Benjamin Franklin Hunt made his major league debut on August 24, 1910, pitching the Red Sox to a 5-2 win against the St. Louis Browns. Also effective in his next two starts, a complete game win versus the White Sox, and a tough 2-0 loss to Jack Coombs and the Athletics, Hunt seemed well on his way to a successful big league career. But the rest of his time with Boston was unproductive, and following a short stay with the Cardinals in 1913, he sank back into the vast obscurity of pre-1920 minor league baseball.
For the next seven years Hunt continued to play professional baseball, pitching all over the western part of the country, a season here, a couple of weeks or a month there, before moving on. A true vagabond, he eventually drifted out of organized baseball and disappeared. When the various baseball encyclopedias arrived, first the "Thompson and Turkin" book, and then progressing to the current "Macmillan", "Neft and Cohen", and Total Baseball editions, Hunt remained a mystery. An incomplete birth listing had him born in Eufaula, Oklahoma in 1888. No death data had ever been recorded.
In April of 1992, after years of research, SABR's Biographical Research Committee finally discovered the last stop on Ben Hunt's journey. The long search for Big Ben Hunt wasn't easy, but it sure was interesting.
The Boston Evening American ran a story on Hunt shortly after his initial success with the Red Sox. "BEN HUNT-WHO HE IS AND WHAT HE'S DONE", was the head line. The article, which gave his height as 6' 2" and his age as 21, read in part:
Never played a game of baseball until three years ago. Worked on a ranch in Oklahoma until then.
Signed with Salt Lake City after one trial. Pitched in the Imperial Valley Winter League, winning 11 straight games. Sold to Hutchinson, Kansas.
Signed with the Red Sox last spring. Farmedout to Sacramento, Cal., where he "made good."
Certainly the obvious place to start looking for Hunt was in Oklahoma, but the only death of a Benjamin Franklin Hunt located there was ruled out on information from that man's descendants. No leads on Hunt or his family were ever located in Eufaula.
The next step was to check the Ben Hunt file at the Hall of Fame. The file contained four small newspaper stories about Hunt and a listing of his contract assignments. One note said he was a native of California, another listed his home as Oklahoma City and his nationality as Irish. An item out of Sporting Life in the spring of 1912, titled "A REGULAR NOMAD," said that Hunt had not been in Oklahoma since he was 11 years old.
The tall southpaw's experience during the 11 years of his travels have been many and varied. Hunt ran away from home and went to Memphis, Tenn., where he became a stable boy for a horse fancier there. In the employment of the breeder, who also kept a string of race horses, Ben journeyed to Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. It was while in Charleston that be first started to play base ball. Hunt was a pitcher on a stable boys' nine. From there he stepped into the minors and worked his way up through the ranks until he landed with a major league team two years ago. He has made a permanent residence for himself in Sacramento, but intends to stop off for awhile in Oklahoma to see the old folks.
Ben Hunt's baseball odyssey began in Utah in August of 1908. The Deseret Evening News of Salt Lake City never made any mention of Hunt's first name during his two week stay with the club but did refer to him as the "two-story twirler" and "Beanpole" Hunt. On August 21, Hunt pitched a game against a touring club from Denver. When that team left town, he left with it.
By seasons end, "Stringer" Hunt, "a tall thin chap recently from the Idaho bushes," was in the Northwestern League where, on September 12, he hurled Tacoma to a 6-3 victory over Vancouver.
Hunt started the 1909 season in Tacoma. On April 14, The Tacoma Daily Ledger reported that "B. F. Hunt, the elongated southpaw" had been given his release.
In May and June, Hunt was with Salt Lake City's entry in the Intermountain League. By early July he had left the team and "had gone to Denver."
On July 17, Hunt was pitching for the Hutchinson team in the Kansas State League. The Hutchinson papers said that Hunt "had been playing independent ball out of Salt Lake City and drifting through here hooked up with the club," He was spectacular in Hutchinson, winning nine games in less than a month, and three days after the schedule ended on August 15, he was sold to the Boston Red Sox for $600.
Hunt left Hutchinson and quickly turned up in Wichita where, during the next 10 days, he pitched in five Western League games. By September 10, he had jumped the team. The Hutchinson paper, on September 11, ran a story headed "LOOKING FOR HUNT."
Wichita dopesters want to know where Hunt, the tall ex-Salt Packer twirler, is hanging his hat these days. When the star southpaw was here early in the week he was on his way back to Salt Lake City.
The [Wichita] Beacon says:
There has been a rumor about town for several days to the effect that Tall Ben Hunt did not accompany the Jobbers on their trip north. Where Hunt is and why he left, if he did leave, is not known. Hunt's terms were met when he joined the team at the close of the Kansas State league season, and he expressed a desire to come to Wichita rather than go to Boston.
Last Wednesday was pay day, and it is possible that the big fellow took it into his head to lay off for the balance of the season.
In early November, Hunt was in Santa Barbara pitching in a California winter league. A number of then current and future major leaguers were playing in southern California that winter, among them Walter Johnson, but despite the presence of the Big Train, it was Hunt who was the pitching star of the league. The Santa Barbara paper reported that Hunt hurled 11 shutouts. Hunt remained in Santa Barbara until the end of February, when he sailed up the California coast to join the Sacramento club for the opening of the PCL training season. He arrived in Sacramento during the first week of March, 1910. The Sacramento papers gave no biographical data on Hunt other that he came from Santa Barbara.
On March 6, Thomas Collier Platt, a former U.S. Senator from the state of New York died in New York City. Platt had been a prominent politician on the national level, possibly most noted as a political antagonist of Teddy Roosevelt. When Platt died, his obituary was front page news in many of the country's newspapers. Sacramento, being no exception, ran his obituary on March 7, which was just about the time that Hunt arrived in Sacramento.
In November of 1910, The Sporting News carried an item about the wedding engagement of Ben Hunt to a Miss Edith Wolfe. Wolfe supposedly was a Vassar educated actress who was the niece of the late Senator Platt. She and Hunt had met on a stagecoach in Oklahoma while Hunt was attending college. Harold Seymour made reference to this in his book, Baseball: The Golden Age, and to researchers 70 years later, it looked just like the key needed to unravel the Hunt mystery. But when contacted, the Platt family denied ever hearing of either Hunt or Edith Wolfe. Vassar College had no record of Wolfe, and despite inquiries to every college in Oklahoma, none had any record of Hunt. No record has ever been found of this marriage.
The Sacramento Bee reported that Hunt spent the winter of 1910-11 working on a ranch in Georgetown, California, milking cows to develop his wrist and forearm muscles. The Sacramento Union reported that he was working in a sawmill in "Germantown." The Red Sox had spring training in southern California in 1911. Hunt, not making the final cut, spent the entire season in Sacramento. The Sacramento Bee on June 26 read:
BIG BEN HUNT DYING AT CHICO.
POPULAR PITCHER ILL WITH PNEUMONIA AND HAS ONLY VERY SLIGHT CHANCE.
Ben Hunt, pitcher with the Sacramento Coast League team is dying in the Sister's Hospital at Chico.
Hunt complained a week ago of feeling poorly. At his request, he was granted a vacation and went to Richardson's Springs. His condition rapidly became worse and yesterday he was removed to the hospital at Chico.
Word from the hospital late this afternoon is that Hunt's condition is extremely critical. Dr. Inloe, who is attending him, says that the ballplayer has only the slightest chance to recover.
Hunt's parents reside at San Luis Obispo. He is unmarried. He was with Boston at the start of the season but a deal was fixed whereby he returned to this city. Hunt had frequently said he would rather play in California than in the East.
Despite the dire predictions, Hunt recovered and within a couple of weeks was back on the mound. No record of his parents was ever found in San Luis Obispo.
Hunt was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies on November 15, 1911. He spent the winter in Sacramento, and after failing to make the Phillies in the spring, had his contract sent back to the PCL team, which in turn sold it to Tacoma in the Northwestern League.
Hunt had a good year in 1912, and on August 7 was sold to the Chicago White Sox, but the deal fell through when Sacramento blocked the trade by claiming it still had an option on Hunt. Contractual rights were eventually awarded to Tacoma, which then sold Hunt to the St. Louis Cardinals, delivery scheduled for the spring.
Hunt spent the winter of 1912-13 living in Tacoma where he received quite a bit of newspaper ink as a member of the Indoor Yacht Club, a popular drinking society.
He joined the Cardinals in the spring, but after two April appearances was sent back to Tacoma, which then sold him to Chattanooga. Following two May games in the Southern League, he found his contract transferred back to the Northwestern League, this time to Victoria, British Columbia. Hunt, however, overshot Canada. On July 24, 1913, The Sporting News reported that Hunt was in Alaska, working a gold mine during the week and playing local baseball on the weekends. How long Hunt remained in Alaska is any one's guess, but he was there long enough to pitch a doubleheader for the Juneau team on the Fourth of July, and to marry a Miss Margaret Blanchard on July 15. Hunt came south to Vancouver in 1914, where he had his best season in professional baseball. Despite his successes, the Vancouver Daily Providence was stingy in regards to biographical clues. "Hunt's ability is well enough known in these parts and he needs no more introduction", was the best it could do.
Hunt spent the winter of 1914-15 in Vancouver. The paper reported on April 9, as Hunt defeated the touring Colored Giants, that "having spent the winter here and becoming thoroughly acclimatized, Ben Hunt was not the least bit bothered by the chilly atmosphere."
Hunt was released in June of 1915. The Vancouver papers indicated that Hunt's production didn't merit the salary he was drawing, but Sporting Life of January 1, 1916 gave a more detailed story of personality problems between the Vancouver manager and a large portion of the team. Hunt was named as one of the team ringleaders who led a player strike versus the manager, which earned the pitcher his release.
After an unexplained absence of over a year's time, Hunt showed up in Tulsa, Oklahoma in July of 1916. The Tulsa papers never mentioned a first name, but Hunt's Hall of Fame contract file confirms that this was Ben. By the start of August, Hunt was in Wichita looking for work. The Wichita Eagle of August 6, 1916 reported:
Long Ben Hunt, a traveler by profession and a baseball pitcher by necessity, drifted into Hutchinson some seven years ago in the "good old days" of the Western Association. He hurled such masterful ball for the Salt Packers that the clever club president sold him to Boston and Wichita at the same time. Big Ben drifted from Boston to somewhere and from somewhere to the Pacific Coast and from the Pacific Coast to the Cactus league in Arizona, and from the border to Wichita, arriving at the Wolf Den two or three days ago.
At the start of September, the Western League transferred the Wichita franchise to Colorado Springs, Colorado. On September 24, the Colorado Springs Gazette listed the homes and the occupations of the players. Hunt was from Butte, Montana where he was a miner.
Hunt spent the winter of 1916-17 in Butte, and the next spring was with Butte's Northwestern League entry. The April 5 issue of The Sporting News listed the names and the homes of Butte's pitching staff. All of the pitchers had a hometown listed but Hunt, who was simply listed as "of Wichita Western League."
Due to World War I, the Northwestern League, like some of the other minor leagues of 1917, suspended the remainder of its schedule in early July. No further mention was made of Hunt in the Butte papers.
Hunt had no record in organized baseball in 1918 or 1919. His next documented appearance was in Texas in the spring of 1920. The Dallas Morning News reported on March 19:
Hunt, the lengthy left-handed pitcher, has not yet signed with Dallas, although he has been working out for a couple of days. Hunt, who has southpawed in nearly all of the Class A circuits, was a free agent this year after a couple of seasons in the Army.
Inquiries to the U. S. military archives turned up no record of military service.
On March 21, the paper printed the Dallas roster. Hunt's home was given as Seattle, Washington and his age as 31.
Hunt pitched in just three games for Dallas that year. His last game was on April 23, when he pitched a complete game win against Ft. Worth. Of that game the paper said:
Hunt, the lean and hungry lefthander with the moonshine wind-up and the lighting delivery is going to win other games for Dallas. Given good support, the antique southpaw is a mighty tough customer.
Hunt never won another game for Dallas, or for that matter, any other team in organized baseball. As per habit, and without explanation, he had jumped the team. On June 1, a brief mention was made that he would be rejoining the team at the end of the week, but he never did.
Where Hunt had gone and why he left would remain a mystery for another 72 years. Organized baseball had no further record of Hunt. Dallas carried him on its ineligible list through the mid 1930s.
The search for Ben Hunt was a SABR-wide effort. Bob Anderson, Steve Bennett, Dick Beverage, Rich Bozzone, Abbey Garber, Bob Hoie, Tom Hufford, Wayne McCombs, Bob McConnell, Ray Nemec, Bob Richardson, Tom Shea, Rich Topp, Bob Wood and Rich Zucker were all involved. The deaths of more than 30 Ben Hunts from various parts of the country were investigated. Much of the data was obtained through the long process of reviewing microfilm of Hunt's minor league stops.
Bob Lindsay and Bill Haber had been on Hunt's trail the longest and were responsible for running down most of the impossible leads on Hunt. Haber turned up Hunt's Alaska marriage and investigated the Thomas Platt-Edith Wolfe mystery.
Bill Carle provided the two clues that finally broke the case. In 1989, Bill located Hunt's family in the 1900 U. S. census, living in Perry, Oklahoma. Haber had earlier found another reference to Perry so we were sure that this was the right family. Ben's father was born in Alabama, his mother in Michigan, his brother in Kansas, Ben in "Indian Territory" in February of 1888, and his sister in Oklahoma.
Armed with this information Haber contacted a genealogist in Oklahoma to help track down the family. His research showed that the Hunts owned property in Perry from 1899 to 1909, at which time they sold their farm and moved to parts unknown. Also of note was that the Hunts turned up twice in the 1900 census, and oddly, the ages of the family were different. Ben's father became five years older, his brother two, and his mother and sister a year each. Ben's birth was given as November of 1888.
In March of 1992, the 1920 U. S. census became available to researchers for the first time. Carle looked through every state, starting alphabetically with Alabama, for Hunt, and finally found a lead, in the state of Wyoming. A Ben Hunt was living in Casper, and while most of the entry was obliterated by an imperfection on the microfilm, Bill could read that this man's mother was born in Michigan and his father in Alabama.
An inquiry was sent to the Wyoming vital statistics office which provided a death certificate of a Benjamin F Hunt who died in Greybull, Wyoming on September 27, 1927. He was 34 years old at the time of death, his birthdate being given as November 10, 1892. His birth place was Oklahoma.
While the Oklahoma birth seemed promising, the age appeared a few years too young. The Greybull papers of 1927 were not immediately available and it took a while to find an obituary in the Basin, Wyoming paper:
Ben Hunt, a member of the old Midwest ball team at Oreybull, died Tuesday, after several years of suffering, following an accident. All those familiar with the old Midwest team will remember Ben Hunt, one of the most popular ball players and who but for the accident would be with the big league today.
Was this him, did we have our man? While we were sure it was, we still needed more. Finally an obituary was located from the Greybull paper:
Benjamin Franklin Hunt died at the hospital, of which he had been an inmate for the past six weeks. For several years he had suffered from lung trouble.
He was born at Eufaula, Oklahoma, November 10, 1892 and spent the early part of his life there. He came to Greybull in the days when the Midwest Refinery maintained a baseball team and was one of the pitchers until compelled to give it up on account of hemorrhages of the lungs. The climate seemed to be best for him and he remained here.
He is survived by a wife, his father and mother, two brothers and one sister.
Hunt had drifted up into Wyoming to play for the Greybull team in the Midwest Refinery League, a strong semi-pro circuit that was made up of teams sponsored by the Midwest Oil Company. Wyoming was a big oil producer and most of the players held jobs in the oil fields or at the refineries. A number of players with professional experience were in the Midwest League at that time, including the Greybull manager, former Federal League and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jim Bluejacket, who like Hunt was a native Oklahoman.
Research by Paul Jacques, a SABR member from Wyoming, revealed that Hunt pitched off and on in the Midwest League from 1919 through 1921. He spent the last few years of his life in the Greybull area where he ran a pool hall. He died in the county sanitorium from complications of alcoholism and tuberculosis, afflictions not unknown to ballplayers.
Was Hunt born in 1888 or 1892? While playing, he gave his age corresponding with the 1888 birth. If 1892 was correct then he was wandering the country as a 15 year-old and debuted with the Red Sox at 17, which may explain some of Hunt's immature behavior, especially the Edith Wolfe engagement story, which seems entirely fictitious. We'll never know for sure as it's doubtful that a true birth record exists. The only thing certain about Ben Hunt is that he led us on one hell of a chase.
This article was originally published in SABR's Baseball Research Journal (Volume 22, 1993). The principal source for the article was the newspaper microfilm from all of the towns Ben Hunt played in, many cited in the story above.