Tom Letcher had a very short stint as a major leaguer in 1891 and a very long minor league career that lasted until 1912. The still incomplete story of his life tells us much about the itinerant lifestyle of that era’s players.
The ballplayer’s parents, Thomas H. Letcher and Mary Jane Newcomb, were married in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on August 7, 1847, and their first child, a girl named Ellen, was born twenty-two months later. But it was another fifteen years before the birth of their next child, a daughter named Lydia. The family was completed with the birth of our subject, Frederick Thomas Letcher, in Bryan, Ohio, in January of 1868.
The family moved to Cedar Springs, Michigan, when Tom was an infant. Because of the vast difference in their ages, Tom’s sister Ellen was married in the same calendar year in which her baby brother was born. She moved to a farm in Oakfield Township, Kent County, raised a family and lived there until her death in 1912, and her descendants continued to live on that same farm for several more generations. While her life was one of extraordinary stability, the one led by her brother could not have provided a more dramatic contrast.
By 1870, Thomas Letcher had moved to Greenville, Michigan, with his wife and two young children, where he worked as a day laborer. He died at some point during his son’s childhood, and Mary Jane moved to Grand Rapids with Lydia and Freddie, who increasingly went by his middle name after his father’s death.
Tom was a large, powerfully built youngster and he soon made a name for himself as a ballplayer on the lots around Wealthy Avenue. Before long he was playing for one of Grand Rapids’ best company teams, the Houseman & Jones club. As he grew to manhood, he became “tall, broad-shouldered, and strong as an ox” and in 1889 he joined a Chicago semipro team. (Grand Rapids Evening Press, undated clipping from 1901; Fond du Lac Bulletin, quoted in the LaCrosse Tribune, April 13, 1907; Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 19, 1905)
That same year, on January 4, he had married Ethelwyn Lawson but the marriage proved a failure. In June, with Tom apparently off playing baseball, his new bride sued for divorce, leaving him free to pursue a career on the ball field. And what an odyssey his baseball career proved to be.
As documented in the second volume of Minor League Stars (SABR, 1985), Letcher spent 1890 with Joliet, then played for most of 1891 with Marinette before joining Milwaukee for a six-game stint that would prove to be his only major league experience. He played for Indianapolis and Seattle in 1892, Atlanta and Nashville in 1893, Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1894, and then spent 1895 and parts of the next two years with Des Moines, while also spending part of 1896 with Grand Rapids. He joined Minneapolis early in the 1897 campaign and stayed there through the end of the 1898 season. These were all top minor leagues, and Letcher must have continued to hope for another shot at the majors, but it never came.
After his thirtieth birthday, he appears to have lost a step or two and gradually found himself playing in slightly less competitive leagues. He played for Fort Wayne in 1899 and 1900, then spent 1901 in Omaha, 1902 in Tacoma, 1903 and 1904 in Marion, Indiana, and 1905 in South Bend. It is small wonder that a letter writer who asked the Sporting News for details of Letcher’s career in 1912 was bluntly informed that there was not enough “space in this column.” (Sporting News, April 4, 1912)
At the end of the 1905 season, Letcher was 37 and had amassed more than 2000 hits while playing in an extraordinary number of different cities. By this time it was clear that his career as a ballplayer was on the decline, but it appears that he had done more to prepare for that moment than did the majority of ballplayers of the era. An 1893 article indicated that Letcher “has a fine education” and didn’t need to play ball for a living. (Atlanta Constitution, March 26, 1893)
That description of his education does not gibe with the known facts about Letcher’s youth, but it can more safely be asserted that he had started planning for the transition from baseball to the more plebeian working world. Around 1893 he had remarried and he and his new wife Lizzie welcomed two daughters, Hazel and Gladys, during the next three years. He spent the off-season after the 1896 season driving a delivery wagon for a Des Moines brewery, but by 1900 he and his family were living in Oakfield Township, Kent County, Michigan, near his sister’s family. (Sporting Life, January 2, 1897; 1900 census) And over the next few years there were several mentions that he owned a fruit farm in Shelby, Michigan. (Fort Wayne Sentinel, August 3, 1905; Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 19, 1905)
In the spring of 1906, Letcher was released by South Bend, with the team claiming that his hitting was no longer strong enough to offset “slow and uncertain work in the field.” (Fort Wayne News, April 17, 1906) The news prompted Sporting Life to write exaggeratedly that it was the first time in twenty-two years that he’d been out of work. (Sporting Life, April 28, 1906) It would have seemed the perfect moment to call it a career and devote his efforts to the fruit farm, but instead he mustered on. Apparently, he had found that, as Jim Bouton eloquently later put it, “you spend a good deal of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” (Bouton, Ball Four, 1970)
He split the 1906 season between Terre Haute and Evansville his fourth straight season in the Central League and then in 1907 took another step down the minor league ladder by signing on as player-manager for Fond du Lac in the Wisconsin-Illinois League. At the start of the year, he expressed that his “team will be in the game this year to play baseball and it will be baseball from start to finish.” (Sporting News, April 13, 1907; Fond du Lac Bulletin, quoted in the LaCrosse Tribune, April 13, 1907) Unfortunately, the team didn’t play a very good brand of baseball, finishing in last place with a 34-82 record. Letcher did not manage again.
He played in 1908 for Madison of the same league, and began to be referred to as “old reliable Tom Letcher.” (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, April 21, 1908) He spent his third straight season in the Wisconsin-Illinois League in 1909, this time, with Appleton, but earned his release in mid-July. (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, July 20, 1909)
Now approaching his forty-second birthday, it would have seemed logical for Letcher to finally hang up his spikes, but once more he elected to continue playing baseball. He joined Regina of the Western Canada League for the 1910 season and batted a robust .288. He played in the same league in 1911, but failed to hit in brief stints with Brandon and Saskatoon and finally decided to hang up his spikes. Tom Letcher had played in well over 2,000 minor league games and in six major league games!
After the end of his playing days, he remained in Saskatchewan and took Canadian citizenship. He lived in Regina until 1913 and then acquired a homestead in a remote area between Flaxcombe and Marengo, Saskatchewan. After six years, he apparently tired of farming and returned to Saskatoon and, very briefly, to professional baseball. He debuted as a Western Canada League umpire at a game in Regina on July 8, 1919. Two days later, however, he had to be relieved partway through a game on account of a sore throat. He umpired one more game on the 12th, but then didn’t show up for the day’s second game. A week later, he wrote a letter of resignation from Saskatoon, indicating that a leg injury would prevent him from continuing to umpire.
That is the last that is known of Tom Letcher. A subsequent listing of Lizzie Letcher in the Saskatoon city directory suggests that Tom died not long after his brief umpiring stint, but no death record has been found. Thus, despite diligent investigation by many members of the SABR Biographical Committee, especially Owen Ricker, exactly when and where Letcher died remains unknown.
Minor League Stars, Volume II (Cleveland: SABR, 1985); research by Owen Ricker and many other members of the SABR Biographical Committee; contemporary newspapers, censuses, vital records and city directories.