This article was written by Ralph Berger
Arlie Latham, known as “The Freshest Man on Earth” or the “Dude,” would drive St. Louis Browns owner Chris Von der Ahe so crazy that Von der Ahe would blame Arlie when things spun out of control even if Latham wasn’t involved. He would yell “dot Latams is driving me crazy.” Arlie was a carefree guy who loved life and baseball. Before Nick Altrock and Al Schacht, Arlie was the clown prince of baseball.
Walter Arlington Latham was born in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, on March 15, 1860. His father was a bugler in the Union Army during the Civil War. Arlie became interested in baseball when returning soldiers from the war continued playing the game in his hometown. By the age of fourteen Latham was good enough to play with the “Well Known” General Worth nine in Stoneham, Massachusetts, where the family had moved. Some years later the Philadelphia Athletics asked him to play for them. He was a catcher, but after taking a beating behind the batsman he decided enough was enough and began playing third base. In 1877 he was with the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, club as their third baseman. In 1879 Arlie began playing for money at the age of nineteen. He appeared ready to play in the National League for Buffalo in 1880. However, the league was a little too much for him, and he was released. He then played for an independent team in Brockton, Massachusetts. In 1881 and 1882 he was with two minor league teams in Philadelphia. The turning point for Arlie came in 1883, when he became the regular third baseman for the St. Louis Browns, who would win four consecutive pennants (1885-1888) in the American Association. He stayed in St. Louis through the 1889 season. Arlie split the 1890 season with Chicago of the Players League and Cincinnati of the National League. Latham stayed with Cincinnati through the 1895 season. Then it was St. Louis again for a short while in 1896 and down to the lower leagues with Scranton in the Eastern League and Columbus in the Western League. After a few more stops in the minors he wound up in 1899 with the Washington Senators, and that was it for his playing career. He later made four semi-comedic appearances for the New York Giants in 1909 at age 49.
Latham’s mischievous behavior on the diamond earned him the name as the “Freshest Man on Earth,” a popular song at that time. Standing only five feet eight inches and never weighing more than 150 pounds, he was never a power hitter but was a great base stealer. In 1887 Latham batted .316 and stole 129 bases. In the playoffs that year he stole 15 bases.
Arlie jockeyed and taunted opposing players not only from the bench but also as a third base coach. At that time there was no coaching box that the third base coach was supposed to stay in, so Arlie took full advantage of it by running up and down the third base line while yelling invectives at the pitcher while he was in the middle of his windup. The rule makers, taking notice of Arlie running up and down the line like a lunatic, soon put into the rules the coaching box. Arlie is reported to have been the first permanent base coach in major league history. The Brownies would have won a fifth straight pennant if not for some antics by Arlie. St. Louis and Brooklyn were in a dogfight for the pennant and were playing each other in early September. St. Louis was leading 4-2 in the seventh inning when storm clouds gathered and the field grew dark. The Browns asked the umpire to call the game because of darkness. The umpire refused. This brought Arlie into action; he ordered 12 large candles be brought to the bench whereupon he lit all of them as a hint to the umpire that the game should be called. The umpire strode over and blew out each candle, whereupon Arlie lit them again. The umpire blew a fuse and blew the candles out again and forfeited the game to Brooklyn, although the forfeit was later overturned. Many contemporary sources credit Von der Ahe for the candle idea.
Chris Von der Ahe was a colorful character himself. A large man who wore loud, checkered clothing, Chris sat in a special box behind third base with a whistle and binoculars. He used the whistle to get the attention of players, for someone to get him a beer, or for special cops he employed for personal use and to keep tabs on his players. He bought the Browns in order to put himself in the limelight and to advertise his saloon business.
Arlie sometimes used his boss as a straight man. In one instance Der Boss (as Chris was known) called all the players into his office on the sixth floor of the building. Von der Ahe did not want anyone else to hear what he was about to tell his players. As Von der Ahe proceeded to talk, Arlie interrupted him and said, “Excuse me, sir, but the windows are open and somebody might hear you,” whereupon der Boss thanked Arlie and promptly shut the windows. Another incident occurred when Von der Ahe accused Arlie of pulling a prank on him and fined him $50. It turned out that Arlie was not involved but Von der Ahe stubbornly said, “The fine sticks.” Arlie stopped arguing and with some fast-talking said, “Okay, that fine wipes out the other $50 fine. Now if you will give me $50 in cash, that will make us all even and there will be no hard feelings.” Von der Ahe, not wishing to argue further, shook hands eagerly at what he thought was an amicable adjustment. As Arlie walked out of the office, he could hardly contain his laughter. Von der Ahe after mulling over what had happened realized he had been conned and shook his head and sighed, “Dat Latams will drive me crazy some day.”
Arlie’s great gymnastic ability paid off from time to time. During one game Arlie laid down a bunt and the opposing team’s first baseman, a big man, was in the baseline with the ball waiting to tag Arlie. Suddenly Arlie did a complete somersault over the startled first baseman and came down safely on the bag. Arlie and the St. Louis team were a pugnacious lot and were greatly encouraged by Von der Ahe to intimidate the other teams. When the league fined them, which was often, Von der Ahe would pay off the fines.
Arlie got into many brawls. At the end of one season he had 20 fights scheduled, five with teammates. The brawling seemed somewhat out of character, for Arlie had a tremendous sense of humor and seemed more of jokester than a fighter.
Pranks and brawls aside, Latham was a legitimate ballplayer. He played 1629 games in the majors, banged out 1836 hits with 27 homers, and scored 1481 runs. His lifetime batting average was only .269, but he was a great base stealer with at lease 742 (stolen base data is still missing for four seasons). Arlie also holds an unenviable record for the most errors lifetime for a third baseman, 822-more than 200 more than any other player. Arlie has a lot of footnotes in the history of baseball, more than most players: First full-time coach; brought into existence the third-base coaching box; oldest man ever to steal a base; and participant in the several of the earliest World Series.
But life was just beginning for Arlie. He umpired for a while in the the Southern League and in general kept in touch with baseball. In 1909 John McGraw gave him a job as the third base coach for the Giants. His comedic acts made him a favorite with the fans as he would do a somersault each time he waved in a runner.
During World War I he went to England to organize baseball for the soldiers. He was invited to Buckingham Palace to show King George V how to throw and catch a baseball. He said of the King, “He had a middling fair arm but it was hard to break him of the habit of his stiff arm way from playing cricket.” Latham stayed in England for seventeen years as the Administrator (Commissioner) of Baseball. Arlie attended many parties and loved dancing the night away with the many friends he made, including royalty.
Arlie contributed some slang to the baseball vernacular. An “Arlie Latham” was a low, hot drive that an infielder sidesteps because it is too hot to handle. Others said that Arlie would lift his right leg and let such a drive go on through for a hit. Arlie settled the argument by agreeing to the latter.
After returning to the United States in 1923, Arlie operated a delicatessen between 182nd and 183rd Streets, at 1450 St. Nicholas Avenue, in Manhattan. Arlie was the press box custodian for both the Yankees and Giants, depending on which team was at home. At first the baseball scribes thought he would be an old guy sleeping in the press box or boring them with his tales of yesteryear. Arlie turned out to be just the opposite. He was spry and took his duties seriously, and he did have a lot to say about the game during his time and the modern game. The writers were delighted to have him there and listened attentively to his stories. Arlie held the position until he died.
The one major blot on Arlie’s record is that he signed a letter, addressed to Von der Ahe, stating that he would not play against blacks.
Like Dummy Hoy, who lived to the age of 99, Latham was a bridge between the old and the modern game. Arlie would compare the speed and wit of the old game in which he played to the modern-day wait-until-the big-inning game when some slugger would smash a three-run homer to win the game. He felt that Joe DiMaggio was the greatest player he ever saw. He felt that Phil Rizzuto was one of the greats as a shortstop.
Arlie married Kate Conway, who played the piano in a minstrel show Arlie was performing in. According to Arlie’s death certificate, their marriage date is unknown. Further information suggests they were married in 1889. Arlie and Kate had three daughters, Arlene, Phyllis and Natalie, and a son, Walter A. Latham Jr. His offspring game him five grandchildren as well.
Arlie’s death, at 92, came on November 29, 1952, in Garden City, New York. His death certificate attributed his demise to old age. He was living with a married daughter at the time of his death. Kate had preceded him death, in 1950 at the age of 84. Arlie Latham is buried in Greenfield Cemetery in Hempstead, New York.
Latham’s passing resulted in a celebration of a man who did what he loved with a flair for the comedic. Until he passed away he had a sharp mind and a spryness about him that endeared him to anyone he met. Arlie was a great ambassador for baseball.
Arlie Latham files at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, New York.
Husman, John Richmond. “Walter Arlington Latham (Arlie).” Nineteenth Century Stars. Robert L. Tiemann and Mark Rucker, eds. Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1989.
James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: The Free Press, 2001.
Light, Jonathan Fraser. The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1997.