SABR

Mark Polhemus

This article was written by Steve Hatcher.

Mark S. Polhemus, known as “Humpty Dumpty,” was a gifted right-handed batter who performed for clubs in several minor leagues in the 19th century with a brief appearance in the National League.i

He was born on October 4, 1860, in Brooklyn, New York, the younger of two sons of Garret G. Polhemus, a livery-stable keeper, and his wife Mary (Gilchrist) Polhemus, a homemaker. Mark had two older sisters and one younger sister born several years later.ii   His formative years were spent in school, working as a clerk, and learning the sport of baseball on the parade ground of historic Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Mark’s youth was largely uneventful until he entered the US Army on May 8, 1883, at the age of 22 on a five-year enlistment. According to Army records, he was 5-feet-5 and fair-skinned with brown hair and hazel eyes.iii  He was assigned to Company G, 7th Infantry, at Fort Washakie in the western part of Wyoming Territory,iv and served until March 28, 1886, when he received a discharge for a disability and returned home, which was now in Nyack, New York. It was there that he joined the champion Nyack baseball team, a semipro organization captained by William Truax.v Presumably it was at Nyack where he met his wife, Jennie, a Kingston native.

In 1887 Polhemus journeyed to the great shoe-manufacturing city of Haverhill, Massachusetts, and signed with the Haverhills of the New England League, an eight-team organization with a 112-game season. He was described as “a young fellow of heavy build as swarthy as an African.”vi  The team played its home games at the Riverside Grounds and team captain Fred Doe normally positioned Polhemus in right field, but he also played the infield for several games, and had a stint at catching.  On May 27 Polhemus had his finest day with a 4-for-4 performance with two home runs at Salem.

Walks in 1887 were counted as base hits and it took five called balls to achieve a “walking hit.” With 23 bases on balls, Polhemus was leading the league over 51 games with a .456 batting average, which included the walking hits.  His average based on actual hits was either or .395 or .406 when the Haverhill managementvii sold him to the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the National League about a week into July for a reported $500.   In the process Polhemus left a seventh-place club that would not finish the season to join a last-place team.

The fact was that the Hoosiers were in need of a hitter and Mark seemed to be an excellent addition for manager Horace Fogel to acquire. At first Polhemus “made a favorable impression,” playing both right field and center field. He hit a single in his first game, on July 13. His batting was inconsistent, though; his average through 20 games was .260, which was not enough to counter his poor play in the outfield (10 errors in 39 chances). Polhemus’s “Waterloo” was his poor work in right field on August 9 that resulted in a loss to the New York Giants. Despite having a strong arm (eight assists), he was dead last in fielding (.744) among outfielders with at least 15 games. He played his last major-league game on August 11 and was released the next day.viii     

It didn’t take long before rumors circulated that both Polhemus and Hank Morrison, who was also released, were being sought by both Wheeling and Lowell; the latter team signed him for the 1888 New England League season.ix A central part of the Spindle City’s entertainment, the Lowell Chippies played their home games at the new River Street Grounds, and competed in a six-team alignment with Lynn, Salem, and Worcester, Massachusetts; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Portland, Maine.

According to the Lowell Weekly Sun, Polhemus “looks heavy but he gets around in good shape”; in fact, he was rather squat, weighing about 190 pounds on a short frame.x However, Polhemus, who was replacing “Humpty Dumpty” Hugh Duffy, was part of a strong outfield that also included manager Joe Cudworth in center field and Ed Kennedy in left. At least one observer believed that the Brooklyn native would lead the league in batting.xi

After several exhibition games, the championship season began at Worcester on April 28 with a 9-4 loss despite three singles by Polhemus. Two days later Lowell hosted Portland in the home opener with brass bands and cannon under an 80-foot pole that flew the pennant the Chippies had won the previous year.

Polhemus usually batted second, third, or fourth in the 76 games he played before he was released for unknown reasons in August.xii   It had been a sorrowful time at home at 21 Lawrence Street with the loss of his 11-day-old daughter, Lizzie, who died on July 8 of inanition, a condition of exhaustion traceable to the lack of food and water or the inability to assimilate it.xiii But his release may have been due to the ballclub’s severe financial problems. Eventually the club persuaded all the players to take a 20 percent cut in salary. (Meanwhile the Chippies were on their way to winning a second straight pennant.) Polhemus was batting .301 when he was released, and at season’s end was the league leader with 14 home runs.xiv

There was an erroneous report that Polhemus had signed with Buffalo of the International Association, but in any event he joined the Hazleton Pugilists of the Central League, representing an eastern Pennsylvania borough of about 14,000 residents, for the balance of the season.  Manager Charlie Gessner placed him in center field for the 14 games he played. Batting third, he hit a meager .208 with a fielding average of .896, which was still fifth best among the 23 center fielders in the league.xv The Pugilists reserved him for Polhemus for the 1889 season, but he signed instead with New Orleans of the Southern League.

The Pelicans represented a city of a quarter of a million residents and played their home games at Athletic Park.xvi The other teams to begin play in the unstable six-team league were Atlanta, Birmingham, Charleston, Chattanooga, and Memphis. The Pelicans, managed and captained by Abner Powell, won 25 of their first 30 games. Polhemus played center field and batted in the leadoff position. The league found itself in financial straits, downsized to four clubs and called the games up to then the “Old Series.” The Pelicans were 36-7 in the Old Series. The Pelicans went 8-2 in the “New Series,” but the league was no healthier financially and disbanded again on July 6. The Pelicans were awarded the pennant and Polhemus won the batting championship with a .365 average.  

However, the season was not yet over for Polhemus; he and Abner Powell signed with the Hamilton Hams of the International Association.xvii However, acting as agent he tried to bring pitcher Charles E. Petty along, causing a bit of controversy because Polhemus acted before the Pelicans folded. Petty was eventually awarded to Cincinnati of the American Association by a Board of Arbitration.xviii

Hamilton was managed by Ed Swartwood, who was steering the Canadian club to the weakest record in the eight-club Association.xix  Polhemus made his debut with the Hams against Detroit on July 10, collecting three singles and a walk in a 10-5 loss to the Wolverines. Except for the first game, he always led off and played center field. In mid-July Powell replaced Swartwood as manager.xx And after just 19 games with both his batting and fielding below par, Polhemus was released on August 1. His final batting average was .228 with 17 singles and a triple, and he made at least nine errors in center field.xxi

Later in August, manager John Roushkolb of the Grand Rapids team in the Michigan State League engaged Polhemus to finish out the season. The other teams in the six-club loop were Jackson, Saginaw, Lansing, Greenville, and Flint. The Grand Rapids club represented a city of about 60,000 residents and played its home games at the Fountain Street Park, although Sunday games were played at Alger Park.xxii   In 38 games Polhemus batted .343, ranking third in the league among those with at least 13 games played. His fielding was a different story; he made 11 errors in the outfield for a .788 fielding average.xxiii

Polhemus signed with manager William L. “Farmer” Works of the Galveston Sand Crabs of the Texas League over the winter, and he and his wife, Jennie, left their farm and sailed from New York in February 1890 on a Mallory Steamer, to play for the Oleander City, early enough “to do some housekeeping.”xxiv Manager Works had gathered “a pretty stiff gang of batters, base-runners and fielders” to vie for the championship of the Texas League, a six-member league comprising Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Waco, and the island city of Galveston. The Sand Crabs played at Beach Park, which underwent several improvements for the 1890 season. Because of his “wonderful arm,” Because of his “wonderful arm,” Manager Works stationed Polhemus in center field for the entire season and placed him in the leadoff position for the first 28 games before dropping him to third.Because of his thick legs, Polhemus earned the additional nickname of Piano Legs. The league disbanded on June 10 over financial woes, a common outcome for several minor leagues in this era, with the Sand Crabs in first place by a wide margin. Over the 46 games he played, Polhemus finished eighth in hitting with an average of .302.

After the league folded, Polhemus apparently sent Jennie, who was pregnant, back home to New York, and landed a job for $200 a month with Spokane Falls in the new Pacific Northwest League.xxv Manager John S. Barnes also signed several other former Texas League players, much to the dismay of those who were released to make room. A much improved club, the Spokanes, representing a community of 20,000, won the league’s first pennant with a 61-35 record on the strength of perhaps the best hitting and fielding in the small four-club league.xxvi

The Spokane team played its home games at Twickenham Park with its dusty infield scattered with pesky stones that turned hits into errors and vice versa.xxvii   Polhemus patrolled the grassy field in right and hit for a .340 average, finishing second in the batting race behind teammate Piggy Ward. In the field he piled up 10 assists along with 18 errors and finished 19th in fielding percentage among outfielders.xxviii

On September 16 Mark and Jennie’s first son, Garrett, was born in Nyack, and when the season ended in October, the new father made tracks back to Mount Moor, New York.xxix

The Pacific Northwest League continued in 1891 with the same four clubs: Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane, which dropped the “Falls” from its name. Polhemus, who was now 30 years old, was named captain, and he led the team to a hard-fought second-place finish, two games behind the Portland Webfeet. Although there are some disputes as to the original statistics compared with recent recounts, according to Chairman N.E. Young of the National Board of Control,xxx Polhemus won the batting championship with a .351 average, just ahead of teammate Jake Stenzel. As usual he ranked in the lower ranges afield.xxxi

Polhemus and his family roomed at Ross Block in Spokane over the winter; he worked on the city surveying corps.xxxii 

There was a positive outlook for the 1892 campaign, which would consist of the same four clubs playing a split season. The Spokanes or Bunchgrassers would sport black uniforms trimmed in red, with the letters S-P-O-K-A-N-E written in white across the chest.xxxiii   

On May 4 Polhemus was in Portland losing at Columbia Park to the Portland Webfeet when Jennie gave birth back in Spokane to a second healthy son, christened Julian E.

Portland won the first-half championship, six games ahead of the third place Bunchgrassers.xxxiv Spokane released Polhemus shortly after the second half began due in part to his fielding liabilities, but he was swiftly picked up by Seattle under the leadership of Gil Hatfield, who had replaced Abner Powell as manager. “Hatfield’s Hustlers” dominated the second half until the league collapsed on August 21. Seattle was declared the second-half champion with an 18-9 record, and it was announced that Seattle and Portland would play a round of games to determine the overall champ. However, it was a series that never happened as Portland declined to field a team. Instead Seattle was declared the pennant winner for the 1892 season by default and played a benefit game at Madison Street Park for the players.xxxv

Polhemus hit .268 for the season, some 82 points behind ex-teammate Jake Stenzel, the batting champion. Despite a slump during June, he hit slightly better with Spokane than with Seattle, placing 14th in the batting race. His fielding was a mix of good and bad with a league-leading 23 assists in the outfield but a whopping 16 errors and a subpar .888 fielding percentage.xxxvi

For the 1893 season, the 32-year-old Polhemus was signed to play center field by his former manager and teammate Abner Powell of the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League. Four additional teams were added from the previous season to bring the total to 12, a collection of towns from Charleston to Memphis to New Orleans.

Like a lot of other batters, Polhemus took advantage of the new 60-foot 6-inch pitching distance, five feet longer than before. On Opening Day, April 10, he went hitless in a 16-2 rout at the hands of Mobile. Then he went on a 12-game hitting streak. The Pelicans eventually faltered and wound up ninth in the first part of the split season, 20 games behind the champion Augusta Dudes. In late June he was released for lackadaisical play. The league itself folded on August 12. Polhemus had played in 56 games and batted .347 or .355, depending on the source.xxxvii

Polhemus caught on with the Wilkes-Barre Coal Heavers of the Eastern League, an eight-club circuit.xxxviii   His new team fared even worse than the Pelicans, battling all season with the Providence Grays to avoid last place, which is where the team ultimately landed. With more than a month left in the season, Polhemus played his final game on August 1. It’s unclear why his season was cut short. In the 17 games in which he played, he batted .347. Once again he placed in the lower ranges among outfielders with an .857 fielding average.xxxix Despite his missing the end of the season, he was reserved by the Coal Heavers for 1894, but instead he returned to the Southern League and signed with manager and captain Ollie Beard of the Charleston Sea Gulls or Yamacraws.

There was some dispute over which baseball to use. The Spalding ball was finally accepted over the Kiffe ball to keep the Southern League under the protection of the National Agreement.xl  In any event, Polhemus tore the cover off the ball, beginning the year with ten doubles during a ten-game hitting streak, and eventually finishing second in the Southern League to teammate Ollie Beard with a .383 batting average over the 45 games he played.xli Charleston itself finished in third place before dropping out of the league with three other clubs on June 29 due to financial considerations. The remaining four teams called it quits about a week later, and Memphis was declared the pennant winner.

Polhemus finished the season with Lewiston, Maine, a textile manufacturing city of about 22,000 residents and one of eight members of the New England League.xlii  The Lewistons were 25-29 before his first game, against Bangor on July 10. Captain Sam LaRocque positioned the 33-year-old in right field and placed him fourth in the batting order. Lewiston was a “great disappointment,” according to the Boston Daily Globe, with its high salaries and stars, managing only to hold on to the top spot of the second division.

After 22 games Polhemus deserted his teammates for unknown reasons and was suspended by the club. His final game was against Fall River on August 21. Unofficially, he hit .312 on 29 base hits and fielded .875 with six assists and four errors.xliii

Polhemus announced his retirement for the next two years. He returned to the professional ranks in 1897, signing with manager Thomas McGuirk of Portland, one of six clubs of the Maine State League.xliv McGuirk positioned Polhemus, now 36 years old, in center field, where he played for six weeks or until the league succumbed to financial woes on July 5. Portland finished in first place with a record of 21-8. For his part, Polhemus hit .361, tenth among the league’s hitters.xlv

Meanwhile, on April 22 Jennie gave birth to their third son, whom they named Frank. About this time Polhemus landed a job with Cortland of the New York State League. However, after just “two disastrous defeats” at the hands of Canandaigua, the owners released both captain McGuirk and Polhemus, ending the 37-year-old’s professional career.xlvi Then 4-month-old Frank died on August 21 of marasmus, a form of severe malnutrition characterized by energy deficiency.

The Polhemus family eventually left Portland and moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he played for the Woods Brothers in the city league and the Portsmouths in the intercity league, and perhaps continued to play for many years.

For a time Polhemus worked as an inspector of dredging in the construction of the breakwater at the Isles of Shoals, off the New Hampshire coast.xlvii  But he spent most of his later years an inspector for General Electric at Lynn, Massachusetts, his permanent home.

Polhemus followed baseball and other sports, including boxing, with enthusiasm, and during an exciting bout at the Casino Athletic Club in Lynn, he died of a heart attack on November 12, 1923, at the age of 63.  He was buried at Nyack Rural Cemetery in West Nyack, New York.xlviii

 

Sources

The Sporting News

Sporting Life

Ancestry.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Charlie Bevis, The New England League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2008.)

Angie Flint, newspaper library, Spokane (Washington) Spokesman Review

Lowell (Massachusetts) Weekly Sun

Bill O’Neal, The Texas League (Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1987)

Bill O’Neal, Bill, The Southern League (Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1994)

Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Herald

Jim Price, Spokane, Washington (SABR Member)

Spalding Base Ball Guide, 1888

US Census,  1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920

 

Notes

i Apparently Polhemus had no actual middle name, and his middle initial was published over the years as L, A, and D. The author made a strong assumption that Polhemus was right-handed because he was not named as one of the seven left-handers on the Galveston Sand Crabs of 1890. (Sporting Life, February 12, 1890, 7). The term “Humpty Dumpty” refers to a short fat person.

ii The birthdate of October 14, 1860, is from Baseball-Reference.com and Wikipedia. The Sporting News, January 19, 1895, Page 1, gives his birthdate as October 4, 1864. Total Baseball, 1989 edition, John Thorn and Pete Palmer, eds., page 1383, gives it as October 4, 1862.

iii Polhemus’s height is published in most baseball sources as 5-feet-6 (e.g., Baseball-reference.com) or 5-feet-6½.

iv The community of Fort Washakie is now within the Wind River Indian Reservation.

v The foregoing information was retrieved from the New York Times, Sporting Life, and Hudson River Valley Heritage (hrvh.org). A picture of the 1886 team doesn’t include Polhemus, and the league that the team played in is unknown.

vi Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Herald, May 28, 1902, 1.

vii The two averages were from two different sources, with the .406 mark given in an article of Sporting Life dated March 1, 1888.

viii For a very brief time, Polhemus and Doc Leitner, a teammate at Nyack in 1886, were teammates on the Hoosiers.

ix Sporting Life,  August 17, 1887. 

x Sporting Life, March 1, 1888, said Polhemus was 5-feet-7 and weighed 190 pounds. As a result, there are four known recorded height measurements and two known recorded weight measurements for Polhemus.

xi Sporting Life, May 30, 1888. The term “Humpty Dumpty,” which was also applied to Polhemus, is used to describe a short, fat person. See Don Zminda, From Abba Dabba to Zorro: The World of Baseball Nicknames (STATS Inc. Publishing, 1999).

xii Baseball-Reference.com and all other sources record 75 games, but the author found 76.

xiii See Ancestry.com.

xiv According to Sporting Life, Polhemus led with 16 home runs. There was a slight discrepancy with respect to at-bats and hits, but in all cases his average when rounded off was .301.

xv The 23 were all those who played at least six games in center field. 

xvi The ballpark was also called Crescent City Baseball Park and Sportsman’s Park

xvii Sometimes the International Association was referred to as the League, but the official name was Association until a meeting on December 20, 1889, in which the name was changed to the International League. Baseball-Reference uses the term “League” for the International’s 1889 season in error. Sporting Life, July 31, 1889, 1.

xviii The Board of Arbitration settled disputes between players and teams. For a fuller description, see Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960).l

xix The other seven teams were in Buffalo, Detroit, London, Rochester, Syracuse, Toledo, and Toronto. 

xx See article by Brian McKenna on Ed Swartwood at SABR’s Baseball Biography Project (BioProject); and Ray Schmidt, Baseball’s First Stars (Cleveland: SABR, 1996), 161.

xxi The author counted 11 errors. The league’s official figures, listing nine errors, were published in Sporting Life, October 16, 1889.

xxii Marc Okkonen, Minor League Baseball Towns of Michigan (Holt, Michigan: Thunder Bay Press, 1997), 58; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Rapids,_Michigan; Sporting Life, April 5, 1889.

xxiii Sporting Life, April 5, 1890, 11.

xxiv Sporting Life, January 1, 1890, 7; and February 12, 1890, 7.

About the city’s nickname: According to the International Oleander Society, the first Oleanders came to subtropical Galveston in 1841.

xxv Spokane Falls Chronicle, August 12, 1890

xxvi The league’s teams were Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane.

xxvii Jim Price, “Ballparks of the Past,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, June 21, 2003.

xxviii The Sporting News, November 1, 1891, 3.

xxix Polhemus said he was actually from Mount Moor, a village near Nyack. (The village no longer exists.)

xxx The National Board of Control set standards for all professional leagues. See Sporting Life, March 7, 1891, 8, Sporting Life, December 12, 1891, 8.

xxxi The dispute over figures may be a result of games being thrown out.

xxxii Sporting Life, October 31, 1891, 9.

xxxiii Sporting Life, April 9, 1892, 12.

xxxiv Spokane’s nickname may have been a sarcastic rendering by the western Washington newspapers, which is also fallacious since Spokane lies to the east of the bunch grass region of Washington.

xxxv The Sporting News, September 3, 1892, 3.

xxxvi Sporting Life, October 15, 1892, 9.

xxxvii The Sporting News, August 26, 1893, page 3, records the .355 figure. Baseball-reference.com records the .347 figure.

xxxviii Wilkes-Barre was called the Coal Heavers this season according to Sporting Life, although Baseball-Reference refers to the club as the Coal Barons. 

xxxix Figures are from the 1894 Spalding Base Ball Guide.

xl Leagues under the National Agreement had to use either the Reach or the Spalding ball.

xli Figures are from The Sporting News, August 26, 1894.

xliii The figures are from the author’s calculations.

xliv The teams were Augusta, Bath, Belfast, Lewiston, Rockland, and Portland.

xlv Sporting Life, December 4, 1897, 12.

xlvi Sporting Life, May 28, 1898, 18.

xlvii Portsmouth Herald, August 12, 1922, 5.

xlviii Findagrave.com (a free website).

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