SABR

Jud Birchall

This article was written by Paul Hofmann.

The brief three-year major league career of A.J. (Jud) Birchall was the culmination of a journey that transformed a local Philadelphia schoolboy from the sandlots of the city's Germantown neighborhood to a favorite of the Jefferson Street Grounds faithful that followed the 1883 American Association (AA) Champion Philadelphia Athletics.

Adoniram Judson Birchall was born on September 12, 1855, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia to Elias Birchall, an immigrant from England, and Sarah Birchall (Lutz), the daughter of a shoemaker of German extraction. Jud, as he would be known, was the tenth of 15 children born to the Birchalls between 1843 and 1863. Of the 15 children only eight survived to adulthood, including his older brother Edward who was also a baseball player of some local notoriety in Philadelphia. The elder of the baseball playing Birchall brothers played left field for the Girard Club nine before embarking on a career as a civil engineer.

Little information exists about Jud's youth in Philadelphia. However, the well documented business success and philanthropic activities of his father provide some useful clues about Jud's early years. Elias Birchall came to the United States with his parents when he was 6 years old. In early adulthood Elias became involved in manufacturing hosiery in Germantown. The senior Birchall enjoyed great success in the textile industry and, over time, acquired a sizeable fortune. His prominent position in Germantown's commercial and social circles are an indication that Jud probably grew up in what would have been considered an upper middle class family in late 19th century Germantown.

Religion also played a role in Jud's early years. Jud, or A.J., was named after Adoniram Judson, an early American Baptist missionary, lexicographer, and Bible translator - best known for his missionary work in Burma. The Birchalls were active members of the Milestone Baptist Church. Elias served the Church as a deacon, trustee, and choir leader, giving liberally of his time and financial resources -- to his own detriment in his later years - for the advancement and support of the church.

By all accounts, Elias Birchall was a man with a good disposition, a kind husband, and good father. Based on the family's prominent economic stature in Germantown and their religious background, it is certain that young Jud's material needs were met and that he was raised with the traditional 19th century evangelical Protestant values that emphasized individual conversion, personal piety, Bible study, and public morality.

Jud attended Rittenhouse Grammar School, a public school that served rich and poor families alike in the Germantown, Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, and Rittenhousetown sections of Philadelphia. His first amateur baseball experience was in 1869 as a member of the Americus Club. This team was made up of members of the first senior class of Rittenhouse. Jud was one of only two players that were not members of the graduating class. Unlike his brothers, he never attended college and it is unclear how many years of formal education Jud completed. However, by the spring of 1870 the 14-year old boy's baseball career, which would include three separate stints with the Philadelphia Athletics, was beginning to take shape.

The early years of Jud's baseball life were spent as an infielder, primarily at third base. He spent parts of 1870 with both the Athletics Jr. and United, one of the best amateur clubs in Philadelphia at the time. When the United disbanded, he joined the Germantown Alert and stayed with them until the end of the 1874 season. In 1875 he went to Wilmington and played third base for the Delaware Quicksteps. That year, the Quicksteps barnstormed across the Midwest to meet the Chicago White Stockings and Cincinnati Red Stockings. Although the Quicksteps were considered an amateur club, they were a commercial venture and had a roster that included paid players playing alongside true amateurs. Indeed, the Quicksteps were on the edge of professionalism and by every account one of the finest amateur nines in the region. The experience of playing for the Quicksteps surely proved to be invaluable to the young infielder, providing him with his first taste of professional and Major League caliber competition.

Jud remained with the Quicksteps during the 1876 season before returning to Philadelphia in 1877 to join the Fergy Malone-led Athletics[1], reborn as a semi-pro team after the team was expelled from the National League following the 1876 season for failing to complete their entire schedule. Birchall began the 1878 season with the Athletics, which again played independently. However, a late May tailspin, which included defeats at the hands of local amateurs, necessitated a shake-up that resulted in Birchall being signed by Hartford of the International Association. Birchall signed with the Athletics again for the 1879 season.

In 1880 Birchall joined future Hall of Famer Dan Brouthers on the Baltimore club of the loosely organized National Association. Jud divided the third base and left field duties with utility journeyman Joe Ellick and began his transition from third to left field. The Baltimore club disbanded on June 29, and Jud once again returned to Philadelphia, finishing the season with the Globe Club.

In February 1881 Birchall signed with the Athletics beginning his third and final stint with the team. Unlike his previous associations with the club, Birchall would stick with the Athletics for the next four seasons, becoming an integral part of a lineup that included first baseman Harry Stovey [2] and bolstered by the pitching of ace right hander Bobby Mathews [3].

The Athletics joined the American Association in the fall of 1881 and on May 2, 1882 the 26-year old Birchall made his Major League debut patrolling left field for the Athletics in Oakdale Park, located on Eleventh and Huntingdon streets. During his rookie season of 1882, Jud earned a reputation as a steady left fielder with a flair for making incredible grabs. One such instance was during a game against the Cincinnati Red Stockings on June 1, when he made a spectacular game saving catch that the Philadelphia Inquirer described as "the most wonderful ever witnessed on the ball field." With Philadelphia leading 3-0 in the top of the ninth, Cincinnati was threatening with runners on 2nd and 3rd and two down. Red Stocking first baseman Henry Luff sent a rocket to left field. The Inquirer recounted the play as follows:

Luff hit a ball that traveled like a shot out of a cannon directly over Birchal's (sic.) head. The latter jumped fully three feet from the ground, and the ball struck his right wrist, bounded in the air, fell into his hand and then dropped, but before it reached the ground Birchal (sic.) cleverly caught it with one hand, and the Cincinnatis were "Chicagoed".[iv]

Birchall appeared in all 75 of the Athletics' games that season, 74 in left field and one at second base. He finished the season with what would prove to be career highs in batting average, .263, and RBIs, 27. He also ranked 5th in the American Association in both at-bats and runs scored, with 338 and 65, respectively. More importantly, however, he established himself as the Athletics everyday left fielder and leadoff hitter. Coming off his breakout season of 1882, much was expected of Birchall and the Athletics. In its 1883 Baseball Preview, Sporting Life tabbed the Athletics as the American Association favorites and highlighted Birchall's steady left field play and excellent base running.

He is credited with some remarkable catches in his position, his running catches bring noteworthy [sic]. His great forte, however, is in base running, in which he leads the players of the country, and which has made him famous."[5]

The 1883 season marked the Athletics' return to the newly renovated Jefferson Street Grounds, which the New York Times hailed as the prettiest ballpark in America. It was reported that landscape gardeners made the playing field as "level as a billiard table"[6]. The Athletics' return to Jefferson Street Grounds posed a unique challenge to Birchall and the other Athletic outfielders. The ballpark, formerly known as Athletics Park, featured tight narrow corners in left and right fields and a deep power alleys that met a cavernous 500 feet away in dead center field. In any event, the ballpark was in great shape and the city of Philadelphia was ready to usher in one of the greatest baseball seasons the city would ever experience.

In addition to having the finest ballpark in America, Philadelphia also had a brand new entry in the National League (NL). For the first time Philadelphia was a two-team Major League city, marking the beginning of a period of unprecedented growth in the popularity of baseball in the city.

For Jud Birchall the 1883 season marked the zenith of his Major League career. Although his batting average dipped 22 points from the previous year to .241, Birchall led the AA in at-bats with 408 and ranked fifth in runs scored with 95. Batting in the leadoff position, Birchall served as the catalyst of an offense that averaged 7.3 runs per game and cemented his position as a local favorite at Jefferson Street Grounds. Throughout the 1883 season, Birchall proved to be a serviceable leadoff hitter, often setting the table for the big bat of Harry Stovey who batted .304 and smacked 14 home runs that year. Birchall and his Athletics teammates were so well received by the city of Philadelphia, that by early June their NL counterparts received permission from the League to reduce admission from 50¢ to 25¢ to allow them to compete with their popular cross-town rivals. Amazingly, the Athletics drew more than 300,000 fans to Jefferson Street Grounds that season, including more than 45,000 for an early September four-game series with the second place St. Louis Browns.

Despite charging out of the gate to an 18-3 mark in May, the Athletics were locked in a tight three-way pennant race with the Browns and Cincinnati Red Stockings. On August 10, in the midst of a three game series in New York with the Metropolitans, the Athletics clung to a slim 2-game lead over the Browns and were facing future Hall of Famer and Mets ace Timothy Keefe. Trailing 3-1 to Keefe in the eighth inning, Jud, in his customary role as a table setter, ignited a two-run rally with a base hit and heads up base running to help tie the game. With the game tied 3-3 in the 10th, Birchall again rose to the occasion and smacked a long triple to right field. He would score on Stovey's game winning single, and the Athletics maintained their slim lead over the Browns, which kept pace with an 8-2 victory over the Columbus Buckeyes.

Not known for his power, Birchall hit only one home run in his Major League career. Fittingly it would come during the Athletics championship season and in the midst of the pennant race. On September 13, 1883 at Recreation Park in Columbus, Ohio, Birchall led off the game with an inside-the-park home run off Frank Mountain [7] of Columbus. The Athletics went on to win the game 11-5 and opened up a seemingly safe 3 and 1/2 game lead on the Browns, which dropped a 3-0 decision to the Baltimore Orioles the same day.

After dropping two-of-three to both Cincinnati and St. Louis and first two to Louisville, the Athletics entered the penultimate day of the season in need of a victory to capture the pennant. On September 28th, the Athletics stopped a two-game skid with a 10th inning rally punctuated by a wild pitch which plated the winning run and gave Philadelphia the American Association Pennant. The Athletics finished the season with a 66-32 record, one game ahead of the Browns.

The Athletics returned to Philadelphia from Louisville on October 1 to the grandest of heroes' welcomes. The victory parade drew participants from baseball, yacht, and social clubs from throughout the city and was depicted in the Harper's Weekly as the grandest of victory parades.

As the 1884 season opened, the Athletics and their fans anticipated another American Association pennant run. Jud began the season in his customary leadoff role, the catalyst of the returning offensive juggernaut. However, the Athletics quickly faltered and Jud Birchall's playing time witnessed a dramatic fall off. Birchall appeared in only 54 of the team's 107 contests, and by mid-May was dropped to the sixth and seventh slots in the Athletics' batting order for the remainder of the season. Although he compiled a .258 batting average, his fielding was nowhere near where it had been two seasons before, and by the end of the season his name rarely appeared in the Athletics lineup, and the Athletics had fallen to seventh place in the Association. Jud Birchall's Major League career had come to a quiet end.

His big-league days behind him, Jud Birchall married Emma Jane Pinkerton on January 1, 1885. Emma Jane was the daughter of John and Margaret Pinkerton, also of Germantown. The Pinkerton men were typically employed as blacksmiths while the women worked in the hosiery business. It is unclear when the romance between the two began, but it is hard to imagine that Jud and Emma Jane hadn't known each nearly their entire lives.

Despite not being offered a contract by the Athletics in 1885, Jud felt he still had some baseball left in him. So in the spring of that year, he left his now pregnant wife in Philadelphia and headed to New Jersey where he joined the minor league Newark Domestics. Reunited with former Athletics teammate "California" Bob Blakiston, Birchall primarily played left field for the Domestics, which finished 42-49, good enough for fourth place in the financially struggling Eastern League. Following the season, Jud returned to Philadelphia and prepared for the birth of his first child. On November 25, 1885, Jud and Emma Jean Birchall became the proud parents of a son, Elias Judson.

His playing career now complete and health beginning to fail, Jud spent the next two summers umpiring in amateur leagues in and around Philadelphia.

On December 22, 1887, Jud Birchall succumbed to consumption (tuberculosis). He passed away quietly at his home on Main Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was buried in the Milestone Baptist Church Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Jud Birchall appeared in 225 Major League games, compiling 254 hits in 1,007 at-bats for a .252 batting average. Although his Major League totals are modest, the official statistics probably don't provide us with an accurate picture of Birchall's career and the important role he played in the Athletics pennant-winning season of 1883. That fact that he played in the American Association likely deducted 5-10 points from his batting average. According to David Nemec, author of The Beer and Whiskey League, there was a distinct difference in philosophy between NL and AA official scorers. AA official scorers were typically stingy in awarding hits, while NL scorers tended to be more liberal in their scoring decisions.

In addition to the discrepancies and inaccuracies associated with statistics from this era, stolen bases were not an official statistic until 1886. Subsequently it is difficult to, in any reliable manner, quantify or verify Jud's base running abilities compared to that of his contemporaries.

When compared to his contemporaries, Birchall's career fielding statistics would indicate that he was a slightly below average left fielder. His statistical plunge in fielding percentage following his outstanding rookie season of 1882, when he was one of the better left fielders in the AA, raises many questions.

Was this drop-off the result of the early signs of consumption that would eventually take his life? Two independent sources suggest that Jud's playing career was cut short due to failing health. However, the fact that he died more than 3 years after the end of his Major League career would indicate that the pulmonary trouble that led to his demise may not have been contracted or progressed far enough to begin impacting his playing ability.

It's possible that Birchall's off-field activities contributed to his decline. There were numerous reports of heavy drinking among the Athletics, and the Athletics' management expressed concerns about almost all of their players during the 1883 season. In fact, the Athletics' off- field habits resulted in management establishing a set of club rules that among other things addressed the primary vices of hard living associated with the Athletics and the American Association. However no one player or group of players was ever specifically mentioned by name, so it is difficult to know if this may have contributed to Birchall's demise.

The final question is how should history remember Jud Birchall? Hidden in obscurity for more than 100 years, maybe Jud Birchall should simply be remembered as a local Germantown resident who rose to the heights of baseball stardom and helped the Athletics capture Philadelphia's first Major League baseball title.

Notes

[1] Fergy Malone was a noted left-handed catcher in the golden era of amateur baseball in Philadelphia. Born in Ireland in 1842, Malone made the transition from cricket to baseball in the 1850s. He turned professional with the Philadelphia Athletic in 1871 and was instrumental in the Athletics capturing the National Association pennant that same year. Following his retirement in 1876, Malone briefly managed the Athletic before becoming a National League Umpire.
 
[2] Harry Stovey was the greatest power hitter in American Association.

[3] Bobby Mathews was the Athletics ace and a Philadelphia legend. He won 30 games in 3 consecutive seasons for the Athletics from 1883-1885.

[4] Chicagoed was the 19th century term to describe a team that had been shutout. The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 2, 1882.

[5] The Athletics club; the men who will strive for the American Association championship. Sporting Life, 1(1), April 15, 1883, p. 2.

[6] Benson, M. (1989). Ballparks of North America: A Comprehensive Historical Reference to Baseball Grounds, Yards and Stadiums, 1845 to Present. Jefferson: NC. McFarland & Company Publishers, Inc., p. 296.

[7] Frank Mountain played 7 seasons in the Majors, in both the National League and American Association, compiling a record of 58-83.

Sources

A.J. Birchal, Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/23/1887.

Base Ball Notes, Washington Post, 5/2/1880, p.2.

Base-Ball, New York Times, 6/6/1875, p.12.

Base-Ball, New York Times, 6/30/1880, p.2.

Benson, M. (1989). Ballparks of North America: A Comprehensive Historical Reference to Baseball Grounds,Yards and Stadiums, 1845 to Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Publishers, Inc.

Dewey, D. & Accocela, N. (1996). The Ball Clubs: Every Franchise, Past & Present, Officially Recognized by Major League Baseball. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Duffy, J.H. (2000). Wilmington Baseball History: A Professional Baseball History. Retrieved on 5/28/2004 from http://mywebpages.comcast.net/jduffy/baseball/.

Hotchkin, S.F. (1889). Ancient and Modern Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill. Philadelphia: P.W. Ziegler & Co.

Jud Birchall baseball statistics. Retrieved on 3/20/2006 from http://www.baseball-almanac.com/ players/player.php?p=bircju01

Morse, J.C. (1909). "Philadelphia and Baseball." Baseball Magazine, III (I), May, 1909.

Nemec, D. (1994). The Beer and Whiskey League: The Illustrated History of the American Association -- Baseball's Renegade Major League. New York: Lyons and Buford, Publishers

Philadelphia Timeline: 1883, USHistory.org, Retrieved on 3/20/2004 from http://www.ushistory.org/philadelphia/timeline/1883.htm.

The Athletics club; the men who will strive for the American Association championship. Sporting Life, 1(1), April 15, 1883, p. 2.

Wright, M.D. (2000). The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Publishers, Inc.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.