Book Review: Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900
Two-volume set reflects ambitious research
Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volumes 1 and 2
Compiled and edited by David Nemec
University of Nebraska Press, 2011
List Price: $39.95/volume, $69.95/set
David Nemec's obsession with 19th-century baseball dates back to his junior year of high school in the mid-1950s. His history teacher attempted to dissuade him from writing his class project on the early days of the sport, reasoning he'd never find enough information to reach the 10,000-word minimum for the paper. The determined youth proved his teacher wrong, digging up enough facts about the game's pioneers to earn an A+ on the assignment. With that, a baseball historian was born.
Nemec's fascination hasn't wavered in the half century since. With more than two dozen books to his name, one project frequently leads to another. So when he embarked on an ambitious undertaking to catalog the debut and finale dates of every 19th-century major leaguer, it naturally expanded into something more.
Once Nemec began his search, he was inundated with amazing stories that begged to be retold. His pursuit was recast: Write a short biography for every player who suited up in a major league contest from 1871-1900.
"It sounded to me like a plausible project," Nemec says. "But not too many people agreed with me."
The idea was intriguing enough to several other researchers, however, that it wasn't long before Nemec had enlisted a team of fellow historians to assist. Dick Thompson, whose primary focus previously had been digging up one-gamers and other obscure players from the Dead Ball Era through the 1930s, was one of the first to sign on. (Sadly, Thompson died before the project was completed.) Others included Peter Morris, John Thorn, and David Ball. In all 10 researchers aided Nemec's efforts.
The problem eventually became not a lack of information, but an avalanche of it. When Nemec finally found a publisher for his history, it became apparent that it would need to be pruned down. They established a minimum standard of one year as a qualifier for a league's batting or ERA title, and edited most of the bios for length. What was left still weighed in at over 1,200 pages, in a two-volume set entitled "Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900," released this fall by University of Nebraska Press.
The first volume focuses on key players of the professional game's first 30 years, broken down by position. The bios run anywhere from half a page to two pages and explore the player's career, breaking down his game and providing perspective, whenever possible, on how he was viewed by his contemporaries.
The second volume features the era's Hall of Famers, as well as 20 men who Nemec argues deserve enshrinement for their contributions. Nemec also included histories of managers, owners and umpires, as well as baseball's colorful rogues, homicide victims, missing persons and a variety of others. It's these men—some literally lost to researchers after their careers ended, others simply forgotten—who present the most interesting tales.
Nemec's favorites range from John Montgomery Ward, the educated (and often condescending) Hall of Fame infielder/pitcher, to Cub Stricker, the scrappy second baseman who squeezed as much out of his limited talent as he could. Stricker's story intertwines with that of teammate Jocko Halligan, who broke his jaw with a punch after a disagreement at a poker game. Halligan was essentially blacklisted from major league baseball following the incident, as Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon's influence kept the rest of the league from offering him work. Halligan spent the remainder of his career in the minors.
Halligan was hardly the only scalawag to suit up at the game's highest level. Men like Bill Craver and Dick Higham were suspected of throwing games, yet always found work—at least until Craver was implicated in the Louisville Scandal of 1877. Pearce Chiles was a reputed roughneck who earned a prison term for a variety of offenses in 1900. Following a subsequent imprisonment in Oregon three years later, he faded into the lore of the missing, shaking historians from his trail.
At the other end of the spectrum, Frank Olin parlayed his brief, two-year career into a life of wealth. Olin used the game as a means to earn the money to attend college. Within four years he was well off, having established the F.W. Olin Co., which eventually blossomed into one of the world's largest munitions makers. He left almost none of his amassed fortune to his sons, believing they were rich enough already.
Nemec sought to do more than simply tell stories, however. By digging into primary resources, he sought to reach his own conclusions about the merits of each player. Occasionally, his findings were at odds with longstanding beliefs.
By the 1960s, for example, Buck Ewing, one of the Hall of Fame's earliest inductees, was regarded by many as the greatest catcher the game had seen—at least until Gabby Hartnett came along in the early 1920s. Nemec's research led him to conclude that while Ewing was a good player, history had inflated his value as a catcher.
"In looking over his career, reading what his contemporaries said, he tried to play other positions as often as possible," Nemec says. "He tried to avoid catching guys like Amos Rusie."
Rusie, of course, being one of the game's early fireballers, would have been no picnic to receive in the days of primitive catching gear. It wasn't just Rusie's starts Ewing skipped, however. In a career that stretched from 1880-97, Ewing spent just 636 games behind the plate, catching rarely late in his career.
He was also bitterly disliked by many players who felt he sold out the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players with some of the comments he made during the Players' League's only season. Throughout his five years as Cincinnati manager, many of his players despised him. Add it all up, and in Nemec's conclusion, Ewing was a gifted player whose reputation exceeded his accomplishments.
"Certain people have taken issue with my bio," Nemec said, "but the facts are there."
In the decade since Nemec began this project in earnest, digging for information has gotten easier, with more and more resources now available to him right in his own home. Between Google and the invaluable Paper of Record news archive, he was able to eliminate many time-consuming trips to the library and beyond. Still, progress was methodical, as Nemec frequently had to take time out to work on his other books, including the annually updated "Great Baseball Feats, Facts & Firsts."
Among his projects was the republication in 2004 of "Early Dreams," his historical novel based on the 1884 season. An avid player during his youth who lacked the skill to advance to the pro ranks, Nemec wonders if he might have fit better had he been born a couple of generations earlier.
"Maybe I could have played back then," he said. "There were a lot of guys who really couldn't hit, but still had significant major league careers."
Absent a time-traveling train, a la Darryl Brock's "If I Never Get Back," Nemec will have to settle for bringing 1800s baseball to life for the rest of us. There's more on the way. A third volume of Profiles, made up of some of the players who didn't meet the playing-time cutoffs established for the set just released, is due out next year from McFarland.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.