SABR

Skel Roach

This article was written by John F. Green.

From 1895 through 1905, a pitcher known as Skel Roach racked up 133 wins in professional baseball, including a single victory for the 1899 Chicago Orphans of the National League. German immigrant Rudolph Weichbrodt was the recipient of a baseball name change in the early 1890s, while hurling semipro ball in a Chicago prairie league. His primarily Irish-American teammates’ constant fumbles with the pronunciation of his given name became a problem for manager Jack Geary and Weichbrodt. The skipper eased the situation by addressing the gangly right-hander as “Skeleton.” Shortly thereafter, teammate Jimmy O’Rourke suggested the surname “Roach.” The creation of the Skel Roach moniker undoubtedly made it easier on players and wags, along with sportswriters and box-score compilers.

Born on October 21, 1871, in Danzig, Germany, Rudolph Charles Weichbrodt migrated to the United States with his family in 1881. According to Ancestry.com, the Bremen-based ship Hapsburg docked in New York City on September 19 with five Weichbrodts aboard: Ferdinand, age 52; Caroline, 48; Theodor, 14; Rudolph, a month short of his 10th birthday, and Martha, 7. An article in the Oak Park (Illinois) Oak Leaves on August 12, 1916, said that Ferdinand, a carpenter by trade, died shortly after the family arrived at its Chicago destination. The Chicago Daily Inter Ocean of March 31, 1882, reported that the estate of Ferdinand Weichbrodt was to be presented before a probate judge.

Rudolph found jobs in support of the family, and in his teens found he had the ability to throw a baseball. He had filled out to a height of 6-feet-2 and a weight of 165 pounds by the time he became Skel Roach, and was able to earn decent money pitching in the semipro prairie leagues around Chicago. The change in the pitching distance to 60 feet 6 inches in 1894 helped Roach improve his curveball to complement a rising fastball.

Skel was 23 years old when he made his professional debut in 1895 with Des Moines of the Class B Western Association; he won 13 games, lost seven, and completed 13 of 21 starts for the third-place club. He spent the following season with Mobile in the Southern Association, another third-place finisher. He went the distance in all 13 starts, with a 6-7 won-lost record and a sparkling 1.13 ERA.

In 1897 Roach played a portion of the season with Kansas City in the Class A Western League, where seven defeats against a single win put him back in the semipro ranks. In ’98 he returned to Mobile, where he won five games, lost eight, and completed all 13 starts. He was released on May 19 and finished the season in the prairie league.

Youngstown, Ohio, of the Class B Inter-State League had the services of Roach for the bulk of the 1899 season; he appeared in 37 games with an 11-22 record. On August 6 the Chicago Orphans of the National League had a short-term need for a starting pitcher. The staff ace, Clark Griffith, had been injured on August 1 and wouldn’t be available for two more weeks. The Orphans were scheduled to play in Washington on Tuesday, August 8, and management arranged to sign Roach and have him aboard the train leaving Chicago on Sunday evening.

Orphans manager Tom Burns decided on Jack Taylor to start the series opener on Tuesday; the Senators handled his offerings, and won, 4-1. Skel started the Wednesday game, having observed the Washington batsmen the previous afternoon. The 27-year-old Roach got off to a good start, blanking the Senators for three innings, and had a 3-2 lead after surrendering a pair of tallies in the fourth. The rookie allowed a run in the bottom of the ninth and finished with a 6-3 victory, scattering 13 hits and walking one. At the plate he was 0-for-4.

That one game was the extent of Roach’s career as a big leaguer. An undated, handwritten letter in his Hall of Fame file, addressed to S.C. Thompson, is revealing. (Thompson was the co-editor of the pioneering Official Encyclopedia of Baseball, and may have been researching the careers of old-time players.) Skel wrote: “The reason I did not stay with the club, we could not agree on a salary.” In 1899 the National League was still a 12-team circuit, and was reduced to eight clubs the following year, when Ban Johnson’s American League was established. With 16 major-league teams on the horizon by 1901, it remains unclear why Roach was never given a second look.

In 1899 Skel entered Lewis Institute in Chicago as an undergraduate and took on the duties as the school’s baseball coach. He remained in the dual capacity until 1902, when he completed work for his degree. In 1900 he played in the Western League with Des Moines and Omaha, with a combined won-lost record of 11-16.

The student/coach/hurler spent most of 1901 with the books and in the semipro ranks. The Rockford (Illinois) Republic of August 24, 1901, stated, “Skel Roach, one of the prairie leaguers of Chicago, says he has averaged $60 a week for pitching in prairie games there this season.”

After the completion of the collegiate season in ’02, Roach headed to Montana, where the well-traveled John McCloskey had taken the reins as manager of the Butte Miners, an expansion club in the Pacific Northwest League. The circuit increased to six teams after the 1901 season and advanced in classification from D to B.

McCloskey put a veteran club together, and the Miners edged Seattle by three games to capture the pennant. Skel contributed with 24 wins against 11 losses, completing 34 of 35 starts over 308 innings. He posted a 1.64 ERA, with 132 strikeouts and 38 walks. Southpaw pitcher Pete Dowling contributed 20 wins, and infielder Frank “Piggy” Ward led the league in batting and stolen bases.

In March 1903 Roach was hired as baseball coach by the University of Michigan. He led the Wolverines to a 12-5 record, and after the college season headed back to Butte for another pennant-winning year with the Miners. The right-hander turned in a 22-9 record in 36 games (complete league statistics are unavailable for the ’03 year). The Pacific Northwest changed its name to Pacific National that season; with the addition of two more teams, moving up to Class A classification.

The 46 wins, along with successive pennants, highlighted Roach’s minor-league career. The winter of 1903-04 was a critical juncture in his personal life; Michigan didn’t ask him to return despite the squad’s 12-5 record the season before. He applied for a vacancy at Wisconsin, with a twofold plan of coaching the 1904 Badgers baseball club and taking classes at the university’s law school. When the job went to someone else, Roach decided to study at Northwestern University, outside Chicago, where he eventually earned a law degree.

Skel resumed his pitching career in 1904 with the Portland club in the Class A Pacific Coast League. Butte’s management claimed rights to his services under the reserve clause, however, filing a complaint with the National Association of Baseball Leagues. During the season the National Board ruled in favor of Butte; Roach appealed the case, and after a time the decision was reversed. The Seattle Daily Times wrote on September 9, 1904, “Skel had a written agreement with (Butte manager) John McCloskey to the effect that he was not to be reserved at the end of the season of 1903.”

Through all the turmoil, Roach compiled a won-lost record of 16-11 in 1904, with a 2.08 ERA and 23 complete games. The Portland Browns finished in the PCL cellar with 80 wins and 136 losses. Roach moved on to Seattle in the same league in 1905, his last complete season in professional baseball. The Siwashes were a basement team (93-111), with 20-year-old Charley Hall the rising star. The youngster won 23, lost 30, and worked 449⅓ innings, with 52 starts. Skel contributed a 15-14 log, with a 2.47 ERA.

During his career many descriptions were written to describe Skel’s pitching repertoire. He was quoted in a number of papers in November 1904 about his “nothing” ball. He told the Seattle Daily Times (February 10, 1905), “… I discovered it and perfected it, and, although I cannot stop Chesbro using it, I want the credit for putting a great improvement on the ‘spit’ ball, doing away with the danger of a wild pitch such as lost the championship for the Highlanders last fall, when Chesbro himself let in the run that clinched the pennant for Boston. It is easier to handle, easier to throw, and decidedly effective.” The Anaconda Standard (March 28, 1905) called Roach “one of the best pitchers on the coast,” adding, “He has speed and curves, but relies mostly on a puzzling high ball, which floats gently up to the plate and over which he seems to have perfect control.”

From 1906 to 1909 Roach played semipro ball in the Chicago area while continuing his law studies at Northwestern. From time to time he accepted offers to appear briefly in the lower minors in the Midwest. In March 1906 he offered his services to Davenport of the Three-I League for one or two days a week while remaining free to continue pitching for independent teams. The club turned down his proposal, saying it would set a bad precedent for other clubs in the league.

In 1908 Skel played for a short time with Green Bay in the Wisconsin-Illinois League. Baseball-Reference has sketchy records of that season, listing no pitching statistics. Batting records show Roach as having batted.209 (9-for-43) in 13 games. The Rockford Daily Register-Gazette on January 28, 1909, wrote that Roach had refused an offer by the Freeport club of the Wisconsin-Illinois League to employ him as manager for the 1909 season. Six weeks later the hurler signed to coach the baseball team at Indiana University.

On July 27, 1909, a month after the college baseball season ended, Louise Eichman of Chicago became the bride of pitcher-coach Skel Roach/attorney-at-law Rudolph C. Weichbrodt. For the next year the Weichbrodts lived in Chicago, where Rudolph was nurturing a law practice. The baseball coach known as Skel remained at Indiana through 1911, and also pitched on occasion with independent clubs. His three seasons at Indiana were highlighted by the school’s first-ever Big Ten Conference win in 1909, followed by a run for the conference championship the following year.

The 1910 US Census listed Rudolph Weichbrodt as a lawyer residing in Chicago with Louise and her mother, Otillie Eichman. Later in the year Rudolph and Louise moved to Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. Weichbrodt became active in the Oak Park community; he served in various chairs at Christ Lutheran Church, and was an active committeeman in the Oak Park Republican Club. In 1916 Rudolph threw a hat in the ring as a candidate for the Republican nomination for the state legislature. Despite the support of former teammates Jake Stahl and Art Meier, his bid was unsuccessful. Two years later he ran for justice of the peace, and was defeated. He took another stab at the state legislative seat in 1920, again coming up short.

Louise had presented her husband with three daughters by 1916: Louise, Margaret, and Helen. In 1920 Rudolph began to contribute occasional columns to a community newspaper, Oak Leaves, passing advice on to aspiring young baseball players. For several years in the 1920s he coached the Christ Lutheran nine in the County League.

Early in 1925, Louise became ill, and she died on May 22. The Weichbrodt family was shaken by her passing; she was 49 years old. Rudolph’s grief was somewhat lightened when he was selected to participate in an Old-Time Stars game in Cleveland on September 21, matching teams of former players from Chicago’s National Leaguers and Cleveland’s American Leaguers.

In Cleveland Weichbrodt became Skel Roach for one more day. Three Finger Brown drew the starting nod for the Chicagos, facing a squad led by Nap Lajoie. Brown’s three-fingered magic had disappeared, however, and the right-hander was removed after surrendering six hits, two walks, and two hit batsmen. Old Skel, now 54 years old, came on in relief of Brown, and used his “nothing” ball to retire all seven batters he faced. His pitching helped Chicago battle back to a 6-6 tie; the game was called after eight innings.

After several attempts Weichbrodt was elected justice of the peace in Oak Park, ruling over hundreds of cases during his time on the bench. When he retired from the law in 1945, he had been a practicing attorney for 35 years, and had served several terms as a judge. In retirement he continued to follow baseball, attend functions with other former ballplayers, remain active in church activities, and write columns for the Oak Leaves community newspaper.

Rudolph Charles Weichbrodt was 86 years old when he died in Oak Park on March 9, 1958. The death certificate listed the cause of death as arteriosclerosis heart disease.

The byline on his Oak Leaves pieces always read: “R.C. Weichbrodt, better known as ‘Skel Roach,’ ” The final paragraph in the August 2, 1956, column perhaps indicates the philosophy of Skel’s baseball career: “Ballplayers have no time to think about some mischief. Their minds are set on the question ‘How can I become a future great?’ I say, by diligent practice of the fundamentals of the game. Practice makes perfect.”

 

Sources

In preparing this biography, the writer used the player’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Also helpful were Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball; statistics provided by SABR member Ray Nemec; Baseball-Reference.com; Retrosheet.org; Ancestry.com; and Genealogybank.com.

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