Elmer Steele was a baseball team owner even before he took his first job as a player outside the region from which he came.
In the long run, both Elmer Steele and his father William seem to have pursued allied occupations associated with delivering the mail, save for Elmer’s foray into professional baseball over an eight-year span. William Steele and his wife Jessie Phillips Steele were both natives of New York State; William was Scottish, his parents having come from Scotland. William worked, at the time of the 1900 census, as an expressman – one who oversaw the delivery of goods on the railroads.
Elmer Rae Steele was the first of the five Steele children, all of whose names began with the same letter: Elmer, Ethel, Ellessdie, Ellsworth, and Eda. Elmer was born in Muitzes Kill, New York, recognized since 1974 as an Historic District in the community of Schodack, about 12 or 13 miles south of Albany on the Hudson River. Steele attended Beacon High School in Fishkill Landing, New York, for two years. His background he gave as “Holland Dutch and Scotch,” adding “early settlers” on his player questionnaire. i
Elmer’s first foray into professional baseball seems to have been as a pitcher with the Poughkeepsie Colts of the Hudson River League in 1906. He first appeared in game accounts after a July 11 game against Paterson when he allowed just one run and two hits. A month later, on August 10, he threw a three-hitter during an 11-inning tie game against Kingston. By the end of the season, Sporting Life wrote, “Followers of the Hudson River League declare that Steele, a right-handed twirler of the Poughkeepsie Club, has all the earmarks of a star pitcher.”ii He batted right-handed but said that he threw both right and left-handed. He gave his height as 5-foot-11 and his weight as 200 pounds.iii
There were quite a few Steeles playing in baseball at the time. Some reports put Elmer with the Oskaloosa (Iowa) Quakers or with the Jackson (Mississippi) team in 1906, but this seems rather unlikely. His obituary says that, before Poughkeepsie, he’d played for the semipro Fishkill Ducks for five seasons (reportedly recording an astonishing 244 wins in 249 games).
In 1907, Frank Leonard of the Lynn Shoemakers in the New England League was looking for pitching and secured Steele for his ballclub in Lynn, Massachusetts. By season’s end, Steele had had posted a 24-11 record. Fred Lake, scouting for the Boston Americans followed Steele’s work at Lynn. Lake’s interest peaked in June and July, when Steele won ten games in a row, five of them without walking even one batter. Lake recommended Steele to Boston and they purchased rights to his contract on July 8. He was scheduled to report to Boston after the New England League season ended on Labor Day.
The team was looking hard to add new talent after its 49-105 season in 1906. Sporting Life wrote, “With Steele, Jack Thoney and Pat Donohue, the latter a brother of ‘Jiggs Donahue,’ of the White Sox, Boston is beginning to load up in earnest for next season. Fred Lake and George Huff are scouting for more talent and by next season we may have a small army from which to select a team.”iv
Steele was more than a typical ballplayer. The Sporting Life noted that before coming to Lynn, Steele was “part owner of a semiprofessional club at his home, Fishkill Landing, on the Hudson. Elmer, when he could get off from Poughkeepsie, used to play the outfield for his ‘Ducks,’ as they were known. Last spring he sold his interest to a fellow townsman.”v Off season, he was an iron moulder by trade, and spent some winters working as a bridge builder.vi Steele was 5-foot-11 and weighed 200 pounds.
Steele debuted with the Boston Americans on September 12, 1907. The team was on its fifth manager of the year and fourth since Opening Day – but was now stable under Deacon McGuire. Facing the visiting Philadelphia Athletics, starting pitcher Tex Pruiett gave up five runs in the first three innings before McGuire had Steele take over; he allowed three hits and two runs in six innings in a 7-1 loss. The game against Washington on the 16th was almost a mirror image of Steele's debut; he started and gave up four runs in the first three innings (all in the third, all unearned due to an error by Hobe Ferris), and Pruiett completed the game, a 6-1 defeat, the loss absorbed by Steele. He appeared in four games, throwing 11 1/3 innings, with a 1.59 ERA and an 0-1 record.
In February 1908, owner John I. Taylor – who had renamed his team the Red Sox – sold Steele to the Scranton Miners of the New York State League, with $500 of the sale price going to Lynn. On Valentine’s Day, Steele married Julia Marie Walsh. In July the Red Sox needed pitching and with Steele showing well for the Miners at 11-6 he was recalled. He went into the pitching rotation almost immediately starting 13 games in what remained of the season. At one point, in August Steele threw 24 consecutive scoreless innings. In 16 games, he posted a record of 5-7. Subsequent calculations reflected an excellent 1.83 ERA and WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) of 0.831. He struck out 37 and walked 13. .
Steele set out for spring training with the Red Sox in Hot Springs in 1909 and made the team from the start. The man who’d scouted him for the Sox was now the manager – Fred Lake. Steele won four and lost four in the first three months, one of his best games coming at Chicago on May 19 when he allowed just three singles. On July 18, Lake sold Steele’s contract to St. Paul. Steele appeared in 18 games for the Saints; we lack more detailed statistics but the Christian Science Monitor said he “showed good form” and the Boston Globe said he “did some pretty good work.”vii One good game was the August 1 contest at Columbus where he shut out Columbus, 1-0, driving in the game’s only run in the top of the eighth.
The Globe said he’d spent the 1909-10 winter in Poughkeepsie working out in the gym and taking lessons on the flute. His ambition was to “become a member of some leading orchestra after he quits baseball.”viii A year or so later, it was reported that he was a drummer, another musical talent.ix
A week into the season, on April 21, new manager Patsy Donovan sold three pitchers; Steele was placed with the Eastern League’s Providence Grays. Though initially dissatisfied with a reduction in salary, matters were worked out and he had an excellent season, 19-11 in 294 innings – for a last-place team. One of the most outstanding games of his career came on September 7 in Providence, pitching 14 innings against Newark, and hitting a double and a triple and a game-winning double to deep right-center which “would have been a home run had the bases been clear.”x And on September 11, he won a 3-1 game, pitching a full 13 innings at Jersey City.
The Pittsburg Pirates purchased his contract in September, reported on September 15.xi Steele started three games – September 28, October 4, and October 8 – and lost all three, though the first two losses were 2-0 at Brooklyn and 2-1 at St. Louis. He was 0-3 with a 2.25 ERA.
Fortunately, the Pirates gave him another shot in 1911, and he started off winning his first three decisions. He lost a few, ending the season with a 9-9 record and a 2.60 earned run average. He enjoyed one exceptional stretch in August, beating the Phillies in relief on the 9th, then pitching a complete game four-hit shutout on the 12th in Cincinnati, and then throwing a one-hit shutout in Brooklyn on the 16th. He threw only 72 pitches in the August 16 game, setting a new record. He only struck out two, but he recorded four assists. . And he had a perfect game through 8 1/3 innings, until Tex Irwin singled to center. He retired the two final batters on a strikeout and a popup to the shortstop.
That game no doubt impressed the Brooklyn Superbas and may have played a role in them approaching the Pirates regarding Steele. On September 16, Brooklyn bought his contract from Pittsburg.
He started two games for Brooklyn and relieved in three others with no decisions and a 3.13 ERA. Why had he suddenly been sold by the Pirates? They were just two games behind the Cubs at the time, and only six games out of first place. It’s unlikely that they suddenly needed cash more than an experienced pitcher. It seems as though there was an injury and an incident.
An arm injury ended his major-league career, according to his obituary in The Sporting News. He was sent to Toronto in late January 1912, a trade for catcher Eddie Phelps. But there was an incident as well, explained in a story in Sporting Life headlined “Paying the Penalty”:
“Back to the minors for Elmer Steele. Pittsburgh base ball men read this Winter action [the trade to Toronto] with more than passing interest, for Steele was once well thought of in Pittsburgh Club circles and might be enjoying Pirate payroll even today but for a serious breach of discipline, due to an ungovernable temper. There may have been other cases of conflict between Pirate chief and rank and file last Summer, but this was the only one to reach the light of day. Even so, it wasn’t published until an out-of-town reporter got a cue several weeks later. Steele had served fine ball for Pittsburgh and when he was released to Brooklyn without any premonitions old birds guessed there had been something unusual behind the move.
Quicker than one could say Jack Robinson Big Elmer was driven from the Pittsburgh Club. He deserved such a rebuke for the saying is that in a fit of furious rage he threw his sweater in Captain Fred Clarke’s face. This unpardonable trick was executed in St. Louis, following a reprimand by his commander. Wires flashed to Pittsburgh that night a six-word message reading thusly: “Get rid of Steele at once.” No major union club chief executive and largest owner has more confidence in his second in command than Barney Dreyfuss reposes in Clarke. Barney didn’t stop to secure details. He knew Clarke wouldn’t act peremptorily unless there was justification. Waivers were asked on the hurler and Brooklyn claimed him. You cannot get local officials to discuss the affair. One man muttered “bugs” when the case was mentioned. Fiery tempers are not wanted in Pittsburgh base ball. Ability counts for naught in the minds of Brigand bosses if the demonstrator cannot curb his emotions. Perhaps it was a sad day for big Elmer when he flung the coat. He has major union talent.xii
Scout Billy Murray, who was believed to have helped bring Steele to Pittsburg, praised Steele: “Steele is a mighty fine minor league pitcher.” Murray said he was “particularly classy in being shoved into a breach.” At the same time, he intimated – according to the account - he was “a peculiar fellow in some ways. He was ever full of animation in practice stunts and liked to enjoy his own sweet way. If he broke into a jig at inopportune times he didn’t care if any one admired his happiness or not.”xiii
Over the winter of 1911-12, he worked as a fruit and produce salesman. After his marriage in 1908, he’d left his work at iron-moulding and bridge-building.xiv
Whatever his level of happiness, he was not long with Brooklyn, nor with Toronto. By April he was with the St. Paul Saints and then released by them on April 21, “because the big heaver cannot possibly get his arm into shape to work until the weather become much hotter. Steele will return to his home in New York and make another effort to get into shape when the hot days arrive. Steele thought he had recovered from the effects of throwing his arm out with Toronto, but found his arm was not in condition for work.”xv
He found a position back home with Poughkeepsie – playing first base. A June story said that manager Eugene Ressique was “lucky to have a former big league player of the type of Elmer Steele on first base. Steele is nursing his pitching arm along and expects to be back in the National League again next season.”xvi Steele played first base and hit .339 for the Class D New York-New Jersey League Honey Buns. xvii He was reported to have signed in 1913 with Winnipeg of the Northern League and manager Tim Flood, as did former Red Sox teammate Jake Thielman, but nothing came of it.xviii
Based on available records, Steele’s final appearance in organized ball was with Memphis and Beaumont in 1914. In early April it was reported that he’d made his first appearance for Memphis in the Southern Association, “more or less an attempted ‘come-back’ after a year’s idleness from the firing line.”xix Three months later, Memphis disposed of the 5-6 Steele, selling his contract to Beaumont in the Texas League.xx He doesn’t seem to have pitched for the Oilers, but played in 22 games and hit for a .268 average.
Steele returned to the baseball milieu from which he’d come – enjoying himself for many years as a player, coach, and manager for local teams in the Hudson Valley.xxi
In 1923, he had become a letter carrier for the Poughkeepsie Post Office and retired 30 years later, in 1953.
Julia Marie Steele died in September 1948. Elmer remarried in September 1957, to Edith Bartholf Hosier. In 1961, he was invited to the Hall of Fame to attend the induction of Max Carey, who had been his roommate in Pittsburgh.xxii
After a long illness, he died in Poughkeepsie on March 9, 1966, of what his widow Edith called a “cerebral vascular accident.” Death came after a lengthy illness attributed to generalized arteriosclerosis. He was 79.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Steele’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.
i Steele’s player questionnaire which he completed for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
ii Sporting Life, October 13, 1906.
iii Steele’s Hall of Fame player questionnaire.
v Sporting Life, September 7, 1907.
vi Sporting Life, March 21, 1908 and January 30, 1909.
vii Christian Science Monitor, July 20, 1910; Boston Globe, July 20, 1910.
viii Boston Globe, ibid.
ix Sporting Life, March 30, 1911.
x New York Times, September 8, 1910.
xi Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 1912.
xii Sporting Life, February 17, 1912.
xiii Sporting Life, March 23, 1912.
xiv Sporting Life, February 3, 1912.
xv Sporting Life, May 3, 1913.
xvi Sporting Life, June 14, 1913.
xvii Steele himself explained the conversion to playing first base and some outfield as a left-hander in a letter to the Hall of Fame dated February 18, 1960. He says he also threw some batting practice left-handed, too, but didn’t have sufficient control to pitch competitively as a southpaw. The letter is contained in Steele’s player file.
xviii Sporting Life, June 7, 1913.
xix Sporting Life, April 4, 1914.
xx Sporting Life, July 11, 1914.
xxi The Sporting News, April 9, 1966.
xxii Poughkeepsie Journal, March 10, 1966.