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.

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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?