A Missing Major Leaguer: What Happened to Fred Osborne?

 

Fred Osborne’s entry in The Baseball Encyclopedia: The Complete and Official Record of Major League Baseball.

When researching two-way players, I came across one Fred Osborne, who pitched and played left field for Pittsburgh in 1890. But a startling line in Osborne’s Wikipedia bio veered my research in a different direction.

Died: Unknown

It’s not just his Wikipedia page. I looked him up on baseball-reference, on Baseball Almanac, in baseball encyclopedias and baseball books. None of them listed Osborne’s death date, as they did for other deceased major leaguers. 

It turns out Osborne’s not alone. Of the 9,812 former major leaguers who have passed away, 162 have unknown death details. Many of these mystery men played a handful of games or less. But Osborne had 40 major league hits and threw 58 major league innings. How could someone so accomplished disappear?

Prolific researcher Peter Morris wrote a book about investigations like these and titled it Cracking Baseball’s Cold Cases: Filling in the Facts About 17 Mystery Major Leaguers. Morris and other members of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Biographical Research Committee mine genealogy sites, newspaper archives, census data and old city directories to track down missing death dates. Their countless discoveries have updated and corrected baseball encyclopedias and websites. 

Morris’ book doesn’t feature Osborne, but his chapters on other players describe strategies that could help me solve this case. It was time to use his methods and learn more about Fred Osborne.

Osborne was born in Canada in 1865 and raised in Iowa. He won the New Mexico League batting title in 1888 and captured another batting crown in 1889 while playing for Aspen of the Colorado State League, a circuit that somehow completed its schedule with an odd number of teams (five). 

Midway through the 1890 season, Osborne was approaching his third straight batting title, hitting .397 in the Tri-State League for Wheeling, a city in West Virginia 60 miles from Pittsburgh. He also posted an undefeated record in fill-in pitching appearances, with game recaps mentioning his swerving curveball. But Osborne didn’t finish the season with those Wheeling Nailers. 

The Pittsburgh Alleghenys, one year before renaming themselves “Pirates,” acquired Osborne in July 1890 as an outfielder/pitcher hybrid experiment. Pittsburgh’s willingness to use a two-way rookie that year was no surprise, since the 1890 Alleghenys were desperate for hitting, pitching, fielding, and everything else. The team went 23-113, setting a franchise record for losses that still stands. They drew only 16,000 fans, 115,000 fewer than the Cincinnati Reds.

Osborne couldn’t match his minor league success in the National League, batting .238 with one home run in 168 at-bats for Pittsburgh, while going 0-5 with an 8.38 ERA in eight pitching appearances, walking three times more batters than he struck out. The Alleghenys lost 33 of 34 games in a woeful late-season stretch and released multiple players, including Osborne. He never returned to the majors.

He was back in the minors as an outfielder/pitcher in 1891, splitting the season between the St. Paul Apostles, Portland Gladiators, and Walla Walla Walla Wallas, proving that outlandish minor league team names aren’t a new trend. Box scores show Osborne often batted in the middle of the order, sometimes starting games on the mound before moving to the outfield in the late innings.  

An 1891 Pacific Northwestern League box score printed in the Statesman Journal

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After a brief stint with the California League’s Oakland Colonels in 1892, Osborne hung up his spikes and settled in Walla Walla, Washington, one of the stops on his 1891 journey. Then his trail went cold for more than a decade. U.S. Federal Census documents, even the ones that misspelled his name “Osborn,” didn’t give any clues. Early 1900s Walla Walla city directories didn’t provide evidence either. 

Where did Osborne go after his playing career? I assumed there wasn’t a 154-year-old former ballplayer walking around Walla Walla in 2019. 

Osborne reemerged in public records in 1905, which is when this story took a jolting twist:

From The Evening Statesman, August 19, 1905

The newspaper elaborated beneath its disturbing headline. “Fred Osborne, a former ball player and a painter by trade, was arrested by Officer Goodwin at the Walla Walla hospital this afternoon on a charge of insanity,” the article said. “His present trouble is said to be due to differences between himself and his wife. They separated several months ago, Mrs. Osborne going to Portland. Osborne made his home here and worked at his trade, supporting his one child.”

Osborne was sent to Washington’s Medical Lake asylum. 

These developments were saddening to read. I was hoping Osborne vanished because of something like a name change or a move out of the country. This was not the outcome I had hoped my research would uncover.

But Morris warned about this in Cracking Baseball’s Cold Cases, explaining that there was usually a reason why these guys fell off the grid. “Missing ballplayers frequently were hard to trace precisely because of unhappiness in their lives,” he wrote. “In fact, since any player still missing after all these years has frustrated generations of researchers, I now work on the assumption that some calamitous event is going to befall any missing player.”

Sure enough, on September 3, 1907, The Evening Statesman reported grim news. “Notice of the death of Fred Osborne, who died from exhaustion from dementia at the Medical Lake asylum, has been filed with the clerk of the county court.”

While it settled what happened to Osborne, The Evening Statesman’s summary didn’t deliver the goal of this expedition, finding Osborne’s date of death. 

The Medical Lake asylum has since been renamed Eastern State Hospital. A friendly employee there named Judy took my call and told me the hospital has a genealogist named Elie. I was transferred to Elie and after a moment of understandable confusion about the reason for my call, Elie offered to check the hospital’s cemetery records.

“Fred Osborne is buried here,” she said. “He died on August 31, 1907.”

References and Resources

Baseball Almanac
baseball-reference.com
Cracking Baseball’s Cold Cases: Filling in the Facts about 17 Mystery Major Leaguers
Democrat and Chronicle
Eastern State Hospital
Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball
FamilySearch.org
Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 1
mlb.com/pirates/history
Pittsburgh Daily Post
Retrosheet.org
SABR Biographical Research Committee newsletters
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Spokane Chronicle
Statesman Journal

The Baseball Encyclopedia
The Evening Republican
The Evening Statesman
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires
The Semi-Weekly Spokesman-Review

The Weekly Gazette
The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer

U.S. Federal Census records
Walla Walla, Washington City Directories
West Virginia Baseball: A History, 1865-2000


Tim Hagerty is the broadcaster for the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas and has written for MLB.com and The Sporting News. Follow him on Twitter @MinorsTeamNames.
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Johnston
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Johnston

Well done. Thank you.

Brian
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Member
Brian

Great story, wonderful research. I’m with the last guy: Thank you.

jarhead659
Member
jarhead659

An asylum wasn’t a good place to be – back then or now for that matter. I’ve done a lot of family history, and several of my ancestors were sent to asylums for various reasons – none of them came out alive. Thank you for the article, if the universe turns as it should a relative of Mr. Osborne will read this and realize that was his great-great-great-uncle Fred – and closure is a wonderful thing.