SABR

Billy Kinloch

This article was written by Peter Morris.

Playing in the major leagues -- even for a single game -- has been and still is the dream of millions of American children. But Walt Kinloch received that opportunity and, at least according to one very credible eyewitness, he soon regretted it.

Our subject was the oldest child of Andrew and Josephine Kinloch, Scottish immigrants who arrived in Providence around 1873. Their first son was born on March 21, 1874, and christened William Francis, but went by Walt. After the birth of a daughter named Jennie in 1876, the family moved to Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Andrew found work in a wool mill. A second daughter was born there in 1879, and then in 1882 the family again relocated to Denver, where Walt grew to adulthood.

By the early 1890s he had begun to distinguish himself with his fine play as third baseman of the Sanden Electrics, a semipro club managed by the brother of former major league third baseman James Davis. He received his opportunity to play major league baseball in an unusual way.

With St. Louis hopelessly out of contention in the National League by July, owner Chris Von der Ahe became obsessed with "the 'young blood' idea." Player-manager Joe Quinn reported that he expected to "put in the rest of the season trying youngsters and getting a line on new talent for next year." (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 1895) So Von der Ahe leaped when he received a tip about Kinloch from Denver city treasurer Freeman, a baseball enthusiast who had already been responsible for recommending Bill Everitt to Chicago and Walter Preston to Louisville.

So anxious was Von der Ahe to secure the youngster that when he heard that a Chicago director was headed to Denver to sign a different player, he asked him to sign Kinloch for him. The result was that when the St. Louis team arrived in Chicago for a series beginning on August 1, Kinloch was there waiting for them.

"Kinloch met us at Chicago," Quinn recalled a few weeks later. "He was about seventeen years of age, well built and seemed speedy. His work in practice was all that could be desired." (Sporting News, August 24, 1895, p. 4) So Kinloch was penciled into the starting lineup for that day's game.

The situation was less than ideal. Third base had been regarded as one of the most difficult positions to play during the early days of baseball. It became easier to play third base in 1877 when the fair-foul was banned since the fielder no longer had to range into foul territory to retrieve batted balls. But the pendulum had swung back dramatically in the late 1880s when bunting emerged as a popular tactic.

Suddenly third basemen had to play far closer than ever before and be poised to come charging in at a moment's notice. Yet when a hard-hitting batter came to the plate, especially a right-handed pull hitter, the third baseman was taking his life in his hands by thus positioning himself. Third base soon began to be referred to as the "difficult corner," a term that eventually evolved into the "hot corner." (Sporting Life, December 30, 1885; Sporting News, August 17, 1889) A New York Times editorial suggested that due to the requirement of having to guard against bunts and try to field line drives, it might be appropriate for third basemen to wear masks and other equipment reserved for catchers. (New York Times, June 23, 1892) One player, Lave Cross, actually did wear a catcher's mitt when asked to play third base in 1894. (See my A Game of Inches for more details on the evolution of the position)

The position became still more treacherous when a starting pitcher was struggling, as was the case with Louisville starter Red Ehret in Walt Kinloch's major league debut. According to Quinn, "Chicago began to bat Ehret very hard. When Big Bill Lange came up to bat he made one of his famous bunts -- one of those bunts which go through stone walls. Kinloch at third tackled the ball, but it carried him off his feet and got away from him. No man living could have handled that ball without a little luck, but Kinloch looked very sheepish as he picked himself up. The next three men up smashed that ball right at Kinloch good and hard. Two of them he handled nicely -- made lovely stops and throws -- but the third one was too hot, and it went through him, and the little Denver man began to think he was up against it good and strong. The climax was reached about the middle of the game, when Lange made another of his awful smashes. Kinloch was braced for him. It was another of those line smashes, about three feet high, swifter than a cannon ball. Kinloch got it fair and square in his hands, but it bounded out like a shot. The Denver boy's back teeth were jolted loose by the shock."

At this point, Kinloch had had enough. He strode over to Quinn at second base, "punching himself as he walked, to see that all was well with him" and told the manager: "Say, Mr. Quinn, I'm a blanked dub; give me my release. I can just catch the next train for Denver."

Quinn did his best to convince Kinloch that he was doing a fine job, but the young man was adamant: "He said he had a little girl in Denver who wouldn't look well in black, and he didn't care about taking any more chances. It was not until I gave him my promise that he would be released after the game that he consented to go back and finish the game, and he didn't fail to come around for his walking papers after the game. Now there was a little fellow who did what I considered wonderful work at third, yet nothing in life could have induced him to remain in the league. He got in his little hit that day at the proper time, had four put-outs and two assists with not an error, yet the game was so speedy that he threw up his hands and cried quit. He says he will never play ball again. 'It has always been my ambition to play ball in the National League. I have always kept that before me. I have played ball in the National League and I am satisfied that I shall never put on a uniform again. I shall go back to my trade of steam fitting. No more National League for me. Oh, no!'" (Sporting News, August 24, 1895, p. 4)

Quinn's account sounds a bit far-fetched, and careful comparison to game accounts suggests that he did exaggerate some of the details. Lange had three hits in the game, but one was a line drive off the first baseman's shin and another went to center field. (Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1895) But the basic details of Quinn's version of events are confirmed by the box score of the game, which credits Kinloch with four putouts, one assist, one double play, no errors, and one hit in three at bats. Moreover, it was Walt Kinloch's only major league game, even though his play "created a favorable impression." The next day, Kinloch was headed back to Denver, a fact that appears to confirm Quinn's account. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 2 and 3, 1895)

Kinloch spent the next year out of professional ball but then was bitten by the baseball bug again. This time, however, he was playing what should have been a less hazardous position -- center field for St. Joseph of the Western Association. That would be his primary position for the rest of his career, but he probably came to question whether it was really safer. In a game on August 11, 1897, he broke his left leg, ending his season. (Lincoln Evening News, August 13, 1897)

He returned to St. Joseph in 1898, but his season again ended prematurely when the Western Association disbanded in 1898. Kinloch gave the league another try in 1899 -- now with Bloomington -- but this time the circuit folded in mid-June.

He had obviously grown more resilient over the years, because when Bloomington joined the Central League for the 1900 season, he re-upped. This time Kinloch was rewarded with a complete season -- and a pennant! He also spent the 1901 and 1902 seasons with Bloomington, but the latter season was a difficult one for him. After a second place finish in the Three-I League in 1901, the team plummeted to the league cellar. An unhappy Kinloch was suspended for a week for "indifferent play" and made numerous requests to be traded or released. That off-season he was traded to Davenport. (Davenport Daily Leader, June 16 and 25, 1902; Davenport Daily Republican, March 31, 1903)

Things didn't work out in Davenport either, and by midseason he had joined Springfield. In a game on July 25, he refractured his left leg in the same place as before. (Springfield Register, reprinted in the Decatur Daily Review, July 27, 1903)

It would have been logical for that to spell the end of Walt Kinloch's baseball career, but now the ballplayer who had once walked away from a chance to play in the majors refused to allow his minor league career to end. He returned to Bloomington for the 1904 season and then headed south to Vicksburg, Mississippi, of the Cotton States League for the 1905 campaign.

Kinloch's season yet again ended prematurely in 1905, this time because of the yellow fever epidemic that was sweeping the South. But yet again he was unwilling to call it a career, spending two more years in the Cotton States League before finally ended his playing days.

After baseball, Walt Kinloch never really seems to have settled down. The 1910 census finds him working as a bartender in New Orleans along with his wife of four years, Eva. But by 1915, he had relocated to New York City, where he worked as a waiter and doorman. By 1920, he had remarried a woman named Mary, but it is not known what became of his first wife. He died in New York City on February 15, 1931.

Sources

Contemporary newspapers, vital records and censuses; databases compiled by Reed Howard and Marc Okkonen; research by Richard Malatzky and Jay Sanford.

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