SABR

Patrick Purtell

This article was written by Peter Morris.

Patrick W. Purtell died in his longtime hometown of Columbus, Ohio, on June 1, 1920, and his obituary in the Columbus Dispatch mentioned a notable distinction: all three of Purtell's sons were professional baseball players, including William, a major leaguer. But not a word was said about the fact that the younger Purtells were following in their father's footsteps.

Patrick Purtell was born in Limerick, Ireland, during the Great Potato Famine, which caused his family to immigrate to Binghamton, New York, while Pat was still a small child. As with so many members of that great wave of Irish immigrants, details about Patrick's early life are in short supply, and there are contradictions in what is known. His death certificate gives his date of birth as March 19, 1850, but census listings suggest that he was probably several years older than that. The death certificate lists his father's name as William while his mother's name is illegible but might read Anastasia. The only possible match on the 1860 census in Binghamton, however, is a "Patsy Pursell," age 14, living with widowed mother Eliza and brothers Tom and Timothy. His obituary also states that being too young to enlist in the Civil War, he served as a water boy in the quartermaster's department.

Once the war ended, Patrick Purtell's life comes into clearer focus, and one of its highlights was his role in establishing baseball in Binghamton. "It was in 1866 when we first organized the first ball team here," he recalled some forty years later. "I was going to school and catching for the school nine. Home plate was where what is now called Isbell street runs. Dr. George Burr was one of the organizers of the new team. He came to see me and I agreed to play. There were about thirty of us showed up for practice for the first time, but the number was finally worked down to a dozen. Among them were Charles Sisson, Homer Smith, Henry Pratt, Dan Burr, who is now the doctor, and a lot more of the good boys of those days. Some of them are dead, others have gone away as I did, but there are some still living right here in town. After we had worked together a month or so, we had the first game on the Fourth of July with a bunch from Owego. We played on the open lots that were north of the Erie freight house at that time."

Patrick was the club's catcher, a position that was still evolving. "We didn't get right up under the bat then with pad and mask and mitts as they wear now," he recollected, "but stood back and took the leather bare handed and bare faced." Even with this distance from the batsman, it took great courage to be a catcher, and injuries were commonplace. This was especially true when a hard, lively ball began to be used, as Purtell explained: "We had always used a yarn ball at school and the one we started with, while it wasn't a marker to what they use now, seemed like a cannon ball till we got used to it."

The Binghamton club -- there is no indication it had any nickname -- beat the Owego club and enjoyed a successful summer. The next year, a rival nine was started in town, but the two clubs consolidated and Purtell became the center fielder for the new team. Over the next few years, Purtell was part of many ball clubs and played in numerous games that he still remembered vividly many years later. Some of these involved triumphs, such as occurred when he became the catcher for a club from Great Bend that played a best-of-three series with a rival nine from Elmira. Great Bend squeaked out the first game by an 81-to-76 score, lost the rematch, but then salted away the deciding game with a big inning in which more than twenty runs crossed the plate.

Other memories were more painful. In another game in Elmira, Purtell recalled. "I got hit in the throat with a ball and it about did me up." Equally distressing was yet another game against a club from Elmira that proved to be one of his last games in Binghamton: "I know I made a wild throw over [first baseman Henry] Shipman's head and it beat us. I'm sure yet when I think of it."

But most of these memories, whether they involved victories or defeats, were suffused with nostalgia for good times and good company. Even many decades after the fact, when asked to reminisce Purtell was able to recall many details about "the good boys of those days" with whom he had shared the Binghamton fairgrounds -- "Elias Day, who lived here then, but who is now in business at Akron, Ohio, rooted for Binghamton ... Justice George F. Lyon was our catcher in that game, but he wasn't justice then ... Jake Henwood was a great thrower ... Henry Pratt, now dead, led at the bat then." Recollections of special games also came flooding back, such as a game at Morgan's Flats during which the visiting Hudson River Club of Newburg was regaled with a band and then treated to a post-match banquet.

By 1870, however, it was becoming clear that baseball and earning a living were often at cross purposes. Purtell had taken a job at Grant's bakery that year, and work commitments caused him to miss the train to Sherburne for a game against a nine from Norwich. Knowing that the game was to be played for a $50 purse and his team would be greatly handicapped by his absence, he "got another going that way, then got a horse and rode twenty-six miles across country. It cost me $6, but we won and the team paid the bill for me."

In 1873, Patrick Purtell married a young Ohio woman named Emma, and the couple moved to Mansfield, Ohio, where Patrick found work as a cracker baker. He also continued to play baseball, serving as shortstop of the local team for seven years. During those years, Emma presented him with four daughters, Emma Jane, Esther, Ella and Gertrude. There followed a five-year gap and then, just when it appeared that Patrick would never have a son with whom to share his love of baseball, along came William in 1886, Samuel Mack in 1889 and Joseph in 1892.

In 1889, the family settled permanently in Columbus. Around 1906, Patrick revisited Binghamton for the first time in thirty years and provided a local reporter with the above reminiscences. He was also excited about the chance to meet old pals from the diamond, many of whom he had obviously remained in touch with: "I expect to meet W.T. Dickerson, who was one of the old nine's catchers. He is now in California on business, but is going through east and will stop over. He was a New Milford boy, but caught for Binghamton in the early years, with Mel Hagar, also of New Milford, as pitcher. Hagar is in New York City now and you may be sure I shall see him."

By this time, Purtell was the foreman of a bakery in Columbus, and his seven children had attained or were approaching adulthood. He was undoubtedly very proud of his four girls, all of whom were or shortly would be married, but he seems to have had a special place in his heart for the three boys who had inherited his passion for baseball. "My son William," he boasted, "has been playing with the Columbus team. Toronto has wanted him, but the price was too high, and Washington is after him now. He is a good one with the bat."

In the years to come, Patrick Purtell's sons would give him much more opportunity to brag. William spent five years in the majors as an infielder for the White Sox, Red Sox and Tigers (and would later manage and coach in the minors). Mack and Joseph both played in the minor leagues, though neither reached the major leagues.

Patrick Purtell died in 1920 after an illness of four months. His early years cannot have been easy ones, between his family's exile from famine-ravaged Ireland, the (apparent) loss of his father, and his underage service in the Civil War. But his adult years brought many blessings, which he was able to pass along to his seven children. One of those was an abiding love for the game of baseball.

Sources

Obituary, Columbus Dispatch, June 2, 1920; Chadwick Scrapbooks, article that originally appeared in the Binghamton Press, circa 1906; vital records, city directories; censuses.

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