SABR

Bunk Congalton

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

A stonemason from Scotland, Alexander Congalton moved to Canada in the latter half of the 19th century and had seven children with his wife, Janet, also a native of Scotland. Their son William was the middle child, the fourth-born. He was born on January 24, 1875, in Guelph, Ontario, about 60 miles west of Toronto.1 He attended Guelph Collegiate High School. And he played baseball growing up, and attracted the nickname Bunk, a name used by family even after his death.

The first baseball we know young Congalton played was reflected in a July 2, 1894, dispatch from London, Ontario, to Sporting Life. It read, simply, “Congalton, Guelph’s rightfielder, is a great player.”2 He played for the Eastern League’s Toronto Canucks, in 1895, joining the team for spring training, as a center fielder, in Elmira, New York. He didn’t last long. Opening Day was April 29, and by June 3 Congalton had been released; he’d appeared in 13 games and hit for a .186 average. Before the month was out, he signed on with the Port Huron Marines (Michigan State League). Team statistics have not been located; the Port Huron team disbanded on September 3. But Bunk had begun a playing career that took him to 1914. He is listed at 190 pounds and 5-feet-11, and a left-handed batter and thrower. Bunk was fleet afoot, at least in his younger years, and numerous articles commented on his speed.

Congalton may also have played for a team in Flint. “Congalton, of last year’s Toronto and Flint, Mich., teams, will play next season with Petersburg, Va.,” Sporting Life reported before the 1896 season. “Congalton is a rising young player who will make his mark in the base ball world. He is a good fielder and batter, and when occasion demands can go into the box and pitch a very creditable game. He is a left hand pitcher.”3 Occasion rarely demanded, though surviving records show that Congalton pitched in at least one game for Guelph in 1897 and one for Wheeling in 1900. There is also no indication that he ever played for Petersburg, though the signing was reported more than once. SABR’s records have him with the Guelph team in both 1896 and 1897. In the latter year he hit .318 in 46 games, and stole 19 bases.

Hamilton, Ontario, was Bunk’s baseball home for 1898, a year in which the team played in two leagues. From May 5 to July 8 the team was in the International League, and from July 13 to September 20 it was in the Canadian League. Charles “Chub” Collins was the skipper, and he saw the team finish second in its first league but win the Canadian League pennant by a half-game. The season had started well, with the Sporting Life correspondent cheerleading for Congalton in a May 5 column: “Hats off to Billy Congalton! You’re the best outfielder in the International League.” Manager Arthur Irwin of the Washington Senators was reported to have sent scout Doc Sheppard to Hamilton in August: “Sheppard had his peepers continually on Billy Congalton during his visit to the ball grounds, and he certainly must have conveyed … a good word for the dashing centre fielder, and the chances are that Congalton will, be picking them out of the clouds in the great National or Eastern next season.”4

The cheerleading continued, along with some flowery prose: “Billy Congalton is playing wonderful ball for the Hamiltons. His gilt-edged fielding is attracting attention. The game he is putting up is certainly a revelation. Saturday’s game against St. Thomas he captured several sent over the difficult route, but Billy saw them coming, cut across Easy street, took them in in a quiet, graceful manner, and with that sangfroid that characterizes the movement of a weary wayfarer who is holding sweet commune with a well-filled growler under a spreading elm.”5

A somewhat quaint article on Congalton appeared in the September 10, 1898, Sporting Life:

WM. CONGALTON’S equal has not been seen in Hamilton since the days of Brodie, and is touted by the writer as one who would fit in nicely for any club in the strong Western and Eastern Leagues, and, in fact, the National. He was born in Guelph, Canada, Jan. 24, 1876, and consequently is in his 23rd year. His first professional engagement was with the Toronto Eastern League team under Charley Maddock. He was nervous and inexperienced, as one would naturally surmise in such fast company the first year and was released. During the season of ’96 he was with the champion Guelphs of the Canadian League, batting at .215 in 46 games and fielding at .897. He was re-engaged by the champions, and acquitted himself in “a most creditable manner and closed the season with the magnificent averages of .318 and .971. That gilt-edge work led to engagement with the Hamiltons and his phenomenal playing has attracted several managers’ attention. His batting in 60 games, 30 in each organization – International and Canadian Leagues – are .328 and .333 respectively, which speaks for itself. He will pass the cold winter evenings at his cozy home, corner Clinton and Gladwin streets. Guelph, Can., where he can be addressed.

In midseason 1899 Congalton was secured by Milwaukee of the Western League and played for the team from July 29 to the end of the season, under the leadership of manager Connie Mack. It’s another season for which we lack detailed statistics, though Congalton’s combined average for the year is given as .345.

Wheeling dealt for Congalton in 1900, and he hit .293 in 131 games, including six home runs. In 1901 he split his time between two teams – the Marion Glass Blowers in the Western Association and the Minneapolis Millers in the Western League, for whom he hit .311. And he finally got his first chance to play in the majors, because manager Hugh Duffy felt he he was too good to play for Milwaukee in the Western League again.6

Congalton signed with the National League’s Chicago Orphans (now the Cubs) in January 1902. He was hampered by a sore foot that persisted almost to Opening Day, but was 1-for-2 in his first game and went on to hit safely 15 times in his first ten games, tearing up opposing pitching. His single in the bottom of the ninth won the May 22 game against the Phillies.

Inevitably Congalton cooled off, but dramatically so. And on June 26 he was released. “Congalton was the saddest of the season’s disappointments,” Sporting Life lamented. “He started at the bat like a fiend, and was hitting over .400 for a long time. Then he slumped completely, and during the past three weeks his average must have been about .100. When he had sunk to a net percentage of .237 for the season, [manager Frank] Selee decided that it was all off and chased the erstwhile slugger. Congalton, aside from his batting, was a slow man on the bases, but marvelously good in the field – a sure catch and a good thrower.”7

On July 17 it was announced that Congalton had signed with the Colorado Springs team of the Western League, and he played very well indeed, hitting .339 in 78 games, with a career-high eight homers, two of them in one game, at home on August 3 against Denver, in which he also hit a triple and a single.

Congalton and Colorado Springs paired up well. He played for the Millionaires in 1903 (batting for a league-leading .363 average) and again in 1904 (hitting .327, in part thanks to a 24-game hitting streak).8 Again, his average led the Western League.

In 1905 Congalton played for the Columbus Senators under manager Bill Clymer, again hitting over .300 (.314, in the course of 153 American Association games). Columbus was a team with a large number of big-league castoffs on the roster.9 Perhaps the veteran presence helped; the Senators won the pennant.

In September 1905 Detroit drafted Congalton from Columbus, but a confusing situation developed. The Washington Post tried to explain: “He was drafted for Washington in 1904, but somehow he got away during the winter to Columbus, where Detroit found him, and then waived claim to Cleveland.”10

He did, in fact, join the Cleveland Naps in time to get into 12 games – hitting .362 in 47 at-bats. In 1906 Congalton played the full season for Cleveland and manager Nap Lajoie, appearing in 117 games and batting .320 with 50 runs batted in. One newspaper commented on his defense – “He is not a ground coverer” – but praised his timely hitting.11

After the season, both Bunk and Rudy (Congalton and Hulswitt, respectively) were arrested when the Columbus police raided a poker club at the Manhattan Club. “When arrested the men objected to riding in the patrol wagon, but they were ordered to get in just the same and thus made the trip to the city prison. Hulswitt wanted to fight, but the policemen would not accommodate him.”12 Umpire William Bierhalter was arrested at the same time; he pleaded guilty and was fined $50 plus costs. Congalton and Hulswitt were bailed out, but then failed to appear in court and were ordered re-arrested. How the charge of gambling laid against them was resolved we do not know. At some point during 1912, Bierhalter and Congalton became partners in a café in Columbus, though it was short-lived; they sold it in early 1913.13

Congalton followed up his 1906 season with Cleveland, starting the ’07 season for Lajoie, but on May 17 (after appearing in just nine games) he was sold outright to the Boston Americans.14 Actually, Cleveland had been trying to send Congalton back to Columbus, but Boston would not agree to waive him through, instead putting in a claim for him, and then working out a deal to buy his contract.15 Before Congalton joined Boston, he stopped by Columbus to see his young daughter, who had taken ill.16

Congalton had a good year for Boston, getting into 124 games and hitting .286. They were his last games in the major leagues. By the time he arrived, the team was already on its fourth manager of the season. Chick Stahl had committed suicide during spring training, and Cy Young was manager for the first six games of the year, succeeded by George Huff, who resigned after eight games. Bob Unglaub then took over and was manager when Congalton arrived. After the season was 43 games old, Jim “Deacon” McGuire took over. The .286 average may not seem impressive today, but the Boston team hit for a .234 average and Congalton led the team among all batters who appeared in 50 or more games. The American League as a whole batted .239.

After the season was over, the Boston Americans played a “city series” set of games against Boston’s National League team, then known as the Doves. Congalton played in the games, in which the Americans trounced the Nationals, winning six games and tying the seventh.

One would think McGuire wanted Congalton back, but the December 23 Boston Globe told another story. McGuire had already decided he wanted “Barrett, the old-timer, Cravath, the hard hitting Californian, Thoney, the brilliant player from the Toronto club, and McHale of the Pacific coast.” The best-laid plans often go awry. Jimmy Barrett played in only three games, Gavvy Cravath hit .256 in 94 games, Jack Thoney hit .255 in 109 games, and Jim McHale played in only 21 contests. Doc Gessler (.308 in 128 games) saw the most duty and led the team in batting average.

The day after Christmas, Boston released Congalton to Columbus, “as part of the deal for outfielder Gessler.”17 The Boston Globe bid him farewell, saying, “ ‘Bunk’ Congalton was a good-natured fellow and always did his best.”18

Heading back home to Columbus was very welcome news. Congalton played the next four seasons and part of 1912 for the Senators, the first year and part of 1909 under Clymer and then under new manager Bill Friel. He averaged more than 157 games a year, and hit for close to .300 over the four full years.

Every year, seemingly routinely, Congalton was placed on waivers, perhaps to see what interest he might attract. In late July of 1912, the Toledo Mud Hens claimed him and the Senators agreed. Columbus was looking to make room for Charley Hemphill. It had been a down year for Bunk; combined stats for the two teams show him hitting .280.

In February 1913 Toledo sold Congalton to Omaha for the waiver price. This meant dropping a notch down to Single-A, but Congalton took advantage. He played in exactly 300 games for the Omaha (Western League) in 1913 and 1914, hitting .350 and .335 in his last two seasons.

After leaving baseball Congalton became a resident of Cleveland and took up work as a salesman for an insurance company, living there with his wife, Harriet, also a Canadian native. He later became an employee of the city’s public utilities department and was working for the department at the time of his death. On August 15, 1937, he went to Cleveland Stadium to watch the Indians take on the visiting Chicago White Sox in a doubleheader. Bob Feller faced off against Chicago’s Ted Lyons in the first game. Feller pitched through eight before being replaced by a pinch-hitter. Sometime in those eight innings, Congalton suffered a heart attack and was taken to a hospital, where he died four days later, on the 19th.19

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Congalton’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.

 

Notes

1 There is some uncertainty about the year of Congalton’s birth. When he registered for the military draft during the First World War, he gave the year of his birth as 1876. His obituary in The Sporting News gave it as 1877.

2 Sporting Life, July 7, 1894.

3 Sporting Life, February 1, 1896.

4 Sporting Life, August 20, 1898.

5 Sporting Life, August 20, 1898.

6 Sporting Life, May 24, 1902.

7 Sporting Life, July 5, 1902.

8 The hitting streak ended on August 5, per Sporting Life, September 10, 1904. The following year, Congalton played 52 consecutive games without an error, a rare event on the rough playing fields of the early 20th century. Sporting Life, November 11, 1905.

9 Washington Post, September 25, 1905.

10 Washington Post, October 14, 1905. Cleveland obtaining Congalton had occurred on September 26 and was reported the following day.

11 Unattributed November 24, 1906, clipping found in Congalton’s Hall of Fame player file.

12 Sporting Life, December 1, 1906.

13 Sporting Life, December 28, 1912, and March 8, 1913.

14 Sporting Life, May 25, 1907.

15 Sporting Life, May 25, 1907.

16 Boston Globe, May 18, 1907.

17 Boston Globe, December 27, 1907.

18 Boston Globe, December 27, 1907.

19 The Sporting News, August 26, 1937; New York Times, August 20, 1937.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.