Jack Lelivelt

This article was written by Stephen V. Rice

In a career that spanned from 1906 to 1940, Jack Lelivelt was one of the great hitters and managers of minor-league baseball. As a hitter, he had more than 3,000 hits and averaged .328 over 20 seasons, including six seasons in the American League. His major-league career was curtailed by leg injuries. As a manager, Lelivelt compiled a .564 winning percentage in 20 minor-league seasons. He managed the 1934 Los Angeles Angels, considered “the best minor-league team ever” by historians Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright.1 When Lelivelt was a 25-year-old outfielder on the Washington Senators, sportswriter Hugh Fullerton called him “one of the wisest and most thorough students of the game.”2

John Frank “Jack” Lelivelt was born on November 14, 1885, in the Netherlands. His Dutch name was probably Jan Franciscus Lelivelt. He was the second child born to Franciscus Zecharius “Frank” Lelivelt and Theodora “Dora” (Mattijssen) Lelivelt.3 Jack’s brother, Bill, was born in 1884. The family arrived in America in 1887 and settled in Chicago,4 where Frank worked as a carpenter. Jack and Bill grew up playing baseball. The brothers were teammates in 1904 on the amateur Wholesale Dry Goods team of the National Union League.5 The family lived two miles from the Chicago Cubs’ ballpark. Jack played hooky from school to play baseball6 and to watch major-league games,7 which caused his mother to worry that he would become a failure.

Jack batted and threw left-handed. He got his start in professional baseball in May 1906 as a 20-year-old center fielder for the Lake Linden (Michigan) Sandy Cities of the Class C Northern Copper Country League. In August he hit a grand slam against the Duluth (Minnesota) White Sox, which was reported to be “one of the longest hits ever made in Duluth.”8 He finished the season with a .299 average in 93 games. Meanwhile, Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack had a chance conversation with the owner of the Lake Linden team. The owner mentioned that he had grown tired of paying the cost of repairs to the home-run fence at Lake Linden’s ballpark. It seems he kept getting bills from the repairman that said, “board splintered by Lelivelt.” Upon hearing the story of the fence-busting slugger, Mack purchased Lelivelt from the Lake Linden team.9

Lelivelt looked good at spring training with the Athletics in 1907, but the leap from Class C to the major leagues was too great, so Mack sent him to the Hartford Senators of the Class B Connecticut State League. He batted.265 in 89 games for Hartford and was sent in August to the Reading (Pennsylvania) Pretzels of the Class B Tri-State League, where he hit .263 in 29 games.10 The Reading Times described a catch Lelivelt made in Reading against Harrisburg:

“Lelivelt’s great catch [in left field] had the crowd wild. [Mike] O’Neill drove out a line hit that looked good for three bases. Lelivelt made a gigantic leap into the air, stuck out his mitted hand and grabbed the sphere. It was one of the prettiest plays ever seen on the local diamond.”11

Lelivelt continued his impressive fielding on the 1908 Reading team. In April he made game-saving catches in center field of balls hit by Toronto’s Moose Grimshaw and future Hall of Famer Pete Hill of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, a Negro League team.12 In a June game in Reading against Altoona, Lelivelt “speared” a ball in left field “with his ungloved hand on the dead run, making one of the most sensational catches ever seen on the local grounds.”13 Against Johnstown in August, he made another game-saving catch.14

Lelivelt was one of the leading hitters of the Tri-State League. His 1908 statistics were similar to those of his Reading teammate Frank “Home Run” Baker.15 Third baseman Baker batted .299 in 119 games with 11 doubles, 12 triples, 6 home runs, and 23 stolen bases; outfielder Lelivelt batted .305 in 124 games with 12 doubles, 11 triples, 4 home runs, and 32 stolen bases.

Mack needed a third baseman in Philadelphia, so he gave Reading the rights to Lelivelt in exchange for Baker.16

On May 11, 1909, Lelivelt went 4-for-5 with a home run and six RBIs in a 12-0 Reading victory over Johnstown.17 After he had batted .345 in 41 games in 1909, Reading sold him to the Washington Senators. On June 24, 1909, Lelivelt made his major-league debut, playing left field and going 0-for-4 against the Boston Red Sox. The next day he got his first major-league hit, off Boston’s Frank Arellanes.18 On July 19 Jack’s brother, Bill Lelivelt, made his major-league debut as a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Just five years after they played for Wholesale Dry Goods in Chicago, the brothers were major leaguers.

In the outfield, Jack struggled with groundballs,19 but he excelled on fly balls. His fielding improved with tutoring from his Washington teammate Germany Schaefer.20 In a game in Cleveland on July 9, Lelivelt robbed Joe Birmingham of a home run:

“The new center fielder stretched ... high in the air, captured the ball, and then turned a handspring and somersault combined, landing right-side-up with the ball in his glove. Even the Cleveland fans cheered him when he came to bat.”21

Lelivelt made two more great catches against Cleveland in a doubleheader on August 3, and a week later his 12th-inning catch “saved the day” against St. Louis.22 Opponents underestimated the rookie’s ability to get to balls and make accurate throws. On August 5 Lelivelt threw out Nap Lajoie at home plate after Lajoie tagged up on a fly ball caught by Lelivelt; Lajoie did not slide, thinking there was no chance he would be thrown out.23 On August 11 Ty Cobb took off from second base on Sam Crawford’s fly ball to left-center field, assuming Lelivelt would not make the catch; Lelivelt made the catch and threw the ball to second base for a double play.24 Three days later Crawford attempted to advance from first base to third base on Claude Rossman’s single, but Lelivelt’s throw to third base “got him easily.”25

The 23-year-old Lelivelt batted .292 in 91 games, which was the highest average on the Senators. Except for Baker, he was the best-hitting rookie in the American League in 1909.26 Mack admitted his mistake in letting him go:

“He did not seem to be fully ripe or up to big league standard. Now, I admit, he has the goods and I was in error. I am anxious to see Lelivelt make good, for he is not only a great young ballplayer, but one of the nicest youngsters that ever broke into the game.”27

The Washington Post praised Lelivelt’s hitting:

“When Jack Lelivelt is getting base hits, they are never of the questionable kind. He drives a ball prettier than any other player on the team. His very stand at the plate inspires confidence, and when he swings, it is straight from the shoulder. The best feature of Jack’s hitting lies in the fact that he has no regular field in which to hit. He is just as apt to hit hard into left as into right.”28

In December Lelivelt was on a team of major-league “all-stars” that traveled to Cuba. The team played five games in Havana against the Havana Reds and the Almendares Blues. Lelivelt batted .350 (7-for-20) in the five games; only Schaefer had more hits among the all-stars.

On Opening Day, April 14, 1910, with President William Taft looking on, Walter Johnson threw a one-hit shutout in a 3-0 victory over the Athletics. Lelivelt played left field and batted third for the Senators. He hit two doubles and a sacrifice fly, and had two RBIs, against Philadelphia’s ace left-hander, Eddie Plank.29 Two weeks later Lelivelt delivered a walk-off single in the 12th inning to beat the Red Sox, 2-1.30 He went into a slump that saw his average drop to .228 in June, but his bat came alive, and by August he led the team with a .274 average.31 He finished the season with a .265 average in 110 games.

During the 1910 season Lelivelt was mentored by Washington manager Jimmy McAleer, who had been a great defensive outfielder in his playing days.32 In a game against the New York Highlanders on April 23, Lelivelt made a “circus catch” of Jimmy Austin’s line drive, which “saved the game, for there were two men on the bases at the time.”33 Lelivelt saved the game on May 24 against Detroit when he made a “one-handed, jumping, back-handed catch of Crawford’s terrific liner, with Cobb waiting to score.”34 Sporting Life noted that “these catches are habitual with him.”35 A peculiar play occurred in Washington on July 25 when Chicago’s Billy Purtell hit a sharp grounder over third base. The ball caromed off the face of the left-field stands and off Lelivelt’s leg into an area beyond the stands, where it struck a goat. Lelivelt retrieved the ball and held Purtell to a double, but the umpire ruled that it was a home run.36

In 1911 Lelivelt batted .320 in 72 games for Washington. He missed time at the end of the season with a “badly sprained tendon” in his left leg.37 In July the Senators had agreed to trade “players to be named later” for three players on the minor-league Rochester, New York, team. At the end of the season, Rochester manager John Ganzel demanded a pair of quality players from Washington, including Lelivelt, and the Senators complied,38 although a .320 hitter was clearly undeserving of a demotion. After Clark Griffith became the Washington manager, he tried to reacquire Lelivelt in February 1912, but Ganzel would not give him up.39 Griffith blamed his predecessor McAleer for making a foolish deal.40

As a member of the 1912 Rochester Hustlers of the Double-A International League, Lelivelt feasted on minor-league pitching. On Opening Day, April 19, he hit a three-run homer in a 4-1 victory over Providence.41 From April 23 to June 3 he had a 33-game hitting streak during which he batted .444.42 In a game against Toronto on May 31, he hit a ball to left field that went “out of sight.” Since no one could find the ball, he was awarded a home run.43 Lelivelt batted .351 in 125 games for Rochester and was traded on August 23 to the New York Highlanders.

In his return to the American League on August 27, Lelivelt played center field and went 5-for-8 in New York’s doubleheader sweep of Cleveland.44 Four days later, Washington fans cheered him and Griffith fumed as Lelivelt hit a “smoking double to left field” to drive in the only run in New York’s 1-0 defeat of the Senators.45 In a 6-1 victory over Mack’s Athletics on September 4, Lelivelt “robbed Baker of a home run in the eighth, with two on bases, when he jumped into the air and pulled down a drive with one hand.”46 Two days later Lelivelt’s daring baserunning in New York made headlines. He was on third base when Philadelphia’s great second baseman Eddie Collins caught an easy pop fly.

“There was no chance in the world for Lelivelt to score on the catch. Anyway, he ran far up the line in an effort to make Collins throw the ball to the catcher. Then just when Collins, who was looking directly at him, was about ready to toss the ball to the pitcher, Lelivelt kept going and headed for the plate. Collins was so astounded at this unexpected display of nerve that he made a wild throw to [catcher Jack] Lapp, and Lelivelt crossed the plate in safety. Fans and players roared with laughter and Collins kicked himself all over the diamond.”47

In an 8-3 victory over St. Louis on September 10, Lelivelt hit a single, double, and triple, and drove in three runs.48 He went 4-for-5 against Boston on September 26. In the season finale on October 5, he hit two home runs in an 8-6 triumph over Washington; these were the only home runs of his major-league career. Lelivelt finished the season with a .362 average in 36 games for the Highlanders. Including his Rochester numbers, he had 222 hits in 1912, including 39 doubles, 21 triples, and 5 home runs. The New York Press reported that “Jack has the making of a second Ed Delahanty.”49

The New York Highlanders became the New York Yankees in 1913. Lelivelt was expected to hold a starting position in the Yankees outfield, but in January 1913, he suffered “a torn muscle in his thigh.”50 In 1912 he had below-average speed for a major leaguer, and by 1913, he was too slow to play the outfield. He played sparingly for New York during the first six weeks of the 1913 season, and on May 25 he was traded to the Cleveland Naps of the American League. The Naps used him “principally on the coaching lines and as a pinch hitter.”51 He finished the season with a .294 average and only 51 at-bats in 41 games.

In 1914 Lelivelt was again given a reduced role on the Naps. He started 11 games in the outfield and appeared in 23 other games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, and hit .328 (21-for-64). He accepted a demotion in late June to the Cleveland Bearcats of the Double-A American Association, with the promise of playing every day as the first baseman. Because of his limited range, Lelivelt believed that his future as a major leaguer would be at first base, and this was an opportunity to show that he could play the position. His bat never slowed down: He hit .295 in 92 games for the Bearcats. Some sportswriters observed:

  • “Jack Lelivelt may be slow afoot, but he can still whale the apple.”52
  • “Jack Lelivelt is a ballplayer, a hitter who is dangerous at all times.”53
  • “If Jack were a little faster, he would be a wonder.”54

Lelivelt played first base for the Kansas City Blues in 1915 and led the American Association with a .346 average. He led the league in hits, doubles, and total bases. He batted .306 for the Blues in 1916, and after the season, he married Ethel Mae Slack in Kansas City. In January 1917, the 31-year-old Lelivelt said:

“I believe I could come back next season [to the major leagues] and make good, for my legs are better than they have been for three years. I had been suffering from fallen arches, and the treatment I have been undergoing has at last wrought a permanent cure.”55

Lelivelt was not given the opportunity to return to the majors. He remained in the American Association for the next three seasons, batting .294 for Kansas City in 1917, .325 for Louisville in 1918, and .287 for Minneapolis in 1919. He played 134 games in the outfield and stole 21 bases in 1919.56

In 1920 Lelivelt was player-manager of the Omaha Rourkes, a team named for its owner, William Rourke. Lelivelt played first base and batted .309, while leading the Rourkes to a fourth-place finish in the eight-team Class A Western League. The team was sold, and new owner Barney Burch did not like how Lelivelt managed the team. Lelivelt resigned as manager after 16 games of the 1921 season, but stayed on as the Omaha first baseman and hit like never before: a .416 batting average with 274 hits, including 70 doubles, 9 triples, and 14 home runs.

For the next four seasons Lelivelt was a player-manager in the Western League, leading the Tulsa Oilers (1922-1924) and the St. Joseph (Missouri) Saints (1925). Over that four-year period, he played first base, batted .355, and compiled a .563 winning percentage as the manager. His 1922 Tulsa team won the Western League pennant and defeated Mobile in the “Class A championship” series.

At age 40, Lelivelt retired as a player and became manager of the 1926 Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. In May and June 1926, Milwaukee won a record 21 consecutive games. From 1926 to 1928, the Brewers were pennant contenders under Lelivelt’s leadership and had a .564 winning percentage. Lelivelt was given credit for reviving baseball interest in Milwaukee, where attendance was at an all-time high.57

The Brewers got off to a slow start in 1929 and had a 21-37 record when Lelivelt resigned or was fired in June, but he was quickly hired as manager of the Los Angeles Angels of the Double-A Pacific Coast League. The Angels were owned by William Wrigley, Jr., owner of the Chicago Cubs. Lelivelt was recommended by Cubs manager Joe McCarthy, who was his teammate at Louisville in 1918.58 Lelivelt turned the Angels into winners. In 1930 the team finished in first place in the first half and in second place in the second half of the PCL season, but lost the postseason playoff series to the Hollywood Stars.

Lelivelt held open tryouts for Southern California youngsters. In 1931, 300 aspiring ballplayers attended a tryout, including 19-year-old George “Tuck” Stainback.59 By swatting several balls over the fence during batting practice, Stainback earned a contract with the Class D Bisbee (Arizona) Bees. He played the next two seasons for the Angels and then joined the Cubs in 1934.

Lelivelt’s Angels won the 1933 PCL pennant with a 114-73 record; Bobo Newsom was the ace of the pitching staff with a 30-11 record and was the league MVP. The next year the Angels won the pennant with a phenomenal 137-50 record. Angels outfielder Frank Demaree was the MVP, winning the Triple Crown with a .383 average, 45 home runs, and 173 RBIs. Historian W.R. “Bill” Schroeder wrote about Lelivelt and his 1934 team:

“Having followed Pacific Coast League Baseball for more than 40 years, and having watched all of the teams in action over that period of time, I am certain that the 1934 Los Angeles Angels were the most formidable outfit in the history of the circuit. ... It is my belief that Jack Lelivelt would have proven to be a most capable major league manager, had he been granted such an opportunity. He possessed many of the good traits of Walter Alston.”60

The Woodland (California) Daily Democrat described Lelivelt’s managerial style:

“Lelivelt isn’t colorful but he seems to have a keen insight to knowing how to get the most out of each man on his club. Fans who have watched him work at ball games will tell you that he never lets up a minute. He is always coaching, instructing or waving a player to do this and that.”61

It was rumored in June 1934 that Lelivelt would replace Charlie Grimm as the Cubs manager,62 but the Cubs decided to stick with Grimm. In December 1934 the 49-year-old Lelivelt survived a heart attack that he suffered while attending the major-league meetings in New York.63

In April 1935 a 16-year-old, Ted Williams, batted .578 in the Pomona (California) Baseball Tournament. Lelivelt sent him a bus ticket and invited him to attend an Angels game and “work out for the Angels brass before the game.”64 The young Williams threw the ticket away, believing he was not good enough to play in the PCL, although a year later, he would sign with the PCL’s San Diego Padres.

Lelivelt’s 1935 Angels finished in first place in the first half and in fourth place in the second half of the season, and lost the postseason playoff series to 20-year-old Joe DiMaggio and the San Francisco Seals. The next season the Angels finished in fifth place with an 88-88 record, and Lelivelt resigned after the season; he was not pleased that team president Dave Fleming had dictated to him which players to play.65 Lelivelt became a Cubs scout in 1937, and again rumors circulated that he would become the next Cubs manager.66 He turned down an opportunity to manage the Baltimore Orioles of the International League67 and accepted an offer to manage the 1938 Seattle Rainiers of the PCL.

Rainiers owner Emil Sick gave Lelivelt free rein and it paid immediate dividends. After a dismal 81-96 record in 1937, the Rainiers finished in second place in 1938 with a 100-75 mark. Eighteen-year-old phenom Fred Hutchinson compiled a 25-7 record as the ace of the pitching staff and was the league’s MVP. The next year the team finished in first place with a 101-73 record but lost in the playoffs. Everything came together in 1940 when the Rainiers finished in first place with a 112-66 record and defeated the Angels in the playoffs. Lelivelt’s approach to guiding the Rainiers was low-key:

“Unobtrusive, quiet, and keeping in the background, Lelivelt performs Herculian managerial feats with such ease and simplicity that are taken as a matter of course. One of the present Rainier regulars, who has seen considerable action in the majors, believes that Lelivelt is superior to seven-eighths of the pilots in the majors today.”68

In November 1940 there was again speculation that Lelivelt would become the next Cubs manager,69 but it was not to be. On January 20, 1941, the 55-year-old Lelivelt suffered a fatal heart attack in Seattle after attending a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game.70 Although his time in the major leagues was short (1909-1914), his impact on minor-league baseball was profound. He was posthumously inducted in the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame as a manager.

 

Notes

2 Olean (New York) Times Herald, October 20, 1911.

4 1900 US Census.

5 Spalding’s Chicago Amateur Base Ball Annual and Inter-City Base Ball Association Year Book, 1904; Chicago Daily Tribune, July 3, 1904.

6 Dan Raley, Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, 2012).

7 Berkeley (California) Daily Gazette, January 21, 1941.

8 Winnipeg (Manitoba) Tribune, September 1, 1906.

9 Lima (Ohio) News, August 26, 1913.

10 Sporting Life, February 15, 1908.

11 Reading (Pennsylvania) Times, September 3, 1907.

12 Reading Times, April 17 and 22, 1908.

13 Altoona (Pennsylvania) Tribune, June 17, 1908.

14 Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, August 29, 1908.

15 Sporting Life, January 2, 1909.

16 Sporting Life, January 23, 1909.

17 Reading Times, May 12, 1909.

18 Sporting Life, July 3, 1909.

19 Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 12, 1909.

20 Washington Post, September 5, 1909.

21 Washington Post, July 10, 1909.

22 Washington Post, August 4 and 11, 1909.

23 Washington Post, August 6, 1909.

24 Washington Post, August 12, 1909.

25 Washington Post, August 15, 1909.

26 Washington Post, February 25, 1910.

27 Sporting Life, July 17, 1909.

28 Washington Post, April 13, 1910.

29 Sporting Life, April 23, 1910.

30 Washington Post, April 29, 1910.

31 Sporting Life, July 2 and August 27, 1910.

32 Washington Post, April 2, 1910.

33 Washington Post, April 24, 1910.

34 Sporting Life, June 4, 1910.

35 Ibid.

36 Washington Post, July 26, 1910.

37 Washington Times, September 16, 1911.

38 Washington Post, December 2, 1911.

39 Sporting Life, February 24, 1912.

40 New York Times, September 1, 1912.

41 Sporting Life, April 27, 1912.

42 The length of Lelivelt’s hitting streak, and his batting average during the streak, were determined by the author from the box scores published in Sporting Life. On June 16, 1912, the Washington Times reported the streak to be 40 games, and the 2007 International League Record Book claims the streak was 42 games; however, these claims are inconsistent with the box scores in Sporting Life.

43 Sporting Life, June 8, 1912.

44 Washington Post, August 28, 1912.

45 New York Times, September 1, 1912; Sporting Life, September 7, 1912.

46 Charlotte (North Carolina) News, September 5, 1912.

47 New York Evening World, September 7, 1912.

48 New York Press, September 11, 1912.

49 New York Press, January 5, 1913.

50 Washington Times, January 23, 1913.

51 Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 24, 1914.

52 Garber (Oklahoma) Sentinel, September 4, 1919.

53 Missoula (Montana) Daily Missoulian, March 23, 1913.

54 New York Press, March 30, 1913.

55 Wichita (Kansas) Daily Eagle, January 5, 1917.

56 Reach Official American League Base Ball Guide for 1920 (Philadelphia: A.J. Reach, 1920).

57 Milwaukee Journal, September 8, 1927.

58 Milwaukee Journal, July 7, 1929.

59 San Bernardino County (California) Sun, April 10, 1931.

61 Woodland (California) Daily Democrat, April 18, 1935.

62 Oakland Tribune, June 27, 1934.

63 Salt Lake Tribune, December 27, 1934.

64 Jim O’Connell, “Ted & Jackie: Two Baseball Greats’ Pomona Roots,” Pasadena’s Rose Magazine, May-June 2012.

65 San Bernardino County Sun, August 18, 1936.

66 Santa Ana (California) Register, April 5, 1937.

67 San Bernardino County Sun, May 24, 1937.

68 Syracuse (New York) Herald-Journal, September 13, 1940.

69 San Bernardino County Sun, November 14, 1940.

70 Dan Raley, Pitchers of Beer.