The Cleveland Blues led the American League in offense in 1904, and with the addition of Jim Jackson from St. Paul and a revamped pitching staff they set their sights on the pennant in 1905. As often happens, their hopes were dashed, in this case by a rash of injuries and inconsistent pitching. First player-manager Nap Lajoie went down with a leg injury, then catcher Harry Bemis got hurt. The last straw came when stalwart third sacker Bill Bradley went on the bench. The logical choice would have been to play George Stovall at third. However, he was playing second in place of Lajoie. The Blues tried outfielder Jim Jackson and catcher Fritz Buelow as replacements, but neither was successful. In desperation, they reached out to the Cleveland sandlots and plucked the best amateur third baseman in town, Emil Leber of the Forest City Parks squad, despite his lack of experience.
Leber’s professional debut was part of a whirlwind week that started with a 10-1 victory for Forest City Parks on Sunday, August 27, on the amateur sandlots in Cleveland. Leber had three hits, including a double and a triple. The Cleveland Plain Dealer of September 2 said that Leber had been signed and would play third base that Saturday afternoon against the White Sox. Chicago claimed a 6-3 victory in a game shortened to five innings by rain and darkness. Leber walked and scored in his first at-bat and was robbed of a hit later in the game by right fielder Nixey Callahan. In the field only two balls were hit Leber’s way. In the second, Callahan bunted and Leber let it roll, thinking it would kick foul. Instead it stayed fair and the hustling Callahan got a double. Leber’s other chance was an easy grounder.
After the game the two teams boarded a train for Chicago for a makeup game. The veteran White Sox decided to test Leber in the field. After the success of Callahan’s bunt on Saturday, they opened the game with a bunt single by Fielder Jones. They recorded another bunt single in the second. Leber moved in and the White Sox sent a couple of hits past him. Later he failed to cover third on a stolen base attempt by Jiggs Donahue. In the eighth Leber fielded a bunt from Ducky Holmes and threw wide to first, but Charlie Carr made the catch and got the out. The Chicago Tribune said that fans “cheered loudly” in support of the rookie.1 Leber went 0-for-4 in the 3-1 Cleveland victory.
Monday was Labor Day and Cleveland returned home to face St. Louis in a twin bill. Leber played third base that day, but it was on the sandlots for the Forest City Parks team. They won, 7-6, but Leber committed an uncharacteristic three errors. He never played professionally again. Cleveland activated catcher Harry Bemis and used him at third base in their doubleheader with St. Louis.
Joseph and Anna (Kucera) Leber were both born in the Bohemian region of Germany. They married and traveled to the United States in 1881. Emil Bohmiel was their first child, born on May 15, 1881. The 1900 census lists his birthplace as Europe, but all other sources say it was Cleveland. Emil attended Case-Woodland elementary school. He was joined by a sister, Julia, and two brothers, Joseph and John.
Emil did not graduate from high school because the death of his father forced him to find work to support the family. He found odd jobs at first and then turned to woodworking. Eventually Leber found employment with the post office and worked his way up through the ranks. The September 2 Plain Dealer joked that Postmaster Dewstoe had promised him the day off to help “the Clevelands out of their predicament.”2 Leber was hired as a full-time carrier in January 1906 and held that position until his death in 1924.
Baseball was America’s game at the turn of the 20th century. Cleveland was a hotbed of activity for amateurs and semipros with games played all over the city on Sundays. Teams were sponsored by businesses, social groups, and others. Teenagers were formed into teams by age group and the local papers carried announcements of coming games and teams looking for games. Leber first appears in the 15-year-old division.
Cleveland embraced indoor baseball in the early 1900s. Played in a gym or armory, the game was a variation on baseball/fast-pitch softball. It featured a ball with raised seams delivered underhand, bats that were thinner than baseball bats, and 27-foot (or sometimes 35-foot) basepaths. Bunting was so important in the game that five infielders were used. Two were positioned to the left and right of the pitcher between the pitcher’s box and the batter’s box, and the other three were at the bases. Only two outfielders were used.
Leber saw action as a third baseman during the winter months as early as 1902 with O’Connor’s. The next season he joined the Cardinals, reigning champion of the Metropolitan League. Statistics are sparse for these leagues, but Leber was the leading fielder at third base. Even with a fielder in front of him to handle bunts, he was getting six fielding chances a game in 1902. At bat, he hovered around the .400 mark.
Summer baseball in the Cleveland area was a major event. The City League featured six to eight teams playing games on Sunday afternoons from April to October. There were also many independent teams. It was not unusual for the newspapers to report crowds of 1,000, 2,000, or even 8,000 at a game. Leber joined a team known as Fowlers in the City League in 1902. A group of baseball pundits assembled by the Plain Dealer in 1904 named the Fowlers one of the top teams for players in their 20s. They dubbed Leber the best third baseman in that group.
Emil opened 1905 with the Fowlers but switched after two games to the Forest City Parks team, one of the strongest independent teams in the city. Even with an independent team, Emil was likely to play only 25 to 30 games. This would explain his lack of experience when thrown into the professional ranks. In 1906 Leber returned to the City League with English Woolen Mills. He was a teammate of Richard “Rube” Marquard. The next year he joined Sand’s Diamonds in the same circuit. During the week he was the hitting star for the postal carriers team in the Postal League.
In 1908 Leber joined the independent Vacha All-Stars, a traveling team that played within a 75-mile radius of Cleveland. In August 1909 Leber teamed up with Joe Leber and Johnny Leber on the Cleveland Browns. Joe pitched and John played shortstop. In 1910 Emil stayed close to home and joined the Hinkels team in Cleveland. His career was winding down; the Hinkels were in a lower level of competition than his previous teams. After that season Emil confined his ballplaying to the Postal League.
(Emil Leber has been confused in baseball circles with Johnny Leber. As of January 1, 2014, Baseball-Reference.com used a photo of Johnny on Emil’s page. Johnny was also known as Jack or Little Jack, and had a five-year minor-league career plus a spring-training tryout with Cleveland in 1917. In box scores from 1909 Johnny was referred to as Leber Jr. That would lead to the supposition that he was not Emil’s younger brother. As for Joe Leber, who pitched on the Cleveland sandlots, no information has been found linking him to Emil as a relative. There was a Joe Leber pitching when Emil was a teenager, it is likely this is the same Joe Leber he played with on the Cleveland Browns.)
On April 22, 1907, Emil married Emma Svec. The couple never had any children. Emma worked at the May Company, a local department store. Emil was active in the Bohemian community and also joined the Knights of Pythias. He died on November 6, 1924, from pneumonia. The funeral was held at the Bohemian Hall and Leber was buried in Riverside Cemetery, Cleveland.
In addition to the sources cited in the text, the author used the Hall of Fame questionnaire for Leber, the Cleveland Press, ancestry.com, and the Cleveland Leader.
1 Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1905, 8.
2 Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 26, 1904, 3.