1908: Henry Clay Pulliam

Henry C. Pullliam

One of the more important, but most overlooked, results of the 1908 “Merkle Boner” was what happened off the field in its aftermath. It forever changed, and some argued shortened, the life of National League President Henry Clay Pulliam.

The future National League President was born in Kentucky in 1869, son of a tobacco farmer and named for one of the state’s most famous statesmen. He graduated from law school at the University of Virginia, became a journalist at the Louisville, Kentucky Commercial. Interested in politics, he ran successfully for the Kentucky state assembly and served a term. He came to the attention of Hall of Fame owner Barney Dreyfuss, who owned the Louisville Colonels of the American Association (a Major League at the time). Dreyfuss named him, first, team secretary (a position that would evolve into today’s General Manager), and later club President. While at Louisville, Pulliam signed future Hall of Famer Honus Wagner to his first major league contract.

When the National League contracted for the 1900 season, Dreyfuss and Pulliam moved their headquarters to Pittsburgh (Dreyfuss owned both Louisville and Pittsburgh under the “syndicate” rules of the day), taking with them Louisville’s primary players, including Wagner. It began the turn of the 20th Century Pirates dynasty that managed to get to the first World Series.

But by the first World Series, Pulliam was no longer with the team. He was well liked, considered knowledgeable about the sport, easy to get along with, and quite frankly a number of owners thought he could be easily manipulated. That got him elected to the presidency of the NL in 1902.

His first job was to end the “war” with the fledgling American League. Although Cincinnati owner Gerry Herrmann was primarily responsible for proposing the terms of the “National Agreement” that ended the war, and Dreyfuss was the first proponent of the World Series, Pulliam was instrumental in seeing both implemented. He got along with AL President Ban Johnson (almost no one else did) and was able to ease Johnson’s acceptance of the National Agreement. As NL President he, along with Johnson and Herrmann, was part of the trinity that ran Major League Baseball for the next several years.

But all this led him into conflict with two men of great importance to baseball: Andrew Freedman, owner of the Giants, and the Giants manager John McGraw. Both men argued that Pulliam’s decisions on disputed issues always favored the Pittsburgh position. After an initial unanimous election as NL President, Pulliam’s annual reelection was by a 7-1 margin with New York casting the no vote (later Cincinnati joined New York to make it 6-2). This continued even after Freedman left the Giants and John T. Brush took over as New York team owner.

Always considered “high-strung” Pulliam began suffering health problems by 1906. Some sources indicate he was on the verge of a “nervous breakdown” from the strain of his job. Then came the Merkle Boner (see the post just below this one) and he was thrust into the center of a raging fight between the Giants and almost everyone else. By 1908 John T. Brush had taken control of the Giants and he was furious with both umpire Hank O’Day, who’d ruled the Merkle game a tie, and Pulliam for upholding the decision. For the next year Brush relentlessly hounded Pulliam calling him a cheat in the pay of the Cubs and other things that are not acceptable for a family oriented site like this.

John T. Brush

All of that got to Pulliam and he suffered something like a breakdown in late 1908. He took a leave of absence and didn’t return to NL headquarters until after the 1909 season began. Apparently unable to withstand the pressures of his job, he went to his apartment and shot himself on 28 July 1909. He died the next day still in his apartment. He is buried in Kentucky. John Heydler, his assistant took over the job as NL President.

Pulliam is in many ways a tragic figure. He was good at his job, apparently honest and well liked. But he was unable to withstand the constant strain of the position. It’s much too much to say that Brush and the Giants killed him, but their constant abuse certainly helped lead to the depression that ultimately led to his demise.

Pulliam’s final resting place (from Find a Grave)


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5 Responses to “1908: Henry Clay Pulliam”

  1. glenrussellslater Says:

    Suicide: a permanent solution to a temporary problem. In other words, don’t do it.

  2. glenrussellslater Says:

    There is always help. One of the biggest problems with people stigmatizing mental illness is that people who otherwise would get help are discouraged from doing so. So you have results like that of Henry Pulliam, Willard Hershberger, and my cousin, Aaron, who shot himself a few years ago. Life is precious; once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.

  3. glenrussellslater Says:

    I didn’t mean to sound preachy there. I just figured that some fellow reader of your blog might jump in and support my statements or whatever. But evidently, Thursday isn’t a big blog-reading day for a lot of folks. Anyway, that was the main thing that I took from that article that you wrote. I mean, Pulliam DID have a tragic and sad life, and suicide IS often (TOO often, I might add) the repercussion of a sad and tragic life,and he did commit suicide, so it really WAS the main point of the article, or at least it was for me. Plus, to be honest with you, I’ve been there; I’m a person with depression and I attempted it myself, and came very close to dying (frighteningly close) and friends and family were extremely angry with me for the selfishness of my act, which thank God wasn’t successful. But it taught me to try other techniques to deal with depression that are healthy, rather than destructive. I’m just defending myself here and sort of apologizing for being a little preachy, and maybe it’s not necessary.

  4. Precious Sanders Says:

    Very interesting. Folks think/talk about the effect on poor Fred Merkle, but you never hear about the effect of this on other individuals surrounding that event and decision. Thanks for this!

  5. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Thank you for sharing this, v. I didn’t know about Pulliam’s tragic back story. Well told.

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