SABR

Bill Lange

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

In a major-league playing career that lasted only seven seasons, Bill Lange made an indelible impression on those who saw him in action. A star outfielder on the also-ran Chicago Colts of the 1890s, Lange could do it all: run, throw, field, hit for average, and hit for power by the standards of his time. In the estimation of The Sporting News’ publisher, A.H. Spink, Lange was “Tyrus Cobb enlarged, fully as great in speed, batting skill and baserunning,”i while many of his contemporaries placed Lange on their all-time all-star teams, sharing the outfield with the likes of Cobb, Tris Speaker, Ed Delahanty, or Joe Jackson.ii Present-day commentators have been similarly impressed. Bill James has described Lange as “probably the greatest all-around athlete to play major-league baseball in the 19th century,”iii while Lyle Spatz has dubbed him “the Willie Mays of his day.”iv

As if abundant playing talent were not enough, Lange was also endowed with imposing size (nearly 6-feet-2 and eventually playing at about 215 pounds), matinee-idol good looks, and an amiable, outgoing personality. Admired by fellow players, routinely feted in the sporting press – negative newspaper comment about Lange was rare until late in his playing career – and adored by the fans, Bill Lange stood at the pinnacle of baseball success. Then at the close of the 1899 season, Lange abandoned it all, quitting the game in order to take a bride whose well-heeled father would not countenance a baseball player for a son-in-law. Sadly, the marriage did not last, but Lange’s departure from the diamond did. He never returned to uniform, having played his final game at the age of 28.

William Alexander Lange was born in San Francisco on June 16, 1871, the seventh of eight children born to career soldier Charles Lange and his wife, Mary, nee Kortz.v Bill’s parents were German Catholic immigrants who had moved to the American West in the 1850s, where Charles enlisted in the US Army. His various postings led to Lange children being born in California (Charles Jr., 1857), Utah (John, 1859), and Washington Territory (Mary, 1860), before Charles Sr. was posted, more or less permanently, to the Presidio, the historic military installation situated at the northern tip of San Francisco. There, Bill and sisters Margaret (born 1863), Frances (1865), Augusta (1869), and Agnes (1875) were born. As was the case with many of his generation, Bill Lange’s education ended with the eighth grade,vi and his vocation, if any, is unknown. From his midteens, however, the large and athletically gifted Lange attracted attention on San Francisco-area sandlots, playing for various amateur nines, including a state championship team from Santa Rosa.

In 1890, 19-year-old Bill Lange joined the Port Townsend (Washington) Colts, a semipro team managed by his older brother Charlie, a local saloonkeeper.vii Port Townsend fans were appreciative of the team’s fine performance against area rivals that season, a gold watch set with diamonds being presented to Lange as a token of local esteem by the citizenry.viii The following season, Bill returned to Port Townsend but soon turned fully professional, signing with Seattle of the Class B Pacific Northwest League in mid-July. Seeing action in 36 games, mostly at catcher, he batted .305 and stole 11 bases. Blessed with a strong throwing arm, he also went 4-4 with a 2.44 earned-run average in 11 mound appearances.ix In 1892 Lange took up where he left off for Seattle, batting .303 with 38 steals on offense, while splitting the campaign defensively between backstop and outfield duty. But in mid-August, the Pacific Northwest League failed. Lange thereafter hooked on with the Oakland Colonels of another Class B circuit, the California League. In 53 games against somewhat faster competition, he batted .277 with 26 stolen bases, while playing the outfield full-time defensively.

In 1893 Bill Lange ascended to the majors, signing with the Chicago Colts (nee White Stockings), a National League powerhouse during the 1880s but now a club in serious decline. Ever since the team’s founding as a charter member of the National League, its nines had been dominated by star first baseman Cap Anson, the Chicago field skipper since 1879 and a two-time league batting champion. A large man, sober and humorless, Anson led by example on the diamond but was constantly at odds with the fun-seekers who invariably populated Chicago rosters. In time Lange would join the ranks of Anson tormentors. But for the time being he focused on proving his worth.

On April 27, 1893, Lange made his major-league debut, going 0-for-4 against Cincinnati veteran Tony Mullane in the season opener. The 10-1 beating absorbed by the Colts was a harbinger of things to come: a ninth place (out of 12 teams) 56-71 finish, as the Chicago pitching corps, particularly former ace Bill Hutchinson, proved unable to cope with the newly adopted 60-foot 6-inch hurling distance and the elimination of the pitcher’s box.x Although Lange batted no more than a modest .281 – just .002 over the league batting norm, pitchers included – he proved a valuable asset for manager Anson. In 117 games he hit 8 home runs, scored 92 runs, and knocked in 88 more, while his 47 stolen bases placed him in the National League’s top ten. Of probably more importance was Lange’s defensive versatility. He alternated between second base (57 games) and the outfield (40 games), while filling in occasionally at third, shortstop, and behind the plate. All in all, Lange had made a favorable first impression, and better was in store.

Permanently shifted to center field, where his foot speed and throwing arm could be put to better use, Lange established himself as a major leaguer the following season. Given the offensive explosion of 1894 – the National League batted .310 as a whole that year – Lange’s .325 batting average was unremarkable. Indeed, on the Colts alone, Anson (.388), Jimmy Ryan (.361), Bill Dahlen (.357), and Walt Wilmot (.330) all posted higher averages. But an outsized physique and a friendly swagger on the field were drawing attention to Big Bill Lange. And in one category, he was clearly coming to the fore: baserunning. In short order, a combination of speed, intimidating size, and reckless basepath abandon would make Lange “the toughest, roughest baserunner who ever strode the bases” (Clark Griffith), “as good as Ty Cobb” (Frank Chance), and “the greatest [baserunner] I ever saw,” (Connie Mack).xi For the 1894 Colts, Lange contented himself with 66 steals, good for primacy on the league-leading (327 steals) Colts and fifth place in individual National League player rankings. But the Colts overall were little improved, their season-ending 57-75 log ensuring another second-division placement.

The 1895 season saw Lange at the pinnacle of performance as an offensive force. Playing in 123 games, he established personal bests in runs scored (120), doubles (27), triples (16), homers (10), total bases (275), batting average (.389), on-base percentage (.456), slugging average (.575), and OPS (1.032). He also stole 67 bases while playing standout defense in center. With solid contributions from the now 43-year-old Anson (.335), rookie third baseman Bill Everitt (.358), and right-hander Clark Griffith (26-14), the Colts returned to respectability, posting a winning (72-58) record for the first time in four years. But from there, things would turn sour in Chicago, with Lange contributing to a toxic clubhouse atmosphere that eventually prompted Anson’s termination as team leader.

A natural showman who reveled in the limelight – the strut that he affected is sometimes cited as a basis for his being given the alternate nickname of “Little Eva”xii – Bill Lange was the darling of the Chicago faithful, a landslide winner in a 1895 Chicago Tribune poll of the fans’ favorite player.xiii Handsome, gregarious, and a fun-loving ladies’ man, Bill was also a hit in Chicago saloons and boudoirs. With shortstop Bill Dahlen and other like-minded teammates often in tow, Lange was the backbone of the Colts’ “Dawn Patrol,” skipping curfews, missing trains, and generally ignoring authority. Inevitably this created friction on the club, particularly with the dour Cap Anson, a favorite target of the practical jokes relished by his more rowdy charges. Notwithstanding frequent late nights, Big Bill turned in another first-rate season statistically in 1896. He batted .326, with 114 runs scored and 92 RBIs. He tied his personal best of 16 triples and stole 84 bases, still the Chicago single-season record. Perhaps even more impressive was Lange’s play in center field. He led National League flycatchers by accepting 355 total chances, with his range and fielding prowess exemplified by a celebrated, if perhaps apocryphal, catch of a long drive hit by Washington’s Kip Selbach that Lange reputedly snared while crashing through an outfield fence.xiv

The Colts maintained respectability in 1896, their 71-57 record good for another first-division placement. But the attitude of certain Colts had not gone unnoticed. Even before the 1897 season began, John McGraw of the pennant-winning Baltimore Orioles publicly lambasted Lange, Dahlen, and Jimmy Ryan for their disrespectful treatment of field leader Anson (whom McGraw also criticized for tolerating it).xv Thereafter, the Chicago club got off to a sluggish start, with many Colts playing indifferently when not in outright defiance of Anson’s instructions. By late June, Chicago had plummeted to 11th place, and when a tough loss to Pittsburgh was followed by joking and tomfoolery at the train station, Anson exploded. He loudly denounced his players as “a bunch of loafers and drunkards” bent on throwing him down.xvi Publication of the remarks, which Anson virtually demanded, sealed his fate. The Colts limped home 57-73 (ninth place), and the following February Anson’s annual contract was not renewed, bringing the tenure of the longtime Chicago leader to an inglorious end.

From a statistical standpoint, the team turmoil had had little effect on the Lange bottom line. He had scored 119 runs in 118 games played and batted .340, tops on the club. His 73 stolen bases were the most in the league, the only time that Lange would ever lead the National League in an offensive department. But the Windy City’s love affair with Big Bill was about to be put to the test. After surviving the offseason trade rumors that annually swirled about him, Lange was passed over for appointment to the field captain’s post. After much dithering, incoming Chicago manager Tom Burns opted for a curious alternative: Bill Dahlen, a genuine talent but a man of such sullen and insubordinate disposition that he was known as Bad Bill. Predictably, Dahlen proved an unsuitable choice, terrorizing umpires on the field while constantly feuding with club management and otherwise making himself disagreeable. Lange, meanwhile, had to contend with physical and attitude problems. Notwithstanding his youth and impressive physique, Lange had never been a particularly durable player, regularly missing a dozen or so games over the course of a season due to minor injuries. In 1898 the condition became more chronic, with leg and foot miseries keeping Lange out of the Chicago lineup for extended stretches. His demeanor compounded the problem; he seemed indifferent to his responsibilities to the club and took additional time off to attend to personal business (and sneak off to the racetrack). Fed up, management suspended Lange without pay until he got himself back into playing condition, while Chicago’s once fawning press turned on him. Chastened, Lange refocused his attentions on baseball and, by the end of the campaign had compiled respectable numbers. In a season where offensive statistics were down league-wide,xvii Lange batted .319. But otherwise, his production was considerably diminished from the previous year. Among other things, Lange managed only 32 extra-base hits and swiped a career-low 22 bases.

In the offseason, Chicago club president James Hart publicly endorsed growing sentiment for change in the team roster, singling out Dahlen and Lange by name as candidates for transfer. “Now, I do not believe in criticizing players through the newspapers,” said Hart, “but in this instance I feel that I am speaking for the public. I know the public was dissatisfied with these men [Dahlen and Lange] last year, and it is chiefly on that account that I think it might be well to let them go.”xviii As for his field captain, Hart added that “I admire Dahlen’s ball playing and always have,” diplomatically avoiding comment on Bad Bill’s other attributes. “And as for Lange, I admire his playing and like him personally. He is a good, bright fellow, and a nice man to meet socially. Lange was criticized last year where he did not deserve it. I will say that for him, but he at times showed a lack of regard for the welfare of the club that could not be forgiven, especially in its effect upon the public.”xix

In January 1899 Dahlen was shipped to Brooklyn in exchange for shortstop Gene DeMontreville. Lange, however, remained Chicago property, working himself into fit condition and playing a few games for the Watsonville club of an early Pacific Coast League. As the 1899 season approached, Lange’s status with the Orphans (as the Chicago club had been branded following Anson’s severance) remained unsettled. But the baseball future of Bill Lange was no longer in the hands of team management. Rather, it would be shaped by a wealthy and socially ambitious San Francisco insurance/property management mogul named William Giselman.xx Over the winter Lange had been smitten by Giselman’s only daughter, a 21-year-old beauty named Grace Anna, and a courtship had ensued. Like many a commerce-minded immigrant, the German-born William Giselman had little use for professional baseball players, and certainly no intention of having one in the family. Accordingly, any engagement to Grace would be conditioned upon Lange’s abandonment of the game following the 1899 season and his taking up the insurance/real estate business that Giselman would set Bill up in. Lange agreed. Thereafter, in early March 1899, the Chicago sports world was stunned by the announcement that playboy Bill Lange was engaged to be married and that the coming campaign would be his last in a baseball uniform.xxi

As his final season approached, Lange was a spring-training holdout, miffed by the conditioning and performance clauses that club management desired to put in his contract.xxii No sooner was that settled than Lange became embroiled in another dispute over the team captaincy. With the seconding of club president Hart, manager Burns had named Jimmy Ryan, senior in playing service to the team and friendly with the front office. The players promptly rebelled, most demanding that the honor go to Lange and threatening to refuse to take the field behind Ryan for the coming opener against Louisville. Burns immediately caved in. The Ryan appointment was rescinded and the Orphans played the game (and the ensuing season) without a formally designated captain.xxiii As it turned out, Big Bill would have made a poor field leader. Although he had worked hard to put himself in peak condition, Lange’s body again broke down. Leg injuries and a bad back necessitated prolonged time out of the lineup. Exasperated, club management suspended Lange until he could take the field again. In time, Lange recovered sufficiently to play out the season, going 1-for-4 and making “another of his copyrighted catches”xxiv in the outfield during a 9-5 loss to Louisville in the nightcap of an October 15, 1899, doubleheader. The following evening, a small group of friends and teammates gathered for a farewell dinner at a Chicago restaurant. Emceeing the festivities was Cap Anson who, like most everyone else, had not been able stay angry with Bill Lange. Then, “the most popular man who ever wore a Chicago uniform”xxv was gone, departed from the diamond scene at the youthful age of 28. But Lange’s final season had borne more evidence of athletic decline. Able to appear in only 107 games, Lange hit .325, but with reduced power numbers, including only one home run and a mere 58 RBIs. The condition of his legs, moreover, had compelled the positioning of this once peerless flycatcher at first base for 14 contests.

Bill Lange would live another 50 years. But he would never play another major-league baseball game. At first the hope persisted that he could be induced to return, a wish nurtured by less-than-definitive Lange remarks about his intentions. The door to a baseball comeback seemed to shut, however, on April 15, 1900 when William Alexander Lange and Grace Anna Giselman took their marriage vows at St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church in San Francisco. The couple’s many wedding presents included “a table set of solid silver,” compliments of Lange’s former Chicago teammates.xxvi Shortly thereafter, the newlyweds departed for Paris. For the next several years, reports that Lange was negotiating a baseball return were published regularly,xxvii but nothing ever came of it. The insurance/real estate business afforded him a comfortable living and Lange traveled frequently, often in connection with the game that he could never shake from his system. In October 1910 he returned to Chicago for the first time in 11 years for the Cubs-Athletics World Series and was warmly received.xxviii The following year, Lange accepted a California scouting position for the Cincinnati Reds. He also served as West Coast representative for the National Commission, Organized Baseball’s governing body, and was mentioned for the presidency of the Pacific Coast League. In 1913 Lange was finally coaxed back into uniform, serving as spring-training outfield instructor for the Chicago White Sox, managed by his old friend and teammate Jimmy Callahan.

Sadly, things did not go as well on Lange’s domestic front. His marriage to Grace was childless, and in time the couple grew apart. They divorced in April 1915, by which time Bill had taken up residence at San Francisco’s posh Olympic Club.xxix At the conclusion of World War I, Lange headed to Europe as YMCA athletic director, bringing stores of baseball equipment to occupying forces. While there, he served as a talent scout for Ban Johnson and John McGraw before coming to the conclusion that Europe, France in particular, would never be fertile soil for baseball. xxx Upon his return in August 1919, Lange remarried, taking Mona Virum, a stenographer half his age, as his second bride.xxxi The union was short-lived but a third try at matrimony proved the charm for Bill Lange. On September 9, 1925, he married Sara Griffith, and some three years later Lange became a father for the first and only time at age 56, when Sara bore him William Alexander Lange, Jr. In addition to his new son, Bill also took pride in the exploits of another family member, nephew George “Highpockets” Kelly, a New York Giants slugger and ultimately a Veterans Committee selection for the Hall of Fame.xxxii

In later life Bill lived quietly in the San Francisco suburb of Burlingame until Sara’s death in January 1948. He then returned to his rooms at the Olympic Club. There, he suffered a fatal heart attack on July 13, 1950. Bill Lange was 79. Following private funeral services, he was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in nearby Colma, California. Survivors included son Bill and Lange’s first wife, now Grace Giselman Daniels. The Lange estate, probated at $163,800, went entirely to his son.xxxiii News of Lange’s passing brought forth tributes from remaining contemporaries, including venerable Washington Senators club owner Clark Griffith, a teammate in the 1890s. Said Griffith: “I have seen all the other great outfielders – Speaker, Cobb, DiMaggio – in action, and I consider Bill Lange the equal of, if not better than, all outfielders of all time. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.”xxxiv Lange registered impressive offensive numbers, as well: a .330 career lifetime batting average, with extra-base power. He also stole an extraordinary 400 bases in only 813 games played. But his major-league tenure was brief, far short of the ten-year minimum required for Hall of Fame consideration, and injury-plagued toward the end. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, Bill Lange was a gifted and colorful ballplayer, one who lingered in public consciousness long after his all-too-brief playing days were over.

 

The writer is indebted to West Coast baseball experts Carlos Bauer, Bob Hoie, and Angus Macfarlane for their helpful feedback on the draft version of this profile.

Notes

i See the Bill Lange entry in The Ballplayers: Baseball’s Ultimate Biographical Reference, Mike Shatzkin, ed. (New York: Arbor House, 1990), 599.

ii Some early all-time outfields: Billy Sunday, 1909: Delahanty/Lange/Cobb; Tim Murnane, 1914: Cobb/ Lange/Jackson; Clark Griffith, 1914: Lange/Speaker/Cobb. Temple Cup donor William C. Temple declared that “Cobb was not the equal of Bill Lange” (Sporting Life, September 2, 1916), while outfield rival Jake Stenzel stated that “Bill Lange was the greatest ball player that I ever saw,” Baseball Magazine, Vol. 17, August 4, 1916.

iii Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: The Free Press, 2004), 762.

iv Lyle Spatz, Bad Bill Dahlen: The Rollicking Life and Times of an Early Baseball Star (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2004), 25.

v The biographical aspects of this profile have been drawn from material contained in the Bill Lange file at the Giammati Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York; US Census data; and certain of the newspaper articles cited below.

vi As per the undated questionnaire signed by Lange contained in his file at Cooperstown.

vii A lively account of Lange’s time in Port Townsend by longtime resident Tom Canfield appeared in the Port Townsend Leader, June 6, 2012.

viii New York Clipper, March 24, 1894.

ix Statistics utilized herein are taken from Baseball-Reference.com.

x In the preceding three seasons, Hutchinson had averaged almost 41 wins for Chicago. In 1893, he went 16-24.

xi Quotes compiled in the Bullpen section entry for Bill Lange by Baseball-Reference.com.

xii According to a circa 1933 column in The Sporting News. Other explanations for the Little Eva nickname are equally inscrutable. One posits Little Eva as a sardonic inversion, the hedonistic Lange being the antithesis of the saintly Harriet Beecher Stowe character. Others claim the moniker had something to do with Lange’s grace in the outfield or his ability to play well notwithstanding the effects of the previous evening’s dissipations. At best, the genesis of the nickname is uncertain.

xiii Spatz, 37. Along with the title, Lange received a bicycle from the Tribune.

xiv The tale of the Lange catch has a suspect provenance, going unnoted during Bill’s active playing days. It apparently first made print in an April 15, 1903, column by sportswriter I. E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune. Two years later a more elaborate account of the feat was provided by Hugh Fullerton, another Chicago sportswriter and a drinking buddy of Lange. See Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1905. From there the catch took on a life of its own, with Lange himself finally offering a first-hand account of the now-celebrated grab. See Chicago Daily News, January 23, 1944. Lange even recalled the date of the game: July 27, 1896. Subsequent scholarly research, however, has established that Chicago was playing Pittsburgh, not Washington, on the date in question, and that the account of Lange’s fence-crashing catch of the Selbach drive was most likely a confabulation, a mistily recalled admixture of unrelated events in the Lange career. See “Bill Lange’s Classic Catch Re-Classified,” by Arthur R. Ahrens, Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 9, 1980. Nevertheless, the longstanding acceptance of the feat as real embodies the near mythic regard in which his contemporaries held Lange’s fielding abilities.

xv Washington Post, March 4, 1897.

xvi For a full account of Anson’s downfall, see David L. Fleitz, Cap Anson: The Grand Old Man of Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2005), 252-264.

xvii In five years, the National League’s collective batting average went from .310 (1894) to .271 (1898), with corresponding reductions in other offensive categories.

xviii Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1898.

xix Ibid.

xx The name was sometimes spelled “Geiselman” in press accounts.

xxi Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1899, and elsewhere. Several days later, the Tribune published a formally posed photo of Grace Giselman for its readers.

xxii Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1899.

xxiii A recap of the captaincy flap that was highly critical of irresolute manager Tom Burns appeared in the Chicago Tribune, August 28, 1899.

xxiv The description in the game summary printed in the Chicago Tribune, October 15, 1899.

xxv As noted in the profile of Lange by William E. Akin published in Nineteenth Century Stars, Robert L. Tiemann and Mark Rucker, editors (Cleveland: SABR, 1989), 74.

xxvi Sporting Life, April 28, 1900.

xxvii See, e.g., Washington Post, December 31, 1901, and Sporting Life, January 11, 1902, June 16, 1902, and September 27, 1902.

xxviii Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1910, Sporting Life, October 22, 1910. Chicago Daily News photos of the now 39-year-old Lange show him in fit physical condition, belying reports that Lange’s weight had ballooned to over 300 pounds. In appreciation for his service to the earlier Chicago club, Cubs fans took up subscriptions that resulted in a handsome Chalmers touring car later being presented to Lange.

xxix The 1910 US Census has William and Grace Lange in residence together at a San Francisco address, living directly next door to the Giselmans. Ten years later, Bill was living with a second wife Mona, and Grace Giselman Lange reported herself a widow to census takers.

xxx New York Times, August 26, 1919.

xxxi In addition to the Chicago Tribune, the Lange-Virum nuptials were reported in such unlikely outlets as the Sandusky (Ohio) Star-Journal and The Daily Racing Form, August 5, 1919. The couple was married in New York City, honeymooned in Reno, and then spent their brief married life in San Francisco.

xxxii George Lange Kelly and younger brother Ren (Reynolds Joseph Kelly, a one-game pitcher for the 1923 Philadelphia A’s) were children of Bill’s older sister Mary.

xxxiii This and certain other details of Lange’s domestic affairs were provided the writer by West Coast baseball authority Bob Hoie.

xxxiv The Sporting News, August 2, 1950.

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