This article was written by Charlie Bevis
Playing in just eight games as a catcher during two major league seasons in the 1880s, Bill Conway eventually gained a small measure of baseball immortality with his brother, pitcher Dick Conway, as one of only a dozen brother battery combinations in major league baseball history. The Conways played for Baltimore of the American Association in 1886.
William F. Conway was born on November 28, 1861, in Lowell, Massachusetts, one of the younger children in the large family raised by Joseph and Hannah Conway. His father, an Irish immigrant, first worked in Rhode Island and later moved to Lowell to work as an engraver. He had at least six older brothers and sisters as well as several younger siblings, including his brother Dick.
In his early years, Conway played ball for local Lowell teams before joining the Clinton, Massachusetts, team during the 1878 season. “He played with the Clintons in 1878 and did not play with any professional club again until 1884,” the Boston Globe said of his early career in a sketch of Conway in an 1886 article, without explanation for the five-year absence. It appears that Conway left baseball to work in the textile industry in Lowell to help support his younger brothers and sisters. In 1881 Conway married Catherine O’Rourke in Lowell, and recorded his occupation as “engraver” on his marriage certificate. His return to professional baseball in 1884 may have been made possible when his first wife died during the early years of their marriage (Conway remarried in 1890).
In 1884, Conway played for the Rollstones, an independent professional team in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Conway attracted the attention of Harry Wright, manager of the Philadelphia team of the National League, as it swung through New England to play Boston and Providence. He signed to play with Philadelphia in July 1884.
Conway played in just one game for Philadelphia, a home game on July 28 against Providence. In the 11-4 loss to Providence, Conway caught the serves of pitcher Jim McElroy. He clearly exhibited some difficulty in adjusting to major league play as he was charged with five passed balls in the game. Conway went hitless in four times at bat. By the end of August, Philadelphia had released Conway and he was back playing for the Rollstones.
In 1885, Conway started the season with Jersey City, New Jersey, in the Eastern League. By June he was playing for Lawrence of the New England League, a city just a few miles down the Merrimack River from his home in Lowell. With Conway one of the team’s regular catchers, and his brother Dick a primary pitcher, Lawrence captured the New England League pennant in 1885. Conway often caught his brother’s games to form an all-brother battery. For example, on July 25, Lawrence defeated Brockton 13-1 as, in the words of the Boston Globe, “the Lawrences defeated the Brocktons this afternoon by the fine pitching and catching of the Conway brothers and by heavy batting.”
Conway returned to play with Lawrence in 1886. In early July with Lawrence in first place in the New England League standings, the team imploded. Despite the team’s success on the field, management had been persistently handing out fines to players for infractions incurred both on the field (e.g., John Gorman $75 for “indifferent playing”) and off the field (e.g., T. Clayton $25 “for intoxication”). The Lawrence players took exception to the fines and on July 17 they refused to play the scheduled game with Newburyport. William S. Knox, president of the Lawrence club, immediately moved to blacklist all the truant players at a special New England League meeting that evening.
When Gorman and player-manager Frank Cox expressed no contrition at the meeting, the New England League owners voted to blacklist both players. The owners then took up Conway’s case to examine his participation in, and condoning of, the players’ mutiny. “William Conway was not willing to admit he had been treating the management of Lawrence club unfairly,” the Boston Globe reported, “and thought that the fines imposed were uncalled for and unjust.” His case was tabled while the owners talked to the remaining players.
Later in the meeting, the owners agreed to reinstate several players, rather than blacklist them, if they paid a fine and made amends with the club. Conway then “practically admitted the charges made by the League and was equally hearty in his assertion that he would make such reparation as was reasonably demanded by the New England League.” According to the Lawrence Daily American, the Conway brothers were both reinstated after they agreed to pay a fine of $20 and answered three questions–“Do you think, on the whole, that you were acting right to your employers? Will you play to the best of your ability and will you submit to such punishment as you may think reasonable?”
Despite the recanting by Conway, Knox decided to sell his contract, which no doubt was the reason why Conway was allowed to be reinstated rather than blacklisted. Billy Barnie, manager of the Baltimore team in the American Association, was seeking new players to infuse some life into his last-place team. Two days after the special New England League meeting, Barnie checked into the Essex House hotel in Lawrence to negotiate with Knox.
Barnie reportedly paid Knox $1,800 for three players, the Conway brothers and outfielder Pat O’Connell, and agreed to transfer catcher Ned Bligh from Baltimore to Lawrence. Conway went to Baltimore only due to the pitching prowess of his brother Dick. “The only reason he [Barnie] wanted W. Conway was that he being used to Dick they might work better together,” the Lawrence Daily American reported. Conway did receive a raise in pay, according to the Lawrence Daily Eagle. “On the Lawrence team, the Conways got $175 and $125 a month, while O’Connell was paid $100 a month. On the Baltimores, each will receive $250 a month. Bully for O’Connell and bully for the Conways.”
Five days after the walkout of the Lawrence team in the New England League, Conway was back in the major leagues. But five weeks later he had returned to the minor leagues. His brother Dick was roughed up in the pitcher’s box with Baltimore, starting nine games but winning just two games and losing seven. Conway himself was anemic at bat, collecting just two hits in 14 at bats during the seven games he played for Baltimore. At his catcher’s position, he was charged with three errors in 40 chances accepted.
Conway’s first game with Baltimore was on July 28, a 6-0 loss to St. Louis, when he caught the serves of Matt Kilroy. Conway backstopped his brother Dick’s pitching on August 13 at St. Louis, when the Browns routed Baltimore 14-2. “The Conway brothers were in the points for the Baltimores, and their work was very poor,” the New York Times reported. While his brother Dick stayed with Baltimore until August 29, Conway left the team around August 23 with “his hands in a badly battered condition,” according to the Lawrence Daily American. In the 1880s the catcher received the serves from the pitcher without the benefit of a padded glove, so they frequently suffered injuries during the games.
Since he caught the pitches of his brother Dick in at least one major league game, Conway joined a select list of a dozen brother battery combinations in major league history, which includes Mort and Walker Cooper, Wes and Rick Ferrell, and Larry and Norm Sherry.
By September, Conway was back in the New England League, this time with the team in Portland, Maine. His brother Dick joined him, and the two brothers helped Portland to capture the 1886 New England League pennant. Conway, though, was injured in the first inning of the September 25 game against the Boston Blues. The Boston Globe described the injury as “W. Conway hurting his finger badly and reopening an old wound.” In this no-substitution era, Conway moved to third base for the second inning and O’Rourke took his place as catcher. “At the end of this [second] inning attention was called to Conway’s finger, which was swelling badly,” the Globe reported. Although the umpire and the Blues captain appeared to allow Portland to substitute for Conway, Blues manager Walter Burnham objected, claiming that Conway “was not too badly injured to continue playing.” The Blues forfeited the game to Portland over the disagreement on Conway’s ability to stay in the game, as Burnham withdrew his team from the field in objection to a substitution for Conway.
That injury ended Conway’s baseball career. When his brother Dick signed in October 1886 to play with Boston of the National League for the 1887 season, the possibility ended for Conway to remain as designated catcher for his brother at the minor league level. Leaving baseball in 1886 was probably also essential for Conway to pursue his job as an engraver, where his work involved manual dexterity with his hands. Although the 1888 Lowell Directory listed Conway as a “base ball player,” he was likely back at work as an engraver in Lowell. By the next year he had moved to city of Somerville, just north of Boston. The 1889 Somerville Directory listed Conway as an “engraver, Middlesex Bleachery.”
For the next 30 years, Conway worked as an engraver at the Middlesex Bleachery in Somerville. He and his family lived at several locations in the neighborhood near the bleachery, which expanded into a dye works and printing plant over the years. After remarrying in 1890, Conway and his second wife, Margaret, had three children, Elizabeth, Frances, and Philip. Conway was living with his youngest daughter Frances, a bookkeeper, when he died on December 18, 1943, in Somerville. He was buried in St. Paul’s cemetery in Arlington, Massachusetts.
Boston Globe. “Champions At Ball: Sketches of the Players Composing the Lawrence Nine.” October 19, 1885.
——–. “Forfeited to Portland: The Blues and the Portlands Have a Disagreement.” September 26, 1886.
——–. “Providences Win After a Struggle on the Philadelphia Diamond.” July 29, 1884.
——–. “Put Upon the Black List: Are Cox and Gorman of the Lawrence Club.” July 18, 1886.
——–. “Stars of the East: Prize Ball Tossers of the New England League.” October 4, 1886.
Encyclopedia of Baseball Catchers. “Brother Batteries.” http://members.tripod.com/bb_catchers/catchers/brother_batteries.htm
Lawrence Daily American. 1885-1886.
Lawrence Daily Eagle. 1885-1886.
Lowell Directory. 1886-1888.
Massachusetts State Archives. Birth, Marriage, and Death Records Prior to 1910.
Somerville Directory. 1889-1943.
U.S. census. 1870, 1910.