A slick fielder in the days before gloves, Ed Somerville was the top defensive second basemen in the inaugural season of the National League of 1876. A year later his death in Canada marked the first passing of a National League ballplayer.
Edward G. Somerville was born in Philadelphia on March 1, 1853, as the sixth of 12 children. His father John worked as a house carpenter. His mother Elizabeth gave birth to two sets of twins.
The righty is listed at 5’7” and 158 pounds, Ed was of the good field, no hit variety, with a lifetime batting average of .200. His first appearance in the company of professionals came on March 27, 1875, when unseasonably warm weather permitted the first pick-up game of the season in Philadelphia. Frank McKenna and Charlie Mason captained the nines, with Mason and Somerville’s squad the victors, 7-5. Somerville began the 1875 season with the short-lived Philadelphia Centennials (2-12), one of three teams representing the Quaker City in the National Association.1
The Centennials were scheduled to open the season on the 100-year anniversary of the American Revolution, but snow storms pushed back Opening Day until April 21. Hosting the crosstown Whites at 24th Street and Ridge Avenue before 1,000 fans, the Centennials dropped the opener, 5-7. Somerville garnered mention for his play at second, batted eighth, and picked up his first hit off Cherokee Fisher.2
In their first game with the Athletics, played at 25th and Jefferson Streets, Somerville’s “good batting” (he led his team going 2-for-5 with a pair of runs scored) and “stopping well [of a] hot grounder” made mention, but the Centennials again fell, 14-5.3 Playing his first game in New York City three days later, Somerville distinguished himself with the Mutuals’ fans by “playing in his position prettily.”4
After four defeats, the Centennials won their first game of the season, a 12-5 victory in New Haven. Philadelphia scored in all but two innings, which were by chance the only innings that New Haven plated runs. The Centennials won their second and final game on May 8, exacting revenge on the Athletics, 11-2. Somerville went 2-for-5 with a run scored and two more batted in. The Athletics got more than even two days later, tallying 20 runs to the Centennials’ one, while turning a 2-5-4 triple play. The Centennials were shut out in their final game on May 24 and disbanded the following day. By June 8 Somerville had been picked up by New Haven, as he umpired a game between his new club and the Princeton college team who were victorious 4-2.5 On July 2 New Haven handed Boston their fourth of eight losses on the season in what was just the third win for the Elm City aggregation. Tricky Nichols’s pitching “was quite effective, and had considerable to do with the result. At the end the people lifted Nichols on their shoulders and carried him in triumph amid great excitement.”6 Somerville saw action at every infield position over the course of his 47 games with New Haven, and was able to negotiate his release when owed wages at season’s close.
Suiting up with Louisville for the inaugural season of the National League, Somerville’s signing was said to “add a good bit of batting strength to the nine, as well as prove a first-class man in the field. A good judge in the Chicago Club says that Somerville is one of the quickest and most active men in the business.”7 His .188 batting average was the lowest among the club’s regular players, but his defense made up the rest as he finished fourth on the team in WAR. At mid-season “the Brooklyn Argus contain[ed] a statement regarding the salaries of prominent players”8 with Somerville being the third highest paid player at $1,800.
Before the opening day contest on April 25 at home versus Chicago, the Louisville team received gold badges from one of the leading jewelers of the Falls City. Newspaperman Walter Newman Haldeman, the team president and owner, accepted the emblems on behalf of the ballplayers, reserving the most handsome of the lot for “the player having the best record as to playing skill and gentlemanly deportment.”9 Based on performance, the nicest badge would’ve gone to workhorse pitcher Jim Devlin who, in addition to being second in the league in ERA, complete games, innings pitched, and strikeouts, led the Grays in hits, runs, batting average and slugging percentage. But it’s unclear if Devlin took the honor, since his teammates felt his “temper was a source of almost constant trouble,” as his “undue pride”10 resulted in fellow Grays feeling like anything they did well only stood to prop Devlin up in the papers.
The May 20 game in Louisville was hailed as “one of the prettiest games every played here.” A two-hitter by Devlin was aided by solid play up the middle “especially that of Somerville,”11 who contributed four putouts and five assists. On June 3, in front of 1,000 New Yorkers, Somerville collected two hits and scored a run off Mutuals pitcher, Bobby Mathews, in an 8-1 win for Louisville that toppled “the [gambling] pools sold before the game [at] $100 to $70 and $50 to $35 in the home club’s favor.”12
On June 10 in Boston, papers alleged gamblers had fixed the game after all four of Louisville’s runs came on throwing errors by the Beantown catcher, John Morrill. In the bottom of the ninth trailing by one, the Red Stockings loaded the bases with one out as Hall of Famer George Wright strode to the plate. Wright “hit weak to Somerville, who ran out [pitcher Dick] McBride and fielded George out.”13 At home on June 27, Somerville provided “the best playing for Louisville [but] lost a chance for a double play”14 in the ninth inning which aided Boston in scoring five runs as they stole one from the Grays, 5-3. Facing Boston again two days later, Louisville tied it in the ninth, and Somerville started the rally in the tenth with a double and came around to score on Pop Snyder’s lone homer of the year. Boston managed to load the bases in the final frame, but “the game closed with the bases full, amid great excitement.”15
Hosting the Mutuals on July 8, Louisville was down by four runs in the ninth, but came back to tie it with Somerville contributing a sacrifice fly to deep left field. Fifteen innings were played in three hours and twenty minutes, with 90 batters coming to the plate before John S. Morris of Louisville declared the game a tie on account of darkness. It was to that date the second longest game of professional baseball.16 Devlin and Mathews both went the distance.
A couple weeks later, the Chicago Daily Tribune hyped “Terror of the West” Jim Devlin and “the recent excellent play of the Louisville Club” as the Grays came to the Windy City for a three-game series. A crowd of 1,500 “were by no means disappointed, and saw an entertaining exhibition of the beauties of the national game,” with Somerville contributing some “neat work.”17 The White Stockings took the first game, a slugfest with a combined 35 total bases. The second game, on July 20, was a first for Chicago, as it played an error-free game, and defeated the Grays 18-0. It was only the third such game of the season, the other two being achieved by the Hartford Dark Blues, with one being laid upon Louisville on June 17. The third game of the series saw Louisville fall to the Whites 30-7. It was the most runs tallied in the National League in 1876, and a mark that is still good for fourth in the history of the game.18 In three games with the eventual champs, the Grays were outscored, 57-12.
On July 29 in St. Louis the Grays were blanked on a one-hitter by George “Grin” Bradley who two weeks earlier had pitched the first no-hitter in National League history. The July 29 affair was umpired by “Eddie Haley, the song-and-dance artist.”19
At home against Chicago on the first day of August, first sacker Joe Gerhardt hit the first pitch from Al Spalding over the head of Paul Hines for a home run. The home nine plated another pair before Chicago stormed back with four of their own and six more in the second, cruising to a 15-7 win. Four days later, “the Louisvilles finally won a game from the Chicagos, and every body here is happy.”20 “A heavy shower fell just before the game commenced, which rendered the grounds very muddy and slippery, and this, together with the very dead and mushy ball that was used, accounts for the weak hitting.”21 Somerville, who began the season batting fifth had now dropped to seventh, was again oh-fer on the day, but halted the lone Chicago rally in the seventh after Chicago plated a pair cutting the lead in half: “Hines hit hard to Somerville who closed the inning and the run-getting for the Whites by a neat double play.”22 The two teams (and a dead ball) combined for just five hits as Louisville won, 4-2.
At home against St. Louis on August 10, Somerville’s defensive prowess was again on display. He showed his baseball brains when he retired the lead runner at second rather than the slower running batter at first, resulting in the Browns having to send their weakest batter to the box to lead off the following inning, “Here was a fine point displayed by Somerville … a neat piece of work for Somerville.”23
A high-water mark for Somerville came at home against Cincinnati on August 15. In a game that included 25 errors, Somerville collected four hits and scored three runs, while tagging the lone triple of his career off Reds pitcher Dale Williams.
Somerville missed a home game on August 18 after being called home due to an undisclosed illness of his wife. Gerhardt took his place at second and played without error, adding a home run on “a terrific drive” to left field over the head of Redleg Snyder.24 Presumably still nursing his sick wife on August 24 in New Haven, Somerville appeared as umpire for a contest between the Elm Citys and Rhode Island.25
Somerville rejoined the Louisville club for a pair of games in Hartford the first week of September. He went hitless against Candy Cummings in the first game, but doubled and scored off the Hall of Famer the following day. At the close of the season a month later, Somerville again went hitless against Cummings’ curves.26
Louisville, who played the entire season under .500, finished in fifth place and 22 games back of Chicago. The team was in debt with several players, including Somerville, and owed two months’ wages totaling around $3,000. It was noted that “Somerville[’s] playing was at times unusually brilliant, but in the main a succession of miserable muffing at critical junctures when nerve was most needed.”27 Of those who were most dissatisfied, the Tribune felt “Somerville has less reason to be a kicker than any one else. Had the Directors done right they would have kicked him into right field or made him punch tickets at the gate months ago.”28
That being said, Somerville led the entire circuit of 1876 in Defensive WAR at 1.6, aided by 100 more chances than the next second basemen. He was second overall in assists (251) and second in putouts at second base (210), while turning 22 double plays. Somerville also led all fielders playing off first base with a range factor/game of 7.20, and was fourth in the league with a fielding percentage of .870. Louisville’s opening day second baseman appeared in all but five games for the Grays, but is curiously missing from the famed 1876 team photo.29
Early in 1877 the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Somerville had signed with “the Tecumsehs, of London, Ont., champions of Canada.”30 His impetus for heading north may have been former New Haven teammate and curveball innovator, Fred Goldsmith. Regardless of his reasons, he joined a winner. The London club went 47-26-7, including victories over the Athletics, White Stockings (twice), and Brown Stockings. The Tecumsehs outscored their opponents 448-320. Team captain Somerville batted .240, the highest mark of his career.31
In May of 1877, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of “Alphabetical Teams”32 with readers submitting their favorite squads made up entirely of individuals with the same beginning letter of their last names. Somerville made appearances on two different suggestions at both second and shortstop. One of these submissions received the nod from the Tribune as the best of the lot. In August the Tecumsehs played an exhibition game in Rochester, New York, in which Somerville caught George Bradley. Ed managed to handle Bradley’s benders allowing only a single passed ball.33
National League secretary Nicholas Young announced that Somerville would re-join the London Tecumsehs for 1878, but tragedy struck 15 days later. Shortly after noon on October 1, 1877, in London, Ontario, Canada, Ed Somerville died of consumption. 34 His obituary in the local paper stated that their shortstop had picked up a severe cold on a road trip to the east coast that settled in his lungs.35 Somerville’s funeral was attended many a Tecumseh stockholder and supporter. Teammates acting as pallbearers placed his body on a train back to New Haven where the first perished National Leaguer was buried at Evergreen Cemetery.36 The day after the death of their captain, the Tecumsehs captured the crown of the International Association on the final day of the season, defeating Pud Galvin and the rival Pittsburgh Alleghenys, 5-2.37 At the ensuing championship celebration across the street from the train depot at the Tecumseh House Hotel, surrounded by floral bouquets, Somerville’s teammates wore black crepe in honor of their captain.38
The author would like to extend thanks to fellow SABR-member, Skylar Browning for his contributions to this work. This biography was reviewed by Phil Williams and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In preparing this biography, the author relied primarily on online newspaper archives including The New York Clipper hosted with the Illinois Digital Newspapers Collections, and the Chronicling America newspapers hosted by the Library of Congress, primarily the Chicago Daily Tribune. Additional information was obtained in the player’s file at the Hall of Fame Museum and Library in Cooperstown, as well as with the London Room research team at the London, Ontario Public Library. Census data was acquired from familysearch.org. Baseball-reference was used for statistics unless newspaper accounts of the day provided differing numbers.
1 The Centennials wore uniforms of chocolate and white similar to the Troy Club of 1872. They failed to win a home game and barely lasted a month. Chicago Daily Tribune, April 11, 1875.
2 Centennial Park was devoid of turf, but with ample pavilions and seats. Philadelphia’s uniforms were gray pants, white flannel shirts, and dark red stockings while the Cents wore all white with chocolate-colored stockings. New York Clipper, May 1, 1875.
3 New York Clipper, May 8, 1875.
5 New York Clipper, June 19, 1875.
6 New York Clipper, July 10, 1875.
7 Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1876.
8 Chicago Daily Tribune, July 16, 1876.
9 New York Clipper, May 6, 1876.
10 Chicago Daily Tribune, November 05, 1876.
11 Chicago Daily Tribune, May 21, 1876.
12 Chicago Daily Tribune, June 4, 1876.
13 Chicago Daily Tribune, June 11, 1876.
14 Chicago Daily Tribune, June 28, 1876.
15 Chicago Daily Tribune, June 30, 1876.
16 Rhode Island and Taunton played a 17-inning affair on June 7. Louisville would appear in another 15-inning game on September 8 in Boston and a 14-inning jobbie May 25 in Philly. New York Clipper, July 15, 1876 & New York Clipper, November 11, 1876.
17 Chicago Daily Tribune, July 19, 1876.
18 The same two teams would pair up on June 29, 1897, for the all-time record of 36, also belonging to Chicago.
19 Chicago Daily Tribune, July 30, 1876.
20 Chicago Daily Tribune, August 6, 1876.
23 New York Clipper, August, 19 1876.
24 New York Clipper, August 26, 1876.
25 New York Clipper, September2, 1876.
26 Nemec, David editor, Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 1: The Ballplayers Who Built the Game (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2001).
27 Chicago Daily Tribune, November 5, 1876.
30 Chicago Daily Tribune, February 25, 1877.
31 New York Clipper, November 10, 1877.
32 Chicago Daily Tribune, May 6, 1877.
33 New York Clipper, September 1, 1877.
34 Chicago Daily Tribune, September 16, 1877; Nemec, David editor, Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 1: The Ballplayers Who Built the Game (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2001.); Nemec, David, The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Major League Baseball (Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2006.); Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1877.
35 Death of Edward Somerville, London Free Press, October 1, 1877.
36 Buried in the same lot is Somerville’s presumed 2 year-old son, Edward L.B. Somerville (d. March 28, 1879) who rests under a stone marked “Louie”. The lot is owned by Jeremiah B. Beecher, a saloon keeper (June 1839 – March 18, 1909), & his wife, Eliza F. (1828-29 – February 25, 1918). Their relationship to Somerville is unknown, as is the identity of Edward G. Somerville’s wife. Hall of Fame, Yankees executive, George Martin Weiss also rests at Evergreen.
37 Of the four defeats London suffered in IA play, Pittsburgh had doled out three, outscoring the Tecumsehs 13-3.
38 Martin, Brian, Pud Galvin Baseball’s First 300-Game Winner (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2016).