During the Deadball Era, it wasn’t all that unusual for a local sandlot player to get a shot at playing in the major leagues with his hometown team. So it was with Bert Yeabsley, a two-sport standout on the fields of Philadelphia, who found himself on the 1919 Philadelphia Phillies Opening Day roster. His major league career was brief, with appearances in three games and just one plate appearance – a walk.
As good as his sandlot career was in baseball, his best sport may have been football. He was a star running back on several excellent semipro teams. In baseball, he was a stocky, yet athletic player, surprisingly fleet of foot. Standing 5–foot-9 and weighing 175 pounds, he preferred playing the outfield, where he seemingly tracked down everything hit his way. But no matter what team he played for, he found himself behind the plate at some time during the season. And even though he never donned the equipment for them, he was considered a catcher when he played for the Phillies.
Robert Watkins “Bert” Yeabsley was born on December 17, 1893, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the second and only son of four children born to Robert West and Mary Jane (Watkins) Yeabsley. The couple were both born and raised in England. Two years after their marriage, they immigrated to the United States. By 1899, Robert was a tailor with his own business in the Roxborough section of northeast Philadelphia. The family lived two doors down from the business.1
Bert grew up in Roxborough, where he attended Northeast Manual Training High School. He may have played both baseball and football for the high school but no contemporary box scores include his easily misspelled last name. His father may have insisted that he work at the family business instead of playing sports. His name does turn up after he graduated in 1912. In 1914, he was playing semipro baseball for Roxborough in the summer and football for Holmesburg in the fall. The following year he stepped up in class in both baseball and football. In the summer he played both in the outfield and behind the plate while batting cleanup for the powerful semipro Atlantic Refining baseball team.2
In the fall, he starred for the Conshohocken Athletic Association football team. One of his teammates was another two-sport standout, Earl Potteiger. Potteiger had just finished his third season in baseball’s minor leagues. But he became better known as player and coach in the National Football League in the 1920s. In 1927, he coached the New York Giants football team to its first NFL championship. With Potteiger and Yeabsley in 1915, Conshohocken went undefeated.3
Yeabsley’s big break came the following year when the Philadelphia Athletics signed him to a contract then sent him to play for Raleigh of the Class D North Carolina State League. He started the season off well, batting .288 as of May 10. But he slumped and finished with a batting average of .227 in 93 games for the Capitals. In the league’s final fielding statistics, he was listed as an outfielder but he played every position but pitcher during the season. He tied for the league lead in errors but was second in putouts. After the season, he was back playing football with Conshohocken.4
He was with Raleigh again in 1917 for more seasoning. He again never settled into one position on the diamond but his stay was brief. On May 19, the Raleigh team folded, sending Yeabsley back home. In August, he was playing with a semipro team in Bridgeton, New Jersey. That fall, he played football for Ewing (New Jersey) Athletic Association.5
The Athletics had relinquished their hold on Yeabsley after the 1916 season, so for the 1918 season, the Philadelphia Phillies signed him. Yeabsley sailed with some of the Phillies from New York City to Jacksonville, Florida, en route to their spring training camp site in St. Petersburg, Florida. Yeabsley performed well enough but by the end of March the Phillies announced that he was to play the upcoming season for New London of the Class B Eastern League. Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer Jim Nasium explained that Yeabsley and fellow rookie Ty Pickup gave “promise of developing into ballplayers but would hardly be of value to the Phils this season.”6
However, those plans soon were scrapped. Yeabsley revealed that he had been contacted by someone at the 4th Naval District’s League Island Navy Yard in Philadelphia to play baseball for the navy. With the United States at war, he had promised to enlist, even taking a physical examination prior to spring training. He stayed with the Phils until mid-April when he left to report to the Navy on April 22.7
The 4th Naval District put together a powerhouse team made up mostly of former major and minor leagues players. In addition to Yeabsley, New York Yankee Bob Shawkey, Philadelphia Athletic Jing Johnson, Cincinnati Red Morrie Rath, and even Chicago White Sox Eddie Collins (for one game) played for the 4th Naval District. Coached by veteran major leaguer Harry Davis, the team made headlines when they defeated the Athletics, 5-1, in May before 10,000 spectators.8
The team played until mid-September when the Spanish flu epidemic shut operations down. But Yeabsley was right back at it in November with the 4th Naval District’s football team, coached by former college coach By Dickson. Dickson assembled a great football team, going undefeated with a 6-0 mark.9
With the war ended, Yeabsley reported to spring training with the Phillies in 1919 in Charlotte, North Carolina. He had a good spring, impressing with his play. The Charlotte minor league team in the Class C South Atlantic team expected to sign Yeabsley but the Phillies had a different idea. At the end of spring training, he went north with the Phils as a third-string catcher.10
But it was a month before Yeabsley saw any playing time. Finally on May 28, he made his only major-league batting appearance when he walked as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of a 6-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. Five days later he was a pinch runner for catcher Hick Cady in the ninth inning of another loss. His final major league appearance was June 10 when he was a pinch runner for Possum Whitted in yet another loss.
On June 15, he was released unconditionally by the Phillies and replaced with veteran catcher Nig Clarke. He forced the Phillies to release him when he refused to report to any minor league club. In fact, he never played another baseball game in Organized Baseball. For the rest of the summer, he played for a number of semipro baseball teams. He made enough money playing semipro for the next few years that in the 1920 census, he listed his occupation as “professional ballplayer.”11
In the fall, he again played football, this time for Pottstown with old teammate Earl Potteiger. He also played with Holmesburg and Conshohocken.12
In 1920, he joined Lebanon in the powerful Bethlehem Steel Company Baseball League. His manager was his old pal Potteiger. For Lebanon, Yeabsley was a backup catcher to former Philadelphia Athletic veteran Jimmy “Wickey” McAvoy. After the baseball season, he again played football for Conshohocken.13
Yeabsley continued to play semipro baseball and football for a few years more. He quit football after the 1921 season. In 1922, he played for one more excellent semipro baseball team, Strawbridge & Clothier, where he was teammates with Morrie Rath, whom he played with at the 4th Naval District. But in 1924, he abruptly hung up his baseball spikes in mid-August to take a job as a salesman with an “industrial concern.” In 1921, he had married the former Helen Mary Farrand and in February 1924, his first child, Robert Farrand Yeabsley was born. It was time to get serious.14
But he didn’t quit sports completely, taking up golf. He became so good he represented his club, the Roxborough Country Club, in tournaments in the Philadelphia area. Every once in a while, he’d jump back onto the baseball field. In 1929, he played baseball for the Penn Athletic Club.15
Instead of baseball, he returned to the family business – in a way. In 1930, he was a salesman for a yarn company. In 1942, he listed the Aberfoyle Manufacturing Company, a yarn manufacturer, as his employer. He later was a manufacturer’s representative for Grove Nylon and United Container.16
He also coached high school baseball at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. Both of his children followed in his footsteps as athletes. His son Robert played football, basketball, and baseball at the University of Pennsylvania. And his daughter, Pat, was a catcher on her high school’s softball team.17
On February 8, 1961, Yeabsley died suddenly of a heart attack at University Hospital in Philadelphia at the age of 67. He was buried in St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church cemetery in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia. His wife Helen had died in 1933, leaving him a widow for almost the last 28 years of his life. He was survived by his son Robert and daughter Pat.18
1 Philadelphia Inquirer, October 13, 1899.
2 Philadelphia Inquirer, September 14, 1913, November 1, 1914, April 20 1915, and March 25, 1918; Hall of Fame survey in Yeabsley’s Hall of Fame file; Philadelphia Record, June 27, 1915.
3 Jack Coll, Conshohocken and West Conshohocken Sports (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2009), 18.
4 Sporting Life, February 17, 1917; Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 1916.
5 Greensboro Daily News, April 18, May 2 and May 3, 1917; Winston-Salem Journal, April 20, 1917; Charlotte Observer, May 20, 1917; Bridgeton (New Jersey) Evening News, August 22, 1917; Philadelphia Inquirer, December 2, 1917.
6 Charleston (South Carolina) Evening Post, March 5, 1918; Boston Herald and Journal, March 16, 1918; Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28, 1918.
7 Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28 and April 20, 1918.
8 Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20 and 27, 1918.
9 Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21 and December 8, 1918.
10 Philadelphia Inquirer, March 30, 1919; Charlotte Observer, April 20, 1919.
11 Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1919; The Sporting News, February 22, 1961.
12 Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2 and 24, 1919.
13 Harrisburg Patriot, April 9 and August 3, 1920; Philadelphia Inquirer, October 10 and December 5, 1920.
14 Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1922; Trenton Times, August 19, 1924.
15 Chester (Pennsylvania) Times, June 15, 1928 and April 15, 1929.
16 Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 1961.
17 Philadelphia Inquirer, July 7 1942, April 9, 1944 and February 10, 1961.
18 Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 1961; Bert Yeabsley’s Pennsylvania Death Certificate in his Hall of Fame file.