Boss Schmidt

This article was written by Phil Williams

“It’s a thankless job, this catching business,” sighed Charley Schmidt in 1908.1 The stocky Tiger was not one of the era’s more dexterous backstops, but instead demonstrated an often overlooked physical bravery in helping his team to three memorable American League pennants. Yet, more so than many of his Detroit teammates, Schmidt is better remembered for the three unfortunate World Series which followed, when the best of his game abandoned him.

Charles Schmidt was born on September 12, 1880, in London, Arkansas. His parents, John and Mary, were German emigrants. The precise number of their offspring is unclear, but two of their sons caught in the major leagues. Walter was born seven years after Charles, and proved a fine defensive backstop for the Pirates a decade after his older brother’s stint with the Tigers.

The Arkansas Valley Coal Field begins near London and runs westward some 60 miles to Fort Smith. Quite possibly associated with the coal industry, John Schmidt was listed as a machinist in the 1900 census, and by this time had moved his family further west to Coal Hill, Arkansas. Young Charles went to work in the mines, building up prodigious strength cutting, shoveling, and pushing carts of coal.

Baseball offered a different career, and by 1901, Charley2 Schmidt was catching for a Fort Smith semipro team. Playing in Springfield, Missouri, he caught the eye of Fred Hurlburt, who managed that city’s Class D Missouri Valley League franchise.3 Hurlburt snatched up his find for the 1902 season. Over the next three years, interrupted by a brief 1903 stay with Rock Island of the Class B Three-I League, Schmidt honed his craft with Springfield. Late in 1904, Springfield sold him to the Minneapolis Millers of the Class A American Association. In 1905, Schmidt split Minneapolis catching duties with Doc Marshall.

Catching, meanwhile, was a glaring weakness for the Detroit Tigers in 1905. Lew Drill’s throwing arm was a liability, and a handful of alternatives proved unsatisfactory. Manager Bill Armour and team secretary Frank Navin scouted Schmidt that summer, and were impressed by his “wonderful arm” and “excellent direction on his throws.”4 In early August, Detroit purchased veteran backstop Jack Warner, and a few weeks later grabbed Schmidt.

Detroit released Drill before the 1906 season, leaving rookies Schmidt and Fred Payne to back up Warner. Armour often platooned his catchers.5 Schmidt, who threw right-handed, and batted from the left, was “absolutely helpless before southpaws”6 During his playing days, a couple sources identified Schmidt as a switch-hitter, but the majority pegged him solely as a left-handed batter.7 If and when he switched to bat from the right, it was a rarity. Instead, throughout his career, another Detroit catcher usually faced lefties.

Schmidt’s ankle troubled him all season, and mid-season x-rays revealed he was playing on a broken small bone since an accident suffered the previous year. He put off the suggested operation, and soldiered on in pain, eventually playing 68 games as a rookie, and compiling a .218 batting average, .242 OBP, and .264 SLG. He caught over 50 percent of would-be base stealers, and earned praise for his “gilt-edged” throwing.8

His emergence was a rare cause for optimism in Detroit’s 1906 campaign. The pitching staff was beset by injuries. Most of the squad feuded with 19-year-old Ty Cobb, who suffered a nervous breakdown mid-season. Warner and Armour exchanged blows late in the season. The catcher was dismissed. The manager was fired. Once the 71-78 season ended, Navin plucked Hughie Jennings from Baltimore to direct the Tigers in 1907.

After off-season ankle surgery, Schmidt reported to spring training in Augusta, Georgia. On March 16, Cobb became involved in a physical altercation with a black groundskeeper, then the groundskeeper’s wife. Schmidt objected to Cobb’s treatment of the woman, and the two engaged in a few blows, before being separated by Jennings.

Schmidt was a good-natured presence on the team, “extremely popular” with his mates.9 He had been relatively tolerant of Cobb to this point, reportedly once lending him a bat after others had wrecked the outfielder’s. Still, Schmidt could quarrel or, if angered sufficiently, brawl. He stood 5’10”, weighed 200 pounds without “an ounce of superfluous flesh on his body.”10 His physical strength was already renowned.

Schmidt and Cobb squared off again on March 29. The catcher was allegedly offended by comments Cobb made to a Georgia newspaper about his abilities to out-fight any of his teammates. If so, Schmidt convincingly settled the matter by pummeling Cobb, leaving the Georgian a bloody mess.11

Emotions ran high after the second fight. With Cobb and Schmidt excluded, Jennings calmly appealed to the team over dinner. One player recalled: “He pointed out that harmony meant more to us than it did to him. That he was old in the game, that his reputation was made, while we had ours to make. ‘You can win that pennant,’ he said, ‘and win it easy. But you’ve got to have harmony.’” The two combatants were then urged to make peace.12 The Tigers, while still occasionally fractious, were free to focus their energy upon the rest of the American League.

By mid-July, Detroit had climbed towards the top of the pennant race. On August 21, they stood, along with the White Sox, a half-game behind the Athletics. That afternoon, versus the visiting Red Sox, a foul tip smashed one of Schmidt’s fingers. Payne replaced him, before being victimized in the same manner. Third-stringer Jimmy Archer finished the game, with the Tigers losing 5-4.

With the era’s pillow mitt, a catcher had to move his bare hand quickly to grab the ball after it pounded, but didn’t particularly stick into, the leather. In his study of catchers’ equipment, Chuck Rosciam observes of this technique: “This was accomplished by holding the bare hand behind the mitt and quickly moving it to the caught ball. But if the catcher had to move his mitt to catch a ball and failed to move both hands in unison, the bare hand could easily be exposed and subject to harm.”13

The next day, in the first inning, Archer broke one of his fingers. “Schmidt went in with the middle finger of his right hand resembling a red banana in size and color,” and Bill Donovan “was forced to cut out some of his stuff” so his injured battery mate could cradle the pitches in, or knock them down with, his mitt. Detroit escaped with an 8-7 victory.14

Schmidt played in 104 games in 1907, and finished with a .244 batting average, .269 OBP, and .295 SLG. He led all major-league catchers in errors committed, but placed third overall in runners caught stealing. His gutsiness exemplified the team. Cobb played through various injuries and emerged as a superstar. The four-man rotation of Donovan, Ed Siever, George Mullin, and Ed Killian started every game from August 3 until the Tigers clinched the pennant on October 5.

Detroit faced the Cubs in the World Series, with the opening game in Chicago on October 8. The Tigers led 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, and pinch-hitter Del Howard down on an 0-2 count. Schmidt walked out to visit Donovan. “I told him a low curve inside,” recalled the pitcher, and “that ball could not have been placed better if I had walked up to the batter’s box and handed it to the Chicago batsman.”15 Howard swung over the ball, but it caromed off Schmidt’s mitt. As the catcher scampered after it, Harry Steinfeldt came home to tie the game.

There the score remained, until umpire Hank O’Day called the game a tie after 12 innings. In the course of the game, Chicago pilfered seven bases, although none of these directly figured in the scoring. Donovan did not hold runners well, but as the Cubs tested the base paths, his catcher’s throwing proved abnormally poor. Reports of Schmidt being hindered by a “badly bruised hand” soon surfaced.16 So did accounts of the catcher being “in a terrible nervous state the day before the series began.”17 After the game, Schmidt reportedly cried in the Tigers’ clubhouse.

The Cubs proceeded to win the next four games. Payne caught Game Two, and Archer Game Five. Both performed unimpressively. Schmidt’s defensive play in Games Three and Four earned measured praise. At the plate, for the Series, he went 2-for-12, without any runs scored or batted in.

Few observers blamed Schmidt for the outcome, noting that: “in every phase of inside ball the new champions showed more speed and smartness than their opponents.”18 Parallel to the criticisms directed at the Detroit catchers, Chicago’s Johnny Kling earned universal acclaim. That off-season, as Schmidt underwent another round of surgery, the Tigers purchased Ira Thomas from the Highlanders, and released Archer in an effort to upgrade their catching corps.

The Tigers stumbled to a 5-10 start in 1908. Schmidt started slowly as well, batting only .129 through this stretch.19 But neither Payne nor Thomas merited replacing him. By mid-season, Schmidt’s play returned to form, and Detroit was in another fervent pennant race.

Schmidt was increasingly adept in calling pitchouts, a factor in his leading the major leagues that season with 129 base runners caught stealing. Only the Phillies’ Red Dooin bested Schmidt’s 184 assists as a catcher. One reporter noted that Schmidt “can go out on the third base line after the ball, grab it and throw to [Detroit first baseman Claude] Rossman with a speed and accuracy that, in such a position, seems simply impossible.”20

Schmidt’s offensive production showed significant improvement in 1908 with a .265 batting average, .297 OBP, and .320 SLG. Over the course of his Detroit career, Schmidt usually batted seventh (ahead of shortstop Charley O’Leary) or eighth in the order. He was considered “a good sacrifice hitter.”21

For the second season in a row, the Tigers’ reward for the American League pennant was a World Series date with the Cubs. Schmidt was again nursing the wounds of a grueling season, playing with a “painful finger” reported to be “both dislocated and slightly fractured.”22 The series opened in Detroit on October 10, with rain muddying Bennett Field. By the fifth, their team trailing 4-1, “the Tiger bugs began a chant of ‘Rain! Rain! Call the Game.’”23

But the Tigers clawed back, and led 6-5 when the Cubs came to bat in the top of the ninth. With one out, four consecutive singles put Chicago back up 7-6. Joe Tinker then came to bat, and laid down a bunt. Picking it up, Schmidt slipped in the mire and struggled helplessly as Tinker reached first and Steinfeldt crossed the plate. The Cubs plated two more runs, and won 10-6.

From there, for both Schmidt and the Tigers, the 1908 World Series progressed as a distressingly familiar experience. The Cubs ran heavily on Schmidt at the onset, stealing bases on eight of nine attempts in the first two games. But his teammates did not greatly assist, in particular second baseman Red Downs, whose poor tags earned him a benching for the remainder of the series. Just as in 1907, Schmidt played much better in the later stages of the Series. But to no avail. The Cubs again proved themselves the superior squad in convincing style, rolling over the Tigers in five games. The sole Detroit victory came against left-hander Jack Pfiester, with Thomas performing well in place of Schmidt.

Afterwards, Jennings earned considerable criticism for sticking with Schmidt instead of Thomas. Yet when Connie Mack sought a catcher that off-season, and reportedly preferred Schmidt, the Tigers instead sold Thomas to the Athletics.24 Schmidt, smarting from press criticism, and feeling under-appreciated by management, held out. Only at the end of 1909 spring training did he report. This provided rookie Oscar Stanage a leg up in the catching competition.

As it was, Jennings played Stanage (77 games) and Schmidt (81 games) about equally in 1909. Schmidt threw out 48 percent of would-be base runners, versus Stanage’s 42 percent. Otherwise defensive metrics favored the rookie. At the plate, Schmidt regressed: a .209 batting average, .240 OBP, and .269 SLG; well below Stanage on all counts.

Schmidt was, however, more familiar with Donovan’s curves, Mullin’s fastballs, Killian’s sinkers, Ed Willet’s off-speed, underhanded pitches, and Ed Summers’s knuckleballs. When the Tigers clinched their third pennant in a row, and faced off against the Pirates in the World Series, most of the staff reportedly favored the veteran. Schmidt started five of the seven games against Pittsburgh.

The Pirates stole a World Series record 18 bases, 15 on Schmidt’s watch. Detroit’s pitchers too often allowed running leads. But Schmidt’s problematic arm contributed as well, although he carried no specific injuries into this October. “My throwing in these games is something that I cannot understand,” he admitted.25

Yet Schmidt also produced three two-out RBIs to propel Detroit to a 7-2 win in Game Two. And, in what may have been the finest hour of the Jennings-led Tigers, a 5-4 Game Six victory that knotted the Series, Schmidt rose “brilliantly” to the occasion.26 In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Pirates rallying, he blocked the plate, absorbing Bill Abstein’s spikes in the process, preventing the tying run. Then, to end the game, he pegged out Chief Wilson coming into third on the front end of a double steal.

Two days later, Pittsburgh shut out Detroit 8-0 in the deciding Game Seven. In the wake of the Series, blame was again directed at Schmidt, and Jennings for his ongoing commitment to his catcher. But for three straight seasons, virtually every one of Schmidt’s Tiger teammates was guilty of subpar performances in the postseason.

Schmidt returned home to Arkansas, to his wife Minnie and their two children. He had investments in the coal fields and a love of hunting in the mountains. Off-season reports indicated Navin and Jennings explored trading him to Cleveland for backstop Nig Clarke.

Stanage emerged as the Tigers’ first-string catcher in 1910. As the team drifted out of the pennant race, Detroit fans turned sour on their heroes, with Schmidt a favorite target. “Schmidt was never a graceful catcher,” a Detroit paper editorialized in his defense, “he had a habit of fighting the ball and was not handy shifting his big mitt. He suffered numerous damaged fingers and bruised shins but he never gave up and it was a common saying among the players of the American League that the only way you could get Schmidt out of a game was to hit him over the head with an axe.”27

In 71 games in 1910, Schmidt enjoyed his best offensive season, with a .259 batting average, .277 OBP, and .381 SLG. For the first time in his career, however, his caught stealing percentage (43 percent) fell below the American League average (45 percent). The Tigers finished a distant third with an 86-68 record.

Schmidt was growing increasingly unhappy in Detroit. In December 1910, however, Jennings somewhat inexplicably turned down a deal that would have sent Schmidt and Summers to the Red Sox for Bill Carrigan and Smoky Joe Wood.28 A month later, Schmidt, also somewhat inexplicably, wrote an open letter blaming Jennings for having “given me the worse of it” since his spring training escapades with Cobb four years earlier.29

Meanwhile, Schmidt experimented with a boxing career. Before the 1910 season, he and the Reds’ hulking Larry McLean spoke of determining a Major League Heavyweight Championship. Nothing came of it, much to the relief of Schmidt’s teammates, who advised him against such a course of action. A year later, after Navin squashed Schmidt’s plans to fight one palooka (Joe Gorman), his catcher nonetheless then fought another (Jimmy McDonald) in Fort Smith, earning a ten-round decision in March 1911. Schmidt then announced his intent to take on Jack Johnson, with (an immediately unwilling) Mullin as his manager. Yet, despite legend that Schmidt sparred with the champion, no specific contemporary reporting indicates that he did.30

Somehow, Schmidt was a Tiger again in 1911, but his throwing arm was lame, and he caught only nine games, not starting until August 26. The Tigers were not renowned as being financially generous to their players. But after keeping the virtually invisible Schmidt on the payroll in 1911, Navin moved him to the Providence Grays (just purchased by Detroit’s owners) of the Class AA International League for 1912. After this move, Paul Bruske, who had covered the Tigers for a decade, wrote of Schmidt being “the pluckiest man whom the writer has ever known in base ball” and the “really deep regard” which many Detroit fans retained for their brave catcher.31

Schmidt slugged AA baseballs in 1912, but didn’t throw them particularly well. Providence traded him to the Mobile Sea Gulls of the Class A Southern Association. There Schmidt’s arm seems to have returned to health in 1913. The next season he turned down overtures from the Federal League’s Kansas City franchise, instead remaining with Mobile, where he remained a popular workhorse. Schmidt’s managerial career began with the Sea Gulls in 1915, but the team crawled to a seventh place finish, and near the end of the 1916 season, he was dismissed.

The next half dozen seasons took him from Vernon to Memphis to Sioux City to Tulsa to Fort Smith.32 In 1923 he returned to the major leagues, as a coach on Wilbert Robinson’s Brooklyn staff. In 1924 he was back in the minors, as a player-manager for the Springfield team he had begun with two decades earlier. But the team played dismally, and he was soon unemployed again. Stints in umpiring, and additional managerial stops, followed.

The old catcher became, by the 1920s, part of baseball lore. Most of the tales were likely true. Pounding spikes into cement with his bare hands. Bear wrestling. Daring teammates to budge him off the floor, or to punch him in the stomach. A right hand that had been fractured 30 times in his career.

But at the same time, the old catcher led a troubled life. Schmidt went bankrupt in 1912. He suffered from alcoholism. His wife and children left him and moved to California.

Schmidt rejoined the Tigers for a half season in 1929, doing odd jobs as a coach. He turned up a couple years later, allegedly making a comeback with an industrial team in Detroit. He died in Altus, Arkansas, on November 14, 1932, of an acute intestinal obstruction. Impoverished, Schmidt was buried in an unmarked grave.

In 1969, residents of Altus brought this to the attention of the Tigers. Team President John Fetzer moved to rectify the matter. Early the next year, with Arkansas native George Kell attending the ceremony, a simple stone was placed on Charley Schmidt’s grave. Beneath his name and birth and death dates, it was inscribed: “A Detroit Tiger 1906-1911.”33

 

Sources

The author is grateful to Jimmy Jacobs, of Altus, Arkansas, for generously sharing his knowledge of Schmidt’s life. Mr. Jacobs’s father, Ferrol “Frog” Jacobs, worked alongside Charley Schmidt in the Arkansas coal mines.

In addition to the sources noted, the author also accessed:

ancestry.com

baseball-reference.com

chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers/

fultonhistory.com/fulton.html

genealogybank.com

news.google.com/newspapers

newspapers.com

retrosheet.org

sabr.org/bioproject

Jimmy Jacobs, telephone interview with the author, August 25, 2014.

 

Notes

1 “Say Bemis is Right. Charley Schmidt Claims Catchers Do Not Get Enough Glory,” (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer, April 19, 1908, 20.

2 During his time with the Tigers — in the press, and by the statements of his peers found in the press — Schmidt was referred to as Charley or Charlie. But in Arkansas, especially as the years went on, Schmidt was “Boss.” For an account of “Boss” being ‘roasted’ back home, see “Charley Schmidt Hears ‘Praises,’” Detroit Free Press, March 22, 1910, 9. 

3 “Tips by the Managers,” The Sporting News, April 15, 1909, 4.

4 “Caught on the Fly” The Sporting News, April 21, 1906, 6.

5 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001), 117.

6 “Cubs Get First Blood in Series,” (Chicago) Inter-Ocean, October 10, 1907, 4.

7 Two well-informed sources were Tiger Trainer Harry Tuthill and Detroit beat writer Joe Jackson. Tuthill mentioned Schmidt batting from either side: “Jennings’ Braw Tiger Men Look Good to Mr. Tuthill,” (Syracuse, NY) Post-Standard, April 19, 1910, 11. Jackson pegged him as a left-handed batter: “Sporting Facts and Fancies,” Washington Post, April 25, 1911, 8.

8 Paul H. Bruske, “Detroit Doings,” The Sporting Life, June 2, 1906, 2.

9 “Cobb in Fist Fight Again.”

10 “Says Charley Schmidt Could Whip Our Tommy,” Detroit Free Press, April 8, 1908, 9.

11 For contemporary accounts of the fights, see “Cobb in Fist Fight Again,” Detroit Free Press, March 17, 1907, 17; “Can’t Stop the Tigers,” Detroit Free Press, March 30, 1907, 8. For more recent accounts, see: Charles C. Alexander, Ty Cobb (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 50-53; Al Stump, Cobb: A Biography (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1996), 141-44.

12 M.W. Bingay, “Jennings’ Master Move,” The Sporting News, January 16, 1908, 2.

13 Chuck Rosciam, “The Evolution of Catcher’s Equipment,” as published in the Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal, http://sabr.org/research/evolution-catchers-equipment, accessed September 4, 2014.

14 B.F. Wright, “Tigers’ Handicap,” The Sporting News, August 29, 1907, 2; “To the Rescue in the Ninth,” Detroit Free Press, August 23, 1907, 6.

15 “Bill Donovan in Town,” Washington Post, October 25, 1907, 8.

16 “Another Great Crowd,” Washington Post, October 10, 1907, 2.

17 J. Ed. Grillo, “May Get Elberfeld,” Washington Post, October 20, 1907, 4.

18 Jack Ryder, “Baseball is an Honest Sport,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 14, 1907, 3.

19 “M’Connell is in Lead,” Washington Post, May 10, 1908, 4.

20 Paul H. Bruske, “Detroit Doings,” The Sporting Life, August 15, 1908, 6.

21 Joe S. Jackson, “Nationals Escape Shut-Out, Rallying in Eleventh Hour,” Washington Post, May 27, 1910, 10.

22 “Tigers against the Cubs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 9, 1908, 2.

23 “Just How the Cubs and Tigers Fought,” (Chicago) Inter-Ocean, October 11, 1908, 2.

24 “Athletics Get Thomas,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 15, 1908, 10.

25 “Schmidt Puzzled,” Cincinnati Post, October 15, 1909, 6.

26 R.W. Lardner, “Tigers’ 5-4 Victory Costs Three Men,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 15, 1909, 8.

27 “Heart to Heart with the Sporting Editor,” Detroit Times, June 11, 1910, 1.

28 In addition to the various press reporting of this prospective trade, see Stanley Robison’s comments in “Said by the Magnates,” The Sporting News, January 12, 1911, 4.

29 “Charlie Schmidt Says Jennings ‘Abuses’ Him,” Detroit Free Press, January 29, 1911, 17.

30 On Schmidt being disabused of the notion of fighting Johnson, see “Fighting Game Allures Many Ball Players,” (ID) Twin Fall News, January 13, 1920, 7. In fact, past 1911, it is unclear if Schmidt ever fought inside the ring again. He and McLean renewed their plans for a fight in October 1912, to take place in Boston, coinciding with the World Series. Baseball’s National Commission, uninterested in such a sideshow, nixed these plans.

31 Paul H. Bruske, “Detroit Dots,” The Sporting Life, February 10, 1912, 7.

32 The C. Schmidt with the Atlanta Crackers in the early 1920s, however, was Chester Schmidt, not Charley Schmidt.

33 Watson Spoelstra, “Tigers Mark Grave of Schmidt,” The Sporting News, September 27, 1969, 17. Schmidt’s grave: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=10320107&PIpi=21493301 accessed September 4, 2014.