When George Bird died in Rockford, Illinois, on November 9, 1940, he was the last known survivor of the first season of major league baseball. Since the 1871 campaign was his only season of professional baseball, Bird was largely forgotten by then. In Rockford, however, he had remained a familiar figure with a wealth of colorful stories to tell about those long-ago days.
George Raymond Bird was born on June 23, 1850, on the one-hundred-and-sixty acre family farm in Marion Township, Ogle County, Illinois. When his parents, Ruleph Bird and the former Azuba Ainsworth, arrived in the county from the East Coast in 1844 they settled in a log cabin that was so isolated that no human habitation could be seen from their home. George was their third son, and by the time of his birth the Birds were living in a “more pretentious prairie cottage” on the site that would remain the family farm for many generations.
The Birds became known for their proficiency in music and baseball. After the birth of two daughters had completed the family, their cottage became host to the musically inclined and it was said that “the sweet voices of those prairie born singers in unison in the old days made the wood thrushes blush in the morning.” When it was time for more vigorous pursuits, the boys proved their mettle on a baseball diamond located in the pasture of Joshua White. Azuba Bird was renowned for her sewing ability, and when her sons formed a baseball club called the Plow Boys, she made sure that they were the most nattily attired members of the team. The three young Birds were also the best players, and on one memorable occasion their sister Ella “maintained the family reputation in a village game … by landing on the sphere for a needed home run.”
There was no village in Marion Township during the boys’ childhood, but as they grew to adolescence the railroad brought a community known as Stillman Valley into existence. The Plow Boy Base Ball Club moved its base of operations to the new village and was strengthened by the addition of several new players. According to local baseball authority A. J. Woodcock, “George Bird and his two brothers were the mainstays of the famous old Plow Boy nine of Stillman Valley which was second only to the Forest Citys in northern Illinois for several seasons.”
By 1870, George Bird was the acknowledged star of the team, which had become good enough to capture the championship of Ogle County and launch a tour of Iowa that saw them take on Adrian Anson and his Marshalltown nine. But the one club they could never beat was the Forest Citys of Rockford, the nine that had earned national renown three years earlier by upsetting the Nationals of Washington. “I remember one game over on the Fair Grounds when I was playing with the Plow Boys,” Bird later reminisced. “The Rockford boys were hitting our pitcher all over the diamond and the ball was a lively one. The smack on bare hands of that ball, slammed out repeatedly by some of the hardest hitters in the world, as we know now, was beginning to be anything but fun for the Valley’s infield. I played third base and John Carmichael was on first. We seemed to get the worst of it, and at the end of that game our hands were so sore we didn’t know what to do with them. His were puffed up like big hams.”
Shortly after a 21-4 defeat at the hands of the Forest Citys on August 26, George Bird left the Plow Boys and played briefly for the Mutuals of Janesville, Wisconsin. That winter witnessed a flurry of baseball activity that included the founding of the National Association, baseball’s first professional league, and the decision of the Forest City Club to join the new league. Alas for Rockford, native sons and team stalwarts A. G. Spalding, Ross Barnes, and Fred Cone had accepted lucrative offers and signed with Boston. Forest City Club president Hiram Waldo was forced to recruit new players to fill the sizable voids, and his selections included the teenaged Adrian Anson from Marshalltown and the twenty-year-old Bird.
Despite his youth, Bird had a solid season in 1871, collecting 28 base hits in 106 at-bats and playing center field in all twenty-five of his new team’s contests. Especially impressive was a combination of speed and power that allowed him to leg out two doubles and five triples. He was described as the second fastest runner on the team (behind only Sam Sager), and was also blessed with the ability to send “opposing fielders chasing into the stock sheds on the slope.” On one memorable occasion, he even propelled a ball into the creek that ran near the fairgrounds where the Forest Citys played their home games.
As a farmer’s son who seldom had ventured out of Ogle County, Bird accumulated a lifetime worth of memories during his lone major league season. The trips east were especially memorable and in later years Bird would often describe the team’s boat ride up the Hudson to play the Haymakers of Troy. Another amusing discovery involved the variation in the baseballs that were used around the country. In some exhibition games the Forest Citys played with such lively balls that they tired themselves running around the bases, while at other ballparks their opponents sought to play with balls so hard that they could scarcely be hit out of the infield.
While most of his memories were fond ones, the 1871 season ended on a very bleak note. The Forest Citys had just arrived in Chicago when that city’s catastrophic fire broke out and it was with great difficulty and very heavy hearts that they made it home to Rockford. George Bird was left with an indelible image in his mind: “the grim spectacle of two bodies – looters – swinging from a lamp post against the background of blackened desolation.” Historian Donald L. Miller disputes that such incidents in fact occurred during the Great Chicago Fire, but it is hard to imagine that Bird would have fabricated such an event.
The fire caused Chicago to drop out of the National Association in 1871, which in turn forced the Forest Citys to disband. The record books credit Rockford with an unsightly 4-21 win-loss mark in 1871 but that is misleading. The team in fact earned four additional victories that were later changed to forfeit losses because of the use of an ineligible player. Two of the games that were won on the field but taken away in the boardroom came against the eventual pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics, including a hard-fought 11-10 triumph in Philadelphia that saw Anson and Bird combine for five of their team’s nine base hits.
As a result, when the Forest City Club dropped out of the National Association, the Athletics pounced. They quickly scooped up Anson, who became known as Cap during an extraordinary twenty-seven-year major league career. Bird was also sent a contract, but negotiations hit a snag when the promising young center fielder asked Forest City manager “Uncle Hi” Waldo for advice. Waldo assured Bird that the Athletics would up the ante, and so, against his better judgment, the youngster declined the team’s initial contract offer. Eventually the negotiations fell through, and thus ended George Bird’s career in professional baseball.
As journalist Horace Buker later put it, “Undoubtedly his life would have been a success no matter which road he traveled, for George Bird is that kind of man.” He returned to the farm on which he had been raised and “spent the productive years in tilling the land and acquiring a competency.” On September 3, 1879, he married Carrie Adell Preston and the couple purchased land next to the farm owned by George’s parents. There they built a home, carved out a farm of their own, and raised a family of seven boys.
Did George Bird have any regrets about the abrupt end of his baseball career? Based on the comments he made to Buker half a century later, it seems safe to assume that he did. “I was over to the fairgrounds the other day,” Bird declared in 1922, “and it was about all I could do to keep from getting into the game.”
George Bird also passed a love of baseball along to his sons. The best of the lot was Homer, who belied his name by developing into a pitcher. “[Homer] is a natural born pitcher,” boasted his father, “and began playing ball before he was old enough to stand up.” One of the proudest moments of George Bird’s life came in 1921 when Homer signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers and was sent to pitch for St. Joseph (Missouri) of the Western League. But Homer Bird’s chances of making it to Detroit had already been sidetracked by a fifteen-month stint in Siberia during World War I – he pitched in the minors until 1925 and later for the House of David, but never reached the major leagues. One of Homer’s brothers, Henry, showed promise as an amateur catcher before his death in 1910. The result was that none of George Bird’s sons followed in his footsteps as a major leaguer.
In 1909 George and Carrie Bird passed the farm along to their son Ralph and bought a house on Crosby Street in Rockford. Their later years were saddened by the premature deaths of two more of their sons – Frank passed away in California, while Archie perished at the Siege of Argonne and was buried in France.
Though his life had its share of setbacks and heartbreak, George Bird was not the type of man to dwell on them. Even after outliving most of his contemporaries, he loved to regale listeners with tales of those long-ago days. Whenever he did so, a twinkle came into his eye, and the animation of his youth returned. George Bird celebrated his ninetieth birthday a few months before his death in Rockford on November 9, 1940. He was survived by his wife of sixty-one years, his four surviving sons, thirteen grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. Carrie Bird died four years later.
The primary basis for this piece, and the source of all direct quotations, is a detailed profile of George Bird by Horace E. Buker that appeared in the Rockford Republic on September 6, 1922, pages 1 and 10, as part of Buker’s excellent multi-part history of the Forest City Club. For Donald Miller’s dismissal of tales of looting and vigilante hangings during the Great Chicago Fire as “sensational and completely false accounts,” see Donald L. Miller, City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 149-150. Also extremely helpful was a five-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); “The Eastern Tour – The 1870 Season of the Forest City Baseball Club,” 47:3 (September 2009)). An obituary of Bird in the Rockford Register-Republic on November 11, 1940, filled in a few additional details.