The Beginnings: 1880s card, I didn’t notice it. It was early on in my introduction to Ars Longa, and I spent a lot of time on the web site, surfing through image after fantastic image of Old Judge photographic subjects turned into colorful, pastoral presentations of the ballplayers of the day. Maybe I noticed it on a second go-around.

Seery,-Emmett-(LF)-outstretched

But there he is, standing in an Ars Longa-generated field, arms crossed, a disinterested — almost annoyed — look on his face, replete in red stockings and a plaid Indianapolis cap. And there, standing next to him, is his bat.

There’s no way that doesn’t make a person smile. Whether it’s the complete denouncement of balance and/or gravity, or the elevation of a piece of equipment to a starring role, that’s just way cool.

Cards like that of Seerey are examples of what the photographers who took the pictures for the Old Judge card sets were able to accomplish. It’s not overstating things to say that they created the modern baseball card pose.

Consider what had come before: portraits and team shots. Photographers either lined the whole squad up for a group picture, or took portraits of the manner used in the making of Ars Longa’s Pioneer Portraits II set. Sometimes portraits were taken of each member of a team and then cobbled together as a composite team picture.

The creators of the Old Judge set, whether an art director at Goodwin and Co. or the photographers themselves (Goodwin employed 18 different photo studios in the East and the Midwest from 1886-89), seem to have understood that baseball was inherently an action-filled subject. I know, I know, that’s not something of which baseball gets accused in this day and age, but it is inherently full of motion. The Old Judge photographers, using what they had at their disposal in their studios, represented that motion: players moving into position to make a catch, sliding into a base, getting ready to swing a bat or pitch a ball. Sometimes those balls were clearly hanging from a string in the studio, but it’s the effort that counts. Sometimes the pictures featured two players, acting out a slide into a base, or an umpire’s call.

A hundred years later, that form of “posed action” was still the presentation of choice in the world of baseball cards. It’s the kind of pose that collectors who grew up with Topps in the ’50s and ’60s came to associate with their little pasteboard tickets into the world of major league baseball.

The Old Judge photographers (or at least one of them) had a sense of humor as well. The Seery card is the best example, but there were others as well. Paul Hines had a version of his Old Judge cards featuring the same pose that Seery adopted, with a gravity defying bat and a look on his face that suggested nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Art Whitney posed with a puppy. And lanky John Reilly and diminutive Hugh Nicol, teammates on the 1887 Cincinnati Red Stockings, were brought together for a Mutt-and-Jeff pose labelled “Long and Short.”

Hines







That doesn’t even include the unintentionally humorous pictures of ball players trying to mimic actual play by holding a stilted pose in a studio.

As for Seery himself, it’s possible that this pose is for what he’s most famous (keeping in mind that “fame” here is a very relative term). As a player, he’s only known by baseball fans that have deep interest in the 19th Century. Which is a shame because, as ordinary a player as he might have been, he was actually something of a Renaissance Man. He played chess, was a musician and sometimes acted in light opera during his offseasons in Indianapolis.

On the field, Seery’s career was constantly shifting between up and down. A fleet-footed outfielder, he got his big-league break with Baltimore in the Union Association in 1884, leading his team with a .311 batting average. But the UA folded after a year. The following year, he turned up with the National League’s St. Louis Maroons, and in 1886 led the NL in both games played (128) and strikeouts (82).

The Maroons moved to Indianapolis for the 1887 season and Seery responded with three solid years. His batting average was still anemic the first two years, but he had a solid on-base percentage as one of the league leaders in walks. In 1888, he stole 80 bases, two fewer than league-leader Dummy Hoy of Washington. The following season, he broke through with a .314 batting average.

Seery’s career took a downturn in 1890, however, which is strange given that talent was at a premium that season with three major leagues. John Ward, in stocking his own Players League team in Brooklyn, filled his outfield entirely with players from Indianapolis – Seery, Jack McGeachey and Ed Andrews. None of the three could break .253 at bat, with Seery the worst at .223, but at least he had an excuse: he missed 30 games due to a bout with malaria.

The Players League folded after one year, and Seery found himself in Cincinnati in 1891, where he batted a solid .285. The American Association itself was no longer solid, however, and it folded at the end of the season. When Seery failed to hit with the Louisville Colonels the following season, he was released at midseason and that ended his major league career.

After his days in baseball, Seery moved to Florida and owned a pineapple plantation. He died in 1930, in Saranc Lake, NY, the famed tuberculosis sanitarium where Christy Mathewson also spent his last days. And what we’re left with is the impression of a man who had a sense of humor suitable to pose with a bat as his companion.

Silly, perhaps, but it’s supposed to be fun, right? And a little light-hearted? To the modern eye, the Old Judge set may look a bit cheesy, with its stock studio backgrounds and it’s horsehides hung with string. But what it accomplished, even if unintentionally, was to create an iconic style for picture cards of famous athletes. Some 138 years later, it still hits all the right notes.

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Sources:
Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 1 by David Nemec
The Photographic Baseball Cards of Goodwin and Company (1886-90) by Jay Miller, Joe Gonsowski and Richard Masson

Good Field, No Hit, Well-Liked

“The first thing I look for in the Sunday papers is who is below the Gerhardt line.” — George Brett

Okay, Brett didn’t really say that. It’s likely that George Brett has never heard of Joe Gerhardt, never knew how the second sacker’s anemic batting totals on occasion could make Mario Mendoza appear to be as accomplished a hitter as . . . well, George Brett.

Brett was of course referring to Mendoza, a light-hitting middle infielder whose Seattle Mariners’ teammates Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte had originated that batting demarcation, as the level below which no self-respecting batsman would want to fall. Mendoza was a career .215 hitter, but in 1979, his first year with the Mariners, he played in 148 games and hit .198, suggesting that the true focus of the Mendoza Line was in separating those who batted .200 or higher, and those who hit less.

But Mendoza had nothing on Joe Gerhardt.

Even in a gloveless era when a middle infielder’s lack of clout was glossed over if he could catch the ball, Gerhardt was a cut above . . . or a cut below, depending on your point of view. He was seemingly the man they had in mind when, years later, the phrase “Good field, no hit” came into vogue.

But as is often the case with players whose careers are reduced to a single meme, Gerhardt’s story is a lot more interesting the more you know. He actually had a better career average than Mendoza, .227-.215, but he mixed some significant highs with some historic lows. A player like Gerhardt is often seen as getting by on his glove (all the more remarkable in the days before fielders wore gloves), but his 21-year professional career likely was predicated on more than just some fancy fielding.

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John Joseph Gerhardt was a first-generation American, born on Feb. 14, 1855 in Washington D.C. to Prussian and German immigrant parents. His father served as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, and Joe grew up playing the budding National Pastime in the national’s capital. He got his professional start locally, playing a handful of games for the Washington club in the National Association in 1873 and a handful more for Baltimore in 1874, before joining the New York Mutuals as their regular third baseman the following season.

Gerhardt was there at the beginning of the National League in 1876 and, for a few seasons, appeared to be a star on the rise. He played for Louisville in the NL’s inaugural season, as the Grays’ first basemen, batting a solid .260 with 15 extra-base hits in 65 games. The following season, he moved to second base full time, leading the league in chances per game and finishing second in fielding percentage. He hit .304, the second best average on the Grays, while driving in a team-high 35 runs. As a 22-year-old, he was on the top of his game.

And he couldn’t have found himself in a worse place in the baseball world.

Louisville contended with Boston for the title for much of the year, until a late-season swoon that sent up red flags around the league. An investigation led to the discovery of key players on the Grays being paid to throw the pennant, and eventually star pitcher Jim Devlin and George Hall, Louisville’s top hitter, confessed to being part of the scheme. They were banned from the league for life, along with Bill Craver, a veteran “hard man” who proclaimed his innocence, but played most of his career under the cloud of suspicion of dumping games; and Al Nichols, the substitute who had been the go-between with the gamblers backing the plan. Decimated, the Louisville team dropped out of the league.

Gerhardt had no trouble catching on with another team, signing with Cincinnati. In 1878, he joined a lineup that included future Hall-of-Famers Mike “King” Kelly and Deacon White, slugger Charley Jones and hard-hitting Cal McVey, who nine years earlier had been a youngster on the unbeaten Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first professional team. With Gerhardt batting .297 and ranking second in fielding only to Boston’s Jack Burdock among National League second basemen, the Reds made a run at the pennant, only losing by four games to Boston’s Red Caps.

But suddenly, Joe Gerhardt’s ability to hit deserted him. It’s impossible to tell why; the official rules were tinkered with almost every year during those early seasons, but no major changes were made in the offseason of 1878-79. What we know for sure is that Gerhardt’s average dropped 99 points in one year, to .198, with only 22 runs scored in 79 games.

It perhaps wasn’t difficult for the Reds to cut loose their light-hitting second baseman as the scapegoat, but it turned out to be another instance of Gerhardt escaping a sinking ship. Kelly left for Chicago, McVey retired at the end of the season, White was a holdout and missed the first half of the 1880 season, and Pop Smith, hired to replace Gerhardt at second, batted an anemic .207. The Reds finished dead last, and in an attempt to make some extra money, they rented out their park to local semipro teams on Sundays and permitted them to sell beer, both against National League rules. In the offseason, the Reds were booted out of the league, and the National League wouldn’t have a representative from the Queen City for another 12 years.

Gerhardt, on the other hand, simply went home. In 1880, he played for the Nationals of Washington in the National Association. But this was not the National Association of a few years earlier, baseball’s first legitimate major league. This was a four-team independent East Coast league. It’s one claim to fame is that Washington, after winning the league title, bested the NL champion Chicago White Stockings in a best-of-seven postseason series, the details of which appear to have been lost to time. Even against lesser competition, Gerhardt could only manage a .204 batting average.

Detroit, which had been awarded Cincinnati’s spot in the National League, signed Gerhardt for the 1881 season. He played well in the field, batted a reasonable .242 and the Wolverines finished a surprising fourth in the standings. But the American Association began play the following year, and Gerhardt apparently wanted to relive his glory days in Louisville, with the new AA franchise. When Detroit turned down his request for a release, he chose instead to sit out the season. Given that the National League owners were exerting more and more control over the players, this may not have been the best move, as he was blacklisted by the league.

Gerhardt finally made it to Louisville in 1883, and was named player-manager. He inserted himself in the clean-up spot in the lineup, but eventually dropped himself to ninth, proving at least that over the season he had developed keener skills for evaluating batting talent. He led American Association second basemen in fielding range and was second in fielding percentage to Bid McPhee while batting .263, but missed several weeks of the season after getting hit in the face with a pitch. The following season was marred by the illness and death of an infant child, and Gerhardt was replaced as manager in mid-season. His batting average fell to .220.

But in those times of changing labor situations in baseball, Gerhardt was learning how to play the game. He signed for both of his seasons in Louisville with the stipulation that he not be reserved after the season and he took the opportunity to sign with the New York Giants for 1885 at a hefty pay raise. And if Joe Gerhardt hadn’t yet risen to the roll of the poster child for the weak-hitting, good-fielding infielder, that would soon change dramatically.

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The 1885 team that Gerhardt joined was quite different than the Giants of ’84 who’d finished in fourth place. This was partly because of new acquisitions, and partly because of new deployments for old stars.

The former resulted from a bit of skullduggery by John Day, president of the Metropolitan Exhibition Company, which owned both the National League’s Giants (then still known as the Gothams) and the New York Mets of the American Association. The Mets were the defending AA champs, having lost to Old Hoss Radbourn and the Providence Grays in the World Series of the previous fall. But admission in the AA was 25 cents per fan, as opposed to 50 cents in the NL; therefore, a National League powerhouse was of more value to Day than an American Association champion. The Mets released standout pitcher Tim Keefe and hard-hitting Dude Esterbrook, and after the mandated 10-day waiting period, the pair was signed by the Giants.

Meanwhile, Jim O’Rourke, another future Hall-of-Famer who had been the face of the Buffalo franchise for four seasons as its player-manager and top hitter, was in the market for a new team. O’Rourke had played in Buffalo with the understanding that he would not be reserved from season to season, and when his young daughter died suddenly of an illness in the fall of ’83, he resolved to play for a team closer to his Connecticut home and told Buffalo management that 1884 would be his last year with the club. The Giants signed O’Rourke as a free agent heading into the 1885 season.

On the diamond, two future Hall-of-Famers would be getting new responsibilities. Roger Connor, who had played second base for the 1884 Giants, moved to his permanent home at first base. And John Montgomery Ward, the former pitching ace who’d played centerfield the year before, moved to the infield, at shortstop. That meant that, with Gerhardt, the Giants had all new defense up the middle.

On opening day, Joe Gerhardt was the star, singling in the eighth inning and later scoring the winning run in a 2-1 victory over Boston. It didn’t get any better than that; in fact, it got a lot worse.

The Giants had become the kind of team of which John Day had dreamed, an exciting, dominating club that would win three out of every four games. Keefe and Mickey Welch would combine to win 76 games. Four of the 10 batters in the league to hit .300 or better were in the New York lineup.

The only trouble was, Chicago was even better. The White Stockings, between John Clarkson‘s 53 victories and Cap Anson‘s league-leading 108 RBIs, held a two-game advantage in the standings when the Giants rolled into Chicago for a decisive four-game series in late September. The White Stockings won the first three games, and the pennant race was essentially over.

And Gerhardt? He was his usual reliable self in the field. He played every inning of every game for the Giants, an even 1,000 innings in all, was second in fielding percentage only to St. Louis’ Fred Dunlap and third in fielding range.

And he topped the league in several batting categories . . . or, rather, “bottomed” the league.

Among the 44 players with enough appearances to qualify for the batting title, he finished 44th . . . at .155.

On-base percentage? Forty-fourth, at .205.

Slugging percentage? Again, 44th at .195 . . . his 62 hits included only 14 for extra bases, with no home runs.

Gerhardt only had to look to his left to see a batter whose average was more than 200 points higher than his own. Connor led the league in hitting at .371, a full .216 higher than Gerhardt. That’s more than a full Mario Mendoza’s worth!

The Giants’ pitchers? Welch batted .206. Even Keefe, who managed just .163, would usually bat ahead of Gerhardt in the order.

Gerhardt n167

The natural question is how Gerhardt managed to keep his spot in the lineup, and why the fans weren’t clamoring for his benching. But rather than being run out of town, Gerhardt was probably the most popular player on the team.

He was known as Move Up Joe, for his sideline exhortations to teammates on base to “Move up, move up.” David Nemec, in his series Major League Baseball Profiles of 19th Century players, says Gerhardt had “a gift of gab that made him enormously popular with New York fans.” Clearly, Gerhardt was the most gregarious of players on an exciting team, one who also was capable of making exciting plays in the field. In an era long before the days of the post-game interview, Gerhardt was a player to whom writers for New York’s newspapers knew they could go for a good quote. And because, in the days before national wire services, many of those writers were also correspondents for other papers around the nation, Move Up Joe became a recognized figure in the nation’s sporting press.

Maybe the best summation of all of these factors is illustrated by Gerhardt’s final day as a Giant.

With the same roster as the previous year, the 1886 Giants had another strong season, at 75-44. That was only good for third place, however, far behind Chicago and Detroit, who battled it out for the pennant into the final week of the season. Gerhardt had his usual strong season in the field and improved at the plate, but still batted a woeful .190 and was clearly the weakest link in the batting order.

But more than that, Gerhardt’s relative popularity may have become a sore spot to some of the other players, particularly Buck Ewing, the team’s captain and catcher. Ewing was recognized as one of baseball’s greatest catchers, but was reaching an age when catching on a daily basis was taking a physical toll. So when he agreed to re-sign with the Giants for 1887, it was with the stipulation that he’d move out from behind the plate to a spot in the field . . . to second base.

A switch from catcher to second baseman (Craig Biggio to the contrary) is hardly a natural exchange, and if Ewing thought that New York’s fandom would embrace the move, he was sorely mistaken. The Giants got off to a slow start, and even when they won they weren’t particularly impressive. And the local press was quick to weigh in, singling out Ewing’s play in particular.

In the May 10 editions of the New York Times, after the Giants had fallen to Washington, 7-4, to drop to 5-4 on the season, the reporter on hand had this to say:

Ewing’s masterly inefficiency at second base was the feature of the game, and every spectator sighed because Joe Gerhardt was not there to do the work that Ewing couldn’t do. His unfitness for the position grows more and more apparent with each succeeding game, and his strength at the bat and fairly good base-running by no means counterbalances his poor play as an in-fielder.

Gerhardt, meanwhile, had only gotten into a single game, going hitless in four at-bats. And he wasn’t happy with the situation.

The following day, the baseball writer for the New York Sun had a top-of-the-page analysis of the Giants’ start, headlined Is the New York Club Petering Out? which included the following anaylsis:

Two pitchers is all they have to depend on. Danny Richardson is a very weak third base, a wooden man could play second about as well as Ewing. . . . Ewing was put on Joe Gerhardt’s post at second base for his batting, but it would be far better to have a man there who would not lose games, even if he did not win them.

But the real news of the day was to be found later in the story:

Joe Gerhardt left the Polo grounds yesterday. During the sixth inning he stepped out of the club house. He glanced around once or twice for a parting look, and hastily brushing a tear from his eye he started down the left field path toward the main entrance. As he came along with his bundle under his arm the crowd saw him. Never in the history of the Polo grounds did a player get such a reception as he received, and the cheers continued long after he was out of sight. Joe said afterward that he would get his release from the club this morning, and would at once sign with the Metropolitan Club. He will leave for Cincinnati to join that club to-morrow night.

“I was laid off because I could not bat,” said he. “The club, when they first engaged me, knew this, but they said that they did not care if I did not hit a ball once in a year. I have no hard feelings toward any of the men, but I tell you that the loss of the championship by this club for two years was caused by two men alone. No man on that team can play ball above a certain standard without getting himself in trouble, and it is this that will sooner or later break up the team. I would not play with the nine again if I never played at all.”

Pretty strong stuff . . . this again illustrates Gerhardt’s strong relationship with the media, that he would get such a complete airing of his grievances. Interestingly, the author of the piece did not expand on Gerhardt’s singling out of “two men alone.” Perhaps it was assumed that his audience would know to whom Gerhardt was referring. Perhaps it was Day and Giants’ manager Jim Mutrie being called out for mismanagement.

Or perhaps it was someone else. Consider this piece that appeared in the baseball notes of the Indianapolis News a week later:

Gerhardt is loud in his denunciation of Ewing, who practically froze him out of the New York team by signing a contract to play second and not at all behind the bat. [John Montgomery] Ward, the captain of the Giants, also receives a send-off, as he would not permit Joe to practice with the regular team. Gerhardt has joined the Metropolitans and is doing good work for them.

Gerhardt, Joe (2B)

Whatever the case, both Gerhardt and the Giants appear to have been happy to have seen the last of each other. But Gerhardt hadn’t seen the last of New York. The Metropolitans, now no longer owned by Day, were happy to sign him. Five days later, the New York Times reported in its story of the Mets’ game against Cleveland,

Joe Gerhardt received a loud demonstration when he appear on the field.

The game was in Cleveland, an indication that “Move Up, No Hit, Good Field Joe” wasn’t just a New York phenomenon.

It would be heart-warming to report that Joe Gerhardt regained his hitting stroke, led the Mets to the American Association pennant and helped them vanquish the Giants in the World Series. This, of course, did not happen. He finished second in the league to Bid McPhee in fielding range among second basemen and batted a very Gerhardt-like .224. The Metropolitans, who were already on shaky financial grounds, finished 44-89 and folded at the end of the year.

The Giants, on the other hand, solved their problems in the infield by flipping Ewing and Richardson, the young utility player who developed into a strong second baseman. The Giants righted themselves and finished the season 68-55, well behind the champion Detroit Wolverines. But Ewing eventually realized that he could prolong his career behind the plate by occasionally taking a day off and allowing Pat Murphy or William “California” Brown to fill in, and in 1888 and ’89, he led the Giants to two National League championships and as many postseason series titles.

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For all his popularity, Gerhardt found himself a man without a team in 1888, and spent two seasons playing for minor league teams in Jersey City and Hartford, before acting out the final scenes of his major league career.

In 1890, with the National League and American Association decimated by defections to the Players League, Gerhardt caught on with the Brooklyn Gladiators, a last-minute addition to the Association. When the team folded in early August, he was taken on as the player-manager of the St. Louis Browns. He had the ultimate Joe Gerhardt season, leading the AA second baseman in every category except errors . . . all while batting .217, with career highs of three home runs and 51 RBIs.

But the Browns released him after the season. He hooked up with a Louisville franchise for a third time the following season, but lasted only two games before returning to New York to play for the Albany team in the Eastern League. After three seasons as player-manager with the Senators, he called it a career. He remained in New York, working over the years as a manager of a cafe, the operator of two hotels and even the manager of a bowling alley, before dying at the age of 67.

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Today, if Joe Gerhardt is remembered at all, it’s for two things: his monumentally poor hitting season of 1885, and his prolific work in the field.

Joe Gerhardt

Nemec, in a sidebar in The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball, identifies Gerhardt’s .155 batting average in ’85 as the worst of any player in the century that played 100 or more games in a season. But is that an accurate standard, considering that National League teams didn’t begin to play as many as 100 games in a season until 1884?

Using baseball-reference.com’s sorting function and the site’s standards for qualifiers for each individual season, there were actually 11 batters who had worse batting average’s over a season than Gerhardt’s 1885 numbers.

The worst two seasons were both turned in by Deacon White’s brother, Will White, who batted .136 in 1879 and .142 a year earlier. White could be forgiven, though, since he was a pitcher, winning 73 games in the two years combined. In the days one one-man rotations, most pitchers had enough appearances to qualify for the batting title, and most pitchers were also decent enough hitters to not embarrass themselves.

But think about that 1879 season . . . it was also the year that Gerhardt dropped to .198, giving the Reds a very unproductive end of the order. Is it any wonder that Gerhardt was the one that got the boot at the end of the year?

Most of the others on that list were middle infielders, giving strength to the argument that good fielding wipes away sins at the plate. Not any more, though. In the 21st Century, there have been only four sub-.200 seasons among qualifiers, and in each case, the player in question hit no fewer than 19 home runs. Mark Reynolds, in 2010, batted .198 and struck out 211 times, but he also hit 32 home runs and drove in 85. Modern teams apparently are more likely to accept a lousy batting average in exchange for power, rather than fielding finesse.

In the field, Gerhardt continues to hold one particularly impressive record, the career mark for fielding range at second base (putouts and assists per game) at 6.46. The top nine on the list are all from the 19th Century, which suggests the relative importance of infield play in the first quarter of a century of the major leagues. Gerhardt only ranked first in the league in the category a handful of times in his career, so his career ranking is a testimony to the fact his skills didn’t diminish with age; his final season was statistically his best.

—————————————————

On March 11, 1922, Gerhardt died of a heart attack on his way to work in Middleton, N.Y. His passing was briefly noted in the March 16 edition of The Sporting News, but the final eulogy was accorded to New York sportswriter John M. Foster, who two weeks later penned a piece with the headline No Second Baseman Ever Excelled Joe Gerhardt. That, and a concluding paragraph considering the merits of a number of second baseman and concluding with the line “None had anything on ‘Move Up Joe’ Gerhardt,” show up in short biographies of the second baseman.

Reporters and columnists, of course, don’t write the headlines that appear on their stories, and a close reading of the column doesn’t encourage the idea that the author was claiming Gerhardt to have been the best at the keystone sack. The meandering piece does point out Gerhardt’s popularity, but midway through devolves into a somewhat humorous commentary on the regional rivalry of Cincinnati and Louisville (two cities in which Gerhardt played) before returning to the point. What’s missed about the final paragraph is that even Foster didn’t claim that Gerhardt was the best:

He played second base with the smoothness of Bid McPhee of Cincinnati, when McPhee was great, but he couldn’t cover the ground that Bid did . . .

In the end, Joe Gerhardt doesn’t exactly fit the role of a 19th Century Mario Mendoza. Clearly, he was one of the leading fielders of his day, and just as clearly, despite a promising start, he at some point lost the ability to hit major league pitching consistently. Still, that didn’t seem to be as crucial to his value in his own day as we might expect, weighing these matters from our perspective of one and a quarter centuries later.

More than anything, Gerhardt appears to have been the right man at the right place in the right time.

New York was the birthplace of what would become America’s game, but at the major league level, the game had been dominated for years by teams from Boston, Chicago, even Providence. The Giants energized interest in the sport in the nation’s largest city, and Joe Gerhardt was able to ride the crest of that wave of excitement.

He was never a superstar, but with his trademark chatter and his ease at dealing with the media, he was, for a brief time, New York’s chosen son.

Joe Gerhardt's grave marker. Note a discrepancy between date of death provided by baseball researchers and marker. Photo by Tim Evanson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Gerhardt
Joe Gerhardt’s grave marker. Note a discrepancy between date of death provided by baseball researchers and marker. Photo by Tim Evanson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Gerhardt

Sources:
Major League Baseball Profiles 1871-1900, Volume 1, by David Nemec
The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball, by David Nemec
Players and Teams of the National Association, 1871-1875, by Paul Batesel
A Biographical Dictionary of Major League Baseball Managers, by John C. Skipper
The Sporting News, March 30, 1922 (No Second Baseman Ever Excelled Joe Gerhardt, by John M. Foster)
May, 1885 editions of the New York Times, the New York Sun and the Indianapolis News

Julie Freeman’s Hour in the Sun

The author W.P. Kinsella once came across a few lines in a baseball encyclopedia and was immediately intrigued. The entry was for a baseball player whose entire major league history was encompassed by the numbers “1 game, 0 at-bats.”

Kinsella went on to do extensive research on the player, and ended up using him as a character in his surreal baseball novel, “Shoeless Joe,” which later begat the Kevin Costner film “Field of Dreams.”

And that’s how the world discovered Archibald “Moonlight” Graham.

What Kinsella felt about Graham was akin to what I felt when I first handled my copy of Julie Freeman‘s card from Ars Longa’s Beginnings: The 1880s series. A week or so earlier, I’d been completely ignorant of Freeman’s existence, but upon reading the Ars Longa biographer’s description of the St. Louis Browns pitcher and his one-game major league career, I got sucked in, much the same way that Kinsella must have been drawn into Graham’s life. But while Kinsella used Moonlight Graham as a subject for the examination of one’s greatest dreams and the importance — or lack thereof — of realizing them, Freeman’s 1880s card led me to consider the role that timing plays in one’s life.

It’s a nice card; as with all of the 1880s St. Louis Browns, the uniform is crisp and dazzling white, perfectly complemented by maroon trim and accessories. His features are sharp, and the pose . . . well, I can’t help but think that he’s practicing for a night of darts at the local pub rather than taking on the American Association’s top hitters.

So what meaning is there in a single game out of a major league season? Not much, really. Like Graham, who played a couple of innings as a defensive substitute and just missed a chance to bat, Freeman’s lone appearance was for a pennant-winning team, in a meaningless game after the championship had been clinched. Very few single games in a long schedule can really be called significant, but each one has it’s own identity, and taken by itself can give a snapshot of a team, a league, the players and the era.

And for Julie Freeman, that one game started out like a dream come true, and ended quite painfully.

————————————————–

Julius Benjamin Freeman was born Nov. 7, 1868 in . . . well, we don’t really know where, exactly, but it was somewhere in Missouri. Not much is known about the righthander until he turned up in Fort Smith, AR, as an 18-year-old who pitched well in the summer of 1887.

Although considered to be a hard thrower, Freeman’s most notable attribute was apparently his size, or rather his lack of size. Considering that pitchers of the day were not the 6-foot-plus specimens that they are in the 21st Century, Julie must have really been small in stature to have gained that notoriety in the 19th Century. The Sporting News referred to him as “a little bit of a lad” in one article. Even so, he appeared headed to the Kansas City Blues of the American Association for the 1888 season; an article in Sporting Life that spring referred to him as a “phenomenon, about whom a great deal was said.” So someone was paying attention.

Kansas City ended up passing on his services, so Freeman returned home and spent the summer pitching for an independent team in Newton, MO. Charles Comiskey, St. Louis’ player-manager, must have been keeping tabs, because he eventually invited Freeman to work out with the Browns, and with the American Association pennant wrapped up, Comiskey offered the youngster a chance to start a league game, on Oct. 10, 1888.

The Browns had little for which to play that cold afternoon in St. Louis. They’d wrapped up their fourth consecutive American Association title a week or more earlier; since they ended up playing five games fewer than the runner-up Brooklyn Bridegrooms, it’s possible that the actual moment of clinching may not have been easily calculated or noted. But with a healthy lead in the standings all through the fall, the title was inevitable and the season rolled toward an eventual postseason meeting with National League champion New York Giants.

 

The opponent was the Louisville Colonels, who’d had a much different season. A few days later, they’d complete a 48-87 record, good for seventh place. The Colonels pitcher that day was Tom “Toad” Ramsey, and had the game been played in 1886 or 1887, when Ramsey won a combined 75 games, that might have sparked some fear in the heart of the St. Louis batters. But the Toad of 1888 was a different animal. Perhaps the heavy drinking for which he was known had taken its toll, or perhaps it was an indifference born of pitching for a team buried deep in the second division, but Ramsey was on his way to an 8-30 record.

What little interest there was in the game centered around Freeman. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that “Comiskey put in a young semi-professional pitcher named Freeman, who pitched last season for Fort Smith. He made a good record in Arkansas and was anxious to see what he could do against an Association team.” The Louisville Courier Journal referred to Julie as a”a young twirler from the Texas League,” and in the Chicago Tribune he was “a young Southern League pitcher.” The fact that Fort Smith competed in the Southwestern League is just proof that it was a lot tougher to get such facts straight in the days before media guides and web sites.

For three innings, Julie Freeman must have thought that the American Association was going to be a snap. He led the Colonels, 2-0, pitching against a lineup that, while it included Pete Browning and the wonderfully named William Van Winkle “Chicken” Wolf, admittedly included more than its share of second-stringers.

After that, things fell apart. Few of the Browns were accomplishing much at bat. Arlie Latham was the one exception, with two hits, but he also made two errors at third base. Meanwhile Louisville, batting in the bottom of the inning as was the prerogative for the visiting team for much of the 19th Century, scored five runs in the next three innings, taking the lead for good at 5-4 in the bottom of the sixth. Freeman did a good job handling Louisville’s top hitters, but light-hitting shortstop Phil Tomney had three hits.

The end came suddenly for Freeman in the seventh. After retiring Browning, he faced Dude Esterbrook, the mercurial infielder who had been summarily released from Indianapolis a few months earlier but had given the Colonels a bit of a spark since his arrival in Louisville. He hit a hard line drive that caught Freeman on the right hand, breaking a finger. Julie was finished for the day, replaced on the mound by rightfielder Tommy McCarthy, the future Hall of Famer. Ramsey and the Colonels finished the day with a 7-4 victory.

The correspondent for the Cincinnati Enquirer judged of Freeman that “His work showed him to be a promising youngster and with the proper support he would have won yesterday’s game.” Comiskey must have concurred, because he reserved Freeman for the 1889 season and gave him ample opportunity to make the club. Freeman pitched the Browns’ exhibition opener, defeating the Missouri Athletic Club, 14-3, after which he continued to get work during the spring, mostly against amateur teams.

And this is where timing comes into play. Freeman’s date with the photographers shooting for the Old Judge card set no doubt came in the spring, after he’d already pitched what would prove to be his lone ┬ámajor league game. He’s featured in a handful of different poses. Consider the case of two other 1880s subjects, Walter Bogart and Abner Boyce. Neither ever played a major league game, but each was in the running for a spot on a major league roster in the spring, and appeared on Old Judge cards in the season that followed. Spring training was likely a good chance to get the various teams into a photo studio, and you can imagine the conversation: Him? Oh, that’s Walter. He might play some for us this year at first base, so we brought him along.

Bogart, whose fox-like features and rather disturbing sky blue, unitard-like Indianapolis uniform we see in the 1880s series, and Boyce, pictured in a Washington uniform and settling under a pop fly with all the apparent grace of a water buffalo, not only didn’t make it to the majors, but there is no record of either from the minor league database on baseball-reference.com. They almost certainly played professionally somewhere, but apparently not in a league whose records have been unearthed by the many researchers looking into such things.

But Julie Freeman played in the majors . . . and one and a quarter centuries later, he comes to life in the 1880s series, in that strange pose. That’s certainly some form of immortality. Once you’re a major leaguer, you’re a major leaguer for life. You’ve achieved what so many of us could only fantasize about, even if for only an hour or so one fall afternoon. It’s like being President, or Ambassador: you get to keep the title Former Major Leaguer the rest of your days.

As you’ve no doubt figured, Julie Freeman didn’t make the St. Louis roster in 1889. Sure, he was 19 years old and had potential, but consider the rest of the pitching staff. Staff ace Silver King, who had a 45-20 record in 1888? Twenty years old. Nat Hudson, who was 25-10? Nineteen years old. On Sept. 1, the Browns had bought some pitching insurance with the purchase from Louisville of Elton “Ice Box” Chamberlain, who finished 11-2 for the Browns for a season record of 25-11. Chamberlain was 20. Heck, even Jim Devlin and Ed Knouff, who combined to start 20 games for the ’88 Browns, were 22 and 21, respectively. It was kind of difficult for Julie Freeman to stand out from that crowd.

After showing up well against amateur competition, Freeman was given a chance to pitch against the Detroit Wolverines of the National League, on April 8 in St. Louis. He lost, 7-3, walking seven batters, and 10 days later he was sold to the Milwaukee Creams of the Western Association. Comiskey was quoted as saying that Freeman wasn’t “heavy enough” to handle the rigors of an American Association season. Somewhere along the way, he developed arm trouble, and never won a game in Milwaukee. He got five starts, lost them all, and had a horrific WHIP of 2.333.

Freeman then moved to the Pacific Northwest, catching on with a team in Port Townsend, Wash., then finishing his pro career with a season at Helena in the Montana State League. And then he returned home and worked as a printer in St. Louis, playing for a semi-pro team sponsored by The Sporting News. He died in 1921, the victim of heart disease.

So Julie Freeman’s story may not be that riveting, certainly not compared to that of Moonlight Graham. The story of Graham ending up in the frozen wilds of Chisholm, MN, becoming a civic leader and its leading doctor, as portrayed in Field of Dreams? All true.

No, it’s not likely that anyone will be featuring Freeman’s life in a movie any time soon, with an actor the caliber of Burt Lancaster to play his part. But in one sense, he got the better of Graham. You see, Julie Freeman actually got to bat in a major league game, three times. And . . . he got one of the five hits that Toad Ramsey allowed that day.

And a .333 average is pretty good hitting in any league . . .

 


Sources:
baseball-reference.com
The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball by David Nemec
Oct. 11, 1888 editions of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Louisville Courier Journal and the Chicago Tribune

Overlooked, but not unappreciated

If you’re a fan of the 19th Century and Dead Ball eras of baseball (and if you aren’t, you probably aren’t reading this), then you may be frustrated by the lack of movement in getting players from that period enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. It seems like the Hall has shut its doors on the old timers.

Well, not exactly shut them . . . every few years the door pops open a few inches.

It used to be a lot simpler for the average fan to follow. The Baseball Writers Association of America voted on the recently retired, and the Veteran’s Committee considered those that time had almost forgotten. But in 2010, the Hall broke the Veteran’s Committee into three different groups. Candidates from the 19th Century fall under the consideration of the Pre-Integration Era Committee. Specifically, that means that every three years a ballot of 10 persons is drawn up from players, executives and other significant figures — including those from the Negro Leagues — from a period covering roughly 80 years, and then voted upon by the committee, with the usual three quarters of the vote (12 or more of 16) needed for induction.

Pretty slim odds at best . . .

Fortunately, there is a group that hasn’t given up on honoring the stars of the 1800s who haven’t yet gotten into Cooperstown, and it’s just the people you would have expected: The Society for American Baseball Research.

Each year, SABR’s 19th Century Committee holds a vote to determine who would join the ranks of Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legends. Past winners have included Pete Browning, Harry Stovey, Bill Dahlen, Ross Barnes and Lucius “Doc” Adams. When Deacon White became the second annual winner in 2010, it might well have been a premonition of being voted into the Hall of Fame by the Pre-Intergration Committee two and a half years later.

 

SABR’s Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legends, 2009-2014

Pete Browning
2009

Deacon White
2010

Harry Stovey
2011


 

Bill Dahlen
2012

Ross Barnes
2013

Doc Adams
2014



Top 3 finalists for SABR’s Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend for 2015

 

This year’s winner was announced just last week: Tony Mullane (482 points), the American Association pitching ace took the top spot in a close vote over shortstop Jack Glasscock (465 points) and pitcher Jim Creighton (402 points).
Tony Mullane
2015 Winner

Jack Glasscock
1sr runner-up

Jim Creighton
2nd runner-up



To say that Mullane was a fascinating candidate is putting it mildly . . . and that’s even before you consider his 284 career victories.

Oh, Mullane’s numbers are plenty good. In a 13-year career, eight of which were spent with the Cincinnati Reds, he won 30 games in a season five times, with four different teams. He pitched the first no-hitter in Association history, in September of 1882 for Louisville. His 468 complete games still ranks 10th all time, and given the rarity of that particular statistic in this day and age, his standing is not likely to drop.

But Mullane can’t help but being remembered for a variety of other aspects of his career:

Labor relations: As a general rule, baseball management has never wanted to pay the players any more than they absolutely had to, and the players have never been crazy about that state of affairs.

Mullane, early in his career, was always ready to leap for a better deal. Following a rookie season in Louisville in which he posted a 30-24 record with a 1.88 earned-run average and a league-leading 170 strikeouts, he accepted a better offer from Association rival St. Louis for the 1883 season. The reserve clause was beefed up the following off-season to stop club-jumping, but the new Union Association wasn’t part of that agreement, and Mullane accepted a bigger contract to play for the UA’s team in St. Louis. But Mullane got cold feet when the new league’s prospects began to look a bit iffy (it lasted only one season) and he tried to return to the Browns. In an attempt to avoid any legal problems from multiple contracts in St. Louis, he was instead signed by Toledo.

After a money-losing season, Toledo managment disbanded their America Association team and sold off its stars, including Mullane, to Chris Von der Ahe’s Browns. But despite a written promise to sign a contract with the Browns, Mullane was soon entertaining offers to play for Cincinnati. In the dust-up that followed, the Reds were allowed to retain the rights to Mullane . . . but only after he sat out the 1885 season, a turn of events that would cost Mullane in ways that would only be appreciated many years later.

That was the end of Mullane’s bumping heads with the reserve clause, although he did earn a reputation during his career — whether deserved or not — for occasional “indifference” on the mound. Reds management tried to make sure their ace was as satisfied as possible with his salary, to keep him in the best competitive mood.

Handedness: Mullane’s name recently resurfaced in the sports news due to Oakland’s elevation to the majors of Pat Venditte, one of the few ambidextrous major league pitchers in baseball history. Mullane was the first, although it was more of a novelty than a weapon. There is documentation of him pitching with each hand in a league game on only two occasions, although he developed a reputation for being able to do so. Perhaps it was a trick he brought out for exhibition games.

Good looks: It’s a myth that Ladies Day at the ballpark was created around the desire of the fairer sex to see Mullane on the mound, but by all accounts he was one of baseball’s most dashing players. He was known as the Count and The Apollo of the Box for his aristocratic bearing, as well as Smoked Italian for his swarthy good looks (surprising, really, since he was actually born in Cork, Ireland before emigrating at age 5).

Unfortunately, we can’t really see that from his Ars Longa 1880s card. Mullane appeared in seven different poses in the Old Judge set, but the photographer didn’t capture the “matinee idol” quality in any of them. Flattering portraits of Mullane do exist and I have heard word from Jesse that he is currently working on this image for inclusion in the Ars Longa Pioneer Portraits II Series. (Editor’s note: Card complete and pictured right.)

Race relations: Mullane’s billeting in Toledo in 1884 for the Blue Stockings’ lone major league season coincided with a major historical event, that of Moses Fleetwood Walker becoming the first African-American player in major league history. Unfortunately, Mullane doesn’t come across well in that partnership. Walker shared Toledo’s catching duties with the venerable Deacon McGuire, and Mullane would frequently cross up Walker with pitches he wasn’t expecting. Eventually, Walker told Mullane to throw whatever he wanted, and the two worked well together after that.

Years later, Mullane would credit Walker as a good catcher, but said that he couldn’t like the man because of the color of his skin, a sad commentary on a time that was only one generation removed from the Civil War. Oddly, Mullane had one of his best seasons in 1884, running up a record of 36-26 while the rest of the Blue Stockings’ staff was a collective 9-32.

Mullane’s talents began to dissipate in the mid-1890’s, and he bounced around the league for a couple of season before retiring. An attempt to run a saloon ended up in financial failure, but he had success as a policeman in Chicago, rising to the rank of detective. He died in 1944, at the ripe old age of 85.


So, why are these Overlooked 19th Century Legends not in the Hall of Fame? There’s no one single answer. Doc Adams was a member of the Knickerbocker Club in New York in the 1840’s and did perhaps as much as anyone to shape the game in its early years, but after Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright, perhaps the Hall has had its fill of people that have been proclaimed the “Father of Baseball.” Ross Barnes was professional baseball’s first great hitter, but his best years came in the five years of the National Association, pre-dating the National League.

Bill Dahlen may have been a victim of having his career split almost evenly between the 19th and 20 Centuries. He played on four league champions, but in his only World Series appearance, he was hitless in 15 at-bats for the 1905 New York Giants. He batted over .300 only three times in a 21-year career, but his longevity put him near the top in numerous career offensive categories for shortstops. And in the field, he was one of the best his era. His chance could come again this winter, when the Pre-Integration Committee votes again. Three years ago, when Deacon White made the grade, Dahlen was also on the ballot and missed by just two votes.

And what of Pete Browning, the original Louisville Slugger; Harry Stovey, one of the 19th Century’s top power hitters; and Mullane? They all have the numbers to qualify, so one can’t help but thinking that they’re tarred by having played most of their careers in the American Association. The only player to be elected to the Hall after playing all or most of his career in the Association was Bid McPhee, and that didn’t happen until 2000.

It’s probably true that the level of play in the Association wasn’t quite at the level of the National League, but it was major league baseball nonetheless. One wonders, though, if that resonates with a 21st Century voter.

And for Mullane, that season in his prime in which he was suspended likely would have easily given him the victories he needed to top the 300 mark for his career. Until Roger Clemens’ steroid issues, that figure was a guaranteed ticket to the Hall of Fame.

But they’ll all get their chance again, slim as it might be. I mean, doesn’t it just seem right that “The Apollo of the Box” should have his mug emblazoned for all to see on a bronze plaque in a museum in a bucolic little town in New York?


A Story for Every Player

Where to start? How about at the beginning?

I first discovered Ars Longa Art Cards in what I imagine to be the usual way: surfing around eBay, looking for something interesting to collect.

Let’s face it, the trading card hobby has grown boring. I’m old enough to remember when it was still a child’s pastime, before the Baby Boomer generation carried it to adulthood. But I’ve also seen the steady decline in the last two decades, when a new generation of children never saw the point in collecting, and wouldn’t have been able to find the cards at their local drugstore if they had. But then, who needs to buy a pack of baseball cards when it’s all there on eBay? Why spend all summer piecing together a complete set when with one click of the mouse you can own it instantly? In that way, eBay is both the best thing that’s happened to the trading card collector . . . and the worst. At some point, I realized that I’d stopped being a collector. I’d become an accumulator.

But with baseball card stores now as rare as pennants in Chicago, eBay is where you go. And it’s where I was that afternoon, scrolling past one of those “If you bought this, you might like this” features on my eBay home page, when it caught my eye. It looked like a tobacco card . . . John Morrill . . . Ars Longa . . . 1880s . . . none of which meant anything to me.

Still, I looked at the auction, and the other Ars Longa auctions available. It wasn’t love at first sight. The images were beautiful, but the players were unknown to me. I put down some minimum bids on several of them, and forgot about it. A few days later, I discovered that I’d won three of the lots. A few days after that, they were lined up in front of me . . . Morrill, Tom Nagle, Jocko Flynn, looking like they could have been pulled yesterday from a fresh pack of 19th Century cigarettes, but so much more than that. The vibrant colors, the sharp presentation of 125-year-old photographic images taken from the epic Old Judge set, thin cardboard strips that were remarkably crisp and sturdy, and Ars Longa’s distinctive “manual distressing”: a little wear on the corners, some artful age-staining, but nothing to take away from the image itself.

I was hooked. And I’ve bid on many more Ars Longa cards since then, from all five of its active series. But as much as I admired Jesse Loving’s little works of art, I still didn’t know these guys.

So I did a little research . . .


Tom Nagle gives the camera a menacing stare in his Ars Longa 1880s card. But that was just wishful thinking . . . like most catchers of his day, his primary contributions came in the field, rather than at-bat.

Nagle hit only .248 in 1888, the year he posed for the Old Judge photographers. But he had a breakthrough season the following year, batting .298 as the team’s regular catcher while handling future major league pitchers Kid Nichols, Dad Clarke and Phil Nell. Omaha roared to the Western Association pennant by eight games over runner-up St. Paul, and Nagle was ticketed to Chicago to play for the White Stockings.

After a decent rookie season in which he batted .271 as back-up to Kit Kittridge, things fell apart for Nagle. Late in 1890, he threw out his arm, and early in the following season he jumped the team to return home to Milwaukee to get married. Cap Anson, the White Stockings manager, was less than sympathetic over the call of true love, and when Nagle failed to hit upon his return, he was cut.

Despite losing his left leg to diabetes late in life, Nagle lived to the ripe old age of 80, and had a long career with the Wisconsin Central railroad after his playing days.

So why did I take a flyer on a relatively nondescript minor league catcher? Honestly, I think it was his team’s name. I mean, the Omaha Omahogs? They don’t name teams like that any more! And what a perfect name for a team from the Heartland. Later, I learned that Omaha’s alternate nickname was the Lambs. I assume that was saved for the days on which they lost.

And what a great card! Note that it was conceived of having taken place on an autumn day just above a riverbank (you can see the reflection of the trees in the water).

 


John Morrill could do it all. Everything. He was regarded as one of the most stylish-fielding first basemen in the National League, but during his career he played every position on the field. He was a player-manager and a home-grown Boston favorite. He broke into the NL in its first season and was a regular in the Beaneater lineup for 13 seasons. When he retired, after a few years as a sportswriter, he became partners with George Wright in a sporting goods business at which he remained for 35 years. Late in life, he became an excellent golfer and the chairman of the New England Senior Golf Association.

Morrill accomplished seemingly everything except to write his name in big, bold letters across the history of 19th Century baseball. The early years of professional baseball are filled with men like Morrill, good, solid players who established themselves over many seasons, minor stars, if you will . . . but who just aren’t remembered today.

But in his time, Morrill certainly had many memorable accomplishments. After starting at second base as a rookie, he was the regular third baseman in 1877 as Boston won the pennant, then moved to first base the following year as the Beaneaters repeated as champions. He was the choice to replace long-time manager Harry Wright in 1882, although he gave up the managerial role the following spring to second baseman Jack Burdock. But when Burdock decided by midseason that he couldn’t handle the job, Morrill took the reigns and guided Boston to a 33-11 record down the stretch and another pennant. Along the way, he batted a career-high .316, was second in the NL in slugging (.525) and pitched the lone complete game of his career.

Sadly, the man they called “Honest John” never hit those heights again, and things fell apart after Boston paid a record $10,000 to Chicago in 1887 for Mike “King” Kelly, one of the 19th Century’s most luminous stars. Kelly was also handed Morrill’s job as player-manager, and the two veterans never got along. Perhaps it was the specter of one’s predecessor still hanging around at first base, but whatever the reason, Kelly reportedly ran Morrill down at every turn. Morrill responded with career highs of 12 home runs and 81 RBIs in 1887, and even regained his managerial post later in the year. But by the following season, the in-fighting had taken its toll, and Morrill’s batting average dropped to a dreadful .198, the lowest in history for a first baseman with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting championship. When Boston acquired first baseman Dan Brouthers and four other star players in an off-season fire sale from Detroit — just before the Wolverines disbanded — it was no surprise when Morrill was shipped to Washington prior to the start of the 1889 season.

Oddly, Morrill did have one last moment in Boston, the city in whose environs he spent his entire life. He returned in 1890 to play two games with the Boston Reds, during the lone season of the Players League. As little contribution as he made, he could still say he was part of a fourth pennant-winning team.

Morrill has a steely-eyed gaze in his Ars Longa card, his white uniform looking crisp and clean against a panoply of trees turning to fall colors behind a stone wall, the grass beginning to yellow in the autumn setting. It’s that mix of Old Judge photography and Buchner Gold Coin backgrounds, all enhanced in the Ars Longa fashion, that make the 1880s cards such miniature works of art.


Jocko Flynn doesn’t look particularly happy in his 1880s card . . . fist on hip, a mildly sour expression on his face. But what can you expect? How are you gonna keep them in Omaha when they’ve seen the bright lights of Chicago?

Jocko can be categorized a lot of ways: a one-hit wonder, a star that burned very bright and burned out very fast, a cautionary tale, a minor American tragedy. What can’t be disputed is that he had the greatest year ever recorded for a player who pitched only one season.

Flynn’s rise in baseball was meteoric. In 1884, at age 19, he starred for his local team in Lawrence, Mass., assisted by his personal catcher, boyhood friend George “Prunes” Moolic (the derivation of whose nickname is, sadly, lost to time). The following season, the pair moved on to the New England League, where the right hander won 25 games for two teams and caught the eye of the White Stockings’ Cap Anson. Chicago was the reigning National League power in the mid-1880s, but in winning the 1885 pennant, star pitcher John Clarkson‘s arm had been taxed to the tune of 623 innings. Anson hoped to add a third arm to a rotation that also included Jim McCormick, enough so that he agreed to sign Moolic as well.

In the spring of 1886, Flynn quickly made an impression. The Chicago Tribune got this scouting report from shortstop Ned Williamson: “Flynn seems to have curves, drops, in and out shoots, and slow balls down to a point where he can handle them just about as he wants to. He has good speed, too, and covers his position as well as any pitcher we ever had.”

Despite his diminutive stature (5-foot-6, 143 pounds), Flynn put up big numbers during his rookie season. He was 23-6, with a 2.24 earned-run average and 146 strikeouts. Although Clarkson (36) and McCormick (31) both won more games, Flynn led the NL with a .793 winning percentage, as the White Stockings rolled to another pennant.

But Flynn didn’t pitch in that fall’s World Series, in which Chicago was upset by the American Association’s St. Louis Browns. The primary reason was that he’d thrown his arm out.

But a secondary issue was his night-time activities. Chicago was a hard-drinking town, even by the standards of the day, and Flynn had apparently begun running with a fast crowd. At midseason, he was one of seven players that Anson fined for “breaking the rules relating to temperate habits while off duty.” In his 1900 memoir, A Ball Player’s Career, Anson credited Flynn with being “a good fellow,” but alluded to the pitcher’s “attempting to keep up the clip with so-called friends, found the pace much too rapid for him and fell by the wayside.”

Flynn’s predilection for hard living might have been overlooked had his arm bounced back, but it never did. He played one game in 1887, in the outfield, and had to leave when the first ball he handled in right field split his finger. He was released soon after.

Flynn’s one last shot in professional baseball was likely the result of an old friend giving him a chance. The manager in Omaha in 1888 was Frank Selee, who not long after moved on to Boston for a managerial career that would land him in the Hall of Fame. He was also Flynn’s first manager, in Lawrence. Flynn split two pitching decisions for the Omahogs, but by then it was apparent to management he’d never return to form.

After knocking around in various low minor leagues for two more years, Flynn returned to Lawrence at the age of 25. He married, and moved between various jobs ; at one point, he and Moolic each owned and ran bars. At 42, he died of pneumonia, only hours before his wife also passed, leaving four orphaned children.

So, was it the drink that did in Jocko Flynn, or merely a bum arm? For someone who had a fairy-tale introduction to the major leagues, he seemed fated to continue paying for that bright moment for the rest of his life. Consider that thousand-mile stare in his Ars Longa card . . . is he wondering “How did I get here?”


So, what really drew me to Ars Longa? It would be simple enough to say that the cards are gorgeous, that you can get lost assimilating every little detail and every vibrant color. But more than that, it’s that every player pictured has a story. Some perhaps more riveting than others, but from the future Hall of Famers down to the journeymen, they all have a story. And for the average baseball fan, they’re stories to which we’re rarely exposed.

Perhaps it’s because what’s considered the modern era of baseball so neatly begins with a new century, but the professional game in the 1800s seems too often to be regarded as a foreign country, one that bears no resemblance to what came after. To be sure, the first quarter century of the professional game saw constant change, an annual tinkering with the rules, the distances and the mechanics of the game that finally resulted in the perfect mix we know today. The tinkering has never really ended; changes are made whenever either pitching or hitting gains too much preeminence, but the game that was delivered to the beginning of the 20th Century is one we easily recognize today.

Yes, 19th Century baseball was different, but what wasn’t different was the people involved. Very quickly, a class of professional ball players developed along with the game. Perhaps they were a little more colorful than those taking part in today’s corporatized game. There was nothing alien about them, yet with the exception of a handful of people like Mike Kelly or Cap Anson, the average fan has found it easy to ignore an exciting time in America’s Game.

They all had stories, just like 19th Century baseball as a whole is a very large, interesting story. When I began collecting Ars Longa cards, I began immersing myself in that story. Each new card, rather than just being an excuse to tick another item off a want list before immediately sticking it away in a cardboard box, became a new experience, a new reason to find out more. And suddenly, I was a collector again.

Of course, Ars Longa already knew this . . . take some time visiting this web site, check out the card images, but also read the well-done bios of players from an age of baseball that was wilder and woolier, but also quite familiar.

In a hobby that’s become predictable and too infrequently takes you back to the kind of joy that made you a collector in the first place, it’s a pleasure to enjoy something new, and fresh and vibrant . . . even if it was inspired by something quite old.


Sources:
The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball by David Nemec
Major League Baseball Profiles 1871-1900, Vols. 1 and 2 by David Nemec
The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball by David Nemec
baseball-reference.com
Jocko Flynn by Justin Murphy, The SABR Baseball Biography Project (sabr.org )