This article was written by John F. Green
After experiencing success in its infancy as the birthplace of professional baseball, Cincinnati was without a championship team from 1883 until 1919. Although the 37 years without a winner were hard to swallow, the Queen City faithful continued to come out to the ballpark and root for a number of talented athletes wearing the Cincinnati uniform.
One such player they admired was James “Bug” Holliday, a Cincinnati outfielder for the ten seasons from 1889 to 1898. Dean A. Sullivan noted in Baseball’s First Stars that “Holliday was nicknamed ‘Bug’ because he looked so small playing center field.” A 5’-11”, 151-pounder, Bug joined the club as a rookie in 1889, the team’s final season in the American Association. He excited fans with his .319 batting average, 107 runs scored, 104 RBIs, and 46 stolen bases. And he topped off his initial campaign in the major leagues by clubbing 19 home runs to tie for the AA lead. The Red Stockings posted a winning record with 76 wins and 63 losses and finished the year in fourth place.
In 1890 the Cincinnati franchise changed its name to “Reds” when it joined the National League. Holliday remained a regular in the outfield until he underwent a serious appendectomy in early 1895. The surgery weakened him considerably; he never fully recovered his strength from the bout, and was reduced to a part-time role in his last four seasons.
James Wear Holliday was born on February 8, 1867, to John James Holliday and Lucretia Green Foree Holliday in St. Louis. Blessed with a strong right arm and excellent speed, he adapted early to baseball; by the age of 14 he was playing amateur ball in and around St. Louis. Early on he was primarily a pitcher, but continued to show ability with the bat and on the base paths as well. And four years later he was selected to play with big leaguers.
The Chicago White Stockings of the National League and St. Louis Browns of the American Association were involved in a post-season series after the close of the 1885 season. The teams were matched in St. Louis on October 17, and when Chicago skipper Cap Anson decided to rest one of his players, the 18-year-old Holliday was recruited to play in right field. He went 0-for-4 at bat, committed a fielding error, and Chicago was beaten by a 3-2 score. In the St. Louis Republican the next day, the report read: “Holliday, who played right for the Chicagos, is a local amateur, who has been playing under the name Hall. He did very poorly yesterday.”
With that brief taste of professional ball under his belt, Holliday signed on with St. Joseph of the Western League in 1886. The right-handed swinger played in 69 games and batted .314. He followed that up with a .400-hitting season with a pair of teams. With pennant-winning Topeka in the Western circuit, he batted .428 in 104 games, and smashed 16 homers to finish in a tie for the league leadership. He spent the end of the 1887 season at Des Moines in the Northwestern League, playing in four games and averaging .412.
Bug was a hot prospect at the conclusion of the 1887 season, and the owner of the St. Louis Browns, Chris Von der Ahe, made an attempt to sign him. However, his claim for the player’s services was made a day before the legal time for signing, and was disallowed. Des Moines was awarded the rights to Holliday for the 1888 season, when the club switched to the Western Association. Known as the “Prohibitionists,” Des Moines captured the loop title by one-half game over the Kansas City Blues. Holliday took part in 114 games, batted .309, stole 65 bases, and tied for circuit honors in base hits with 147.
After the big numbers he put up with Cincinnati in 1889, Holliday was offered a $3,300 salary to jump to the ill-fated Players’ League. The Reds matched that figure, however, and he remained in Cincinnati. The “sophomore jinx” may have victimized him in 1890; his batting average dropped to .270, with only four homers. The first homer came on Opening Day, and was the first one in Cincinnati’s National League debut.
Holliday rebounded in 1891 with a .319 average, second in the NL to Billy Hamilton’s .340. Bug also had nine home runs and 84 RBIs. The club skidded to seventh place from its fourth position the previous season, and in 1892 manager Tom Loftus was replaced by Charlie Comiskey. The National League became a 12-team circuit that year, following the demise of the American Association. Holliday batted .294, hit a career-high 16 triples, and paced the NL with 13 homers. At times during the season Bug’s outfield mates included veterans Tip O’Neill and Pete Browning. The overweight O’Neill batted only .251 in 109 games, and retired after the season, while Browning hit .303 in 83 games with the Reds before returning to the Louisville roster.
The anchorman in the Cincinnati infield from 1882 through 1899 was second baseman Bid McPhee. The keystoner batted .272 lifetime, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. Other teammates of Holliday included shortstop Germany Smith (1891-96), third baseman Arlie Latham (1890-1895), first baseman Charlie Comiskey (1892-94), and outfielder William “Dummy” Hoy (1894-97). There was a constant turnover on the pitching staff during Holliday’s career, with Tony Mullane, Billy Rhines, and Frank Dwyer the principal hurlers.
One of the more interesting stories in 1892 was created by right-hander Charles Leander “Bumpus” Jones. In the season finale played on October 15, he made his major-league debut and pitched a no-hitter to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 7-1. The youngster won only one other game in his big-league career, a most unusual one on June 18, 1893. With the Reds leading Louisville by a 14-0 score in the fourth inning, skipper Comiskey decided to rest starting hurler Icebox Chamberlain. Bumpus took over in relief, and despite giving up 12 runs, was credited with the wild 30-12 victory.
When the distance from the pitcher’s box to home plate was increased from 50’ to 60’-6” in 1893, it helped to remove the advantage the pitchers enjoyed over the hitters. The overall National League batting average jumped from .245 to .280 from 1892 to 1893, and the circuit’s earned run average increased from 3.28 to 4.66 runs per game. There was a huge reduction in strikeouts: 5,955 in ’92, and 3,339 in ’93.
As a team, Cincinnati’s team batting average rose only 18 points (.241 to .259) from ’92 to ’93. Holliday was the only player on the club to top the .300 mark in ’93; he batted .310, with 108 runs scored, 89 RBIs, and five homers. When Hoy was acquired in 1894, he became the everyday centerfielder, moving Bug to play mostly in right field. Four of the regulars batted over .300: Hoy (.304), McPhee (.313), Latham (.313), and Holliday (.376). It was a banner season for Bug; in 123 games he totaled 196 hits, including 13 round-trippers, scored 126 runs and knocked in 123. All that offense was for naught, however; the club dropped to 10th place with its 55 wins and 75 losses. The pitching staff collapsed, allowing 1108 runs, 172 more than the Reds scored. A doubleheader played on August 21, 1894, was indicative of the inept Cincinnati mound work; hurlers Chauncey Fisher, Tom Parrott, and Bill Whitrock surrendered 43 runs as the Boston Beaneaters captured the twin bill by 18-3 and 25-8 scores.
Holliday’s appendectomy in April 1895 was devastating; he appeared in only 152 games over the next four years (1895-98). His physical condition had sapped his strength, and as a bench player he averaged .284 (151-for-531) in those four seasons. Buck Ewing succeeded Comiskey as Cincinnati manager in 1895, and after the club finished in eighth place that season, it rallied behind his leadership to climb to third the following year. Actually, in 1896 the Reds were in first place until August 21, but an 11-game losing streak that began the day before knocked them out of contention. In ’97 and ’98, they were fourth and third, respectively.
After batting only .236 in 30 games in ’98, Bug retired from the game and sought other employment in Cincinnati. In prior years he had toiled during the off-seasons from baseball in various bookmaking operations. He hooked on for a while covering horse racing for a newspaper as well as calling races from a local poolroom. An article in the January 16, 1909 edition of the Wilkes-Barre Times mentioned Bug’s longtime penchant for gambling: “He lost most of his money backing the bangtails. One day a friend asked him if he could not quit playing the races. ‘Yes, I think I could,’ replied Holliday. ‘If someone would take me into a room at the top of a castle, lock the door and throw the key away.’”
One of Bug’s endeavors was a brief career as a boxing referee. And in 1903 he returned to baseball as a National League umpire. Beginning in April, he officiated in 53 games before quitting in July, and during his short tenure ejected several players, including future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Joe Tinker. Holliday stated in February 1904, “As a player, I thought some of the ordeals I went through with were tough, but as an umpire I have found that they were comparatively mild.” He returned to umpire one more time, when he was signed to work in the American Association in March 1904. Extremely warm weather got the best him in July, however, and he resigned his final post on the baseball diamond.
Baseball’s First Stars stated: “By 1907 Holliday had contracted rheumatism, prompting former teammates and opponents to stage a benefit game that September which earned him several hundred dollars.” His physical condition continued to deteriorate the following year, and in January 1909 he had a leg amputated.
The pain and suffering continued, and on February 15, 1910, James Wear Holliday passed away at his home, one week after his 43rd birthday. He was buried in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery, and the cause of death was listed as gangrene of the foot and leg. The death certificate also listed Bug as married, and the informant’s space on the certificate is signed simply as “Mrs. Holliday.” The Grand Forks Herald of December 28, 1895, stated that But had married Mary Thurman, a twice-divorced woman; whether she was the one who signed the certificate is moot.
A century after his death, Bug Holliday still lives on in the Cincinnati Reds record book. He ranks second behind Cy Seymour in the all-time, one-season batting category by one point; Seymour batted .377 in 1905, Bug .376 in 1894. Holliday ranks fifth in lifetime batting at .312, and the 126 runs scored in 1894 ranks eighth all-time. He also holds the distinction of leading both the American Association and National League in home runs, making him the first player to lead two major leagues in homers.
Bug Holliday file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Research Center
Johnson, Lloyd, and Miles Wolff, eds. Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 3rd ed. Durham, NC: Baseball America, 2007.
Lee, Bill. The Baseball Necrology. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.
Nemec, David. The Beer and Whiskey League. Guilford, CT: The League Press, 2004.
Sullivan, Dean A. “James Wear Holliday (Bug).” In Fred Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tiemann, and Mark Rucker, eds. Baseball’s First Stars. Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1996.
Thanks to SABR founding member Ray Nemec.