SABR

Sy Sutcliffe

This article was written by David Nemec.

Left-handed all the way, Elmer Sutcliffe ranks 4th in games caught by a southpaw and 10th in games played by a lefty shortstop. The classic hayseed when he arrived in the majors, he was immediately dubbed “Old Sy” because he looked like a New England farmer. Eight years later he departed the game in disgrace and was dead within four months. Long after he was all but forgotten, Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton appears to have obliquely revealed that he should be treated by history as a courageous and heroic figure rather than as a thief and a cheat.

Born on April 15, 1862, in Wheaton, Illinois, the “tall, slim and angular” Sutcliffe at 6’2” and 170 reportedly had traipsed from his hometown to Chicago a few days prior to his initial ML appearance in 1884 and begged for a tryout. The August 7, 1897, issue of The Sporting News maintained that when asked by player-manager Cap Anson what salary he wanted after demonstrating that he was “a swift and straight thrower, a plucky back stop and a hard, earnest worker" in his debut on October 2 when he caught Joe Brown in a 9-5 win over New York’s Mickey Welch, he said he’d been making $1 a day and could not play for less. Such tales about early-day players abound and are usually taller than the Empire State Building, but in Sutcliffe’s case there are simply too many for them all to be exaggerations. On another occasion, probably on his first road trip, when voices buzzed that the immortal prizefighter John L. Sullivan was on the same train with the Chicago team, Ned Williamson pointed out Sutcliffe to the other passengers on their car and passed the word around sotto voce that he was Sullivan. After a crowd began following the gangly rookie, he grew alarmed and ran to Anson, who told him he was being pursued because he’d been mistaken for a horse thief and would be hung if captured. Anson then seized his arm and helped him “escape to the next car.”

Later that same day he was further victimized by his teammates when they told him one man was assigned to guard the shoes of all the players at night after they were left outside the door of each train compartment and the first night, as the newest man on team, was his to stand guard. Sutcliffe then assiduously watched a dozen or so pairs of shoes all night, until the early morning hours when a porter attempted to take them away to be shined. Sutcliffe at that point raised such a ruckus that teammates were jolted awake on the sleeping car and hastily told him the porter was relieving him and had the next shift. Thus he did not get to sleep himself until after the dawn had broken.

These crude initiations could not have helped Sutcliffe in what would have been a difficult adjustment to big league competition in the best of circumstances. Already a “very nervous batsman,” spitting repeatedly on his hands, tapping the plate, never still, he was hardly steady as a rock in the field either. At the point when he was released by St. Louis, his second National League team, in 1885, he owned a .159 career BA and had committed 47 passed balls in just 29 games behind the plate. Further hampering him was his lack of speed. Said by Sporting Life to be so slow that he could beat catcher Charlie Snyder, the game’s reigning slowpoke, in a foot race only if given a head start, Sutcliffe got almost no leg hits, and batted just .223 with Augusta and Savannah in the 1886 Southern League, making his achievements after he returned to the majors in 1887 all the more remarkable.

His return in itself was remarkable. In 1887, after splitting the season between catcher and right field with Des Moines in the Northwestern League, Sutcliffe was signed by Detroit in October for insurance when first baseman Dan Brouthers wrenched an ankle on the eve of the Wolverines’ World’s Series clash with American Association champion St. Louis and wound up appearing in four postseason games when the Browns agreed to waive the Series eligibility rule. Sutcliffe used part of his World’s Series winnings to buy a piece of a flour and feed store in Wheaton and then signed with Detroit the following year in a utility role and even played 24 games as a left-handed shortstop when Jack Rowe was injured. As a catcher, however, he had only certain pitchers he could handle. In Detroit’s case, just one according to this statement in The Sporting News: “Sutcliffe is a good man, but not fond of regular speed, and available only behind {Ed} Beatin.” When Detroit disbanded after the 1888 season, he was sold to Cleveland. Taken advantage of by the Spiders, Sutcliffe, no longer the complete hayseed, pushed his case all season until the NL voted to give him the $250 difference between the amount he was paid by Cleveland ($1850) and amount he had been reserved for by Detroit ($2100) when it was still supposed the Wolverines would return to the NL in 1889.

Understandably, Sutcliffe was amenable when an offer came to jump to the Cleveland Players League entry in 1890. The owner of a .231 career BA when the first pitch of the Brotherhood season was thrown, he produced one of the most unforeseeable seasons in ML history, hitting .329 in 99 games. Nevertheless, Sutcliffe was mysteriously frozen out of the majors after the PL collapsed and began 1891 with Omaha of the Western Association. In July, when Omaha player-manager Dan Shannon, fearing the Nebraska club was about to fold, hauled most of his core players to the Washington American Association entry, Sutcliffe, who was hitting .294 and catching most of the Omahogs’ games, was among them. Some 10 weeks later, after Sutcliffe finished the AA campaign with a .353 BA, the October 8 Washington Post remarked: “It is not often that the leading batsman in the country is let go by a club, but…he has not proved a winner and the club has been without his services in several games he should have played. The reason assigned for his release is indifferent playing…”

Again Sutcliffe was hung out to dry when the AA and NL consolidated in December 1891. He began the following season with St. Paul of the Western League, in May moved with the franchise to Fort Wayne, and was secured by Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon after Fort Wayne disbanded on July 7. Since Sutcliffe had been hitting .341 at the time, Hanlon, in his desperation to escape last place, immediately installed his new acquisition at first base. In one of the most pitcher-friendly seasons in the nineteenth century, Sutcliffe hit .279 in 66 games, 34 points above the league average. When the Baltimore directors voted in October to release him for being “unreliable,” astounded club observers saw the move as “suicidal.” Yet, when Sutcliffe died from Bright’s disease the following February 13 at his home in Wheaton and was buried in Wheaton Cemetery, the Boston Globe reported that by the end of the 1892 season it was obvious to everyone that he “was losing his grip” as a player, accounting for his release by Baltimore.

So the Sutcliffe legacy remained for the next 14 years or so. Then, in the June 30, 1907, Chicago Tribune, Hugh Fullerton wrote of a player (left nameless) who had been a good spender but suddenly became a miser during the Brotherhood season and was also suspected of stealing from teammates and cheating at poker. The following year he went to the AA at a reduced salary but was “accused of being a crook and a miser. He still played great ball, but his troubles began to affect even that, and one day I learned by accident that his arm was in terrible condition and that he was keeping in the game through sheer nerve.” The sportswriter went on to relate that the player died within the next two years, and one day Fullerton visited his widow and discovered she was an invalid. A fall some five months after her marriage had left her severely disabled and only a series of expensive operations had saved her life. Her husband had supported her by hiring the best New York surgeons and then left her $25,000 in life insurance. Fullerton finished his report by noting that the player was buried in a central state under a marble memorial shaft that had been erected by contributions from fellow players who had despised him toward the end of his career but changed their view once Fullerton told them the real story of his decline and ultimate demise.

Was this unnamed player Sy Sutcliffe? It could be no one else if Fullerton’s story is genuine.

 

Sources

This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec's Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 2 (Bison Books, 2011).

In assembling this biography I made extensive use of Sporting Life, The Sporting News, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Star and the Washington Post for details of Sutcliffe’s professional baseball career, 1885-1892. Sutcliffe’s major and minor league statistics came from www.baseball-reference.com.

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