Billy Earle

This article was written by David Nemec

By age 17, in the summer of 1885, William Moffat “Billy” Earle was already handling the swift slants of fellow Philadelphian Charles “Tod” Brynan with the local Somersets, among the strongest amateur clubs in the East. Earle and Brynan would eventually team as battery mates with no fewer than four professional clubs, but Brynan’s arm, for professional purposes anyway, would be tucked away in mothballs after a single appearance in 1891 with the National League Boston Beaneaters. While the stockily built, 5’10½ and 170-pound Earle would not put on “the tools of the trade” for the last time professionally until 1906.

Born on November 11, 1867, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Earle produced career stats and overall achievements too imposing not to bewilder modern observers. How could anyone in the nineteenth century whose primary position was catcher compile a .798 career OPS, steal bases with abandon, score plenty of runs,1 and yet catch only 103 games in the majors? What’s more, in the fall of 1888, before he had played in a single major league game, he was invited on the basis of his minor league accomplishments alone to catch for the All-American team that would duel with the Chicago White Stockings of Albert Spalding and Cap Anson on the vaunted “World Tour.” The barnstorming trip took him to all parts of the globe and started him on his way to earning his most lasting and richly deserved nickname, “The Little Globetrotter.” He later wrote at length of his bold venture.

The natural surmise is that Earle had some grave personal flaw, and it does not lack for evidence. Reflecting on the largely self-educated catcher’s long but bizarrely checkered career in the Chicago Tribune, Hugh Fullerton deemed the right-handed batter and thrower a hoodoo who jinxed everything and everyone around him.2 Over 40 years later, sportscaster and notorious fabulist Bill Stern wrote that Earle might have been a great player but no team would have him because he had the “evil eye.”3 By the late 1890s, Earle’s career seemed over when he reportedly was hopelessly addicted to morphine and near death.

Normally, these sorts of observations about a ballplayer, even one who played in a time when superstition and crackpot notions were the vogue, are little more than wild hyperbole. But in Earle’s case they all had a substantial element of truth. Earle was a “mesmerist of no mean ability” who amused teammates when he “helped them to while away many an hour that would otherwise be tedious,” as they “were made to perform some most laughable antics while under mesmeristic influence.” In 1890, while he was catching for Tacoma in the Pacific Northwest League, there was considerable speculation that his inescapable powers might be influencing umpires, in close proximity to him whenever they were working behind the plate, into rendering strange decisions.4 Moreover, according to The Sporting News and several Cincinnati papers, as fellow major league rookies with Cincinnati of the American Association in 1889, Earle and Bug Holliday were made to room together on the road; after the first western swing, Holliday demanded a new roommate because Earle walked in his sleep. He also acted violently during his somnambulistic periods, swinging a baseball bat at an imaginary rodent and smashing a pillow over Holliday's head. And as far back as 1887, his second professional season, with the Duluth Freezers of the Northwestern League, Earle had already acquired a reputation as a weird one after a loss at La Crosse, Wisconsin. He was on hand during an eerie boating accident on the Mississippi River that claimed the life of teammate John Ake, whose body was never found. It was said a third teammate, outfielder Bill Barnes, never forgot the odd look on Earle’s face after he and Earle had swum safely to shore. Ake, a non-swimmer who had been hanging on to the trio’s capsized row boat, unexpectedly let go of it with a cry of “Help me!” and was never seen again. 5

Yet there is perhaps another side to the Earle story. Despite the snap he put into his playing, which led to another of his nicknames, “Ginger Bill,” he may not have been all that good — or at least not all that good a catcher. This was his primary position when he arrived in Cincinnati in the spring of 1889, after making his name on the World Tour that offseason as the principal receiver on the All-American team. Indeed, he made his major league debut with the Reds on April 27, 1889, at St. Louis in right field; he went 2-for-4 in a 12-10 win over the Browns’ ace, Silver King.6 Near the end of the 1889 season, a Cincinnati scribe said of his throwing: “His motion is that of a bashful schoolgirl hurling her first pebble at a naughty boy with whom she is in love.”7 But that was just one view of Earle’s catching ability, and there certainly others that opposed it. In 1891, The Sporting News claimed that Earle, by then with Sioux City of the Western Association, had beaten Cleveland backstop Chief Zimmer’s pro record for the most consecutive games caught, set that same year, “yet not a line about the feat got into the sporting papers.”8 The New York Clipper, in a short bio on Earle, made the same claim, stating the catcher worked all 119 of Sioux City’s games, in addition to 26 exhibition contests.9 However, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball credits Sioux City with having played 123 games,10 and there was probably at least one tied contest in addition, since Baseball-Reference.com shows Sioux City outfielder Frank Genins as having played in 124 contests. But at the very least Earle proved his extraordinary durability in 1891. That winter he added to his laurels when he accompanied another All-American team to Cuba, and in his first three games there reputedly threw out 20 consecutive men trying to steal.

Upon returning to the States, Earle had his choice of several major league teams after the American Association champion Boston Reds, who owned the rights to him, dissolved in the AA-NL merger of December 1891. He signed with Al Buckenberger, his Sioux City manager in 1891, who had been named general manager of the National League Pittsburgh Pirates; thereupon Earle found himself playing with his ninth different team in just his seventh professional season. But Buckenberger hired former Chicago White Stockings third baseman Tom Burns as his field manager, and Burns, a rigid disciplinarian, released the free-spirited Earle after just five games, even though he was hitting .538. There were two more minor league stops before the 1892 season was in the books, the latter with Birmingham of the Southern League, and then a lengthy stint in the Southern League again the following campaign. Earle returned to Pittsburgh in August 1893, after Buckenberger had fired Burns and taken over the field managerial reins himself. When Earle finished the season as the Pirates’ regular catcher, he seemed finally to have hit upon the right blend of team and manager. But then, suddenly, in the 1894 preseason, Buckenberger released his protégé, claiming he “lacked animation.” However, a local paper said: “If the truth were known it would be revealed that the Pittsburg{h} players were afraid of Earle. They looked upon him as the old inhabitants of Salem did on the witches and they have burned him off the team.”11

Picked up by Louisville after the 1894 season started, Earle was leading the Colonels in hitting at .354 when manager Billy Barnie decided he would finish near the cellar regardless and shed the mesmerist in July. Brooklyn quickly signed him. Soon afterward, Bridegrooms manager Dave Foutz, aware that outfielder Tommy Burns was particularly superstitious, roomed him with Earle in a stateroom on a liner headed back to New York from Boston, and awaited results. To his glee, his new catcher, on provocation from teammates Mike Griffin and Tommy Corcoran, made as if to hypnotize Burns when the two were about to bed down, and sent the outfielder screaming from the room in his night shirt.12 In September, shortly after Earle made an unsuccessful pinch hitting appearance on the sixth of the month in a 13-2 loss at Brooklyn to Cleveland’s Mike Sullivan,13 wiser heads prevailed upon Foutz to preserve the team’s sanity and get rid of Earle, regardless of his .340 batting average in Bridegrooms’ garb.

Even though Earle never played in another major league game after coming up empty against Sullivan in a pinch-hit role, his career in the show was not quite over. In the summer of 1896 he traveled with Baltimore for a time and caught batting practice. When Orioles manager Ned Hanlon decided not to sign him, he joined Cincinnati late in the season in a similar role. The following August, St. Louis reportedly signed him, and when he disappeared once again without ever getting into a game, The Sporting News surmised that he couldn’t get a job anywhere because the “hoodoo” surrounding him scared everyone away.14 The same paper featured a trenchant column from Earle in its February 12, 1898, issue on the care and treatment of a favorite bat. The Sporting News then surprised its readers six months later by reporting Earle was “now a physical and mental wreck from the morphine habit,” and that Cincinnati players had paid his way to Baltimore, where he was quartered at a hotel at John McGraw’s expense while he awaited admission to an institution to undergo treatment for his addiction.15 By November, however, Earle was released as cured, and took a temporary job as a waiter (“a humble trade but much better than he was doing six months ago”16) in a Cincinnati restaurant while he awaited spring training in 1899; he was expected to accompany the Orioles south as team trainer and masseur. Instead, he signed as player-manager of an Indiana semipro team with a French connection called the Richmond Entre Nous. He ignored a summons to return to Cincinnati where his wife Mary, a Queen City physician, filed suit for divorce, claiming they were married in 1896 and he had abandoned her little more than a year later.17 Several months afterward, according to The Sporting News on December 30, 1899, he was called home to Philadelphia from Indiana by the death of his mother.

Normally in the nineteenth century, a reduction to the semipro ranks signaled a player’s career was nearing its end. But with Earle that was far from the case. Although he returned to the Entre Nous club in 1900, that fall he contracted to go to Cuba to help reorganize a four-team winter baseball league. The venture, though hardly an unqualified success, brought him an offer to serve as player-manager of the Alamendares Blues, thereby becoming the first American manager of a Cuban winter league team. Earle remained out of the professional ranks with the Entre Nous in 1901, but acted as a player-manager again that winter in Cuba with the Fe club. After returning stateside, he was handed a chance to resume his pro career as the player-manager of Vicksburg in the Cotton States League.

According to October 5, 1889, The Sporting News, Earle was the son of a Baptist minister, and had run away from his Philadelphia home in the spring of 1886 by prying open a window and jumping to the ground after his parents locked him in his room to keep him from playing ball.18 Earle then headed for Nashville on the $25 advance the Tennessee club had sent him, accompanied by Brynan, his battery mate on the amateur Somersets. Still just 18, he finished the Southern League season with Memphis, hitting a composite .188. Some 20 years later he was back in the South for his final pro innings in 1906, in a second stint with the Vicksburg Hill Billies. The previous spring the Washington Post “guesstimated” that “The Little Globetrotter” had already caught 1,420 games all told in his career, a pretty fair number for a dangerous somnambulist with an evil eye and a thirst for drugs.19 Baseball-Reference.com has yet to gather sufficient data to compile Earle’s complete minor league record, but the Post’s total may actually be an underestimate.

Earle remained in the game, either managing or working as an umpire in Midwestern independent or outlaw circuits, through 1911. After leaving baseball, he worked for some 25 years as a swimming pool lifeguard in Omaha, Nebraska, a rather ironic post-baseball career choice for a man who had once impassively watched a teammate drown. But everything about Earle’s life appears to be shrouded either in irony or mystery. How many wives he had, whether he had children, where and from whom he learned how to mesmerize others — these facts are all are still waiting to emerge. What is not in any doubt is that he possessed inordinate hypnotic skills and practiced the “dark” art with great frequency during his days as a ballist. Throughout the 1890s, The Sporting News, Sporting Life, and many papers in major league cities provided documented details of copious incidents — some wandering on for several paragraphs — in which Earle demonstrated his talents for mesmerism in this or that venue. Were there major league players in the superstitious climate of nineteenth century baseball uncomfortable having Earle for a teammate? Almost unquestionably. Would their reservations have been overridden if he had not had a drug problem in addition and instead had been a star of the first order? Perhaps. In contrast, minor leaguers, most of whom seldom have the luxury of choosing their roommates, let alone teammates, seem to have almost uniformly accepted Earle and all of his idiosyncrasies. Anyhow, there are no ostensible reports of him being drummed off a bush league club for giving someone a fishy look or seducing an opposing pitcher into grooving one for him.

Sleepwalker, hypnotist par excellence, druggie: in all, Earle may always remain an enormous enigma. The man who no one could trust not to pull a Svengali at the drop of a hat whenever he donned a major league uniform not only was the first American to manage an organized team in Cuba, but also managed with good success for some eight seasons in the minors, and even coached the Princeton baseball team for a time in the early 1890s. Amid all these contradictions is yet another that still lacks explanation. According to military records, at some point in 1898, while allegedly a downtrodden morphine addict, “The Little Globetrotter” somehow mustered himself to serve as an Army private in the 2nd Ohio Regiment during the Spanish American War.

Earle died at his home in Omaha on May 30, 1946, at age 78, and was buried in Omaha’s Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery. His obituary appeared in a number of major newspapers, but none made mention of surviving family members, if there were any.


This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec's "Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 2" (University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

 

Notes

1 Earle is presently tied with Ed Cogswell for the most runs (102) by a major league position player or pitcher with fewer than 500 career at-bats; Matt Alexander, with 111 runs, was primarily a pinch runner.

2 Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1906.

3 Bill Stern, Bill Stern's Favorite Baseball Stories, (Garden City, New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1949.

4 The Sporting News, October 25, 1890.

5 David Nemec, The Beer and Whisky League (New York: Lyons & Burford, 1994), 85.

6 Retrosheet.

7 The Sporting News, October 5, 1889.

8 The Sporting News, October 31, 1891.

9 The New York Clipper, July 23, 1892.

10 Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, (Baseball America: Durham, NC, 2007) p. 159.

11 The Sporting News, April 21, 1894.

12 The Sporting News, May 9, 1896.

13 Retrosheet.

14 The Sporting News, September 4, 1897.

15 The Sporting News, August 12, 1898.

16 Cincinnati Enquirer, January 1, 1899.

17 The Sporting News, July 1, 1899

18 Sources conflict. Some say he was the son of a letter carrier. The same is true of his marital status. In its April 13, 1907, issue, Sporting Life noted that even though she had not yet “been appointed official scorer, it is more than likely that Mrs. William M. Earle, wife of Billy Earle, the owner of the Scottdale franchise, will fill that position the coming season. She has had a lot of experience and cannot be beat at the job.” Whether this was his wife Mary, who’d had a change of heart, or a subsequent wife has yet to be ascertained.

19 Washington Post, August 17, 1905.