Midnight, and the Countdown Ends and Begins

Hank Greenberg might be the best player in MLB history born on New Year’s Day. (via Library of Congress)

One ended up in the loony bin. One became the chief of police. The third invented the catcher’s mitt, and once his playing days were done he became baseball’s best-dressed manager, helming the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in lavender trousers, a cutaway suit coat, a shirt with a white starched collar, a colorful silk tie, a derby, and black patent leather shoes equipped with removable spikes, which he also invented. In that snazzy attire, the man they called Gunner led his team to two straight pennants in part by pioneering the dual talents of stealing signs and delivering signs.

What these three men had in common, aside from their stints in major league baseball, is that they entered this world on the same day: New Year’s Day, 1855. What they demonstrated, between cradle and grave, is that all sorts of trajectories can take hold of a life and turn events into biography.

Born in San Francisco as the grandson of a U.S. senator shot in the Civil War, Robert Stevens played just one game in the majors. It came on May 4, 1875, when the Washington Nationals right fielder went 1-for-4 and committed an error in his lone chance. Fifteen years later, with a condition made worse by drug use, Stevens was institutionalized at an asylum. Released, he entered the asylum again in 1893. Released again in 1897, this time to the care of his mother, he died in 1900.

Tom Mansell had a longer, better career and a longer, better life. The New York-born outfielder played parts of three seasons for six teams. Though he never homered, he did post a batting average of .305 in the 1883 campaign. He added 13 assists that season. Following his retirement, he embarked on a 44-year career in law enforcement. His obituary, published after his death at age 79, said simply that he was a “former nationally known ball player and chief of police in Kansas City, Kas.”

As for Bill “Gunner” McGunnigle, he split the difference. His career consisted of 58 games across two seasons, in which he posted a dismal .376 OPS as a batter but a stellar 2.81 ERA as a pitcher. He would finish his major league career without having delivered a gopher ball — 157 innings, no home runs.

Gunner had a gun for an arm. Hence the nickname. As a right fielder, he once threw out seven men in one game — at first base. On the season he threw out 28 — at first base. No matter his playing skills, he made his mark as a manager. This was a man who, as a minor league catcher, turned bricklayer’s gloves into the first mitt, and he displayed the same resourcefulness as a skipper. He gave signs by tapping bats and waving a scorecard. It was like telegraphy and semaphore, and it worked.

The Bridegrooms went 88-52 in his first year. He was also a sign stealer extraordinaire, pilfering signals from the opposing dugout and relaying them to his players. That worked, too. The Bridegrooms went 93-44 in his second season to capture the American Association pennant and 86-43 in his third season to secure the National League pennant after changing leagues.

So effective was his theft that Gunner wanted to out-Astro the Astros before the Astros were a thing. His idea was to position a metal plate in the batter’s box and then wire that plate to a button on the bench. Gunner would then press the button to send jolts to each batter, signaling which pitch was on its way. Gunner even got a cost estimate, but the electrician cautioned the current might prove a hazard.

Electricity did prove hazardous on July 22, 1897, when an electric trolley car collided with the horse-drawn carriage in which McGunnigle was riding. His injuries culminated in his death two years later at 44.

McGunnigle’s obituary, published in the Brockton Times on March 10, 1899, stated that “during 22 years of service (he) probably did as much, if not more, than any man in the Country for the advancement of the sport.”

High praise. But though the obit did mention his pennants, it didn’t mention Gunner had been part of baseball’s first pitching rotation; played in its first tripleheader; participated in two of its three tripleheaders; taken his Louisville Colonels team to the White House to meet an old friend, President Grover Cleveland, and made international news by asking Cleveland if he planned to run for reelection.

It also didn’t mention that his father, like Stevens’ grandfather, had been shot in the Civil War. The difference is in the details. On Oct. 21, 1861, Union Col. Edward D. Baker — Stevens’ grandfather — led a raid on what was reported to be an unguarded Confederate camp. Unguarded it was not. Baker took bullets to the head and heart and died instantly.

Three years later, in the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, McGunnigle’s Union-officer father, James, took a bullet to the chest. He survived. The bullet had struck a hunting watch he carried in the shirt pocket over his heart.

***

Baseball, You Make It Hard to Love You
Again, a scandal puts fans on the defensive about their game.

The space between birth and death, like the space between New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve, is anybody’s guess. Resolutions are well-intentioned and plans are penned in ink, but life comes along to put a kink in the course we envisioned. Luck arrives, with its good or bad allocations, to turn that carefully plotted day planner into an artifact of the counterfactual future.

A bullet strikes a pocket watch, or doesn’t.

A trolley strikes a carriage. It just does.

And yet in the meantime, one ex-player is in the midst of a long career in law enforcement while another is living with his mother and dying. Some events, though unexpected, might in hindsight seem as fated and inexorable as those that were meticulously arranged and carried out. Here at the cusp of New Year’s, in the hours that anchor Auld Lang Syne and the ball drop, we acknowledge what the year has in store: a collection of what we do know and also what we don’t. In the space between those diametric ends is what might be described as hey…you never know.

So…what do we know? Pitchers and catchers will report. Barring a geopolitical cataclysm or an environmental disaster, both ends of the battery will commence the rites of spring in the second week of February. The end of one countdown begets the beginning of another: The first spring games begin in the third week of February, and the final spring games begin in the fourth week of March. We also know between those bookend dates someone will complain spring training is too long, and all he needs is a couple of fungos and five at-bats and he’s ready for opening day.

We know, too, that Opening Day will inspire the usual optimism, fatalism and whatever abides between. A dozen teams will say, “It’s our year.” A dozen more will say, “Hey…you never know!” The half dozen others will still play the game because the games are slated for play. We know with the arrival of May, some teams will be “surprising” and others “disappointing.” We know with the arrival of October, most, if not all, of those surprising teams will be disappointed the surprise didn’t last.

In the meantime, all kinds of outcomes will have positioned themselves in the realm of the knowable, predictable, practically destined to be. The Yankees will have been the Yankees, soaking up ink and air time. And the Padres, no matter the depth of their farm system, will have been aggressively ignored.

What’s knowable, predictable, extends to the bleachers and TV rooms. In the space between the first inning and the final ninth, we fans will have whined about all manner of things. We’ll have whined about the juiced ball and the pace of play, about the three true outcomes and the lost art of the sacrifice bunt.

And yet on the other side of it, we will have marveled at what got us here in the first place: sizzling two-seamers that look impossible to hit, and batters so en fuego, so sizzling themselves, they seem impossible to retire. How do you reconcile a pair of unbeatable forces when one of them, in the end, is required to be beaten? You put them at either edge of 60 feet six inches and let them solve each other’s awesomeness in the space between the poles.

From the start, we’ll watch it unfold.

And what unfolds, in the end, is what has always unfolded: a collection of the knowable and the unforeseen. As always, it begins and ends with the players. Here at the end of one year and the onset of another, we acknowledge those players who, like Stevens and Mansell and McGunnigle, had their own beginnings on New Year’s Day.

As much as any calendar space, and arguably more than most, New Year’s Day has supplied to the National Pastime a group of men who embody what can go right in life, what can go wrong, and a bunch of stuff in between.

***

Baseball’s first New Year’s baby was a man named Harry Berthrong. Born in 1844, he reached The Show in 1871 and left it that same inaugural year. His obituary, published 84 years after his birth, made plain the precondition of everyone’s birth.

The headline: Henry W. Berthrong Claimed By Death.

It’s hardly headline news that death lays claim to everybody, and every body, at the first gasping breath. What happens between those polar events is what inspires ontological doctrines like determinism and nihilism as well as intoxicating spirits like whiskey and gin. Life’s a big old mystery, with fear and confusion as its primary drivers, and we mortals will turn to whatever might help us navigate the enigmas.

Some people master the challenge. Some don’t. And some, en route to whatever outcome appears assured, find their course at a crossing with one they didn’t see.

Berthrong posted a .547 OPS in his 17 games. He committed 15 errors in 70 chances. Still, for all his ills as a ballplayer, Berthrong earned his obit.

Like Stevens’ grandfather and McGunnigle’s father, Berthrong served in the Civil War. He enlisted at age 18 and accompanied Company E of the 140th Infantry Regiment into battle against Confederate forces. One such battle came at Spotsylvania Courthouse, where a watch spared the life of one James McGunnigle.

Berthrong’s own life changed dramatically during the war. One day, while on furlough, he was sketching an image of the White House when its principal occupant, President Abraham Lincoln, crossed paths with the young man. Lincoln asked if he might have the sketch, and Berthrong said yes. Not only did Honest Abe ask the War Department to add two weeks to Berthrong’s furlough, he also inspired the teen to pursue a secondary career as an artist.

As Berthrong’s obit stated, his “chief fame was derived from his painting of huge portraits of candidates, used far and wide throughout the United States in Presidential campaigns. The great canvases, signed ‘Berthrong, Boston,’ once were flaunted in all corners of the country.”

Portraiture isn’t easy. Using flat space to convey the depth of a human being is among art’s great challenges. Nearly a century after his death, we might conclude that Berthrong’s task was made especially difficult by the aftereffects of his pre-Gunner baseball days. A second obit states, “he played the game when padded gloves, masks and chest protectors were unknown accessories…His gnarled hands, in which every joint in both have been broken and twisted, bear testimony to the strenuousness of the game in those days.” By all accounts, Berthrong surmounted his challenges en route to his resting place.

Icicle Reeder did not. Born in Cincinnati, Reeder was the eighth New Year’s baby to reach the major leagues, or maybe the ninth. He shared a birth date with Hugh Nicol, and any knowledge of who came first is lost to time. Born in Scotland, Nicol went on to become a fan favorite. He stood just 5-foot-4, a stature that endeared him to children and grown-ups alike. They called him Little Nic. Reeder, by contrast, was a favorite of no one but Reeder. He didn’t earn his nickname. He gave it to himself.

Little Nic became a star by stealing bags and snagging drives. “He ranks as one of the crack right fielders of the country,” wrote Sporting Life. The numbers support the assertion. In 1883 and 1884, Nicol led American Association outfielders in assists. In 1884 and 1885, he led AA outfielders in total chances per game. More than that, he was a showman. The Missouri Republican reported Nicol “tumbled and bounced about, turning summersaults and cart-wheels in a manner that would have done credit to one of Cole’s Arabs” — a well-known circus act.

Equally impressive on the bases, Nicol posted a record 138 stolen bases in 1887. He followed with 103 thefts in 1888. Legend has it that Little Nic was among the first players to use the headfirst slide. So accomplished was he that The Sporting News published a poetic tribute in the aftermath of his death in 1921.

A little man with a lion’s heart
Who gamely played an athlete’s part;
Who gave his best wherever placed
And never quit though odds were faced…

“Odds were faced” in Icicle’s life, too, but faced in a different way.

According to The Local Boys: Hometown Players for the Cincinnati Reds, by Joe Heffron and Jack Heffron, “Reeder was the classic ‘clubhouse lawyer’ who always had something up his sleeve.” In 1888, three years after his six-game major league career had both begun and ended, Reeder joined the Toledo Maumees of the Tri-State League and organized a players’ strike that resulted in the firing of manager Frank Mountain. A year later, he hoodwinked the Austin Senators of the Texas League into allowing him to manage the team, though soon the Texas League went kaput. A year after that, while playing for Indianapolis of the Central Interstate League, Reeder convinced teammates to boycott a game because the manager had refused to pay him $12 instead of the $7 he had agreed to. They ended the strike upon realizing Reeder had tricked them.

Earlier that year, Reeder had given an interview that explained his regrets and ambitions alike. He blamed booze for his failures and pinned temperance to his hopes. “I have not seen one of ‘the gang’ this winter,” he said. “They never did me any good, and I don’t want to get back in ‘society.’… When I left Toledo, I led the Tri-State League in batting. There was never any question about my ability, as long as I took care of myself.”

Added Reeder, “I’ve learned a lesson at a bitter cost.”

He would soon forget that lesson, or ignore it, at a more bitter cost.

As Frank Russo and Gene Racz explain in Bury My Heart at Cooperstown: Salacious, Sad and Surreal Deaths in the History of Baseball, “Reeder would never get another chance in the majors and fell back into his old habits. One of those habits was said to be women of ill repute.”

On January 15, 1913, a decade after his arrest for drunkenly picking pockets outside a church, Reeder died at the Longview Asylum Hospital. The cause of death: paralytic dementia, brought on by late-stage syphilis

Meanwhile, at the time of Icicle’s death, Little Nic was serving as athletic director and head baseball coach at Purdue. He was also a scout for the Reds. Six feet under, their journeys are still diverged. Icicle is buried in an unmarked grave. Little Nic is buried beneath a headstone and footstone.

That footstone reads, “1860-1921.”

Even in death, Nicol has sustained a baseball tradition by appearing younger than he was. By doing so, he joins his January 1 counterpart in keeping alive the story of his life.

Little Nic’s tale is one of time taken advantage of. Icicle’s is one of space wasted.

***

The years that followed Icicle’s death, like the years that preceded Little Nic’s birth, played host to all sorts of stories among New Year’s babies-turned-ballplayers.

Tim Keefe, born in 1857, went on to win 342 games en route to the Hall of Fame. He also inspired a poem, much different than Little Nic’s: Casey at the Bat. In fact, later versions of the poem replaced the original line “He signaled to the pitcher” with “He signaled to Sir Timothy.”

Miah Murray inspired a different tale, a tragicomedy all his own. Born in 1865, Murray played just 34 games in the big leagues. In 31 of those games, he donned the tools of ignorance and took his position behind the plate. There he committed 29 errors and 28 passed balls. Those are just the numbers. Bear witness to the words. Once, while attempting to pick off a runner with the bases full, he threw the ball against the batter’s head. It bounced into the stands. The runners scored to win it.

It gets worse — or, if you’re here for the entertainment, better.

“With a runner on first Miah steamed back to the stand and made a magnificent catch of a foul fly,” wrote The New York American in 1915. “The crowd broke into roars of applause; Murray, leaning against the stand, took off his cap and bowed right and left — and the runner, sizing up the situation, lit out from first, kept right on going and came all the way around while Miah kept bowing and the rest of the team were screeching and raving, all in vain.”

Murray will never be famous, but his identity is secure in the game. By contrast, five of baseball’s first 17 New Year’s babies would struggle with identity in one way or another. The second New Year’s baby to reach the majors, David Lenz, was first thought to be a player named Leutz. The third, Peter Morris, was for decades known only as P. Morris. The man who rescued Morris from initial obscurity is, by chance, a researcher named Peter Morris.

Like Morris, fellow New Year’s baby Kid Keenan played just one big league game. But wow, what a doozy it was. Pitching for Kelly’s Killers on August 11, 1891, Keenan surrendered zero earned runs en route to a complete game. Problem was, he yielded nine unearned runs to take the hard-luck loss. For decades, that performance was attributed to career minor leaguer Harry Leon Keenan instead of Jack M. Keenan, the man known otherwise as Kid.

Like Keenan, Bumpus Jones had quite a debut. Unlike Keenan, he yielded just one run, likewise unearned, while securing the win. For the 22-year-old Cincy starter, it came in a no-hitter against the Pirates in the 1892 finale. On the strength of his debut no-no, Bumpus became an instant star. Try as he might, he couldn’t sustain the status. The following season, after baseball’s poobahs increased the pitching distance from 50 feet to 60 feet six inches, Bumpus posted a 10.19 ERA while going 1-4. He spent the rest of his career in the minors while never acknowledging what everyone in his hometown knew. Bumpus Jones was a black man.

Like Bumpus, Doc Amole pitched a debut no-hitter. It came in the first American League game ever played. Sadly for Doc, the AL was not yet a major league. Indeed, Doc’s no-no came in 1890, two years after he had pitched the last of his 18 games in the majors. Amole would pitch a couple more years in the sticks before drinking himself to obscurity. In fact, Amole was for many years misidentified as one Morris George Amole, born on July 5, 1878.  The real Doc Amole was born on January 1, 1874, and died on March 9, 1912. As if to further extend his obscurity, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Likewise buried unmarked, and likewise a casualty of booze, was Ned Garvin. Born on the same day as Doc, the man known as the Navasota Tarantula cut a swath through baseball like none the sport had seen. In short, he drunkenly assaulted a team secretary on a train; took a pot shot at a shoeshine man in Milwaukee; assaulted a businessman minding his own business in a hotel lobby; shot a bartender in Chicago and attempted to kill the policeman who intervened. He also got into a fight with Brooklyn infielder Tom Daly. Upon knocking him to the floor, Garvin placed a beer mug on Daly’s face and stomped on it. Some years later, Garvin’s wife was declared insane for the third time. Who can blame her?

For every Navasota Tarantula, there is one Silent Joe Martin — literally.

Born two years to the day after Garvin, Silent Joe played 79 games in 1903 and earned his nickname by keeping his mouth shut. Word is, he never argued with umps. He never had a bad thing to say to opponents. By contrast, there was Earl Torgeson, born on January 1, 1924, who in his 15-year career never met a fight he didn’t like. After breaking his glasses during a 1948 brawl, Torgy learned to remove the eyewear prior to the fisticuffs. He did so often.

Two other New Year’s babies-turned-ballplayers did their fighting in a different way. Charlie Devens, who had watched Babe Ruth’s Called Shot from the Yankee dugout, became a Naval commander and earned the Bronze Star for heroic actions aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid in 1944. Hank Greenberg, the future Hall of Famer, served 47 months during World War II, the longest military tenure of any major league player.

In his first game back from war, Hammerin’ Hank homered. You never know.

***

Baseball takes all kinds and gives them back to us. It seems fitting that so many of the game’s best and worst characters were born on the opening day of the year. It’s emblematic of all the possibilities that await us.

And the list doesn’t stop here. New Year’s Day also has given us Carl Scheib, who at 16 became the youngest pitcher in AL history; Ethan Allen, who, in addition to writing 13 baseball books, invented the board game All-Star Baseball; Hack Miller, a man so strong he could pound tenpenny nails through two-inch planks with his bare hands; Monty Swartz, who, in his only big league contest, pitched 12 innings in a 6-3 complete-game loss; and Sherry Robertson, who, in 1943, inadvertently killed a fan with an errant throw into the stands.

Whatever the beginning gives us, the end arrives to take.

For every New Year’s baby-turned-ballplayer, or nearly so, there is a player who died on New Year’s Eve. Jocko Flynn hit Chicago fast. The hurler joined the 1886 White Stockings on Opening Day and by June 20 had yielded just 11 earned runs while posting a 6-2 mark. Following his eight-strikeout performance in a 4-2 defeat of Washington, the Chicago Inter-Ocean wrote, “Flynn has put himself in the top rank of pitchers and is very liable to stay there.”

He didn’t stay there. Though he finished the season 22-6 with a 2.24 ERA, Flynn had faded near season’s end. In his final start, an Oct. 4 loss the Chicago Herald called “very poor work,” Flynn surrendered nine hits and seven runs to the Giants.

The problem: “It seems clear that Flynn was suffering from the twin curses of booze and a bad arm,” writes Justin Murphy in his SABR biography of Flynn.

In that period of baseball history, neither affliction was rare. Writes Murphy: “Clearly, (alcohol) was part of the game in the 1880s, and perhaps nowhere more than in Chicago. The Chicago Herald published an anonymous accusatory letter on July 11, 1886: ‘When the Chicago base ballists get demoralized by drink, why don’t your reporters say so? It is right the public should be warned. Fifteen thousand people have expended their cash within the past week, only to witness games played by men too full of Detroit liquor to play ball.’”

Those base ballists were hardly alone. Nor was Flynn, who, in the aftermath of his one-year career in the major leagues, opened a bar and according to a family member “became his own best customer and, indeed, drank himself to death.” Booze also had destroyed the careers and damaged the lives of two of the previous three major leaguers who, preceding Flynn’s death in 1907, died on New Year’s Eve.

By 1889, Martin Duke had made a name for himself — literally. Not only had he gone 24-16 with a 1.72 ERA for the Minneapolis Millers, he had also changed his surname from Duck to Duke after a fan made quacking noises while the righty pitched.

By whatever name, the hurler had gotten the attention of Chicago Pirates player-manager Charlie Comiskey. Instead of joining Comiskey’s 1890 Players League team, however, Duke remained in the minors. In 1891, his record dipped to 10-11. He also served a suspension for being “out of condition.”

“Out of condition” was code. Duke was a drunk.

In his first big league trial, Duke posted a 7.43 ERA and 0-3 record for the 1891 Statesmen. The following January, he signed with the Chicago Colts. His reputation accompanied him. The Chicago Tribune reported he was “bound by an ironclad contract to abstain from intoxicating drinks.” Later, the paper reported he “had shown up poorly.”

Released, he would never pitch in the majors again. In 1897, a year before his death at 31, Sporting Life reported Duke was employed in a Minneapolis tavern while “trying to get in shape” for a return to baseball. It didn’t happen. Following his death on a night given to drink, the paper wrote that Duke “possessed great ability as a pitcher” but “was given to dissipation, which ultimately led to enforced retirement from the profession and untimely death.”

Also given to dissipation was Frank Bonner. One source described him as “addicted to conviviality.” At 24, the infielder debuted with the 1894 Orioles and posted a line of .322/.412/.441 for an OPS+ of 102. He would not sustain that performance. Bonner went on to play parts of five seasons for six teams while posting an aggregate OPS+ of 68, an abysmal mark.

After several years in the minors, he spoke to a reporter about his career. “If I had behaved myself,” he said, “I would never have been out of the National League after I once entered it, and I would be $20,000 better off today.”

He explained that during an Orioles off day, he’d gone home to Wilkes-Barre. “Up to that time I had not touched a drop…and, as is always the case, fell into bad company and into my old habits. The result was that when I returned to join the team (manager Ned) Hanlon laid me off. I got in the game again, but it was not long until I jumped over the traces again, and that virtually settled my job in the big league…Now I realize what a fool I was. I wasted the best years of my life and lots of money, and now that I am no longer a kid I am next to myself, and am behaving as I should have done years ago.”

Precisely 67 years after Bonner’s death, Roberto Clemente stepped onto a Dec. 31 airplane and, with humanitarian supplies on board, never made it to New Year’s Day.

You never know.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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What a well- written, enjoyable piece! Thanks for that.

I would only comment that along with fear and confusion as primary drivers in a person’s life you have to add love. The power of love moves men and women to do many things, great and shameful.