Within months after his birth, Benjamin Franklin Houser was in effect an orphan, but he overcame this tragic start to life and carved out a long career that won the admiration of many, especially during his career after baseball.
Houser, the ninth of 13 Girard College graduates to become a major-league ballplayer, was born on November 30, 1883, in Frackville, in the northeastern Pennsylvania coal country. Frackville is about two miles from Girardsville, where Stephen Girard, who would become Houser’s benefactor, owned coal mines. Houser’s father, B.F. Houser Sr., a wood chopper, was killed by a falling tree ten months after his son was born. The boy’s mother, Harriet Cantor Houser, abandoned young Ben soon after his father’s death. An aunt, Maggie Cantor, raised Ben until he was 8 years old, when she enrolled him in Girard College in Philadelphia, which despite its name was a school in Philadelphia for orphans that had been founded in 1831 by Stephen Girard. Young Ben entered the school on December 31, 1891.
At Girard Ben was an excellent student with a good conduct rating and excellent grades, earning marks of 8.56 out of 10 in conduct and 8.49 out of 10 in grades. He grew to be a big, powerful young man at 6 feet 1 inch tall and 185 pounds.
He also enjoyed all the sports the institution had to offer: swimming, soccer, basketball, and baseball. In 1900, his senior year, Ben was the captain and first baseman on the varsity nine. Since many of the high schools in the area did not have baseball teams, the Girard team played mainly semiprofessional and amateur clubs. A Girard teammate was Johnny Lush, another future major leaguer. Girard’s senior team won 14 games and lost only 2. Houser was brilliant with the bat, hitting .562 with seven home runs.
Houser was apprenticed out of Girard on October 12, 1901, to the Sharples Lumber Company in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. He finished his apprenticeship in 1902 and was hired by Strawbridge and Clothier, a department store in Philadelphia. During his three years as an employee of Strawbridge and Clothier, Houser played semiprofessional baseball on weekends at Woodbury and Atlantic City in New Jersey.
In 1906, Houser joined the Louisville club in the American Association. In 1908 he jumped to the Tri-State Outlaw League, playing for Altoona and Scranton in Pennsylvania. In 1909 he signed with Toronto, where he batted .284 in 151 games. In 1910, Houser made it to the major leagues when Connie Mack, the owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, purchased his contract from Toronto. By then 27 years old, Houser was a teammate and first base rival of another Girard alumnus, Harry Davis. Houser did not fare well with the Athletics, batting a weak .188 with no home runs and only seven runs batted in 34 games. Houser did not play in the World Series, in which the Athletics defeated the Chicago Cubs in five games
After the season, Connie Mack sent Houser to Indianapolis of the American Association, from whom he has drafted by Boston of the National League. Appearing in only 20 games in 1911, he batted .254. His final major-league season, 1912, was his best; he played in 108 games, batted .286, hit eight home runs, including a grand slam against the Philadelphia Phillies, and drove in 52 runs. (The day after his grand slam, he took part in a triple play against the Phillies.) Houser’s major-league career totals were 108 games played, 472 at-bats, a .267 batting average, 126 hits, 17 doubles, 3 triples, 8 home runs, 68 runs batted in, 58 runs scored, 37 walks, an on-base percentage of .322, and a slugging percentage of .390.
In 1913, Houser was sold by Boston to Baltimore of the International League, where he batted .312 in 154 games. The Orioles sold his contract to Buffalo, where in 1914 Houser batted .246 with 59 hits before being sent to Binghamton. He was released by Binghamton and 1914 became his final year of playing professional baseball.
Houser went to Maine in 1916, replacing another Girard College graduate, Danny Coogan, as the baseball coach at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick. Houser remained as the coach of the Bowdoin nine until 1931. During his time there he was also the hockey coach and a trainer of the football team. Houser also coached the Augusta Millionaires semipro baseball team. His Bowdoin baseball teams did not fare well, winning 102 games while losing 141, with 3 ties. After leaving Bowdoin, Houser worked as a golf professional at the Old Orchard Beach Club and the Wilson Lake Club, both in Maine, while continuing to manage semipro teams.
As a semipro manager, both while he was at Bowdoin and after he left, Houser had a hand in developing several major leaguers. They included Eddie Waitkus, who played for him in 1938 when Houser managed the Worumbo Indians of Lisbon Falls; Clyde Sukeforth, whom he discovered at Hebron, Maine; George Davis; and Harry Agganis, a star quarterback at Boston University who played for Houser with the Augusta Millionaires. Houser’s Worumbo team twice went to the National Semi-Pro Baseball Tournament in Wichita, Kansas.
During the Great Depression and beyond, Houser held several human-services positions in Maine. He was director of a camp for transient men at Gray, Maine, and was later administrative director for the Economic Recovery Administration in the state. In 1936, he was administrative assistant in charge of the National Youth Administrative Program. In 1941, he became the first director of the state’s camp for Homeless Men, at Jefferson. He also found time to design a ball field at Capitol Park in Augusta. And from 1948 to 1951, he was a scout for the Boston Red Sox, a position he had just relinquished when he died of a heart attack on January 15, 1952, at his home in Augusta. He was survived by his wife, the former Gladys Guptil, and a brother, George Houser of Weissport, Pennsylvania. Houser was cremated, and his ashes are interred at New Gloucester Cemetery, New Gloucester, Maine. Governor Frederick G. Payne commented, “His passing will be grieved by the hundreds of Maine youths who received his patient and skillful coaching in his favorite gamebaseball. Ben will long be remembered for his unfaltering interest in all good, clean sports activities. He was a friend and gentleman whom I will miss greatly.” His obituary in the Kennebec Journal, of Augusta, said he was known as “Mr. Baseball” in Maine.
Ben Houser was not a great ballplayer, but he was a good and giving person. He helped some young men become major leaguers, and helped more become fine gentlemen.
Bowdoin College Athletics web site.
Berger, Ralph, Joseph Bonaparte, and Frank Gerace. Girard’s Major Leaguers. The Stephen Girard Memorial Committee, 2002.
Girard College Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Lee, Bill. The Baseball Necrology. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003.
National Baseball Hall of Fame.
State Of Maine, Certified Abstract of a Record of Death
The Deadball Era web site, Benjamin Franklin Houser’s Obituary, January 16, 1952.