After tossing a complete-game victory in a one-game tryout with the Chicago Cubs in 1913, Doc Watson’s ticket was stamped for the minors again in 1914. But instead of returning to the small stage, Watson violated his reserve clause and jumped to the “outlaw” Federal League, where he pitched for both the Chicago Chi-Feds/Whalers and St. Louis Terriers during the circuit’s two-year existence.
Charles “Doc” Watson was born on January 30, 1885, in Carroll County, in a rural stretch of farmland about 90 miles southeast of Cleveland. His parents were John J. and Artea (Wathey) Watson, native-born Ohioans, who married at the age of 17 around 1879 and welcomed four children into the world between 1883 and 1899: Nellie, Charles, Edith, and the youngest, James. The family eventually relocated to Toledo in the northwest corner of the state, where father John held several blue-collar jobs, including as a machinist, boilermaker, and road paver. The younger Charles completed eight years of formal schooling and then began working to support the family.
Little is known about Watson’s genesis as a baseball player. Above average in height, the 6-foot, 170-pound southpaw got his start in the game on the sandlots of Toledo, a rapidly-growing industrial and port city situated on Lake Erie. By 1908, the 23-year-old Watson had begun his professional career with the La Crosse Pinks in the Class-D Wisconsin-Illinois League. The following season Watson was back with La Crosse, which had become a charter member of the six-team Class-C Minnesota-Wisconsin League. After he posted a 10-11 record, Watson’s future with the club was in doubt when he accidentally shot himself in the right arm while hunting near his home in Toledo. Sporting Life reported that “surgeons may not be able to save the injured limb from amputation.”1 Watson kept his right arm and then rode his left wing to a 21-12 slate in 1910 for a below-average La Crosse squad (56-68) that finished in fifth place in the then eight-team circuit.
Described as the “best southpaw pitcher in the Minny League,” Watson seemed ready to make the jump to the majors late in the 1911 season.2 His 19-inning complete-game victory in early August galvanized Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey to travel to La Crosse with a seven-person scouting team to examine the much ballyhooed hurler.3 Sportswriter F.W. De Guire noted that “Watson will doubtless be sold to one of the Chicago clubs as both presidents are anxious to secure the young star,” given that La Crosse had recently rejected an offer from the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association.4
Watson’s ticket to the Windy City was put on hold when La Crosse could not make a deal with either Chicago club, and then the league disbanded after the season. Skipper Joe Killian of the Oshkosh Indians in the Class-C Wisconsin-Illinois League purchased his contract.5 In late August Watson was sold to the Milwaukee Brewers of the Double-A American Association, where he played for skipper (and future Hall of Famer) Hugh Duffy. According to The Day Book in Chicago, the White Sox had not yet given up their quest to acquire the hurler and selected him from Oshkosh in the minor-league draft; however, the club was not aware that he had already been sold to Milwaukee, and the selection was nullified.6 That newspaper also reported that the Cubs attempted unsuccessfully to purchase Watson from the Brewers at the minor-league meetings held in Milwaukee in the offseason.
Around 1913 newspaper reports began referring to Watson as “Doc,” in addition to Charles or Charley. The origin of the moniker is unclear. Watson’s accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound and subsequent operation may have given rise to it; in any case, it made for good copy. According to another hypothesis, the sobriquet might have derived from Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s trusted companion, from the stories that were popular at the time.
Watson struggled with the Brewers in 1913, posting a 5-3 slate with a 5.82 ERA in 77⅓ innings, prompting his transfer in early August to the Fond du Lac Molls of the Wisconsin-Illinois League along with cash in exchange for Happy Felsch, a highly acclaimed center fielder.7 League President F.W. Weeks argued that the transaction violated the circuit’s policy prohibiting the use of players from higher leagues after July 15.8 The Fond du Lac club appealed to baseball’s National Commission, which upheld the trade.9
Watson’s stint with the Molls was brief. On August 19 he was sold to the Chicago Cubs. Watson reported to the west side of the Windy City and Cubs skipper Johnny Evers on August 31 upon the club’s return following an 18-game road swing. (The Cubs played their games at West Side Park, which was located on what is now the University of Illinois at Chicago on the city’s Near West Side.) “[Watson] displayed swell curves and speed in the practice game,” gushed sportswriter Sam Weller in the Tribune.10 On September 3, Watson made his big-league debut, tossing a complete game to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-2, in front of a sparse crowd of 667 spectators at Robison Field.11 “(Watson) showed a fair article of goods,” gushed The Day Book about his eight hits, six walks, and one earned run. “He was affected by wildness, a natural defect in the work of a young lefthander.”12 Weller lauded Watson’s “splendid speed” and noted that “he got all the glory if there is any glory in beating the Cardinals.”13 Despite the Tribune’s praise, Watson did not pitch again as the Cubs finished in third place.
In the offseason, Watson was returned to Fond du Lac, the Tribune reporting that “his work did not impress Manager Evers.”14 Instead of reporting to a Class-C league, the 29-year-old hurler jumped his contract and signed with the Chicago Chi-Feds of the upstart Federal League, which was set to play its first season in 1914 and challenge the NL and AL as a third major league. The Federal League did not abide by the National Agreement and was thus considered an “outlaw” league, which raided other leagues’ rosters and enticed players to violate their reserve clauses and sign with the Feds. Watson joined skipper Joe Tinker’s club for spring training in Gulfport, Mississippi, and earned a spot on a staff that featured Claude Hendrix, a former Pittsburgh Pirate who had won 24 games two years earlier, and would lead the Federal League with 29 wins and a 1.69 ERA in 1914.
Watson debuted for the Chi-Feds, who were also known as the Whales, on April 19, hurling 8⅔ innings of relief against the Kansas City Packers at Gordon and Koppel Field, yielding just three hits and a run, but suffering a heartbreaking loss in the 15th inning. He rebounded with two complete-game victories in his next two starts, and finished May by “shooting powerful southpaw ‘stuff,’” according to the Tribune, to blank the Indianapolis Hoosiers, 1-0, on six hits while striking out seven in the Chi-Feds’ brand-new state-of-the art steel-and concrete ballpark, Weeghman Field, located at the intersection of Clark and Addison Streets on the city’s north side.15 Propelled by the league’s stingiest pitching staff (with a league-low 2.44 team ERA), the Chi-Feds heated up in late June and challenged the Hoosiers for first place. On July 7 Watson spun a five-hit shutout against the Packers to give his club a two-game lead in the eight-team league. Six days later, Watson tossed his second straight whitewashing, holding the St. Louis Terriers to four hits in a 6-0 victory in the first game of a twin bill at Weeghman Park. The Chi-Feds were an average offensive club (finishing fifth in scoring) and scored only two total runs in Watson’s three starts from July 31 to August 12, resulting in three losses despite the left-hander’s yielding just five runs. “Watson’s tireless jinx was on the job,” lamented Sam Weller about the final of those defeats, a 2-1 affair to the Pittsburgh Rebels in Chicago, to drop Watson’s slate to 9-11 despite a 2.00 ERA.16
Watson made only one more appearance for the Chi-Feds before Tinker jettisoned him from the club at the beginning of September. Newspapers reported that Watson was released to the Terriers; the St. Louis Star and Times referred to it as a “loan,” raising questions about Watson’s status in the offseason.17 Quickly emerging as the Terriers’ best hurler, Watson debuted for the eventual last-place club in the second game of a doubleheader on September 4 and hurled a complete-game seven-hitter to beat the Packers, 2-1, at Handlan’s Park, located on the city’s Near West Side (and on what is now part of Saint Louis University). Six days later, Watson shut out the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, yielding what the Star and Times called only two scratch hits, though he walked five, in a 1-0 win. On October 4 Watson exacted revenge against his former teammates in a soul-crushing three-hit shutout, his fifth of the season, 1-0, in Weeghman Park. “[Watson] had the satisfaction of handing the Tinx a licking that may have cost them the pennant,” wrote Weller in the Tribune.18 The Chi-Feds’ loss and the Hoosiers’ doubleheader sweep of the Packers put the clubs in a virtual tie for first (Chicago officially led by a half-game, having played one more game); however, the Chi-Feds lost two of their next four to finish in second place.
Watson finished the season with a 12-12 slate and the Federal League’s third lowest ERA (2.01) in 228 innings, while starting 25 of 35 games. Despite his being the Terriers’ best hurler in September, skipper Fielder Jones was apparently displeased with him and returned him to the Chi-Feds. According to a report in Sporting Life, the Chi-Feds refused to take the hurler, who had been originally signed to a two-year contract.19 League President James L. Gilmore ultimately decided that he was the property of the Terriers.
The Terriers conducted spring training in Havana in 1915 while the future of the league seemed precarious. In addition to bleeding cash, the league faced a lawsuit from the AL and NL which Federal Court Judge Kenesaw Landis permitted to languish. Skipper Jones had assembled what proved to be one of the most durable pitching staffs in recent memory. It featured a quartet of hurlers who combined to start 136 games and hurl 1,182⅔ innings (82.9 percent of the team’s total): Dave Davenport (22-18), Doc Crandall (21-15), Eddie Plank (21-11), and Bob Groom (11-11). Watson was assigned to the role of long reliever and emergency starter. Watson lost three consecutive early-season starts (yielding 10 runs and walking 16 batters in 21 innings) while subbing for 39-year-old future Hall of Famer Plank, and fell out of Fielder’s favor. After pitching just 10⅓ innings in the previous six weeks, Watson emerged from his prolonged slumber on June 22 in a “heroic dash to the front,” noted St. Louis sportswriter Dent McSkimming, to hurl 7⅓ innings of two-hit scoreless relief to lead the Terriers to a 2-1 victory over the Tip Tops in Brooklyn’s Washington Park.20 With Plank suffering from ptomaine poisoning, according to the Star and Times, Fielder surprised everyone, including his own team, when he sent Watson back to the mound to start the next day against the Tip-Tops. Watson hurled a four-hitter to win 2-1 (the run was unearned) to give the Terriers their 12th consecutive victory and push the team into a first-place tie with the Packers. McSkimming praised Watson’s two-day, two-game performance as “remarkable,” suggesting that it was more impressive than if he had pitched one long complete game, and then added the rhetorical question: “It bears the semblance of over-work, does it not?”21 Watson’s next chance to start regularly occurred in September, a dizzying month in the Federal League with five teams (Rebels, Terriers, Whales, Packers, and Newark Peppers) vying for the flag. He replaced an ineffective (and worn-out) Groom and started six times while the Terriers finished the season on a whopping 30-game homestand. Four of those starts came within a seven-day stretch (September 15-21). It began with a complete-game, four-hit, 3-2 victory over the Tip-Tops on September 15 to move the Terriers to within two games of the lead. Three days later, Watson started both games of a twin-bill sweep against the Tip-Tops, but received two no-decisions. His final start, which also proved to be his final game in the major leagues, was a complete-game 5-2 victory over the Baltimore Terrapins. With his club trailing the league-leading Rebels by four games, Fielder started Davenport, Crandall, and Plank in the final 12 games of the season. The Terriers won the most games in the league (87-67), but were declared runners-up to the Whales (86-66), whose .566 winning percentage was .001 higher. Watson (9-9, 3.98 ERA) made 33 appearances, including 20 starts, and logged 135⅔ innings.
The offseason was a tumultuous one for baseball, and especially for the Federal League. As SABR member Bob Ruzzo explained in his essay “Fate and the Federal League: Were the Federals Incompetent, Outmaneuvered, or Just Unlucky?,” Organized Baseball and the Federal League reached a peace settlement to end the financial instability that had rocked all three leagues the previous two years with skyrocketing salaries set against the backdrop of a struggling national economy.22 The Federal League was disbanded and its players sold; however, Terriers owner Phil Ball was permitted to purchase the financially strapped St. Louis Browns and combine the rosters of both teams; and Whales owner Charles Weeghman purchased the Cubs, also merging the rosters of the two teams, and moved the Cubs to his jewel at the intersection of Clark and Addison, Weeghman Field, later known as Wrigley Field.
After the merger of the Terriers and Browns squads, St. Louis sportswriters predicted that Watson would be one of the pitchers jettisoned from the team. Browns GM Branch Rickey put the 31-year-old on waivers and after no takers emerged, assigned him to Sioux City in the Class-A Western League. Over the next few seasons Watson bounced around with several teams in Organized Baseball and in semipro leagues, but never stayed long in one place. When Sioux City returned Watson to the Browns after a few starts and he was subsequently assigned to Bloomington in the Class-B Three-I League. He was sent back to the Browns again, this time for violating team “rules” (a common euphemism at the time for drinking), and later that summer pitched semipro ball in Wisconsin.23 Watson seems to have often been confused with another pitcher named Charles “Chink” Watson, a southpaw from Trinity University in San Antonio, who joined the staff of the Houston Buffalos in 1916.24
In two complete seasons in the Federal League, plus a game with the Cubs in 1913, Watson posted a 22-21 lifetime record with a robust 2.70 ERA in 372⅔ innings.
After his baseball career, Watson returned to Toledo, where he had lived in the offseasons with his parents. According to the 1920 US Census, he was employed as a boilermaker in an oil refinery. Watson never married and by 1935 had relocated to San Diego, where his brother, James, lived, and was employed as an ironworker.
On December 30, 1949, Doc Watson died at the age of 64 in San Diego. The cause of death was sclerosis, according to his death certificate. His body was cremated at the Greenwood Crematory.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also accessed Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com, SABR.org, The Sporting News archive via Paper of Record, the player’s Hall of Fame file, newspapers via Newspapers.com, and Ancestry.com.
1 “Wisconsin-Illinois League Notes,” Sporting Life, January 29, 1910: 9; “‘Minn’ League Prepares Plans for 1910 Season,” Minneapolis Tribune, December 9, 1909: 44.
2 “Oshkosh Team Is Being Strengthened,” Green Bay Gazette, February 9, 1912: 9.
3 “Comiskey at La Crosse,” The Journal Times (Racine, Wisconsin), August 4, 1911: 2.
4 F.W. De Guire, “Big Battle for Leadership Comes in the Minny League This Week,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 13, 1911: 31.
5 “La Crosse Stars Signed by Oshkosh Management,” Wisconsin State Journal (Madison), January 27, 1912: 9.
6 “Boxing — All the Latest Dope — Baseball,” The Day Book (Chicago), August 19, 1913: 21.
7 “‘Happy’ Felsch to the AA Leaders,” Fond du Lac Commonwealth Reporter, August 7, 1913: 7.
8 “Cannot Use Watson,” Oshkosh Northwestern, August 9, 1913: 12.
9 Sporting Life, August 30, 1913: 23.
10 Sam Weller, “Sam Wellerisms,” Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1913: 9.
11 Recruit Watson of Cubs Beats Cardinals, 7-2,” Inter Ocean (Chicago), September 4, 1913: 13.
12 “Boxing — All the Latest Dope — Baseball,” The Day Book, September 4, 1913: 10.
13 Sam Weller, “Cubs Pound Cardinals in Good-Bye Clash; Watson on Mound,” Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1913: 10.
14 “Watson Returned to Minors,” Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1914: 14.
15 Sam Weller, “One Run Decides Duel of Twirlers And Chifeds Win,” Chicago Tribune, June 1, 1914: 13.
16 Sam Weller, “Jinx Beats Chifeds, 2 To 1,” Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1914: 15.
17 “Charley Johnson of Federalists Holds Brooks To 2 Hits,” St. Louis Star and Times, September 11, 1914: 10.
18 Sam Weller, “Defeat of Tinx Gives Hoosiers Pennant Chance,” Chicago Tribune, October 5, 1914: 17.
19 “Federalists Angry Over the Actions of Players,” Sporting Life, March 13, 1915: 8.
20 Dent McSkimming,” Baltimore Is Next Victim Joe’s Feds Will Face,” St. Louis Star and Times, June 23, 1915: 8.
21 Dent McSkimming, “Jones Is at Tricks Which Won Him a Flag with Old Sox,” St. Louis Star and Times, June 24, 1915: 10.
22 Bob Ruzzo, “Fate and the Federal League: Were the Federals Incompetent, Outmaneuvered, or Just Unlucky?” Baseball Research Journal 2013. https://sabr.org/research/fate-and-federal-league-were-federals-incompetent-outmaneuvered-or-just-unlucky.
23 Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), August 4, 1916: 10; Iron County Miner (Hurley, Wisconsin), September 8, 1916: 5.
24 “College Star to Join Buffaloes,” Houston Post, April 5, 1916: 3.