SABR

John Waltz

This article was written by Peter Morris.

Several men were given responsibility for managing a major league baseball team during the chaotic 1890s without any qualifications for doing so. But while the others left their teams in the same dismal shape in which they inherited them, John William "Billy" Waltz made a decision that helped turn his team into one of the game's fabled dynasties.

Waltz was born on January 12, 1860, in Hagerstown, Maryland, to Charles William and the former Amelia Stake. The family surname is rendered as "Woltz" on his parents' 1850 marriage record, on his paternal grandparents' 1816 marriage record and on the 1850, 1860 and 1880 censuses (it is transcribed as "Woolse" on the 1860 census). So while nineteenth-century orthography was notoriously erratic, even on official documents, it seems most likely that the family name was simplified from "Woltz" to "Waltz" around 1881.

Charles William Woltz's parents owned a successful farm, but the mid-nineteenth-century was a difficult time to be a farmer's son. The 1860 and 1870 censuses show him still in Hagerstown working as a laborer or farmhand and struggling to support his wife and four children. The 1870 census shows his oldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Katie, working as a domestic servant, while ten-year-old Billy was already living with a neighbor and working as a farmhand.

By 1880, the family had relocated to Baltimore, where Charles found work as a jewelry dealer and his eldest son initially worked as a blacksmith. The next year, however, the young man appeared in the city directory under the name of John W. Waltz and was generally listed as a salesman in the ensuing years.

By the end of the decade Waltz was a traveling representative for a New York maker of furniture and fine goods, and all indications are that he was thriving. (Sporting Life, January 23, 1889, October 3, 1891) In 1882 he married Bessie Bell, the daughter of a local druggist, and the marriage produced two children, a son in 1887 and a daughter in 1889. By then he had also purchased stock in the local entry in the American Association (one of the two major leagues at the time), although there is dispute as to how large of an investment this represented.

It appears that in December of 1887 Baltimore owner Harry Von der Horst decided to sell part of the team, and that Waltz and team manager Billy Barnie each bought minority interests. Waltz was listed as the Orioles' vice president in 1888, but his involvement in the team's affairs seems to have been minimal.

Rumors surfaced before the 1889 season that Waltz and Barnie had bought Von der Horst out. (Sporting Life, January 23, 1889) They proved unfounded, but Waltz did play a far more prominent role in the team's affairs that year. Descriptions of his doings appeared frequently in the sporting presses that year, and he was referred to not only as the team's vice president but as "one of the owners of the Baltimore club" (Sporting News, March 23, 1889), "Baltimore owner" (Sporting News, March 30, 1889), and even as "vice president and associate manager." (Sporting News, April 13, 1889)

As the description suggests, he had assumed some important new responsibilities. In June he traveled to New Orleans and signed two new players, Joseph Dowie and Will Holland. (Sporting News, July 1, 1889) He was also entrusted with signing the league's umpires. (Sporting News, March 30, 1889) After the season he attended the league's annual meeting on his team's behalf. (Sporting Life, November 6, 1889)

He kept a low profile in 1890 as the American Association and National League were challenged by the Players' League. Von der Horst decided to sit the conflict out, playing instead in a minor league, but when the Brooklyn entry in the American Association folded in August, he agreed to fill the void. When the season ended with the two established leagues surviving and the new one folding, Waltz was listed as one of the principles in The Baltimore Baseball and Exhibition Co., which was incorporated on October 27. (Sporting Life, November 1, 1890) But otherwise, he again stayed out of the limelight for most of the 1891 campaign, a season that saw the American Association and National League openly warring.

Then in September of 1891, Waltz suddenly emerged as a major figure in the war. With rumors flying that the National League would force the American Association out of business, Waltz became one of the leaders of a counteroffensive. He went public with a scheme to place an American Association franchise in Chicago and directly challenge the National League in one of the most lucrative baseball markets. He claimed that "a certain Chicago capitalist, whose name I can't mention for good reasons," was prepared to invest $50,000 in the venture.

At the same time, he gave an interview to the Sporting News in which he indicated that the American Association planned to send a four-man delegation to negotiate with the National League as soon as the season ended. In this context, it seems likely that the statement was a ploy to enable his league to negotiate with its rival from a position of greater strength. (Sporting News, September 5, 1891)

By becoming the public face of his league, Waltz exposed himself to criticism. An article in the Sporting Life maintained, "Billy Waltz isn't such a Poo-Bah in the American Association as he leads you to believe." It quoted an unnamed source that claimed that, "Waltz is a sort of a right-hand man to Vonderhorst [sic], though for what reason I have never been able to discover … Waltz is a mere cypher in the Baltimore Club. He owns but one share of stock in the club, and on the strength of it is parading around the country keeping newspaper notoriety to advertise himself in his business." (Sporting Life, September 26, 1891)

Eventually the two leagues agreed to merge into a single twelve-team league that would include all eight National League franchises and four from the American Association. This was a defeat for the latter league, but not as complete a defeat as some had predicted, and perhaps Waltz's threats played some small role in the outcome. In addition, the Baltimore team was one of the four that would be joining the new "big league."

At the same time that these negotiations were taking place, Waltz was also coming under fire from another source. Barnie was ousted as the team's manager and blamed Waltz, alleging that the vice president had hampered him for years and damaged his relationship with Von der Horst. (Sporting Life, October 3, 1891)

The departure of the team's longtime manager left management in a tough position. Barnie had been one of the few men with the business acumen and baseball knowledge to handle the team's day-to-day affairs and direct them on the field. With him now out of the picture, Von der Horst and Waltz decided to divide the two roles. Outfielder George Van Haltren was named manager and given responsibility for the team's play, while Waltz took charge of the club's finances and arranging the dates for exhibition games. (Sporting News, January 30, 1892)

When the season started, however, the Orioles lost ten of their first eleven games and a panicked Von der Horst fired Van Haltren and named Waltz as his replacement. The new manager took the reins as the club embarked on a western road trip, and he soon wired a report back to the owner: the Orioles were losing because of bad fielding and bad pitching. "That would seem to cover the whole business," wrote one newspaper sarcastically. (Baltimore Morning Herald, May 3, 1892; quoted in Solomon, 43)

But Waltz was no fool. He knew full well that the team needed a baseball man at the helm, and recommended that one be hired immediately. As a result, Waltz's tenure as Baltimore manager last only eight games, and on May 10th he was replaced by Ned Hanlon. Waltz then had the sense to return to his role as vice president and sit back and watch as Hanlon built the Orioles into a dynasty.

In addition, he appears to have handed the team over to its new manager in better shape than when he inherited it a few weeks earlier. According to the Sporting Life, Waltz deserved credit for having "[taken] a mob, not a team, while traveling on the road, and while on the road eventually licked them into shape to win the last two successive games of his administration." (Sporting Life, May 14, 1892)

After Hanlon took over, Waltz quietly faded into the background. He remained the club's vice president and a part owner until at least 1895, and occasionally was mentioned in the sporting presses, but he wisely allowed Hanlon and the talented team that the new manager assembled to become the face of Baltimore baseball.

Eventually Waltz sold his share or shares and ended his association with baseball. When he died of cancer in Baltimore in 1931, his role in starting that city's greatest dynasty had long since been forgotten and his passing warranted only the briefest of death notices. (Baltimore Sun, April 28, 1931)

Sources

Censuses, vital records, accounts in contemporary newspaper and sporting presses, as noted; research by Richard Malatzky; Burt Solomon, Where They Ain't.

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