It’s a given that 19th Century ball players are obscure. Most of them are merely names on long lists of stats or on old roster sheets. But even for 19th Century ball players, Charley Jones is inordinately obscure. I’ll go so far as to admit that prior to December of last year, I’d never heard of him.
Charles Wesley Jones was born in North Carolina in 1852 as Benjamin Wesley Rippey. He is so obscure I can’t find out when or why the name change occurred. It may or may not have anything to do with his baseball career. He seems to have been the first Major Leaguer from North Carolina. He arrived in the National Association in its final year (1875), getting into 12 games with the Keokuk Westerns and a single game with Hartford. He managed to hit .255 without a walk and with only 13 hits. Six of the hits (two doubles and four triples) were for extra bases. That got people’s attention and when the National Association folded, Jones had no trouble finding a job.
He ended up with Cincinnati in the fledgling National League where he hit .286 with four homers (second in the NL). It was the last time he hit under .300 until his banishment (wait just a minute, please). He spent 1877 and 1878 with Cincinnati (with two games for Chicago). In 1879 he went to Boston (the Braves, not the Red Sox) where he set the single season record for home runs with nine. In 1880 he became the all-time Major League leader in home runs with 23, besting Lip Pike by two. Along the way he’d led the NL in home runs, runs scored, walks, and RBIs once each. In 1880 he became the first Major Leaguer to hit two home runs in one inning. Then the bottom fell out.
During the last road trip of the season, Jones refused to play. He claimed he hadn’t been paid. As with most teams of the era, pay checks were issued by Boston at the end of each home stand, not at the first of the month. This kept teams from having to lug around large amounts of cash if the end of a month occurred during a road trip. Jones claimed he was paid per month and wanted his monthly salary. The team suspended him for failure to play, and withheld the next check. Jones sued and won in court. He got his money, but Boston suspended him again and this time blacklisted him. Unable to play in the National League, he spent 1881 and 1882 playing in both the minors and an outlaw league.
In 1882 the American Association was formed. They initially agreed to honor NL contracts and blacklists. By 1883 that changed and one of the new league’s first acts was to allow Jones to sign with Cincinnati. He was 31 and still good. He won an RBI and OBP title with Cincy, had his career high in home runs with 10, and had 200 or more total bases twice. In 1884 he hit three triples in a game (the third man to do so). Despite losing the two seasons to a blacklist, he held the all-time home run title through the 1884 campaign, giving up the honor in mid-1885.
His career was faltering by 1887. He began the season in Cincy, but was traded mid-season to the New York Metropolitans. He hit three final home runs and for the first time his OPS+ dropped under 100 (all the way to 88). He had one last Major League season, playing six games for the Kansas City Cowboys, then was through. He umped a little in the 1890 Player’s League and in 1891 in the last year of the American Association. His baseball career over, he dropped totally out of sight.
For his career, his triple slash numbers are .298/.345/.444/.789 with an OPS+ of 150 in 894 games. He had 1114 hits resulting in 172 doubles, 102 triples, 56 home runs, and 1658 total bases. For his career he scored 733 runs and had 552 RBIs. He was a decent enough outfielder finishing first in fielding percentage, range factor, and put outs a few times.
By the time the Hall of Fame was formed, he was totally forgotten. As late as the 2007 Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball he is listed simply as “deceased.” No one seemed to know what happened to him. He was truly a mystery man. As I said earlier, I have to admit that I’d never heard of him before the 2012 Veteran’s Committee elected Deacon White to the Hall of Fame. That forced me to find a new candidate for my “best 19th Century player not in the Hall of Fame.” In doing research for that project, I ran across Jones. By then he’d gotten a death date.
In 2011 a researcher found information on Jones’ last days. He died in New York 6 June 1911 and was buried in Queens (his grave is mentioned on the “Find a Grave” website). There wasn’t much else, but at last baseball fans finally knew what happened to one of the early National League’s premier sluggers.