When Hub Hart, backup to regular catcher Billy Sullivan, sustained an ankle injury in mid-July 1906, the Chicago White Sox found themselves in need of another backstop. Team owner Charles Comiskey acquired an untested rookie named Babe Towne from Des Moines of the Western League to “hold the fort” until Hart recovered. Before Hart’s ankle healed, Sullivan also was injured, forcing the White Sox to use Towne more than they had anticipated. Chicago went on to win the American League pennant and Towne was rewarded with a spot on their World Series roster. However, an injury to his throwing arm caused Towne to be sent to the minors the following year, and he never had an opportunity to return to the big leagues.
Towne claimed to have been one of the first to predict greatness for pitcher Eddie Cicotte when they were teammates with Des Moines early in 1906 before his call-up to Chicago. As Towne told it later, “[Des Moines manager] Mike Cantillon came to me at the hotel one morning and asked me to … warm up a new pitcher he had just obtained from Detroit. I caught the youngster and was surprised at the stuff he showed. When I returned to the hotel Cantillon asked me what I thought of the pitcher. ‘He’s the best hurler on your staff,’ I told Cantillon.” Towne added, “I’ve caught a lot of hurlers in my day but I’m safe in saying that Cicotte had more ‘stuff’ than any of them.”1
Jay King Towne was born March 12, 1880, in Coon Rapids, Iowa, a small town about 70 miles northwest of Des Moines and about 100 miles northeast of Omaha, Nebraska. His parents were Edmund Bert Towne, a physician and the town’s postmaster, and Angeline (née Harrold), both natives of Ohio. He grew up with two siblings: a younger sister, Clara, and younger brother, Frank. He also had five older step-siblings from his father’s earlier marriage to Martha Wood: Charles, Cora, Dennison, Edmund, and Etta.
Towne graduated from Coon Rapids High School in 1896 and attended Grinnell College for a time. The first reports of him playing ball are from 1899, with local teams near his home in Iowa in Denison, Carroll, and Perry, and later with a semipro team in Fort Dodge. One early report noted, “Jay Towne’s services as a base ballist are in great demand this season.”2 It’s not clear how Jay acquired the nickname “Babe,” but he was known by that name soon after he started playing baseball and throughout his career.
On April 25, 1900, just after Jay had turned 20 years old, he married 17-year-old Esther Mary Clennon in nearby Guthrie, Iowa. At the time of the 1900 US Census later that year, he and his new wife were living with her parents. The couple had four daughters: Alice, Edith, Helen, and Virginia.
Towne started professionally in 1902 as a first baseman with Rock Rapids, Iowa, of the Class D Iowa-South Dakota League. One report provided an early glimpse of his play, noting, “Towne is a husky boy, with a sure eye. He bats ‘short’ and yet gets force enough to warrant singles every time. As soon as he lands on the ball he is off for the sand bag, and in many other ways is Johnny on the spot every minute of the game.”3
His play in Rock Rapids attracted the attention of Des Moines management and he was signed by the Class A Western League club late in 1902. Having been converted to catcher, he spent the 1903 and 1904 seasons with Des Moines. Mike Cantillon was appointed secretary-treasurer of the club in early 1905 and he helped arrange a tryout for Towne with Milwaukee of the Class A American Association, which was managed by Mike’s brother Joe Cantillon.4 However, when the Brewers’ regular catcher reported, and Mike was in need of a catcher, Joe shipped Towne back to Des Moines, where he began the season.
Towne hit .343 in 51 games for Des Moines and was recalled to Milwaukee in July, hitting .303 in 38 games the rest of the season. Despite his success, the Cantillon brothers’ maneuverings brought Towne back to Des Moines again to start the 1906 season,5 although Milwaukee would “retain a string to him.”6 He got off to another strong start, batting .357 in 74 games, when in late July Cantillon worked out a deal with Charles Comiskey to send Towne to the Chicago White Sox. The exact purchase price was not reported, only that it was “a good round sum.”7
Billy Sullivan was the clear number one receiver for the White Sox, but the backup situation was muddled all season long. Hart opened the season as Sullivan’s understudy, with veteran Ed McFarland the third catcher. McFarland was a good defensive catcher but carried a reputation for unreliability and not staying in condition (excessive alcohol use).8 By late May, McFarland had left the club after appearing in just three games for Chicago, managing one hit in 10 at-bats. Comiskey tried to arrange a trade or sale of McFarland to the Boston Americans, but negotiations with Boston manager Jimmy Collins fell through. Sullivan did the bulk of the catching over the first half of the season, with Hart spelling him on occasion.
After Hart’s injury in July, Comiskey tried to get McFarland to return (the White Sox still held his contract rights), but he failed to report as requested, prompting the need to sign Towne. There were some unusual circumstances regarding Towne’s signing by Chicago. His play in Des Moines was attracting the attention of other major-league clubs. Reportedly, Ted Sullivan, working as a scout for the Cincinnati Reds, met with Cantillon in late July with authorization from the Reds to purchase Towne and another player for $3,500 each. Just before the deal could be consummated, Cantillon received a phone call from a man described only as “…not Comiskey, or anyone in the slightest way financially interested in Comiskey’s affairs, merely a friend who is a power in minor league baseball.”9 One can only guess at the identity (and motivations) of the caller, but after hanging up, Cantillon agreed to sell the two players to Chicago for $2,500 each, rather than Cincinnati, taking a $2,000 loss.
The 1906 White Sox, the so-called “Hitless Wonders” managed by Fielder Jones, found themselves in fourth place in the American League at the end of July, 7½ games behind the Philadelphia Athletics. Towne made his major-league debut on August 1 against the Boston Americans at South Side Park in Chicago. Facing Jesse Tannehill, Towne singled twice and drew two walks in four plate appearances before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning. Although he committed a throwing error, the game report said Towne, “made a distinctly excellent impression.”10 He followed that up with two singles and two walks in four plate appearances in his next start on August 6. After two games in the big leagues, Towne was batting 1.000.
Towne’s old manager, Mike Cantillon, went to Chicago to see him in his debut, and despite his success, Cantillon said he found him, “as white as a sheet and very thin … and [Babe] was looking nervously around and trying not to act as if it was all new to him.” Cantillon added, “When Babe was called upon to go to the bat the first time in Chicago his heart was clear up in in mouth … and the Babe shivered all over.”11 Towne, however, was well accepted by his new teammates. The team embarked on an eastern trip, and during an off day, he and several other White Sox went to Coney Island, where Towne and Nick Altrock “made a hit in their bathing suits.”12
Towne didn’t play again for two weeks – but on September 2, the regular White Sox catcher, Billy Sullivan, sustained a broken finger from a foul tip. Towne came in to replace him. The game story commented, “Towne caught a perfect game, as sturdily as a veteran, and won a warm spot for himself by his work.”13 The 4-1 victory kept Chicago atop the AL by two games over the Highlanders.
Towne caught both games of a doubleheader against the Indians the following day, with three singles in the nightcap, although Cleveland swept the twin bill. This showed the importance of the previous day’s win, because New York swept Philadelphia to move into first place, .597 to .595.
On September 8, against the Tigers in Detroit, Towne’s sacrifice fly in the ninth inning scored Jiggs Donahue with what turned out to be the winning run in a 4-3 White Sox victory. At that point, they were 1½ games back of the Highlanders. As the only healthy catcher at the time, during a critical eight-day stretch (September 3-10) Towne caught six of seven White Sox games. He didn’t hit well, and had several fielding miscues, but was on the receiving end of shutouts by Altrock and Ed Walsh. The White Sox split the six games to keep within striking distance of the Highlanders. Despite his hot start at the plate (eight hits in his first 16 at-bats, .500), Towne’s inexperience resulted in defensive shortcomings. He reportedly struggled with catching Walsh’s spitball,14 and in the September 8 game against Detroit, Ty Cobb laid down a bunt in front of the plate. “Towne reached for it and as he did so his cap dropped off. He picked up both ball and cap. Before he could separate the two Cobb was safe.”15
Catching more than he was used to, Towne developed a sore throwing arm, However, Hart was not the answer. He started just once, on September 6, and thereafter made just one pinch-running appearance. Instead, Frank Roth was obtained from Milwaukee. Starting on September 11, Roth played all of 12 straight games – including two doubleheaders – behind the plate until Sullivan returned from his injury on September 22. Towne made just one appearance, as a pinch-hitter on September 19, until he caught in two games near the tail end of the season after the White Sox clinched the pennant. Ed McFarland also returned to action in late September and October, and Roth was still in the mix.
Towne spent most of the World Series warming up pitchers in the bullpen but made one appearance. In Game Two at South Side Park on October 10, the Cubs got four early runs off of White Sox starter Doc White. When White’s turn at bat came up with one out in the bottom of the third inning, Towne was sent in to pinch-hit against the Cubs’ Ed Reulbach and he flied out to center. The White Sox went on to lose the game 7-1 but came back to take the Series in six games.
Comiskey signed Towne to a 1907 contract, and he joined his While Sox teammates for spring training in Mexico City, where he was expected to compete with Hart for the third catcher’s spot behind Sullivan and McFarland. Still slowed by the sore arm that he experienced the previous season, described in one source as a “strained tendon,”16 Towne failed to make the opening day roster. So, the last two months of the 1906 season would prove to be the extent of Towne’s major-league career. His 14 games at the top level included one pinch-hitting appearance, 11 starts behind the plate and two more catching as a defensive replacement. He drew six walks and singled ten times in 39 plate appearances17 for a batting average of .303. He had four strikeouts, scored three times, and drove in six runs.
In April 1907, Towne was sent to Minneapolis of the American Association, where he was reunited with Mike Cantillon. Towne was still nursing his arm injury, and in July Cantillon sent him to Burlington, Iowa, essentially on a scouting mission to “catch in the Iowa League for a month or so in order that he that he might get a line on the material in that circuit and recommend a few youngsters for next year’s Minneapolis club.”18 Less than a year removed from being a member of a world championship club, Towne found himself all the way back in the bush leagues in Class D.
Apparently recovered from his arm injury, Towne was reportedly set to rejoin the White Sox in 1908.19 However, in March Chicago sold him to Decatur (Illinois) of the Class B Three-I League. Towne claimed that because Decatur had not offered him a contract by the March 1 deadline, he was a free agent and at liberty to sign where he pleased. The case was brought before Secretary Farrell of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs, who ruled that Towne was the property of Decatur.20 Towne stuck to his guns, refused to report, and signed with a semipro club in his hometown of Coon Rapids, where he ran a pool and billiard parlor.21
Late in 1908, Decatur, which still held Towne’s rights, sold his contract to Sioux City of the Western League. He never appeared in any games for Sioux City that season, the explanation given that “at least a half dozen times … [Towne] promised to come to the aid of the Packers when they were in dire straits, but each time he turned up missing.”22 The only time Towne showed up in uniform in Sioux City, he acted as a coach.
So, it came as a surprise to manager Ducky Holmes when Towne showed up for practice with Sioux City in the spring of 1909. Hoping to resurrect his career, Towne batted .331 in 118 games and was credited with being the first catcher in the Western League to don shin guards.23 The following year (1910) Towne purchased a half-interest in the team, named himself player-manager, and batted .333 in leading Sioux City to the Western League pennant.
Towne batted .366 in 66 games as a player-manager with Sioux City in 1911. After the season, he sold his stake in the club to other investors. The amount Towne received for the sale was not reported, but shortly thereafter he purchased farmland near Spencer, Iowa, and bought livestock, including $425 for a team of four horses.
He signed a player’s contract with Sioux City for 191224 but never reported, one reason being that he had gotten out of condition during the off-season, “[Towne] … added several additional pounds of avoirdupois during the winter and his love for the game wasn’t sufficient to cause him to wear a rubber shirt for several weeks.”25 He stayed on his farm and played for area amateur teams but apparently was still out of shape, one report stating, “Babe Towne is now running a farm near Spencer, but in the game yesterday showed little of his former days baseball form.”26
In June 1914 Towne accepted a position as player-manager with Norfolk of the Class D Nebraska State League. He held that position until July 1915, when the Norfolk club disbanded. Towne then returned to his farm in Spencer to tend to his corn crop.27 He had one more foray into professional baseball when he was hired to manage Fort Dodge, Iowa of the Class D Central Association in July 1916. His tenure lasted just three weeks before he was fired by team directors.28
Towne listed his occupation as famer on his World War I draft registration card in 1918, as he did on the 1920 US Census. Over the next 20 years he continued to farm and play ball with local amateur teams. He later managed the town team, the Coon Rapids Merchants, where he helped kick off the careers of several young local players. Some, including Max Marshall, Johnny Hopp, and Al Epperly, would later go one to play in the major leagues.29
After many years of ill health, Towne’s wife Mary died in 1924. He married Janet (Nettie) Searle in 1928.
In 1934 Towne was appointed as one of the umpires for the Western League.30 He apparently held that post just one season; the next year he accepted a job as a salesman with the Pioneer Hybrid Seed Corn Company in Carroll.
Babe Towne died suddenly of a heart attack on October 28, 1938, at the age of 58.31 Masonic services were held at Coder Funeral Home in Coon Rapids and Towne was buried in the town cemetery in Spencer.32 He was survived by Nettie, his four daughters, and six grandchildren.33
At the time of his death he was a Republican candidate for county sheriff in Coon Rapids. It was too late to remove his name from the ballot before the November election, and the deceased Towne received more than 1,700 votes.34
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Rory Costello and checked for accuracy by members of SABR’s fact-checking team. The author would also like to thank SABR member Paul Proia, who provided additional research which improved this biography.
Unless otherwise noted, records from Towne’s playing career were taken from Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and his Sporting News contract card. Family and genealogical information was taken from Ancestry.com.
1 “Sittin’ In with the Athletes,” Des Moines Register, February 23, 1934: 7.
2 “Towne Is All Right,” Carroll (Iowa) Sentinel, July 19, 1899: 3.
3 Rock Rapids (Iowa) Reporter, September 25, 1902: 5.
4 “Towne Joins Brewers,” Des Moines Register, April 18, 1905: 7.
5 “Babe Towne Coming Sure,” Des Moines Register, February 8, 1906: 7.
6 “Milwaukee Dope,” Minneapolis Journal, March 11, 1906: 35.
7 “Babe Towne Goes to White Sox,” Des Moines Register, July 29, 1906: 19.
8 Bill Nowlin’s biography of Ed McFarland for the SABR BioProject at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ed-mcfarland/
9 “More Stories of Ball and Ball Players”, Chicago Tribune, December 30, 1906: 12.
10 “Boston is Winner Over White Sox,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1906: 6.
11 “Babe Towne Likes Chicago,” Des Moines Register, August 15, 1906: 7.
12 “Players Have Outing,” Chicago Tribune, August 20, 1906: 8.
13 “Notes of the White Sox Game,” Chicago Tribune, September 3, 1906: 10.
14 Chicago Tribune, September 11, 1906: 9.
15 Chicago Tribune, September 9, 1906: 9.
16 “Babe Towne Visits City,” Des Moines Register, March 3, 1907: 16.
17 Towne’s season totals in Baseball-Reference credit him with 36 at-bats but totals from game logs in both Baseball-Reference and Retroshhet.com show 39 plate appearances and 33 at-bats. His season record also shows seven bases on balls while game logs total six.
18 Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal, July 27, 1907: 6.
19 “Babe Towne Goes Back to White Sox,” Perry (Iowa) Chief, February 8, 1908: 1.
20 “Towne a Poor Guesser,” Davenport (Iowa) Times, March 13, 1908: 8.
21 Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, April 4, 1909: 9.
22 “Baseball,” Sioux City Journal, January 24, 1909: 8.
23 Sioux City Journal, July 25, 1909: 8.
24 “Baseball Team is Sold,” Sioux City Journal, December 14, 1911: 10.
25 “Babe Towne Not in Game This Season,” Omaha (Nebraska) News, May 26, 1912: 22.
26 “Towne Back in Game,” Sioux City Journal, June 10, 1912:1 3.
27 “Nebraska State League Suspends,” Norfolk (Nebraska) News-Journal, July 19, 1915: 2.
28 “Babe Towne is Fired by Dodgers,” Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette, July 25, 1916: 8.
29 “J. K. Towne is Victim of Heart Attack,” Carroll (Iowa) Herald, October 31, 1938: 1, 8.
30 “Former Member of League Team Here to Umpire,” Sioux City Journal, April 6, 1934: 11.
31 “Heart Attack Claims Towne,” Des Moines Register, October 30, 1938: 25.
32 “J. K. Towne of Coon Rapids Was Buried Wednesday,” Carroll Herald, November 3, 1938: 1, 8.
33 “J. K. Towne Is Victim of Heart Attack,” Carroll Herald, October 31, 1938: 1, 8.
34 “Babe Towne, Dead Yet Gets Votes,” Des Moines Register, November 10, 1938: 17.