SABR

George Prentiss

This article was written by David Forrester.

Many major leaguers who have died while still active have met their ends in dramatic accidents. Their careers have been cut short by cars, trucks, airplanes, boats, guns, and—in one case—the Niagara Falls. George Prentiss’s death in 1902, one of the first recorded in the American League, was less sensational. Yet the 26-year-old Prentiss had packed enough drama into his brief time in the game to match some of the longest-lived ballplayers.

George Pepper Prentiss was born in Wilmington, Delaware, on June 10, 1876, the third child of five born to James and Eliza Prentiss. James had emigrated from England as a child, learned the butcher trade, and married Wilmington native Eliza Simmons. The family lived in relative prosperity—the household had two live-in servants when he was a child. As young Prentiss grew up, he became well-known locally for his athleticism and speed; he was said to be able to complete the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds. In 1896 and 1897 Prentiss made a name for himself in both baseball and football, earning the nickname Kitten in the local press. During the fall and winter, he was the star halfback of Wilmington’s Warren Athletic Club team. According to author Doug Gelbert, Prentiss is considered to be the greatest football player in Delaware in the 19th century. In the spring and summer, Prentiss pitched and played multiple outfield and infield positions for a Cape May, New Jersey, semipro team and an amateur club in Wilmington. The local team’s games drew press attention and large crowds after what had been a lull in baseball interest in Wilmington in prior years. Perhaps Prentiss’s pitching was part of the attraction in his two seasons with Rockford. At the start of the 1898 season, during their preseason barnstorming tour, he was asked to join the National League champion Boston Beaneaters for a tryout.

On April 11, 1898, the right-handed Prentiss, 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighing 175 pounds, joined the Boston squad in a game against the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Maroons on their home field. The locals had won the Atlantic League pennant the prior season and they gave Boston a game. With Lancaster leading 4–2 in the eighth inning, Boston manager Frank Selee gave Prentiss a chance to show what he could do. Prentiss walked the first batter, then allowed four singles in a row. Boston lost the game and Prentiss lost his chance.

The following month Prentiss signed with the Waterbury Pirates in the Connecticut League. His first regular-season professional game went about as well as his tryout with Boston. The Waterbury squad had won the first six games of the season when Prentiss took the mound on May 17 against the team from New Britain. He gave up 11 runs in eight innings. Newspaper accounts claimed that manager Roger Connor became so frustrated that he pulled his whole team off the field in the top of the ninth. Connor had said it was to make sure the team caught their train. The next day Prentiss redeemed himself in front of a crowd of 1,000 in Danbury. In addition to recounting Prentiss’s pitching a 13–3 victory, the newspapers noted that Connor had laid down new rules for his team, including a curfew. “I expect every man to go to bed no later than 11:30 every night, and if I learn that anyone stays up later than that, he’ll have to explain to me,” he told the Meriden Morning Record. 1

Prentiss went on to have a good year pitching and often played in the outfield when not pitching. Waterbury needed a victory in the last game of the season to clinch the pennant, Prentiss was given the starting nod and he delivered, again beating Danbury. Later that month, his winning percentage was misreported in Sporting Life, prompting a letter from Prentiss that was printed on the front page of the October 1, 1898, issue. He wanted to make sure he was credited for 18 wins, 11 losses, and 2 ties instead of the 17 wins, 18 losses, and 2 ties that had been reported. “[A]ppreciating the value of your paper to the national game and particularly to beginners,” he wrote, “I should esteem it a personal favor if you will be good enough to correct your error concerning me as a pitcher.” A review of game-by-game newspaper accounts indicates that Prentiss probably had his numbers right, putting him just about in the top third of the league’s pitchers that year. The switch-hitting Prentiss made no protest about his batting statistics; his .240 placed him in the middle of the league.

Waterbury opened the 1899 season at home on May 17 with a new name—the Rough Riders—and a grudge match against New Haven in front of 1,200 fans. Prentiss pitched well and gave up one run in the final inning. After winning 3–1, he undoubtedly went on to break Connor’s curfew. On the evening of June 20, Prentiss was picked up by the county sheriff and brought to the courthouse. Once there, the sheriff told him that he was charged with bastardy—impregnating a woman out of wedlock—and that the fastest way out of the trouble was to marry the local woman involved: Boston Beaneaters pitcher Fred Klobedanz’s 20-year-old sister, Emma. It appears from newspaper reports Emma had been a baseball fan, attending many games in the previous year, but it is unclear whether the two had met before the night of the season opener. As the Bridgeport Herald put it, “It was after the first game that the alleged act making her a mother took place.” After consulting James Watts, a saloon keeper and co-owner of the Waterbury team, Prentiss decided to consent to the forced marriage, despite his being engaged to a woman back in Wilmington. It was after 11 p.m. when the sheriff, Emma, her attorney, and Prentiss visited the Second Congregational Church parsonage. They roused the Rev. Davenport from his bed to officiate. The husband and wife then went their separate ways: Prentiss back to his room downtown and she back to her parents’ home on James Street. Emma filed divorce papers the following week.

The soap opera in Prentiss’s private life doesn’t seem to have adversely affected his progress as a professional player. He became the acknowledged star pitcher of the team and improved his numbers to 24 wins and 14 losses and a .279 batting average. Perhaps the addition of the tragic Louis Sockalexis to the Waterbury outfield in mid-July—and the brutal focus the newspapers took on his losing battle with alcohol—took the heat off Prentiss for the remainder of the season. Talk of Prentiss being sold to the National League was persistent and came to a head in late summer. On August 15 manager Connor met with Ned Hanlon, manager of the Brooklyn National League team to try to sell Prentiss and perhaps two other players. While Connor was visiting New York, Charlie Klobedanz, Emma’s other baseball player brother, was given a trial as pitcher for the Waterbury team. Prentiss played right field as the Meriden Silverites drilled Klobedanz’s slow delivery, racking up 15 runs.

At the end of that month, Sporting Life reported that Prentiss had pitched two games of a doubleheader against New London, one of which had gone 11 innings, and had won both games. At the end of the season he was presented with a watch by Waterbury fans in thanks for his solid work. Nevertheless, whatever deal Connor and Hanlon had discussed didn’t materialize. In March 1900 the Meriden Morning Record observed: “Connor did everything in his power to get Prentiss into the bigger leagues. … The big managers have not asked for Prentiss and as Roger does not want to throw Prentiss on the market for all to get a try at, he will keep him for himself. So George will wear a Waterbury uniform or he will not wear any, so say the powers that be.” 2

Prentiss sought a salary increase, but Connor wasn’t disposed to give him one two years in a row and held firm. 3 Prentiss stayed in Delaware and was not among the 400 fans who witnessed the spectacle of his two former brothers-in-law pitching against each other in an exhibition game on April 14—Charlie for Waterbury and Fred for the Worcester team of the Eastern League.  Prentiss ended his holdout and arrived in Waterbury just in time to see the 1900 season opener against Meriden on May 10. He pitched his first game of the season on May 15 against the Derby team. The opposing pitcher was Charlie Klobedanz—recently dropped by Waterbury and picked up by Derby. Waterbury won the game, 1–0, and Prentiss pitched another 11 games before July 4, for a total of eight wins and four losses. His batting had improved to .280, but he never picked up another bat that season.

Just after the Fourth, Prentiss sat out a game with a sore throat. The following week he was admitted to Waterbury Hospital, housed in a Victorian mansion overlooking the city. Tonsillitis was mentioned in some news reports and at some point he was operated on, perhaps more than once. In early August he was transferred to New York City’s Manhattan Hospital to be seen by specialists, as blood poisoning had now set in and his condition was described as “critical.” The season ended and by the end of September Prentiss was still in the hospital, but his condition had improved to the point that his recovery was expected. He was on Waterbury’s reserve list for the 1901 season.

In early March 1901 Waterbury sent contracts to Prentiss and the rest of the team from the prior year. Later in the month Connor told reporters that most of the players wanted more money, which he said they would not get since there were many players out of work and willing to play for less. A few days later Prentiss returned his contract and the note that was sent with it, without a word of comment and without signing the contract. Newspaper stories interpreted this as a personal insult to Connor since they felt Prentiss had been well treated during his illness. In late April the Waterbury Democrat said, “George Prentiss will be watched closely by the local management. He of all others was least grateful for what had been done for him and if he attempts to play with any team under the National league rules, he will be taught a lesson he will not soon forget.”4At the time of that statement, Prentiss had already been signed to the Albany Senators of the New York State League under the pseudonym Wilson.

Despite being a hunted man and in recovery from a serious illness, Prentiss’s pitching performance followed a similar arc to those of prior years. His first outing with Albany, on May 9, was not auspicious: he was wild and hit a batter in a home game against Rome. But it wasn’t a catastrophe either; he lost just 4–3. And as in other years, Prentiss’s performance improved as the season progressed, to a final tally of 18 wins and 10 losses, the victories including shutouts in two of his last three appearances of the season. Though his hitting did decline (.220), his pitching was heralded by newspapers in August as “a wonder” and “the best in the league.”

Prentiss’s disguise had not lasted past the end of June, when The Sporting News reported that officials of the Connecticut State League were making inquiries about him. According to newspaper reports, the new Waterbury manager, George Harrington, traveled to Albany to bring back the “star pitcher of the New York State League” or get paid for his services. It appears that neither happened. At the end of the season, Prentiss joined the Boston team of the new American League for a tryout.

On September 23 Prentiss, still using the Wilson alias, was sent in to relieve Boston’s Ted Lewis in the seventh inning of the second game of a doubleheader with Detroit in front of nearly 5,000 spectators at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Grounds. When he stepped to the mound, Boston was behind 7–2. Detroit gained two more runs under Wilson’s watch and the game was called in the eighth inning because of darkness. Four days later Prentiss pitched a full game for Boston against Milwaukee and gave up only one hit in the first five innings. He won the game 7–2. Boston Journal correspondent W.S. Barnes, Jr. called it a “hands down” win and “a very favorable performance.” After the game, Prentiss went home to Wilmington.

In mid-October, when the reserve list for 1902 was printed, Prentiss appeared twice: as Prentiss reserved by Waterbury and as Wilson reserved by Albany. Later that month, at one of the first meetings held by the newly formed National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (the minor leagues), Secretary John Farrell was “ordered to rigidly investigate” Waterbury’s claim on Prentiss. At the end of November Albany’s owner, William Quinlan, provided The Sporting News with a letter from Prentiss in which he claimed that he had signed to play for Waterbury for three years, 1898–1900, and that he had never received a contract from Waterbury in 1901. “As for my treatment when I was sick in Waterbury,” he wrote, “the way I was used when out of shape was enough to make me give that town a wide berth, and I will never go there again, no matter what turns up.” 5

The contents of the letter, which he signed “George P. Wilson,” are at odds with news accounts from 1900 and 1901. These discrepancies and the lack of any explanation for adopting a new last name, make it difficult to interpret Prentiss’s note as anything other than an attempt to lie his way out of a difficult situation. Albany was certainly a better-financed team than Waterbury and it had the benefit of no Klobedanz family members playing in the league or living nearby. In mid-March of 1902, Farrell’s investigation came to a conclusion. After reviewing the case—including a notarized affidavit from Roger Connor—the National Association awarded Prentiss’s services to Waterbury. Since the American League had not yet joined in a cooperative agreement with the National League and the minors, if Boston were to release him, Prentiss would have to either join another American League team or revert back to Waterbury if he wanted to play in Organized Baseball.

A few days later, on March 23, Prentiss arrived by train in Augusta, Georgia, with Boston manager Jimmy Collins and 14 other Boston players for spring training. The weather was rainy, but the team got to work. Sometime during the next couple of days manager Harrington of the Waterbury team appeared in Augusta and met with Prentiss. He received a signature on a new contract and a promise that he would play for Waterbury as soon as the new season opened in May. News accounts of Boston’s spring training reveal Collins trying to decide if Prentiss would get the last of the five pitching slots he wanted filled. On the night of April 4, during an exhibition night game of indoor baseball at the local armory, Prentiss let his bat slip and it injured a woman in the audience. The mishap was covered by newspapers across the country, probably because the woman, whose teeth were broken, was Ruth Randall, the daughter of James Randall, author of the Confederate anthem (and now Maryland’s state song) “Maryland, My Maryland” and the right-hand man for Georgia Congressman William Fleming.6 That wasn’t the kind of impact Collins was likely looking to leave with Augusta during the team’s first visit south. The interest in the events subsided after a few days and Prentiss joined the team as it headed north for the season.

On April 18 Prentiss pitched in the Boston’s last preseason exhibition game, against the Worcester Hustlers. He must have been relieved to find that Fred Klobedanz had left Worcester during the offseason to join the Lawrence, Massachusetts, team. Prentiss pitched the full nine innings and Boston won, 5–4.

On May 2 Prentiss played his first major-league game under his real name when he relieved Cy Young in the second inning of a home game against Baltimore. Young had given up six runs before Prentiss was put in. Although Prentiss’s pitching was good, the team’s hitting and fielding were poor and Boston lost, 14–6. Prentiss didn’t play again until June 4, when he pitched a complete game in Cleveland. The crowd was large, estimated by some at as high as 10,000, to see Nap Lajoie’s debut in a Cleveland uniform. 7 Less than a year before, Lajoie’s legal case against the Phillies had been used by a newspaper columnist to try to defend Prentiss’s jump from Waterbury. Prentiss held Cleveland to six hits, but lost the game, 4–3.

On June 6 Prentiss relieved George Winter in the fifth inning with bases loaded, no outs, and Boston down by one run. Thanks in part to fielding errors and some wild pitches, Prentiss made matters much worse. The final score was 14–3, but the loss went to Winter. On June 13 in Chicago, fresh from celebrating his 26th birthday, Prentiss provided better relief to Bill Dinneen. After the White Sox had hammered Dinneen in the fifth and sixth innings, Prentiss relieved and held Chicago to a single run in the ninth inning. It didn’t make much difference in Boston’s 9–0 loss. Five days later Prentiss pitched nine innings at home for an 8–3 win over Cleveland. According to the Boston Globe, the win was attributable to good fielding because Prentiss’s pitching was comparable to Cleveland’s and he was “hit freely.” On June 22 Prentiss won a 7–5 victory at Detroit. The local fans attempted to attack the umpire because of some bad calls against the Tigers, but the players of both teams protected him.

On July 8 Prentiss started in a home game against Philadelphia and gave up two runs in the first inning and another in the second, before Young relieved him. Boston went on to lose the game, 22–9. When Collins and the team headed to Philadelphia for a series two days later, Prentiss was left behind. On July 18 he was “turned over” to Baltimore to help shore up the Orioles.8 Baltimore was in a shambles after manager John McGraw jumped to the New York Giants in midseason and then pulled his best players with him. On July 22 Prentiss put in a terrible performance against Detroit in a 7–5 loss. He gave up 10 hits in six innings and walked five men before being relieved by Charlie Shields. Seven days later, he was put in again in a game against Cleveland. Now clearly not in good health, Prentiss gave up two singles and a triple in the first inning and started the second inning by giving up two singles before being relieved by Shields. Prentiss was released by Baltimore that day and went to Wilmington to recuperate from what was later diagnosed as typhoid fever.9 Prentiss had appeared in 11 major-league games with a 3-3 record and a 5.31 earned run average.

After a couple of weeks of recuperating in early August, Prentiss joined the Wilmington semipro team for two games, since he was now ineligible to play in the minor leagues due to his now unquestionably broken contract with Waterbury. The August 17 edition of the Wilmington Sunday Morning Star recounted Wilmington’s game with the Chester, Maryland, team. Prentiss had led the team to victory, striking out four without a walk and hitting a home run deep over the left-field fence. It was his last game. On page one of that edition of the Star, there was a discussion of the high number of deaths from typhoid fever in the town. That day—or soon after—Prentiss had a relapse and visited his mother’s summer cottage at Rehoboth Beach to regain his strength. But his condition worsened, and he was brought back to the family home on Franklin Street in Wilmington after a few days. He died there on September 8, 1902, possibly from peritonitis caused by the typhoid fever infection. He was buried in the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery in Wilmington. Prentiss was one of 41 Wilmington residents the disease killed that year. Tens of thousands of people across the US succumbed to the bacterial infection each year in that time before antibiotics, water chlorination, and effective health codes.

In March 1903 the Waterbury American recalled George Prentiss: “About this time last year, the papers were full of an episode which took place in Augusta, Ga., linking the name of George Prentiss and a prominent Augusta society belle. The young woman, it will be remembered, was struck on the head with a bat, which slipped out of the hands of Prentiss. The sequel, it was said, was to be a marriage. The sequel in reality was a death. Now poor George Prentiss is forgotten, even by those with whom he was most intimately associated. There is a lesson, or rather two or three lessons here.” There is no evidence that Prentiss ever met Ruth Randall after delivering flowers and an apology in the days after the accident. Perhaps the writer was conflating Randall with Klobedanz—intentionally or not.

When Prentiss’s former teammate Dan Manley joined the Waterbury team in April 1903, the Bridgeport Herald took the opportunity to recall the heroics of the 1898 pennant year and Prentiss’s later career. Its last word on Prentiss: “He is with one of the minor league teams this year.” 10

 

This biography can be found in "New Century, New Team: The 1901 Boston Americans" (SABR, 2013), edited by Bill Nowlin. To order the book, click here.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the text, the author consulted US Census records, birth, marriage, and divorce records via Ancestry.com. Also consulted: Typhoid Fever by Prentiss Chandler Whipple; The Great Delaware Sports Book by Doug Gelbert; Reach’s 1902 Baseball Guide; and statistical data from Baseball-Reference.com and Baseball-Almanac.com. The author read contemporaneous reports from the following publications: Augusta Chronicle, Boston Globe, Boston Journal, Bridgeport Herald, Hartford Courant, Kansas City Star, Meriden Daily Journal, Meriden Morning Record, New York Times, Sporting Life, The Day (New London), The Sporting News, and Wilmington Sunday Morning Star.

 

Notes

1 Meriden Morning Record, May 18, 1899.

2 Ibid., March 17, 1900.

3 New Haven Register, March 28, 1900.

4 Waterbury Democrat, quoted in the April 25, 1901, issue of the Meriden Daily Journal.

5 The Sporting News, November 30, 1901.

6 See, for instance, Sporting Life, April 12, 1902.

7 The Boston Globe reported attendance at 9,827, which was more than the other three American League games put together.

8 The phrase comes from the July 21, 1902, Washington Post which says Prentiss “has been turned over by Collins to the Baltimore team.” It was, perhaps, a move orchestrated by the league, a not-uncommon thing in the first decade of the AL.

9 The Baltimore Sun of July 30, 1902, reported, “He has not been well for some time,” and later notices in newspapers about Prentiss’s death indicate that he took ill in Baltimore. The incubation period for typhoid fever is 10 to 20 days depending on several factors.

10 Bridgeport Herald, April 26, 1903.

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