The Count of Philadelphia

Count Sensenderfer

When I was growing up there was a gag going around to the effect that are three things you can never discuss: politics, religion, or sports. You don’t discuss them, you argue them. And putting any two together was even more dangerous to keeping friends. Some day I’m going to do a post on Billy Sunday and combine sports and religion, but not today. Today I’m going to combine sports and politics.

Baseball has a long tradition of mixing with politics. Many of the moguls who put together the National and American Leagues had local, regional, and/or national political ties. In baseball, Presidents get to throw out the first pitch. A number of former ballplayers have made their way to the halls of congress, including current US Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky. Early baseball was no exception.

John Phillips Jenkins  “Count” Sensenderfer was born in Philadelphia in 1847. He graduated from Philadelphia Central High School where he was a noted athlete. By 1866 he was a well known baseball player in the area, appearing for the partially amateur Philadelphia Athletics. Yes, it’s the same team that I talked about in an earlier post on Lip Pike and professionalism. Sensenderfer and Pike were teammates for a while. Sensenderfer was an outfielder who stood 5′ 9″ and weighed 170 pounds. Although there is no evidence that I can find indicating whether he threw right-handed or left-handed (or which way he batted), I’ve discovered that if the man is left-handed, it’s usually noted. But because this may be the exception, I won’t be dogmatic about it. He and the Athletics joined the National Association in 1871,  where he played center field for the champions. He hit .329 in 25 games picking up 41 hits and scoring 38 runs, which is a heck of a hits to runs ratio. His fielding percentage was .814, which isn’t real good, but isn’t all that bad for the era. He played only one game for the A’s in 1872 going two for five, scoring two runs, and having one RBI. In 1873 he was back for 20 games, all but one in the outfield (he played first base the other time). He hit .279 with 24 hits, 12 runs, and eight RBIs. He finished his career in 1874 playing five final games with the Athletics. He hit a buck-88, with three hits, three runs, and two RBIs. For his career he went 70 for 234 for a .299 average and a .342 slugging percentage with, 55 runs, and 34 RBIs in 51 games. Not a bad career, but nothing to write home to Mom about. Somewhere along the line he picked up the nickname “Count.” I can’t find out where or how, so if anyone knows, I’d appreciate getting the information.

When players of the era finished playing  baseball they ended up in a variety of  jobs. Unlike today, salaries made it necessary to work beyond their professional career (and of course the same is true of marginal players today). There are a lot of coaches, a bunch of pool hall owners, a big group of bartenders and bar owners. Sensenderfer picked a totally different career. He went into politics. (Whether that’s a step up or down from baseball, pool halls, and bars is  open to debate.) He became a member of the Philadelphia Democratic Party machine in his hometown. If he followed the traditional route of machine members, and in a couple of years in the late 1870s it’s tough to track him down, he went from worker, to wardheeler, to ward delegate. By the 1890s he was a “County Commissioner.” The information I can find from looking at the newspapers on line seems to indicate this job is akin to the current position called “City Councilman” around where I live. He was apparently reasonably popular, getting himself reelected to a second four-year term. At the time, the commissioner’s salary was $5000 a year, a great salary in the 1890s, and much greater than anything he ever made as a ballplayer. In the Presidential election year of 1892, he was a delegate to the state of Pennsylvania Democratic Convention, whose job was to pick delegates to the Democratic National Presidential Nominating Convention. One source indicates he was chosen a national delegate, but I’ve been unable to determine if that’s true via any second source. If it is true, then Sensenderfer is the first ballplayer who actually helped nominate a President of the US. The convention nominated Grover Cleveland for President. Cleveland won, but lost Pennsylvania to Republican Benjamin Harrison.

After two terms in City Hall, Sensenderfer retired from office. It doesn’t appear he was defeated for reelection, but the information is sketchy.  He died in 1903 at age 55.

Sensenderfer is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, his baseball career seems to have been secondary to his political ambitions. If that’s not entirely true, it’s certainly true that the political career was more successful. Secondly, his choice of a political career after baseball is also different from his contemporaries. It’s not a usual occupation for ex-ballplayers, but it’s not unheard of at all. As mentioned above, Jim Bunning, former pitcher, is currently in the US Senate and there have been a number of other former Major Leaguers that have gone into politics from the local to the national level. Apparently, Sensenderfer was the first.


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5 Responses to “The Count of Philadelphia”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I remember talk, many years ago, that Steve Garvey was considering a run for the U.S. Senate. Recently, there have been rumors that John Smoltz may have political ambitions, which he strongly denies. In general, I think mixing politics with baseball is a bad idea. It can only serve to pollute a great game. Nice post, Bill

  2. verdun2 Says:

    I recall Garvey. Seems like his problem was he couldn’t keep his pants zipped. Also thought he might be a Hall of Famer for a while before he sputtered out at San Diego.

  3. Terri Paukert Says:

    The “Count” earned the nickname from his teammates because of his demeanor and his attention to his appearance. He had an Heir about him. In the 1872 season, he suffered from injuries that kept him out of all but a few games. These injuries also lead to why he left baseball in 1874.

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