Archive for January, 2011

Turkey Mike

January 5, 2011

Mike Donlin

I think all of us, if given the chance to play, would relish a Major League career.  You might “burn out” after a few years, but you’d really want to play as long as you could, right? Me too. I’ve always found it strange when I run across a player who saw baseball as a secondary career or as a way to another job. I find them a little strange (and they probably would find me the same way). Some want to go into politics, some into business. Others take to the stage.  Enter Stage Left: Turkey Mike Donlin.

Coming out of Peoria, Illinois, Mike Donlin was born in 1878. At age 15 he got a job with the local railroad and took a train all the way to California, where he decided to stay. He played amateur baseball, primarily pitching, but also compiling an extensive hitting resume. In 1899 the St. Louis Cardinals picked him up. They tried him at shortstop making him one of the last left-handed shortstops, first base, and finally in the outfield. He was terrible in each position. But he could hit. He .323 and 326 in 1899 and 1900 for the Cardinals, then jumped to the newly formed American League in 1901. He played one year for the Baltimore Orioles (who are now the Yankees, not the current Orioles), again hitting over .300. Then he got into trouble. He was picked up drunk and accused of urinating in the streets, accosting chorus girls, and ended up with six months in jail. The Orioles let him go and after five months in prison (He got off a month early for “good behavior”, which is kind of an odd choice of words when considering Donlin.) and he signed with Cincinnati in 1902. He was wretched.  In 1903 he had a great year, finishing second in the NL in hitting and runs, and third in slugging. Off to a good start in 1904, he got in trouble with the law again and was sent to New York and the tender mercies of John McGraw, who had been his manager at Baltimore.

He became a star in New York. His strutting to the plate earned him the nickname “Turkey Mike” (He hated it.). He put up great numbers in both 1904 and 1905. Hitting second in the line up, Donlin led the NL in runs in 1905 and then hit .316 in the World Series, leading both teams in hits and runs.  Then Donlin discovered both love and the stage.

In April 1906 Donlin married Mabel Hite. Hite was one of the great comedic actresses of the New York stage in the first decade of the 20th Century. She got great reviews in the press and was famous for being able to carry even a weak show. Here’s a picture of the happy couple:

Mabel Hite and Mike Donlin

I think this is an interesting picture because of the contrast between the two. Hite looks self-assured, Donlin doesn’t. Tells you which is used to being on stage, doesn’t it?

Married to an actress, Donlin developed an interest in the stage. That was actually fairly common in the era. A number of prominent players, including Donlin’s teammate Christy Mathewson and his manager John McGraw, appeared on stage as a way to supplement their income. Mostly they talked about baseball or showed the audience how to throw a particular pitch or how to hit a baseball, but it was vaudeville, not Shakespeare and those type acts were fairly common (Will Rogers started out doing roping tricks).

The problem was, as far as baseball was concerned, Donlin was pretty good at it. He starred in a couple of vehicles that included Hite and both were successes. There’s some debate about how much of the success was attributable to Donlin, but he caught the acting bug. For the rest of his Major League career, Donlin would wander in and out of the sport, spending time on the stage, in Hollywood, and on the diamond. When playing baseball, Donlin was still a formidable force at the plate. He played off and on through 1911, when the Giants traded him to Boston. He did alright there, but ended up traded to Pittsburgh in 1912. Again he had a decent season.

After the end of the season, Hite was diagnosed with cancer and died in December. Donlin wandered through vaudeville and baseball another couple of seasons, then gave up the sport to concentrate on the stage. In 1914 he married a woman named Rita Ross, another actress. 

Sources agree that she was part of the “Ross and Fenton” vaudeville act. Now I happen to know a little bit about the vaudeville acts of the World War I era and Ross and Fenton were a comedy team of the era specializing in spoofing classics like Shakespeare and the big dramas of the day. It was a popular routine in the era in which the couple would take a current play, say “A Study in Scarlett” starring William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes, then create a skit called something like “A Study in Black and Blue” and have the male member of the team ape the mannerisms of Gillette. There’s a problem with the identification of Rita Ross as a member of Ross and Fenton. Ross was Charles Ross and Fenton was Mabel Fenton. They were married in 1883 and worked as a couple. Maybe Rita was a daughter, but there is no record of a daughter working with the couple as part of their normal act.. They were together long enough that it’s possible there was a daughter of marriageable age in 1914, but I can find no evidence of her existence. It’s possible that there is a confusion between Donlin’s first wife Mabel Hite and Mabel Fenton, the first names being the same. Ross and Fenton made a couple of silent movies about 1915, but never made it big in Hollywood. Here’s a playbill of one of Mabel Fenton’s performances. I’ve seen pictures of Fenton and I’m certain the woman on the bill is not actually Fenton.

Mabel Fenton playbill

Donlin did a little managing, but by this point “Flickers” were beginning to make their way onto the American scene in a big way. Donlin was quick to join the craze. He starred in a movie about his life in 1915, then, with side trip to teach baseball to recruits during World War I, he migrated to Hollywood, where he found regular employment for much of the silent pictures era. His most famous role, and it’s a bit part, is as a general in the Buster Keaton masterpiece, The General (named for a locomotive, not Donlin’s character). He was a drinking buddy of John Barrymore and the famous actor managed to get him some decent roles in a number of Barrymore’s early movies. The Internet Movie Data Base shows Donlin with 63 credits, by far the most for a former baseball player. Having seen several of these, it’s my opinion that Mike Donlin wasn’t Humphrey Bogart, or John Wayne, or even Buster Keaton.

By 1933, Donlin’s movie career was coming to a close. He was never a major star and was finding it harder to get roles. He began looking to get back into baseball as a coach, but suffered a heart attack and died 24 September 1933.

As a ballplayer, Donlin was terrific when he wanted to play. For his career he hit .333, had an OBP of .386, slugged .468, and had on OPS of .854 (154 OPS+). He had 1282 hits, 1805 total bases, 176 doubles, 97 triples, and 51 home runs to go with 543 RBIs and 213 stolen bases. All in 1049 games over 12 seasons (97 games a year). And it’s the 97 games a year that creates a problem. It just seems that Donlin wanted to do something other than play baseball. In vaudeville and Hollywood he found a calling he prefered. For baseball fans that’s kind of a shame, because he seems to have been a much better ballplayer than an actor.

A Great Year for a Dead Guy

January 3, 2011

Bid McPhee

Back several years ago, my son and I were rummaging through a baseball almanac looking at various stats. You’ve seen these. At the back of the book is a long list of stats by career, season, playoffs, etc. Usually they pick a cutoff number and list everybody with that specific stat above the cutoff. In looking over the triples list we ran across the name “Bid McPhee.” Neither of us had ever heard of him, so we did a little bit of  searching and found out a minimal amount of info. Then the Veteran’s Committee announced it’s pre-1919 list of winners and there was McPhee, enshrined in Cooperstown in 2000. So we got out the newest version of the almanac and looked him up again. Strange, but he seemed to have gained about 20 triples. We went back and looked at the old one, and sure as taxes he had gained 20 triples (We chalk that up to SABR research). So in one year McPhee gained 20 triples and a ticket to Cooperstown. That led my son to comment, “He had a great year for a dead guy.”

Born in 1859 in New York, John McPhee moved with his family to Illinois immediately after the American Civil War. He played baseball for the local town team, was signed by a nearby minor league team and remained in the minors to 1880, when he left baseball for a job as a bookkeeper. He was a short man and was refered to as “Little Biddy.” The name stuck as “Bid”.  Apparently you could make more money keeping books than playing baseball, and McPhee decided he needed the money. By 1881 he was back in Akron, Ohio playing baseball for the town team. He caught the eye of the fledgling Cincinnati team of the newly formed American Association. He was signed in 1882 as a second baseman (seemingly for more than the bookkeeping job). Cincinnati won the inaugural Association pennant with McPhee hitting all of .228 with 43 runs and 31 RBIs. He was, however, first in putouts and fielding percentage, third in assists and range among Association second sackers. He would remain an excellent bare handed second baseman for all his career, until age began to show. His hitting steadily improved and he eventually led the Association in both triples (1887) and home runs (1886) one time each.

McPhee spent his entire career with Cincinnati, moving with the team to the National League as the Association began collapsing in 1890. He remained a solid second baseman, and with the advent of the 60’6″ mound, he finally hit over .300. In fact, if you didn’t know about the change in the pitching distance, you’d swear he got a lot better as he got into his mid and late 30s. Another major change occurred for him in 1896. He broke a finger and began using a glove. His fielding percentage took off and he set an all-time high percentage for second basemen (.978) that lasted until 1925.  By 1899 he was 39 and through. He managed the Reds in 1901 and 1902 without much success, then became a scout, holding the position through the 1909 season. He retired to California and died in 1943. The call from Cooperstown came in 2000. He is one of only two Hall of Fame members, Johnny Bench is the other, who played their entire career in Cincinnati. In 2002 he joined the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.

For his career McPhee hit .272 with a .355 on base percentage, slugged .373, had an OPS of .728 (OPS+ of 106). He had 2258 hits, comprising 3098 total bases with 303 doubles, 189 triples, 53 home runs, and 1072 RBIs. He scored 1684 runs and stole 568 bases. The stolen base total is both incomplete and includes bases stolen prior to the modern rule being adopted in 1898. His fielding percentage was ..944, which is great for the 1880s and 1890s, he had 6552 putouts and 6919 assists.

As with most players of the era, there is some difference in the statistics of McPhee. The stats listed above are from Baseball Reference.com and differ from Nemec’s numbers in his 19th Century baseball almanac. Either way, McPhee shows up as an excellent player. When starting this look at McPhee, I went took a cursory look at the other second basemen of the 19th Century. I’ve concluded that, along with catcher, second base has to be the weakest position overall in the century. It’s tough to find a really outstanding player whose numbers reach out and grab you. I like Bobby Lowe and Nap LaJoie, but to me LaJoie is a 20th Century player and Lowe, although very good, isn’t truly outstanding. You could make a case for McPhee as the best 19th Century second baseman. Not sure I would, but he’d certainly be in the mix. But you gotta give him some credit for picking up those 20 triples 57 years after he died.