SABR

Frank Oberlin

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Frank Oberlin’s major-league pitching record was 5-24. He was 2-8 for the Boston Americans and 3-16 for the Washington Senators.

As a batter, he hit for a .104 average, again somewhat better for Boston (.154 in 26 at-bats) than for Washington (.078 in 51 at-bats.) He drew one base on balls for both teams, bumping up his career on-base percentage to .138 over the four years of his career in the big leagues.

Defensively, Oberlin was a little lacking, too, with 12 errors in 85 chances, for a lifetime .859 fielding percentage.

He was much more successful in the minors, with a won/loss record of 81-85.

Oberlin was born in Elsie, Michigan, on March 29, 1876. The community is a village in northeast Clinton County, and is located about 30 miles northeast of the state capital at Lansing. The family was living in Hubbardston, a much smaller village 30 miles to the west and which is partially in Clinton County but also partially in Ionia County. In 2010, Elsie had 966 inhabitants and Hubbardston had 395. He was given the name Frank Rufus Oberlin.

His parents were George W. and Harriet “Hattie” (Mountz) Oberlin. At the time of the 1880 census, George was listed as an artist by profession, and the couple had three children: Lillia, 6, Frank, 4, and Orrin, 2. Twenty years later, George worked as a photographer. He was an Ohio native born of two parents from Pennsylvania and Harriet was from Indiana, with her parents both from Ohio.

Frank attended school only through the seventh grade.i

Frank’s first foray into organized baseball was in Lansing, as early as 1899, but he hurt his arm.ii He next appears with the 1902 Lansing Senators of the Michigan State League, by which time he was already 26 years old. We don’t have a record of how he played, but given is age he had probably already reached his playing weight of 165 and his height of 6-foot-1.

We find nothing of his play in 1903, but in 1904 he was pitching for Fort Wayne in the Central League. He hit .120 in 26 games. We don’t have a won/loss record for the season. In 1905, Oberlin was with the Springfield Senators, in Springfield, Illinois. He won 19 games (19-17) and hit .195 in the 36 games. He pitched in a large number of games for Springfield, and was said to have suffered from overwork.iii Rights to the pitcher’s services were purchased by the Pittsburg Pirates on August 24, to report after the end of the Three-I League season.iv

Oberlin was living in Hudson, Indiana, at the time, and Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss told Sporting Life, “Oberlin, as far as I know, is a big farmer boy from out that way, who was on the Springfield Club. He comes to me well recommended, and from reports will turn into a good pitcher. Harry Smith took a whirl around the circuit for me early last summer. In that league about Illinois, etc., Smith took a fancy to only one man. This was Oberlin. At that time I was in more need of a catcher than pitcher and did not take Smith’s suggestion to get Oberlin. Later on Frank Donnelly wrote me that he had a twirler who was the making of a fine man, and suggested that I buy him. Donnelly declared that an American League manager was after the player, but rather than do business with this gentleman he would turn down his offer and let me have the big man for the draft price. So I took Oberlin.”v The reported price was $1,000. “Whew, what a strikeout record he has,” Dreyfuss enthused a week or so later.vi

The Pirates gave him a look during spring training but then farmed him out to the American Association club in Milwaukee. “Manager Cantillon, of Milwaukee, seems to have picked up a real live youngster in pitcher Oberlin, who was secured from Barney Dreyfuss’ Pirates.”vii

Most of 1906 was spent with Milwaukee, where Oberlin was 18-16. Near the end of the year, he worked in four games for the Boston Americans. Oberlin racked up 306 innings with Milwaukee. Ban Johnson seems to have had a hand in getting him to Boston. The Boston Globe ran a story out of Milwaukee datelined August 17 that Oberlin had been sold back to Cleveland, but for delivery to Boston.viii And the Boston Americans announced the signing of “Fred Oberlin” on August 20.ix

Johnson, the architect of the American League, was still working to bring competitive balance, and Boston was suffering through what even 100 years later remains one of the worst seasons in team history. Boston journalist J. C. Morse wrote a column for Sporting Life datelined August 27 (at which point the team was 35-80 and a full 35 games out of first place. It was Johnson who made the announcement that Cleveland had transferred its option on Oberlin to Boston.x Morse wrote, “Now that Ban Johnson has been here and looked over things, we have a good right to expect a pennant-winner next season. Pitcher Oberlin, of the Milwaukee Club, is lauded to the skies by Ban, who considers him the best pitcher in the American Association. If that is the acknowledged case, he ought to be a wonder indeed.”xi

Oberlin was also an “expert in fancy needle work.”xii At some point, in an unrelated development, he lost the index finger on his pitching hand; he “got in contact with a buzz saw and pitched better ball after it healed than before.”xiii

The August 25 Sporting Life said that Milwaukee had been offered $3,000 for the rights to Oberlin and that even though he was “a farm hand” of the Pirates, “the Pittsburg team didn’t want him and he was sold.”xiv The Globe reported that “Boston secured Oberlin for a liberal sum through the kind offices of Pres Ban Johnson.”xv The August 24 Globe confirmed the $3,000 figure.

Oberlin hadn’t hesitated to promote himself. In June he had written the Pirates to ask if they were following his work in Milwaukee. They were, A. E. Chatty wrote from Pittsburg. “No one could lose sight of a twirler who worked in nineteen out of his team's first thirty-six games.”xvi

“Oberlin Pitches Good Game” – so reported the Boston Globe in a subhead for its game story detailing his September 20 debut in the first game of a doubleheader in Cleveland. He lost his catcher, Charlie Armbruster, in the first inning when he was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. Bill Carrigan took over despite an injured finger. Oberlin “appeared to be able to hold his own in fast company,” observed the Globe.”Had he been given anything like the support necessary to win games, the score would have been much closer, for errors figured conspicuously in the last five runs.”xvii The score was 7-2, Cleveland. Oberlin walked five and gave up 11 hits, but there were four Boston errors to Cleveland’s none. He hit the opposing pitcher. Oberlin was 1-for-3 at the plate, with a sixth-inning double, and scored Boston’s first run.

His 2-0 loss to Big Ed Walsh in Chicago on September 26 was attributed to bad luck. He allowed five hits and walked three. Oberlin used his spitter extensively and “was a tough nut to crack, and really he deserved better.”xviii

Boston was pleased with their new pitcher. “Oberlin, the Milwaukee find, has certainly been doing splendid work for the Bostons and looks the goods beyond a doubt,” wrote Morse on October 1.xix

He was 1-3 by season’s end, with a 3.18 ERA. The win came on October 2 in Washington, a 6-5 victory. Washington’s Clyde Goodwin (a former Milwaukee teammate) didn’t give up a hit for four innings, while Oberlin gave up a hit in every inning. He kept them scattered, though, while Boston bunched theirs in the fifth and seventh. The score would have been closer, but for Oberlin’s two throwing errors: “Four of the locals’ runs were right off the Christmas tree, three being made on a wild heave by Oberlin into the bleachers, while Anderson scored in the fifth on a wild pitch.”xx

In the game against visiting New York on October 5, he struck out seven but “failed to watch men when they were on bases and the visitors pranced from one sack to the other almost at will.”xxi

In 1907, Boston welcomed Oberlin back. He performed very well in spring training but he suffered misfortune during the season. He pitched in 12 games (four of them starts), with a 1-5 record (4.30 ERA). He didn’t get much run support – a total of three runs in his four starts (April 18, and May 11, 25, and 30). In July, Boston made arrangements to place him with Toronto, but the deal was blocked by Joe Cantillon, who had now moved from Milwaukee and become manager of the Washington Senators. So Boston worked out a deal and sold him to Washington on August 5.xxii He pitched in 11 games for the Senators with similar results (2-6, 4.62). One of his best games was a loss, when New York scored the only run of the game in the top of the ninth. He enjoyed a little revenge against the team that discarded him, and by beating Cy Morgan – the pitcher who Boston brought in from St. Louis at the same time they traded Oberlin – with a 2-1 home win in D.C. on September 18.

Cantillon had too many pitchers, so as spring training wound down, one of the men he moved was Oberlin. On March 24, 1908, he unexpectedly announced that he had transferred Oberlin to Minneapolis, unexpected because it seemed that he had always liked him since he’d managed him in Milwaukee. But Cantillon kept a string on him.

Oberlin put in a good full season with the Millers, throwing 253 innings, but came up with a 9-16 record, two of the losses coming on the same day (June 29) against Columbus. He had another losing record in 1909 (6-7), though there had been flashes of brilliance such as the one-hitter against Milwaukee on May 25.

Washington beckoned again. They exercised their option on Oberlin on July 26. He worked in nine more games for Washington and was 1-4 (3.73 ERA), and got another invite in 1910. He pitched well enough in spring training to make the team once more, notably allowing just one scratch hit in seven innings of an April 12 exhibition game against Baltimore.

He achieved the best earned run average of his career in his eight appearances for the Senators in 1910, but one’s ERA can be deceiving. His won/loss record was 0-6, and the real story rests in the runs allowed figure. In 57 1/3 innings, Oberlin only allowed 19 earned runs, but in actuality he allowed 32 runs. Though he lost a 2-1 game to Boston on April 19, there were times when once the runs started scoring, on an error, Oberlin was unable to plug the dike. On June 24, he bore another hard-luck 2-1 loss, again to Boston, but he had only himself to blame for the wild pitch he uncorked in the tenth inning. His last major-league appearance was in relief on June 28, a game Washington dropped to New York, 9-7. On July 1, he was released.

He signed on with Indianapolis, but never actually pitched for them due to a lame arm. He was given an unconditional release.xxiii His next recorded appearances were in 1911, with the New York State League Utica Utes, a Class B team, though there are confusing notes in Sporting Life; the July 8 issue says that he had been added to Binghamton’s roster and the July 22 issue says that he had started the season with Wilkes-Barre but had just been signed by Scranton. “Got in a mix-up with manager and was traded to Utica,” Oberlin wrote on the back of a photograph.xxiv

Such box scores as we have been able to find do not show him with any of those three teams, but only as pitching for the Utes in 1911 and 1912, and 1914 into 1916. He was suspended for the 1913 season because he failed to report; he talked about giving up the game and working as an electrician in his hometown of Hudson, Indiana.xxv

Apparently he had a change of heart after sitting out the 1913 season, for he returned to Utica and seemed to have been re-energized at the age of 38. He started off the season with an Opening Day loss that must rank as one of the best pitching duels of all time. Oberlin one-hit Binghamton, but lost, 1-0, when pitcher Festus Higgins no-hit Utica.xxvi

Oberlin was said to have pitched two no-hitters that year for the Utes, but it is possible that one of them may have been the Opening Day near no-hitter.xxvii We lack good stats for his years with Utica.

The last game we have been able to find for him was on May 20, when he gave up 19 hits and lost to Elmira, 15-3. On June 25, 1916, the Harrisburg Patriot said that Oberlin had been released by Utica. He signed with Scranton, but a month later was released by them.xxviii Perhaps at this point, he returned to Indiana to become an electrician. He seems not to have been further involved in baseball, though his obituary says he continued playing with teams such as “Milwaukee, Utica, N.Y., and Roswell, New Mexico, until about 1922.”xxix We can find no trace of him in baseball after 1916, or in Roswell at any time; he would have been 46 years old in 1922.

At the time he registered for the draft in September 1918, he was listed as living in Ashley, Indiana, with his wife Nancy (Nancy Sewell of Hamilton) and listed himself as “electrician, self contract work.” The Oberlins lived in Hudson from 1903 until 1937 and then moved to Ashley. Ashley is what one might call a suburb of Hudson, if one can suggest that a town such as Hudson (with a population under 600) has suburbs. Ashley is within one mile of downtown Hudson.

The 1920 census shows Frank and Nancy living in Steuben, Indiana, with Frank working as a laborer in the shipyards. At some point in 1920 or shortly afterward, he was said to have moved to Roswell, New Mexico, for his health and managed a team there.xxx

In 1930, he was providing for the two of them as a truck driver. And at the time of the 1940 census, Frank was still in Ashley, with Nancy, still working as a truck driver. His niece completed the player questionnaire for the Hall of Fame and reported that he had worked as an electrician and doing odd jobs before his death. She also said that Oberlin had been called “Flossie” in at least one newspaper clipping because he liked to stay in his hotel room and embroider. The Oberlins’ house always contained embroidered and crocheted articles made by him. xxxi

Nancy Oberlin died in May 1951. The couple had no children.

Frank Oberlin died in Ashley on January 6, 1952, of an asthmatic heart condition, officially a coronary occlusion. His obituary says that “a neighbor found him on Sunday morning sitting upright in a chair. He had driven his car up town on Saturday afternoon.” xxxii He is buried about eight miles away at Hamilton, Indiana.

 

Sources

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

Thanks to Craig Lammers for his careful reading of this biography, and to Peg Dilbone, Steuben County Historian.

 

Notes

i 1940 United States Census.

ii Notes from Oberlin himself written on the back of a photograph, as reported by his niece Berte Willenar in completing Oberlin’s player questionnaire for the Hall of Fame.

iii Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), August 25, 1905.

iv Ibid. See also Sporting Life, September 9, 1905.

v Sporting Life, October 28, 1905.

vi Sporting Life, November 4, 1905.

vii Sporting Life, May 5, 1906.

viii Boston Globe, August 18, 1906.

ix The error in reporting Oberlin’s first name may have been the Boston Globe’s. See the August 21 edition.

x Boston Herald, August 21, 1906.

xi Sporting Life, September 1, 1906.

xii Bay City Times (Bay City, Michigan), April 21, 1906.

xiii Sporting Life, February 2, 1907.

xiv The actual quotation comes from the September 1 issue; the price has been reported in the August 25 edition.

xv Boston Globe, August 21, 1906.

xvi Sporting Life, June 23, 1906.

xvii Boston Globe, September 21, 1906.

xviii Boston Globe, September 27, 1906.

xix Sporting Life, October 6, 1906.

xx Sporting Life, October 13, 1906. The October 3 Washington Post provides a more detailed game account.

xxi Sporting Life, October 13, 1906.

xxii The Evening Star (Washington, DC), August 6, 1907.

xxiii Sporting Life, September 10, 1910.

xxiv Hall of Fame player questionnaire.

xxv Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, April 11, 1913 and Sporting Life, May 3, 1913.

xxvi Sporting Life, May 16, 1914.

xxvii See the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader of July 7, 1914.

xxviii Harrisburg Patriot, July 22, 1916.

xxix Steuben Republican (Angola, Indiana), January 16, 1952.

xxx Hall of Fame player questionnaire.

xxxi Ibid.

xxxii Steuben Republican (Angola, Indiana), January 16, 1952.

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