George Bignell played in only four major league games, all in the short-lived 1884 Union Association, but he nonetheless established a major league record that continues to stand to this day-most chances accepted by a catcher in a nine-inning game.
On October 3, 1884, Bignell was the catcher for Milwaukee in a match with the Boston Unions at Milwaukee's Wright Street grounds when pitcher Henry Porter struck out 18 Boston batters. Box scores for the game indicate that Bignell had 17 putouts and six assists, while committing two errors and yielding two passed balls. No other catcher, in a nine-inning game, has ever eclipsed the 23 chances Bignell accepted in that game. Thus, Bignell's name remains in the record book nearly 120 years later.
Bignell was born on July 18, 1858, in Taunton, Massachusetts. He was the younger of two sons of George, a seaman, and Catherine Bignell, both born in England. His older brother was named John.
The spelling of the Bignell surname with an "e" and double "l" is now the accepted spelling of his last name. This spelling was by no means consistently applied throughout his lifetime, however, as people spelled the phonetic sound of his last name in various ways. Early documents spell his last name as "Bignal," with an "a" and single "l," such as his birth record and the 1860 U.S. census. Later the spelling was "Bignall," with an "a" and double "l," such as newspaper reports during the 1884 baseball season and his marriage record. The "Bignell" appellation was used in newspaper reports of the 1885 and 1886 baseball seasons as well as his death record (and is used throughout this biography except where direct quotations contain a different spelling).
Bignell played on local ball teams in eastern Massachusetts before embarking in 1884 to play with the Bay City, Michigan, team in the fledgling Northwestern League, one of the few minor leagues then acknowledged by the major leagues. There were no organized professional leagues in New England at that time, so Bay City had little trouble enticing other top Massachusetts ball players such as Bill McGunnigle and Jim Cudworth to play in the midwest. Bignell became the regular catcher for another New England native on the team, pitcher Henry Porter of Vermont.
Although Bay City started strong and was near the league lead, the team disbanded in late July despite a 38-16 record. The Bay City players scattered, with the battery of Porter and Bignell hooking on with the league's Milwaukee team. They played their first game with Milwaukee on August 3. A month later with just three teams left in the Northwestern League, the league itself disbanded. Bignell caught Porter in a 3-2 Milwaukee win over St. Paul on September 7 in their last game in the Northwestern League.
Because several teams had dropped out of the ill-fated Union Association, arrangements were made for Milwaukee to complete the schedule of the defunct Pittsburgh franchise. On September 27, Bignell and Porter debuted in the Union Association, with Porter pitching the team to victory and Bignell collecting 13 putouts and one assist in the 3-0 win. Two days later, Porter won again, a 7-5 victory, with Bignell as his catcher.
In the October 3 game with Boston, a 5-4 loss, Bignell, with his still-standing record of 23 chances accepted by a catcher in a nine-inning game, was not the only Milwaukee player to establish a major league record that day. Porter recorded 18 strikeouts to establish a major league record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game by a losing pitcher. Porter shared this distinction with fellow UA pitcher Fred Shaw for more than 80 years until Steve Carlton eclipsed the mark with 19 strikeouts in a losing cause in 1969.
As indicated by the box score of the October 3 game, not all of Porter's 18 strikeouts were completed with a Bignell catch of the third strike, and thus some required a throw to first base to put out the batter (giving the catcher an assist rather than putout). For his total of 17 putouts and six assists, Bignell apparently caught several pop-ups or foul flies from his catcher position while tossing out at first base several batters on their third strikes. Game accounts in the Milwaukee and Boston newspapers provide no hint why Bignell was credited with six assists.
Bignell probably thought little of the chances accepted record in 1884, if he was then even aware of it, simply being grateful to make a living as a ball player rather than toiling in a mill back in his native Massachusetts. The baseball world, no doubt, also considered the feat of little significance. The Union Association, while today considered to be a major league, was decidedly third in the minds of baseball aficionados in 1884 behind both the National League and the American Association, and would cease to exist after its sole 1884 season.
The record, though, seemed to be a highlight of Bignell's life. His obituary in the Providence Journal, although getting the facts a bit messed up, stated, "He was a noted catcher in the days when masks and gloves were unknown, and while with the Milwaukee team of the Union Association established the world's record of 24 putouts out of a possible 27, something no other catcher has ever equaled."
Catching was an extremely difficult position to play in the 1880s, since no protective equipment was used then. The catcher needed to field the serves of pitchers without the aid of mask, padding, or even a glove. Injuries occurred with regularity. In 1884, the overhand delivery was legalized for pitchers, which served to increase the level of abuse a catcher needed to absorb in his position. Bignell, at 5' 9" and 160 pounds, had a slight build and was frequently injured in his catching duties, which likely was the reason for his short baseball career.
On October 5, an injury abruptly ended Bignell's major league career. "Brown struck three times at the ball but the last ball tore one of Bignall's nails off, and the striker reached first," the Milwaukee Sentinel reported. "Bignall declined to play further after being hurt." When Porter pitched again on October 9 and 11, his regular catcher Bignell wasn't in the lineup. Bignell wound up his four-game major league career with a .222 batting average (2 for 9) and a very respectable for the time .951 fielding average.
In 1885, with a professional baseball league at the minor league level available for the first time in Massachusetts, Bignell played with the Brockton team in the inaugural season of the New England League. Bignell caught the opening game of the New England season on May 5, a 9-2 Brockton victory.
Bignell seemed to spurn offers to return to the Milwaukee team. "Bignell yesterday received another letter from Milwaukee," the Brockton Weekly Gazette reported on May 9. "They want him badly there, but he says positively that he shall not leave the Brockton team." Playing with former Bay City teammates McGunnigle, who was captain of the Brockton team [comparable to manager today], and Cudworth was perhaps one reason to stick with Brockton.
Brockton also was one of the best teams in the fledgling New England League in 1885, with Bignell playing a prominent role at catcher. Injuries, though, continued to plague Bignell, especially as the season wound to its conclusion with Brockton in a tight race with Lawrence for first place.
He was injured in the September 21 game at Newburyport, a 6-5 loss, switching places with right fielder Sullivan in the middle of the game. He returned to the lineup on September 27, but the next day he "left the field in the third inning, on account of sore hands," the Brockton Daily Enterprise reported. Bignell was done for the season, due to end on October 3, as the Enterprise wrote, "Bignell has a very bad finger." He compiled a .247 batting average for Brockton, which thought that it had edged Lawrence to finish in first place. He committed 71 errors for Brockton, for an .800 fielding average, low even for the difficult days of the catcher position, where major league catchers posted averages in the .890 to .920 range.
Instead of being crowned champions, though, Brockton was forced to accept a tie for first place when the New England League owners reached a compromise in adjudging disputes over the makeup of postponed games and the eligibility of Lawrence pitcher John Flynn. The owners created a three-game playoff series to determine the league champion, which was played in mid-October. Bignell returned to play the first playoff game, but his injuries caused him to be charged with five errors and three passed balls as Brockton lost, 9-4. Bignell sat out the second playoff game, an 11-4 loss that ended the Brockton season.
For the 1886 season, Bignell was in the opening day lineup for Brockton on May 1, but a month later injuries caught up with him again. He played his last game for Brockton on June 3, a 12-9 loss at Portland, in which "Bignell had a finger put out, but caught the game through," according to the Enterprise report. Bignell collected two hits in four at bats in that game, but committed eight errors.
On June 7, the Enterprise reported that "Bignell does not want to play any more. He wants to get a position as umpire." This statement seems to be a convenient public reason for the team dropping Bignell from the roster, as the team suffered financial difficulties. The Brockton team eventually folded after the 1886 season, with the team owners posting a "For Sale" advertisement in the October 16 edition of the Enterprise.
Bignell tried to keep his hand in the game. On June 21, he signed to play with the Bangor team in Maine. Two weeks later he jumped to the Northwestern League, which had wooed him a year earlier, to play briefly for the Duluth team. But the wear and tear of catching in the 1880s resulted in 1886 being Bignell's last year of professional baseball.
With his baseball career over, Bignell married Catharine McShane on November 20, 1890 in Taunton. They had three children, Frank, Gladys, and Emily.
A molder by trade at the time of his marriage, Bignell later lived in the nearby cities of Fall River and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where he presumably worked in the textile industry that drove the economy of both cities. He lived in Providence for the last ten years of his life, where his son Frank made his home.
Bignell died on January 16, 1925, in Providence, Rhode Island, and was buried in St. Joseph's Cemetery in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Brockton Daily Enterprise. "The Probable Champions: Sketches of the Players in the Brockton Base Ball Club," September 28, 1885.
Brockton Daily Enterprise. 1885-1886.
Brockton Weekly Gazette. 1885.
Complete Baseball Record Book. "Catchers: Most Chances Accepted, Nine-Inning Game," The Sporting News, 2003.
Milwaukee Sentinel. 1884.
Sporting Life. 1884-1886.
Providence Journal. "G.W. Bignell, Old-Time Baseball Player, Dead," January 17, 1925.