For a pitcher with 474⅔ innings of major-league experience behind him to leave on the note he did – his disastrous one partial inning for the 1908 Red Sox – must have been personally aggravating. But even with that disappointing finale, Jake Thielman won 30 big-league games with an earned-run average of 3.16.
Thielman spent three years in the minors before his April 23, 1905, debut with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota, on May 20, 1879, to Leonard and Mary Thielman. Leonard was a hardware dealer at the time of the 1900 census, a German immigrant who had come to the United States around 1858. Mary had been born in New York to German immigrant parents. Leonard and Mary raised ten children who pursued a variety of occupations. In 1900 their eldest son, William, was a trimmer in a metal shop. Peter was a bicycle dealer and Rudolph and George were both hardware clerks, perhaps in the family business. Mamie (young Mary) worked as a governess at the time. Matilda and Adelaide were still at school. Caroline was a nurse, and John (Jake) attended Manhattan College in New York City. Jake’s brother Henry, 16 months younger than Jake, went to Manhattan College, too; he pitched 31 games in the majors in 1902 and 1903.
In the 1910 census Jake was listed as a professional baseball player, although there is no indication that he played ball professionally that summer.
Jake’s first engagement in Organized Baseball is unknown. There was a Redd Thielman who played in 1896, in Le Mars, Iowa, and was in 1897 on the Paris, Texas, team. And there was a B. Thielman, who pitched for Butte in the Montana League in 1900. Henry, Jake’s younger brother, pitched and played the outfield in 1902 and 1903, for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Brooklyn Superbas. He appeared in 43 games, 31 as a pitcher. He was 9-19, with a 3.37 ERA and he hit for a .146 average in 137 plate appearances. Henry was a year and a half younger than Jake, but made the majors before him.
Jake’s pro career started in 1901 when he played left field for Spokane and Tacoma in the Pacific Northwest League. He, too, showed the ability to both pitch and play the outfield and in 1902 he first worked from the mound. It seems it was a very busy year. He was signed by Toronto in the early days of May, but also played for Newark, Jersey City, and Rochester – while brother Henry got all the headlines. Jake was a combined 16-18 for the four clubs, all of which were in the Eastern League.
In April 1903 Jake was reported to have “paid his matriculation fee for a course of dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania and unless he changes his mind and takes up surgery for his life work he will study the science of ‘painless extraction’ when the present base ball season closes,” Sporting Life reported, adding, “Thielman was a regular attendant at the surgical lectures and clinics at Columbia University in New York when he was studying at Manhattan College, and has expressed a preference for a surgical career.”i
It may have been the contract offered by the Portland Browns of the Pacific Coast League that helped him change his mind. He had an excellent 1903 season for Portland, pitching to a 17-7 record (while the team had a losing 95-108 record). He spent the winter in Portland. In 1904 Portland finished dead last at 80-136 and Thielman’s record was an even more lopsided 13-30.
A controversy may have affected Jake. He’d signed a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals to play in the National League but the Pacific Coast League, which had been an independent league in 1903, was admitted to membership in the National Association in 1904, and Thielman’s contract was awarded to Portland since he’d signed with the team 17 days earlier (on December 5, 1903) and accepted a $200 advance. He was reported as early as late May of 2004 as dissatisfied with the Portland posting since his ambition had been to join St. Louis.ii
Thielman sometimes displayed a certain rowdiness. The Seattle Times told of a time early in his career with Tacoma in 1901 when he refused to pay his hotel bill at the Donnelly Hotel in Tacoma. When he got into an argument with manager John McCloskey and took a licking: “Jake got gay with the English language and ‘Mac’ put him to sleep for a couple of hours.” In October 1904 he had “got a souse on the other day and proceeded to everlastingly whip a street car conductor.”iii
In 1905 the opportunity came around again thanks to a trade in January or very early February with St. Louis that sent Larry McLean to Portland. Jake debuted on April 23 for Kid Nichols’ Cardinals with a 12-8 win over the Reds in Cincinnati. Thielman gave up only four hits in seven innings in relief of starter Kid Nichols, who himself had done the damage, allowing seven Cincy runs in the first two frames.
Thielman started 29 games (26 complete games). He closed out three more and finished the season 15-16. (The Cardinals went through three managers and finished in sixth place with a 58-96 record.) His earned-run average for the years was 3.50. He played in one game in the outfield, and batted.231 in 106 plate appearances. His triple on June 4 against the Reds gave him a 2-1 win. Jake did disappear from the starting rotation for a couple of weeks at the end of June and into July, and a story in the July 13 Seattle Times said he’d jumped the Cards and gone to play for an outlaw team in Pennsylvania under an assumed name. If correct, he was back in time to start on that very day.
Thielman pitched for the Cardinals through spring training in 1906 but once the season began he appeared in only one game, on April 25 at Cincinnati. He had to be taken out after five innings. A couple of weeks later he was placed on waivers and he pitched the rest of the year for Indianapolis (11-10 in 23 games). Brother Henry had completed a course in dental surgery and left the game after the 1906 campaign, which he’d played for Jersey City. Near the end of the 1906 season, on September 1, Jake was drafted from Indianapolis by the Cleveland Naps for $1,000 and he looked forward to pitching in the American League in 1907.
In the spring there was some thought of turning Thielman back to Indianapolis, but manager Nap Lajoie stuck with him. He lost a close 2-1 game in his first start, at St. Louis on April 28, shut out the Phillies in his next start – a month later – and made his way onto the starting rotation as a fourth starter. Addie Joss (27-11, 1.83) was the ace, but Thielman acquitted himself well enough (11-8, 2.33 – the team ERA was 2.26). Besides the blanking of the Phillies he threw two other shutouts.
Thielman had an unusual approach to warming up, and was said to be the only pitcher in the American League to take the approach – he stood 20 feet behind the mound in making his warm-up throws to the catcher behind home plate.iv
An embarrassing incident was reported on July 29, 1907, when Rudolph Thielman, Jake and Henry’s brother, was arrested in Omaha for involvement with counterfeit money and a fixed prizefight.v Just a couple of days after that news broke, Jake’s August 1 game was a bit of a disaster, with the Boston Americans collecting 23 hits off him and winning 14-1. Thielman was left in to pitch the full game.vi
Jake was considered a bit of a “bad actor” and there had been concern that he would not fit in with Cleveland, but he seems to have behaved himself well for most of the time in the ’07 season.vii But that didn’t last.
Over the winter he traveled back to the Pacific Northwest to visit a brother in Seattle and to visit Portland. While in Oregon, he expressed his interest in buying into the Portland ballclub.viii
Thielman was an occasional starter for Cleveland in 1908, not getting his first start until May 10, and he didn’t have quite the season he had in 1907. But he beat Boston (a 5-2 six-hitter) on July 10 and New York (16-1) on the 15th. His last start for Cleveland came on July 20, when he lost 5-3 in Washington. After the game, he was traded to the Red Sox for Tex Pruiett. Thielman had been 4-3 for Cleveland with a 3.65 ERA. The Red Sox had been impressed by the “corker” he’d thrown against them, and were hoping he could contribute.
The trade had apparently been something in the way of both teams shedding themselves of a player they didn’t really want. Pruiett was 1-7 for Boston, and never did pitch for Cleveland. He was released to Toledo on arrival. Manager Lajoie was said to have been “trying to rid himself” of Thielman, too. He had offered Thielman to Toledo, but manager Bill Armour didn’t want him, though he said he’d be glad to take Pruiett, at which point Lajoie brought in Pruiett from Boston.ix
Thielman and Lajoie hadn’t hit it off, and the manager actually suspended his pitcher for “indifferent work” after his June 8 start against New York. It turned out, Thielman later told newspapermen, that he’d injured his arm while sliding in the autumn of 1907 and it still hadn’t quite recovered, but that he’d never confessed that to Lajoie. “He now realizes his mistake. He says that under the circumstances he can scarcely blame the club officials for suspending him, but he hopes to be in shape to pitch within a few days,” Sporting Life said.x Lajoie may not have been mollified. Thielman’s reputation preceded him to Boston, the Boston Globe noting in announcing the trade for Pruiett that he was “considered a fairly good man when in proper shape.”xi
Alas, Jake appeared only once for Deacon McGuire’s Red Sox. It was on August 9, and he lasted only two-thirds of an inning in relief in St. Louis. He faced five batters and gave up three hits, including a home run to – of all people – pitcher Rube Waddell. The three-run homer was one of only four Waddell hit in his 13-year major-league career. It went into the bleachers.
After his unfortunate two-thirds of an inning for the Red Sox, Boston farmed Thielman out to Toronto. He didn’t pitch again in 1908, for anyone, but did pay a visit to the noted Youngstown, Ohio, physical therapist Bonesetter Reese, whom many players consulted. Jake said that a few visits had resulted in a much improved arm.xii
In 1909 Thielman pitched for the Louisville Colonels. He’d wanted to hook on with the Red Sox again, and was in Hot Springs before the ballclub arrived, but sportswriter Tim Murnane disparaged his work in practice, even before official spring training commenced, writing that Thielman was always “the first to return from the ball park and will be passed up beyond the shadow of doubt. None of that stripe will pass muster with Manager Fred Lake.”xiii Murnane also wrote that Thielman’s “one drawback seems a signal desire not to overwork.” The team’s motto supposedly was “no sleepwalkers for the Red Sox.”xiv The crowning incident occurred in Columbus on April 10. He had “been leading a pretty gay life the night before” and when faced with a bitter cold day, he simply refused to get into uniform and go to the park and ridiculed his teammates for being “rubes.”xv Needless to say, that didn’t play well. Jake was said to have bought his own release from the Red Sox on April 12, and he signed with Louisville, where he was 10-7.xvi Louisville won the American Association pennant.
In 1910 Thielman was acquired by Indianapolis, but he was released as early as May 5 for not having rounded into shape. He was on the Minneapolis roster for a while, but finished the season on the Oklahoma City list, in suspended status.
There were brief mentions of Jake in 1911 and 1912, but as in 1910 no indication that he ever played ball in either year. Brother Henry played briefly for Portland in 1913, initially under the name “Todd,” and Winnipeg signed Jake in June 1913 but there’s no record of him working for the team. He’s found back in St. Cloud in 1912, playing for the city’s semipro team.xvii
The last story we can find of Jake playing ball was with St. Cloud in 1915. He was the leadoff batter and hit a home run – which resulted in two runners crossing the plate! The Washington Post story explained: Thielman hit a long one to center and the ball struck a rabbit carousing in the long grass near the fence. The rabbit ran toward the diamond, touching second base, and sped along the baseline a few steps ahead of Thielman. Seeing the bleacher crowd, the rabbit rounded third and dashed across the plate with Thielman close upon his heels. ‘If we’d had another base to go,’ said Thielman, ‘I would have had to tell the rabbit to get out of the way and let someone run that could run.’ ”xviii
At least Thielman hadn’t died playing ball. An umpire named Anderson was told of a story umpiring independent ball in Minnesota in the 1903 Wisconsin State League, when the town teams of Wilmar and Benson faced off in a July 14 doubleheader. Benson won the first game – on an extremely hot day – 2-1, in the ninth. In the second game, Wilmar “was pitching Thielman, a twirler on whom every Willmar fan would bet his last dollar. About the end of the ninth inning Thielman began to show the effects of the heat.” The score had been tied since the second inning. Benson took a one-run lead in the top of the tenth on a walk, an error, and a hit. Thielman led off batting in the bottom of the tenth. He was exhausted, said Anderson: I could see he was about to the ‘down and out’ mark. … He got lucky and biffed a single. The next man up, O’Toole … met the first ball fair and square; and got what had every appearance of being a ‘homer.’ Thielman started for the plate, got to second all right, staggered a little on the way to third and fell flat on the third bag. O’Toole came along, and knowing that two runs would win the game and that he could not score ahead of Thielman picked him up and carried him to home plate and touched it himself. A doctor came out on the field, looked at Thielman and pronounced him dead – overcome by the heat. [He’d] died at third base and then scored a run anyway.”xix Which Thielman this may have been – it wasn’t necessarily one of Jake’s relatives – we do not know.
Jake himself lived until 1928. A January 1916 news story had him mining gold in Curry County, Oregon.xx At the time of his 1918 registration for Selective Service during the First World War, he was working as a sweeper for the Minneapolis Steel Machinery company. In 1920 he was noted living in St. Cloud with his brother William, who was a sheet-metal worker in a foundry. Jake did not have any occupation listed in the 1920 census. He died on of a cerebral hemorrhage on January 28, 1928, in Minneapolis. The occupation listed on his death certificate was “ball player.” Jake was single.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Thielman’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i Sporting Life, April 11, 1903.
ii Sporting Life, May 28 and August 6, 1904; Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1904.
iii Seattle Times, October 21, 1904.
iv Sporting Life, March 21, 1908.
v Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1907. A Seattle Times story on July 24, 1905, had told of a time R.L. Thielman, working as a bartender, had been knocked unconscious by a robber just after opening the establishment’s safe. The story noted the injured “Doby” Thielman as Jake’s brother. On March 14, 1911, R.L. Thielman pleaded guilty to fraudulent use of the United States mail. Seattle Times, March 14, 1911.
vi Boston Globe, August 2, 1907.
vii Denver Post, January 29, 1908.
ix Sporting Life, August 15, 1908.
x Sporting Life, June 20, 1908.
xi Boston Globe, July 21, 1908.
xii Sporting Life, October 10, 1908.
xiii Sporting Life, March 27, 1909.
xiv Boston Globe, March 7, 1909.
xv Boston Globe, April 11, 1909.
xvi The Hartford Courant of April 13, 1909, reported the transaction.
xvii Duluth (Minnesota) News-Tribune, August 15, 1912.
xviii Washington Post, September 12, 1915.
xix Sporting Life, September 21, 1907.
xx Seattle Times, January 30, 1916.