King Cole

This article was written by John Liepa

He is the natural pitcher who, whether he wants to or not, ‘puts something on every ball.’ His fast ball flashes upward and in; his curve breaks like an air-blown ball. He achieves his speed seemingly without an effort, his long arm and fingers giving the ball strange twists, and the speed with which he hurls it causes the air to do the rest.” — Hugh Fullerton1

 

 

King ColeDescribing newly discovered baseball talent can be a risky business, either by being overly optimistic, or setting one up for disappointment and failure. But for Chicago Cubs manager Frank Chance and scout George Huff, who had watched Leonard “King” Cole, a six-foot-two right-hander, pitch for Bay City, Michigan — a Class D team in the Southern Michigan League, there was no risk or doubt.2 They had signed a great new talent in late 1909.

By 1909, the Cubs had become one of the most powerful teams in baseball, having won three straight pennants and two World Series championships from 1906 to 1908. Led by baseball’s most famous double play combination of “Joe] Tinker to Johnny] Evers to [Frank] Chance,” the Cubs featured an outstanding supporting cast including third baseman Harry Steinfeldt, outfielders Jimmy Sheckard and Frank Schulte, and pitchers Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Jack Pfiester, Ed Reulbach, Orval Overall, and Carl Lundgren. Adding “King” Cole to this formidable line-up only elevated expectations for the 1910 season. Ending up in Chicago, and playing with a world champion team, had only been a dream for a young “Hi” Cole growing up in Iowa.

Leonard Leslie Cole was born on April 15, 1886, to Hiram Henry Cole and Cora A. (Phillips) Cole in the east-central rural Iowa town of Toledo.3 Twelve years later, Leonard’s sister Mildred (Lottie) was born. Somewhat ironically, only 11 miles and four years separated Leonard Cole’s birth from that of the Philadelphia Athletics’ Jack “Colby Jack” Coombs — born in LeGrand, Iowa — whom his Cubs would meet in the 1910 World Series.

A troubled early family life led to his separation from his family. He attend Toledo public schools, and at the age of 14 was sent to the Industrial School for Boys in nearby Eldora, Iowa. He briefly attended Leander Clark College in Toledo, which had been founded by the United Brethren Church in 1881, but was struggling financially by 1916. Throughout his early school years, Cole had taken to baseball and had established quite a reputation as a talented pitcher playing for the Toledo town team.4

In 1907 he decided to join the barnstorming “Bloomer Girls” baseball team. Women’s “Bloomer Girls” clubs barnstormed throughout the United States from the 1890s to the 1930s, playing against men’s town, semi-pro, and minor league teams. The term “Bloomer” came not from baggy pantaloons called bloomers, but from suffragette Adelaide Jenks Bloomer, and the term was used generically by a number of clubs in cities throughout the East and Midwest.5 To build attendance and make the games more competitive, teams usually hired one to three males to pitch or catch, referred to as “toppers” because of the curly wigs they wore on top of their own hair. Notable “toppers” included Hall of Famers Rogers “Rajah” Hornsby and Grover Cleveland Alexander, “Smoky Joe” Wood, and, for a brief time in 1907, Leonard “King” Cole.6 One of the “Bloomer Girls” barnstorming trips had taken Cole to Bay City to pitch for the Bloomers in an exhibition game.

The next year Cole played for semi-pro clubs in Ottumwa, Iowa, and Tecumseh, Michigan, and briefly with the Columbus, Ohio, Senators of the American Association. In 1909 he was signed by the Bay City manager, became an outstanding starter, and finished with a 21-7 record. While playing in Bay City, he met Ada Seder, fell in love, and began courting her.7 His successful season caught the eye of the Chicago Cubs; they signed him immediately, and gave him a chance to ‘show his stuff’ in the opening game of a season-ending doubleheader against the Cardinals on October 6. Any lingering doubts were eliminated as the “King” hurled a six-hit shutout; through 2018, only 26 National League pitchers since have accomplished this feat.8 His batting was just as impressive, going 3 for-4, including a triple.

With a guaranteed contract for 1910, he headed back to Bay City for the off-season, took up barbering as a trade, and earned the nickname “The Bay City Barber.”9 Knowing what expectations the Cubs had for him, he stayed fit by following a regimen of regular exercise, running, and occasionally going hunting. He continued seeing Miss Ada Seder, and soon they made plans for a May 9, 1910, wedding.

As a rookie, Cole quickly established himself as one of the Cubs’ aces, finishing the campaign with a 20-4 record. Only three other National League pitchers won more games, and only Deacon Phillippe topped Cole’s .833 winning percentage. His 1.80 ERA led the circuit and, through 2018, no NL rookie since has bested it.10

Although the Pirates, led by Hall-of-Famers player/manager Fred Clarke and heavy-hitting Honus Wagner, had interrupted the Cubs’ string of consecutive pennants in 1909, by mid-season of 1910, the Cubs had a seven-game lead over the Pirates and Giants. Cole’s seven straight wins by mid-June had led the way and set the stage for a June 15 14-inning struggle between Cole and the Dodgers’ Cy Barger. Matching pitch for pitch through 13 innings, Cole would suffer his first loss when, in a very dramatic fashion, Barger came to bat with a man on second and drove in the winning run.11

Other memorable games from that rookie season included a July 31 game against the Cardinals in which Cole threw a seven-inning no-hitter and had a 4-0 lead, only to have the game called by umpire Hank O'Day either due to darkness or so both clubs could make train connections to the East Coast.12 Cole’s no-hitter was the only one thrown in the National League in 1910. His efforts helped lead the Cubs to the World Series where they would meet Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and fellow Iowan “Colby Jack” Coombs. Unfortunately, they would lose the Series, 4 games to 1, being outscored 35-15. Cole started game Four — the only game won by the Cubs — and battled Hall of Famer Charles “Chief” Bender through eight innings before being relieved by Mordecai Brown, who pulled out a thrilling 4-3, 10th-inning win.

Despite a disappointing finish to a great overall season, Cole would be selected by SABR members in 1986 as the National League’s “Rookie of the Year” for 1910.13 His winning percentage (.833) would remain the best by a Cub in the 20th Century. He was immortalized as “King” Cole by sportswriter/author Ring Lardner, who got it from the children’s nursery rhyme “Old King Cole.”14

Returning to Bay City after his outstanding season, King Cole was rewarded with an automobile by a local manufacturer and returned to his barbering trade. Cole continued as the Cubs’ leading pitcher into the 1911 season and, understandably, expectations were high. The “King” would not disappoint, putting up an 18-7 record with a 3.13 ERA. For his two seasons, he amassed a record of 38-11. His .776 winning percentage over this span was second among NL pitchers with at least 30 decisions to the New York Giants’ James “Doc” Crandall’s .780, and exceeded Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson’s .707 and Rube Marquard’s .718.15

As successful as Cole had been in his first two seasons, his career began a downward spiral in 1912. He had always been a jokester and somewhat of a free spirit, with some limited involvement on the vaudeville stage, but now his off-the-field distractions began to impact his career. His strict early training regimen was being replaced by rule breaking, inconsistent and improper training, and excuse-making for his declining pitching performances. And although he was still a fan favorite, sportswriters, managers, and even his teammates were becoming openly critical of his antics and work ethic. Even Ring Lardner, who had earlier anointed him as the “King,” used Leonard Cole as the basis for his main character, Frank X. Farrell, an ace baseball pitcher whose insistence upon making excuses for everything that goes wrong or right, earned him the nickname “Alibi Ike.” “Alibi Ike” first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on July 31, 1915, and in 1935 was the movie title of a romantic comedy with Joe E. Brown starring as “Alibi Ike” and Olivia De Havilland as the manager’s sister-in-law, with whom he falls in love. The story of “Alibi Ike” opens with:

“His right name was Frank X. Farrell, and I guess the X stood for “excuse me.” Because he never pulled a play, good or bad, on or off the field, without apologizing for it …. Then Carey went on to tell me what Ike had been pullin’ out there. He’d drop the first fly ball that was hit to him and told Carey his glove wasn’t broke in good yet, and Carey says the glove could easy of been Kid Gleason’s grandfather. He made a whale of a catch out o’ the next one and Carey says “Nice Work!” or somethin’ like that, but Ike says he could have caught the ball with his back turned only he slipped when he started after it and, besides that, the air currents fooled him.”16

The 1912 season started out disastrously for Cole, who won just one of his first eight games in two months with an “un-regal” ERA of 10.89, giving up 36 hits and eight walks in 19 innings. Earlier light-hearted teasing by teammates turned into genuine dissension. By mid-May, manager Chance suggested to owner Charles Murphy that Cole be traded to Pittsburgh, assuring Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss that Cole’s arm was still strong and that all he needed was a ‘change of scenery.’17 Cole and outfielder Solly Hofman were sent to Pittsburgh in exchange for infielder/outfielder Tommy Leach and veteran pitcher Albert “Lefty” Leifield. As Cole continued to struggle in Pittsburgh, owner Dreyfuss became acutely aware that a change of scenery wasn’t helping Cole; by July Cole was demoted to being a reliever. Inconsistency through the rest of the 1912 season resulted in a 2-2 record with a 6.43 ERA; he was suspended by manager Fred Clarke in August for violating team rules; benched in September; and finally, sold by the Pirates to Columbus of the minor league American Association.

After spending the winter barbering in Chicago and Bay City, Cole proved his career wasn’t over by reporting to Columbus and having a stellar year. In compiling a 23-11 record, he led the league in innings pitched and, on July 15 threw a no-hitter against Milwaukee, winning, 3-1, and becoming one of the few pitchers to throw no-hitters in both the majors and minors.18 Just as quickly as the Pirates had dumped Cole, almost every major league team had a renewed interest in acquiring his talents. The New York Yankees, now managed by Cole’s former boss with the Cubs, Frank Chance, had scouted Cole and encouraged owner Frank Farrell to successfully outbid his rivals for the “King’s” services. With only a week left in the big league season, Cole was told to report to the Yankees the next spring.

While Cole was anticipating the 1914 season, his former teammate with the Cubs, Joe Tinker, had accepted an offer from the upstart Federal League Chicago Whales to be their player-manager. The Whales’ owner, Charles Weeghman, encouraged Tinker to visit his old teammate and offer him a three-year contract with a higher salary than the Yankees had offered.19 Cole signed the contract, but “flopped back to organized baseball by signing a Yankee contract” weeks later.20; Uncertainty about the Federal League’s future convinced him to honor his earlier promise; he gave back the $500 advance he had received from the Whales.

After showing some promise during spring training, Cole became inconsistent as a starter or as a reliever; He had lost speed on his fastball, and his control was erratic from game to game. His season ended with a respectable 10-9 record and an ERA of 3.30 for a team that finished with a 70-84 record. Yet, on an October 2, 1914, afternoon at Boston’s Fenway Park, Cole faced a rookie left-hander named George Herman Ruth, already referred to as “Babe” by his teammates and the press. In only his third major league game, the “Babe” would limit his future team to six hits and lead off the seventh inning with a double, scoring on a sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly. It was Ruth’s first major league hit and his first of 2,174 runs scored — fourth best all-time.

After playing a series of post-season barnstorming exhibitions, Cole went back to Bay City, and was informed in January that the Yankees wanted him to report in March to Savannah, Georgia, for spring training. Through the intra-squad and exhibition games, he pitched well and one-hit the Cubs through four innings on April 2, 1915. The New York Times reported the next day that manager “Bill] Donovan was much elated over King Cole’s great pitching.…Cole really is the best conditioned of any of the New York pitchers, and has toyed with his opponents all spring.”21 But underlying the optimism and a return to the “King” Cole of 1910-11, he had complained throughout the spring of having a sore arm, feeling fatigued, and on April 9 complained about pains in his groin. A New York hospital examination revealed a tumor and he was told his baseball career was over, but worse, that it was terminal with only months to live. After a successful surgery to remove the tumor, he returned to Bay City to recuperate, and was determined to beat the cancer and return to baseball.

He rejoined the team on July 9, 1915, and pitched on July 13 and 14 against Detroit as a starter and reliever with disastrous results. Yet, defying the naysayers and unwilling to accept the doctor’s prognosis, Cole then pitched well through the remainder of the 1915 season. Joe Vila praised his efforts that August in The Sporting News: “King Cole has come back with a vengeance. He was passed up as a permanent invalid…and everybody felt sorry. But Cole refused to allow the doctors to count him out….Since Chance got him from Columbus a year ago last winter, the King has lived cleanly and also been in high favor with the Yankee owners. Persons who circulated untruthful stories about this goodhearted fellow did him a rank injustice and I take this means to set him right in the eyes of the public.”22

“King” Cole would make the last appearance of his career in relief against the White Sox on September 20, 1915, getting his 56th career win. At season’s end, the Yankee owners, knowing that Cole’s ailments were severe, refused to renew his contract. But Cole, tough and determined, planned on exercising, recuperating, and rejoining the Yankees in the spring. He returned to Bay City, hoping his previous regimen of exercise and hunting would beat the odds of his dire prognosis. When he came back from a hunting trip in November, he complained of pain and weakness.23 For seven weeks, the recurring cancer left Cole bed-ridden, and on the morning of January 6, 1916, Leonard “King” Cole died, just 15 weeks after his last big league win.24 The official cause of death listed on his death certificate was “scrofula lymphnaucous [sic] of the lung.”25 Cole finished his career with a pitching record of 54-27, a 3.12 ERA and 298 strikeouts. His remains were returned to his birthplace of Toledo, Iowa, where funeral services were held at the home of his grandmother, Mrs. S. Phillips. His remains were interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo.26 He was survived by his widow, Ada.27

Leonard “King” Cole, for a life and career cut much too short by cancer, left an underappreciated but memorable imprint on our national pastime. From his “Rookie of the Year” 1910 season and his highest 20th century winning percentage as a Cub; to his pitching no-hitters in both the minor and major leagues; to his courageous comeback against terminal cancer; and finally, helping to introduce the baseball world to George Herman Ruth — Leonard “King” Cole deserves a special place in baseball history.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Phil Williams and Norman Macht, and verified for accuracy by the BioProject fact-checking team.

 

Sources

For this biography, the author used the sources indicated below, the subject's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, and those specified in the notes.

Doxsie, Don. Iowa Baseball Greats: Sixteen Major Leaguers Who Were in the Game for Life (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015), 190-191.

Johnson, Lloyd and Miles Wolff, ed. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, 2007, Third Ed.), 216, 236, 246.

May, George S. “Major League Baseball Players from Iowa,” The Palimpsest, #36, April 1955.

Spink, Alfred H. The National Game (St. Louis, Mo.: National Game Publishing Co., 1910), 126.

Tierney, John P. Jack Coombs: A Life in Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008), 56 and 62.

Waldo, Ronald T. Fred Clarke: A Biography of the Baseball Hall of Fame Player-Manager (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011), 177.

Wiese, Joyce, President, Tama County Historical Society, Museum and Genealogy Library, Toledo, Iowa. Correspondence and telephone interview, September 2015.

“King Cole, Yank Pitcher, Dead,” New York Morning Telegraph, January 7, 1916.

“‘King’ Cole, Yankees’ Pitcher, Dies of Cancer,” New York World, January 7, 1916.

 

Notes

1 Hugh S. Fullerton, “Seeking the .300 Hitter,” American Magazine, Vol. 71, 1910, 97.

2 Victor Debs Jr. “The King is Dead,” SABR Baseball Research Journal #31, (SABR, 2003), 64-65.

3 Joyce Wiese, “Toledo’s Own King of Baseball,” Toledo Chronicle, July 31, 2013, 1B.

4 bid.

5 Jonathan Fraser Light, “Women in Baseball,” The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, Second Ed., (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005), 1012.

6 Ann Sneebsy-Koch, “‘Bloomer Girls’ Baseball,” History Colorado, May 26, 2018,

https://www.historycolorado.org/story/womens-history/2018/05/26/bloomer-girls-baseball, accessed January 6, 2019.

7 “Wedding Bells for Cole,” (Chicago) Suburbanite Economist, June 10, 1910, 6.

8 Per Baseball-Reference’s Play Index.

9 Fred J. Hewitt, “Luck Favors Cubs as Quakers Almost Capture Both Games,” Chicago Inter Ocean, July 15, 1910, 4.

10 Per Baseball-Reference’s Play Index.

11 Debs, “The King is Dead.” 65.

12 “Double Victory Bagged by Cubs.” Chicago Tribune, August 1, 1910, 10.

13 Lyle Spatz, “SABR Picks 1900-1948 Rookies of the Year,” SABR Baseball Research Journal #15, (SABR, 1986), 3.

14 Rick Kaempfer, “King Day,” Just One Bad Century, January 21, 2019, http://www.justonebadcentury.com/king-day/ accessed April 12, 2019.

15 Per Baseball-Reference’s Play Index.

16 Matthew J. Bruccoli, Ring Around the Bases: The Complete Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1996), 295-296.

17 Debs, “The King is Dead,” 66.

18 Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, ed. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 246.

19 Debs, “The King is Dead,” 67-68.

20 “Cole Flops Back to Organized Ball,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 4, 1914, 12.

21 “Yankees in Rain Belt.” New York Times, April 3, 1915, 10.

22 Joe Vila, “Brooklyn Prefers the Dodger Brand,” The Sporting News, August 19, 1915, 1.

23 Debs, “The King is Dead,” 64-71.

24 Wiese, “Toledo’s Own King of Baseball.”

25 Certificate of Death, State of Michigan, “Leonard L. Cole,” January 7, 1916.

26 “King” Cole Funeral Held Tuesday, Toledo (Iowa) Chronicle, January 13, 1916.

27 Ibid.