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.


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.


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 . . .


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.


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.”


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.


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

Did they get it right?

Is there any sports award that, by its very nature, incites more controversy and consideration than the one given to the Most Valuable Player?

Think about it: it’s not “Player of the Year, ” or “Most Outstanding.” It’s “Most Valuable.” The point is debated annually, and the answer is fluid, depending on the specific circumstances of each season. Consider that Andre Dawson and Kirk Gibson won the award in the National League in back-to-back seasons, 1987-88. Look at the numbers for each player. Then look at their teams’ place in the standings. Same award, but two very different routes to getting there. And, in both cases, the award was deserved.

I was thinking about such things while pouring over the voting records for the Chalmers Award, in Bill Deane’s 1988 SABR-produced booklet “Award Voting.” The Chalmers, given out from 1911-14, was an early precursor of the Most Valuable Player Award, which finally found an official home in 1931 with the Baseball Writers Association of America. But it wasn’t cursed with the words “most valuable” in its title. How did the voters of the day approach their responsibility?

It turns out that the situation wasn’t so different from the one today.

*** 1910 ***

The Chalmers Award arose out of a well-documented marketing fiasco. In 1910, with horseless carriages becoming more and more prevalent on what passed for roads in the United States, Hugh Chalmers saw the opportunity for a little free, high-profile publicity. He announced that the player who finished the season with the highest batting average would be the recipient of a Chalmers “30,” the company’s popular roadster.

With the National League batting leader, Sherry Magee, some 50 points behind the American League leaders, the competition came down to Ty Cobb, the tempestuous young Detroit outfielder, and Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie, the hard-hitting veteran second baseman. As more attention was focused on the batting race, a summer’s worth of charges of favoritism in official scoring was unleashed, and Cobb, in particular, came under criticism for caring more for personal gain than what was good for the team. How it hurt the Tigers that Cobb batted .532 over the last month of the season has never been explained, but in 1910, athletic competition was primarily about team accomplishments. For some in the media and in the bleachers, striving for individual honors was unseemly. And besides, Cobb already owned a Chalmers “30.”

Things, as it turned out, could only get worse. Cobb, holding a big advantage, elected to sit out the Tigers’ finale. Lajoie, meanwhile, had a doubleheader against hapless St. Louis. Browns’ manager Jack O’Connor started a rookie, Red Corriden, at third base and told him to play back on the outfield grass. That was too much of an invitation to pass up; Lajoie, after hitting a triple in his first at-bat, bunted six times for hits in the two games. In his final at-bat, he reached base on an error. An attempt was reportedly made after the game by Browns officials to bribe the official scorer to change the error to a hit. Why? Perhaps because Cobb was that much hated around the league, perhaps because Lajoie was a respected member of the old guard. Whatever the case, O’Connor’s anything-but-subtle machinations didn’t fool anyone.

As one can imagine, the sorry chain of events left baseball with a black eye. When competing sets of numbers were crunched (remember, there was no automatic updating on the Internet in 1910), Cobb was announced the winner, .385-.384.

Hugh Chalmers at least had enough sense to give each player an automobile, and in an attempt to smooth things over, he came up with a new proposal: beginning in 1911, Chalmers would award an auto to a player in each league who “should prove himself as the most important and useful player to his club and to the league at large in point of deportment and value of services rendered.”


Sounds a lot like “most valuable,” doesn’t it? What was also similar to today was that the voting would be done by members of the media, one from each city in each league. Each writer would vote for eight players, with his top pick receiving eight points, down to one point for his eighth choice.

The award lasted for four seasons, and slips quite nicely into the Ars Longa scheme of things between the 1910-oriented Pilgrims set and the Diamond Heads ’15

So, how did sportswriters handle these issues, a century ago? Any better or worse than today’s voters? Then as now, once the ballots have been counted and the award given, it still comes down to one’s own point of view . . .

*** 1911 ***

Considering that Cobb was at the center of a controversy about pursuit of individual honors ahead of his team’s success just a year earlier, it’s perhaps peculiar that the Detroit outfielder became the first and only player to win the Chalmers Award unanimously. But how can you argue with a .420 batting average, a .621 slugging percentage, 47 doubles, 24 triples and 127 RBIs . . . all of which led the American League?

While the AL vote was thoroughly one-sided, the National League was the tightest that the Chalmers’ Award would ever see. Only 10 voting points separated the leader from the two players who tied for seventh, and the winning total of 29 was the only time a Chalmers’ winner would receive less than half of the highest possible total.

The writers picked Frank Schulte, Chicago’s power-hitting outfielder, who led the league in home runs (21), RBIs (107) and slugging (.534). He edged out Christy Mathewson, who polled 25 points after a 26-13 season.

Did they get it right? It’s hard to argue with the credentials of the winners, although in each case the award went to a player on the league runner-up. Mathewson and Rube Marquard (24-7) were among five New York Giants who split the vote for the NL champions.

One interesting total was that of Miller Huggins, best known as the Hall of Fame manager of some of the greatest New York Yankee teams. In 1911, he was a scrappy second baseman for St. Louis, and he placed sixth in the voting after a season in which he hit .261 and drove in 24 runs. His leadership and defensive skills were no doubt the basis for that support; voters must have figured that anyone who could spark the perennial cellar-dwelling Cardinals to a winning record (75-74) must be valuable indeed.

*** 1912 ***

Reportedly, both Cobb and Schulte asked not to be considered for the award following their victories the previous year, which calls into question whether or not people had figured out the concept of a most valuable player for the season. But, then, how many Chalmers “30s” does one need in one’s driveway?

Apparently, not everyone got the memo, as Cobb polled 17 points, but he wasn’t a factor.

Since 1912 was a year of incredible pitching feats, it’s not surprising that Chicago’s Ed Walsh (27-17), Washington’s Walter Johnson (33-12) and Boston’s Joe Wood (34-5) all finished in the top five. But the 1912 vote was actually a good example of the trouble the voters had when considering pitchers against every-day players (an issue that exists to this day), because no other pitcher picked up a single vote. It was a little better in the National League, where five pitchers collected votes, but between the two leagues, there were eight 20-game winners who couldn’t even manage an eigth-place vote. Larry Cheney of the Cubs and Eddie Plank of the Athletics, a pair of 26-game winners, were both ignored.

The winners were Tris Speaker of the Red Sox and Larry Doyle of the Giants, the top field players for the two league champs. Speaker, who led the league with 75 extra-base hits and finished third with a .383 batting average (Cobb led at .409), easily outdistanced Walsh, finishing second for the second year in a row, 59-30. Doyle edged Honus Wagner of the Pirates, 48-43.

Did they get it right? If you rule out pitchers, then, yes, probably. But one can’t help but wonder if three pitchers having superior years (each of them finishing in the top three in ERA, victories and strikeouts) may have been one or two too many for the voters. Wood certainly would seem to have had a most-valuable-caliber season, particularly with his team winning the pennant by 14 games, but two other pitchers outpolled him.

In the NL, Doyle and Wagner had close to the same numbers (10 home runs, 91 RBIs, .330 average for Doyle, 7-101-.324 for Wagner), but the Giants did win the pennant.

But here’s something to consider: the Cubs’ Heinie Zimmerman batted .372 and hit 14 home runs, both league-leading totals. In March of 2015, a SABR researcher finished a research project that confirmed that the RBI totals established for the first MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia in 1969 were wrong, and that Zimmerman had five more RBIs than originally credited, pushing his total to 104 and passing Wagner. Zimmerman, in fact, won the Triple Crown, the crediting of which was delayed, oh, only 103 years.

Would that fact have influenced the voters? Probably not . . . Zimmerman’s overwhelming advantage over Doyle ad Wagner in batting average was already known, and not enough to get him higher than sixth in the voting with 16 points.

*** 1913 ***

The supposition that too many outstanding pitching seasons might make it impossible for any one pitcher to win a Chalmers Award got support from what happened one year later, when Walter Johnson had the pitching performance of all pitching performances.

The Senators’ star won the AL pitching Triple Crown, and it wasn’t even close. His 36 victories, 1.14 ERA and 243 strikeouts were all so far ahead of the runners-up in each category that it wasn’t even funny. With him, Washington finished second, six-and-a-half games behind the champion Athletics. Without him, they were 54-57.

Still Johnson wasn’t a unanimous pick. He polled 54 points, 11 more than runner-up Joe Jackson, who batted .373 and led the league in hits (197) and slugging (.551).

Jackson did not lead the league in batting however, that honor again going to Cobb at .390 . . . for which he received a total of three points in the voting. Perhaps, in the wake of his 1911 victory, Cobb had again asked voters not to consider him. Or perhaps it was karma in action. Cobb took great delight in telling the story of how he psychologically knocked Jackson out of the 1911 batting race (when both topped .400), by giving the fellow Southerner the impression that Cobb no longer considered him as a friend. Jackson’s average dropped, and Cobb took the batting title. Two years later, Cobb again was the batting leader, but Jackson appeared to have picked up more respect from the voters.

In the National League, Jake Daubert, Brooklyn’s stylish first baseman, won the honor over runner-up Gavvy Cravath of the Phillies, 50-40.

Did they get it right: Walter Johnson? Absolutely. Jake Daubert? Well . . . absolutely not.

Daubert, by all accounts, was one of the finest fielding first basemen of his era, a Hal Chase without the baggage of questionable integrity. He led the NL with a .350 batting average, which helped Brooklyn to a 65-84 record and sixth place.

Cravath finished second with a .341 batting average, and that nine points difference cost him the Triple Crown. He led the league with 19 home runs, and blew away the competition with 128 RBIs. His team finished second behind the Giants.

Daubert was well-liked by the fans and the media, and was generally considered the best all-around first baseman in the game. Cravath was considered something of a lummox, not the kind of sleek, speedy fielder that was prized at the time. His power-hitting was considered a bit of an aberration, since he played in Philadelphia’s snug Baker Bowl, with invitingly short distances down the foul lines.

This is what F.C. Lane of Baseball Magazine, one of the most respected scribes of the day, had to say in naming Cravath to the magazine’s annual National League all-star team:

“No doubt the most conspicuous outfielder in the list is Cactus Cravath of the Phillies. This sturdy hitsmith has battered his way to the top by his dizzying success of two-base cracks and home runs. He fell a bit short of Daubert in the popular choice for the Chalmers’ trophy, but he is unquestionably one of the most valuable players in the league. Cravath is unfortunately rather slow in the field, though an earnest and industrious worker. His leaden footed tactics, however, are lost sight of in his tremendous batting, the most valuable of talents in an outfielder.”

You can imagine Lane holding his nose with one hand while typing out praise with the other. The truth was, Cravath wasn’t really such a bad fielder. He was usually among the league leaders in assists for outfielders, and he didn’t make any more errors that his peers. No doubt the perception was that he also didn’t get to as many balls as a speedier outfielder might have.

And, remember, although some teams and organizations did track them, RBIs weren’t an official statistic until 1920. Most of what we recognize as the statistical realities of a century ago have been retro-engineered by several generations of hard-working researchers, pouring over microfilmed play-by-plays of games to make sure the statistics that have been passed down through the decades are accurate. Plus, voters in 1913 didn’t have the benefit of knowing that Cravath led the National League that year in Offensive WAR, OPS, Runs Created, Adjjusted OPS+, Adjusted Batting Runs, Adjusted Batting Wins and Offensive Win %, Heck, I barely even know what any of that means. But I think it meant that Cravath did pretty well.

The sad fact is that poor ol’ Gavvy never got the respect that his offensive output in the deadball era should have earned him. And he should have won the Chalmers that year.

*** 1914 ***

There’s a fairly well known picture of Eddie Collins and Johnny Evers, captains of their respective teams, shaking hands before the 1914 World Series. Any second baseman who ever felt overlooked and underappreciated ought to have a copy of that picture framed and hung over the mantelpiece, because for second sackers, it didn’t get any better than ’14.

Collins won the Chalmers in the AL with a near-unanimous vote, seven first-place votes and one for second. All four members of the Athletics’ “$100,000 Infield” placed in the top 16 that year, but Collins was clearly the best, leading the league in runs (122), batting .344, stealing 58 bases and anchoring the best lineup in the American League.

Evers won in the NL despite teammates Rabbit Maranville and Bill James nearly splitting the vote, finishing second and third. But how could anyone but the field leader of the “Miracle Braves” be honored, in a season that, more than 100 years later, still gives hopes to any cellar dweller that something magical can happen during the dog days of summer?

Did they get it right? Yes. This was just one of those years when being considered the leader of the best team was going to trump any big numbers. Phillies fans might make the case that Sherry Magee (15 home runs, 103 RBIs, .314 average) had the best year at the plate, certainly more impressive than Evers (1-40-.279). But 1914 belonged to the Braves. ‘Nuf said.

On the American League side, Collins likely benefited from Jackson, Cobb and Johnson having average seasons . . . or at least, average for players of their magnitude. Collins’ closest competition came from Sam Crawford, who led the league with 104 RBIs and 26 triples at age 34.

As a side note, Collins also became the first “MVP” to be sold off before the next season, moving to the Chicago White Sox on Dec. 8, 2014. That was the first step in the dismantling of the first Athletics powerhouse. Connie Mack is renowned as a Hall of Fame owner and manager, but the modern-day owner with whom he has the most in common is Miami’s Jeffrey Luria. Each of those executives broke up championship-caliber teams (twice each!) when the financial numbers no longer made sense.


All eight Chalmers winners are featured on Ars Longa cards; in fact, all four of the American League winners are in both the Pilgrims and Diamond Heads ’15 sets. And of the 86 players featured in those two sets who were active between 1911-14, 54 of them received votes. Lew McCarty? Three points in 1914. Frank LaPorte? Two points in 1911. George McBride? Twelve points, with at least one vote in each season. Eddie Collins? One hundred and forty-three points, the most of any player.

The Chalmers Award was quietly retired after 1914, and the company went out of business by 1923, saddled with post-war debt, and was absorbed into the Chrysler Corporation. It’s name lives on, though, in automotive circles certainly, but also within the world of baseball. Perhaps not in the way that Hugh Chalmers might have chosen, but a place in sports history is still . . . a place in sports history.


Chalmers ad


When the Spotlight Goes Off

“So, what do you do for a living?”

No, I’m not asking, merely musing on the concept of self-identification. If you do something very well under the public spotlight for relatively few years, is that “something” who you are? Even if you spend many more years in later life doing something else?

There are few careers more public than that of a professional athlete. Because of the physical skills required, it’s a career that’s by nature relatively short. At any age at which most of us would consider ourselves to still be young and in our professional prime, an athlete finds that he or she must deal with the second chapter of their adult lives far earlier than the rest of us.

The modern baseball player, if he manages his money well, can find himself in position, after six-to-eight years in the big leagues, to never have to work another day in his life, if he so chooses. Or better put, he can pick and choose his next move to his own liking. But players in the Dead Ball Era, although they made more than the general populace, found things a bit more precarious — particularly when you consider that they would be beyond their playing years when the Depression hit in the 1930s.

For most players of that time, an end to their playing days meant a return to the general workforce. After all, they had bills to pay.


In 2007, McFarland published an intriguing book with the less-than-intriguing name of Major League Baseball Players of 1916. The author, an English professor and baseball fan named Paul Batesel, was looking to take a snapshot of the average ballplayer from early in the 20th Century, and did so by researching every player in both leagues to play even a single game that season.

The book reads like an encyclopedia, which, after all, it is. This is not the place to go to read thrilling tales about Walter Johnson‘s 36-win season in 1913. It is the place to go to learn that after retiring in 1927, Johnson raised purebred cattle on a Maryland farm and entered state politics, before returning to baseball to manage the Senators and Indians and later serving as a radio announcer for the Senators. He was only 59 when he died of a brain tumor in 1946.

So what happened to these men, removed from the spotlight between the foul lines?

Not surprisingly, many of them stayed in baseball as long as they could. Minor leagues were independent in the pre-war era (both wars, for that matter), and offered many players a chance to keep competing after the majors had cut them loose. Beyond that, there was always coaching and managing.

Chief Bender was the coach at the Naval Academy in the 1920s, before returning to the Athletics as a coach. “Colby Jack” Coombs didn’t return to his alma mater, but did coach the baseball team at Duke University for a quarter of a century. Larry Gardner did return to his alma mater, the University of Vermont, where he served a baseball coach and athletic director.

Donie Bush spent 65 years in baseball, as a manager, minor league team owner and scout. Hans Lobert had a similar experience, coaching at West Point and with several major league teams before spending the last two decades of his life as a scout.

Max Carey managed in the majors and minors, and helped establish the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II. Larry Doyle remained in the Giants’ organization after his playing days; when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1942, the team sent him to the same sanitarium in Saranc Lake, N.Y. where Christy Mathewson spent his last days. Doyle’s ending was happier, however. He was released 12 years later and retired to that small lake town.

Sherry Magee gave umpiring a try, but a year after returning to the National League in that capacity, he died of pneumonia at 44.

Half of the “$100,000 Infield” ended up in college coaching. Jack Barry, after several years of running an automobile agency, returned to his alma mater of Holy Cross, where he spent more than three decades, coaching the Crusaders to the 1952 NCAA championship. Stuffy McInnis spent a quarter of a century in college coaching, including a stint at Harvard. Barry’s double-play partner, Eddie Collins, had a long career as vice president, treasurer and business manager of the Red Sox.

Frank Baker went another direction. The home-run hero of the Atheltics teams of the early 1910s returned to his hometown in Maryland and bought up land where he could farm and raise hunting dogs.

Babe Adams, the hero of the 1909 World Series, operated a farm in Missouri before World War II and another in Maryland afterwards. George Gibson and Vean Gregg, both Canadians, returned to their home country to farm.

For some who didn’t stay in baseball, other sporting activities offered employment. Rube Marquard, Heinie Groh and Buck Herzog all worked at race tracks. Ray Schalk ran a bowling alley. Honus Wagner owned a sporting goods business that was wiped out by the Depression; fortunately, the Pirates were ready with an offer of a coaching position.

What of baseball’s most famous double-play combination? Frank Chance, who’d had a history of injuries and ailments during his career, died young at 48, having spent his post-playing days as a manager in the majors and minors. Johnny Evers, like Wagner, owned a sporting good store, and was appointed stadium superintendent in Albany, N.Y. Joe Tinker managed his money well until his Florida real estate investments went belly-up during the Depression. He bounced back, running a pool hall and opening a bar, and worked at the Orlando, Fla. airfield during World War II.

Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and Stan Coveleski each owned service stations in Indiana, Brown in Terre Haute and Coveleski in South Bend. Ed Walsh retired to Connecticut and was employed by the Meridan Water Plant. Jim “Hippo” Vaughn worked in a refrigeration assembly factory.

Some players did quite well for themselves, financially. Ty Cobb got in on the ground floor of investing in Coca Cola. Bill McKechnie had lucrative land and oil investments in Florida. Gavvy Cravath not only did well with real estate in Laguna Beach, CA, he also served as Justice of the Peace in that city for 36 years.

The Red Sox “Golden Outfield” spread across the country. Harry Hooper spent a quarter of a century as the postmaster in Capitola, CA. Duffy Lewis spent 30 years as the traveling secretary for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves. Tris Speaker made a living out of being Tris Speaker; he was a regular on the banquet circuit and was president of Tris Speaker, Inc., a wholesake wine and liquor company in Cleveland, before retiring to his native Texas.

Fred Snodgrass ran an electrical appliance business in Oxnard, CA, where he also served as mayor. Terry Turner, who patrolled the hot corner for so many years in Cleveland, went on to become the Chief Superintendent of Streets in that city. Heinie Zimmerman ran a speakeasy for gangster Dutch Schultz. Ed Konetchy owned a restaurant and chicken ranch in Fort Worth, Texas.

Zach Wheat did a little of everything. A native of Missouri, he was running a farm in Caldwell County even while playing with the Dodgers, but lost it in the Depression. His post-baseball resume includes managing a bowling alley, serving on the Kansas City police force, running a hunting resort in the Lake of the Ozarks and working in a Wichita defense plant during World War II.

As if fate hadn’t already saddled him with enough to carry, Fred Merkle‘s investments were largely lost in the Depression. Afterwards, he was a partner in a company that made fishing equipment. Slim Sallee may win the award for persistence. After his baseball career was over, he put his money into an ice plant, a service station and a restaurant in his hometown of Higginsport, Ohio. He lost everything when the Ohio River flooded in 1937. He bounced back by tending bar and finally purchasing “Slim’s Cafe.”

The downward spiral of Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander after his playing career is one of baseball’s saddest chapters. Dealing with epilepsy, alcoholism and the lingering effects of a World War I shrapnel injury, he lived on the fringes and got by with a series of odd jobs. He did a stint playing with the House of David baseball team, worked in a penny arcade, retold the story of his strikeout of Tony Lazzeri in the 1926 World Series for patrons of a Times Square flea circus, and worked as a security guard at a defense plant, before dying of a heart attack at 63.

And then there were the Black Sox, the members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox drummed out of baseball for their involvement in the throwing of the World Series. If organized baseball had its druthers, they’d recede into anonymity, and that’s largely what they did. Most of them played for a few years on touring teams or in outlaw leagues that weren’t bothered by baseball’s ban, but as their skills diminished they moved on to the next stage of life.

Lefty Williams ran a pool room in Chicago for a few years before moving to California, finally ending up in Laguna Beach, where he ran a garden nursery business. Fred McMullin worked as a carpenter before later making a career as a Los Angeles County deputy marshal. Swede Risberg landed in the Northern California town of Weed, where he operated a tavern for nearly two decades.

Buck Weaver, who proclaimed his innocence to the end and unsuccessfully petitioned baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis for reinstatement numerous times, worked in the pari-mutuels department of Chicago racetracks. Happy Felsch opened a grocery store, then later ran a tavern. At 58, he started a new career as a crane operator, one that lasted until his retirement at 71.

Chick Gandil, the man who drove the conspiracy from the inside and is believed to have pocketed the greater portion of the money used to fund the throwing of the games, moved to Berkeley, CA, and became a plumber. Joe Jackson, the man who became the symbol for the American tragedy that was the Black Sox scandal, played for independent teams as long as he could, then retired to his home in Greenville, S.C. For years he ran a successful liquor store before dying of a heart attack at 63.

Eddie Cicotte, a native of Detroit, remained in that city but used another name to protect his family. He worked for the Ford Motor Company until 1944, then spent the last 25 years of his life on a farm near Farmington, MI, raising strawberries. On his death certificate, his occupation was listed as “baseball player.”


Almost every player listed in this piece has an Ars Longa card. You can view some in the pastoral hues of the Pilgrim series, others with the striking backgrounds of the Diamond Heads ’15 cards. Either way, they look forever young and strong, heroes to a growing sports fandom.

But eventually the spotlight was turned off. And like all of us, they had to pay the bills . . .

Major League Baseball Players of 1916 by Paul Batesel
SABR Bio Project (