William Van Winkle Wolf was born on May 12, 1862 in Louisville, Kentucky. To his family he was “Willie.” As a teenager a friend dubbed him “Chicken,” and later he was known as “Jimmy” to baseball fans in Louisville. “Willie” was a common diminutive of William in the German-American home of the Wolfs. “Chicken” was allegedly given to him by his boyhood friend and major league teammate, Pete Browning. The story goes that when Wolf and Browning were teenagers they were both members of the then semi-pro Louisville Eclipse team. Their manager instructed the team to eat lightly before a certain game, but Wolf surrendered to his appetite and stuffed himself on stewed chicken. He then played poorly in the game, committing several errors. Browning made a connection between the chicken and the lackluster play and hung the nickname “Chicken” on him. The name caught on with his teammates and the local press. How Wolf felt about the name has gone unrecorded, but about halfway through his professional career he was known as “Jimmy” Wolf in the Louisville newspapers. We do not know the origin or reason for this change.
It is not clear how the Wolf family came to America. Census records indicate that Andrew and Barbara Wolf probably emigrated from Germany in the 1840s, settling briefly in New York City before moving west to Louisville by 1850. They had seven children – four girls and three boys. Willie was the youngest of the brood. The men of the Wolf family were all involved in machinery. Andrew Wolf worked for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad as a machinist, as did his son Charles. The family lived on West Walnut Street, not far from the downtown area, and young Willie learned to play baseball with neighborhood friends. These friends included teenagers such as Pete Browning, and the Reccius brothers, John and Phil. By the time the boys were in their late teens, they were members of a West End baseball club called the Eclipse. The Eclipse had been founded in the mid-1870s by Billy Reccius, older brother of John and Phil. The club was semi-pro in nature, operating as a co-op club with the players splitting whatever monies were collected from the spectators at any game. In 1881 the club began paying salaries to the players. When the American Association was formed in 1882, the management of the Eclipse secured a franchise and began assembling a team. They took four players from the local club – Pete Browning, Joe Crotty, John Reccius and Chicken Wolf.
Wolf was the club’s right fielder throughout his career, but the righthanded hitting and throwing Wolf played every position in the course of his playing days. He was a quiet player, leaving the press to spend time with his more voluble teammates like Browning, Guy Hecker, and Tom Ramsey. Wolf is rarely mentioned in newspaper reports except for his actions in the games. He is never reported to have held out during contract negotiations, usually signing before the first of the year. A mediocre fielder early in his career, he developed into a good outfielder after 1884. He was helped by his superior speed, much needed when dreadful-fielding Browning was moved to center field, and Wolf discovered that he had to cover all of right field as well as a sizable portion of center. Wolf hit .299 his first season, and except for the 1883 season he maintained an average between .272 and .300 for his first eight seasons. He also stole over 40 bases three times. His usual season was to hit about .290 with 20 doubles, 10 triples, and a pair of home runs.
His one time in the spotlight for non-playing activities came in 1889. The Louisville Colonels that season were one of the worst teams in the history of major league baseball. They posted a 27-111 record while battling the team’s owners and each other. The season opened with Dude Esterbrook as team captain. Esterbrook insisted on people doing things his way and began assessing fines on players who chose not to take his advice to heart. In late April, Esterbrook fined second baseman Dan Shannon ten dollars for failing to obey his instructions on how to throw the ball. A few days later Wolf and Esterbrook engaged in a heated argument over that fine. As the temperature and tempers rose, Esterbrook dropped a ten-dollar fine on Jimmy. More words were exchanged, the fine escalated to forty dollars, and Wolf was on his way to visit Mordecai Davidson, the team owner. Within a week Esterbrook was no longer captain, and the team selected Wolf as their new leader.
Wolf apparently took his new role seriously, for during his tenure Davidson began a series of fines for poor play that caused the players to rebel. When Davidson refused to return the fines several players participated in the first players’ strike in major league history. Although he had been one of the victims of Davidson’s actions, Wolf performed his duties as captain and played in the game while the other six players sat out. Davidson sold the club in early June, and Wolf resigned as captain at the end of that month.
To study team pictures of the Louisville club throughout the 1880s is to see a change in Jimmy Wolf. He changes from a lithe twenty-year-old in 1882 to a more mature and rotund figure in 1888. While listed in the encyclopedias at five-foot-nine and 190 pounds, he appears taller in several team photos and heavier in the late 1880s. He seems to have battled a weight problem as the local papers commented in the spring of 1890, “Wolf is in good condition and has worked off nearly all superfluous flesh.” The newly svelte Wolf was set for the best season of his career.
The 1890 season was a tumultuous one for professional baseball. It was the year of the Players War, with three major leagues operating and rosters completely changed from 1889. This turned out to be a blessing for Louisville. Although Browning and Hecker were gone, the play of a few rookies and career years by some veterans lofted the club to its only major league pennant. No player had a bigger season than Jimmy Wolf. He got off to a fast start, hitting .375 in the first month, and continued his hot hitting through the end of the season. He captured the American Association batting title with a .363 average and led the league with 197 hits and 260 total bases. He had career highs in doubles (29), home runs (4), and stolen bases (46).
Wolf continued his stellar season into the World Series against the Brooklyn club of the National League. Held to one hit in the first two games (both Brooklyn wins), he collected eight hits in the final five games with three doubles and a triple. He led all series batters with eight runs batted in and posted a .360 average for the series.
The 1891 season was the last for the American Association and Jimmy Wolf. Louisville reversed directions and fell to eighth place in the league. Wolf saw his batting average plummet to .253 and all his other offensive numbers fall in similar fashion. He was released in August but resigned a day later. Although he was originally on the club’s reserve list for 1892, he was not signed for the next season.
Jimmy Wolf’s ten years in the major leagues coincided with the life of the American Association. He set Association career records for games played (1195), total bases (1921), hits (1438), doubles (214), and triples (109). He was fifth in runs scored (778).
Looking to stay in baseball, Wolf strayed from Louisville for the first time, signing with Syracuse of the Eastern League. He stayed about a month, hitting only .209. He also had a brief three-game stay with the National League’s St. Louis squad before returning home. In 1893 he had a good season with Buffalo of the Eastern League, hitting .343 in 114 games.
The year in Buffalo ended his professional ball-playing career. He returned to Louisville and in 1894 joined the Louisville Fire Department. He was assigned to two different fire companies during his tenure as a pipe man and later as an engine driver. After five years on the force he responded to a fire call near his West Walnut Street home. In rushing his team to the fire scene Wolf’s engine collided with a pushcart at the corner of Walnut and 18th Street. The horse team separated from the wagon, and Wolf was dragged across the cobblestones for some distance, causing a serious head injury. After returning from the hospital Wolf was declared “mentally unbalanced” and in 1901 spent time in the Central Asylum for the Insane outside Louisville. (This is the same institution in which former teammates John Reccius and Pete Browning also spent time a few years later).
His final years were quite unhappy. In addition to continual suffering due to the effects of his head injury, one of his young sons died in 1901. His health continued to fail, and on May 16, 1903, Chicken Wolf died at City Hospital in Louisville. His wife Carrie and one son survived him. William Van Winkle Wolf was laid to rest in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.
Bailey, Bob, “The Louisville Colonels of 1890.” The National Pastime, No. 13 (1993).
Bailey, Bob, “The Louisville Colonels of 1889, The National Pastime, No. 14, (1994).
Davids, Robert L. and Richard A. Puff, “William Van Winkle Wolf, ” Nineteenth Century Stars, SABR, 1989.
Lansche, Jerry, Glory Fades Away, Taylor Publishing, 1991
Nemec, David, The Beer and Whiskey League, Lyons & Burford, 1994.
Von Borries, Philip, Legends of Louisville, Altwerger and Mandel, 1993
Von Borries, Philip, Louisville Diamonds, Turner Publishing, 1996.
Courier Journal (Louisville)