SABR

Frank Ringo

This article was written by David Nemec.

Born on the outskirts of Kansas City in Parkville, Missouri, on October 12, 1860, Frank Ringo was a catcher with considerable promise whose career and ultimately his life were destroyed by an intractable addiction to alcohol. After coming of age in Liberty, Kansas, the 5’11” and 175-pound teenager, spent parts of 1878 and 1879 with the famous Peoria Reds, where he first caught John Coleman, and then returned in 1880 to the Kansas City area, where he played for local teams until signing for 1883 with the new Philadelphia NL entry.

To Ringo fell the honor of catching the first game in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies’ franchise in his ML debut, and though he and Coleman, his old Peoria batterymate, both did well, they lost a tight 4-3 battle to Providence, one of the NL’s premier teams. The performance was illusory; two days later the Grays pounded Philadelphia, 24-6, and after that the wheels came completely off the carriage. The Phils’ ancestors finished the season with a .173 winning percentage and Ringo’s .190 BA wasn’t much better. He hit even less the following year, dropping to .132, but it was his tragic weakness for alcohol rather than his weak bat that finished him with Philadelphia’s new manager, Harry Wright, and led to his release to the Philadelphia American Association club, where he appeared in just two games and was hitless in both. Oddly, although it has been established that Ringo swung from the right side, he is among the very few backstops that worked over 90 games in the majors whose arm of choice is still unknown.

Hoping to have better luck than Wright, Detroit’s new manager in 1885, Charlie Morton, hired Ringo as a backup to Charlie Bennett, but Morton was gone less than six weeks into the season and Ringo soon followed once hardliner Bill Watkins took over the Wolverines. That September 16, Sporting Life published a remarkably literate letter from Ringo that had first appeared in the Police Gazette shortly after Ringo had been released to Augusta of the Southern League. The catcher went to great lengths to defend himself against the charge “that I had gone down in the profession as fast as I went up and that Detroit found out that I wasn’t the ball player that I was cracked up to be.” The letter pinned much of the blame for his failure with the Wolverines on pitcher Charlie Getzien, who deliberately tried to show him up each time the pair worked together, and no doubt helped to mistakenly convince Pittsburgh manager Horace Phillips that Ringo could still be saved from himself. When the Southern League season ended, Phillips acquired both Ringo and 38-game winner John Hofford from Augusta in a package deal. In their Pittsburgh debut as a battery on September 26, 1885, Ringo went 0-for-4 in Hofford’s 5-4 loss to Hardie Henderson of last-place Baltimore.

The pair of batterymates fared little better against American Association competition in 1886. Ringo got into just 15 games with the Allegheny club before both he and Hofford were released by Phillips in August for “lushing.” Hofford never played in the majors again, but Ringo was signed by the foundering Kansas City NL club because he was a “hometown boy.” The move was done against the better judgment of almost everyone in the team’s organization, however, and their pessimism proved well founded when Ringo lost all resolve in St. Louis and got “roaring drunk” just two days after his final ML appearance on September 18, 1886, a 9-3 loss to Chicago’s John Clarkson at Kansas City in which he caught Jim Whitney and committed five errors and five passed balls. As a consequence, he did not accompany the Cowboys on their final trip east, and when it learned the reason why, The Sporting News lamented that "his old bad habits returned which could not be endured. But for these he would be an elegant man."

Ringo appears to have undergone a temporary reformation in 1887. In 67 games with the Kansas City Western League franchise he batted .382. Even after allowing for the pronounced inflation that occurred in almost all batting averages in 1887, the lone season that walks counted as hits, it was unquestionably his best year by far in pro ball. Unhappily his abstention was short-lived. After working as a cigar salesman that winter, he joined the St. Paul club in the Western Association, the strongest minor league in 1888, but appeared in just 32 games before drawing his release in August for excessive drinking. Taking it as a final wakeup call, he remained in St Paul and pursued a course of treatment with a local doctor that was designed to make his stomach incapable of holding alcohol.

Upon returning home that fall to Kansas City, Ringo married Emma Williams of Fort Scott, Kansas, around Christmastime. Little over a month later Sporting Life, among others, had begun to wonder why he was still “without an engagement for next season.” On February 9, 1889, The Sporting News announced he had signed with the new Kansas City AA entry but found his acquisition somewhat puzzling because it gave the club five catchers under contract. Eleven days later, Sporting Life noted that he had “entered into an iron-clad agreement to refrain from drinking and on that condition has been signed.” The paper speculated that he would probably catch rookie pitcher John McCarty.

In early April, Ringo learned after the first exhibition game he played with Kansas City that the fledgling AA club intended to release him. He had a consolation glass of cider with friends at the cigar store where he clerked during the offseason and almost with the first sip, despite not having touched a drop for seven months, he fell off the wagon and went on a weeklong bender. Ringo’s lapse into drink so utterly demoralized him that he ingested 40 grains of morphine in his parents’ home either right before or right after supper on the evening of April 12, 1889, and then remarked to his wife that he wasn’t feeling well and would lie down awhile. She became alarmed by his peculiar and irregular breathing and called a doctor who swiftly diagnosed morphine poisoning. Ringo revived during the night long enough to declare his suicidal intent and then refused to cooperate in efforts to save his life. In his obit on April 17, Sporting Life termed Ringo “one of the best known base ball players in the profession, as well as one of the most popular...but has of late years been a slave to drink. His parents are respectable and well-to-do residents of {Kansas City}, and he was married only two months ago.”

Ringo is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri. Contrary to his listed birthdate in 1860, his tombstone states that his age at death in 1889 was only 26 years and six months.



Sources

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

In assembling this biography I made extensive use of Sporting Life and The Sporting News for details of Ringo’s professional baseball career, 1878-1889. Ringo’s major and minor league statistics came from www.baseball-reference.com

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