SABR

Suter Sullivan

This article was written by Jimmy Keenan.

Suter Sullivan was a standout player on what was arguably the worst ballclub in major league baseball history, the woefully inept 1899 Cleveland Spiders. After the Spiders lost their 100th game of the season, the New York Times wrote, “Sullivan seems to be out of place on such a poor team as the Clevelands. He can cover a lot of ground, is a good thrower and holds up well in batting. He made three hits yesterday, one a two- bagger that sent in the visitor’s three runs.”

Suter’s professional baseball career spanned 15 seasons, including one full year and half of another in the big leagues. The Baltimore native had good speed on the bases, a strong right arm and a reliable bat. His quick reflexes and sure-handed glove work enabled him to perform capably at every infield position and occasionally in the outfield. Sullivan was a fan favorite and popular with his fellow ballplayers, which led to him being named team captain and later manager of Louisville’s American Association team.

Suter Grant Sullivan was born on October 14, 1872, in the thriving northwest Baltimore community of Hampden. His parents were William H. Sullivan and Mary J. Sullivan. William’s occupation was listed as a lamplighter in the 1870 U.S. Census. The Sullivans had seven children: Jesse, William, Ida, Ellen, Suter, Bessie, and Clarence.

As a boy, Suter learned the fundamentals of our national game on the local ball fields of Hampden and nearby Medfield. By 1895, the 6’0”, 170-pound Sullivan was playing first base for a fast nine from the east side of town called the Cantons. His stellar defense and consistent hitting didn’t go unnoticed by the major and minor league scouts who regularly canvassed the Baltimore area for talent.

The following year, Suter signed his first professional contract with the New Castle Salamanders of the Interstate League. He played 88 games at third base for the Salamanders and once again distinguished himself with his outstanding all-around play. In an omission that still has modern researchers puzzled, Sullivan and at least twenty other players from the Interstate League didn’t have their statistics listed in the circuit’s final averages. The omission may have been a case where only the highest batting averages from the league were published in the Baseball Guides that year.     

In the spring of 1897, Buffalo Bisons manager John Rowe persuaded Farmer Brown, Larry Gilboy, and Sullivan to leave New Castle and sign with him. Suter started out the year with Buffalo, but was loaned to Scranton a short time later. The rangy infielder played well at shortstop for both clubs, banging out a career-high 8 home runs while stinging the ball at a steady .298 clip. A reporter describing Sullivan’s popularity at that time wrote, “Quiet young Sullivan seems to catch the fans where he has played so far.”

A line in the September11, 1897, edition of the Sporting Life said that Sullivan had recently eloped with a woman named Mary Daly from Lewiston, New York. This may be true although three years later, Sullivan’s marital status is listed as single on the 1900 U.S.Census.    

In March of 1898, Buffalo, who still owned Sullivan’s contract, traded him to the Wilkes-Barre Barons in exchange for catcher Bill Diggins. The Barons’ new shortstop was a bit inconsistent early on, but once he settled in, his hitting and fielding began to come around. Soon National League scouts were contacting Wilkes-Barre’s front office in regard to acquiring his services.  

The Sporting Life of July 23, 1898, noted, “Manager Hurst, of the St.Louis club, has made an offer for the release of Sullivan, the brilliant yet erratic shortstop of Wilkes – Barre.”       

The next day, Sullivan’s contract was sold to the St. Louis Browns for a price that was reported to be $750; later newspaper accounts listed the figure as high as $1,150.

St. Louis manager Tim Hurst played Suter in the outfield as well as shortstop, second, and first plus one game as pitcher. Sullivan didn’t earn the win in his major league pitching debut, but he performed well, working six innings, allowing just one earned run. Suter appeared in a total of 42 games with the Browns in 1898. His play was steady in the field but at the plate it was a different story, leading to an uninspiring .222 batting average.     

The following March, the Robison brothers, Frank D. and M. Stanley, owners of the National League Cleveland Spiders, purchased the financially troubled St. Louis Browns. In what was becoming a disturbing trend among National League owners, the siblings now owned two teams in the same league. Baltimore Orioles owner Ned Hanlon had recently pulled the same maneuver, purchasing the Brooklyn club, then sending his best men to his new team. The Robisons soon followed suit and began transferring their star players over from Cleveland. Manager Patsy Tebeau along with Cy Young, Cupid Childs, Jesse Burkett, and a number of other key men were sent to the St. Louis club. Suter Sullivan, Lave Cross, Tommy Tucker, Joe Quinn, and a few other members of the St. Louis squad were shifted to Cleveland in the exchange.

Upon the purchase of the St. Louis franchise, the Robison brothers incurred the past baseball debts of Chris von der Ahe, the financially troubled former owner of the club. One issue that came up was that von der Ahe had never bothered to pay Wilkes-Barre for Sullivan. After a few years of arbitration and under threat of suspension, the Robisons finally agreed to pay the outstanding debt.

During Spiders practice, Sullivan and his buddy Sport McAlister, could be found honing their defensive skills by throwing balls off the outfield wall and chasing down the caroms. The pair, playing a late 19th century version of curb ball, showed that the two ball players, both in their mid to late twenties, still possessed a boyish enthusiasm for the game.  

As the season progressed, Cleveland fans were not happy about their marquee players being shipped off to St. Louis and stayed away from the ballpark in droves. It would turn out to be a long year for the Forest City nine and the few supporters the team could muster. The club had such poor attendance at home games, the other National League teams refused to travel to Cleveland. The Spiders were forced to play out the season on the road, finishing the 1899 campaign with a dismal record of 20 wins and 134 losses.

In regard to Sullivan’s play at the outset of the season, the Sporting Life of May 13, 1899, wrote, “Sutor Sullivan is doing most timely hitting in Cleveland and is covering right field in fine style.”

Spiders player-manager Lave Cross was recalled to St. Louis in the middle of June and replaced by infielder Joe Quinn. The Spiders’ new skipper immediately took Sullivan under his wing, spending a considerable amount of time teaching him the nuances of each infield position. In addition, Quinn, who knew every player in the league’s hitting tendencies, showed Suter where to station himself in the field for each batter.   

Suter logged time at every infield position as well as the outfield for the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. Thanks in part to Quinn’s coaching efforts, Sullivan’s .938 fielding percentage was the fourth highest among National League third basemen. Suter batted just .245, but his clutch hitting accounted for 55 RBIs and he stole 16 bases.

The National League downsized from 12 to 8 teams the following year with Cleveland being one of the four teams that was dropped from the circuit.    

In April of 1900, the Robison brothers sold Sullivan and three other players to the Detroit Tigers of the newly formed American League. This loop wouldn’t achieve major league status until the next year.

A few weeks into the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Cleveland Lake Shores contacted Detroit’s management about purchasing Suter’s contract. Toronto made numerous unsuccessful attempts to land Sullivan before signing another third baseman.   At the same time, Cleveland was in dire need of a third baseman due to Charlie Buelow’s slow recovery from a severely wrenched knee. In late May of 1900, Detroit’s owner- manager George Stallings, in an effort to help Cleveland fill the void on the left side of their infield, consented to sell Sullivan for $500.   

In early August, Buelow had recovered sufficiently from his injury, so in what was an accepted practice during this era, Sullivan was loaned out to the Buffalo Bisons. Suter, who took ill at this time, did not report to the Bisons and went back home to Baltimore to recuperate. Due to poor health and a slow recovery, he was unable to return to the diamond that summer, leading to his release by Cleveland in late August. 

In the games that Sullivan played that year, he covered third base admirably, while hitting a respectable .286.

During the off-season, Bill Murray, manager of the Eastern League champion Providence Grays, began contract talks with Suter, who was now fully recuperated. “A good hitter and sharp fielder who knows the game thoroughly,” one scribe wrote about Sullivan in the press at this time.         

Suter evidently liked manager Murray’s sales pitch because in early 1901 he signed with the Providence club. The Grays would eventually lose Fred Parent, Tom Leahy, and Harry Davis to the new American League, so Sullivan was a welcome addition to the roster.

Although an infielder by trade he was versatile enough to compete for the Grays starting job in right field. The Sporting News of May 4,1901, noted, “In right, Suter Sullivan, a brainy and valuable player, is contesting with Jack Walters for the regular position. Sullivan is a third baseman, but he is a fair man in the outfield.” 

A short time later, Suter was loaned out to Buffalo. After a brief stay with the Bisons, Sullivan was returned to Providence where he finished out the year. Sullivan ended up playing shortstop, third base and the outfield for the Grays, batting a career-high .313 with 15 stolen bases. His 42 double plays turned from the shortstop position were the third highest in the league.

Sullivan spent all of the 1902 season with Providence, playing solidly at third base and shortstop while hitting .288. 

By December of 1902, Suter had left the Grays and signed with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. It seemed the well-traveled infielder was always battling for a position in spring training, but he usually came out on top. A Sporting Life article in early May noted that Sullivan had beaten out Louisville’s incumbent third baseman Bob Schaub for the starting job. Suter played exclusively at the hot corner for the Colonels that year, hitting .309 while establishing career highs in doubles (33), triples (12) and stolen bases (34). His .994 fielding percentage was the highest among American Association third basemen. In regard to the seasoned veteran’s play, the Sporting Life of August 15, 1903, observed, “Sullivan is putting up the best game of his career at Louisville’s third base.”  

Sullivan’s contract was sold to the Kansas City Blues at the conclusion of the 1903 season. He spent the entire 1904 campaign with the Blues, but never got on track at the plate, hitting just .234.                      

The following season, Kansas City’s manager Arthur Irwin found himself in the enviable position of having five talented players trying out for four spots in the infield. In this case, Suter lost out to fellow Irishman Charlie Donahue for the starting third base position. In May, the Blues released Sullivan to the Louisville Colonels. The Blues and the Colonels were jointly owned by former major leaguer George Tebeau. During his reign, player transfers between the two teams were commonplace.  

Suter wouldn’t report to Louisville unless his contract was renegotiated. The Colonels initially balked at the idea so Sullivan signed with an independent nine from Wilmington, Delaware. Suter finally came to terms with the Louisville club on a new contract in late June. He was elected captain of the Colonels shortly after he joined the team.

On August 31, 1905, Sullivan and seven members of the Louisville team were injured in a trolley car accident while heading back to the hotel after a game in Kansas City. The trolley conductor lost control of the car as it descended down a step incline at a high rate of speed, crashing into a wagonette that had crossed its path at the bottom of the hill. There were no fatalities from the mishap, but two of the Louisville players, pitcher Ed Kenna and outfielder Hen Clay, were seriously hurt. Suter suffered two broken toes and a sprained hand in the collision. The eight men collectively sued the Metropolitan Street Railway Company for $ 39,500 in damages, citing negligence of the conductor. The writer of this biography was unable to locate any additional newspaper articles pertaining to the pursuance of the lawsuit, so it may have been settled out of court.                       

In early September of 1905, Suter was named player-manager of the Colonels, replacing Charlie Dexter. In regard to Sullivan’s new position, the Sporting Life of September 12, 1905, wrote, “Suter Sullivan has been playing a grand game this season and is one of the most conscientious of players.”     

A month later, various newspaper accounts reported that the National League St. Louis Browns had drafted Suter Sullivan. The Browns were actually after Minneapolis outfielder Denny Sullivan, and the mix-up was soon straightened out.

Sullivan was content with his situation in Louisville and signed back up with the team for the 1906 season. Initially, the Colonels Owner- President George Tebeau was set on managing the club but gave way to Sullivan a few weeks into the season. The Sporting Life of July 21,1906, observed, “Suter Sullivan, the Louisville manager-captain, has developed into a fine first baseman. And how he hits the ball!”

Suter relinquished his role as manager-captain late in the year to second baseman Roy Brashear. The transition did not affect Sullivan’s contributions on the field, and he finished the season with a career high 180 hits and a solid .286 batting average. His .990 fielding percentage was tops among the league’s first basemen.

Sullivan continued on as a player with the Louisville club for the next few years. His hitting was fair, but he remained as consistent as ever at first and third base.         

In 1909, the Louisville team, which was now under new ownership, captured its first American Association pennant since the Midwest circuit became a minor league in 1902. Suter’s steady defense played a key part in helping the Colonels win the championship. He was also a hard man to keep out of the lineup, and over the years he played through a variety of injuries. In late June, the Sporting Life noted, “Sullivan was ill from blood poisoning that he had contracted from a hand injury that went unattended.” Even with the serious malady, Suter managed to play in 137 games, splitting time between first and third base although his batting average (.230) evidently suffered due to the illness      

Suter seemed to regain his batting stroke the following year, hitting right around .300 for the first few months of the season. In early July, Louisville sold Sullivan and William Moriarity to the Omaha Rourkes of the Western League. Sullivan refused to report and caught a train back home to Baltimore. By the end of the week, The Baltimore Sun noted that Sullivan, Billy Mitchell, a Newark Bears alumnus, and Stubbs Brown, a former Oriole, were playing with the Pennsylvania Athletic Club in Baltimore. Suter also signed on with a very talented local aggregation called the Hampdens. He never did come to terms with the Omaha team, choosing to play out the remainder of the 1910 season in Baltimore.

The following fall, the Rourkes filed an arbitration case in regard to the money they paid Louisville in the deal for Sullivan and Moriarity. Omaha’s claim was heard by baseball’s Arbitration Board in November of 1910 and surprisingly disallowed.

Sullivan never reported to Omaha or Louisville the following spring, and on March 11, 1911, the Colonels, who technically still owned the rights to his contract, released him. Ten days later, he was playing first base and batting third for the Hampden team in an exhibition game against Jack Dunn’s Orioles in Baltimore. The Oriole Park fans were on the edge of their seats as Birds pitcher Ashley Pope held the hard-hitting Hampden club hitless for 7 2/3 innings. The excitement in the stands was building to a fever pitch when Suter walked up to the plate with two outs in the seventh inning. Baltimore’s ace pitcher Rube Vickers, who was sitting on the Oriole bench, leaned over to a teammate and said, “Sullivan is just the fellow to smash things. He made two doubles off me one day in Louisville.”

True to Vickers’ prediction, the lanky first sacker drilled one of Pope’s offerings past Oriole shortstop Fritz Maisel for Hampden’s first hit of the contest. It would be the only time a Hampden player reached base safely as Pope retired the next seven batters in a row, completing the 11-0 whitewash. In regard to the base knock that broke up the no-hit bid, the Baltimore Sun reported, “It was a clean hit and Sully deserves the credit for breaking up Pope’s intentions.”              

The journeyman ball player finished out his days on the diamond in the amateur and semi-pro leagues in and around Baltimore. He played mostly with Hampden and occasionally with other local amateur and semi- pro teams in the area.

Suter Sullivan’s career statistics in professional baseball show that he was a versatile, defensive performer who compiled a .240 lifetime batting average in two major league campaigns. Taking into account the lack of statistics for his first season in 1896, the numbers show that he did his best work in the high minors. Suter finished his 14-year minor league career with a .277 batting average, 210 stolen bases and an outstanding .965 fielding percentage.

In 1912, Suter and a local Baltimore man named Samuel T. Stocksdale became business partners in a saloon that was located at 1801 Falls Road. By 1918, Sullivan had moved on and was working at Whiteford’s Bar at 1735 Maryland Avenue. For the next few years, Suter continued to work in the tavern business in Baltimore.   

On April 19, 1925, Suter Sullivan passed away in Baltimore at the age of 52, possibly from consumption, now called tuberculosis. His wife Caroline, whom he married in 1904, and numerous other family members, survived him. The funeral vigil was held at the Sullivan home at 3440 Hickory Avenue in Hampden. Following an afternoon prayer service, the former ball player was laid to rest a few blocks away at St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Sources

Baltimore Sun 1910-1911-1925

New York Times 1899 

Sporting News 1901

Sporting Life 1896-1911

Ancestry.com

Various U.S. Census Reports

Ray Nemec for providing Sullivan’s minor and major league statistics.

Pete Palmer for shedding light on possible explanations regarding the missing statistics of the 1896 Interstate League.

Joe Posedenti for sharing his vast knowledge of Hampden history.          

Hetrick, Thomas J. Misfits! The Cleveland Spiders in 1899. Jefferson, NC: McFarland,  1991.

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