Bill Hunter

This article was written by Bill Lamb

On August 6, 1912, Bill Hunter made his major-league debut as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter for the Cleveland Naps. Tasked with facing Boston’s Smoky Joe Wood, then in the midst of a celebrated (34-5/1.91 ERA/258 strikeouts) season, Hunter promptly struck out. Onlookers sympathized, with the Cleveland Leader observing, “There’s no disgrace in that. Better hitters than Hunter will probably ever be have been fanned by Wood in a pinch.”1 Days later, Hunter fared much better in his second game, with a base hit and three walks in five trips to the plate and an outstanding defensive performance in center field. Hunter continued his fine play for several more games, but then tailed off. After a three-week tryout, he was benched and eventually sold back to the same minor-league club in Flint, Michigan, that Cleveland had purchased him from. His days as a major leaguer were over.

Some years later, the Flint Journal summarized Hunter’s experience as follows: “He was a great hit with the Clevelanders for a few days. He played the outfield. The papers gave him swell write-ups and picture layouts for his first few games, one of which he won in a sensational slide to the plate. Then it was discovered that he could not throw the ball farther in than second base – and the juice was off. Hunter came back to Flint and was later sold to the Western (League).”2 Omitted from this post-mortem was mention of the biographical matter that has placed the otherwise obscure Bill Hunter in the record book: With his identical twin brother George having been a pitcher-outfielder for the Brooklyn Superbas of 1909-1910, Bill’s brief tenure with the Naps made the Hunter brothers the first twins to play major-league baseball.3

William Ellsworth and George Henry Hunter were born in Buffalo on July 8, 1887. The twins formed the middle pair of the six children raised by Canadian-born blacksmith Charles Hunter (1853-1935) and his wife, Isabel (nee Cherry, 1862-1910), a Philadelphia native.4 As youngsters, the two attended Buffalo PS 40, but quit school after the eighth grade. At age 18 they were still living at home and employed as glaziers.5 The brothers followed a familiar path regarding baseball, starting in Buffalo sandlots before graduating to faster play with local amateur and semipro clubs. While still in their late teens, the “Southpaw Twins” gained notice pitching for a Buffalo outfit called the Hurons.6 Thereafter, George and Bill joined the Pullman Car Company ball club, the semipro champion of Western New York.

While identical in appearance and both left-handed, the twins were not clones. As professionals, George, slightly bigger (5-feet-8, 165 pounds) than Bill (5-feet-7½, 155 pounds) and a seemingly more gifted player, gravitated toward pitching, playing the outfield on occasion. He was also a switch-hitter. Bill, lefty all the way, became primarily an outfielder who pitched only when called upon in emergency situations. In 1907 George entered the professional ranks, signing with the Wilkes-Barre Coal Barons of the Class B New York State League. Bill, meanwhile, remained behind in Buffalo with the Pullman club. At the close of an impressive first pro season, George was drafted by Brooklyn, but then optioned to the Nashville Volunteers of the Class A Southern Association. Back in Wilkes-Barre, the Barons signed Bill to fill the void left by George’s departure.7 The signing proved an immediate hit with the distaff side of the Wilkes-Barre fan base, the Albany Journal declaring, “Willie Hunter is as popular with the fair sex as his bigger brother was last season.”8 Unhappily for Hunter, he was not as big a hit with Barons manager Abel Lezotte and the Wilkes-Barre sporting press.

The Barons got off slowly in 1908, and by mid-May the Wilkes-Barre Times was clamoring for lineup changes.9 With a batting average hovering around the .200 mark, center fielder Hunter was among the underperformers drawing press fire. But it was a pitching disaster that proved his undoing in Wilkes-Barre. With Hunter not hitting, manager Lezotte decided to explore whether Bill had his brother’s hurling talent, sending Hunter to the mound in late-inning relief against Albany on June 3. The move backfired when Albany rallied for a 9-8 win. But the real debacle came the following week when Hunter was given a start against the league-leading Binghamton Bingoes. A four-run Bingoes first inning settled the question of Bill’s pitching future, with the Times thereafter condemning Lezotte’s “foolhardiness” in trying out Hunter.10 After the Binghamton game, Wilkes-Barre released him.11

In mid-July Hunter caught on with the Charlotte Hornets of the Class D Carolina Association. He began inauspiciously with his new club, getting injured in his very first game with the Hornets.12 But thereafter, he showed decently in 20 games, batting .280 and playing a good defensive center field. He also pitched mop-up relief occasionally. When the Carolina Association finished play in mid-August, Bill returned home to Buffalo and rejoined the Pullman team in the late season.13

In 1909 twin brother George Hunter made the majors, settling in as a spot starter for Brooklyn. He pitched well enough (2.46 ERA in 113? innings pitched), but without much luck, posting a 4-10 record for the sixth-place (55-98) Superbas. He also played 23 games in the Brooklyn outfield, his .228 batting average on par with the club’s .229 team mark. Bill, meanwhile, appears to have spent the 1909 season outside Organized Baseball. But in May that year, he acquired a wife, a 22-year-old New Yorker named Emily (or Emma) Margaret Schaefer. In time, they would be the parents of two sons, Ellsworth and George.

Bill Hunter returned to OB ranks in 1910, seeing action in 34 games for the Rock Island (Illinois) Islanders of the Class B Three-I League. After a .216 batting average prompted his release, Hunter returned to D-level ball, joining the Keokuk (Iowa) Indians of the Central Association. The following season he gave the Three-I League another whirl, signing with the Danville (Illinois) Speakers. But Bill could only raise his batting average to .232 in 21 games with Danville, and in early June, the Speakers traded him to the Brandon (Manitoba) Angels of the remote Class D Western Canada League.14 And here, the baseball fortunes of Bill Hunter began an unexpected surge.

In 23 games for Brandon, Hunter batted .375 while playing his customarily excellent defense in the outfield. He repeated that performance in early 1912 with another Class D club, the Flint Vehicles of the Southern Michigan League. By August Bill was batting .370, and playing superb outfield defense, reportedly going errorless in his first 79 games.15 Meanwhile in Cleveland, an injury to center fielder Joe Birmingham had put the Naps in urgent need of a replacement. Based upon the recommendation of scout George Huff and with a noncontending club that could use revitalization, the Naps bought the 25-year-old Hunter, making him part of a late-season youth movement. Upon arrival in Cleveland, Hunter “made a favorable impression by his work in the outfield during practice” and was expected to be given a trial “after he gets accustomed to the scenery.”16

Bill began his major-league career with the unsuccessful August 6 pinch-hitting appearance noted in the opening. But during the ensuing four games, he did well, going 4-for12 with three walks at the plate and playing flawless center-field defense. Soon, Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Ed Bang was reporting that “this boy Hunter is making quite a hit with the fans by his nice outfielding, batting, and good work on the paths.”17 Sadly for Bill, he could not keep it going. By the next week, his hitting had faltered and a weak throwing arm had been exposed. On August 21 the Plain Dealer announced that Naps manager Harry Davis had “placed the ‘won’t do’ tag on third baseman [Howard] Baker and centerfielder Hunter at Washington yesterday, sending the two youngsters to the bench.”18 From there on, Hunter saw only sporadic action, and then none at all once Joe Birmingham replaced Davis at the Cleveland helm during the campaign’s final month. Bill Hunter made his last major-league game appearance on September 1, 1912, going 0-for-3 in a 6-3 loss to the St. Louis Browns.19 By that time, the Plain Dealer had already concluded that “Baker and Hunter scarcely measure up to big league standards at present.”20

Cleveland brass had reached the same conclusion, and in the offseason Hunter was sold back to the Flint Vehicles.21 Although Hunter would continue playing ball for another decade, he would not get another chance in the bigs. His major-league career consisted of the 21 games that he had played for the 1912 Cleveland Naps. In those contests, he had batted a humble .164 (9-for-55), with six runs scored and two RBIs. But apart from the weak throwing arm that had generated only a single assist, his defense had been stellar, with 36 chances handled without an error.

Over the winter Flint sold Hunter to the Des Moines Boosters of the Class A Western League. Here, two competitive rungs below the majors, Hunter finally found stable employment and a congenial playing level. For the next five seasons, he was a steady Des Moines ballplayer, posting batting averages that ranged from .262 to .310 while continuing his standout outfield play. Meanwhile, the two children had been added to the Hunter household.22 In 1918 age creep and war unsettled Hunter’s situation. He was approaching 31, and his batting average plummeted. Hunter was hitting a meager .193 when the Western League suspended operations in early July 1918 for the duration of World War I. Baseball returned to the Western League the next spring, but Bill Hunter did not – which, because he was still reserved by Des Moines, landed him on Organized Baseball’s suspended list.23 Instead, he remained at his wartime job as a toolmaker for the Republic Truck Company in Alma, Michigan, which, in addition to then being the world’s largest exclusive manufacturer of trucks, also sponsored the reputed best semipro baseball team in the Midwest.24 During the summers of 1919-1920, Bill played outfield for the Alma Republic Trucks, while filling in for a Buick Motors club in the Flint factory league, when available.25

In 1921 Des Moines granted Hunter his release, thereby making him eligible to return to minor-league baseball. He finished his pro career playing for the Flint Vehicles (1921) and the Hamilton (Ontario) Tiger Cats (1922-1923), both of the Class B Michigan-Ontario League. Although his major-league time had been fleeting, Bill Hunter had a respectable minor-league career, compiling a .287 lifetime batting average over 13 seasons at all levels of play. He was 36 years old when he hung up the glove.

The wife and children reported to 1915 census takers and World War draft authorities were out of Hunter’s life by now, their whereabouts and fate shrouded by the anonymity of private life.26 From 1920 on, Hunter identified himself as being single and living as a boarder, first with a family in Alma, thereafter at a Battle Creek, Michigan, boarding house. He spent his final years working at the Kellogg Cereal Company factory in Battle Creek. In 1934 bladder cancer was discovered.27 With his father and sisters still living in Buffalo, he returned home for the end. William Ellsworth Hunter died from complications of bladder cancer on April 10, 1934. He was 46. After funeral services, he was interred in Ridge Lawn Cemetery in nearby Cheektowaga, New York.28 Survivors mentioned in the Buffalo Evening News obituary were his father, Charles, twin brother George [who died in 1968 at age 80], and four married sisters.



Sources

Sources for the biographical detail presented herein include the Bill Hunter and George Hunter player files (with completed questionnaires) maintained at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; US and various state census reports; Hunter family info posted on Ancestry.com; and certain of the newspaper articles cited below. Stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet.

 

Notes

1 Cleveland Leader, August 7, 1912.

2 Flint (Michigan) Journal, April 21, 1919.

3 The distinction of being the first twins to appear in a major-league game simultaneously belongs to identical twins Joe and Red (Maurice) Shannon of the Boston Braves. On October 7, 1915, the Shannon twins played together in the Braves infield during the season-ender against the New York Giants.

4 The other Hunter children were Jennie (born 1880), Ella (1884), Walter (1889), and Florence (1891).

5 As per the 1905 New York State Census.

6 As per the Buffalo Evening News, April 13, 1934.

7 As noted in Sporting Life, March 7, 1908.

8 As reprinted in the Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times, April 24, 1908.

9 See, e.g., the Wilkes-Barre Times, May 11, 19, and 22, 1908.

10 See the Wilkes-Barre Times, June 10, 1908.

11 Ibid.

12 As reported in the Charlotte Observer, July 26, 1908.

13 Per the Charlotte Observer, August 13, 1908.

14 As reported in the Daily (Springfield) Illinois State Register, June 6, 1911. Danville received outfielder Jack Olson in return for Hunter.

15 According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 1, 1912.

16 Cleveland Leader, August 6, 1912.

17 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 17, 1912.

18 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 21, 1912.

19 Hunter’s last game appearance in a Cleveland Naps uniform came on September 4, 1912. He went 2-for-4 in an exhibition game against the Fort Wayne Railroaders of the Class B Central League.

20 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 30, 1912.

21 As reported in the (Columbia, South Carolina) State and Macon (Georgia) Telegraph, November 24, 1912, and Sporting Life, November 30, 1912.

22 As reflected in the 1915 Iowa State Census and Hunter’s 1917 World War I draft registration form. According to the Iowa census, Emily Margaret Hunter was a Des Moines housewife, born in New York of German descent and a practicing Lutheran. The two young Hunter sons are not specifically mentioned in the census, but their names were included in the death notice for Hunter published in the Buffalo Evening News, April 13, 1934.

23 See the 1920 Reach Guide,

24 As per the 1920 US Census. For more on the Alma Republic Truck Company and its baseball club, see David McMacken, “Republic Trucks Put Alma on the Map,” The (Mount Pleasant, Michigan) Morning Sun, June 13, 2013.

25 As reflected in game reports and box scores published in various editions of the Flint Journal, Jackson Citizen Patriot, Saginaw News, and other Michigan dailies during 1919-1920.

26 Younger son George Louis Hunter lived to be 86 years old, dying in December 2001. The fate of Bill’s older son, Ellsworth, and his ex-wife, Emily, were undiscovered by the writer.

27 As reflected in the death certificate contained in the Bill Hunter file at the Giamatti Research Center.

28 Buffalo Evening News, April 13, 1934.