When Historical Rivals Take the Field

Billy Hamilton’s name has been the source of many puns, especially with the popularity of the musical that shares his name. (via Hayden Schiff)

On the morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, the former secretary of the treasury and founder of the Federalist Party, in a duel. The duel marked the culmination of the long-standing political rivalry between the two men.

In March, Chicago White Sox pitchers Ian Hamilton and Ryan Burr dressed up in Revolutionary Era costumes and reenacted the famed duel between Burr and Hamilton for their teammates. There have been other examples of political rivalries reappearing years later on a baseball field, too: Lincoln-Douglas. McKinley-Bryan. Nixon-Kennedy. Each of these political rivalries revealed the issues confronting Americans at their respective moments in history. I wondered if the same could be true of baseball as well.

Hamilton-Burr

The animosity between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton largely stemmed from their personal dislike of each other. Hamilton criticized Burr for putting his personal and business interests ahead of the good of the country; Burr expressed outrage at Hamilton’s comments and demanded satisfaction. But their rivalry also highlighted the differences between their respective political ideologies. Hamilton was the notoriously hard-working and verbose immigrant whose rise from poverty stood out in a government dominated by wealthy landowners. As secretary of the treasury, he created a national bank, favored a strong federal government, and viewed trade and manufacturing as key to America’s future.

Burr, a Democratic-Republican and grandson of famed minister Jonathan Edwards, subscribed to a different vision. Democratic-Republicans imagined the new United States as a nation of yeoman farmers. An America that grew profitable crops for the national and international markets could become wealthy and powerful. Instead of a strong federal government, Democratic-Republicans favored strong state governments. They feared that a powerful federal government would ignore their interests, consolidate power, and recreate the monarchy.

By 1804, the Federalist Party, with its support found mostly in the Northeast and in major cities like New York and Boston, had begun to lose power thanks to the presidency of John Adams. Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, designed to root out criticism against the government, had alienated voters. The Democratic-Republican Party, headed by Jefferson and James Madison, won the presidency in 1800 and would remain in power until the election of 1824. Yet the tension between the two competing blocs remained. During the War of 1812, the remnants of the Federalist Party in New England met in Hartford to consider secession from the United States as the war with Britain threatened to ruin them financially. This tension between the agrarian and manufacturing visions of America would recur throughout American history.

The baseball version of the Hamilton-Burr rivalry finally made its way to the field this season — a showdown that embodies the tensions driving contemporary baseball. Billy Hamilton is in many ways the antithesis of a modern hitter. In an era of increasing power, Hamilton’s .278 slugging percentage is second-lowest in the majors for hitters with at least 200 plate appearances and his 58 wRC+ is sixth worst. In a season where Ketel Marte, Tommy La Stella, and Max Kepler all have at least 15 home runs and the Minnesota Twins are on pace to smash the all-time home run record—set last year by the Yankees—Hamilton, with his slap-hitting, speed-based game, is a relic from another time.

Ryan Burr, meanwhile, typifies the league’s increasing reliance on high-velocity relievers. Burr’s fastball this season has averaged 95.2 mph. Burr, however, has difficulties with his slider and splitter and his high effort delivery does little to help with his control and command issues. Since 2018, Burr has struck out 20.0 percent of opposing batters while walking 10.8 percent of them. Currently, Burr is on the injured list because of an elbow injury.

Burr, pitching for the White Sox, has faced off twice this season against Hamilton and his rival Kansas City Royals. On March 28, 2019, with the Royals ahead 3-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Hamilton worked the count full before grounding out. The men met again on April 17, 2019, this time in the top of the fifth inning. When Hamilton came to the plate this time, he had runners on first and second thanks to a walk and an error. Hamilton came out ahead this time, lining a single to center field and loading the bases. The Royals, however, remain the worst team in the division.

Lincoln-Douglas

In 1858, former two-term Whig congressman Abraham Lincoln ran for the Senate in his home of Illinois as a Republican. The newly formed Republican Party emerged from the ashes of the Whig Party and joined with abolitionists, Free-Soilers, and others who opposed the expansion of slavery into the American West.

Lincoln’s opponent was Stephen Douglas, the incumbent Democrat. Douglas had been the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the policy of popular sovereignty. Douglas believed that as new territories sought to join the union, the residents of the territory themselves should choose whether they wanted slavery. Douglas’s solution, however, led to a smaller-scale version of the Civil War in Kansas, as pro- and anti-slavery forces terrorized one another to gain control of the territory.

In the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas promoted popular sovereignty as fitting the nation’s democratic traditions and the only reasonable answer to the slavery question. Lincoln opposed any further westward expansion of slavery and the slave power. He believed that the land should be reserved for white settlers. While Douglas won the race for Senate, Lincoln captured the presidency in 1860.

In baseball history, there has only been one Lincoln-Douglas confrontation. On September 22, 1920, New York Giants pitcher Phil Douglas batted against a former teammate, Chicago Cubs pitcher Abraham Lincoln “Sweetbread” Bailey. Little is known about  Bailey other than his fantastic nickname. Born in Joliet, Illinois, Bailey reached the majors with the Cubs as a 24-year-old in 1919. By 1921, he had made his way to the Brooklyn Robins. He was out of baseball by age 26.

The end of Phil Douglas’s career, however, revealed baseball’s efforts to remove the influence of gamblers from the sport. Douglas was never a popular player with his employers. In the era of the reserve clause, Douglas played for five teams in his nine-year career. His combative attitude and alcoholism caused his managers to constantly look for reasons to ship him out of town. Yet Douglas was productive enough to keep around. In 1920, Giants manager John McGraw, who hired private detectives to surveil Douglas and his behavior, coaxed a 226-inning season with a 111 ERA+, 3.22 FIP, and 2.1 WAR from the recalcitrant pitcher.

In 1922, Douglas’s life spiraled out of control. In early August, he was arrested and accused of stealing a patron’s watch at the Polo Grounds. Douglas denied the charge, but soon found himself involuntarily committed to a sanitarium. After his release, Douglas wrote a letter to Leslie Mann of the St. Louis Cardinals asking for help leaving the Giants and escaping McGraw’s tyrannical managing style. Douglas also asked Mann to arrange for some financial inducement to abandon his team. After receiving the letter, Mann handed it over to Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. The 1919 Black Sox scandal had dominated Landis’ early tenure as commissioner and he was determined to clean up the game. After meeting with Douglas, who admitted that he had written the letter, Landis banned Douglas from baseball. McGraw was thrilled to be rid of Douglas, declaring “he is a disgraced ballplayer, just as crooked as the players who ‘threw’ the 1919 World’s Series.” Landis made Douglas a warning to other players of the dangers of associating with gambling.

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Play-by-play data from the Bailey and Douglas’s faceoff does not exist, but newspaper accounts and the box score confirm that in the fourth inning Bailey faced five batters and allowed three runs. Catcher Frank Snyder, hitting eighth, doubled. Douglas then came to the plate and recorded an out. The top three hitters in the Giants lineup, George Burns, Dave Bancroft, and Ross Youngs, all singled before Bailey was pulled from the game.

Bryan vs. McKinley

In 1893, the United States entered a severe economic depression, triggered by a run on gold held by the U.S. Treasury. The downturn caused account holders to withdraw their money from banks, creating a credit crisis. Without credit, it became increasingly difficult for farmers, miners, and other businesses to pay back loans owed to surviving banks and robber barons nestled on the East Coast. Eventually, the U.S. government had to borrow gold from J.P. Morgan and other financiers to stay solvent.

The rise of the robber barons triggered a backlash from the heartland. In 1896, a 36-year-old congressman from Nebraska named William Jennings Bryan took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention. The party was in shambles. President Grover Cleveland had largely taken the blame for the economic collapse and the Democrats were widely expected to lose the White House.

Bryan, however, electrified the crowd, embracing his faith and the belief that the greatness of America came from its agrarian roots. He pledged to fight for the common man, telling the crowd, “We shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Despite Bryan’s best efforts, Republican candidate William McKinley won the presidency. Supported by the same moneyed interests that Bryan decried, McKinley ran the first modern presidential campaign. He solicited money from donors, published mailers, organized rallies, cast Bryan as a religious fanatic, and capitalized on dissatisfaction with the Cleveland administration. Labor had once again lost to capital.

A generation later, Bryan and McKinley’s baseball descendants took to the field. In 1925, 1926, and 1928, William McKinley “Pinky” Hargrave of the St. Louis Browns and Detroit Tigers faced off against pitcher William Jennings Bryan “Slim” Harriss of the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox.

The 1920s were a transformative era in baseball. The Deadball Era had given way to the live Ball. A combination of rule changes, changes to the ball, and the banning of the spitball had paved the way for increased offense. Babe Ruth unleashed the greatest seasons of his career while playing for the New York Yankees. Baseball’s popularity was growing as new stadiums opened in the league’s metropolises. But like the Bryan-McKinley conflict of the previous generation, a small number of teams benefited at the expense of others.

The major cities on the East Coast benefited the most. The New York Yankees, led by Ruth and Gehrig, captured three World Series championships and six American League pennants. Apart from a down season in 1925, the Yankees won at least 88 games every year from 1920 to 1929 while routinely drawing over a million fans per season. The New York Giants, meanwhile, appeared in four consecutive World Series from 1921 to 1925 and won two titles.

Echoing the historical conflict between Bryan and McKinley, Hargrave won a World Series title while playing for the 1924 Washington Senators. Harriss, for his troubles, languished away on a series of profoundly mediocre Philadelphia A’s teams from 1920 to 1926. By the time the A’s became competitive again, Harriss was out of the league. And as it was in history, Hargrave held the upper hand with three hits in his six career at-bats against Harriss.

Nixon vs. Kennedy

The election of 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was one of the defining moments of the 20th century. Kennedy, the youthful senator from Massachusetts, campaigned on a platform of closing the so-called “Missile Gap” with the Soviet Union. Nixon, the Republican vice president, also promised to get tough with the Soviets. Kennedy appealed to African-American voters on civil rights issues, while Nixon, who had supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957, did not make them a central piece of his campaign.

During the 1950s, as the tensions of the Cold War and civil rights movement began to rise across the United States, baseball saw the emergence of a Kennedy-Nixon rivalry of its own. Bob Kennedy, a right fielder and third baseman for the Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, and Detroit Tigers, faced off against Boston Red Sox pitcher Willard Nixon in 34 plate appearances spread across six seasons.

The two men played for teams that stood on the opposite sides of Civil Rights issues. In 1947, the Cleveland Indians had broken the color barrier in the American League by signing Larry Doby. The next year they brought over the aging Satchel Paige from the Negro Leagues. Cleveland owner Bill Veeck had previously proposed integrating baseball, but had found himself rebuffed by Commissioner Landis. Veeck eventually identified Doby as a player with the talent and character sufficient to survive the blowback that would come from integrating baseball. After Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, Veeck went ahead with his plan to integrate the Indians, having Doby join the team in July 1947.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, were the last team to integrate, waiting until 1959 to promote infielder Pumpsie Green. Green’s promotion came only after the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination extracted a promise that the club would make an effort to end its self-enforced policy of segregation. Additionally, thanks to the efforts of owner Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox had neglected to invest any resources into signing or even scouting people of color. In 1945, the Red Sox and Boston Braves had succumbed to local pressure and held a tryout for three players, Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams, and Jackie Robinson. Hugh Duffy, a Red Sox coach, led the players onto the field as the Red Sox front office watched from the stands — although general manager Eddie Collins, responsible for signing players, was absent. The three men left Boston without contracts. The Red Sox left it to Branch Rickey and the Dodgers to break the color barrier two years later.

During Kennedy’s presidency, civil rights became an even more pressing issue as whites in the South and elsewhere resisted African-American efforts to win the right to vote and desegregate the South. Kennedy’s confrontations with the Soviets, however, dominated his administration. After his assassination in 1963, Lyndon Johnson took upon the mantle of civil rights by enacting a sweeping array of legislation that attempted to stem the tide of centuries of racial oppression. In contrast, Nixon embraced the “southern strategy” beginning in his successful 1968 presidential campaign by appealing to white southern voters without directly embracing white supremacist positions. His coded appeals to states’ rights and law and order helped solidify Republican support in the South. In 1971, Nixon declared a war on drugs that disproportionately targeted communities of color.

On the diamond, Nixon came out on top. Kennedy managed only a .219/.265/.406 batting line against him in 34 plate appearances.

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Viewed through different lenses, the histories of the United States and baseball reflect and refract one another. Issues that dominated American politics manifest themselves on the baseball field. Sometimes it takes generations; sometimes it is contemporaneous. But they always find their way.

References and Resources

Player statistics and box scores from Baseball-Reference & FanGraphs

Baltimore American (Baltimore, MD), September 23, 1920

Bill Lynch, SABR Bio Project, “Phil Douglas”

Bill Nowlin, SABR Bio Project, “Slim Harriss

Bill Veeck, Veeck As In Wreck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Eric Chesterton, “Teammates Ryan Burr and Ian Hamilton recreated the Burr-Hamilton duel in full costume” Cut4 by mlb.com

Glen Stout and Richard A. Johnson, Red Sox Century: One Hundred Years of Red Sox Baseball (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Joseph Thomas Moore, Pride and Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1988).

William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold”


Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst. He is currently writing a book on slave violence in antebellum Virginia. He is on Twitter (@ChrisHBouton).

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