SABR

Norm Baker

This article was written by David Nemec.

Stunningly little is known about Norman Baker even though he was without question one of the most interesting characters associated with the sport of baseball in his day. From his photographs he appears to have been lean and lanky, but his height and weight are still unknown, as are the ways in which he batted and threw, although we can make an educated guess about the latter.

Baker was also a fine baritone singer and a good pianist. In the winter of 1885–1886 “He sang in the Mikado with Ford’s Opera Company [in Memphis] and appeared to great advantage in the title role.”1 The Sporting News offered this appraisal of him in 1893 when his career was near its end: “Talented in many ways . . . Baker, with a different temperament, might have made a big hit right in the center of fortune’s bulls eye.”2 Baker’s temperament problems were not typical among ballplayers of his era. Unlike most who were guilty of dissipation or laziness, he delighted in simply being contrary. He was a difficult and temperamental teammate, and often embroiled in contract disputes.

Baker was born in Philadelphia on October 14, 1862, and pitched in Philadelphia amateur circles and the City League in the early 1880s with a variety of teams, including Hartwell, the 1882 local amateur champions. He began the 1883 season with Hartwell before being picked up by the Pittsburgh Alleghenys American Association (AA) club in May when it arrived in the City of Brotherly Love. Pittsburgh was buried in last place after a 3–9 start and already short of pitchers even though the season was scarcely three weeks old. Baker made his professional debut on May 21, 1883, at Philadelphia in a 4–1 loss to the Athletics’ Bobby Mathews. Thinking his new man was worth a second look, Pittsburgh manager Al Pratt put Baker back into the pitcher’s box the following afternoon but began to have his doubts when the twenty-year-old amateur was thrashed 9–1. Nevertheless, as was the custom at that time when a poor team was giving a young pitcher a trial, in Pittsburgh’s next game, two days later in Baltimore, Baker was thrown to the wolves yet again and, after giving up three runs in the first inning, was replaced in the box by Billy Taylor and sent to left field, where he watched his teammates rally to win the game 16–4. Baker was released before his ten-day trial period expired so that the Alleghenys could escape having to sign him to a regular contract.

Soon thereafter he joined the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, club of the independent Western Interstate League, where he connected with catcher Amos Cross, who proved to be his ideal batterymate. In 1884 the two connected with Oil City, Pennsylvania of the Oil & Iron Association after Cross was released by the Pittsburgh AA club that spring due to an illness that was probably an early onset of the pulmonary trouble that would claim his life four years later. Baker captained the Oil City team before it folded. After brief stopovers in the Ohio State League – Baker with Springfield and Cross with Dayton – they traveled together to unaffiliated Nashville late that summer according to the October 29, 1884, Sporting Life, and then came to the Louisville American Association club as a unit in the spring of 1885. According to the December 9, 1993, issue of The Sporting News, “The first season that [Cross] and the many-sided Norman L. Baker were with Louisville there was not a more famous or successful battery in the country, but some of the pitcher’s peculiar peccadilloes soon resulted in their separation.”3

In his initial start with the Colonels on April 22 in front of a home crowd, Baker blanked Pittsburgh’s Hank O’Day 11–0 with Cross as his receiver and went 2-for-4. The victory was Louisville’s first of the year after a 0–3 start. Baker continued to work with Cross all season and was bailed out of tight situations continually when Cross, the owner of one of the best catching arms of his time, either picked off napping runners or threw them out trying to steal. Baker’s reward, however, for finishing second on the Colonels in most pitching departments to workhorse Guy Hecker, was his release back to Nashville (by then in the Southern League) when Louisville manager Jim Hart acquired Tom Ramsey on August 29 and decided that one temperamental left-hander was all he could bear. An 1886 Sporting Life article explained the decision: “Baker, it will be remembered, was released from the Louisvilles last season principally because the other players were ashamed to have anything to do with him.”4 Baker was 13–12 at the time of his release from Louisville, with a 3.40 ERA, and finished with a 10–4 record and an excellent 0.58 ERA with Nashville.

He returned to the Nashville Americans in 1886, but not without controversy. Baker had signed with Memphis after the 1885 season, but Nashville subsequently purchased him from Memphis for $100. Baker pocketed $50 in advance money from Nashville, and then, for some reason, accepted $100 to jump to Syracuse of the International League. In February an arbitration committee ruled that Nashville had a claim on Baker, and required him to return the advance money to Syracuse.5 He was deemed the best pitcher in the 1886 Southern Association by Atlanta player-manager Blondie Purcell. Nevertheless, Baker was released at his own request on August 18.6 At the time of his release he owned a 17–8 record and a 1.48 ERA. Baker finished the season with the Rochester Maroons of the International League.

He then returned to Rochester in 1887 and got into more trouble. Sporting Life reported that “Baker has been all along insubordinate, careless of his personal habits, and of too glib a tongue. . . . He has a reputation all over the country as a tricky player, and he had better change his tactics for the Rochester Club will not stand any more nonsense.”7 Baker was released and finished the season with Toronto. He left the club at the end of the season after another contract dispute and moved back to Philadelphia in order to coach the University of Pennsylvania baseball team.

He claimed he had offers from four American Association teams, but signed with the Newark, New Jersey, club in the Central League for 1888, and found himself disgruntled again. His solution, according to Sporting Life, was to jump the “reservation claim” Newark held on him for 1889 to skip to Stockton of the California League in time to pitch in the loop’s winter season. (The “National Agreement” signed in 1883 had defined the National League and American Association as major leagues, and the Northwestern League as a minor league, and sought to control player movement between teams by establishing a reserve clause. By 1888 an additional nine minor leagues signed on to the agreement.) On the field it was a good year for Baker. The Sporting News reported that “Pitcher Norman Baker has a record of being on two champion base ball teams in one year, as he pitched the Newark Club into the championship of the Central League from April until September and then gave the Stocktons a clinch on the California League pennant from October on. Few Players have such a record.”8

Stockton fans overlooked Baker’s contract controversies. In the December 26, 1888, Sporting Life, Waller Wallace wrote: “Norman Baker, notwithstanding his disagreeable methods on the diamond is a jolly good fellow and I'm glad he has become a citizen of our State. His wife has joined him.”9 Baker remained with Stockton in 1889, sharing the pitching with George Harper. He had a run of bad luck -- nearly killed by a train in early April, and contracting malaria in mid-May – and did not pitch well. Sporting Life reported that he was “being knocked out by the California League clubs with ease and regularity” and wondered whether he wanted his release.10 He was knocked out of the box by Sacramento on July 4, and given his release the same day. Baker and his wife moved back East where he signed again with Newark, now the Little Giants and in the Atlantic Association. He was hit hard, but beat Wilkes-Barre 8–7 in his first start on August 1. He finished the season with Newark and, to no one’s surprise, claimed he was a free agent once again because the team had violated an agreement to sign him by December 1.

Baker returned home to Philadelphia for the winter, and worked for the A. J. Reach Company stitching covers for Reach baseballs. Sporting Life reported that “He is quite a good mechanic and turns out about three dozen balls a day.”11 Baker quickly found work in 1890 pitching for Baltimore’s longtime manager, Billy Barnie, who had removed his Baltimore club from the American Association and planted it in the minor league Atlantic Association. Baker responded with a 29–10 record, his best as a professional. Baker accompanied the team when it rejoined the AA in August as a replacement for the defunct Brooklyn Gladiators franchise. In his first AA start with the Orioles on August 28 against the St. Louis Browns, he beat the man who had usurped his job in Louisville five years earlier, Tom Ramsey, 6–2. Baker’s next appearance on August 30 nearly resulted in a career-ending injury and revealed with which arm he in all likelihood threw. He was hit by a pitch from Browns pitcher Joe Neale that broke one of the smaller bones in his left arm near the shoulder. It was his last appearance in a major league game. He was released by Baltimore that winter, as The Sporting News reported: “His pitching arm is said to be almost entirely useless.”12 If Baker truly was a southpaw, it would seem his temperament problems were all that stood between him and a permanent job in the majors since the demand for decent left-handed pitchers far exceeded the supply until late in the nineteenth century.

Baker rehabbed in the offseason with Professor John Gay at Sulphur Springs, Texas. He tried to come back from his injury in 1891 with the Omaha Lambs of the Western Association, and though the April 18 issue of The Sporting News referred to him as “Dead Arm Baker”13 when he was pounded in an exhibition game against Lincoln, he did reasonably well once the season started and chalked up a 7–10 record for the 51–59 Lambs. That winter he worked for the Union Pacific Railway branch office in Council Bluffs, Iowa. His services were unwanted by any of the top minor leagues for the 1892 season, and he finally agreed to act as player-manager for Fremont of the lowly Nebraska State League. But the July 2 issue of The Sporting News said he had done such a miserable job with Fremont that he was fired just before the team disbanded on June 20. Baker spent most of the rest of the season umpiring in the minors and pitching on occasion for semipro teams like New Hampton, Iowa, and Deadwood, South Dakota, before he went back to the West Coast that fall to sing for the Andrews Family Opera Company.

The following May he was hired as a replacement umpire in the Southern League for ex-major league outfielder Ed Reeder who was criticized for ducking out on confrontations with players and not covering plays adequately because he refused to leave his position behind the pitcher. Baker, in contrast, soon was drawing praise for being the best official in the Southern League. On the final day of the truncated season, which ended abruptly on August 12 when too many teams had either disbanded or were in irreparable disarray, Hunky Hines, the player-manager of Nashville, on a whim, asked him if he wanted to pitch. With nothing to lose, Baker took the ball and proceeded to hold Memphis hitless through six innings before tiring, but nonetheless held on to win 6–5.

Having taken notice of Baker’s officiating work in 1893, Ban Johnson, the new president of the resurrected Western League, hired him as a regular umpire for the 1894 season but then fired him in July. The Sporting News gave the reason as Baker’s insistence on being the opposite of a “homer” and seeming actually to delight in “going against the opinions of the home audience” as if just to show that he was the boss of the game and could do it.14 Although Baker was loathed by then in nearly every Western League city, he nonetheless convinced Minneapolis skipper Jack Barnes to give him a trial run on the mound. After Barnes let Baker relieve in a game “that was already as good as lost” in his debut with the Millers, to the manager’s astonishment Baker then won his first three starts according to the August 4 issue of The Sporting News.15 As the season neared its close, Baker had already compiled a 11–6 ledger and was the top pitcher on the club when he was stricken with pneumonia and had to be left behind by the Millers at the Grand Hotel in Indianapolis until he recovered.

Expected by Barnes to be one of his mound mainstays in 1895, Baker was a major disappointment, and the June 15 Sporting Life reported that he had been released in favor of George Borchers, “late of Louisville.”16 He left the pro arena at that point to work as a piano and organ salesman and for a sizeable length of time was affiliated with Foster & Waldo, a Minneapolis musical instrument company that was owned by former major league outfielder Elmer Foster and his brother Robert, who had been affiliated with Minneapolis minor league franchises in the 1880s. Baker and Foster, both highly eccentric sorts, not surprisingly hit it off and co-managed the company team in the late 1890s that also numbered former major league catcher Joe Crotty, another cut from a mold all his own. In addition, Baker pitched on occasion for the Ex-Collegiates, a strong Midwestern semipro team that featured Minnesota-native Pudge Heffelfinger, a three-time All-American guard at Yale (1889–91) who became the first documented professional football player on November 12, 1892, when he was hired by the Allegheny Athletic Association amateur team to play against The Pittsburgh Athletic Club for $500, plus $25 to cover his travel expenses. Baker remained in the employ of Foster & Waldo until sometime after the turn of the century. Nothing is known as yet about his movements after that except that he eventually returned to the Philadelphia area and died on February 20, 1949, at age 86 in Hurffville, New Jersey, an unincorporated town in Gloucester County.

 

Sources

This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec's Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 1 (Bison Books, 2011).

In assembling this biography I made extensive use of the New York Clipper, Sporting Life and The Sporting News throughout Baker’s amateur, professional and semiprofessional baseball career, the early 1880s through the late 1890s. For details of the Foster and Waldo Company, later the Foster and Waldo Piano Company, I utilized the Internet. Baker’s major and minor league statistics came from www.baseball-reference.com.

 

Notes

1 “The Nashville Club; Portraits and Brief Sketches of the Players of the Nashville Club,” The Sporting News, December 31, 1886, 3.

2 “Amos and Lave; The Cross Brothers Both of Whom Were Great Catchers,” The Sporting News, December 9, 1893, 3.

3 Ibid.

4 “Baker Again in Trouble,” Sporting Life, May 17, 1886, 1.

5 “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, February 24, 1886, 4.

6 “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, August 18, 1886, 5.

7 “Norman Baker In Trouble Again,” Sporting Life, June 8, 1887, 9.

8 “A Great Record,” The Sporting News, November 2, 1888, 2.

9 Waller Wallace, “California Cullings,” Sporting Life, December 26, 1888, 6.

10 “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, May 29, 1889, 4.

11 “Philadelphia Pointers,” Sporting Life, January 15, 1890, 3.

12 “Caught on the Fly,” The Sporting News, February 7, 1891, 4.

13 “Jack Rowe; He Signs a Contract to Play With the Lincoln Club,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1891, 5.

14 “Disastrous Eastern Trip; Norman Baker is No Longer a Western League Umpire,” The Sporting News, July 21, 1894, 1.

15 “A Fight Prevented,” The Sporting News, August 4, 1894, 3.

16 “Condensed Dispatches,” Sporting Life, June 15, 1895, 2.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.