Buck Ewing

This article was written by David Nemec

Born on October 17, 1859, in Hoagland, Ohio, a small town about 53 miles east of Cincinnati, William Ewing was the uncle of twentieth-century major league pitcher Bob Ewing and the older brother of major league pitcher John Ewing, with whom he formed a formidable battery for two years (1890-91) before John left the game prematurely due to a string of lung ailments that led to his early death.

From the outset of his baseball career Ewing was known as Buck. The nickname was so firmly implanted in the minds of early-day historians that all of them bought the fiction that it was a derivation of his middle name. He was thus listed as "William Buckingham Ewing" in reference works until late in the twentieth century even though in his final tribute to Ewing in the November 3, 1906, Sporting Life after Ewing’s death Cincinnati sportswriter Ren Mulford confessed: “’Buck’ was only a nick-name bestowed on Will Ewing in his youth. I think I am the one who planted ‘Buckingham’ in the middle and other writers took it up and it became as general as his baptism name.” That the nickname did not originate with Mulford was supported by Ewing himself in the October 19, 1889, issue of The Sporting News. There, he related that he came by the nickname in Pendleton, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb, where his family moved when he was two years old, because he played marbles with a bigger boy named Buck, and older laggards, who bet on their games, took to calling the pair “Big Buck” and “Little Buck.” Ewing further acknowledged that within his family circle he had been called Billy as a child and now preferred Will.

Connie Mack deemed the sinewy 5-foot-10-inch and 188-pound Ewing the greatest catcher of all-time. Francis Richter, editor of Sporting Life and the Reach Guide, was even more laudatory in 1919, listing Ewing with Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner as the game's three top stars to that point. In its first edition in 1989, Total Baseball observed, "Very likely, Buck Ewing was the greatest all-around player of the nineteenth century," and the National Baseball Hall of Fame that same year all but concurred, calling him "perhaps the finest player of the nineteenth century."1

And at times, particularly in the mid-1880s when his reputation first began to skyrocket, Ewing really was all of that. Credited with revolutionizing the catching position, he was among the first to switch from an unpadded glove to the "pillow style" mitt similar to those in use today. His special tricks were blocking the plate with his foot, discarding his mask near the plate to impede a runner trying to score and deliberately muffing a pitch to gull a runner into trying to steal and then gunning him down. He was also famed for keeping up a constant chatter about an umpire’s failings that could be overheard in the grandstand but was carefully never directed at the umpire himself, thus turning the crowd against the official without risking repercussions. What's more, in addition to being able to play every position the dexterous right-handed batter and thrower was a scientific hitter and a master base runner, overcoming average speed with a rare ability to read opposing pitchers and fielders and know exactly when to steal or take an extra base. Pitcher Mickey Welch, who had Ewing as a batterymate for almost his entire career, could never praise his teammate enough. Welch contended that Ewing originated the pregame clubhouse meeting during their early years together on the New York Giants and claimed to rely entirely on his catcher's judgment to know what pitch to throw regardless of the situation.

How much schooling Ewing had is unknown, but sometime in the mid-to late-1870s he took a job as the delivery driver of a team of mules for Meddux & Hobart, a Cincinnati distiller, and played baseball on Sundays, his one day off each week, in the Queen City, where Sunday ball was legal, with either the East End Pendletons or the Mohawk Browns. The November 21, 1891, issue of The Sporting News recollected that he reached the age of 19, still engaging only in weekend ball as a second baseman in 1879 with the Mohawk club, when “Hustling” Horace Phillips discovered him and signed him, but several issues of the New York Clipper in the summer of 1880 put Ewing at first base with the semipro Cincinnati Buckeyes that season before Phillips offered him $85 a month plus board to turn pro with Phillips's Rochester National Association outfit, and www.baseball-reference.com concurs that 1880 was his first professional experience.

Used chiefly as a catcher by Phillips, Ewing was hitting just .148 after 14 games when he was summoned to the Troy National League club late in the 1880 season. In his major league debut on September 9, 1880, at Troy, he caught fellow rookie Tim Keefe and went 1-for-3 in a 1-0 loss to Providence’s ace, John Montgomery Ward (destined to become his career-long nemesis even in the years the two were teammates). Despite logging a mere .178 batting average in 13 late-season appearances, Ewing was named Troy's front-line receiver the following year. He responded by catching over half the club’s games along with many exhibition contests and hitting a solid .250. By 1882, after hiking his batting average to .271 and appearing in at least one game at every position, including pitcher, Ewing was already considered one of the game's elite performers and became a premier free-agent target when Troy made it known late in the 1882 campaign that it would discontinue its membership in the National League at the conclusion of the season, leaving all of its players up for grabs.

To his dying day on October 19, 1897, sportswriter and Cincinnati club official Opie Caylor bitterly swore to all who would listen that late in the 1882 season he signed local boy Ewing to play for his defending Cincinnati American Association champions in 1883 and also extracted a promise from Ewing to deliver two crack teammates, pitcher Mickey Welch and outfielder Pat Gillespie. After returning to Cincinnati, Caylor averred he had received signed agreements from both Welch and Gillespie. The deal fell through, however, when the New York Mets joined the AA in October 1882, forcing the NL hastily to move the disbanding Troy franchise to New York to compete with the Mets for the gigantic Gotham fan base. Ewing, Welch and Gillespie were then prevailed upon to renege on their agreements with Cincinnati and switch to the new NL entry in return for more money. In Caylor the young Cincinnati native thereupon made a fierce enemy and was saddled with the unbecoming nickname "Bread and Butter Buck" that would pursue him among his detractors for the rest of his life.

Ewing nonetheless enjoyed his breakout season in 1883. As of the July 1 edition of Sporting Life, he was leading the NL in batting at .374, and even though he eventually dipped to .303, he topped the loop in home runs with 10, then a league record, and appeared behind the bat in 63 games, a career high to that point. Worth noting in addition is that in 1883 Ewing became the first to win a major league home run crown while batting primarily in the leadoff spot, an exalted place he would occupy off and on throughout much of his career.

The following year Ewing paced the NL in triples and assists by a catcher, but by 1887, like most receivers in his time, he seemed to be wearing out at a relatively young age as he caught in just eight games and appeared in only 77 contests total, 51 of them at third base. In 1888 he began the season at second base, replacing the popular Joe Gerhardt, and later took over the third base slot again. At both positions he heard a constant stream of digs for his shoddy work in the field and his increasingly gingerly approach to the game in general from his shortstop neighbor and main disparager, John M. Ward.

But it may simply have been that Ewing was aware by then that catching less frequently would prolong his career and had begun saving his efforts there for when it counted most. By midseason in 1888 he was back behind the plate on a regular basis when it appeared that the Giants would be a serious pennant contender. With Ewing playing in 100 games (103) for the first time in his career, New York marched to its initial NL flag. The Giants repeated in 1889 when he had his best overall season to date, hitting .327 and catching in a career high 97 games. But after that, although he was still just 29 years old, Ewing would go behind the plate in only 118 more contests in his eight remaining big league seasons and finish with just 636 catching appearances, tied for 11th among nineteenth century receivers. More importantly, he would never again be a member of a pennant winner.

Ewing's lustrous image first began to tarnish in 1890, if only among fellow players. After joining most of the game's VIPs in jumping to the Players League and being named the New York entry’s captain, he stirred up a hornet's nest in early July when he publicly admitted that owner Aaron Stern of the now National League Cincinnati Reds had offered him $8,000 to desert the Brotherhood. The following month, on August 11, the New York papers reported that his Players League cohorts feared he was about to abandon them after he had been seen conversing intensely with Giants owner John Day and pitcher Mickey Welch, one of the few Giants who had refused to join the Brotherhood. Too, his teammates doubted his excuse that he needed to miss a slew of games toward the end of the season to nurse a bad shoulder, particularly since his absence deprived them of arguably their key offensive component as he finished the season with personal career highs in on-base percentage, slugging average and OPS.

When the PL folded after one year the Ewing brothers signed as a unit with the Giants (John was was 21-8 in his last season). Buck was reappointed to his old captain's role but no longer commanded his former respect when he refused to play, limiting himself to just 14 games after admitting that even though his shoulder no longer hurt, it lacked the strength to make throws, a fault he attributed to a spring training mishap. In the February 27, 1892, issue of The Sporting News former player turned sportswriter Sam Crane defended Ewing’s claim. He said he had umpired a preseason exhibition game at Holyoke on a raw day in the spring of 1891. Ewing, while recovering from the grippe, was made to catch because manager Jim Mutrie and owner John Day (who Crane grumbled had been too cheap to send the team south for training) had publicized that all their best players would play. Crane recalled that Ewing strained his arm on the first throw to second base he made during the game and then was moved to shortstop where further throws only aggravated his injury.

Some three years later, in another piece in The Sporting News on March 30, 1895, Tim Keefe corroborated Crane’s story for the most part, claiming that Ewing incurred the injury on a snap throw to second base and adding, “It was a most unfortunate attempt, for his arm dropped perfectly lifeless to his side.” But in the December 29, 1900, issue of The Sporting News an unidentified writer recalled that the game in question was at Holyoke to fete Holyoke native Mickey Welch, who had pitched for the Holyoke team that day, and Ewing made the fatal throw solely to show off his arm when Welch on first base set sail for second base “in the spirit of fun” with two out in the ninth inning.

Despite the seemingly compelling evidence that Ewing did indeed hurt his arm in the 1891 preseason, whether in making a necessary throw or a foolhardy one, some of his teammates, shortstop Jack Glasscock in particular, snidely remarked that he'd simply lost his nerve as a catcher, particularly because the Giants now had Amos Rusie, whose speed daunted every receiver on the club except Dick Buckley. But the most damning episode came in the Giants’ final series of the season at Boston when Ewing was accused of persuading manager Jim Mutrie to keep several regulars out of the lineup--including Rusie, slugging first baseman Roger Connor and his own brother John, a 21-game winner that year--so as to expedite the Beaneaters’ task in preventing Chicago and its player-manager Cap Anson, the leading anti-Brotherhood figure in the game, from winning the NL pennant. Later, too, there was damaging testimony from Arthur Irwin, manager of the 1891 AA champion Boston Reds, that Ewing had even gone to the extreme lengths of furnishing Boston captain Mike Kelly with New York's signals prior to the series to assure a Boston sweep.

Ewing had already begun campaigning to switch permanently to first base even before the 1891 season ended, causing an alarmed Connor to jump the Giants that November to play for the AA Philadelphia club after the AA terminated its membership in the National Agreement, but even with the spot that demanded the least arm strength now vacant, he was able to play in only 105 of the Giants’ 151 games in 1892. The previous August, Ewing's prickly relations with Glasscock had exploded to the extent that one of the nineteenth century game’s top shortstops was forced to depart from the Giants, and George Gore, Artie Clarke and even Ewing’s former chief supporter Welch had likewise begun to air their growing displeasure with him as their captain in sporting papers. After long-time Giants stalwart Jim O'Rourke tried unsuccessfully to play the role of mediator during the 1892 season, Ewing, desperate to prove he had not lost his mettle, caught Rusie in both games of the speedballer's doubleheader win over Washington on October 4, 1892.

It was his last glorious day in a Giants uniform. On February 28, 1893, Ewing was traded to Cleveland for George Davis. The motive behind the deal, now regarded among the most one-sided in major league history, was to make New York once again a "first-class team" and was panned everywhere for what it was: Cleveland's reluctant repayment for having received financial favors from other NL clubs in recent years to keep afloat. Spiders owner Frank Robison openly admitted as much in the March 11, 1893, issue of The Sporting News, and Cleveland observer Charles Mears wrote in the March 4, 1893, The Sporting News: "There can be no comparison between the two men, and if Davis goes to New York it will not be a trade, but an act of charity on Cleveland's part instead."

The players themselves tried to put the best face possible on the transaction. Davis said New York was the city he wanted to play in second only to Cleveland and Ewing suppressed his wounded ego and avowed: "This city [Cleveland] is the one above all others in which I wanted to play." The irony is that New York’s new player-manager John M. Ward at first wanted Pat Tebeau, Cleveland’s third baseman and player-manager, whom he considered the best field captain in the country, but settled for Davis instead after first trying to obtain him for cash only but finally agreeing to give up Ewing, who he really didn’t want on the club anyway. Had the deal been Tebeau for Ewing and Davis remained in Cleveland for the duration of the 1890s, that decade quite possibly would have belonged to the Spiders rather than to Baltimore and Boston, and Cleveland, a victim of sinking attendance when its teams went sour, might still today be a National League bastion.

In truth, of course, Ewing would have much preferred to go to his hometown club, and he got his wish in December 1894 when Cincinnati signed him as its player-manager for the following year after Cleveland had dropped him the previous July just 18 months after surrendering its future Hall of Fame shortstop to acquire him. Eagerly received initially in the Queen City, Ewing revived in 1895 from his .251 mark the previous year before drawing his release from the Spiders to hit a respectable .318 as a first baseman and skipper the Reds to a 66-64 finish. The following season, when several key players had career years, he had Cincinnati in 1st place for a long stretch and in early September the club seemed certain of at least claiming a spot in the upcoming Temple Cup Series. But at that point several NL clubs that were out of contention, in an effort to deny Ewing postseason money and honor, began saving their best pitchers for the Reds and playing extra hard against them to repay him for his earlier transgressions compromising the Brotherhood and the 1891 pennant race. According to the November 26, 1896, Cincinnati Times Star, his own Cincinnati team joined the rebellion when several members charged him with playing favorites.

After the Reds finished 3rd, still an improvement over 1895, the December, 5, 1896, issue of The Sporting News remarked that the credit given to Ewing for the team's progress was undeserved since owner John T. Brush refused to consult with him on personnel decisions but instead "went over his head" to St. Paul manager Charlie Comiskey, who acted as an unofficial Reds liaison. The Cincinnati players most adamantly against Ewing at that point were Eddie Burke, Bid McPhee and Harry Vaughn, and one of them (probably Burke) anonymously revealed to the press that between games of a doubleheader with Boston on July 25, 1896, Ewing had arranged for umpire Horace McFarlan to be locked in the Cincinnati dressing room so that Bud Lally, the Reds’ principal substitute umpire and a notorious "homer," would have to work the second contest alone and assure a Cincinnati victory (the Reds won 3-2 over Boston’s ace, Kid Nichols). Other players also later came forward to attest that Ewing used all sorts of "mean tricks" at home to gain advantage but on the road was “too spineless to try them" and that it was during his reign that the Reds earned the reputation for being “quitters." He nonetheless kept his job, although he became a manager only early in the 1897 season after he played first base in his on-field finale on May 27 at Cincinnati and went 0-for-4 in a 10-7 loss to Boston’s Fred Klobedanz.

By late July 1899, however, both The Sporting News and Cincinnati papers were predicting that Ewing would finish out the year but not return in 1900 and cited his gravest managerial flaws as playing favorites, relying on outmoded stratagems including sacrifice bunts even with his team four or five runs down as late as the fifth inning, refusing to use his younger players, and--worst of all--being unable to rally his team when it was losing. Long before then the press in general had become critical of him. The sports editor of the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette and close confidant of Western League president Ban Johnson, J. Edgar Grillo, put the final nail in the coffin when he warned: "Few people know this man Ewing. His con smile has made him many friends who would not think of even speaking to him if they knew his real character."

"BUCK IS BOUNCED," screamed a headline in the December 9, 1899, issue of The Sporting News. The paper then correctly surmised that he would be named manager of the Giants for 1900 even though he had never gotten anything but a chilly reception subsequent to 1892 whenever he returned to the Polo Grounds in the uniform of another team. The climate grew even colder for him in the Gotham when his Giants won only 21 of their first 63 games, and he was pushed into resigning after a 2-10 western road swing in July. W.F. Koelesch crowed in the July 28, 1900, Sporting Life, “The old hands are no doubt better pleased now that Ewing has been replaced,” which proved to be the case and then some. Still, Ewing could not escape being made the scapegoat once the season ended for mentoring the first New York major league cellar dweller in history after his replacement, George Davis, despite rallying the moribund club to a stellar 39-37 finishing kick, could do no more than lift his men to within a game and a half of seventh-place Cincinnati.

Ewing returned to Cincinnati a somewhat besmirched but wealthy man owing to judicious land and real estate investments, mainly in row houses. He stayed in touch with the game, first by opening a baseball school in the Goodall Building across from the Cincinnati City Hall with the help of newspaper editor and neighbor Charles Murphy according to the November 23, 1901, issue of The Sporting News and later by coaching local amateur teams. The November 3, 1906, Sporting Life reported: “The last base ball work that ‘Buck’ Ewing did was to coach Miami Military Institute of Germantown, O.” Shortly after the close of the 1906 season Ewing, who had been in ill health for two years and seldom seen in public during that time, died at his modest Cincinnati home on Worth Street on October 20 from a combination of Bright's disease and diabetes. The October 27, 1906, Sporting Life said that his wife, son and daughter were all at his bedside when he expired and stood to fall heir to an estate of some $60,000. Ewing was buried in Mount Washington Cemetery beside his brother John.

Although it had only been six years since Ewing left the major league scene, the sanitization of the darker aspects of his career was already well underway. Mulford, in his November 3, 1906, Sporting Life testimonial, contended that he had often thought “the downfall of ‘Buck’ Ewing in Cincinnati was encompassed by the betrayal of players in whom he had put faith and trust. They did not play fair for him. The inception of an element of roystering spirits broke up team discipline. Individual strength could not repair the damage done by the influx of demoralizing material. The man largely responsible for the failure of that [1896] team, which seemed destined to win the pennant on ante-season form, is dead (almost undoubtedly Eddie Burke), and every man who followed his train of dissipation is out of the big swim. One year of disappointment led to the retirement of William Buckingham Ewing. He was a big man. He did not resent the backhanded slap of Fate, and he lived to see multiplied failures, for in only one year of Manager (Joe) Kelley's administration has any Red team played the game or made the splurge in league society that "the gang" did while he was running things.”

Other sources, meanwhile, had begun declaring that Ewing had not been fired by the Giants from his last managerial post in 1900 but had resigned of his own volition to attend to his business interests. As for the rank aroma surrounding the final days of the 1891 National League pennant race, no principals in the events ever emerged to deny any of the conspiracy charges Arthur Irwin leveled against Ewing and Mike Kelly, and Jim Mutrie was fired after the season, never to manage in the majors again despite owning a .611 winning percentage for his nine seasons as a major league helmsman.

Buck Ewing was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939, the first catcher to be so honored.

 

Sources

This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec's Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume I1 (Bison Books, 2011), with Nemec as the principal writer assisted by David Ball.

In assembling this biography I made extensive use of the New York Clipper, Sporting Life, The Sporting News, the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette and the Cincinnati Times Star for details not only of Ewing’s professional baseball career but also of his life after he left baseball. Ewing’s major and minor league statistics came from www.baseball-reference.com.

 

Notes

1 John Thorn and Pete Palmer, Total Baseball (New York: Warner Books, 1989), 335.