Billy Geer had a somewhat nomadic baseball career, playing parts of six major league seasons with seven different teams. That nomadic life would continue in his post-baseball career as he took up another profession that would keep him on the run for the rest of his life.
William H. Geer was born about 1852 in New York City. Billy’s parents are unknown as no census record could be found that proved to be him, and while his father paid for his college tuition, college records simply showed his father’s name as “Mr. Geer.”
Geer’s first baseball experience came in 1868 when he was signed by the Unions of Morrisania. “The Unions have gained an addition to their nine in a young man named Geer, whose admirers claim can eclipse either Stockman or George Wright at shortstop.”1 The Unions included such future major leaguers as Wright, Charlie Pabor, and Dave Birdsall, so a sixteen-year-old playing on the same team was an impressive accomplishment. Geer played with the Unions in 1868 and 1869 before enrolling in Manhattan College in 1870. He attended Manhattan from 1870-1873, playing on the baseball team and singing in the College Choir, where he was a featured soloist.2
After leaving Manhattan College, Geer resumed his baseball career, signing on with the top amateur team in New York City, the Flyaways. He usually played shortstop, and on July 21, 1874, for the first time since 1871, the Flyaways got the chance to test their mettle against a professional team, the New York Mutuals. The Flyaways lost, 16-4, thanks to pretty shoddy fielding, but Geer played an errorless game at shortstop.3 After the Flyaway season had ended, Geer served as an umpire for several National Association games in September and October. The Mutuals had obviously become familiar with him, because on October 15, 1874, he made his professional debut, playing center field for them in a game against Hartford. 4 Geer was impressive enough that when the Mutuals formed their team for 1875, Geer was announced as their centerfielder. 5 By the time the 1875 season started, Geer had left the Mutuals and signed with New Haven. “It is reported that Geer has signed to play with the New Haven nine.”6 Sure enough, when the season dawned on April 19, Geer was in the lineup for New Haven, leading off and playing second base.7
The 1875 National Association race was one of the most unbalanced in baseball history. Several teams folded by midseason. Boston romped to the league crown with a 71-8 record, while teams like Geer’s New Haven club managed to make it through the season, albeit with an awful 7-40 record. Even they were not as bad as the pathetic Brooklyn Atlantics, who managed to play the entire season but finished 2-42. Witness this description of the two teams that appeared in the Chicago Tribune:
“There will be a shout of joy among the baseball reporters, if in no other quarter, when the Atlantic, the New Haven, and the Washington nines follow the example just set them by the Centennials.8 The general public have long since ceased going to a game in which either of these clubs participates, but the unfortunate baseball reporter must go to their games, so that he can tell the public the next morning what an infernal set of asses they are. Think of one’s being compelled to sit by and witness such a game as that played by the Atlantics and New Haven yesterday. It took these novices three mortal hours to play nine innings, and I speak but the truth when I say there was not a single sharp or in any way brilliant play made during the entire struggle.9 And yet there is some very good material in both these clubs. Nichols, Kessler, and Clack of the Atlantics, and Geer and Gould of the New Havens are really fine players, particularly Nichols and Kessler, who are batting and fielding equal to any of the old veterans.”10
Clearly, Geer had a made a positive impression on National Association observers. Unfortunately, his season ended abruptly in September when he and teammate Henry Luff were arrested in New Haven and charged with stealing several items from the Tecumseh Hotel in Toronto, Ontario. Among the items they were accused of stealing were a policeman’s revolver, a meerschaum pipe, a gold watch, and several expensive dress coats.11 They were immediately suspended by the team. Geer was quickly acquitted for lack of evidence, but it would not be his last brush with the law.
In 1876 and 1877, Geer hooked up with the independent Syracuse Stars. The Stars were a strong club, featuring future major leaguers Hick Carpenter, Jim McCormick, Alex McKinnon, and Pete Hotaling, and they did well playing games against some of the major league teams of the day. In 1877 they were the only non-league team to win a game from every league club.12 Geer played shortstop and served as the team’s captain.13 As the 1877 season wound down, he signed a contract to play the 1878 season with the Cincinnati club of the National League. 14
Geer arrived in Cincinnati in the spring of 1878 accompanied by a new bride. In the offseason, he had married Emelie Smith, the daughter of Jacob Smith, a prominent leather merchant15 in Syracuse.16 Geer seemed on the road to a happy life. He had a new team, a new wife, a good reputation, “Geer, of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, is said to be a great reader and one of the most intelligent men in the profession.”17 Within a year, he would also welcome a son, Raymond.18 He also had opportunities outside of baseball — his father wanted him to retire from baseball and he would set him up in business.19 He did retire from baseball in 1879 and became a partner in a tobacco shop with Syracuse tobacconist Homer Ostrander.20
It did not take long for him to get the itch to get back on the diamond. “Geer of the Cincinnati club of 1878 has written to every League club, seeking an engagement for the upcoming season.”21 He eventually was picked up by the Worcester club, but lasted only two games.
Geer was finally able to land a regular job with a team in 1883 when Brooklyn formed a team in the Interstate Association. He signed in March22, but the team did not begin play until May. While waiting for the season to start, he umpired some games in Philadelphia, then served as captain of the Brooklyn club and led them to the Interstate championship.23
For the 1884 season, Geer found another club that wanted his services — the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union Association. He was released after nine games, apparently because of a dispute with Union Association organizer Al Pratt. “Some persons claim that Geer was released, and others that he ran away from the Keystones. Both gentlemen are right. First of all he was released, and subsequently he ran away, his run being made all the faster by Manager Pratt’s boot toe.”24
He quickly hooked on with the Brooklyn American Association club, but was released prior to the 1885 season. Louisville signed him for 1885, but after a wretched beginning both on and off the field, he was released by the club in May. “Geer has been released by Louisville. Manager Hart says his conduct and playing were totally unsatisfactory. He is said to have condemned the town, the club, and the manager.”25
Geer next signed with the Hartford club of the Southern New England League, but once again ran into problems. In August, he left the team and was expelled. “W. H. Geer, second baseman of the Hartford ball nine, skipped town recently, leaving a board bill unpaid and other debts. He was the highest priced player on the nine, getting $140 a month.”26 Shortly thereafter it was reported that Geer had reformed and retired from baseball, supposedly going into business in New York.27
It is unknown what business Geer had planned to go into, but the business he eventually settled on was forgery. In 1887 he was arrested for grand larceny after he passed some forged checks.
“William Geer, a man who was formerly well-known in this city, has fared badly of late. Some years ago he played on the New Haven baseball nine and was accounted a good player. He left this city with a big third baseman named Luff and went to London, Canada where he played on the ball team of that place.28 He and Luff were arrested there on a charge of stealing some silver ware and other articles from a hotel but were finally released. While playing afterwards on the Syracuse Stars, he met a prominent young lady, whom he married secretly. At the death of his wife’s parents, the couple came into possession of an income of about $4,000 a year.29 Geer has lately been residing quietly in Elmira, New York. He was recently arrested and taken to New York on a charge of grand larceny. Being accused of issuing and cashing a check for $125 on the Oswego bank, where he had no deposit. He was arraigned in the Jefferson Market court yesterday morning, and his case continued to November 10. It is said that Geer is also wanted for passing a worthless check for $210 upon Spalding, the Chicago baseball man, and also in Albany for passing a similar check for $100.”30
“Billy Geer, the once famous shortstop, is in jail at New York, charged with passing checks for large amounts at several hotels in New York state. The detectives claim that Geer has been defrauding people all over the country with his worthless checks.”31 Geer was also charged with forgery in Detroit. He passed a bad check for $150 to the Russell House there.32 In 1889, he was arrested in Louisville for passing a bad check there. “Billy Geer, the old player once connected with Syracuse, Brooklyn, and other clubs, turned up at Louisville again last week in the role of would-be forger. He pretended to be a stationer and bank engraver and wanted to sell goods but failing to dispose of any of his wares he asked a bank cashier to cash a $50 check on which he had no deposit and no acquaintance. He was arrested and a number of checks were found in his possession, all payable to himself.”33
At this point, Geer apparently thought it was to his advantage to begin using aliases and embarked on a forgery spree all over the country while using a host of phony names.
“None of the others seemed so nervous as did William Geer, alias R. H. W. Dwight. He was very fidgety and hid his face persistently, when he got on to the fact that an artist was trying to make a snapshot of his countenance. …. The man came to the city a few days ago and was put up at the Ryan. He presented two checks at the St. Paul National Bank drawn upon the Broadway National Bank of Boston. One was for $200 and the other was for $500. He was picked up a few minutes after he presented the second check and was locked up on a charge of forging the checks. The grand jury being in session at the time, he was indicted on a charge of forging the two checks. While waiting his turn for arraignment, he plucked nervously at his short black mustache and glared excitedly from his black keen eyes. When called up for arraignment, he spoke in scarcely an audible voice and his excitement was greatly increased. He answered yes when asked under oath if R. H. W. Dwight was his real name and pulled frantically at his mustache when he pleaded not guilty to each indictment. The county attorney asserted that his real name is William Geer and that his home is in Glen Ridge, NJ. R. H. W. Dwight is the name of the Boston manager of the American express company. A letter was found on his person from his son. He is apparently 35 years old.”34
“From Elizabeth, NJ. Chief of Police Clark, of St. Paul, has in his custody a clever forger who is said to be G. W. Geer of this place. Geer is a brother-in-law to Mrs. Roger N. Arms of 187 Ridgewood Avenue, Glen Ridge. He was arrested for trying to pass forged checks. When taken to the police station, he was searched and in his possession was found a forger’s complete outfit, including a number of checks on nearly every large bank in the United States. There were also found in his pockets wigs, mustaches, and other articles for the purpose of disguise.”35, 36
On May 26, 1892, Geer was actually convicted of forgery for defrauding the St. Paul National bank, and was sentenced to a prison term in Stillwater State Prison. He was released on January 13, 1896, but it was not long before he was back at his forgery schemes.37
“William H. Geer is being searched for by the Pinkerton detectives on a charge of passing worthless checks on businessmen all over the country. A number of banks charge that they have suffered from his operations and the American Bankers Association has offered a reward for his arrest. Geer was released from the Stillwater, Minnesota State Prison last year. He was convicted of attempting to pass a forged check on the St. Paul National Bank in 1892. This is said to be the only time he was ever convicted.”38
“The police have information that the man who did the smooth act of cashing checks at Heyn’s Bazaar and Goldberg Brothers in Detroit for $27 each is a noted check swindler named William H. Geer. He was once a ballplayer, but in 1892 began making his police record by forging a check in Minnesota. He served a term for this in the Stillwater penitentiary. The board of pardons in that state released him on parole in 1896. Then he turned up in Salt Lake City, where he represented himself as an agent of National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio and thereby cashed a number of worthless checks. He operated in Boston later, under the names of R. D. Dwight, George M. Mills, J. B. Rowan, R. A. Myers, J. R. Mott, and Edward Lyon.”39
“Less than a week ago, William H. Geer, the man wanted in Detroit for being a check swindler, was in Bay City. He entered the First National Bank and presented a check that he said he wanted to deposit, and he also said he would check the amount out as required. He wanted to check $50 out at that time, but the teller, James M. Lewis, informed him that it was not his practice to do business that way. Geer was told that he would first have to get the endorsement of some responsible party in Bay City. The draft was pulled back and Geer beat a hasty retreat without further words. Two days later a circular of warning was received at the bank from the Pinkerton detective agency, notifying the bank attaches to be on their guard against Geer, a cut of whom was also given.”40
A month later, Geer was in San Diego, running another forgery scam, this time using the name Frank McKeen and writing worthless checks from a bank in Terre Haute, Indiana, purchasing such things as clothing, a bicycle, and a train ticket.41
In April, Geer was once again in prison, not in California, but on the other side of the country in Richmond, Virginia: “W. H. Geer, an ex-ball player and professional forger, with a new alias for every city, and neat enough to pass checks on the Boston store, and Thomas Kilpatrick and Company, has been located by Chief of Detectives Cox in the penitentiary at Richmond, Virginia, where he began March 21 a sixteen month sentence for forgery. His criminal record includes a seven year sentence at Stillwater, Minnesota, whence he was sent from St. Paul in 1892, and pardoned last year. His checks passed in this city were drawn on the State National Bank of Memphis, Tennessee, date of last November 23. The Pinkertons are after him and promise to see to his extradition and prosecution for forgery in other states after his release at Richmond.”42
Geer was either incarcerated or inactive until 1904 when he was arrested for forgery once again, this time in Iowa using the name Bruce Barrington.43 He was sentenced to two years in the Iowa State Prison. 44 Upon his release, he was at it again, using a variety of names:
“Fifty business houses in this city are alleged to have cashed bogus checks for Nelson B. Sears, alias William H. Geer, W. H. W. Dwight, George M. Myer, J. B. Rowan, R. A. Myer, J. R. Mott, and Ed Lyon, who was arrested in Freeport, Illinois. When arrested, Sears had 22 worthless checks in his pocket. When confronted with Chief Watts’ circular, he admitted his identity. He was sent to prison for 3 years. The Boston Police will send for him at the expiration of his term there. When Sears left this city, Watts began a determined search for him. He secured Sears’ identification and picture of him, and then sent a warning circular to police chiefs throughout the country and to every large dry goods firm. Sears would work Boston one week, and in a fortnight would be heard from in California. He jumped about from coast to coast and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, never stopping more than a week in a place. He made three visits to New York and got away with thousands of dollars. He was in this city twice and got several hundreds of dollars by his operations. Sears is about 50 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, and wears a brown mustache and Van Dyck beard streaked with gray. He was in the Michigan penitentiary from 1890 to 1896, [Actually, he was in prison in Minnesota from 1892 to 1896], in prison at Richmond, Virginia for a year in 1898, went to Salt Lake City, and served 3 years in prison there, escaped when being taken to prison in Michigan at the end of this term, and in 1902 was arrested in St. Paul and sent to prison for defrauding a bank. Inspectors Gaddis and McClausland, who have been seeking the prisoner, will go west after him, if by any means he can be brought back to Boston for trial. In many of his operations, Sears was accompanied by two young women, who called him “papa” and for whom he made extensive purchases in the big stores, making payments with worthless checks.”45, 46
“The man arrested in Freeport, Illinois while trying to pass a check upon a dry goods establishment is believed to be the same man guilty of the forgery of the name of the E. B. Taylor company of this city to a number of checks. The arrest was made upon information furnished the police department of Boston, Massachusetts by Detective Archmond. The handwriting on those checks is identical with those passed some time ago by William H. Geer drawn on the State Bank of Chicago and payable to N. B. Sears. The Taylor forgeries are payable to A. C. Bates. Bates, Sears, and Geer are believed to be one and the same person. The man has also appeared under the aliases of William H. Dwight, George M. Myers, J. B. Rowan, R. A. Myers, J. A. Mott, and Ed Lyon. The Richmond police have filed claim for the man as soon as Freeport and Boston are through with him.”47
Geer was convicted of forgery under the name A. C. Bates and was sentenced to one to fourteen years in Joliet prison.48 Sometime after his release from Joliet, he pops up again, apparently operating in Connecticut: “Warning is issued to local merchants, especially lumber dealers, to beware of a clever check forger who is wanted in several cities under the name M. M. Seeder. This man is wanted for putting out checks in New Haven, St. Louis, Rochester, Buffalo, and Worcester, Mass. and is evidently flooding the country with worthless paper. He is also reported to have been operating under the name of William H. Geer, Robert S. Reed, and R. R. Wade. The alleged swindler is described as being about 55 to 60 years old, 5 feet 5 to 5 feet 6 inches tall, 135 to 140 pounds, smooth face, sallow complexion, dark hair, mixed with gray, pleasant voice, well-dressed. In New Haven where he was last heard of, he wore a dark overcoat and brown, soft hat. He is a very good talker and wears nose glasses.”49
If he was in Connecticut, he did not stay long, because two weeks later he was arrested in Joplin, Missouri, this time using the name N. N. Vedee. He received a ten-year sentence and is listed in the Missouri prison database as M. M. Adams., alias N. N. Vedee.50 Geer was in the Missouri penitentiary until June of 1928 when he was issued a sick pardon by the governor because he was suffering from an incurable illness. He was paroled to the care of Mrs. S. B. Turner, who ran a boarding house in Chicago.51 It was here that Geer died on September 30, 1928, under the name Bruce Barrington, the name Geer had been using when he was arrested in 1904. His body was donated to a mortuary school. While Geer’s baseball career was somewhat mundane, his forgery career was prolific and widespread.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Dennis Pajot.
My thanks to Peter Morris and Justin McKinney for their help with the research.
1 “The National Game,” New York Herald, May 15, 1868: 5.
2 Manhattan College records, letter from archivist September 3, 2020
3 “Amateurs vs. Professionals: The Mutuals Defeat the Flyaways,” New York World, July 22, 1874: 8.
4 “Baseball: A Close Game Between the Mutuals and the Hartfords,” New York World, October 16, 1874: 8.
5 “The Diamond Field: Baseball Gossip for the Coming Season,” (Washington, DC) National Republican, December 15, 1874: 4.
6 “Gossip of the Game,” Chicago Tribune, March 21, 1875: 8.
7 “The Campaign Opened. The Champions on the Warpath,” New York Mercury, April 25, 1875: 7.
8 The Centennials had just folded.
9 The Atlantics beat New Haven to win their second and final game of the season before embarking on a 31-game losing streak.
10 “Sporting News,” Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1875: 7.
11 “Baseball Extraordinary,” (New Haven) Columbian Register, September 18, 1875: 3.
12 “Club Records,” Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1877: 8.
13 “The Stars Present,” Oswego (NY) Palladium, October 3, 1876: 4.
14 “League Items,” Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1877: 8.
15 1870 US census
16 “Married and Happy,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 11, 1878: 8.
17 “Ball and Bat,” Cleveland Leader, April 13, 1878: 8.
18 1880 US census
19 “General Notes,” Cleveland Leader, August 31, 1878: 8.
20 1879 Syracuse city directory
21 “General Notes,” Cleveland Leader, March 5, 1880: 5.
22 “The New Brooklyn Nine,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, March 4, 1883: 3.
23 “Brooklyn vs. Harrisburg,” Brooklyn Herald, September 30, 1883: 13.
24 “Base Hits,” Cleveland Leader, June 13, 1884: 2.
25 “Trenton’s Third Defeat”, Trenton Times, May 22, 1885: 1.
26 “State News,” New Haven Register, July 18, 1885: 4.
27 “Doings from Different Diamonds”, New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 20, 1885: 8.
28 Geer never played for the London baseball team.
29 Geer’s wife’s mother died in 1880 and her father died in 1881.
30 “Geer, The Ball Player,” New Haven Register, November 2, 1887: 1.
31 “Base Ball Notes”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 4, 1887: 5.
32 “Ball Chat”, Aberdeen (South Dakota) News, January 5, 1888: 2.
33 “Dust of the Diamond,” St. Paul Globe, February 24, 1889: 9.
34 “Murder and Larceny Figure but not Prominently, in the Cases,” St. Paul Globe, May 12, 1892: 3.
35 Mrs. Roger Arms is the former Amelia Wallace Smith, sister of Geer’s wife Emilie Smith.
36 “Bloomfield,” New York Tribune, May 14, 1892: 12.
37 “Rowan, Alias Geer, A Skillful Forger Who is Wanted by Police Authorities,” Providence Bulletin, November 26, 1897: 2.
38 “Reward Offered for Geer,” Boston Journal, November 26, 1897: 6.
39 “A Noted Swindler,” Bay City (Michigan) Times, December 3, 1897: 3.
40 “Geer at Bay City,” Saginaw (Michigan) News, December 4, 1897: 1.
41 “W. H. Geer, Charged with Forgery, A Suspected Crook”, San Diego Union, January 20, 1898: 2.
42 “Forger Found Behind Bars,” Omaha World Herald, April 6, 1898: 8.
43 “Passed Fraudulent Checks,” Decatur (Illinois) Herald and Review, January 29, 1904: 1.
44 Iowa prison records
45 “Fifty Firms Seek Sears’ Return,” Boston Herald, April 28, 1907: 14.
46 This might explain what he was doing between 1898 and 1903.
47 “Arrest May Be Richmond Man,” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, May 2, 1907: 8.
48 “Prison Sentence”, Freeport (Illinois) Journal-Standard, June 6, 1907: 1.
49 “Police Give Out Warning,” Stamford (Connecticut) Advocate, March 14, 1923: 5.
50 “Man Sought Here Gets Long Term in Prison,” Scranton (Pennsylvania) Tribune, May 2, 1923: 3.
51 “Gov. Baker Issues Two Sick Pardons,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, June 21, 1928: 28.