SABR

Joe Corbett

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

A short but stellar stint with the late 19th century Baltimore Orioles and a famous last name have preserved Joe Corbett in baseball memory. A right-handed pitcher and the younger brother of heavyweight boxing champ James J. Corbett, Joe first came to public attention as a 20 year-old, hurling two 1896 Temple Cup victories for the Orioles. The following year, he notched 24 regular season wins and another post-season victory for the Temple Cup repeaters. But the promise of this grand beginning would not be fulfilled. Contract disputes with Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon and a disinclination to leave his home on the West Coast removed young Corbett from the major league baseball scene for almost the next seven years. And an attempted comeback with the 1904 St. Louis Cardinals was aborted at mid-season, thus reducing the baseball legacy of Joe Corbett to largely a case of what might have been.

Joseph Aloysius Corbett was born in San Francisco on December 4, 1875, the eleventh of twelve children born to Irish Catholic immigrants.[1] By the time of Joe’s birth, his father Patrick Corbett had risen from an impoverished refugee from County Mayo to the owner-operator of a San Francisco livery stable/undertaking business. His mother, the former Catherine McDonald of Dublin, tended to the Corbett brood, ten of whom survived infancy.[2] Despite the size of their family, the Corbetts were determined to see their children get an education. In Joe’s case, that meant enrollment in St. Mary’s College of California as a 15 year-old prep student and then college study. As a youngster, Joe had played sandlot ball for various local teams. At college, he continued this pursuit, primarily as a shortstop-outfielder. During the summer of 1892, Joe played for the Oakland Piedmonts of the Central California League.[3] Meanwhile, older brother Jim was preparing for the event that would make the name Corbett known to millions: a heavyweight title fight against fearsome champion John L. Sullivan. In the first significant bout fought under the Marquess of Queensberry rules, Jim stunned the sporting world and took the crown with a 21st round knockout of Sullivan.

While at St. Mary’s, Joe, although still primarily a position player, began to dabble in pitching. During summer recess, he continued to play at least semi-professionally, spending 1894 with Alameda in the Inter-Athletic League and the Petaluma Poison Oaks of the California Players League. Joe’s professional career did not begin in earnest, however, until invited to come east in the summer of 1895 by brother Jim who, in addition to being the heavyweight boxing titleholder, was also an avid baseball fan and a decent player himself.[4] Likely through the intervention of the champ, Joe got to make brief appearances in the infield of the Eastern League Scranton Coal Heavers and the Toronto Canucks, going a combined three-for-eight (.375) at the plate but committing four errors in one game at shortstop. Again apparently via Jim’s good offices, Joe then received a shot as a pitcher with the sad sack Washington Senators of the National League. On August 23, 1895, Joe Corbett made his major league debut in the second game of a doubleheader against Baltimore. He lost 11-4 in a game called after six innings, but still managed to make a favorable impression on the observer for the Chicago Tribune, who reported that Corbett showed “fine command of the ball and a curve as wide as (Amos) Rusie’s, with plenty of steam behind it. He is also cool and not easily rattled.” But after multiple Senator miscues had let in five unearned runs, “Corbett naturally became discouraged and put them over,” surrendering five more runs in his final frame of work.[5] Washington manager Gus Schmelz must have been impressed, as well, as he gave Corbett two more late season starts. But the young righty toiled without success. Corbett finished his Senators tryout at 0-2, with a 5.68 ERA in 19 innings pitched. He had also been inserted into the Washington lineup at shortstop (2 games) and in the outfield (2 games) but failed to hit, going 2-for-15 (.133).

In 1896, Joe attended spring training with Baltimore, with the understanding that Jim Corbett would reimburse the club for tryout expenses if his brother were not signed by Orioles manager Ned Hanlon.[6] Presumably, Jim was obliged to pay up because Joe began the season as a pitcher with the Norfolk Braves of the Class B Virginia League. A 5-2 record, with a 1.74 ERA in 57 innings pitched, earned Joe a promotion back to Scranton.[7] Eastern League statistics for 1896 do not survive but Corbett must have pitched well, for his contract was acquired by Baltimore in early August. Joe made his first appearance for Baltimore on August 11 in a mop up relief stint against a Washington team on the way to a 17-3 loss to the O’s. Given a starting opportunity in the second game of a September 8 doubleheader versus Louisville, Joe pitched superbly, posting a complete game 3-1 victory. Ten days later, he went the distance again, beating Boston 8-3 in the 1896 NL pennant clincher. In his final start, “Corbett pitched phenomenally. Only four hits were made off him and he struck out seven” in a route-going 10-3 win against New York on September 25.[8] By season’s end, the 20 year-old had gone 3-0, with a 2.20 ERA in eight games, posting complete game victories in each of his three starting assignments.

Among those obviously impressed by the Corbett performance was manager Hanlon. For post-season Temple Cup play against the second place finishing Cleveland Spiders, Hanlon discarded the pitching rotation that had guided the Orioles to a 90-39 regular season record. He would go exclusively with Bill Hoffer (25-7) and Corbett.[9] The two did not disappoint. After Hoffer had bested Cy Young 7-1 in the opener, Corbett, “cool and nervy as they come, pitched the Spiders to a standstill,”[10] holding the opposition to seven hits in a 7-2 victory, called because of darkness after eight innings. Once Hoffer had again tamed Cleveland in Game 3, Corbett secured the Cup for Baltimore with a four-hit shutout, handling a comebacker hit by Bobby Wallace for the final chance of a 5-0 win.[11] Although Hoffer had been equally heroic, the young and handsome Corbett was the sensation of the Cup. As the team gathered at a train station for transport to a celebratory banquet, “there was an enthusiastic curiosity to see Joe Corbett, and when he at last got to the front door and the crowd saw him, he was given a rousing ovation.”[12]

With former staff mainstays Sadie McMahon, Duke Esper, and George Hemming departed from Baltimore for the 1897 season, the Orioles were banking on Corbett to pick up the hurling slack. But as Opening Day drew near, Joe was not in spring training with the club. Rather, he was in Carson City, Nevada helping his brother prepare for a March 17th title defense against Cornishman Bob Fitzsimmons. Now 5’10” and 175 lbs., Joe approximated the challenger’s size and occasionally sparred with Jim,[13] touting his brother’s conditioning in wires sent to Orioles teammates.[14] Sadly for Corbett backers, the champion proved unequal to the task. With brother Joe serving as a cornerman, Jim Corbett succumbed in the 14th round, separated from his crown by the storied Fitzsimmons left hook to the solar plexus.

Although heartsick over his brother’s defeat, Joe Corbett picked up the 1897 season where he had left off the previous Fall. In an early season outing against Boston, Joe was given “an enthusiastic reception by lady fans.” Then, exhibiting the “speed of a locomotive and a particularly deceptive drop and curve,” he defeated the Beaneaters handily, 7-1.[15] A key to Corbett’s success was his pitching delivery. As described by one observer, Corbett “has a long, swinging motion and a quick snap with the forearm in delivering the ball that looks something like the old underhand delivery.”[16] By the end of the 1897 campaign, Joe had emerged as the Orioles ace, going 24-8, with a 3.11 ERA in 313 innings. Among league pitchers as a whole, he was NL top five in wins, strikeouts (149), and winning percentage (.750). Signs of temperament, however, had begun to emerge during the latter part of the season. When teammates were critical during a mound conference in an August game against Philadelphia, Corbett slammed his mitt to the ground and stomped to the bench, refusing to continue.[17] And manager Hanlon developed misgivings about Corbett’s “heart” after Joe asked to be replaced at the start of a crucial late season game against Boston, claiming injury from a batted ball that had struck his hand.[18]

This, perhaps, accounts for Corbett’s sparing use during the second place Orioles’ 1897 defense of their Temple Cup laurels. In the five games against Boston that it took Baltimore to retain the Cup, Corbett started only once, manager Hanlon preferring to use Bill Hoffer (22-11) and Jerry Nops (20-6) in the other contests. Nor did Corbett’s performance invalidate his skipper’s judgment. In Game 2, he staggered to a 13-11 complete game win, surrendering 16 hits and four walks in the process. Joe was also shaky in relief in Game 4, just hanging on to preserve a 12-11 win for Nops. In fact, Corbett, still used occasionally as a position player, had been more effective at the bat, going four-for-six with a home run, his second robust Cup performance at the plate.[19]. Notwithstanding sub-standard hurling in the post-season, the year had been an outstanding one for Corbett, still only 21 years old. The young ace then extended the 1897 campaign via several post-Cup exhibition outings. After that, Joe Corbett would not appear in a major league uniform for almost seven years.

During the off-season, various clubs expressed interest in Corbett. But Hanlon had no intention of dealing such a promising youngster. The next Spring, Corbett, now ensconced back home in San Francisco, proved a handful for his manager. Joe wanted more money, demanding a $900 raise to $3,000. Hanlon countered with $2,400, which Corbett refused. But the young hurler was not Hanlon’s only pre-season headache. Established Oriole stars like Willie Keeler, Hugh Jennings, and Joe Kelley were also holding out in salary disputes. By April 13, however, Hanlon had settled with his dissatisfied charges – except Joe Corbett. With Opening Day on the horizon, Corbett scaled his salary demand down to $2,500, plus travel expenses from the West Coast. Although only $100 now separated the parties, Hanlon seemed offended by Corbett’s refusal to capitulate completely. With the 1898 season in progress, Hanlon made his negotiating position public, telling the press that Corbett would get no more than $2,400, even if his holdout cost Baltimore the pennant.[20] Corbett would not back down, turning Hanlon into a prophet: the season-long absence of Corbett from the Baltimore rotation likely provided Boston’s six game margin over the Orioles in the 1898 final standings.

Back in San Francisco, Corbett found work as a sportswriter at the San Francisco Call, his beat centered on the local baseball scene. He also appeared in uniform for Oakland in the Pacific States League, on occasion. Then, tragedy struck. For months, Joe’s father had been acting peculiarly. Early on the morning of August 16, 1898, 62 year-old Patrick Corbett shot his wife Kate to death as she lay sleeping in their bed. He then turned the gun on himself. The murder-suicide, discovered by son-in-law Charles King, devastated the Corbett family. [21] There would be no more thought of playing baseball for Joe Corbett in 1898. His siblings designated Joe to settle up their father’s affairs and for the remainder of the year, he devoted himself to that sad responsibility.

Following the 1898 season, a number of NL clubs repeated their overtures to Hanlon about Corbett’s availability. But as before, the Orioles skipper had no intention of letting his recalcitrant young hurler play for an opponent. If Corbett wanted to play major league baseball, it would be for Baltimore on Hanlon’s terms. And again, Corbett would not be coerced. He stayed in San Francisco during the 1899 season, operating the Corbett livery business in addition to sports reporting for the Call. About the only thing that changed for Joe Corbett was his marital status. In June 1899, he married Elizabeth Mahoney, the daughter of a local contractor.[22] Shortly thereafter, Corbett announced his retirement from baseball. “I have gone out of the baseball business for good, and a mint of money would not induce me to play again,” he said. “I went into the game because I liked it and had played for years in college. … (But now) I take little interest in the game. I wouldn’t cross the street to see one. There are other things of more importance and my hands are full all the time.”[23]

There had also been a change in Ned Hanlon’s situation. Prior to the commencement of the 1899 season, one of the syndicated club ownership arrangements prevalent during the 1890s precipitated the transfer of manager Hanlon, Orioles stars Willie Keeler and Joe Kelley, plus several other Orioles regulars to Brooklyn, another NL franchise in which Orioles ownership had an interest. Also transferred to Brooklyn were the rights to Joe Corbett, whether retired from baseball or not. The prospect of resuming his playing career in Brooklyn, however, was totally unappealing to Corbett and he again rejected Hanlon’s standing $2,400 contract offer for the 1899 campaign. For the next four years, Joe would attend to other interests and a quickly growing family, satisfying the baseball itch with occasional pitching turns for semi-pro and independent teams. These included a brief 1902 stay with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association, then a Class A-type minor league not a member of the National Association.[24]

On January 18, 1903, Corbett toed the slab in San Francisco for a band of touring American League players, playing a West Coast exhibition game against National League counterparts.[25] Flashing his one-time form, Joe hurled a six-hitter, while knocking in three runs for the victorious AL side. “Evidently,” declared the Chicago Tribune, Corbett was “still capable of playing great ball.”[26] Two months later, that assessment would be put to the test. Corbett signed with the Los Angeles Angels of the fledgling Pacific Coast League.[27] Corbett, still only 27 years-old, would be paid $5,000 and have his pitching schedule adjusted so that he could tend to his business interests in San Francisco, as well.[28] Joe proved worth the trouble and expense. He went 23-16, with a 2.36 ERA and a league-leading 196 strikeouts, for PCL champion Los Angeles. Joe also batted .336, with 4 homers among his 20 extra-base hits.

His PCL performance once again made Joe Corbett a hot baseball property. Initial post-1903 season reports had the National League champion Pittsburgh Pirates as the leading Corbett suitor.[29] But ultimately, the St. Louis Cardinals prevailed, assuring Tom Corbett (acting as his brother’s negotiating agent) that Ned Hanlon had relinquished any claim upon Joe’s services.[30] On April 18, 1904, Joe Corbett returned to a major league mound after a six-season hiatus, dropping a 7-6 decision to Chicago on two ninth inning runs. Still, his reviews were favorable, the Chicago Tribune observing that “Corbett pitched a good game, striking out ten Colts. He pitches curves all the time and works hard.”[31] But as the season progressed, it became apparent that Joe was no longer a top-flight major league pitcher. He “kidded” NL batsmen with off-speed breaking stuff and suffered at least one bad inning, “usually the sixth,” most outings.[32] With Corbett’s record standing at 5-8, with a 4.39 ERA over 108 2/3 innings, the Cardinals released him on August 1, 1904. The major league career of Joe Corbett had come to its end.

Although his best days were clearly behind him, the still young (28) Corbett pressed on. Once back home, he signed with the PCL San Francisco Seals, touching off a brief but nasty skirmish between the club and Ned Hanlon. Whether a matter of business or spite, Hanlon asserted a quasi-reserve clause claim to Corbett. As Hanlon saw it, the St. Louis release of Corbett did not make the pitcher a free agent. Rather, the rights to Corbett reverted to Brooklyn, his former (via the Orioles) club and, as a major league operation, entitled to preference over a minor league team like San Francisco anyway. Hanlon therefore filed a grievance with the National Commission, organized baseball’s governing body. The National Commission responded by issuing injunctive relief, declaring Corbett ineligible to play for any team over which the Commission had jurisdiction until it had rendered a ruling.[33] Spoiling for a fight and with PCL-wide backing, the Seals sent Corbett to the mound against Tacoma the very next day. With litigation now in the offing, Hanlon threw in the towel, releasing Corbett to play for San Francisco and thereby averting a rupture in relations between the Pacific Coast League and the game’s governing body.[34]

With the turmoil behind him, Joe pitched well for the Seals. He posted a 14-10 record, with a sparkling 1.86 ERA in 231 2/3 innings. In 1905, Corbett got off to a 3-3 start, with a respectable 2.67 ERA. Then on June 22, he quit, declaring “positively that he had retired from professional baseball for good.”[35] But like his brother Jim, whose serial comebacks from retirement amused fight fans, Joe Corbett did not stay retired long. The year 1906 saw Joe playing with the Stockton Millers and the San Jose Prune Pickers of the independent California State League. He even had a brief re-engagement in San Francisco, going one-for-seven in two games as a Seals outfielder. Following another two year layoff, Corbett, now 32, attempted a serious comeback in 1909. Returning to the PCL mound, Joe managed only a 4-7 record, but with a commendable 2.61 ERA in 91 innings for San Francisco. But after 12 appearances, his season was over.

In 1916, Joe Corbett, the pitcher who had abandoned the game during what should have been six prime major league seasons, attempted one last comeback at age 40, again in a San Francisco uniform. On April 23, 1916, Joe “taped up the old arm, greased the hinges of the elbow,” and then threw a complete game four-hitter at the Los Angeles Angels, winning 8-1.[36] That performance was Corbett’s last hurrah. On May 1, 1916, he was released by the Seals “to bring the team down to the eighteen player limit.”[37] This time, Corbett’s baseball career was over for good.

Following his final exit from the game, Joe was employed as a teller at a Bank of Italy branch in San Francisco.[38] He later opened a local saloon and worked for an oil company. At some point, he also coached the Santa Clara University baseball team. In February 1933, the brother whom Joe had near idolized died of cancer at his home in Bayside (Queens), New York. Former heavyweight boxing champ Jim Corbett was 66.[39] Four years later, a mild heart attack supplied Joe intimations of his own mortality. In between these two grim events, he had been gratified by his selection to the all-time Los Angeles baseball team, a panel of local experts according Joe a pitchers spot on their four man staff.[40] On May 2, 1945, another heart attack claimed the life of Joe Corbett at age 69. Following a funeral Mass at San Francisco’s Star of the Sea Church, he was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in nearby Colma, California. Joe Corbett was survived by his wife Elizabeth, their seven children, and sisters Esther Corbett and Catherine Corbett McEnerney.[41]

Although he spent several decades in and about the game, Joe Corbett’s playing achievements were modest ones. In parts of four major league seasons, he posted a 32-18 pitching log, with a 3.42 ERA spread over 481 2/3 innings. He was also 3-0 in post-season play. In addition, Joe occasionally filled in at various positions in the field, an asset to any team in an era of limited player rosters. He could even hit some, batting .235 in 230 regular season at-bats. Given the potential of the 24 win season that Corbett posted as a 21 year-old Baltimore Oriole and his versatility, he should have had a long and productive major league career. But temperament and geography too often proved impediments that he could not overcome. In the end, Joe Corbett must be adjudged a baseball player of largely unfulfilled promise.

 

NOTES

1. The principal bases for the biographical information contained herein are various US censuses and the Corbett family detail provided in Patrick Myler’s biography of Joe’s celebrated brother, Gentleman Jim Corbett: The Truth Behind the Boxing Legend (London: Robson Books, 1998).

2. The surviving Corbett children were Frank (born 1859), Edward (called Harry, 1860), Esther (1864), James (1866), John (1870), twins Teresa and Mary (1872), Catherine (1873), Joseph (1875), and Thomas (1878).

3. As per www.Baseball-Reference.com, the source of all statistical data provided herein.

4. Throughout his athletic prime, Jim Corbett would often play first base in exhibition contests or benefit games. As an older man, he became an ardent New York Giants fan and attended games at the Polo Grounds for the remainder of his life.

5. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1895.

6. As per the Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1896.

7. Baseball-Reference.com also lists Corbett as a member of the 1896 (San Francisco) Imperials of California of the California League but provides no statistics.

8. The Sporting News, October 3, 1896.

9. Regular season rotation members Arlie Pond (16-8), George Hemming (15-6), Duke Esper (14-5), and Sadie McMahon (11-9) would see no 1896 Temple Cup action for the Orioles.

10. Burt Solomon, Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball (Doubleday: New York, 1999), p. 109.

11. Orioles manager Hanlon later presented the final out ball to Cup sponsor William C. Temple, as per The Sporting News, October 17, 1896.

12. The Sporting News, October 17, 1896.

13. As per the Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1897. Jim Corbett was 6’1” and tipped the scales at 183 lbs. for the Fitzsimmons fight.

14. As per the Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1897, which further reported that Corbett’s teammates were betting on the champion to win, with catcher Boileryard Clarke staking $500 on a Jim Corbett victory.

15. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, April 25, 1897.

16. Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1897.

17. As recounted in Solomon, Where They Ain’t, pp. 118-119.

18. As later revealed in Sporting Life, December 12, 1900.

19. Corbett had also hit well in the 1896 Cup, going three-for-six. His overall post-season batting average was a potent .583.

20. See Solomon, p. 124, and the Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1898.

21. At a quickly convened coroner’s inquest, the jury concluded that Patrick Corbett had been “temporarily insane.” See San Francisco Chronicle, August 17, 1898. For a fuller account of the incident, see Myler, Gentleman Jim Corbett, pp. 132-136.

22. In time, Elizabeth and Joe Corbett would have seven children: Helen (born 1901), Joseph (1903), Elizabeth (1904), Mary (1906), Catherine (1908), Jeremiah (1911), and Grace (1913).

23. As quoted in the Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1899.

24. In September 1901, a number of minor leagues formed the National Association, a protective organization that established league classifications, roster sizes, salary limitations, and a player draft system. It also recognized the reserve clause. The National and American Leagues joined the National Association following the settlement of their differences in January 1903. For more, see The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd ed., Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1997), p. 133. Corbett went 1-2 in his brief tenure with Minneapolis.

25. This particular game was a benefit for the mother of recently deceased pitcher Win Mercer, an 1895 Senators teammate of Joe Corbett. Mercer had committed suicide in San Francisco a week before.

26. Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1903.

27. As per the New York Times, March 8, 1903.

28. As reported in the Washington Post, March 15, 1903, which calculated the cost to the Angels at $1 per Corbett pitch.

29. See the Chicago Tribune, November 7, 1903, and the Los Angeles Times, November 28, 1903.

30. As per the Los Angeles Times, December 30, 1903 and January 7, 1904.

31. Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1904.

32. According to the Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1904.

33. As per the Los Angeles Times, August 20 and 21, 1904.

34. As per the Los Angeles Times, August 31, 1904. Lurking in the background was the National League’s chronic inability to obtain judicial recognition of the reserve clause. During the Players League conflict of 1890, the courts had uniformly denied injunctive relief to the NL against players disregarding the reserve clause in their contracts and jumping to the new circuit. Invariably, reserve clause provisions were deemed to lack comity and were therefore ruled unenforceable. With the notable exception of the Nap Lajoie case, the same result had obtained when the NL sought court orders to prevent players from joining the American League a decade later. By the time of the Hanlon-Corbett brouhaha, the NL was perhaps only a single lawsuit away from having the reserve clause invalidated outright. If Hanlon, a part-owner of the Brooklyn franchise, did not come to realize this on his own, it was doubtless brought to his attention by a fellow magnate.

35. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1905.

36. As observed by sportswriter Harry A. Williams in the Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1916.

37. As per the Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1916. At the time of his release, Corbett’s record stood at 1-1, with a 2.63 ERA in 27 1/3 innings.

38. As noted on Joe Corbett’s World War I draft registration form.

39. Curiously, neither Joe nor any of the three surviving Corbett sisters made the trip east to attend Jim’s funeral. Biographer Myler speculates that the primly Catholic Corbetts may have been scandalized by Jim’s well-publicized philandering or by his divorce and re-marriage to a non-Catholic. This, however, seems unlikely, at least in Joe’s case. Joe had served as a witness at the Asbury Park, New Jersey ceremony by which Jim married mistress Vera Stanwood (nee Jessie Taylor), the hastily arranged nuptials taking place only 13 days after first wife Olive Lake Corbett had been granted a divorce decree. More probably, age, distance and/or expense dissuaded the Corbetts from making a trip cross-continent and back.

40. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1936.

41. As per the San Francisco Examiner, May 3, 1945. See also. The Sporting News, May 10, 1945.

 

 

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