SABR

Bill Rotes

This article was written by Peter Morris.

William Clarence Rotes spent his entire life in his birthplace of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and made such a name for himself on the baseball diamonds of his hometown that he got a chance to pitch in the National League for two months in 1893. There was nothing remotely unusual about his life, nor did his accomplishments fail to attract attention in Pottstown. Yet through an odd set of circumstances he remained so elusive that it was not until 2009 that researcher Richard Malatzky finally was able to solve the mystery of when and where he died.

Rotes was born in Pottstown on June 27, 1871, the third of four children of Eli S. Rotes and the former Mary Nagengast. He had one older brother, Howard Clayton Rotes, and no doubt the two played plenty of baseball while growing up. By 1884, there was a mention in Sporting Life that a “C. Rhoads” was playing for the Young Merritts of Pottstown. This was probably one of the two brothers, but since both of them were usually known by their middle names, we cannot be sure which one. In addition, if this was indeed one of the Rotes brothers, it provides a preview of a recurrent theme in this saga – incorrect spellings of the Rotes surname.

Pottstown had a very strong town team that featured George Fox and brothers Jack and Harry Gilbert, all three of whom were cup-of-coffee major leaguers. The team was also blessed with a standout catcher in Harry Shinehouse, who played alongside his brothers Ross and Charles. Other regulars included David and Fritzie Bechtel, Scott Klink, Irvin “Simmie” Knauer, and Clinton “Goldie” Seavers.

William Clarence Rotes had joined them on the town team by 1891, and at some point earned the odd nickname of “Poodle.”[1] But he remained unknown outside of Pottstown until the Philadelphia Athletics came to town for an exhibition game that September. Such contests were still commonplace events in the 1890s and were rarely more than an excuse for a major league team with an off-day to make a quick buck.

But this one proved very different, yielding an outcome that received coverage and a box score in Sporting Life. “It isn’t often,” noted its correspondent, “that a first-class team is shut out by a semi-professional team, which is a grade lower even than a minor league team, yet that is what happened to the Athletics at Pottstown Wednesday. They there ran up against a pitcher named Rhoads, whom they could not hit. They got but two hits in the game and were shut out. Both teams fielded brilliantly, and not a run was made until the tenth inning, when doubles by [Charles] Shinehouse and [Harry] Gilbert sent the former across the plate.” The account was aptly headlined, “A Remarkable Game.”[2]

Naturally the young pitcher’s brilliant work was also hailed in the local press, but even there his name proved as hard to spell as his offerings were difficult to hit. “Rhoads in the pitching box,” declared the Pottstown Daily News, “pitched a winning game and held the heavy sluggers of the Athletics down to two hits, and as the game progressed warmed up to his work, increasing the effectiveness with every inning. During the latter part of the game, he sent the sphere over the plate with surprising effectiveness.”[3]

The stunning upset became an enduring part of Pottstown baseball legend. In 1927 a reunion was held for the surviving members of the group of “local sandlotters” who had achieved that “glorious victory.” The Athletics were once more the opponents, and “Poodle Rhoads … was again on the mound.  Looking at that six feet of brawn and muscle on the pitcher’s mound, one could readily vision a wonderful hurler in his younger days. His height gave the impression of being capable of hurling them plateward with rifle-like speed. Dick Weand, who a few years later developed into one of the best catchers produced in this section, is the authority for the statement that Rhoads threw a faster ball than any man he ever caught.”[4] As late as 1953, the local paper published a photo of the town team and predicted that it would “cause plenty of talk at [tomorrow’s] Old Timers’ banquet” about the famous 1-0 triumph.[5]

Even when Rhoads died, the centerpiece of his obituary was not his status as a former major leaguer. Rather, it was on how “Mr. Rotes, who was known in sports circles as ‘Poodle’ Rhoads” had “carved himself a niche in the sports hall of fame when he pitched Pottstown’s baseball nine to a 1 to 0 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics on Sept. 9, 1891.”[6]

While the shutout of the Athletics was the highlight of William Clarence Rotes’ career, it was by no means his finale. The splendid performance earned him a chance in professional baseball, beginning six months later when he signed to pitch for Dansville in the Pennsylvania State League. Alas, his name continued to baffle sportswriters, and one account announced the signing of “Clarence S. Rhoads.”[7]

Rotes made a “good record” with Dansville in 1892 and signed for 1893 with Johnstown, also of the Pennsylvania State League.[8] Two months into the season, he got his chance in the major leagues when word came that “Johnstown’s famous pitcher … better known as ‘Home Run’ Rhoades” had been signed by Louisville manager Billy Barnie.[9] As was the case with so many other papers, the Louisville Courier-Journal struggled to publish accurate information about “Rhoades the ‘wonder.’”[10] After first declaring that “Little is known about Rhodes,” the paper then began spelling his surname as Rhoades and reported that the towering pitcher was “said to be a small man with a delivery as smooth as that of Rusie.”[11]

Louisville was mired in the National League cellar when Rotes was signed, having compiled an appalling 4-25 record. As a result, there was cause for optimism on June 14th when Rotes beat Washington in his major league debut. By the time he made his second start on the 18th, the Colonels were on their first two-game winning streak of the season. But this time he was “pounded all over the field” by Cincinnati. He surrendered 14 runs in the first inning alone, but was left in to pitch the entire game. When the dust finally cleared, he had given up 32 hits, 7 walks, 2 hits batsmen, 6 stolen bases, and 21 earned runs in a 30-12 debacle.  He is the last pitcher to allow thirty runs in a game.[12]

Rotes remained a fixture in the club’s pitching staff for the next two months, but was not effective, posting twelve losses against five wins and a 7.60 earned run average that was far and away the worst among qualifiers. He also struggled at the plate, striking out a remarkable 26 times in 70 at-bats, although he did swat two triples. He made his final major league appearance on August 15, 1893, in an 11-6 loss to Chicago.

Rotes returned to the Pennsylvania State League in 1894 with Reading, but he continued to be hit hard, a problem that one reporter blamed on the increased pitching distance.[13] After two years with Reading, he migrated to Pawtucket of the New England League. The eastward shift did not alleviate the old problem of the spelling of his name; after the 1896 season, a Fall River paper reported that Pawtucket had reserved “Wesley C. Rhoades.”[14]

He was still perambulating about the minor leagues in 1898 when it was reported that he was returning to Pawtucket after having played in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.[15] But his professional career seems to have ended soon afterward, as an 1899 article reported, “This afternoon Dusty Rhoads of State League fame made his debut after a long retirement. Besides pitching winning ball he broke the record on his terrific home run hit.”[16]

On April 11, 1896, William Rotes married Laura Levengood of Pottstown, a wedding that earned mention in Sporting Life.[17] They soon became parents of their first child, a daughter named Mary. His marriage also corresponded to a change in his listing in the Pottstown city directories (in which his name was always spelled Rotes). After being listed as a ball player in the 1890s, his occupation changed to laborer in 1900 and then to bridge builder in 1904 when he went to work as a riveter for McClintic-Marshall Construction Company, a firm specializing in bridges that became the world’s largest steel fabricating business.

There was nothing exceptional about William Rotes’ life after retiring from baseball. His family was completed in 1903 when Laura Rotes gave birth to a second daughter, Bessie. He continued to work in Shop 3 at McClintic-Marshall until the early 1930s, when the company was bought out by Bethlehem Steel. Then his health began to fail and in early 1934 he was hospitalized with what was vaguely described as “a variety of ailments.” He died at Pottstown’s Homeopathic Hospital on March 7, 1934, survived by his wife, two daughters, and a grandson.[18]

After her husband’s death, Laura Rotes remarried and then outlived a second husband, dying in 1966 at the ripe old age of eighty-nine.[19] Her younger daughter, Bessie, was the same age when she passed away in Pottstown in 1993. The ballplayer’s only grandson died in Pottstown three years later.

By then, the various baseball encyclopedias were being published and researchers were working hard to determine birth and death information for every major leaguer. That quest continues, and each year the number of “missing players” is pared some more, with the result that many of the 250 or so major leaguers who remain unidentified were nomads with no hometown anxious to claim them. In stark contrast, William Clarence Rotes had a lifelong connection to Pottstown, where he was long celebrated for having pitched the town team to a “glorious” ten-inning 1-0 victory over a major league team. Yet a combination of factors – misspelling of his last name, confusion over his first name, and Pennsylvania’s restrictive policies on vital records – caused him to remain a “missing player” until 2009, when Richard Malatzky and Mike Osiol teamed up to unlock the longstanding mystery and reveal the life story of William Clarence Rotes.

Sources

Sources are cited in the notes, and were supplemented by research done by many SABR members over the years, most recently Richard Malatzky and Reed Howard. Special thanks to Mike Osiol of Pottstown, who finally tracked down Rotes’ elusive date of death and many of the articles in the Pottstown press.




[1] “Poodle Rotes, Former Hurler, Dies at 62,” Pottstown Mercury, March 8, 1934, 2

[2] Sporting Life, September 12, 1891, 4

[3] Pottstown News, September 10, 1891; quoted in Rotes’ obituary, Pottstown Mercury, March 8, 1934, 2

[4] Pottstown Daily News, September 30, 1927, 9

[5] “Do You Remember?,” Pottstown Mercury, November 11, 1953, 15

[6] “Poodle Rotes, Former Hurler, Dies at 62,” Pottstown Mercury, March 8, 1934, 2

[7] Philadelphia Inquirer, May 17, 1892

[8] Sporting Life, April 15, 1893, 1

[9] Sporting Life, June 17, 1893, 3

[10]  Louisville Courier Journal, June 28, 1893

[11] Louisville Courier Journal, June 13 and 26, 1893

[12] Chicago Inter Ocean, June 19, 1893, 4

[13] Philadelphia Inquirer, March 1, 1895

[14] Fall River Globe, September 26, 1896

[15] Philadelphia Inquirer, April 8, 1898

[16] Philadelphia Inquirer, July 5, 1899

[17] Sporting Life, April 18, 1896, 5

[18] “Poodle Rotes, Former Hurler, Dies at 62,” Pottstown Mercury, March 8, 1934, 2

[19] “Local Woman Dies in Hospital,” Pottstown Mercury, June 24, 1966, 6

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.