SABR

Les Nunamaker

This article was written by Tony Bunting.

Ornery, rambunctious, and immensely talented, Leslie Nunamaker became one of baseball’s stoutest hitting and best throwing catchers during the last decade of the Deadball Era—and one of the game’s colorful personalities. Cut from the same temperamental cloth as contemporaries Ty Cobb and John McGraw, Nunamaker was prone to explosive on-field behavior that resulted in an assortment of ejections and punishments in his 12-year American League career. “Leslie Nunamaker wants to run amuck when he gets mad,” Washington Post reporter J.V. Fitz Gerald remarked in 1918 after witnessing one of the catcher’s outbursts. Nunamaker got mad often, and his irascible nature often attracted as much publicity as his tremendous physical gifts and feats on the diamond. Equipped with a magnificent right arm, he once threw out three baserunners in an inning, tying a major-league record. His bat could be equally formidable: Twice he led American League catchers in hitting and might have done so again had he not been seriously injured in an automobile accident while still in his prime.

Tall and long-limbed, Nunamaker didn’t fit the mold of a Deadball Era receiver, but he possessed the requisite quick thinking. “Nunamaker is big and strong; he is not exactly graceful; it may be that the length of his legs gives one that impression,” wrote The Sporting News in 1911, shortly after he joined the big leagues with the Boston Red Sox. “But for headwork he is declared to have it on a lot of the backstops who have had years the advantage in training, and he has handled the Red Sox pitchers in nice shape. … Nunamaker stands six feet one, and weighs nearly 200 pounds—and is still growing. With this range and backing of beef he has a powerful whip and the base runner who can steal on the young giant has to make a good start and then hurry.”

Leslie Grant Nunamaker (pronounced Noo-na-maker) was born in Malcolm, Nebraska, about 15 miles northwest of Lincoln, on August 25, 1889, the fifth of six children (four boys, two girls) of Henry Benjamin and Mary Francis (Staley) Nunamaker. A Pennsylvania native of German and English ancestry, Henry moved to Illinois, was married there, and finally settled his family in the community of Aurora in the southeastern part of Nebraska, not far from the Platte River. He owned a small farm and a dairy operation. For recreation growing up, Leslie pursued the national pastime, belonged to the Aurora Culture Club, and performed in plays at local opera houses.

Nunamaker got his semiprofessional baseball start with the Oxford (Nebraska) Indians, a collection of Native American and white players that barnstormed throughout the state. At one point in his early baseball development, he reportedly caught for future Hall of Fame pitcher and fellow Nebraskan Grover Cleveland Alexander, two years his senior, on an area town team. According to one source, Nunamaker was discovered by minor-league player-manager Billy Fox, a one-time second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, while the youngster participated in an Iowa tournament.

In 1909, at the age of 20, Leslie—or Les, as he was informally called—broke into the minor leagues. He began the season catching for Lincoln of the Class A Western League, Fox’s former squad, but in May was optioned to Dubuque of the Illinois- Indiana-Iowa (or Three-I) League, a Class B organization. Despite an abundance of raw talent, the unpolished Nunamaker batted .241 for the sixth-place club and struggled behind the plate, committing 20 errors and nine passed balls in 92 games. Lincoln reclaimed him at the end of the Three-I campaign, and it appeared that he would start the 1910 season with the Western League team. But late in March, the young ballplayer received what must have been a shock. The Chicago Cubs, fresh off a 104-49 second-place National League finish and already carrying capable catchers Jimmy Archer, Pat Moran, and Tom Needham, swapped a pair of pitchers for Nunamaker. “[Manager Frank] Chance has been after Nunamaker for a long time, for the P.L. [short for Peerless Leader—Chance’s nickname] has seen him in action several times and believes he can make a great catcher out of him,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “Next to [Orval] Overall, Nunamaker will be the biggest man on the squad.” i

The Cubs skipper planned to keep four catchers and take his time molding the Nebraska upstart, whom he kept on the bench as the season got underway. But when veteran backstop Johnny Kling completed a vaudeville tour and signed a contract with Chicago in early May after sitting out all of 1909, Chance shipped Nunamaker to Bloomington of the Three-I League. Les responded with a fine offensive campaign for the Bloomers. In 406 at-bats, he hit .264, second best on the club and 20th in the circuit. His potent throwing arm, however, alternately resembled a rifle and a shotgun. “The details of yesterday’s game at Rock Island [add] another convincing argument to the growing conviction that the disarrangement of Catcher Nunamaker’s optics is a permanent affliction,” a sportswriter commented. “The former Dubuquer has steam and energy enough behind his pegs, but he fails to throw where he is looking or is appearing to look.” ii Les committed a league-leading 34 errors for catchers and ranked 20th out of 21 in fielding percentage. The wildness wasn’t confined to his play. In August, league President Al Tierney slapped Nunamaker with a suspension for insubordination, a hint of the unruliness that would checker his career.

No one disputed his enormous ability. With a number of major-league clubs expressing interest in Nunamaker, the Cleveland Naps drafted the 21-year-old in September and dealt his rights to the Red Sox. Boston took him to spring training in California and he cinched a spot on the roster. The imposing prospect—Nunamaker eventually grew to 6-feet-2—started the 1911 season as a backup to Bill Carrigan. On April 28 at the Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston, Les made his major-league debut against future batterymate Ray Caldwell of the New York Highlanders and went 0-for-3 in a loss. Behind the plate, he handled three chances cleanly and threw a man out stealing, but allowed one passed ball. Nunamaker caught a number of games for the Red Sox in May and June while Carrigan recovered from an injured leg (though The Sporting News suggested that the real reason the Red Sox kept the rookie in the lineup was to chastise Carrigan for insisting on a pay raise).

Whatever the case, Nunamaker performed solidly and gathered the bouquets of the baseball press. “The luck of Owner John I. Taylor of the Boston Red Sox in getting high-class youngsters for his team is proverbial and he apparently never made a happier strike than when he landed that husky young giant, Leslie Nunamaker, for backstop duty,” wrote The Sporting News. Another observer marveled at the player’s impressive physique, reservoirs of energy, and courage. “Nunamaker is built on the same plan as [former Boston catcher] Lou Criger, tall, rangy, and muscular,” he wrote. “His great reach enables him to gather in wild throws and foul flies with ease, while his stamina makes it possible for him to go through the toughest kind of game without a letup. For proof of his nerve just watch him stand up unflinchingly when a base runner is trying to score and the play is at the plate.” iii Boston baseball scribe and former major-league player Tim Murnane was more circumspect. Though amazed by Les’s throwing prowess, he criticized the rising star’s “several weak points; he is lost on foul flies and is a rather mechanical worker.” iv

A broken finger sidelined Nunamaker early in July and limited his action the rest of the way. Nonetheless, he recorded a respectable first season: In 183 at-bats, he posted a .257 average and drove in 19 runs. Perhaps even more promising, his fielding average was.972, slightly better than the league mark for catchers, and unlike some of his colleagues, he had no trouble corralling the blazing pitches of Boston phenom Joe Wood.

His finger mended and with a major-league season under his belt, Nunamaker appeared ready to break out in 1912. After a brief contract squabble—the plaudits of the previous summer undoubtedly echoed loudly in his ears—he prepared to push Carrigan for the brunt of the catching duties. On April 20, Nunamaker caught the first major-league game ever played at Boston’s Fenway Park for the Red Sox, a 7-6 victory over the New York Highlanders. But Nuny (or Nunie), as his teammates and sportswriters called him, contributed little to a club that would dramatically capture the world championship. In a game at St. Louis in June, he again fractured a finger, opening the door for Forrest “Hick” Cady, a newcomer who bunked with Nunamaker. “There’s your chance to make good,” Les told the rookie. “Be sure to keep up the reputation of the room.” Cady good-naturedly shot back: “Just watch me, Nuny. From now on we change places.” v Change places they did. The third-stringer shined in Nunamaker’s absence, particularly on defense, and seized the backup spot. Les sat on the bench and watched Cady and Carrigan share the catching responsibilities during Boston’s World Series triumph over the New York Giants. He failed to get into a single game. The year had been a rough one for Nunamaker. In a May contest with the St. Louis Browns, he had even suffered the humiliation of falling for first baseman George Stovall’s hidden ball trick. Amid the disappointment, he emerged a wealthier man, collecting a $4,024.69 Series share.

Nunamaker’s role on the Red Sox continued to dwindle in 1913, and he sustained yet another injury, this time hurting his knee in a collision at the plate with Detroit shortstop Donie Bush. He appeared in just 29 games. The most sensational event of Nunamaker’s year occurred on May 7 at League Park in Cleveland and highlighted the Boston catcher’s volatile disposition, not his baseball skills. In a contentious meeting between the Red Sox and the Naps that featured repeated collisions on the basepaths, Nunamaker’s persistent badgering of Cleveland infielder Ivy Olson erupted into a 10-minute post-game brawl between members of the clubs in the runway leading to the dressing rooms. The melee furnished Les with a swollen-shut eye, courtesy of a Nap, and a $25 fine, compliments of American League President Ban Johnson. The wrangle would not be his last inside a ballpark.

His woes and wars on the diamond notwithstanding, Nunamaker warmed to life in and around Boston. An enthusiastic hunter and fisherman, he took frequent trips to Cape Cod in his touring car, before the vehicle burst into flames and had to be abandoned. He befriended another passionate sportsman, teammate Tris Speaker, and the two became lifelong shooting and fishing companions.

But his career languished in the Hub. With Carrigan, Cady, and Pinch Thomas locking up the catching chores, Boston shipped Les to the New York Yankees on May 13, 1914, for a reported $5,000. The transaction reunited Nunamaker with his first big-league manager, Frank Chance, and immediately energized the 25-year-old. A week after the consummation of the deal, he blasted his first major-league home run, prompting an excited New York Times to proclaim Les “the handiest acquisition the Yankees have made in some time…” He later smashed another round-tripper; the two homers were his only ones in the majors. vi

Nunamaker’s celebrated “whip” landed him in the record books on August 3, 1914, in a contest at Detroit. In the bottom of the seventh, he nabbed Hugh High straying off second base, then gunned down a pair of would-be Tigers base-stealers, fellow Nebraskan “Wahoo Sam” Crawford and Bobby Veach. The three assists in an inning marked the first by a big-league catcher since 1887 and would not be matched for another seven years, when Ray Schalk executed the trick for the Chicago White Sox. Les didn’t get to revel in his accomplishment for long. Two weeks later a fan, perched in the upper deck of the Polo Grounds, fired a foul ball—perhaps intended for umpire Tommy Connolly—back onto the field and knocked Nunamaker cold. The gritty catcher regained consciousness and remained in the game. In a few days he felt sufficiently perked up to get thumbed out of New York’s loss to Cleveland. If life wasn’t interesting enough, Federal League agents approached the big backstop and tried to lure him to the new circuit. But Nunamaker, who was blossoming with the Yankees, declined their offer. He split the work behind the plate almost evenly with Ed Sweeney and hit a hearty .263 in 262 at-bats with 29 RBIs in 1914.

After a poor 1915, Les emerged as one of the best all-around catchers in the junior circuit in the late Teens. Taking the advice of Yankees coach Duke Farrell, he relaxed his swing in 1916 and enjoyed the greatest hitting year of his career. On April 25, he clobbered Red Sox ace Babe Ruth for a double, a triple, and two singles, then the next day followed it up with another near-cycle—a single, a double, and a triple—and four RBIs against the eventual world champions. Near the end of May, he was on a full-blown hitting spree and owned a .357 average, tops in a league that boasted Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Joe Jackson. Nunamaker’s contributions helped propel New York into first place in late June. But he couldn’t maintain the torrid pace and soon endured a major slump. Matters worsened for Les on July 10 in a game against Cleveland when he berated umpire Silk O’Loughlin for putting a brand-new ball into play while the Indians batted under darkening skies. The arbiter ejected Nunamaker, who received a short suspension from Ban Johnson for his verbal onslaught.

The Yankees withered at the end of July and early August, dropping nine in a row and plummeting to fourth place, where they ended the season. Despite the collapse, Nunamaker sported a splendid .296 average by year’s end (48 points better than the league and the highest among starting catchers in the majors) and had a slugging average of .404 in 91 games. His glove work improved, too. He committed only eight errors while wearing the mask—half his 1915 total—and posted the highest fielding percentage of his career, .983.

One aspect of Les’s play inspired criticism, however: His clunky feet. “Nunamaker might be a wonderful ball player if he were possessed of a trifle more speed,” opined sportswriter W.J. Macbeth. “He is a tremendously big fellow, who takes on weight readily, and so it is most difficult for him to keep in the top form of physical fitness when he is not actively engaged every day.” viiOnce, after a double-steal attempt, the New York Times chided him and fellow baserunner Doc Cook for moving “slower than Judge [Kenesaw Mountain] Landis’s decision in the [Federal League’s] anti-trust suit [against Organized Baseball].” viii

Nevertheless, Nunamaker eased into his peak years. Although his hitting dropped off significantly in 1917, he continued to be an offensive force. In 310 at-bats, he clubbed a healthy .261 and drove in 33 runs swinging near the bottom of the Yankees order. He also fashioned a reputation as the premier pinch-hitter in baseball, coming off the bench to rap seven safeties in 13 at-bats for the season. Lifetime he went 28-for-78 in the same role for a sparkling .359 average and earn Baseball Magazine’s title “Champion Pinch-Hitter of the Decade.” His jaw perpetually operated at midseason form. In April, he engaged in a shouting match with Red Sox pitcher George “Rube” Foster and, later in the campaign, was kicked out of a loss to Cleveland when he barked at umpire Connolly, “Why don’t you give ’em the game?” ix

The fiery Nunamaker proved to be one of the few bright spots on the team. The Yankees, expected to contend for the American League pennant in 1917, fizzled, finishing in sixth place. New York fired manager Wild Bill Donovan, and co-owner Jacob Ruppert replaced him with the man who would pilot the club to greatness, Miller Huggins. The move effectively ended Nunamaker’s stint in Gotham. Huggins swapped the cantankerous catcher, along with pitchers Nick Cullop and Urban Shocker, infielders Joe Gedeon and Fritz Maisel, and $15,000, to the St. Louis Browns for star second baseman Del Pratt and aging hurler Eddie Plank.

Nunamaker, by now a seven-year veteran, joined a perennially lackluster St. Louis Browns squad in 1918, but his performance, particularly in the batter’s box, didn’t skip a beat. He topped American League receivers in hitting (.259) and enjoyed one of his greatest offensive afternoons when he went 5-for-5 with a walk in the second game of a doubleheader against his former Yankees at the Polo Grounds on August 27 (he had clubbed a pinch-hit single in the opener). The day also turned out to be one of his most exasperating. Filling in at first base for George Sisler, who pitched the nightcap for the Browns, he had a nightmarish time on defense, committing three errors before being shifted to right field.

The change of scenery failed to curb Les’s aggressive nature. In a May contest at Washington, he blew his stack, before swatting a key double in the ninth inning to help the Browns to victory. “The St. Louis catcher got as hot under the collar as a fat man in midsummer over a decision that gave the Nationals a run in the eighth inning yesterday and when a fan chided him Leslie invited the grand-stand talker to keep a date outside the park after the game,” reported the Washington Post’s J.V. Fitz Gerald. “The backstop admitted he would change the fan’s map as the kaiser is trying to alter the topographical face of Europe” [an allusion to World War I, which the United States had entered in April 1917].x Back at the nation’s capital in July, Nunamaker unleashed a tirade—complete with a fling of the his cap—after Bill Dinneen ruled him out on a close play at second base in the ninth inning of a Browns win over the Senators. The abusive blow-up garnered Les a three-day respite imposed by the league office.

A grim reality confronted Nunamaker and other baseball players in the summer of 1918: the United States’ escalating involvement in the war. Originally classified as 1-A (single male with no dependents), Les received an exemption from combat because of torn cartilage. [On July 26, Secretary of War Newton Baker, who had earlier ruled professional baseball to be nonessential industry, allowed players immunity from the “work-or-fight” order until September 1. The owners ended the regular season on September 2]. After the season, Nunamaker enlisted in the naval aviation service and, with his pal Speaker close by, began training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on November 8. Three days later, the Armistice was reached.

Nunamaker escaped World War I, but in a cruel bit of irony, nearly lost his life one month after the war ended. Upon returning to St. Louis, he was badly injured when a taxicab he was riding in crashed into another one. He absorbed head and facial lacerations and nearly lost an eye and an ear in the accident. Newspapers printed photos of the ballplayer’s scarred and bandaged face. Nunamaker sued the cab’s owner for $15,000, and the court awarded him $4,500 in damages.

While he nursed his wounds in the winter of 1919, Les was traded to the Cleveland Indians for another catcher, Josh Billings. Nunamaker wasn’t the same player after the accident. In his first two years with the Indians, he appeared in a total of 60 games, 33 of them behind the plate. But when Speaker took the helm of the Indians in the middle of 1919, Nunamaker became his right-hand man for strategy. “In a crucial series, Spoke counted a good deal on Les,” said former Indians outfielder Jack Graney.

Speaker likely consulted Nunamaker frequently in 1920, a year that witnessed a tight three-way race between the Indians, Yankees, and White Sox. In a dramatic stretch run that included the beaning death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman and the suspension of seven White Sox for their roles in fixing the 1919 World Series, the Indians grabbed the American League championship. They met the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series and won it, five games to two. Unlike 1912, when he rode the bench for the entire Series, Nunamaker got to participate in the fall festivities. He pinch-hit twice, lined a single, and caught one inning.

Nunamaker gained national attention for a peculiar incident while the Series was underway. The night of Cleveland’s Game Five victory over Brooklyn, he arrived at his room and found a roll of bills tucked beneath his pillow. Skittish over the breaking Black Sox scandal and taking no chances, he turned the money over to Ban Johnson, who counted the stash—16 Confederate dollar bills. The New York Times chortled over the obvious ruse: “Please Page [Confederate President] Jeff Davis!” shouted its headline. xi Now a two-time world champion, Les shrugged off the strange episode and spent much of the offseason traveling with his sidekick Speaker. The two embarked on a hunting and fishing expedition to Rice Lake in Ontario (a favorite spot of theirs), made a similar excursion to Texas (Speaker’s home state), and accompanied Rogers Hornsby at a Wild West show in Fort Worth.

Although his career was waning, Nunamaker still rode the tidal wave of offense that greeted the early ’20s. Backing up catcher Steve O’Neill for the reigning world champs, he stung American League pitching for a .359 average in 131 at-bats. He would have seen even more action, but in August he broke his leg sliding into second base against Chicago. Nunamaker’s big-league career came to an end in 1922, at the age of 33, when the Indians granted his release to take the manager’s job for Chattanooga of the Southern Association in 1923.

Nunamaker had a brief and unsuccessful stint as skipper of the Lookouts. Playing first base, he guided the club to a seventh-place finish (63-88) in 1923. Feisty as ever, Les drew a three-day suspension in late July for squabbling with an umpire. Citing high operating costs, Chattanooga’s team president, Strang Nicklin, fired Nunamaker shortly into the 1924 season and took over the club himself. Life wasn’t all bad, though. In January of the same year, the 34-year-old Nunamaker married Frances Peckham, “a wealthy and socially prominent” Clevelander and baseball fan, according to one report, in a ceremony at a Chicago church. Speaker, unsurprisingly, was the best man. Les piloted Saginaw (Michigan) of the Class B Michigan-Ontario League in 1925 and for part of 1926, then the next year headed to the newly formed Class D Lone Star League, where he helped lead the Corsicana Oilers to a 48-72 record. After selling cars in Cleveland for a time, Nunamaker culminated his minor league managing—and playing—career in the place it began: Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1929, he managed part of the season for the Links of the Nebraska State League, then took over full time in 1930. At the age of 41, he played first base for the squad and hit .332 with 24 doubles and six triples. But Lincoln fared poorly, winding up 56-66, in next-to-last place. A year later, with Les at the reins once more, the club improved, capturing third place with a 55-51 record.

His sometimes turbulent, yet largely successful life in professional baseball over, Nunamaker returned to Aurora, Nebraska, the town he grew up in, and later moved to nearby Hastings to help his older brother run the Pioneer Cash (meat) Market. He pursued trap shooting, a favorite pastime, and served as director of the Nebraska Sportsmen’s Association. Leslie Nunamaker developed carcinoma of the thyroid and died from complications in Hastings on November 14, 1938, at the age of 49. He is buried in Aurora.

 

Sources

Books

Jerry E. Clark. Nebraska Diamonds: A Brief History of Baseball Major Leaguers From the Cornhusker State (Omaha, Nebraska: Making History, 1991).

Timothy M. Gay. Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend. (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005).

Steve Gietschier, ed. Complete Baseball Record Book (2005 edition). (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 2005).

Joe Hoppel. The Series (St. Louis: The Sporting News Publishing Co., 1988).

Joseph L. Reichler, ed. The Baseball Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1979).

Harold Seymour. Baseball: The Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1971).

Mike Sowell. The Pitch That Killed (New York: Macmillan, 1989).

Allan Wood. Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox. (Lincoln, Nebraska: Writers Club Press, 2000).

Articles

J. C. Kofoed. “The Live Wire of American League Catchers.” Baseball Magazine,

January 1917.

J. C. Morse. “Changes in the World of Baseball.” Baseball Magazine, September 1911.

C. Ford Sawyer. “Baseball’s Greatest Pinch-Hitter.” Baseball Magazine, April 1919.

-----. “The Champion Pinch-Hitter of the Decade.” Baseball Magazine, May 1922.

“Who’s Who on the Diamond.” Baseball Magazine, August 1918.

Newspapers

Altoona (Pennsylvania) Mirror

Augusta Chronicle

Aurora (Nebraska) News

Bellingham (Washington) Herald

Boston Globe

Chicago Tribune

Christian Science Monitor

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Dallas Morning News

Decatur (Illinois) Review

Detroit Free Press

Duluth (Minnesota) News-Tribune

Hartford Courant

Hastings (Nebraska) Daily Tribune

Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune

New York Times

Philadelphia Inquirer

Pueblo (Colorado) Chieftain

San Antonio Light

Sporting Life

The Sporting News

Washington Post

Web

access.newspaperarchive.com

ancestry.com

baseballlibrary.com

baseball-reference.com

chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

findagrave.com

heritagequestonline.com

hngraphical.proquest.com

infoweb.newsbank.com

la84foundation.org

marian.creighton.edu/~besser/baseball/second.html

mcpl.lib.mo.us

nebraskahistory.org/lib-arch/research/treasures/native_baseball.htm

retrosheet.org

Archives

Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball, St. Paul, Nebraska. Leslie Nunamaker collection.

National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York. Leslie Nunamaker file.

Correspondence

Fred Hummer (grandnephew of Leslie Nunamaker). E-mails to author, January 22, 2010; January 29, 2010; February 5, 2010; February 28, 2010.

 

Notes

i Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1910

ii Unattributed article from Nunamaker’s file at the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball

iii Ibidem

iv The Sporting News, July 13, 1911

v New York Times, January 25, 1913

vi New York Times, May 21, 1914

vii Unidentified clipping from the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, entitled “Nunamaker Is a Plodder, but He Gets There,” August, 1917

viii New York Times, June 8, 1915

ix The account of the shouting match with Foster came from Edward F. Martin of the Boston Globe, April 13, 1917. The Connolly episode came from the New York Times of September 21, 1917.

x Washington Post, May 23, 1918

xi New York Times, October 12, 1920

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