SABR

Gat Stires

This article was written by Peter Morris.

The 1920s saw Babe Ruth revolutionize baseball with the prodigious clouts produced by his massive bats, full swings and follow-throughs. After several decades in which making contact had been the main aim of batters, the Babe seemed different both in proportion and in type. An envious Ty Cobb grumbled that Ruth had been allowed to bat as he pleased because of being a pitcher. “A pitcher,” Cobb explained, “is not expected to hit. Therefore, he can follow his own system without managerial interference. Ruth made the most of this opportunity. As a pitcher he took a tremendous cut at the ball. At first he was awkward … Gradually he gained confidence, experience and knowledge of pitchers.”[1] Others just marveled that nobody had tried such an approach before.

But old-timers who had been lucky enough to witness the halcyon post-Civil War heyday of the Forest City Base Ball Club of Rockford, Illinois, knew that Ruth had a predecessor. From their perspective, Ruth was just following in a path hewed out by a fabled figure named Garret C. “Gat” Stires, who still lived in nearby Ogle County. Stires, as one old-timer recalled, was “the phenomenon of those days. He knew nothing of headwork, but he had the strength of a giant.  The places under the arms where the shoulders join the body are usually hollow. In Stires’ case they were filled with muscles. The man could run like a deer, and had hands like hams covered with hide. No fly passed him, and his field record was generally errorless save in the matter of throwing. When he returned the ball to the diamond it was always at lightning speed, and no one could tell whether the sphere would reach the catcher or go over the fair ground fence. But it was at the bat that Stires won his name as the ‘terrible hayseed.’ He was not like [Cap] Anson or [Ross] Barnes a sure base hitter, but when his club and the ball did meet the result was nearly always a home run.”[2]

Others had similar recollections of Stires, including Albert G. Spalding, who saw generations of great ballplayers come and go. Yet Spalding always maintained that “Stires could hit the ball harder and send it further than any man on earth” and at the 1896 Harry Wright Day reunion he recollected, “When he came to the bat the pitchers used to sign the outfielders to get back, but they could never move back far enough.”[3] What makes such claims all the more remarkable is that Stires played ball for only a few years before abandoning the baseball diamond to lead a life in keeping with his outsize persona.

Garret C. Stires was born on a farm near Pattenburg in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, one of ten children of Thomas Stires and the former Jane Conover. There is contradictory information about his exact date of birth, with the 1850 census giving his age as 3 and the 1900 census listing him as being born in May of 1845. But genealogical sources give October 13, 1849, and since that date is consistent with the year on his tombstone and the ages given on other censuses, it is probably correct. The spelling of his first name has also been a source of confusion, but the vast preponderance of the evidence points to it being spelled with a single T.

Thomas Stires was a member of one of New Jersey’s pioneer families, but in 1854 he decided to head west with his large brood. After a couple of years in Ohio, he purchased a one-hundred-and-sixty-acre farm in Byron Township, Ogle County, Illinois, living there until his death in 1864. Jane Stires survived until 1878, and then the farm passed to their son Ira. Meanwhile most of the other siblings – nine of whom lived to adulthood – settled in the area.

Garret Stires spent his early years attending the district school in the winters and working on the farm in the summers. His share of the farm work increased after his father’s death, and it developed his naturally muscular physique – by the time he reached adulthood he packed 180 pounds on his five-foot, eight-inch frame. In 1866 the men of Byron formed the town’s first baseball club, and the teenaged Stires soon found himself playing on the Byron Base Ball Club alongside much older men, five of whom were Civil War veterans.

Like most small-town clubs, the Byron Base Ball Club had limited aspirations and even less time for practice. Their only recorded match games were two convincing losses to the Forest City Club of Rockford, a club that had begun to emerge as a national powerhouse after a stunning 1867 victory over the touring National Club of Washington, D.C. One of the factors that enabled the Rockford club to compete against clubs from much larger cities was that Hiram Waldo, the “father” of the Forest Citys and the club’s unofficial manager, recruited promising players from neighboring towns. Thus it was that Stires and Byron Base Ball Club teammate Ballard Osborn were invited to try out in the spring of 1868.

As Stires later told it, his tryout with Waldo was no mere formality: “it was a hurrying, pushing time on the farm and I had to plow three acres of land that day for Jap Hewitt, my brother-in-law. I got up before the crows did in the morning and chased that team right to a finish; got the fastest horse on the farm and burned the road to Rockford. Then I surprised both myself and Mr. Waldo by playing the best baseball in my life, and winning the place.”

Stires started the 1868 season playing third base but soon moved to right field, where he became a fixture. Like Babe Ruth, he batted left-handed and launched gargantuan blasts the likes of which had never been seen before. His first celebrated blast came in the sixth inning of a May 24th game against the mighty Atlantics of Brooklyn. With the score tight and the bases loaded, the muscular farm boy “swung on a good one and the ball whistled like a bullet far over the heads of the right field gallery, over the line of carriages and out of the umpire’s sight” for a grand-slam home run.[4] The visiting Atlantics ended up staging a late rally to squeak out a victory, but Stires’ legend continued to grow.

“He knocked a ball in to a swamp one time,” recalled teammate Fred Cone, “that went about as far as a shotgun would carry.”[5] It is possible that Stires needed to knock the ball out of sight in order to circle the bases, since one later account stated that he “always was lame and had to have somebody run for him.”[6] But based on what we know about the man, it seems a safe bet that it would never have occurred to him to try any approach other than swinging with all his might with the heaviest bat he could find.

The Forest Citys went undefeated against Illinois clubs in 1868 and were universally recognized as state champions, but they failed to beat any of the top Eastern clubs. This was largely a result of the game’s awkward transition from amateur pastime to professional sport. Professionalism was still prohibited by the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1868, but it was an unenforceable rule and players on the top Eastern clubs routinely received payment for their performances in one form or another.  Even clubs like the Forest Citys pushed the boundaries of amateurism – according to Stires, “the division of gate receipts and the liberality of enthusiastic local fans amply covered the personal expenses of each member of the nine.” But a club run on such a basis had little hope of competing with a squad of all-stars who had been recruited by the promise of regular under-the-table payments.

Matters changed in 1869 when the NABBP bowed to the inevitable and recognized professionalism. Clubs that had hitherto relied on dividing gate receipts were now forced to decide between creating stock companies and trying to lure the best players or remaining ostensibly amateur and no longer being able to compete with the top clubs. The “Red Stockings” of Cincinnati famously opted to openly pay salaries, thereby enlisting the services of a lineup of top Eastern players and completing a historic undefeated season.

What is less remembered is that the Forest Citys of Rockford continued to operate as an ostensibly amateur club in 1869 and enjoyed another great season. The club compiled a 23-4 record with all four losses coming at the hands of the salaried Red Stockings, one of them a 15-14 heartbreaker. Moreover, the Forest Citys did so without the services of catcher George King, who retired due to the demands of business, and star slugger Gat Stires, who contracted typhomalarial fever and missed the entire year. As Horace Buker observed, “Sometimes I wonder if the absence of George King, peer of catchers, and of Gat Stires, king of the bat, from the Forest City strength that year was not all that kept Rockford from the world’s championship of 1869.”[7]    

By 1870 Stires was well enough to be selected as one of the starting outfielders of the Forest Citys. At the outset of the season he may still have been recovering from his illness, as he batted at the bottom of the lineup. But his strength soon returned, and with it came more of his fabled home run blasts. The most celebrated one came on October 15, 1870, when he launched a prodigious clout far over center fielder Harry Wright’s head to help propel the Forest Citys to their first-ever win over the rival Red Stockings.[8] Years later, onlookers were still marveling at how Wright had had to “wade Kent’s creek and toil up a bluff beyond to recover the sphere after it had collided with Stires’ six pound bat.”[9]

When the season’s statistics were compiled, Stires’ swats had yielded 312 total bases in 55 games. The total handily led a club that included such future longtime major-leaguers as Ross Barnes, Bob Addy, A. G. Spalding, Joe Simmons, and Scott Hastings.[10] 

The 1871 season saw the Forest Citys enter the first major league, the National Association. Initially it looked as though they would have to do so without Stires, who had decided to retire after the 1870 season. But the club’s attempts to sign a replacement all fell through and the young slugger was prevailed upon to play for another year. All he did at the age of twenty was to lead a club that now included Cap Anson in slugging average, triples, home runs, and runs batted in.

The Great Chicago Fire in the fall of 1871 caused Chicago to drop out of the National Association, and geographical realities meant that Rockford had little choice but to follow suit, thereby giving up its professional club. During Gat Stires’ years with the Forest Citys he had been “urged repeatedly to join other nines with promise of greatly increased income, but he remained loyal to the Forest Citys.” Now that the club was no more, he would have had no trouble catching on with another team, but the idea of heading to the crowded East had no appeal.  So Stires retired from the game at the age of twenty-one and became the first and perhaps only major leaguer to give up baseball because he didn’t find it exciting enough. 

After a few years back in Rockford, the lure of the West and its open spaces called. Stires and a man known as Old Jim Schryver headed to Colorado to mine gold. Success met their efforts, but within a few years Stires was back in Ogle County, still sporting “his hair long in the frontier fashion.”

On his trips into Byron on stock-buying days, he was always accompanied by his thoroughbred mare and his Irish water spaniel, both of which became as much a part of local folklore as Stires himself. Appropriately enough, the horse was known as Old Babe and she “was never hitched; it would have insulted her. Gat merely dropped his gloves on the ground and there she stood until he came back and picked them up. He would send her, hitched to the rig, from the stock yards north of Byron to the stable when he went to the city with stock, and the mare never failed to make the trip safely, resenting with teeth and heels any effort to swerve her from the line of duty.”

Dick was the name of the dog, and “some of his duties, according to his idea, were to lead Old Babe from the stable in the morning and to drag his master’s gun from its place beneath the drug store counter any time he thought the hint might be taken, which was far more frequent than business allowed. Dick’s ambition to go hunting was always made known by a tremendous barking at the store door, and when admitted he would seize the leather case by the handle, swing it clear of the floor, with effort, and march proudly off in search of Gat.”

After a few years back in Illinois, the call of the “frontiers and open spaces” again proved irresistible and Stires joined a government surveying party to the “wilds of the northwest, laying out townships from Tracey, Minn., to Fort Pierre, S. D. and working across the James river valley then unsafe for white men.” He fell in love with the region and staked out a farm in northwestern Iowa, near where the town of Mason City was eventually established. In that “duck paradise,” Stires was able to hunt to his heart’s content and perhaps even enough to satisfy his trusty Irish water spaniel.

While in Iowa, Stires shared a unique experience with David Spalding, a teammate on the Byron Base Ball Club and A. G. Spalding’s first cousin. David Spalding was now ranching at the mouth of the White River in Dakota Territory, and he became such good friends with the Sioux of the region that he was allowed to witness one of the Sun Dances that government officials were trying to bring to an end. According to Horace Buker, the Sun Dance in question was the last one ever held on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Spalding invited Stires to join him, and the two old friends were the only white men in attendance at the ceremony, which was held “in a hollow of the hills, far up the White [River] on one of its tributaries in the vicinity of Wounded Knee creek.” Seated among 4,000 Sioux, the two former members of the Byron Base Ball Club watched “the young men prove their courage by starvation, mutilation and the most intense pain, self inflicted. When it came time to counting their coups – a ceremony in which the warriors dramatized their personal records – some of the braves objected [to the presence of Stires], for the Custer affair on the Little Big Horn was of too recent memory. When he realized the situation, Stires retired as a matter of courtesy to his host … and Spalding followed.”

Stires had returned to Illinois to stay by the 1890s and he became a prosperous stock rancher. He was still in Ogle County in 1896 when many of the Forest City players returned to Rockford to celebrate Harry Wright Day, but for unknown reasons Stires did not attend the reunion.[11]

Stires never married, so when he got too old for ranching he moved into Byron, where he served for a time as a town marshal. As of 1922, the seventy-two-year-old “Babe Ruth of early ball” was described as being “hale and hearty.” But the ravages of age gradually took their toll, and in 1931, at his own request, Stires was placed in the Ogle County Home in the nearby town of Oregon.[12]   He died there on June 13, 1933.

The extraordinary life of Garret Stires was best summed up by Horace Buker, who observed in 1922: “It is this life of the open space with its contest, activity and adventure which Garret Stires has lived. Home run slugger, gold miner, surveyor, stock buyer, pioneer farmer, frontiersman and sportsman, the ups and downs of fortune, sickness and health, he has borne with the fortitude of American manhood. Within his mind is a wealth of American history, of which the victorious tours of the old Forest Citys and the savage Sun Dance of the Sioux are distinctive threads which color the tapestry of by-gone days. To no other generation will be given the privilege to participate in the rise of a great national sport and witness the final savage festivals of a vanishing race. There are no more frontiers; tourists dot the western hills and the wildfowl fly in tens instead of thousands. Times have changed.”

Sources

The primary source of this profile was an extended article by Horace E. Buker that appeared in Rockford Republic, September 9, 1922, page 1 and 11, which is the source of all unidentified quotations. The Buker article was part of a lengthy series that is the best source of information on the Forest City Club. Also valuable were the reminiscences of Fred Cone in “Baseball Thirty Years Ago,” Rome Semi-Weekly Citizen, July 14, 1899; a retrospective history of the club by F.X. White in the Utica Sunday Tribune, June 28, 1891, 9; coverage of the Harry Wright Day reunion in the Rockford Register-Gazette on April 14, 1896; and a four-part series by John Molyneaux that appeared in Nuggets of History, a publication of the Rockford Historical Society (“The Sinnissippi Base Ball Club,” 43:1 (March 2005); “The Forest City Base Ball Club: The Amateur Years,” 45:1 (March 2007); “No Longer Amateurs: The Forest City Base Ball Club in 1868,” 46:2 (June 2008); “‘We Can Beat the Spots Off the Best Club That Ever Lived’: The Forest City Base Ball Club in 1869,” 46:3 (September 2008)).    




[1] Quoted in F. C. Lane, Batting, 71

[2] F.X. White, Utica Sunday Tribune, June 28, 1891, 9

[3] Fred Cone, quoted in “Baseball Thirty Years Ago,” Rome Semi-Weekly Citizen, July 14, 1899; Rockford Register-Gazette, April 14, 1896

[4] Rockford Republic, May 7, 1922, 11

[5] “Baseball Thirty Years Ago,” Rome Semi-Weekly Citizen, July 14, 1899

[6] Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1894

[7] Rockford Republic, June 17, 1922, 3

[8] Chicago Tribune, October 16, 1870

[9] F.X. White, Utica Sunday Tribune, June 28, 1891, 9

[10] Rockford Republic, August 12, 1922, 9

[11] Rockford Register-Gazette, April 14, 1896

[12] Brooklyn Eagle, November 1, 1931

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