SABR

Billy Purtell

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Billy Purtell set a record that would not encourage bragging rights. In 1910, while playing for the White Sox and the Red Sox, he appeared in 151 games and hit only six doubles. At the time of his death – more than half a century later – this “record” was noted in his 1962 obituary – the fewest doubles hit by any player who’d appeared in 150 or more games. In 2012, he still holds the American League record; Dal Maxvill’s five-double season in 152 games in 1970 gives Maxvill the major-league mark. Purtell almost hit as many triples – five – in 1910 as he had two-base hits. He also hit two home runs – the only two of his career.

One of the homers he hit would have perhaps been a double under today’s ground rules, but under the prevailing rules in 1910 both were considered “bounce home runs.” The homers were hit; one for each Sox team, and the first one – hit for the White Sox – was one of the more bizarre homers in history. Purtell was far from the goat of the game, but a goat helped him in the game – literally. The other homer was not quite as much of an oddity, but not that far behind.

It was the first game of the July 25 doubleheader at Washington. Purtell was playing third base and batting sixth in the order, facing Doc Reisling of the Senators. In the top of the second inning, Patsy Dougherty was on second base with one out. Purtell hit a bounding ball between third baseman Wid Conroy and the third-base bag. It shot down into the left-field corner, where the stands were quite close to the foul line and then struck the edge of the stand and left-fielder Jack Lelivelt at more or less the same time, then ricocheted off a goat. The Washington Post explained that there was an ardent Senators fan who came to the team’s home games in a goat-drawn cart, and during games, he stabled the goats on some grass behind the stand. The ball must have been hit quite hard, because it “hit one of the goats, bounded into the end of the stand and either bounded or was thrown out again, so that Lelivelt was able to get it in time to hold Purtell at second base.”

Ring Lardner, covering the game for the Chicago Tribune, wrote that umpire “Bull” Perrine had “convened a court of inquiry” and gone out to left field to try to determine what had happened, while players for the two teams argued – the White Sox saying it should be scored a home run and the Senators arguing it should be a double. After asking some questions, and being told that the baseball had bounced off the spine of one of the goats and flown back into the field, Perrine declared it a home run. The next batter knocked out a single that almost certainly would have scored Purtell from second anyhow. .i

Purtell’s second home run had come a little less than a month later at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Grounds against the visiting St. Louis Browns, after he was traded to the Red Sox. The August 23 game was one which the Boston Globe declared in a subhead to be the “wildest game of the year” – a 13-11 Red Sox win, with the deciding runs scored in the bottom of the eighth. In that inning Purtell hit a ball which “jumped as it reached the third baseman, caroming off [Art] Griggs’ head into the bleachers, good for a home run, with two men ahead.”ii

William Patrick “Billy” Purtell was born in Columbus, Ohio on January 6, 1886. His father Patrick had come from Dublin, Ireland, arriving in America in 1884. He worked in Columbus as a foreman in a bakery at the turn of the century. His wife, Emma Smith was from Ohio. They couple had five children – Emma, Gertrude, William, Samuel, and Joseph.

Billy’s brother, Samuel, born in 1891 played 24 years of minor-league baseball as an infielder, usually under the name Marty Purtell. His career started in 1908 with Decatur of the Three I League and stayed in the game until 1939. During his career, he managed 18 seasons, often as player-manager. Joseph apparently also played ball as well, there are a few news clippings which refer to the three Purtells. The family was apparently versatile in other fields of entertainment, as both Gertrude and Joseph performed in the theater.iii

This wasn’t the case of a couple of second-generation American boys taking to baseball as a way to help assimilate. Billy, Samuel, and Joseph were following in their father’s footsteps. A brief note in Sporting Life said: “Purtell, of the White Sox, is a son of a former well-known baseball player who resides at Columbus, O.”iv The Springfield, Illinois Daily Illinois State Journal gave further insight into the elder Patrick’s history: “Patrick W. Purcell broke into baseball at a tender age, reaching the top rung of the ladder when scarcely out of his teens. He was the originator of the slide to second, and battled against stars of the late sixties and early seventies, Spalding, Goldsmith, Anson, Bennett, McBride, Richardson, Williamson and Buck Ewing, all those grand old stars figured in contests with Pere Purtell. He first played at Binghamton, N.Y., and in the inaugural game there, and scored the first run made on the grounds. During the season of 1969 he was with the Cricket club, opening the season against the famous Forest Citys of Rockford, Ill.”v

Patrick Purtell encouraged Billy’s playing ball in high school for Columbus East and “took good care that the boy should be trained in the game early.”vi

Billy’s pro career began in 1904, at home with the American Association Columbus Senators. He started with Bill Clymer’s Columbus club but was soon farmed out to Decatur. Purtell apparently struggled with Decatur (“he got homesick the way any boy might and wanted to go home.”)vii Clymer persuaded him to stay, perhaps assuming he’d get over his homesickness, with some added maturity. But two or three days later, team owner Wilson Bering got a letter from Emma Purtell: “You send Billy Purtell home at once. – His Mother.” Bering acquiesced and sent Billy home for a couple of weeks. He returned with new resolve. And another letter arrived from Patrick Purtell saying that he’d been a ball player himself, that he believed in keeping contracts and that Billy was going to keep his contract with Decatur or go to the woodshed with his father.viii

When young Purtell resumed play, “after joining Decatur for the second time, he commenced to play good ball and is now recognized as one of the main stays.”ix Later in the season, he was back with Columbus, and appeared in the last game of the season, on September 20. Available statistics more than a century later credit him with playing 50 games for Decatur and hitting for a .236 average in the Three-I League.x The same September article noted that he had been reserved for Columbus in 1905. On January 28, however, he was released to Decatur.xi

Despite Purtell playing for Decatur, it seems as though there was uncertainty regarding the legitimacy of status as late as August 1905. He was said to be “playing cleverly this year and he has been tipped off to Manager Barrow, of Indianapolis. The latter is trying to find out what claim Columbus has on the youngster.”xii He hit .244 in 123 games for the Commodores. He improved in 1906, batting for a .274 average and then bumped that up to .285 for the Commodores in 1907, ranking him fourth in the league. Evidently any claim Columbus had became a moot point as Purtell stayed with Decatur through 1907.

During the third of his four seasons with Decatur, Purtell caught the eye of Washington manager Jake Stahl at an exhibition game on September 23, 1906 in Springfield, Illinois. The Washington Post described Purtell’s performance, “Purtell, a fast player of the Decatur, Ill. team, played with Springfield. He made a double and a triple off Hardy, two of the four hits Springfield made. Manager Stahl said he would consider signing Purtell.”xiii

Stahl didn’t make his move in time, however. On August 10, 1907, White Sox scout Ted Sullivan (termed “the world’s champion advance agent” in the Chicago Tribune) signed Purtell to a deal with Chicago for delivery in 1908, for a reported $3,000.xiv He was seen as a “fair batter, crack fielder, and good, game, willing player” and a “sure comer.”xv Veteran Chicago sportswriter W. A. Phelon said he’d been “the best third baseman in the Three-I League.”xvi

The team took a long and extended spring training trip out to California, and Purtell made the team, largely on the strength of his fielding. His big-league debut came on April 16, 1908, the second game of the season, playing under White Sox manager Fielder Jones. Purtell pinch hit for the pitcher in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, making an out. He was left behind when the Sox went on the road, but shortstop Fred Parent soon suffered a hand injury, and Purtell was called upon to join the team and help out as Jones shuffled infielders around a bit. In early June, Decatur called Chicago and asked if they could have Purtell back, since their third baseman had become injured, too. But the White Sox held onto their man. It wasn’t the only time that Purtell was left behind when the White Sox went on a road trip; the same thing happened in September when Parent wrenched a knee and Purtell was called for.

Purtell appeared in only 26 games by season’s end, collecting 69 at-bats and hitting .130, driving in three runs and scored three. All three RBIs came in the same game, the June 19 game against the visiting Boston Red Sox, when he “cleared the bases with a two-bagger in the fourth, and by expert defensive work near his corner of the infield knocked the Bostons out of half a dozen good chances for runs.”xvii While Purtell’s hit won the game, it was increasingly clear his value rested with his defensive abilities.

After the season ended, Purtell played in some postseason games against local semipro teams like the Logan Squares, as did a number of White Sox, which incurred the wrath of American League president Ban Johnson. Purtell was one of nine White Sox players fined and suspended by the National Commission in early November.

On February 5, 1909, Purtell paid a fine and was reinstated. Again the team took a spring training trip to the West Coast. Billy Sullivan was the new manager of the team. Purtell made the team in spring training, again as a reserve. Oddly, he didn’t accompany the White Sox as they opened the season in Detroit, and then joined the team when it returned home to Chicago. Appearing in 103 games at second or third. Purtell’s work was distinctly better – “so much improved over 1908 that things begin to look more cheerful” according to sportswriter W. A. Phelon.xviii

Purtell’s play remained strong in the field (“Bill Purtell Scintillates” read a Chicago Tribune subhead on June 8), and his hitting had really come together. On July 17, however, bad fortune intervened. During morning batting practice, a fastball from Lou Fiene knocked him unconscious for almost an hour. It was feared for a while that the blow had been fatal, but he revived. Purtell was back within a couple of days, though, and featured well, but severe headaches persisted. R. W. Lardner wrote, “Bill does not know exactly what ails him but he knows it ails him. He is suffering from daily and nightly headaches and no medicine seems to relieve the pain. The youngster played yesterday and the head played too, to such an extent that Bill didn’t know half the time what he was doing. This may have been just as well, as he wasn’t doing much.”xix [It’s Ring Lardner writing – he was a humorist.] Lardner may have been too flip regarding a serious situation; he did acknowledge that it could have been due to the beaning. Purtell returned home to Columbus for rest.

A few months later on August 28, the Sporting Life noted, “The absence of Billy Purtell has hurt the team a whole lot. This young infielder, who was a decided disappointment last season, and was carried this spring only because he showed well in the training games, had developed into a splendid ball player. He was one of the most reliable batsmen and base-runners of the club, while his work, on third had been magnificent. From a substitute of the shakiest order he had become a pillar of strength among the regulars, and now he is down and through. It is not thought that he can play again this season, possibly never again, and it is feared that if he ever returns to the game the batting confidence will be all scared out of him.”

He did rejoin the team on September 6 and played in an exhibition game in Galesburg, Illinois on the 7th, then played second base in a regular game on the 8th. He finished the season, hitting .258 with 40 RBIs, though he did not hit as well after his return, perhaps sometimes a bit too tentative in the batter’s box. After he’d been back a couple of weeks, it was said, “He is apparently pitcher-shy, and has so far failed to do anything with the willow.”xx .

He played a postseason City Series against the Cubs. One of the games featured an odd homer by Purtell (he would seem to make a practice of it, as earlier noted) when it landed in the overflow crowd clustered in left field. The umpire ruled the ball had gone over the screen, though the Cubs protested it had fallen into the crowd in front of the screen.xxi He hadn’t hit any during the regular season.

A Chicago Tribune story during the city series noted that Billy’s two brothers who played in the minors were in the stands for one of the games.xxii Marty Purtell had played for Decatur that year, but was Joseph Purtell also a minor-leaguer? Unless he’s the “R. Purtell” found playing for Montreal in 1914 – five years later – we don’t know who he might be, as he doesn’t show up in available records. Exacerbating the confusion are box scores such as the one in the August 15, 1904 Rockford Republic showing Purtell playing third base and leading off for Decatur and also playing third base and leading off for Cedar Rapids – but a search of Cedar Rapids box scores seems to suggest that was a simple error.

Billy stayed in Chicago for the winter and worked as an usher in the Keith’s Theatre.xxiii He was brought back for 1910 with an increase in salary, but still suffered problems in his ear during spring training. By the time the season began, he was said to be fully recovered. He did, though, get off to a very slow start and was only hitting .128 as of May 5.

On August 11, the White Sox traded Purtell and Frank Smith to the Boston Red Sox for Harry Lord and Amby McConnell. The Red Sox weren’t unhappy to see Lord go, and in Purtell they got a man they reportedly considered “the greatest of all modern third basemen.”xxiv Purtell had been hitting .223 in 103 games for the White Sox; when he came to Boston, he worked in 49 games and hit .208 for a combined average of .218 which included his “record setting” six doubles and oddly crafted home runs.

He wasn’t utilized nearly as much in 1911, suffering illness for a good part of the season and losing his job to the superior play of Larry Gardner. He appeared in only 27 games all year long, hitting .280 in just 82 at-bats. The Red Sox had worked a deal to send him to Toronto and announced it on August 18, but he refused to report. He let it be known that he’d prefer to play for Jersey City. Then he refused to report to spring training in Bermuda, fearing that the sea air might aggravate the rheumatism that had tormented him in the summer of 1910. Toronto sold his contract to Jersey City for $1,500.xxv

He got his wish, one of six Red Sox players turned over to Jersey City on January 5, 1912, all in exchange for Hick Cady. He played often and well for the Jersey City Skeeters (International League), appearing in 141 games and hitting .277 in 1912 and in 134 games, batting .306 in 1913. In July 1913, he was asked to become acting manager for Jersey City and on August 25 was officially named manager.xxvi The team finished in last place. His .962 fielding percentage placed him first among third basemen in the American Association.xxvii

On September 18, Frank Navin of the Detroit Tigers drafted Purtell for the 1914 Tigers. He played for the Tigers, but got in no more work (only one more game) than he had in 1911 for the Red Sox, appearing in 28 games, but hitting only .171. They were his last major-league games. His career ended with a .227 average in 335 games.

In late 1914, Purtell was offered the management of the Denver ballclub but he declined it. Detroit then sold his contract 1915 to the Venice/Vernon Tigers.xxviii He was asked to take a cut in pay. Rather than refuse to report, he said “he did not expect Vernon to pay him a major league salary and that he was willing to accept a reasonable reduction in pay.”xxix Purtell played for manager Hap Hogan in 186 games (the Pacific Coast League played significantly longer schedules), batting .255.

Purtell was out of professional baseball all of 1916. His contract was sold to the Montreal Royals, but he was released in February, well before the season began.xxx He couldn’t come to terms on a contract, the pay deemed insufficient. In July the Oakland Oaks offered him a spot on the club; apparently they could not come to terms as nothing further was heard of their offer; it appears from research now available he sat out 1916.xxxi One newspaper account opined, “the trouble with Purtell is shrouded in mystery.”xxxii He was a holdout again in early 1917, and had to resolve his status as a suspended player for refusing to play in 1916, but he eventually came to terms and played in 35 games for Montreal (the team played 150 games under manager Dan Howley), with Purtell batting .278. During the season, in July, he married Eliza Webber.

Montreal didn’t field a team in 1918 and Howley became the manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Purtell may have done with Howley to Toronto during a time when a number of International League franchises shifted playing venues between seasons. It was a war-shortened season, Toronto playing in 127 games before International League play was suspended. The Maple Leafs finished in first place, one game ahead of Binghamton. It was Purtell’s first pennant and he played in 101 games, batting .311 and a significant contributor to the team’s success.

Billy and his brother Mark played together for Toronto for a while in 1919, Mark coming on board in late July and playing shortstop, while Billy played third base and appeared in 67 games, despite batting just .155.

On January 25, 1920, Billy’s contract was sold to Oakland (Pacific Coast League.) then apparently to Akron, also in the International League. He hit .314, with a career-high four home runs. He played in 1921 while managing the Vancouver Beavers in the Pacific Coast International League, hitting .334.

In 1926, perhaps having played semipro ball or with teams outside of Organized Baseball in the interim, he resurfaced once more, with the South Atlantic League’s Columbia Comers, working at third-base for most of the season, appearing in 115 games and batting .229. His last position was as the first manager for the Hagerstown in 1928, a season, which saw the Blue Ridge League team go through three managers.

After his time in baseball, Purtell devoted the rest of his working years as a landscape engineer for the State of Ohio.xxxiii He moved to Bradenton, Florida, in 1958 or 1959 and spent the last three years of his life in a rest home in Bradenton. He died of a cerebral thrombosis on March 17, 1962. His occupation was listed as “Ret. Player, Baseball.”xxxiv He was survived by his second wife Myrtle (Burt) Purtell – they’d married two days before Christmas in 1936 - and three stepsons (Edward, John, and Charles Foster), a brother, and a sister.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Purtell’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

i The accounts of the game are drawn from the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post of July 26, 1910.

ii Boston Globe, August 24, 1910.

iii Lexington Herald (Lexington, KY), October 20, 1914.

iv Sporting Life, April 24, 1909. Billy’s father was Patrick Purtell.

v Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, IL), June 11, 1994.

vi Colorado Springs Gazette, July 4, 1909.

vii Daily Illinois State Register (Springfield, IL), February 26, 1909.

viii Ibid.

ix Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, IL), September 6, 1904.

x Sporting Life, October 3 and November 19, 1904.

xi Omaha World Herald, January 29, 1905.

xii Sporting Life, August 5, 1905.

xiii Washington Post, September 24, 1906.

xiv Chicago Tribune, August 11, 1907.

xv Sporting Life, October 26 and November 9, 1907.

xvi Sporting Life, February 8, 1908.

xvii Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1908.

xviii Sporting Life, June 19, 1909.

xix Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1909. That he’d been unconscious for nearly an hour was reported in the Daily Illinois State Register of July 18, 1909.

xx Sporting Life, September 25, 1909.

xxi Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1909.

xxii Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1909.

xxiii Sporting Life, November 27, 1909.

xxiv Denver Post, August 12, 1910.

xxv Sporting Life, May 27, 1911.

xxvi Jersey Journal, August 26, 1913.

xxvii Jersey Journal, September 23, 1913.

xxviii Sporting Life, January 16, 1915.

xxix The Sporting News, November 13, 1915.

xxx Sporting Life, April 15, 1916 and Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), February 16, 1916.

xxxi Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1916.

xxxii Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, CA), February 26, 1916.

xxxiii The Sporting News, March 28, 1962.

xxxiv State of Florida Certificate of Death.

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