Walter Thornton's story is a bewitching tale of rags to riches ... and then back to rags again. He was born on February 18, 1875, in Peoria, Illinois to William and Elizabeth Thornton. At age 12, he became a wanderer, taking to the road with his brother George. The brothers became separated, however. George drifted west into the Indian Territory, became a U.S. Marshal, and was eventually killed in a skirmish. Walter drifted further... to about as far as you can go, to Snohomish, in the state of Washington. There he involved himself in various occupations. He was a hosteler; he was a farm laborer; he was the driver of a bakery wagon. The latter was undoubtedly his favorite: it afforded him the chance to play ball. If he happened upon a game he would often just park the wagon, hop out, and join in.
Somewhere along the way to Snohomish, Walter became close friends with a local newspaper editor. The editor, who had connections at Cornell College (in Mount Vernon, Iowa; not to be confused with Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York), whetted Walter's quest for knowledge. Through the editor's influence, Walter was admitted to Cornell Academy (the college's secondary school division), and later to Cornell College itself, trading his skills as a pitcher for tuition, room, and board. At Mount Vernon, he became more or less the all-American boy. He pitched the school's baseball team to local prominence; he played halfback on the football team; he fell in love with his elocution teacher, eventually marrying her. But it was his baseball prowess that made him a real standout. Word traveled the 200 or so miles to Chicago... and soon Cap Anson signed Walter Thornton to play for the Colts (as the Cubs were then nicknamed).
What's especially intriguing about Thornton is that he, without too much stretch of the imagination, could be likened to Babe Ruth. He could pitch (he was a southpaw, as was the Babe). But he could hit, too.
In his first year with the Colts, 1895, he didn't do much of either, however. He started two games as a pitcher – on July 15 and July 17 – and, in spite of a 6.08 ERA, he finished both and he won both. He also played first base, did a little relief pitching, and managed 22 at-bats. In those at-bats he knocked out seven hits, including a double and a home run. Near the end of the season, he pitched for Rockford, Illinois team in the Western Association, finishing with a record of 10-6. Amazingly enough, back in Chicago the next season, 1896, he also had 22 at-bats. This time he connected for eight hits. That works out to a .364 average. On the mound, he also won two games again. He was 2-1, with an ERA of 5.70. (His ERA dropped each of his four years in the majors.) His batting average was going up. His ERA was going down. Who could ask for anything more? What Walter needed though, was more playing time. He got it in 1897. And, as a hitter, it was his most productive season.
For the first half or so of 1897, Walter played the outfield - generally left field - and batted in either the fourth or fifth slot in the batting order. He was one of the team's acknowledged hitters. Available box scores indicate that he lived up to that acknowledgement. He usually had at least one hit; very often two.
By August, however, Walter's pitching arm was pressed into service on the pitching-weak team. Although far from pace-setting efforts, he did win his first three outings in August ... by scores of 16-8, 10-9, and, in a game in which he set down ten Washington Senators via strikeouts, 6-4. Ironically, when he did pitch a superb game – a six-hitter against the champion Baltimores on August 25 – he ended up losing, 3-1.
Three days after his loss to Baltimore, Walter was involved in what could certainly be termed one of the season's most colorful contests. On the 28th, the Giants and the Colts played to an eight-inning 6-6 tie at the Polo Grounds in New York. Walter went the route for the Colts. The game was punctuated by a near total brawl between the two teams as a result of a vicious spiking of Colts shortstop Tim Donahue by Giants catcher Jack Warner. An estimated 1,000 fans swarmed onto the field to better view - and, unfortunately, to encourage - the hostilities. The police then charged into the crowd, dispersing them only with difficulty. The real excitement, however, occurred two days later when the game was replayed.
With considerable tension still in the air, there was almost constant beefing from both sides, but especially the Chicago side. Umpire Emslie finally had enough and, after fining him $25.00, booted Colts manager and first baseman Cap Anson out of the game in the eighth inning. That startled the Colts because they had no other available players in uniform. Left-fielder George Decker was shifted to first and, to replace him, reserve pitcher Danny Friend was rounded up and sent to left … dressed in a bathrobe. Giants skipper Bill Joyce protested that Friend should not be allowed to play, that he was in violation of the rule that specified that only uniformed players could take part in the game. Umpire Emslie's response: since Friend was wearing a long robe he could well have a uniform on underneath it ... and that, with darkness setting in, he didn't care to go out to left field to investigate. Score one for the bathrobe (and one for the Colts, too: they won 7-5).
Walter struggled through most of September, but then finished strong. On the 25th, he three-hit Pittsburgh for an 8-1 victory. On October 2, he did one hit better: he two-hit the St. Louis Browns. “Thornton, the Chicago's pitcher, had the Browns at his mercy to-day,” scribed the New York Times) in a 3-2 Chicago win. And he triumphed again in the very last game of the year, the very next day, knocking back the Brownies once more, 8-1.
Walter Thornton played well for Chicago in 1898. Mindful of his strong finish the previous September/October and his ever-decreasing ERA (it had dropped to 4.70 in 1897), management concentrated more on his pitching than his hitting. He started 25 games, finished 21 of them, had a 13-10 won-lost record, and again lowered his earned run average ... to a very creditable 3.34. Two games especially stand out. Walter shut out the Philadelphia Athletics on a sparkling 11-inning seven-hitter, 1-0, before 5,900 delighted fans at Chicago on August 6. He then twirled a no-hit masterpiece against Brooklyn, defeating them 2-0 before 10,000 even more delighted Chicago fans on August 21. Lauded the New York Times: “Thornton pitched the game of his life, shutting his opponents out without the semblance of a hit.” The Chicago Tribune praised the hurler’s “magnificent speed.” One of those he no-hit, incidentally, was Topsy Magoon. The St Albans, Maine native was batting fifth and playing shortstop for the Bridegrooms that day.
For the year, Walter's hitting was again strong (he even cracked out two hits the day of his no-hitter.) In 1897, he'd slugged .321 in 265 plate appearances. While he dropped somewhat in 1898 - to .295 in 210 at-bats - it was nevertheless a most satisfying season.
But then Walter Thornton was gone. At age 24, he disappeared from the majors, becoming what could only be termed a mystery man. Stating that he was desirous of quiet and a home life, he had threatened to quit baseball after the 1897 season if a requested advance in salary wasn't forthcoming. It appears that he followed through with this desire - to leave the rigors of baseball behind him - a year later. According to the 1890 US Census, he married Sara Andrews, from Maine, about 1896 and the couple lived in Snohomish, where he was a newspaper reporter. Sara had been well-known on the stage, “one of the glamorous actresses of his time…an actress of the Lillian Russell era.”i
A decade later Thornton worked as a life insurance agent, and he and Sara lived in Everett City, Snohomish County. About this time Thornton suffered some difficulties that apparently stemmed from baseball. In 1913, he was arrested at his summer cottage near Everett and placed in a padded cell in the county jail. The Seattle Daily Times reported, “While pitching for Chicago, he was struck on the head by a batted ball. He has never been quite sane since. He had considerable money and came to Everett and made several investments and later became secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. As his mind became weaker he gave up his business interests and it is declared that he is now dangerous to himself…He will be examined for commitment to the asylum.”ii
By 1920 Thornton was living in Seattle and working in a shipyard, and had a new wife, Minnie B. Thornton. He worked for a while as an insurance executive in the Northwest but after Minnie died, he moved to Los Angeles.
In 1948 Walter Thornton wrote to Cornell College, requesting that his education records be deleted from their files. And, on July 14, 1960, he was found dead at age 88 in a skid row neighborhood in Los Angeles. Even in death, however, accounts of what really happened to Walter Thornton varied. One version was that the lifetime .312 hitter was indeed destitute, that he had died broke. The other version - clearly the one that would reflect better on him - was that he lived in cheap hotels “there by choice because he loved to reminisce with old-timers”, to be close to the derelicts that he was unselfishly and unstintingly aiding, and that he'd preached at a nearby Midnight Mission “trying to aid the drunks and bums.”iii Isolated as he had been, his body had remained unclaimed in the county morgue for a week. His nephew Oliver Thornton of Hollywood was finally reached to make funeral arrangements.
A version of this biography was first published in Will Anderson’s book Was Baseball Really Invented in Maine? (Portland, Maine: Will Anderson, Publisher, 1992). Additional material was added in 2012 by Mark Armour and Bill Nowlin. Thanks to Mark Aubrey for his help with census material.
i Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1960.
ii Seattle Daily Times, July 20, 1913.
iii Trenton Evening Times (Trenton NJ), July 22, 1960.