SABR

Doc McJames

This article was written by Jimmy Keenan.

Pitcher James “Doc” McJames was a refined renaissance man during a rough-hewn era of our national pastime. The colorful and well-spoken Southern gentleman was considered to be one of the most intelligent men in baseball. McJames’ rapid if brief ascent into stardom and eventual decline took place during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Jimmy James (he didn’t start using the last name of McJames until early in his professional career]) first gained local fame pitching for his college nine at the University of South Carolina. After a two-year stint in the minors, he signed with the Washington Senators. McJames continued his pursuit of a medical degree during the offseason, using the salary he earned from professional baseball to pay the tuition. His career on the diamond as well as his life ended prematurely, but for a handful of seasons

Doc McJames was among the most respected pitchers in the game.          

James McCutchen (Doc) James was born on August 27, 1873, in Williamsburg, South Carolina. His parents were Joseph and M.B. James. Joseph was a physician and planter who had served as a surgeon in the 15th South Carolina Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.

Jimmy came from a long family line of military men who hailed from the Palmetto State. His great-great-grandfather was Revolutionary War hero Major John James. In addition, His great-grandfather Judge William Dobein James enlisted in the Williamsburg Militia at the age of 16, serving with distinction under noted Revolutionary War general Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion.   

The 1880 U.S. Census lists eight children in the James family with Jimmy being the youngest. Always studious, when not hitting the books he was playing baseball on local amateur teams in the Cheraw area. Hoping to follow his father’s footsteps into the medical profession, he enrolled at the University of South Carolina. By 1892, the aspiring athlete was the star hurler on the school’s baseball team. Two years later, his talent in the pitcher’s box earned him a trial with the Petersburg Farmers of the Virginia State League. He and future major league pitcher Brownie Foreman helped lead the Petersburg club to the loop’s championship that year.

After completing his studies for the year, Jimmy joined back up with the Petersburg club for the 1895 season. James, after missing four weeks with a wrist injury, went 12–14 for the Farmers, and in September he was signed by the National League Washington Senators. He appeared in two games for the Senators, going 1-1 with a 1.59 earned run average. A reporter described him at this time as “Most intellectual and entertaining and popular with all who know him.”    

The Senators management liked what they saw and signed McJames to a contract for the 1896 season. It was at this time the newspapers began using an abbreviated form of his middle name, McCutchen, in combination with his last name of James.

Doc went on to post 12 victories and 20 losses for a poor fielding Senators team that ended up 15 games under .500. Thanks to his hard breaking curveball and lively fastball, he finished third in the league in strikeouts per game. In regard to Doc’s pitching, The Washington Evening Times wrote, “He has the most puzzling delivery and curves that would fool any batter in the country.” 

In the fall of 1896, Jimmy started his graduate work at University of South Carolina’s school of medicine in Charleston. The sport of football was also gaining national prominence at this time, professionally and at the collegiate level. According to the Sporting Life, McJames and two other Senator players, Billy Lush and Harvey Smith, petitioned Washington team owner/president Earl Wagner for permission to play football in the off-season. All three men’s requests were summarily denied.

McJames was well-versed in many subjects, including the political and socio-economic issues of the day. It was said that he could debate the coinage of free silver or discuss the mechanisms of playing baseball. Politically, he was a good friend and supporter of Ben Tillman, a two-term Governor of South Carolina who later served in the U.S. Senate from 1895 to 1918.

Jimmy also espoused the virtues of a good night’s sleep. While traveling by rail, his teammates would gaze out the train car windows, marveling at the passing scenery, while Doc was sleeping as much as twelve hours at a time.               

During this time, the intellectual South Carolinian was highly regarded in Washington’s elite social circles. He was especially admired by the female fans that attended the games at Boundary Park, which was located on Georgia Avenue in Northwest D.C. The popular pitcher prospered in the fast-paced atmosphere of the nation’s capital, winning 15 games (but losing 23) for the sixth-place Senators in 1897. He led the loop with 156 strikeouts and tied teammate Win Mercer for the most shutouts in the league with three. The Boston Beaneaters offered the Senators $7,500 for McJames during the season, but Washington’s front office turned down the deal.

In a November 7, 1897, article in the Sporting Life Dr. McJames described the differences between baseball players and other athletes of the day. It’s a unique look into a well-educated 19th century baseball player’s observations regarding the rigors and pitfalls of the game. “The prize fighter must necessarily be trained to the hour, and so must the sprinter and wrestler and oarsmen. But the preliminary work of the baseball player is radically different. While the Queensbury boxer, the Greco-Roman wrestler or catch-as-catch-can wrestler, and the 100-yard sprinter are training for an event that lasts but a few short moments or hours, the ball player is working for a season that extends six months in the year, and therefore I claim that his work is the hardest and most monotonous, and that it requires more judgment, more restraint, and more will power than the course of sprouts that is necessary to put a athlete in condition for the prize ring, the wrestling carpet or the 100-yard dash. The eye, the nerves, the wind and in fact every function of the body, is called on during a game of baseball, and thus the ball player in order to do himself and his team justice, is bound by reason of his reputation and the debt he owes his team to keep in supple active physical trim during the playing season. To train down to weight or train for the wind required in a boxing contest or a wrestling contest would prove fatal to a ball player. He must strike some kind of a happy medium. But in arriving at this medium, the ball player is beset by the quagmires and ambuscades of temptation, the tastes of the forbidden fruit so to speak, that are held out by what are known as good fellows who by the way are the enemies of the players. On the whole, the diamond athlete has a harder, more monotonous task before him than any other athlete in the arena of professional sports.”                                                           

During the winter of 1897, Washington’s management decided to trade Jimmy and two other players in order to fill some perceived holes in their lineup. On December 10th, McJames, infielder Gene DeMontreville, and first baseman Dan McGann were sent to the National League Baltimore Orioles. In return, the Senators received first baseman Jack Doyle, second baseman Heinie Reitz, and pitcher Doc Amole.

The following spring, Jimmy finished up his medical exams for the school year on March 31st.  The next day, he joined up with the Baltimore team in Charleston. The Orioles were working their way northward from their spring training site in Savannah, stopping off at various cities to play exhibition games along the way.

Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon was so impressed with Doc’s pitching that spring that he selected him to start the home opener against Washington. McJames started off the 1898 campaign in fine form, striking out nine of his former Senator teammates in an 8-3 victory in front of 6,500 fans at Union Park. Four days later, he fanned eight men in an 18-3 romp over the world champion Boston Beaneaters. McJames continued to pitch great ball for Baltimore all year. The Orioles closed out the season in second place, and Jimmy finished third in the National League with 27 victories. He threw 40 complete games while posting an outstanding 2.36 earned run average. His 178 strikeouts were second only to the New York Giants’ Cy Seymour’s 239. 

In late February of 1899, Oriole owners Ned Hanlon and Harry von der Horst finalized a merger with the shareholders of Brooklyn’s National League franchise. The Baltimore and New York magnates basically swapped stock in each other’s ballclubs. Hanlon also took over as the Brooklyn manager and the team was renamed the Superbas. Shortly after the deal was consummated, Oriole players McJames, Joe Kelley, Hughie Jennings, Dan McGann, Jimmy Hughes, Willie Keeler, and Al Maul were transferred over to Brooklyn.

From the outset of the season, McJames began to display signs of what was being described in the press as rheumatism. He seemed to lack stamina, and it was obvious to all of his Brooklyn teammates that something was wrong with him physically. Never a big time hustler on the bases on a good day, he seemed to be having trouble running out routine plays. In addition, Doc was tiring easily in the later innings of the games he started.

Due in part to his prolonged slump, McJames hinted that he might leave the game and become an army surgeon as his former Oriole teammate Arlie Pond had done a year earlier. Dr.Pond missed out on the short- lived Spanish American War, but his exciting exploits during the Philippine Insurrection were well publicized in the national newspapers. Reading about Pond’s heroic deeds in the jungles of the Philippines evidently struck a cord with the patriotic young doctor.

Around this time McJames received an invitation from noted physician Standish McCleary to take a post-graduate course in the fall at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Baltimore. After serious consideration, Jimmy decided to forgo his military enlistment and accept the offer to further his medical studies.   

By early August, there were reports in the press that Doc’s listless demeanor on the ballfield was beginning to wear thin on the Brooklyn baseball fans. Ironically, about this time the good doctor’s health began to come around. From that point in the season, McJames pitched outstanding ball. He won 12 straight games and narrowly missed tossing a no-hitter against Boston on September 9th at Brooklyn’s Washington Park. Jimmy gave up the only hit of the game to future Hall of Famer Hugh Duffy with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. In regard to Doc’s stellar outing, the New York Times wrote, “It was one of the best exhibitions of pitching, on the part of the home pitcher McJames, that was ever seen on the local ballfield.”  

Jimmy left the Superbas when his mother died unexpectedly in late September but returned a short time later to finish out the year. He ended the 1899 campaign with 19 victories, while averaging a little over 3 strikeouts per outing. Brooklyn won the pennant by 8 games, and Doc’s solid pitching down the stretch played a key role.          

In addition to his post-graduate studies, McJames took the job of resident physician at City Hospital in Baltimore. In late December, he resigned from the position in order to return to South Carolina to care for his father, who was experiencing health problems.                         

After a few weeks back home at Cheraw, he soon realized that his dad was going to need help with the family medical business. In April of 1900, McJames made the announcement that he was retiring from baseball and becoming a full-time partner in his father’s practice.

A month later, the Sporting Life noted that McJames earned his medical license in South Carolina. When a reporter asked him what it took to be a successful doctor, McJames replied tongue in cheek,“For a physician to successfully combat the trials of this world he must have patients.”

Jimmy’s outstanding work in the box left a lasting impression on many of his contemporaries. Pitcher Bill Donovan told a reporter, “McJames had the best curve ball out of any other pitcher in baseball” while Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie said McJames was one of the toughest pitchers he ever faced. Future Hall of Fame inductees Ed Delahanty and Tommy McCarthy also expressed similar statements about Doc’s dominant pitching style.                    

McJames sat out the entire 1900 season, but it was obvious to all of his friends and family that he missed the game. After a long talk with Brooklyn manager Ned Hanlon, Doc signed back up with the Superbas in the spring of 1901 for a salary of $3000. Unfortunately, McJames was feeling the symptoms of what were probably the early stages of tuberculosis. He hoped to pitch himself into playing shape as he did in 1899, but this would not be the case.      

Jimmy never got on track in the pitcher’s box as his physical state continued to decline. Ever the consummate physician and teammate, McJames did double duty as the ballclub’s trainer, ministering to the everyday medical needs of the players.

Doc’s major league career came to end on a sweltering July day in St. Louis when he was prostrated by heat exhaustion and had to be removed from the game. He never regained his vitality after the incident, and Hanlon had no choice but to release him from the Brooklyn club on July 16, 1901.

In early September of 1901, McJames was seriously hurt in a runaway carriage accident while making a house call near his home in Cheraw. Reports in various newspapers noted that he received a broken arm along with a variety of other minor injuries in the crash.

Lamentably, Doc was still in a weakened state from his previous bout of heat stroke and the worsening effects of tuberculosis. The jolt to his system from the wreck seemed to compound all of these maladies. The young physician was initially transported to a hotel in downtown Charleston for additional medical treatment. After a few days at the hotel, his failing condition necessitated a transfer to nearby St. Francis Xavier Infirmary for around-the-clock care. Jimmy’s health continued to deteriorate and on September 23, 1901, he passed away at the age of 28 with his father Dr. Joseph James and brother Joe Jr. at his bedside.

A line in his obituary in the Charleston News Courier read, “Dr. James was a young man who possessed a charm of personality not often encountered. He had an inimitable way of making warm friends wherever he went.”      

A large number of Doc’s admirers were on hand at the Southern Depot in Charleston to pay their respects while the casket was loaded onto the train. Jimmy’s grieving father and brother accompanied the body back to Cheraw.         

The funeral was held at St. David Episcopal Church in Cheraw with a large number of family and friends in attendance. After the service, Jimmy McJames was interred in the James family plot in the graveyard that was adjacent to the church. 

Sources

A special thanks to Brian C. Feeney Manager of the Periodicals Department of Charleston County Library  

Reed Howard for his much appreciated assistance. 

1880 U.S. Census

Sporting Life

Baltimore American

Baltimore Sun

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 

Washington Evening Times

Charleston News Courier

Charleston Evening Post

New York Times

Lowry, Phillip J., Green Cathedrals, 2006, Walker Publishing               

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