Kill That Goose! A Brief History of Baseball Most Fowl

When a goose flew onto the outfield grass during a sixth-inning rain delay at Comerica Park on May 30, few could have guessed it would prove to be a harbinger of good fortune for the Tigers, a team slowly finding its wings a third of the way through the season.

Chased by the grounds crew, the goose struggled to generate the lift necessary to take off (not unlike the rest of the AL Central). When it finally got airborne, it almost immediately careened into a video banner. Falling to the lower deck, it was scooped up by a veterinarian in the crowd who took it to Michigan State’s wildlife ward, where it was treated and released safely back into the wild.

But the goose had made its presence known.

When play resumed, the Tigers rallied for five runs against the Angels to snatch a win. It was the first in a string of four straight victories, each one potentially ascribable to nothing if not the enigmatic power of the newly-christened “Rally Goose,” which the next day manifested itself once more in the form of a plastic goose decoy that players perched on the dugout. A loss to the Blue Jays that Sunday drew assurances from Tigers players that the Rally Goose is here to stay. Take a long look back at baseball history, however, and it’s clear the goose has been with the game since the beginning.

Down through the years, a menagerie of goats, cats, monkeys, bees, possums and, most recently, eagles, have infested the margins of baseball lore. But the goose, albeit one of the more figurative variety, holds a special place of distinction—not as a totem of timely hitting, but as a full-blown agent of anarchy whose fickle reign of terror can trace its origins to the dawn of the National League.

Chronicling the newly formed National League for the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1876, John Haldeman frequently invoked the specter of a goose in his reporting on the hometown Louisville Grays. In fact, if you had to identify a unifying thread that ran through his coverage of their inaugural 30-36 campaign, it would be the comings and goings of the infernal goose—wholly a character of his own creation, but one which, by season’s end, had taken on a life of its own—stalking the league and doling out “goose eggs” with reckless abandon.

John Haldeman.

The goose first ran amok through the pages of the Courier-Journal on April 27 after Louisville lost a “badly contested game” 10-0 to Al Spalding’s visiting Chicago White Stockings. All too cognizant of the fact the Grays had dropped the season opener at home 4-0 two days prior, Haldeman sought to cover for the young club’s lack of punch with a hit of comic relief, ascribing Louisville’s “wretched” luck to fowl play:

“ O O O O O O O O O ”

“The above goose-eggs were a few days ago presented to Louisville by Chicago,” he wrote in his recap of the first week of league action. “Louisville turned them over to St. Louis to be returned, and yesterday at Grand Avenue Park, they were handed back [to Chicago] by the Brown Stockings, about 2,000 spectators evincing their appreciation of the act by loud and continued applause.”

“If anyone is anxious to ponder over the uncertainty of base-ball,” Haldeman went on to note, “let him take into consideration the fact that Chicago whitewashed Louisville, Louisville treated St. Louis in the same way, and St. Louis in turn goose-egged Chicago.”

Pretty is What Changes
Take notice, baseball. Few things endure just as they've always been, casual pursuits least of all.

Haldeman’s point was a fair one: in baseball, any outcome was possible on a given day. But Louisville would soon learn the St. Louis club had goose eggs to spare.

On May 10, following a 5-0 “whitewashing” at the hands of the Browns the day before, which dropped Louisville’s record to 2-5, Haldeman again invoked the goose to express his mounting dissatisfaction with the club’s lack of run production, this time in gastronomic terms:

“As an article of diet, we must candidly confess that ‘goose-eggs’ are not at all to our liking, but, if they are forced down us, all that we can do is to make a wry face and grin and bear it just as pleasantly as possible.”

The very next day, it was more of the same as Louisville again succeeded in “incubating a symmetrical series of ciphers on the grounds of the Browns.” Exasperated, Haldeman ran the headline: “KILL THAT GOOSE!” and speculated, “the principality of ‘goose-eggdom’ must be situated somewhere in the neighborhood of St. Louis.”

Though not yet 10 games into the ‘76 season, Haldeman’s assessment was not far from the mark. Over the course of the spring and summer, St. Louis pitcher George Bradley would prove adept at coaxing eggs from the goose and foisting them on opponents. On the back of a 1.23 ERA, the 23-year-old Bradley would lead the Browns to 45 wins against 19 losses—good for third place in the NL—tossing a league-leading 16 shutouts (still tied for a major league record), including the league’s first no-hitter on July 15. (Louisville’s own Jim Devlin had barely missed being the first to the feat months earlier, taking a no-hit bid into the eighth on May 23 against the Athletics at Philadelphia.)

Louisville departed St. Louis for Chicago by train early the morning of May 12 with no runs to show for their two-game swing. A day later, they fell to the White Stockings, 4-2. In spite of the loss, the Courier-Journal’s headline triumphantly declared, “THAT GOOSE COOKED.”

Another loss in Chicago dropped Louisville’s record to a lackluster 2-8, but even though the Grays had failed to cover themselves in glory on a 1-5 road trip, Haldeman relished to report the goose had stayed in the vicinity of St. Louis, relating “a very amusing incident” that took place in a game between the Browns and Cincinnati on Saturday, May 13:

A goose, which had been feeding in a remote corner of the park, strayed down and stood so close to Snyder, of the Cincinnatis, at left field, as to incommode him. The umpire accordingly called time and Snyder, without outstretched arms, proceeded to run the goose off the field, while the crowd was convulsed with laughter.”

“Now, it happened that this was the very goose that has been laying all the eggs which clubs have been treated to here, but of course Snyder didn’t know anything about it. If he had killed the goose and stopped the supply of eggs, the game would have terminated differently.”

“That goose,” Haldeman added, “has layed thirty-six eggs in eight days, and she hasn’t got through yet.” Indeed, the goose was only getting going.

The Grays steered well clear of further encounters until May 27 when the Athletics handed them a 9-0 result at Philadelphia, inspiring the headline, “Louisville Succeeds in Capturing a Handsome Goose.”

The goose next nipped Louisville in Hartford on June 17 during the Grays’ final stop of their first road swing east. Hartford ace Tommy Bond one-hit them en route to a 1-0 victory to sweep a three-game series. Both teams then hopped the train to Louisville to continue the series. The goose tagged along.

Playing at home on June 22, “THAT FESTIVE GOOSE” was at it again; Louisville “securing nine eggs” to Hartford’s eight. Hartford broke the eggy deadlock in the ninth, “pasting” Louisville’s Jim Devlin “quite merrily” for three runs on four hits, while the Grays once more failed to “paste” Hartford’s Bond “worth a cent.” (The same day, the Athletics “took a nest” from St. Louis, thanks to eggs-pert throwing by the Browns’ George Bradley.)

“Let us have many more such exhibitions as we were treated to yesterday,” Haldeman wrote the following day in his recap of the game—Louisville’s eighth time being shut out on the year. “With one run on our side, we will not complain. We don’t like goose-eggs.”

Two days later, Louisville finally got to Bond, rattling the “parabolic pitcher” for 15 hits and a 7-2 win. “Runs beget confidence,” Haldeman noted, hardly immune from his own analysis as he ran the headline, “BOND CANCELLED.” Victory finally in hand, he waxed poetic on the team’s earlier defeat, publishing four couplets under the title, “Mother Goose’s Lays—As Suggested by Thursday’s Whitewash”:

Snyder, dear Snyder, come home to us now,
The man at the bat has struck three;
All hope is lost! The crowd has dispersed
Because they have nothing to see.
Sommerville is wild, Allison feels queer,
The air rings with vile abuse,
And the stockholders hope, as they count the eggs,
Some day to strangle that goose.

Not a few lines later, Haldeman brought his mock epic to its wryly-wrought end:

The Louisvilles had a little goose,
Which they thought firm and true,
And everywhere the Louisvilles went
That little goose went too:
It followed them to Hartford once,
And straight back home again,
But yesterday that little goose
Was captured and was slain.

But the goose was not dead, only vanquished for a spell. By September, Louisville had managed to pick up its play somewhat (during the team’s better stretches, Haldeman bombastically styled them “The Bluegrass Giants”) and harness the goose to their own ends.

“This time, the Louisvilles are the distributors of the fruit of the goose,” Haldeman crowed after the club blanked the Athletics 3-0 at Philadelphia on September 15. “The [Philadelphia] boys, who won’t be able to fulfill their engagements by coming out West and finishing their series of games, were given, as parting gifts, nine ovals of pearly whiteness.” (The insolvent Athletics would later be expelled from the National League for failing to play out the last road trip of the season.)

But even with the aid of stellar pitching and hitting from Jim “Terror” Devlin, who logged 622 innings with a 1.56 ERA and batted a team-leading .315 despite an injury-wracked season, Louisville never quite got the better of the goose, which followed them to season’s end.

The Grays once again hosted “the crack nine of the east,” the Hartford Dark Blues, on back-to-back days in early October to close out the season. After dropping the first contest 6-0, Haldeman opined, “That goose still hovers near us. An old friend—that everlasting goose.”

With the season’s final game looming on the chilly afternoon of October 5, Haldeman wrote, regarding the feathered menace, “the Louisville boys better kill her to-day.” Clearly fed up with the club’s offensive foibles, he proffered a comical remedy for holding the goose at bay: “If the Louisville boys besmear themselves with snake oil this morning it may neutralize the effects of any goose that may be prowling around on the grounds this afternoon.”

But the damage was done.

“No matter how the game may turn out today,” Haldeman added soberly, “Louisville will take first place on the number of goose-eggs received.”

Later that day, before a small crowd and “a trio of half-frozen scorers,” Hartford succeeded in turning the goose loose on Louisville through five innings. Then rookie catcher Bill Holbert stepped to the plate with two outs in the sixth, “resolved to crack that goose in the eye.”

Holbert laced a hard grounder down the left field line and barely succeeded in scampering his way to third after a throwing error on the play. “The goose was now in dying condition,” Haldeman reported with equal parts snark and satisfaction. Next up, the Grays’ aptly-nicknamed first baseman “Move Up” Joe Gerhardt sent a “ground-hit past second,” which brought Holbert home.

“Simultaneously with the stroke,” Haldeman wrote, “her gooseship fell flat on her back, two feet flew up in the air, they gradually stiffened out and for the first time this season her heart ceased to vibrate, and she was really dead.”

However, like any great mythological monster, Haldeman’s goose left a looming legacy: “Seven or eight wee goslings mourn their mother’s untimely end and swear vengeance, but they will not be able to accomplish much until they attain their full growth, which will not occur until next spring.”

The Courier-Journal’s coverage of the ’76 Grays no doubt benefited from John Haldeman’s good-humored enthusiasm for baseball as well as a degree of creative license likely afforded him as son of the newspaper’s publisher, Walter N. Haldeman, who also owned the Grays and clearly understood the symbiotic relationship between growing the country’s interest in baseball and newspaper sales. (A year later, a 21-year-old Haldeman would earn the distinction of being the only baseball writer to play in a game he was also covering.)

Colorful reportage aside, Haldeman was onto something, despite little historical precedent and only the most rudimentary statistical data. In 1876, a “goose” really did stalk the league in the form of an outsize number of shutouts. It would just take another century and a half to prove Haldeman was not just a creative reporter, but a correct one.

In fact, the 1876 season is tied for 13th all-time in shutouts, with 9 percent of the total games that year seeing a team score zero runs. Thirteen of the top 16 years coincide with the Dead Ball Era (c.1900-1919), with 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher” and 1972 as the only other outliers. (The 1972 season holds the record for most shutouts in single day with eight, recorded June 4.) In terms of shutouts, the only other 19th-century seasons that come close are 1880 and 1881, at 8 percent of total games. The 2018 campaign has hovered between 6 and 7 percent, which brings us to the present.

No sooner did the Tigers believe they’d harnessed the power of the Rally Goose than it bit them right back in the form of a 6-0 goosing at the hands of the Yankees on June 5. (It did make a more helpful appearance against Cleveland on June 9, fulfilling the “rally” if not the “goose” part of its name.)

But it’s not just the Tigers the goose is turning on. One look around the majors this season, and it’s clear all teams have been playing in the goose’s shadow. Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats and Info notes, that as of May 30, there already had been 25 no-hit bids of six plus innings this season. Set that against 24 over the whole of 2017. June 1 witnessed five teams throw combined shutouts—the most on any day this season.

Fans everywhere would do well to watch out: That everlasting goose is up to its old tricks.

References and Resources

  • Louisville Courier-Journal, April 28, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, May 7, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, May 10, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, May 12, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, May 14, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, May 16, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, May 28, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, June 23, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, June 25, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, September 16, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, October 5, 1876
  • Louisville Courier-Journal, October 6, 1876

Matthew Leib is a writer and editor currently working on a historical novel about the Louisville Grays and the early days of the National League. A lifelong Mariners fan long before he came to be based in Seattle, he tweets about the team and baseball history at @Safeco330.

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