The poet David M. Harris wrote: “No hick carpenter for Mary. Then the angel came.”1 The hick carpenter became St. Joseph, one of the most venerated figures in all Christendom. To baseball fans a different Hick Carpenter comes to mind. He is not venerated, but he is honored as probably the best left-handed third baseman ever to play the game.
Walter William Carpenter was born in Grafton, Worcester County, Massachusetts, on August 16, 1855, the younger of the two sons of Tylis2 Wilson and George G. Carpenter. a carpenter by trade.. Walter acquired the nickname Hick while playing baseball with the Cincinnati Reds. He explained, “I had a swell hickory bat made for myself, and I thought it was the best in the National League. One day someone stole it, and when I put up a big beef my teammates started calling me Hickory. Later they shortened it to Hick.”3
Young Carpenter quit school early. At the age of 15 he was working as a carpenter’s apprentice for his father in Grafton and probably playing baseball in the neighborhood. When he was 21, Carpenter started his professional career with the Syracuse Stars of the League Alliance. He stayed with the Stars as they moved into the International Association in 1878, then into the National League the following year. Carpenter made his major league debut on May 1, 1879, at the age of 23. The youngster played for a different club in each of his first three seasons in the National League – Syracuse in 1879, Cincinnati in 1880, and Worcester in 1881.
On September 29, 1879, Carpenter received a passport in Onondaga County, New York. He and his teammate, Jimmy Macullar, the Syracuse player-manager, were headed for Cuba to play baseball in the Cuban Baseball League, just entering its second year of play. They signed with the Colon club, and played only two games – Macullar as pitcher and Carpenter as his battery mate. It was reported that Macullar struck out 21 batters in a game against Habana and also hit a home run, causing the other clubs in the league to refuse to play against the Americans.41 Colon withdrew from the league in January, and the Americans returned home.
When the American Association was organized in 1882, Carpenter joined the Cincinnati Reds in the new loop and remained in the “Beer and Whiskey League” through the 1889 season. Sturdily built at 5’ 11’, 186 pounds, the right-handed batting, left-handed throwing third baseman was a steady performer for the Reds, playing 892 games at the hot corner,5 second only to Heinie Groh as the most games ever played at third base for the Reds. Carpenter was an excellent hitter. In 1882 he led the league in hits and runs batted in and was second in batting average and third in runs scored, on-base percentage, on-base plus slugging, and total bases. Although 1882 was his best year at the plate, it was not his only productive one. He ranked in the top ten in the league in the above-mentioned categories 15 times and was twice in the top ten in home runs. He had some exceptional days, such as on September 12, 1883, when he collected six hits in a game against Pittsburgh, and on July 1, 1884, when his five hits included two home runs, two doubles, and a single for 13 total bases.
Good as Carpenter’s hitting was, he is best remembered for his fielding. He played far more games at third base than any other lefthander in the history of the game. and played it superbly. In 1882 he led the American Association in putouts and fielding percentage. In 1884 and again in 1885 he led the league in both putouts and double plays by a third baseman. Third base is not called the hot corner for nothing. The third baseman is often the closest infielder to the batter. He must have excellent hand-eye coordination and quick reactions to catch a ball that is hit sharply in his direction. If the fielder is playing in, expecting a bunt, and the batter swings away a health hazard is created.
One can only imagine how difficult it would be for a left-handed third sacker to initiate a double play. On groundballs he would have to turn his body before making a throw to first or second base, especially on balls hit to his right side. On a slow roller to third, the lefty would have to come in, scoop up the ball, pivot, and fire it to first or second. It is no wonder that so few portsiders have played at the hot corner.
It is said that Carpenter was blessed with astonishing physical dexterity.6 A Louisville sportswriter penned this tribute: “It isn’t much use to hit it in the neighborhood of third base when Old Hickory is holding it down. Hickory doesn’t think any more of stopping a base hit than Jack Leary does of striking out.”7 One of Carpenter’s gems came a few days later. On June 18 thoughts of a no-hitter were in the air as Will White, Cincinnati’s ace hurler, retired the first 13 Philadelphia batters in a row. Edward Achorn wrote: “Carpenter preserved the string with a phenomenal leaping catch of a line drive in the fourth inning, a play that made spectators in the pavilion leap to their feet and wave their hats.”8
Achorn extolled Carpenter’s physical abilities, but he was critical of what he termed Hick’s “mental lapses,” citing several examples. In a game on June 30 Carpenter came to the plate with one out and a runner on second base. He hit the ball sharply to the shortstop, who flipped it to second base for an out. It would be a double play unless Hick could beat the relay to first base. He didn’t even try. He stopped running, turned, and walked away. Why? He had lost track of the outs and thought the out at second base ended the inning. A Cincinnati newspaper charged, “It was pure carelessness, and inexcusable in any player. Such sloppy work is calculated to disgust spectators and demoralize a nine.”9
A few days later Carpenter tapped a ground ball down the first base line and waited to see if it would roll foul before heading toward first base. He was thrown out. The irate sportswriter said, “His only excuse was he thought the ball was going foul. A player has no right to think anything but that he had hit the ball and he is wanted quick at first base.”10
One other incident illustrates Carpenter’s occasional lack of good judgment. In October 1883 the Reds were to play an exhibition game in Dayton, Ohio. After changing into their uniforms in a third-floor room at their hotel, seven players plus a reporter and the elevator operator jammed themselves into an elevator. When the perennially late Carpenter arrived, he at first refused to join them, fearing the weight would be too much for the contraption. However, his teammates urged him to come aboard. The moment Carpenter stepped inside, the car “shot down like a meteor.”11 Carpenter grabbed the elevator cable, but let go after the flesh on his forefinger had been gashed to the bone. When the elevator hit bottom, the occupants suffered a few cuts and bruises, but there were no serious injuries.
One shouldn’t make too much of these so-called “mental lapses.” Hick Carpenter was smart, usually alert, and “with-it.” A baseball player cannot succeed at the highest levels on physical ability alone; it takes a certain amount of mental acuity. After all, as Yogi Berra allegedly said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”
There can be no doubt that Carpenter performed at a high level. Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette honored him with their Ex Post Facto Award as the American Association’s Most Valuable Player in 1882.12 Charles F. Faber named him the league’s best third baseman for 1882, 1883, and 1885, with his 1882 performance being the best ever recorded in the league’s history.13
Carpenter played with the Reds through the 1889 season. From 1890 through 1892 he played in the minors, with the Kansas City Blues of the Western Association in ’90 and ’91, and the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Western League in 1892. He made it back to the majors for one game in 1892, playing his final major league game on July 31 at the age of 36. In his farewell game his new team, the St. Louis Browns, lost to his former team, the Cincinnati Reds (now a National League club), 6-0. In four plate appearances, Carpenter drew one walk and hit a single, giving him a .333 batting average and an on-base percentage of .500 for the 1892 season.
Following retirement from baseball, Carpenter returned to Cincinnati. The 1890 census shows he was living in the Queen City with his wife, Jennie, and was a conductor on a railroad. He had married Jennie, an Ohio native, in 1885, when they were both 30 years old. They had no children. Jennie died of sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, on June 3, 1908. She was buried in Greenwood Memory Lane Cemetery in Phoenix, Arizona. Hick never remarried, living nearly 29 years as a widower. He entered into long-term employment with the United States Customs Service, working as inspector, deputy collector, and collector in several locations on the Mexican border. In 1900 he was stationed at Nogales in the Arizona Territory. In 1910 and 1920 he worked in El Paso, Texas, always living alone in a rooming house. In or about 1930 he retired and moved to San Diego, where he lived in a hotel the rest of his life.
In San Diego, Carpenter renewed his friendship with his old Cincinnati teammate, Bid McPhee. If Carpenter was the best-ever left-handed third baseman, McPhee was unquestionably the best fielding second baseman ever to play without a glove. By 1936 the two friends were still baseball fans and often attended San Diego Padres games in the Pacific Coast League. However, they were most often seen down by the waterfront with fishing rods in their hands.
Carpenter told a reporter that “I don’t suppose I would get far in modern baseball [as a left-handed third baseman] because the batters would bunt me to death.”14 He opined that moving the pitcher’s mound back to its present 60 feet 6 inches made fielding bunts much more difficult for third basemen.
Silver lifetime passes to major league parks were sent to both Carpenter and McPhee in 1936 by Ford Frick, president of the National League. Asked if they intended to use the passes, the old-timers said they hoped to get back to Cincinnati next year for a few games.15
Unfortunately, Carpenter never saw another baseball game in Cincinnati. Walter William “Hick” Carpenter died in San Diego on April 18, 1937, at the age of 81. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego.
In addition to those cited in the endnotes, the following sources were invaluable.
1 # David M. Harris, Pre-Madonna, June 2, 2011. Retrieved from www.strongverse.org.
2 Her name is spelled differently in various census reports, as Sylas, Syla, Cylas, and Tylee.
3 The Sporting News, December 17, 1936.
4 Jorge Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002, 7. The author misidentified the first names of both Americans.
5 Third base is called the hot corner because the third baseman is stationed relatively close to the batter and hard grounders or line drives are frequently hit in that direction. It has been written that the term was coined for Hick Carpenter. W. Lloyd Johnson, “Farewell to old-style ball,” Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century, SABR, 2013.
6 Edward Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey. New York: Public Affairs, 2013, 128.
7 Louisville Commercial, July 14, 1883. Cited by Achorn, ibid. The Jack Leary mentioned in the article was a notoriously poor hitter, who batted only.188 that year.
8 Ibid., 118.
9 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, July 1, 1883. Cited by Achorn, ibid., 123.
11 Ibid, , 248,
12 Peter Palmer and Gary Gillette, The Baseball Encyclopedia. New York, Barnes and Noble, 2004, 1666.
13 Charles F. Faber, Baseball Ratings: The All-Time Best Players at Each Position, 1876 to the Present.3rd. ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008., 127.
14 The Sporting News, op. cit.