Who's On First? The Farce That Helped the Pirates Set a Record
On the morning of October 4, 1902, the Pittsburgh Pirates stood among the all-time great teams with 102 wins, only one victory from setting a new Major League record for wins in a single season. Only Boston’s Beaneaters of 1892 and 1898 had won as many, and the Pirates needed only to cop their final game of the ’02 campaign to become the first Major League team with 103 wins.
They’d get the record after beating the Cincinnati Reds, 11–2, but only after eight and a half innings of ball that was described as “farcical” and “disgraceful,” and had Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss accusing the Reds of unbecoming conduct. “Treated as a game of ball the story isn’t worth 10 lines,” wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer.
The Reds had very little to play for. They sat firmly in fourth place with a record of 70 wins, 69 losses, and one tie. They were 32 ½ games out of first place with only one game left on their schedule. In fact, except for the Pirates, who were 27 games ahead of their nearest competitor, the Brooklyn Superbas, none of the National League teams had anything to play for.
Yet, despite a baseball diamond muddied by a steady overnight rain that was still a drizzle at noon, Dreyfuss insisted the contest be played as soon as the storm passed and his groundskeepers got the field in shape. The magnate badly wanted the wins record and was willing to do what it took to get the game in the books. The mound and home plate areas were covered by heavy canvas, and the Pittsburgh Press opined, “The field was heavy, but many a game has been played at Exposition Park when the diamond was just as soft.”
Joe Kelley, the third of three Reds managers that year, was not keen on the idea and thought the game should be called off. The Press reported that Reds players were hoping for a cancellation so they could go bet on the horses. When Kelley realized the game was going to be played come hell or high water, he decided to turn it into a comedy.
After a last place finish in 1901, the Reds were hoping that player-manager Joe Kelley could turn things around. Though Cincinnati finished the season strong, their 70-70 record was only good enough for fourth place — 33 1/2 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Of course, Kelley was no stranger to farcical play on the field — he’d starred for the National League’s Baltimore Orioles, who were known for flouting the rules by impeding opposing runners and cutting corners on the bases while the umpire wasn’t looking. He was also known for hiding baseballs in the outfield.
“Outfielder Joe Kelley’s sensational play on the diamond earned him the well-deserved title ‘Kingpin of the Orioles,’” wrote biographer Jimmy Keenan. “In the outfield, he was one of the best defenders of his day. Joe reportedly hid extra baseballs in the outfield grass on the sly in case the one in play got by him.” He was also a great hitter, batting over .300 for 11 straight years, and he finished his 17-year career with an average of .317.
The 1902 campaign began with Bid McPhee at the Reds’ helm, but he was replaced by Frank Bancroft after leading the team to a record of 27–37, good for sixth place. Bancroft had enjoyed previous success as a skipper, leading the Providence Grays to a championship in 1884, and the Reds went 9–7 under his guidance before Kelley was named the new manager and Bancroft returned to the Reds’ front office.
Kelley led the Reds to a 34–25 mark in his first 59 games as the Queen City’s pilot before their final tilt in Pittsburgh, and posted a .545 winning percentage as Cincinnati’s manager from 1902 to 1905. But on October 4, 1902, he wasn’t as concerned about winning as he was putting on a show for the 1,200 brave souls in attendance.
When he learned the game would definitely be played, Kelley proclaimed that his team would be up for the challenge and “spoil [Pittsburgh’s] record.” But somewhere along the way he changed his mind. While the Pirates practiced in preparation for the game, the Reds were nowhere to be found, and it was thought they’d forfeited. Bancroft had ordered the bus driver to take an alternate route to the park to avoid downtown Pittsburgh, figuring if fans didn’t see them they’d assume the game was canceled and Dreyfuss would be forced to call it off with so few people in attendance.
The Reds’ bus finally arrived at game time. Rather than warm up, they sat on their bench and smoked cigarettes with no urgency to send a batter to the plate. After a lengthy delay, umpire Hank O’Day ordered Kelley to name his battery. Much to everyone’s surprise he tabbed first baseman Jake Beckley to start on the mound and pitcher Rube Vickers to serve as the team’s catcher.
It’s no surprise Beckley went along with the spectacle, considering he’d subscribed to the Orioles’ style of play, cutting corners on the bases behind umpires’ backs and hiding baseballs in his uniform to pull the hidden ball trick on new players.
Pirates skipper Fred Clarke objected, telling Kelley to “be game and play it out,” but Kelley laughed it off. He wasn’t through making a mockery of the contest.
The Pittsburgh Pirates claimed four league pennants with Fred Clarke at the helm. Over a 21-year career, the Hall of Fame player-manager also amassed 2,615 career hits and 1,602 managerial wins.
Original artwork by Sanjay Verma.
Outfielder “Turkey Mike” Donlin led off and played shortstop, a position he’d played only three times to that point in his career and not very well, committing five errors in 11 chances in 1899 for a fielding percentage of .545. Beckley batted second but wasn’t at his familiar spot on the diamond, instead making the first and only pitching appearance of his 20-year career. And though Kelley played most of his career in left field, he penciled himself into the center field spot where he’d played early in his career.
Cleanup man Cy Seymour would go on to play 1,094 games in center field, but in this tilt he was the starting third baseman. Like Donlin, Seymour had limited experience on the infield, committing an error in three chances at the hot corner in 1899.
Third baseman Harry Steinfeldt, who would become the answer to a trivia question (“Who played third base in the Cubs’ Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield?”), started in right field, playing the position for the fourth and last time in his 14 seasons. Jack “King” Morrissey appeared in only 41 Major League games in a brief career that spanned the 1902 and 1903 seasons, 28 of which were at second base, but he was inserted as the starting left fielder. Long-time veteran shortstop Tommy Corcoran played 94 percent of his career games at short but was penciled in at second base.
Vickers, a 24-year-old rookie hurler, had no track record as a catcher, but Kelley named him the starting backstop in what was the most glaring example of apathy for the game’s integrity. Ace pitcher Noodles Hahn was put at first base, but at least he had experience playing the field, although limited to a few minor league stints in the outfield.
The Pittsburgh Press summed up the affair by claiming it was the “first time in years . . . one of the teams deliberately faked,” compared it to “American League methods,” and that the Reds acted “more like monkeys than men.” When Kelley stepped to the plate in the first inning he was smoking a cigarette, which drew a threat from O’Day that if the “pipe” wasn’t extinguished, the Reds manager would be tossed from the game. Kelley, Donlin, and Seymour also smoked in the field, but none were ejected from the contest.
The Pirates plated three runs in the first inning to take an early lead. “Beckley’s weak throwing arm is notorious in baseball circles,” wrote the Press, “but Jake proved a better pitcher than Vickers did a catcher.” The Enquirer was more to the point. “Vickers couldn’t catch cold in a linen duster in Manitoba on Christmas Day,” wrote the paper.
Beckley worked four innings and allowed eight runs, only three of which were earned, on nine hits and a walk, and fanned two. Vickers, on the other hand, suffered the indignation of committing six passed balls in four innings, establishing a twentieth-century record that still stands for most passed balls in a game. It would take 94 years for another backstop to tie the mark.
With the score 8–1 in Pittsburgh’s favor after only four innings, Kelley sent Seymour to the mound, exiled Vickers to the bench in favor of Heinie Peitz, a real catcher, and put himself at third base, a position he’d played sparingly and with little success. Although Seymour spent most of his career as an outfielder, he had appeared in 140 games as a pitcher prior to the October 4 game and enjoyed some success on the mound, leading the National League in strikeouts in 1897 and ’98 and in strikeouts per nine innings from 1897 to 1899. On the other hand, he also paced the senior circuit in walks in each of the aforementioned three years, and in hit batters and wild pitches in 1898.
Seymour held the Pirates scoreless for two innings, allowing only two hits and a walk, but two hits and two more free passes in the seventh inning gave Pittsburgh three more runs to push the score to 11–2. Donlin pitched the eighth inning and acquitted himself well, surrendering only a hit in his scoreless inning of work.
As owner of the Pirates from 1900 until his death in 1932, Barney Dreyfuss was one of the most highly regarded executives in major league baseball. Dreyfuss, an innovator who built the first triple tier stadium, is also considered the “Father of the World Series.”
Dreyfuss was incensed by the debacle and ordered employees to navigate the stands and inform patrons their money would be refunded at the box office after the game. “We are not going to take money under false pretenses,” he told Reds Business Manager Frank Bancroft when he handed him an empty cash drawer following the affair.
Interestingly, despite Kelley’s insistence on playing his men out of position, the Reds committed only two errors while the Pirates committed five. Still, Vickers’ play behind the plate gave the Pirates at least four unearned runs, and sending non-pitchers out to the mound to face the league’s best hitting team all but guaranteed a Cincinnati loss.
Despite the lopsided victory, Dreyfuss promised to file a protest with Reds President Garry Herrmann and John T. Brush, executive chairman of the National League. Those in the press box who overheard the Pirates president applauded. Ren Mulford Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer took Kelley to task, writing, “A sixty thousand dollar team should not be afraid of getting its feet damp.”
Kelley defended his actions. “We put a team on the field, and there is no rule compelling us to allow them to name the positions they’ll play. As it was, anybody who’d open the gates on a day like this ought to be arrested.” He also explained there was no way he was going to ask one of his pitchers to toil in the cold and soggy conditions.
The Boston Globe’s Tim Murnane expected nothing to come of Dreyfuss’s protest. “The patrons of the game do not object to a little fun when the season is over,” he wrote, “and Joe Kelley’s act will never be seriously considered by the National League.”
Whether or not Kelley was punished is lost to history, but it looks like he escaped unscathed. He played five more years, managed in four of them, and was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1971. Dreyfuss eventually joined him in Cooperstown in 2008. The wins record stood only until 1904 when the New York Giants won 106 games, and was eventually obliterated by the 1906 Chicago Cubs, who won 116.
The 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team in major league history to win 103 games in a season.