Ball players may be heroes but they certainly are not saints. Because they are human, they have shortcomings, without which they would be uninteresting. And failure to recognize their human weaknesses may result in disillusionment, especially among youth, should their heroes falter or go astray ....
The era of the National Commission, like every other era in baseball history, had its quota of problem children. Connie Mack said of his 1912 team: "four or five of my boys have got bad cases of the swelled head, broke training, and I had to suspend them" .... Once Cy Seymour went into a game under the influence of liquor -- and, the reporter took care to mention, on a Sunday at that .... On another occasion drunken Brooklyn players ripped up their Pullman car on a road trip and had to pay damages and a fine as well.
Honus Wagner, generally considered the best of shortstops, liked his beer and, according to reporter Bozeman Bulger, when Pittsburgh came to New York he used to drop in at Sheehan's after the game and have six beers before going to his hotel, though he never "dissipated." In 1910, however, hints that he was drinking heavily appeared occasionally in the press. Wagner was about thirty-five then, and one manager thought that he could not last much longer if he kept it up. Actually, the Pittsburgh club tried to get him to sign a no-alcohol pledge at the end of the season, but he refused. He fooled them all by having seven more creditable playing years. A number of outstanding stars, including quite a few who made the Hall of Fame, were heavy drinkers, and the argument that they might have been even better players had they stayed on the water wagon is open to question. In view of the records they made, it is difficult to see how they could have been much better ....
Nevertheless, drinking did seriously affect the work of some players. Once Rube Benton left his club to go on a spree, with the excuse that his sister was sick. When his suspicious manager wired Benton's home and found that everyone there was well, the club suspended the player and fined him $100. It also included a clause in his next contract under which he promised to abstain from the use of liquor and cigarettes during the season .... He was promised a bonus if he kept the pledge.
....Mike Donlin got into several scrapes. In 1902 he served a six-month jail sentence for striking a Baltimore actress. Four years later he was arrested for punching a conductor on the New York Central Railroad. Another time he reportedly "got a good nose full" and appeared on the stage very drunk. After his assault on the conductor, he was denounced in Sporting News as a "degenerate," "rowdy," and "woman-beater." Another player of this era pleaded guilty in Federal Court to violation of the Mann Act and was given four months.
Drink brought tragedy to Ed Delahanty. One night he became intoxicated on a train and created such a disturbance that he was ejected at the Canadian border. After an altercation with the watchman, who tried to prevent him from crossing the International Bridge, he continued on his way, falling through the open draw and drowning in the Niagara River.
Newspapers were full of gossipy stories about another unfortunate alcoholic, Larry McLean. One story that appeared in his home-town newspaper, where his wife and mother read it, had him missing a blackboard talk by the manager because he had a date with a flashy blond[e]. The club tried everything in an effort to straighten him out .... [and] hired a detective to keep tabs on him. In one report the detective gave a run-down of McLean's activities on a certain evening: he started out drinking beer at Schubert's in Cincinnati and soon began shouting "To hell with Griffith!" (his manager); from there he made the rounds, moving from one saloon to another to elude his wife, who was trying to catch up with him and calm him down; when he woke up to the fact that he was being tailed, he tried to have the detective arrested. McLean's wages were repeatedly garnished to satisfy creditors, and the club arranged to have his wife or daughter pick up what was left of them. Violation of training rules, fights with the manager, fines and suspensions marked the rest of his short career. Several years later he was shot and killed in a saloon brawl in Boston.
Few players have inspired more anecdotes than Rube Waddell, a superb left-hander who could be just about as effective as he wanted to be and who, despite his eccentricities, is regarded as one of the best pitchers of all time. Again newspapers made much of his foibles and his weakness for drink .... Sporting News dubbed him "the sousepaw" and the only "one ring circus now traveling with a ball club." Lee Allen, in his book The American League Story, catalogs the erratic pitcher's reported escapades in one year alone:
He began that year sleeping in a firehouse at Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in a saloon in Wheeling, West Virginia. In between those events he won twenty-two games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men's Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, toured the nation in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt, courted, married, and became separated from May Wynne Skinner of Lynn, Massachusetts, saved a woman from drowning, accidently shot a friend through the hand, and was bitten by a lion.
Waddell's vagaries grew less and less amusing. In a row with his wife's parents in 1905, he allegedly threw two flatirons at them. A few years later he disappeared before a spring exhibition game in Texas but showed up in the fourth inning with the imaginative explanation that he had been invited by some cowboys to referee a boxing match, and on his way back a freight car tied up the trolley line, making him late for the game. That summer Connie Mack apparently lost whatever control he had over Waddell, and Philadelphia fans became disgusted at the way he "fooled away" two games after a week-long debauch in Atlantic City. Mack finally sold him to the St. Louis Browns in 1908, where he lasted three more seasons. He was only thirty-seven when he died of tuberculosis in a Texas sanitorium.
References in baseball literature to players' drinking are usually made in an indulgent, rather good-natured vein, somewhat as one would describe mischievous boys climbing up to reach a forbidden jam pot. But rarely is any mention made of players contracting the "social diseases," as they were once euphemistically known. However, unless one naively believed that ball teams were touring bands of ascetics, it might be surmised that some of the heroes succumbed to the ills that many ordinary citizens contracted. When the press alluded to maladies like syphilis and gonorrhea in those days, it frequently used "malaria" or "rheumatism" as synonyms for what were considered shameful diseases. John I. Taylor, a club owner, obviously had this in mind when he made the classic remark, "Beware Hot Springs rheumatics." Sporting News came as close as any to forthrightness when it announced that George Barclay had fallen victim to malaria, adding that it had reliable information that his condition was due to an "indiscretion." What the papers did not report, or perhaps did not know, was that Barclay had a recurrence, or possibly a continuation, of his "malaria" the following year.
-- Harold Seymour
Baseball: The Golden Age
IMAGE: Rube Waddell
Baseball: The Golden Age, Harold Seymour
Copyright 1971 by Harold Seymour
Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. (New York), 1971
available at AMAZON