SABR

Lou Bierbauer

This article was written by David Nemec.

Early in his career Lou Bierbauer’s surname appeared in box scores in abbreviated form as “Bauer,” as did that of his younger brother Charlie, a marginal minor league infielder in the early 1890s. In 1883 Lou began serving as the principal catcher for the top semipro team in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he was born on September 28, 1865. At the time the eighteen-year-old youth had already reach his full height of 5’8” but weighed only 130, about ten pounds short of his playing weight during most of his major league career.

After producing seven-hit and six-hit games with the Erie Olympics of the independent Interstate League early in the 1885 season, Bierbauer went north to play in the faster Canadian League with the Hamilton Primrose and Guelph Maple Leafs once the Interstate campaign ended abruptly on June 8. The triumvirate of Philadelphia Athletics’ owners—Charlie Mason, Bill Sharsig and Lew Simmons—after receiving glowing reports on Bierbauer from Canadian sources as well as from their new second baseman Joe Quest, invited him to training camp with their American Association entry in 1886, expecting him to vie with Jack Milligan for the catching job. Quest – a journeyman infielder who had played for five different teams in the National League and American Association (AA) from 1878–1885 – saw Bierbauer play while a member of the London Cockneys of the Canadian League. Quest had signed with London late in the year after his release from the Detroit Wolverines of the AA. He was hired by the Athletics to replace Cub Stricker, the A’s starting second baseman since 1882 who had lost favor with management because of poor performances thought to be caused by excessive drinking.1

Early reports were that Bierbauer had the best arm and glove of any catcher in camp, but when he also proved he was the club’s best second baseman, Simmons, who was running the A’s on the field at the time, handed the extra backstop berth instead to rookie Wilbert Robinson. Even though he was almost instantly compared to Cincinnati’s future Hall of Famer Bid McPhee, the AA’s premier second sacker, Bierbauer was loath to play there initially because the presumed starter, Quest, had been instrumental in his joining the A’s, never expecting his protégé would take away his position. As a rookie Bierbauer was not an improvement over Stricker. He hit .226, with a .305 OBP, compared to Stricker’s .234 BA and .284 OBP. His marks were better in his sophomore season, but a career long weakness surfaced when he walked just 13 times in 530 at-bats.

Bierbauer still was McPhee’s inferior as an offensive force in 1888, but by 1889 he had established himself as arguably the best all-around second baseman in the AA, hitting .304 and knocking home 105 runs despite losing his wife in July. “Bierbauer has been putting up an even more brilliant game at second base than usual of late,” Sporting Life reported in August. “In the language of the [Philadelphia] Public Ledger, ‘Bierbauer is undoubtedly the king-pin second baseman of the Association, McPhee, of the Cincinnatis, not excepted.’ ”2 Yet his statistics held an ominous tinge, as he scored just 80 runs and stole only 17 bases, indicating a lack of daring on the base paths. Consequently Bill Sharsig, now the field manager, generally batted him near the bottom of the order. But if there was a major flaw in Bierbauer’s game, at that point only Sharsig appeared to sense it. When the Players’ League formed after the 1889 season, Brooklyn’s player-manager, shortstop John M. Ward, seized the AA’s new second-base kingpin to serve as his keystone partner with his Ward’s Wonders. Bierbauer did not disappoint Ward, hitting a career high .306, scoring 128 runs (also a career high by a margin of 41 tallies) and pacing all Players’ League second basemen in assists and double plays.

Expected to return to the Philadelphia AA club as a matter of course after the Players’ League collapsed, Bierbauer created an offseason tempest when it developed that the A’s slapdash management during the war-torn 1890 season had carelessly neglected to reserve him for 1891. “The Bierbauer case continues to be the most absorbing topic in base ball circles,” wrote Sporting Life.3 When he was awarded to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys of the NL after a stormy battle between the two loops, the Smoke City entry received its present nickname when it was derogatorily called the “Pirates” by the press in rival cities for having snatched him. They also took delight in the poor performance of the Pittsburgh squad. “In spite of his big outlay of money for players and the wholesale indulgence in contract-breaking,” Sporting Life gloated in June, “[President] J. Palmer O’Neill and his pirates are at the tail end of the League pennant race. Is this retribution?”4

By the close of the 1891 season the glee in Pittsburgh over Bierbauer’s bold acquisition had diminished somewhat when his BA plummeted exactly 100 points from the previous year. Some observers recalled a warning that had appeared two years earlier, soon after his wife’s sudden death while Bierbauer was on a road trip. “It is to be hoped that the death of his wife will not have a depressing effect on Bierbauer,” Sporting Life wrote. “The late Mrs. Bierbauer was a clever little lady, and exerted a marked and salutary restraining influence over her husband.”5 But, since he had played well in 1890, pundits were more inclined to attribute his drop at the plate to being spiked in a bloody base-path confrontation with Boston’s Tommy Tucker on May 27, 1891, that knocked him out of action for a number of games. Given the future direction Bierbauer’s career took, the latter assessment would appear to have been on the mark. In any event, by August things were going so bad that he stunned J. Palmer O’Neill by asking for his release “as second baseman and captain of the club. Pirates manager McGunnigle promptly refused Bierbauer’s request. . . . [Bierbauer] says connection with the club is damaging to his reputation.”6

The Pirates continued to stand by their slightly-built second baseman in 1892 when he hit just .236. They were gratified when he lifted his average to .284 in 1893, and even though Bierbauer grudgingly admitted that he had become gun-shy about covering second base on steals and double plays because of the severe spiking Tucker had rendered him in 1891, in November 1893 Pittsburgh refused the Philadelphia Phillies’ offer of Bill Hallman for him. Hallman had scarcely been in Bierbauer’s class as a second baseman a few years earlier, but within another year or so Pittsburgh would have welcomed Hallman in return for him. For some while Bierbauer had fooled team observers into thinking he was a decent hitter because he seldom struck out, but by 1895 the deception was over when he hit only .260, walked just 19 times, logged a .290 OBP, and scored just 53 runs in 117 games. In his ten years as a regular in the major leagues, Bierbauer did make good contact – he struck out an average of once per 35 plate appearances compared to a league average of once per 14 plate appearances over the same span. However, he did not draw many walks – averaging one walk per 22 plate appearances compared to the league average of once per 12 plate appearances, and his on-base percentage exceeded the league average only twice in those ten years.

Also, The Sporting News, while being careful not to identify Bierbauer by name, clearly was referring to him when it labeled a certain Pittsburgh infielder a “shirker” in its September 14, 1895 issue. “There is one oldtimer in the Pittsburg Club who has often been accused of laying back, that is, when the club was away,”7 TSN wrote, claiming that home fans were unaware of how ardently he dodged hard hit balls and sliding runners. Still, he retained his regular post the following spring and was off to his best start in several seasons when he injured his ankle sliding in a game against Cincinnati on July 3, 1896, and had to be removed from the field by ambulance. Initially thought to be just badly sprained, the ankle turned out to be broken, shelving him for duration of the campaign. The bitter irony was that Bierbauer was seriously hurt as a baserunner rather than as a fielder in the very sort of play that he had lived in mortal fear of ever since his first serious injury in 1891.

The following March, satisfied that Dick Padden, who had filled in at second the previous year after Bierbauer’s injury, could do the job as well as Bierbauer and for less money, Pittsburgh sold the veteran second baseman to St. Louis for probably little more than the waiver price. Loath at first to report to the dreary “Done Browns,” Bierbauer finally relented when outfielder Tommy Dowd threatened to take over at second base, but the ex-Pirate then jumped the team in early May while it was in Louisville and claimed he preferred to play in an outlaw league near his home in Erie. He recanted the following spring and opened the 1898 season at second base for St. Louis but parted company with the Browns after going hitless in his first four games, and played outlaw ball for the rest of the season. Bierbauer returned to the minor league ranks in the 1899 Western League and the following year hit just .229 for three different teams after the loop was renamed the American League. He then spent a season and a fraction in the Eastern League before playing out the string in 1902 with Troy of the New York State League. Returning to Erie, he worked as a molder for several years with interruptions to manage clubs in Canadian minor leagues in 1911 and again in 1915. Upon leaving the game permanently, he took a job as a night watchman at the Oden Stove factory in Erie.

Bierbauer died at his Erie home on January 31, 1923, of pneumonia. A quarter of a century later sportswriter Bill Stern launched a tale that Bierbauer was the father of Elsie Janis, a vaudeville headliner from the age of eleven who grew into a famed Hollywood screenwriter, actress and composer. Even some officials of the Pirates club were gulled despite Stern’s reputation for being less than a paragon of reliability, until it emerged that her father was a man named John Bierbower and she had been born in Columbus, Ohio. Nonetheless, many of the “Find a Grave” sites on the Internet still list her father as Lou Bierbauer.

 

Sources

This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec's Major

League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 1. (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

In assembling this biography I made extensive use of Sporting Life and The Sporting News throughout Bierbauer’s professional baseball career, 1885 through 1902. For verification of the story that he was the father of Elsie Janis I utilized the Internet. Bierbauer’s major and minor league statistics came from www.baseball-reference.com

 

Notes

1 “The American Clubs,” Sporting Life, November 4, 1885, 2.

2 “Philadelphia Pointers,” Sporting Life, August 14, 1889, 7.

3 “The Bierbauer Case,” Sporting Life, February 7, 1891, 5.

4 “News, Gossip and Comment,” Sporting Life, June 20, 1891, 2.

5 “Philadelphia Pointers,” Sporting Life, July 31, 1889, 7.

6 “Local and General Gossip,” The Sporting News, August 22, 1891, 4.

7 “Woes of the Pirates,” The Sporting News, September 14, 1895, 4.

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.