Sad but no great surprise, any number of baseball careers have been short-circuited by hunting accidents. Unintentional firearm discharges, accidental shootings, falls from elevated hunting blinds, and other misadventures are risks inherent in shooting activities, and ballplayers, like other hunters, undertake them willingly, knowing full-well the effect an errant shotgun pellet or a tree tumble might have on their skills, if not their lives. Far less appreciated is the hunting peril to which the playing career of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher-first baseman Jim Hackett succumbed: poison ivy.
Although the circumstances have never been precisely described, it appears that Hackett went on a post-season hunting trip in October 1903. At some point, Hackett’s hand came into contact with poison ivy, which he then spread to his eyes by rubbing them. In short order, his eyes became severely inflamed, necessitating urgent medical intervention. Some newspaper dispatches informed fans that Hackett had lost the vision in his left eye. Another advised that the eye had been surgically removed. And yet others reported that the sight in Hackett’s right had been compromised, as well. Whatever their differences on the extent of the calamity, the media unanimously predicted that Jim Hackett’s baseball career was over.
As it turned out, heroic treatment measures saved Hackett’s sight in both eyes. And for almost the next 60 years, Hackett’s vision allowed him to perform the tasks of everyday life. But playing baseball at the professional level was another matter. Although he would persevere for a near-decade, Hackett’s eyesight had become inadequate for the rigors of the game, and his career went into immediate decline after 1903. Thus in the end, the newspaper forecast on Jim Hackett’s baseball future proved correct.
Our ill-fortuned subject was born James Joseph Hackett on October 1, 1877 in Jacksonville, Illinois, a bustling county seat located in the west-central plains of the Land of Lincoln. He was the sixth of 11 children1 born to laborer Michael Hackett (1845-1899) and his wife Margaret (nee Dolan, 1850-1903), Irish-Catholic immigrants who had met and married in Jacksonville in 1867.Young Jim attended Our Savior School, the parish elementary through the eighth grade,2 and then followed his older siblings into the local workforce.
Hackett began playing baseball as a schoolboy, and by age 16, the tall, lithe (6-feet-2, 185 pounds)3 redhead had ascended to the Rush Medics, a Chicago semi-pro nine.4The following year, he entered the professional ranks, signing with the Burlington club of the Eastern Iowa League, an independent eight-team minor league. Hackett was inked as a second baseman but quickly installed in right field where he, Bill Hoffner, and someone surnamed Heisler gave Burlington an all-H pasture crew, “the hardest hitting outfield in the league.” With lanky George Dalrymple, he also provided Burlington “a fine pair of coachers. Just what the club has been in need of for some time.”5 Of far more consequence, the righty-batting Hackett tore up league pitching, hitting .409 with 13 home runs in 76 games. But those numbers tumbled once the Burlington club joined the much-faster Western Association as a late-season replacement for the failed Springfield team. In 14 WA games, the youngster batted a mere .197 and was dropped from the Burlington roster over the winter.6
Jim spent the summer of 1896 playing for semi-pro clubs in and around Jacksonville, pitching on occasion.7 The following year, he returned to the Western Association, signing as a first baseman with the Peoria (Illinois) Blackbirds. Cut in early spring camp, Hackett then joined a league rival, the Quincy (Illinois) Little Giants. Used by Quincy primarily as a pitcher, the right-handed teenager blossomed. He went 20-16, with a fine 2.37 ERA in over 300 innings pitched for a sixth-place (56-69) club.8Inconsistency, however, had plagued him. The Rockford Morning Star opined: “No pitcher in the association has been more erratic in his work than young Hackett of Quincy. One day he would be invincible, and on his next appearance he would be pitifully weak. This was his first season in fast company. If he would take more interest in his work and ginger up, he would probably be a valuable man.”9Rendering consistent performance would prove a constant struggle for Hackett. And adopting a hard-nosed attitude was near-impossible for a player so amiable that he would soon be called Sunny Jim.
When the Quincy franchise disbanded over the winter, Hackett was among the erstwhile Little Giants awarded to a newly-formed association club in Ottumwa, Iowa. Unenthused about relocating, he dallied about signing, leading the Ottumwa Overture to grump that Hackett (and fellow holdout pitcher Gene McGreevey) “would sign with Ottumwa or decorate the bench” in 1898. In time, the Ottumwa Giants got their man, but Hackett was not the pitcher of the season before. In six games pitched, he went an underwhelming 2-4 and was then released to a Western Association competitor, the Dubuque (Iowa) Tigers. There, Hackett made one ineffectual relief appearance before the association suspended operations in July. By September, he was playing semi-pro ball in Springfield, Illinois.10
In 1899, Hackett tried his luck in the Interstate League, pitching and playing outfield for the Mansfield (Ohio) Haymakers. In the box, he underperformed, going 14-17 for a second-place club that finished 86-54. (Excluding Hackett’s 31 decisions, Mansfield posted an exceptional 72-37 (.727) record in 1899.) His .250 batting average (36-for-144) was also mediocre, at best. Still, Mansfield reserved Hackett for the 1900 season. During the off-season, Jim stayed in shape by playing in a winter indoor baseball league in Jacksonville. He also attended the local wedding of catcher Frank Belt, cementing a friendship that wouldlater help extend Hackett’s playing career.11
Before the 1900 season started, Mansfield released Hackettunconditionally. His ensuing engagement by the Springfield club of the newly-organized Central League produced various personal highlights. First, his new teammates included younger brother Tom Hackett, then embarking on a lengthy, if turbulent, professional playing career of his own. Subsequently, when the franchise relocated to Jacksonville onMay 21,the Hackett boys got to perform before hometown family and friends. Finally, during a game against Peoriafirst baseman Sunny Jim exchanged pleasantries with guest bases umpire James J. Jeffries, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world. But all was not sunshine that summer. In early June, Jacksonville manager William Highfield absconded, leaving club bills and player salaries unpaid. If only on an interim basis, Hackett was named club manager.12Little more than a month later, the Jacksonville franchise folded, leaving manager Hackett and his charges on their own.
Although only 23, Hackett had already spent five seasons playing mid-tier minor league ball. Even at that modest competitive level he had not given much sign of being anything other than a journeyman. The improbable rise in Hackett’s professional fortunes began in 1901. Pitching for the Terre Haute (Indiana) Hottentots of the Three-I League, Hackett won nine of his first ten decisions. By season’s end, he had cooled off to 15-10 (.600), which was below the mark (72-39, .649) set by the pennant-winning Hots. And far below the record of the Terre Haute staff ace and future Hall of Famer Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, 25-8, .758. But for the first time in his career, Hackett had been noticed. In early August, a local Sporting Life correspondent declared him “the premier pitcher of the Three-I League,” and soon thereafter, reports circulated that Hackett was headed for the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League.13 Those reports proved premature, but not unfounded. Before the following season was out, Hackett would be a Red Bird.
According to the Rockford Morning Star, Hackett reportedly jumped to the Indianapolis Indians of the then-outlaw American Association during the off-season. But he returned to Terre Haute when Indianapolis dropped him. Hackett started fast again in 1902, not losing a decision until June 14, a 19-0 thrashing by Rockford. His final record would be in the neighborhood of 21-10, a performance that garnered Hackett a spot on the Three-I League All-Star team selected by the Rockford Morning Star.14 With the press awash in new reports of interest in Hackett by the Cardinals, the deal was done. Terre Haute sold their pitcher to St. Louis in early August for a reported $800. The Illinois State Register reported that Hackett was instructed to report to St. Louis “as soon as the position of the Terre Haute team in Three-I League [standings] is assured.”15 But unhappily for Jim, a tight Three-I pennant race kept him in Terre Haute until mid-September.16
Jim Hackett made his major league debut on September 14, 1902. With the Cardinals already trailing the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates 8-0, the oversized battery of Hackett and fellow call-up Art Weaver (6’1”) replaced the O’Neill brothers (pitcher Mike O'Neill and catcher Jack O'Neill) to begin the fourth inning. Over the next six frames, Hackett kept the opposition off balance, yielding only a single run while striking out three. As a result, the final score was respectable: Pittsburgh 9, St. Louis 6. Four days later, Manager Patsy Donovan gave Hackett his first start—against those same Pittsburgh Pirates. Having faced the giant right-hander before, the Bucs were now on to him. His imposing height notwithstanding, Hackett was a soft-tosser, with no better than a batting practice fastball. In the minors, his out-pitch had been a “tantalizing slow ball.”17 The second time around the Pittsburgh lineup of Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and company feasted on Sunny Jim, battering him for 15 hits. They also put men on base via four walks and a hit batsman, while Hackett struck out none of the 48 batters who faced him. Still, it took ten innings for the Pirates to best him, 7-6. Along the way, Jim got his first major leagues base-hit, a single off crafty left-hander Jesse Tannehill.
Including two games that that he played in the outfield, Hackett got into six late-season St. Louis contests. His batting (6-for-21, .286, with four RBIs) showed some promise. His hurling did not. In four appearances, he went 0-3, with a 6.23 ERA in 30⅓ innings pitched. Nevertheless, the sixth-place and going nowhere Cardinals reserved the youngster for the 1903 season. Sunny Jim began that campaign as he had finished the last, pitching unimpressively and losing three early-May starts. Thereafter, Manager Donovan installed him at first base, where he began to develop into a good defensive player. His batting, however, still lagged. . In over 350 at-bats, he posted only a .228/.272/.311 slash line. Returned to the box in September, Hackett registered his first major league victory, an 8-3 trimming of Cincinnati that might have been a shutout but for St. Louis errors in the field. It was also his last victory, with his final two outings ending in a respectable 4-3 loss to Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants on September 12) and a 5-5 tie against Brooklyn five days later. In the first game of the season-ending September 27 doubleheader against Philadelphia, Hackett appeared as an unsuccessful ninth-inning pinch-hitter. Unbeknownst to all concerned at the time, that was Jim Hackett’s concluding major league appearance.18
Jim Hackett spent a shade over a calendar year in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform. During that time, he was given a fair chance to establish himself as either a pitcher or an everyday player, but he failed to do so. As a pitcher in 11 games, he went 1-6 (.143), with a 4.69 ERA in 78⅔innings pitched. He walked 34, struck out 28, and yielded a high Deadball Era .290 OBA. Hackett’s work with the bat was equally undistinguished. In just under 400 plate appearances, he compiled a slim .231 batting average, with 22 extra-base hits and 40 RBIs. His 58 strikeouts and .276 on-base percentage were also substandard. Although Hackett was still young (25) and had received considerable playing time in 1903, his place in future Cardinals plans appeared shaky as the season came to a close.
A month later, reports of Hackett’s fateful hunting trip were published. The extent of the poison ivy-caused eye damage was uncertain. Newspapers nationwide stated that Hackett had lost the vision in his left eye.19 At least one reported—erroneously—that the eye had been surgically removed.20 Other news dispatches stated that treating physicians also feared for the sight of Hackett’s right eye.21Collectively, the media declared his baseball playing career over.
Hackett would remain a patient at Rebekah Hospital in St. Louis for more than two months. And slowly his condition improved. By mid-November, it was reported that Hackett had not entirely lost the sight in his left eye. But doubt remained that he would ever be able to play ball again.22 A month later, Sporting Life’s St. Louis correspondent B. Wright sounded an optimistic note: “genial Jim Hackett is getting along well, and will soon be up and around. . . . I am glad to say that his right eye will be as good as ever, while his left eye will be in such shape that no one at a distance will be able to notice that it is not as good as the other one. I don’t believe the damage to the left eye, bad as it undeniably is, will interfere materially with his playing ability, and I feel sure he will cavort on the green diamond next season as usual.”23
In earlyJanuary 1904, Hackett was discharged from the hospital, reportedly “with his optics restored to their former good condition.”24 But the dubious St. Louis Cardinals unconditionally released him the following month.25 Thereafter, Hackett signed with the Columbus (Ohio) Senators of the Class A American Association, “but will not report for some time as the injury to his eye . . . has not yet fully healed.”26 In the interim, Hackett took a baseball coaching job with DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.27
For reasons unknown, Hackett never played for Columbus. Rather, he started his comeback with the Marion (Ohio) Oilworkers soon-to-become the Peoria Distillers of the Class B Central League. But a month after throwing a two-hit, 3-0 shutout on May 29 at the league-leading Fort Wayne Railroaders, Hackett was released to the Bloomington (Illinois) Bloomers of the Three-I League.28 Thus began an odyssey in which Hackett never remained with any one team for an entire campaign.
After batting a meager .218 in 60 games as the Bloomington first baseman, Hackett was let go at the end of 1904. He started the 1905 season with the Vicksburg (Mississippi) Hill Billies of the Class D Cotton States League, his roster spot largely a courtesy of his friend Frank Belt, the Vicksburg player-manager. In mid-May, Hackett took temporary leave of his new club to reorder his domestic affairs, marrying Flora Severance Hawley, a 22-year-old divorcee with two small children.29 Jim then resumed playing for the Vicksburg club until the Cotton States League ceased operation on July 31, a precaution against a raging yellow fever epidemic. Bloomington gave the now-available Hackett another shot at the first base job, but his encore “did not strengthen the team and he was soon cut adrift” by the Bloomers.30 By the summer’s close, “Sunny Jim Hackett was on the rubber” for a semi-pro club back home in Jacksonville.31
Hackett was signed for the 1906 season by the Oakland Oaks of the top-drawer Class A Pacific Coast League, where, incidentally, his younger brother Tom was the incumbent catcher. An anemic .140 batting average in 44 games dispelled the notion that the former major leaguer could still hit decent pitching. Nevertheless, the Kansas City Blues of the American Association afforded Hackett a two-week tryout.32 He ended the season with the hometown Jacksonville Jacks of the newly-formed Class D KITTY (Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee) League, a club managed by benefactor Frank Belt.
With few options and a family to support, Hackett tried to prolong his now-dying baseball career. The 1907 season saw him briefly with the Nashville Volunteers of the Class A Southern Association. In eight games, he batted .077 (2-for-26), and was released in mid-May. With his eyesight plainly insufficient for further professional play, Jim assayed the next best thing: umpiring. Engaged by circuit president William Kavanaugh, Hackett proved a disaster in blue, too. Decisions against the hometown Pelicansleft angry New Orleans fans torn between rioting and boycottinghome games. Thereafter, the New Orleans Item published the following left-handed compliment of the umpire’s work: “[We] cannot accuse Hackett of favoring either side. There is no doubt that the umpire is honest and conscientious. His decisions are faulty and hurt both clubs.”33 Left unmentioned was the widespread belief that Hackett’s eyesight simply was not up to the task of umpiring. A few weeks later, Kavanaugh dismissed Hackett and umpiring partner Jim Flynn with the cryptic explanation that “their services were not satisfactory.”A more forthright comment in the Charleston News and Courier acknowledged that “Hackett’s ailing eyesight . . . caused his discharge.”34
Once again, Frank Belt threw Hackett a career lifeline, providing him a spot on the Jacksonville Lunatics of another new Class D circuit, the Iowa State League. But Hackett had nothing left to give manager Belt. In late-season action, he batted a microscopic .093 (4-for-41).35 When the league folded at season’s end, Hackett’s time in Organized Baseball had reached its conclusion.
In July 1908, Hackett was reported to be pitching and playing first base on weekends for the Great Leaders club in the semi-pro St. Louis Trolley League. Thereafter, Jim Hackett receded from newspaper sports pages into the anonymity of private life. The 1910 US Census listed his occupation as ball player, and the late-life questionnaire that Jim completed for the Hall of Fame library stated that he played pro ball through 1912. He also reportedly signed to play for a semi-pro team in Springfield in 1913. By the time he registered for the World War I draft in September 1918, Hackett was employed by an Idaho gold mining company. And his marriage had either ended or was in serious trouble. He listed his married sister Mary, not wife Flora, as family contact on his draft registration form.. By 1920, Jim was residing in Los Angeles with his older brother Mike and family, and reporting his marital status as single. Flora, meanwhile, lived in an Idaho camp settlement with a man named William Warren, and identifying herself as Flora Warren to census takers.36 But ten years later, Jim and Flora Hackett were back together, living in South Fork, Idaho, and the two would remain under the same roof until Flora’s death from influenza-related pneumonia in August 1935.
Jim Hackett spent the remainder of his working life as an Idaho rancher. In October 1939, he married a44-year-old legal stenographer Marie Permesang.In retirement, the couple moved to Douglas, Michigan. On March 28, 1961, James Joseph “Sunny Jim” Hackett died at Douglas Community Hospital “following a long illness.”37 He was 83. Following funeral services, his remains were interred in St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois. Survivors included his second wife Marie, and his sisters Mary Hackett Penny and Anna Hackett McHenry.
Sources for the biographical detail include the Jim Hackett file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; Hackett family info posted on Ancestry.com; and certain of the newspaper articles cited below. Unless otherwise noted, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.com.The Official Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 2d ed. 1997) also provided some minor league data.