SABR

Bert Conn

This article was written by Jack Morris.

For years after his major-league debut in 1898, Bert Conn was known throughout the Philadelphia area as the “schoolboy twirler” despite having hurt his arm and moved from a pitcher in the major leagues to an everyday player in the minors. But Conn’s rapid rise from Philadelphia high-school pitcher to Philadelphia Phillies starter at the age of 18 marked him for life. Though he pitched only five games at the major-league level and was out of the big leagues by 1901, he became a very popular position player in the minors, prolonging his professional baseball career until 1914.1

Albert Thomas Conn was born in Philadelphia on September 22, 1879, the second of four sons to Samuel M. and Ester “Hettie” (Yonker) Conn. Samuel was an entrepreneur variously listed through the years in the US Census as a carpet manufacturer, hotel keeper, and saloon merchant. The Philadelphia Inquirer called him “one of the most widely known business men of the northeastern section of Philadelphia.”2

In 1895 Bert attended Philadelphia’s prestigious Central High School, a public school where he played baseball and football. On the baseball team, he pitched and played first base. One of his teammates was future Philadelphia Athletic Lou Bruce. With Bruce and Conn, Central had one of the best high-school baseball teams in the area, routinely beating both high-school and college sides.3

At an early age Conn was wooed by semipro and minor-league teams. In 1895 he pitched for the semipro South End team of the Trenton City League then, after his 1896 high-school season at Central, he joined up with the semipro Richmond team of Philadelphia. At Richmond he was coached by the Kilroy Brothers. The Kilroys were ten brothers who played baseball and two of whom, Matt and Mike, played in the major leagues. Conn’s performance with Richmond led Philadelphia Athletics manager Bill Sharsig to sign the young pitcher for his Philadelphia Athletics team in the Atlantic League.  The Inquirer wrote that Conn was “said to have remarkable curves and kinks.” Only 17 years old and weighing just 160 pounds, the blond-haired Conn pitched one game for the Athletics, a complete-game win in which he gave up only two earned runs.4

Conn attended Central for one more year but was ineligible to play any sports because of his professional status. On January 9, 1897, Sharsig again signed Conn for the coming season. The Inquirer wrote that “Conn promises to make a wonder.” In April, he attended the Athletics’ spring-training camp at the Gloucester Race Track in Gloucester, New Jersey. Afterward he was sent to the Pottsville Ponies of the Central Pennsylvania League. By July, he landed back with the Athletics of the Atlantic League, reportedly to get some practice and to help Sharsig out when he needed an extra pitcher. He played sparingly, starting seven games with a 2-3 record. Later he joined the amateur All-Scholastic team, a club made up of collegians from the Philadelphia area. The Inquirer characterized the team as “among the strongest of our amateurs.” In September, Bloomsburg of the Central Pennsylvania League signed Conn for the pennant drive.5

In December, Conn joined a semipro football team, the Westmoreland Field Club. While he was playing for the Westmorelands, Sharsig, having moved to the Allentown Peanuts of the Atlantic League, signed him. But when spring training came around in 1898, Conn found himself in camp with Atlantic City of the semipro Interstate League. He had a great season with Atlantic City not only pitching but filling in in the outfield. By August several major-league teams were interested in Conn. Pat Tebeau, the Cleveland Spiders’ player/manager, reportedly thought highly of Conn.6

On September 8 Philadelphia Phillies manager Bill Shettsline signed Conn and had him report immediately. Eight days later, Conn appeared in his first major-league game, against the Chicago Orphans. He started the second game of a doubleheader and promptly gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Jimmy Ryan. He became the first Phillies pitcher to give up a home run to the first batter he ever faced. It was more than 40 years before the dubious feat was duplicated by a Phillies pitcher (Bill Kerksieck in 1939).7

Conn ended up pitching seven innings, giving up 13 hits and nine runs (five earned) with two walks and three strikeouts. He was tagged with the loss in the 10-5 game. The Philadelphia Record blamed his fielders for the loss and reported that the home crowd, which felt bad for the young pitcher, gave him an ovation when he came up to bat in the seventh. When he tripled during the at-bat, he got a standing ovation. But Sporting Life put the loss squarely on Conn’s shoulders, writing, “With six tried pitchers on the bench, the Philadelphia management experimented with Conn, a semiprofessional, and the result was a merited defeat.”8

The Phillies felt the same way as Sporting Life. They left Conn at home when they went on a road trip. The game against the Orphans was his only major-league appearance in 1898.9

In 1899 the Phillies wanted to get Conn more seasoning so they sent him to the Rochester Bronchos of the Eastern League along with former Phillies teammate Bob Becker. Conn (15-8 in 24 starts) and Becker (22-9 in 33 starts) responded with fine seasons, helping Rochester to the Eastern League pennant.10

In April 1900 Conn was purchased from the Phillies by the Philadelphia Athletics of the Atlantic League. The Athletics struggled financially and by June, Conn left the team because of unpaid salary. He was sold to the Utica Reds of the New York State League but never reported. Instead, the Phillies reacquired him. He pitched in relief in three games and started another. He found himself in the middle of a controversy in a game against Brooklyn on June 22 when Phillies captain Ed Delahanty ordered Conn to walk four men in a row in the hopes of stalling the game long enough for it to be stopped by darkness. When Brooklyn’s Harry Howell purposely struck out, Phillies catcher Ed McFarland dropped the ball and then threw it into right field. Umpire Hank O’Day then forfeited the game to Brooklyn.11

Conn’s only start came in the third to the last game of the season, against the Boston Beaneaters. He took the loss in the 9-4 game. Earlier in the season, while on the Phillies roster and unbeknownst to the Phils, he had pitched for Atlantic City under the assumed name Davis. He had done the same on September 23 for the Mount Holly, New Jersey, semipro team. After the season, under his real name, Conn pitched for the semipro Egg Harbor City team. As was often the case with major- and minor-league pitchers in the Deadball Era, he moved around the area in the offseason pitching for whichever team paid him.12

In March 1901 Conn signed with the Phillies. In spring training, he not only pitched but also started playing in the field. The Trenton Times reported, “Bert Conn … is said to be hitting the ball hard in practice games.” Sporting Life noted that “Conn is a hard hitter and can come very near placing them where he wants.” When second baseman Joe Dolan got off to a slow start, Phillies manager Bill Shettsline replaced him with Conn. But after Conn batted only .222 in five games, Shettsline replaced him with Billy Hallman. Conn played his last game as a major leaguer on May 8, 1901. He was released on May 14 and sent to Rochester of the Eastern League.13

Conn, who was moved back to pitcher by Rochester, couldn’t repeat the magic of two seasons earlier. By early August he had been released by Rochester and picked up by Providence in the same league for the rest of the season. His record with the two teams was 7-12 in 24 games. After the season Conn pitched for the semipro Frankford team of Philadelphia team against the Cuban X-Giants, a team made up of black players.14

The Providence Grays liked what they saw of Conn in the last month of the 1901 season so they signed him for 1902. He reported late to spring training because in March his home in Philadelphia burned down. It wouldn’t be the only tragedy to strike Conn that season. In August his younger brother Samuel drowned in Philadelphia. He then hurt his pitching arm and finished the season with a 9-13 record. He did barnstorm with a team called the All-Eastern League in the Mid-Atlantic region. Despite Conn’s poor showing, Providence reserved him for 1903.15

In 1903, because of his arm injury, Conn made the transition to everyday player for Providence. He played for Providence for the next three seasons, first in the outfield and then at first base. While he didn’t hit for a high average (his best batting average during the three seasons was .271 in 1905), he hit for power, fielded his position well, and hustled throughout the game, becoming popular with the fans. In 1905 Sporting Life wrote, “Bert Conn is making good with a vengeance with Providence.” The Baltimore American called him “one of the gamest and best men in the Eastern League.”16

Meanwhile, Conn and a brother had established a large livery-stable business that paid him “much better than base ball.” By 1906, because of his business and his marriage in 1905 to Lucy M. Wagner, the stress of playing so far from home took its toll on Conn. In February 1906, rumors swirled that he had jumped to York of the Tri-State League, which was outside Organized Baseball but paid wages much higher than even the highest level of minor-league ball. The combination of being closer to home and getting better wages was too much to pass up. Conn was allowed to report late so the newspapers said he wasn’t coming to York after all. But in March Providence admitted that Conn had jumped and by mid-April, he reported to York, putting aside all rumors that he wouldn’t play in the Tri-State League. He was officially suspended from Organized Baseball in late May. Joining Conn in York were Providence teammates Herman McFarland and Fred Jacklitsch.17

York was a powerhouse team. Fourteen of its 17 players were former or future major leaguers. The team won the pennant with a 75-52 record led by Stoney McGlynn’s 36 wins. After the season, the entire York team was hired to be the Long Branch, New Jersey, team of the Sea Coast League. Red Bank of the same league had brought in a ringer Hoboken team a few weeks earlier, so Long Branch was hoping to return the favor. The York players were paid $2,100 plus board to play for the final three weeks of the season. The big game was with Red Bank, which led the Sea Coast League standings. On September 19, with “one of the biggest crowds that has attended a game in Monmouth County” watching, Red Bank beat Long Branch, 2-1.18

The next season the Tri-State League got rid of its “outlaw” status and joined the National Association, putting it under the Organized Baseball umbrella. Under the agreement, all Reserve Rule jumpers had to go back to the club reserving them. So Conn was forced to go back to Providence. But he told Providence that he would quit baseball rather than play there. So Providence sold Conn to York. It was a while before Conn signed with York. Going to the National Association had forced the Tri-State to cut salaries, and Conn battled with York over his salary. Finally, on April 22 he agreed to play for York. The York management wasn’t happy with Conn, so after a slow start, by both Conn and the team, he was traded to Johnstown of the same league. Conn played the rest of the season with Johnstown, batting .268 for both teams.19

Conn’s season was impressive enough that Nashville of the Southern League drafted him for the 1908 season for $500. Conn continued to play with semipro teams in the offseason, playing with Freihoffer’s Professionals in Trenton. At a dinner given by the Philadelphia Baseball League for the sportswriters of the city, Conn showed off another talent. He sang a song and was well received. He sang a few months later at a tribute to Monte Cross. Conn also was a soloist at his church.20

As usual, Conn refused to report to Nashville, so Johnstown in late April 1908 worked out a deal and got him back. After a slow start because he had missed spring training, he had his best season ever as an everyday player, batting .302 in 123 games. After the season he played for Williamsport, the Tri-State League champion, against Scranton, the New York State League champs, in a three-game series in Philadelphia. In December he was sold yet again to another minor-league team not in the Tri-State League. But this time it was different: He was sold to the Baltimore Orioles of the Eastern League. Baltimore was closer than even Johnstown to Philadelphia. So in March 1909, Conn was at spring training with the Orioles.21

The Orioles liked what they saw of Conn at second base. He made the club as a backup to player-manager Jack Dunn, but hurt his arm early in the 1909 season and didn’t play until May. On May 3, in only his third game of the season, Conn had four errors against Buffalo. Shortly after that, he was sold to Columbus of the American Association. This time Conn refused to report. Finally, on May 17, Columbus sold Conn to Williamsport of the Tri-State League. On June 19, shortly after he started playing with Williamsport, Conn’s first son, Burt Wagner Conn, was born. In a game on July 7, the team presented Conn with a baby carriage on his first trip to the plate. Conn ended the season batting .288 in 100 games.22

Throughout his years in the Tri-State League, Conn was often rumored to be a candidate for a managing job in the league, and in 1910 he was given a job. In February Williamsport released him so he could become the player-manager of the Johnstown Johnnies. Conn managed Johnstown for the next 2½ seasons. He was wildly popular in Johnstown. Sporting Life called him “the idol of the Johnstown fans” and wrote that he was “a great favorite in the Flood City.” He responded to the acclaim with his two best seasons at the plate, batting .303 in 1910 and .307 in 1911. In 1910 he led the Tri-State in doubles, was fourth in triples and finished second in home runs. In addition, he played every position in the infield except shortstop.23

The fans weren’t the only ones who liked Conn. His players did as well. At the end of the 1910 season, they gave him a “handsome traveling bag,” and in 1911 they gave him diamond cufflinks at the end of the season.24

The 1911 season was a bad one financially for the Johnstown team. Some of the players were not paid toward the end of the season. In January 1912 Conn asked for his release while the club was attempting to reorganize. League rival Wilmington had offered him a managing job. It was an ideal place for Conn to manage in with its proximity to Philadelphia. But Johnstown was determined to hold onto the popular manager. In March, after much negotiation (Johnstown tried to cut his salary) he finally signed a contract with the Johnnies. The late signing proved a disaster. Conn had little time to get the team together beyond what he had the previous season. At one point the Johnnies went winless for three weeks. On July 23 the Johnstown team was sold to a group in Chester, Pennsylvania. Conn stayed with the team but not as manager. Consequently, Conn had his poorest season in several years, batting .264.25

Taking matters into his own hands with the uncertainty of the Chester franchise, Conn purchased his release and in January 1913 signed to manage Trenton of the Tri-State League. The Trenton Times, in announcing the signing, called him “the most popular manager that has ever led a club in the Tri-State League.” Conn bounced back with another fine season, batting .293. The season was marred, though, by the death of his father, Samuel, in August.26

In January 1914 rumors arose that Conn would retire. He was 34 years old, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to leave his livery-stable business. A tragedy probably made up his mind. On February 23, just 12 days after the birth of his second son, Lane Knight Conn, his wife, Lucy, died of complications following childbirth. In March Trenton released Conn. He was out of Organized Baseball for good. He continued to play semipro baseball though. For the next few years he played with various teams in the Delaware County League.27

In 1918 Conn married Eleanor Hissey. Two years later, his daughter, Eleanor, was born. By the 1920s, with the decline of horse travel and the ascent of automobile travel, Conn opened an automotive garage, which he operated for the rest of his life. On November 2, 1944, at the age of 65, Conn died at his home in Philadelphia after an extended illness. He was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Philadelphia.28

 

Notes

1 Philadelphia Inquirer, April 22, 1906.

2 Philadelphia Inquirer, April 14, 1909.

3 Philadelphia Inquirer, April 24, May 4, and October 27, 1895; Sporting Life, January 7, 1905.

4 Trenton Evening Times, April 5, 1901; Philadelphia Inquirer, July 20, August 22, and September 13, 1896; Sporting Life, July 25, 1896, and January 16, 1897; Pawtucket (Rhode Island) Times, March 7, 1905.

5 Philadelphia Inquirer, January 10, March 7, and October 4, 1897; Sporting Life, January 23, April 10, July 17, and September 11, 1897.

6 Philadelphia Inquirer, December 26, 1897, July 5, 1898, and August 21, 1898; Sporting Life, December 18, 1897, and April 2, 1898.

7 Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, September 9, 1898; Sporting Life, September 24, 1898; Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, May 13, 2007.

8 Sporting Life, September 24, 1898; Philadelphia Record, September 17, 1898.

9 Sporting Life, October 1, 1898.

10 Philadelphia Inquirer, March 5, 1899; Sporting Life, April 15, August 5, and September 30, 1899.

11 Sporting Life, April 14, May 26, June 9, and June 30, 1900; Utica (New York) Observer, June 21, 1900; Utica Tribune, June 24, 1900.

12 Boston Journal, October 12, 1900; Trenton Times, September 20, 1900; Philadelphia Inquirer, September 30, 1900.

13 Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, March 14, 1901; Trenton Times, April 5, 1901; Sporting Life, April 13, May 11, and May 18, 1901; Auburn (New York) Bulletin, June 5, 1901.

14 Syracuse Evening Telegram, August 14, 1901; Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1901.

15 Providence Evening Telegram, April 10, 1902; Sporting Life, August 16, 1902; Baltimore American, January 12, 1909; Worcester (Massachusetts) Daily Spy, October 13, 1902; Brooklyn Eagle, September 27, 1902.

16 Sporting Life, April 29 and June 3, 1905; Baltimore American, February 6, 1905.

17 Sporting Life, June 2 and June 30, 1906, and September 17, 1910; Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Patriot, February 28, March 9, and April 14, 1906, and November 9, 1907; Baltimore American, March 6 and April 5, 1906; Jersey City Evening Journal, March 16, 1906.

18 Sporting Life, September 22, 1906; Jersey City Evening Journal, September 20, 1906.

19 Philadelphia Inquirer, January 11, 1907; Trenton Times, February 7 and April 23, 1907; Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times, April 29, 1907; Sporting Life, May 4, 1907.

20 Trenton Daily True-American, October 17 and November 13, 1907; Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1907; Sporting Life, February 29 and September 12, 1908.

21 Harrisburg Patriot, April 24, 1908; Philadelphia Inquirer, May 24 and September 27, 1908; Wilkes-Barre Times, December 26, 1908.

22 Sporting Life, January 23, May 8, and May 15, 1909; Baltimore Sun, April 24, 1909; Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, May 7, 1909; Trenton Times, May 18, 1909; Williamsport Gazette & Bulletin, July 8, 1909.

23 Providence Evening Tribune, February 11, 1910; Harrisburg Patriot, February 11, 1910; Sporting Life, August 13, 1910, and October 28, 1911; Trenton Times, September 11, 1910.

24 Sporting Life, September 17, 1910; Philadelphia Inquirer, September 3, 1911.

25 Sporting Life, December 16, 1911, and March 16, 1912; Harrisburg Patriot, January 11, 1912; Trenton Times, July 16 and July 24, 1912.

26 Trenton Times, January 2, January 21, and August 13, 1913; Trenton Daily True-American, January 21, 1913.

27 Trenton Times, January 21 and March 13, 1914; Philadelphia Inquirer, February 23, 1914, February 28, 1915, and July 9, 1917; Chester (Pennsylvania) Times, May 12, 1914.

28 Philadelphia Public Ledger, October 12, 1920; Philadelphia Inquirer, October 4, 1921, and May 7, 1922; The Sporting News, November 9, 1944; Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2003), 78.

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