This article was written by Brian McKenna
Curry Foley, one of 32 Irish-born major leaguers in the 19th century, pitched and played in the field for Boston and Buffalo of the National League from 1879 through 1883, when he was forced to retire because of rheumatism. His first two seasons on the mound were his best; in his last three, he seldom pitched. But he was a solid hitter, finished his major-league career with a .286 batting average, and was the first major leaguer to hit for the cycle. He was also one of the two pitchers in the major leagues’ first lefty-vs.-lefty match-up. And in a sort of reverse milestone, he was one of the first players victimized by the management-take-all rules of the day.
Rheumatism dramatically curtailed Foley’s career in 1883. Compounding his plight, the Buffalo club, believing he was faking and seeking a better deal, refused to play him or to release him so that he could earn a living at his craft. Under the reserve rule, he couldn’t take a job in organized baseball. John Montgomery Ward recognized the Foley case as one of management’s biggest abuses, and highlighted it in his arguments against the reserve clause. Ward formed the game’s first players union in an effort to protect his fellow ballplayers against any such abuses. It was too late for Foley; the rheumatism took hold and within a short time he was incapacitated both physically and financially. He died without a penny and for a long stretch resided in an asylum.
Charles Joseph Foley was born in Milltown, County Kerry, Ireland, near the famed Lakes of Killarney, on January 14, 1856, to Charles and Elizabeth (Betsy) Foley. His father was a farmer. Young Charles was the oldest of five children, four born in Ireland and one in the United States. (Of the five, only one, a daughter, survived to see the turn of the 20th century.) The family arrived in the U.S. on June 27, 1863, when Charles was 7. His father found work in Boston as a laborer.
By the time Foley reached his mid-teens he had made a name for himself in and around Boston for his pitching and hitting skills. In the mid-1870s he joined the amateur Boston Stars, a dominant local club. During Foley’s tenure, the Stars fielded future major leaguers Lew Brown, Red Woodhead, Sam Crane, Denny Sullivan, Al McKinnon, Jimmy Macullar, John Morrill, and Chub Sullivan. At the end of 1874, the Stars and the local Excelsiors decided to consolidate their nines. Foley was initially listed with the new club; however, unhappy with the situation, he and several teammates sought employment elsewhere.
So in 1875 Foley joined the Lowell, Massachusetts, club with Brown, McKinnon, and Morrill. Lowell, an independent club, played the strongest clubs throughout New England, including major-league squads. With the arrival of the three Stars players, Lowell clearly defined itself as a professional team. From 1875 to 1878, Foley, known as Curry, was the club’s regular pitcher, occasionally playing first base or the outfield when not on the mound. In four years, he won more than 150 games. He almost left Lowell for the major leagues in 1876. On August 21 of that year, the Boston Daily Advertiser reported that Foley had been signed and would join Harry Wright’s Boston Red Caps for the remainder of the season. The club was looking for a pitcher to replace Jack Manning, Foley’s former Lowell teammate and Boston’s substitute pitcher. The next day, the Advertiser wrote that Foley had reconsidered and would remain with Lowell. After the National League season, Foley joined a group of local stars, known as the All New England club, and barnstormed against the Red Caps.
In 1877, Lowell competed in the New England Association, a group of five independent clubs that played a 40-game league schedule. They also played exhibition games against National League squads. That season, Lowell won the New England Association pennant and bested National League clubs 11 games to 7, including four victories over the local Boston favorites. Lowell had discussions with National League officials about joining the league for the 1878 season, but decided against it, figuring the team could make more money fielding the top regional club.
In August 1877, a representative of Al Spalding of the Chicago White Stockings approached three of Lowell’s best players, Foley, Crane, and Denny Sullivan, trying to sign them for 1878. The trio turned him down. Then word reached Lowell on August 29 that Jack Manning, a Boston sports figure who had been named manager of the National League’s woeful Cincinnati Reds, was looking to sign Foley and Sullivan. Manning, whose team was coming to the area for a three-game series with the Red Caps, arrived on the 30th to talk to the pair but Lowell stole a march by signing them that morning for 1878 with a conditional clause for 1879 as well. Strong independent teams were major rivals of the infant National League, and Lowell had an extremely competitive squad and a strong barnstorming schedule. Lowell could afford to pay acceptable wages, so there was little incentive for its players to move to the National League.
In 1878, Lowell joined the 13-team International Association. The league, which operated from 1877 to 1880, is seen by some as the first minor league; however, its clear intention was to rival the National League as a major league. It was strong enough that two of its clubs, the Buffalo Bisons and Syracuse Stars, joined the National League in 1879. Foley collected his 150th victory on May 2, 1878, beating a soon-to-be familiar name, John Montgomery Ward, then of the professional Binghamton Crickets, who soon joined Providence of the National League. Foley also led the Lowell club in batting in 1876 and ’78. But Lowell disbanded at the end of 1878 for financial reasons.
In mid-December of 1878 the Boston Red Caps finally landed Foley, signing him for his heavy bat and as a substitute for pitcher Tommy Bond. He started 16 games in 1879; Bond started 64. On July 19, 1879, Foley took the mound opposite Cleveland pitcher Bobby Mitchell for the first match of left-handers in the National League. Foley lost, 8-2. Besides his 16 starts, Foley relieved in five games and finished the year with a 9-9 record. In December he was a member of the first professional team to barnstorm in Cuba. The trip, organized by Frank Bancroft, featured the Worcester team, which for the occasion was called the Hop Bitters because it was financed by Rochester businessman Asa Titus Soule of the Hop Bitters Manufacturing Co. Foley was added to the team at the last minute to replace Jim Mutrie as substitute pitcher, and was the only non-Worcester player invited. The trip was a flop, both financially and otherwise. Only a few games were played, in which the Americans dominated. The men made their way to Cuba, played the games, and returned within the month, a grueling trip in the 1870s.
Foley posted another .500 record, 14-14, for Boston in 1880. He started 28 games, spelling Bond again, and relieved in another eight. He also appeared in 35 games in the outfield and 25 at first base, batting .292, the second highest average among the team’s regulars. Because he possessed a strong arm, when Foley moved from the major-league pitcher’s box to an outfield position, it was generally right field. Soon after the 1880 season ended, he was transferred to the Buffalo roster, and played with that club through 1883. After 1880, Foley was pretty much done on the mound; from 1881 through the end of his major-league career in 1883, he pitched in only 12 games. In 1881 he played 55 games in the outfield, mostly in right, and 27 at first base. After hitting .315 and .292 for Boston in 1879 and 1880, Foley batted only .256 for Buffalo in 1881.
Before the 1882 season, Foley considered jumping the Buffalo club, negotiating with league rival Worcester, but wound up staying with Buffalo. On May 25, 1882, against Cleveland, Foley became the first major leaguer to hit for the cycle. His round-tripper that day was a grand slam that helped Buffalo rout Cleveland, 20-1. Foley played in right field in every one of Buffalo’s 84 games in 1882, and pitched only once. He batted .305, with 104 hits, and was arguably the best hitter on the club save the slugging Dan Brouthers. Foley always took his job seriously and was among the first to begin workouts after the beginning of each year. He sweated, trained, and practiced with other local players in Boston gyms. By mid-February the local newspapers invariably mentioned that Foley was in top condition for another championship campaign. But 1883 was different. The rheumatism began to debilitate him
The year started off well, with the Boston Globe noting on February 11 that Foley and Lew Brown were working out daily at the YMCA; however, by the end of April, Foley was placed on the sick list for a condition the Cleveland Herald called “chills and fever.” Manager Jim “Orator” O’Rourke believed the illness was a ploy by Foley, who had held out the previous year. Foley didn’t travel with the club when it opened the season in Cleveland on May 1. He appeared in his first game on May 5 in Buffalo and remained in the lineup through the homestand until the 19th. Foley relapsed and was granted a 20-day leave of absence. He returned home to the Boston area and was actually out for more than six weeks. He went back into the lineup on July in Detroit, his only road trip of the season. After two games in Detroit, the club returned to Buffalo, where Foley played through July 21. He was spent and once again removed himself from the lineup. O’Rourke still believed that Foley was merely malingering and bucking for a bigger payday. It didn’t help the manager’s temperament or outlook that teammate Doc Kennedy was complaining of a similar ailment.
Foley wasn’t malingering; he was suffering from the onset of rheumatism, an inflammation and degeneration of the joints. In fact, he would never be the same and eventually became unable to walk. Foley rejoined the Bisons when they returned home on September 4. He appeared in the lineup that day and the next, but that was it. Soon thereafter, the team departed on its final road trip of the season, expecting to have Foley rejoin the Bisons when they arrived in Boston on September 20. He never did, effectively ending his major-league career. Foley appeared in only 23 games in 1883. Within the rules of the time, Buffalo refused to pay him during his absences.
The National League published its reserve list at the end of the season, with Foley assigned to Buffalo. But the club had no intention of keeping him. Manager O’Rourke was probably behind this comment in the Sporting Life issue of September 24: “It is said that some of the Buffalos are playing poorly with the hope that they will not be put on the reserve list. This will give them a chance to accept outside offers at higher salaries.” The quote seemed directly aimed at Foley and perhaps underscored Buffalo’s motives in denying him a chance to pick up a paycheck in 1884. O’Rourke and team owner Josiah Jewett weren’t going to let a player feign illness, tank his performance, and then go on to greener pastures with a fatter paycheck elsewhere.
Foley was still not well at the beginning of the 1884 campaign. His medical bills were piling up and he had no income. The Buffalo newspapers were still unsure of his status for the season. Foley was unsigned, but many expected him to be back in camp to kick off the season. Rumors also placed Foley with Cincinnati in the upstart Union Association. In truth he was offered a contract by the club, perhaps for a tidy sum, but he didn’t want to ruin his standing with the National League. He feared the blacklist more than the benefits of a potential raise. When Foley didn’t show up for spring workouts, the newspapers suggested he was holding out. Sporting Life on April 2, 1884, flatly stated that Foley “is sulky … because he was refused $300 advance money.” The misinformation may have been planted by Buffalo management. Foley was clearly feeling the effects of the rheumatism; two days after the Sporting Life article, the Cleveland Herald reported that Foley’s baseball career was in all likelihood over.
At some point during the summer, Foley felt well enough to play, or perhaps he just forced himself since he needed cash. He was also offered a managerial role with Boston’s substitute squad. He approached Jewett and O’Rourke about rejoining the club. Buffalo passed. Foley then asked for his release so that he could find employment with any interested minor-league clubs. Jewett may have refused again, but in truth Foley wasn’t in condition to play. He sat idle the entire season, unable to financially support himself in his chosen field. His playing career was over. In all likelihood he wouldn’t have been able to play much in 1884 anyway, because the pain and immobility were setting in. By February 1887, Foley told a sports editor that he was “a man who could hardly walk from the effects of rheumatism.”
Foley’s health and financial problems continued to plague him for the rest of his life. In 1886 he finally landed a job in baseball, working briefly as an umpire in the International League. In July 1887, John Montgomery Ward, the union activist and founder of the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, in a letter to National League president Nick Young decrying the abuses of the reserve system, held up the Foley case as one of the most “shameful” of the owners’ abuses. Ward’s comments were also published in Lippincott’s Magazine and perhaps overemphasized Buffalo’s antagonistic stance for political reasons. Foley himself claimed to be a victim of the reserve clause, but never overtly blamed Buffalo for willfully standing in his way of continuing his career. He may have missed out on a time-sensitive offer to manage the Boston nine, but his playing days were done.
Foley worked part time through at least 1887 scouting for some clubs; however, by the end of the following year he was in dire straits financially and his friends were holding benefit games for him. Foley hung around the ballparks through 1891 writing a column for the weekly Sporting Times. He had always had a talent for prose and, as the Buffalo Commercial Advisor wrote in February 1883, he had the mindset as well: “Foley is known among the players as ‘Old Authority.’ When any of the boys get into a controversy about a baseball event within the past quarter of a century, they run to ‘Charley,’ state their case and abide by his decision. He has a most wonderful memory for happenings on the ball field and particularly of extraordinary incidents of games in which he participated. Let anybody test him if in doubt about what is stated.” Foley was often pointed and critical in his column, which prompted harsh rebukes from those within the game. He wrote an exposé in April 1890 that a recent biographer, Mike Roer, described as “an early Ball Four article.” That particular piece incensed Dick Johnston and Dan Brouthers, among others, both of whom complained that they had previously donated to help out the indigent ballplayer yet get blasted in print by the very man they tried to help.
Foley lived out the rest of his life in Boston and Lowell, destitute and fighting serious health issues. Sporting Life wrote in 1897 that he had been unable to walk for nine years, which would place the beginning of his incapacitation as about 1888. Friends were still remitting donations to Foley via the Boston Globe until his death. Foley continued to spiral downward and dropped out of sight by the end of 1891. Soon thereafter, he was moved to an asylum near Boston, where he resided until close to his death. On December 11, 1892, the Washington Post flatly stated, “Curry Foley … is hopelessly insane.” Whether this reference stems from his residence in an asylum or due to any actual mental illness is unknown. By 1898, he was living in a residence on Winchester Street in Boston. Foley died at home on October 20 that year at the age of 42 and was interred at Mount Calvary Cemetery in the Roslindale section of Boston. Foley’s funeral was heavily attended by his old baseball friends; the procession itself was over 60 carriages long.
Boston Daily Advertiser
Buffalo Commercial Advisor
Daily Inter Ocean, Chicago
Lowell Daily Citizen
New York Times
Roer, Mike. Orator O’Rourke: The Life of a Baseball Radical. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2005.
St. Louis Globe-Democrat