This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Eddie McFarland was one of the most talented catchers of his day but suffered badly from alcoholism, many years missing big chunks of playing time during the course of a season. Despite ultimately drinking himself out of the game, he still had a long career. He must have had a strong constitution, because he also lived a very long life.
With a professional baseball career spanning the years from 1893 with the Akron Spinners and the Cleveland Spiders to 1908 with the Boston Red Sox, catcher McFarland could probably have been a starting catcher on many teams at the time, but he clearly never realized his full potential. Cleveland was the city of his birth, on August 3, 1873.i His father, William, was a Canadian, born to parents from Scotland. William McFarland’s occupation at the time of the 1880 census was “shoe store” – perhaps he was the store’s proprietor, since by the time of the 1910 census he had retired and was living on his own income. William’s wife, Clarissa, was born in England. The couple had two children: Clara (later called “Effie”) and Edward, who was initially listed as Edwin in the 1880 census.
A right-hander, in 1893, he was 5-feet-10 and weighed 180 pounds. Of the 894 major-league games in which he appeared, 830 were as a catcher. He played 10 in the outfield, 5 at first base, 3 at third base, and 1 at second base. With Akron in 1893 the 18-year-old McFarland hit .396 in 111 at-bats, and in the National League with the Cleveland Spiders he hit .409 in 22 at-bats.
In 1894 McFarland played in Ban Johnson’s Western League for the Toledo White Stockings and enjoyed an exceptional year, batting .389 with a .661 slugging percentage built on 43 doubles, 25 triples, and 16 home runs. Toledo finished second behind Sioux City. He was drafted by Charles Comiskey for the 1895 Cincinnati team, but according to a note in McFarland’s Hall of Fame player file, the “Reds had too many catchers, so [Comiskey] sent him to Indianapolis” for the 1895 season.
McFarland had some power and early in the season he hit a home run said to have been the first ball ever hit out of the park over the north fence of the Indianapolis Hoosiers’ ballpark. At one point he played in 127 consecutive games.ii There was controversy regarding his status with the Western League team. He had been signed by Cincinnati, but, as Sporting Life explained, the Reds team “let him go, or ‘farmed’ him to Indianapolis. When Mr. Buckenberger let [outfielder Marty] Hogan go to the Hoosiers Watkins agreed to give St. Louis in return the choice of any player on the Indianapolis team. Very wisely Mr. Von der Ahe selected Mr. McFarland, who is a crack catcher, a great thrower arid a fine hitter. Now Brush bobs up with a claim on the man and has the nerve to reserve him. The St. Louis Club should make a hard fight for McFarland. He is a boy in years and exceedingly promising. When the St. Louis papers in reference to the Hogan deal were filled in full the League president admitted that he might have made a mistake in taking McFarland off of the St. Louis reserve list and placing him on the Cincinnati list. The Bancroft crowd have been very shrewd, but as Chris Von der Ahe was business-like enough to obtain letters from both Indianapolis and Cincinnati explaining in full the terms of the deal, which are veritable contracts, it looks now as though McFarland will play with St. Louis next season.”iii
The National League awarded McFarland to Cincinnati but he was quickly traded to St. Louis in a deal that might have been contemplated in the decision, or arranged sub rosa.
Von der Ahe of the St. Louis Browns asserted, “Cincinnati is justly entitled to McFarland, but I shall make the Indianapolis Club suffer dearly for the misrepresentations when the Hogan deal was made. Of course, many know that Brush has an interest in both clubs and some believe I was the victim of a bunco game arranged between Watkins and Brush, but I am satisfied that Watkins was the man who did not state the facts as he should have done. We will teach some of these minor league people who work impositions on us a thing or two that will make them somewhat shy of attempts to work us in the future.”iv
The actual late November trade saw Cincinnati send McFarland, three other players and some money to the Browns for two players. McFarland was reportedly thrown in “for good measure.”v
He was seen as a true prospect: “McFarland, the young Indianapolitan, gives promise of being a wonder, but it is very hard for a young catcher to come up from a minor league and, ignorant of the ways of coachers and tricks of base runners and batters, hold his own in his first year.”vi He held his own, playing in 83 games and hitting .241, though with a few errors more than desirable. He seems to have handled his pitchers well. Sporting Life said at the end of August: “As a catcher Eddie McFarland is a ‘peach.’ All pitchers look alike to him, as he catches them all with equal grace and facility.”vii He committed 16 errors (a .961 fielding percentage, not far from his .967 career percentage); he had a strong and accurate arm and led the league in catcher assists. After the season there was word that he might leave the game. His father had offered him an interest in his shoe business if he would give up baseball.viii
McFarland was described as “unquestionably one of the greatest catchers in the business.”ix He got off to a great start in 1897 and was hitting .327 for the Browns after his first 31 games. There were reports that the Boston Nationals’ manager, Frank Selee, was trying to secure McFarland, but he wound up in Philadelphia, traded on June 1 for Kid Carsey and Mike Grady. There needed some coming to terms between the catcher and his new ballclub, but matters were worked out. Then he suffered an injury that left his fellow receiver catching more innings and he was not in good health as the season ended. His batting average dropped a little over 100 points, to .223 during his 38 games with the Phillies, though he was productive in that he scored four more runs and drove in only one run less than in his time with the Browns.
By the time McFarland reported in the spring of 1898, he was in fine shape and showed well enough to earn first-string standing. Writer Francis C. Richter wrote in the July 9 Sporting Life, using an archaic phrase: “Out-of-town critics are just beginning to realize what a really great catcher Eddie McFarland is. Wherever the Phillies play McFarland comes in for the greatest meed of praise.” He was driving in runs and despite missing considerable time at the end of the season after having his fingernail torn off during a game in Louisville, finished the season with a career high in RBIs (71) and in runs scored (65). In 1899 he was the best-hitting catcher in the league, with a .333 average, though in 96 games due to a “split hand” he’d suffered in May.
In 1900 McFarland again led the league in catcher assists, as he had in 1896, despite playing in only 94 games. He hit for a .305 average.
McFarland was a target for acquisition by the American League when it began in 1901, particularly by the new team in town, the Philadelphia Athletics. He may even have signed briefly with Connie Mack’s new team. A news story in mid-March said, “Eddie McFarland may be turned back to the local National League club because of his reported dissatisfaction.”x He played again with the Phillies, in 74 games. When he did play, he was more or less as effective as before, hitting .285 and with a proportionate number of runs scored and runs batted in.
Working behind the plate was perilous in these earlier days of baseball, and it was a rare year that an injury didn’t cut deeply into McFarland’s playing time. In 1902 he made the jump to the American League, signing with the Chicago White Sox. There was a question as to whether he could play against the Athletics in Philadelphia when the White Sox came to town, with some fear that he might be subject to an injunction for contract-jumping if he showed up in Philadelphia. When Chicago made its first appearance in Philly, on June 3, both he and pitcher Wiley Piatt (who’d jumped from the Phillies to the Athletics a year earlier) were not with the team for fear that the Phillies’ owner, Col. John Rogers, would take legal action to snag the deserters.
McFarland appeared in 75 games for the White Sox in 1902 and his batting average plunged dramatically, to .228, and he fell off (though not nearly as much) in production. McFarland was already showing the first signs of “illness” (in retrospect, it is clear the illness was alcoholism). It didn’t get better and the August 22, 1903, Sporting Life wrote, “Catcher Eddie McFarland’s lack of condition since joining the White Stockings has proved to be chronic and finally resulted in sickness at the time when he was most needed. He will doubtless figure in some trade by which other departments can be strengthened.” A week later McFarland was suspended by the team for the remainder of the season.
It was only in early May 1904 that McFarland was re-signed by Chicago, after he made promises to White Sox manager Clark Griffith. He worked to get into shape and joined the team in late May or early June. Around September 10 he went off the rails again into another episode of “dissipation” and was unable to travel with the team for more than a week. Though he wired team owner Charles Comiskey and said he would rejoin the team, Comiskey replied tersely, “Don’t trouble yourself on my account. You are suspended without pay for the rest of the year.” Comiskey, who was in his third season of putting up with McFarland’s inability to adhere to team “training rules,” said that he would never catch another game for the White Sox.xi McFarland had hit only .209 in 1903, but had come back to hit .275 in 1904 –in only 50 games.
Comiskey was never known as a “softie,” but McFarland – when in condition – was a good catcher. There were other teams, among them the Detroit Tigers, who were interested in acquiring him, and Comiskey decided to give him one more try. Sporting Life reported, “It seems to be an accepted fact that Eddie McFarland will get another, and positively a final, chance with Comiskey in the spring. Let us hope that Mac has acquired some sense, and, even this late in his career, will be a good boy and leave the cheering cup alone. There are no better catchers, in a mechanical sense, than McFarland, nor is he at all shy on head and generalship, while his batting, when he behaves himself, is good.”xii This time McFarland responded, and was leading the league in hitting throughout most of May, battling with Willie Keeler for the lead into mid-June. He tailed off to .280 by the end of the 1905 season, in 80 games. Again, the very talented defensive catcher Billy Sullivan got more playing time, though Sullivan’s bat was more anemic than McFarland’s.
“No sympathy in baseball” – so said Comiskey, who had been approached in June 1906 by the manager of the Boston Americans, seeking to get McFarland in a trade. Boston manager Jimmy Collins was suffering through a miserable season (49 wins, 105 losses), and he wired Comiskey seeking to trade for McFarland. His first offer was pitcher Norwood Gibson. That was not accepted, and Boston released Gibson the following day. Collins asked Comiskey for a price on McFarland but was told – through the newspapers – that Comiskey wasn’t in the business of selling ballplayers. But McFarland hadn’t played for Chicago and didn’t until the very end of the 1906 season. There was a lot of cat-and-mouse back-and-forth in July and August, but in the end McFarland appeared in only 12 late-September and early-October games. He hit .174 in 23 at-bats.
In 1907 Cleveland started musing about acquiring the catcher, in the hope that playing before his hometown fans would prove a salutary influence on him. McFarland played with the White Sox again, getting into 52 games and hitting .283, but as September rolled around, he was not to be found. Sullivan was hurt, as he often seemed to be in September. Sporting Life observed, “McFarland, just as regularly, falls off the barouche. … Eddie has vanished, no one has seen or heard of him, and the team is deserted by him when his catching and batting would both be invaluable.” The publication added, “Eddie McFarland is through. He will never get another chance to dump the team. The boys are specially sore on account of what happened last season. Last fall Ed. was taken back and given a full share of the world’s championship money, even though he had worked but little during the year and did not catch a game of the great series. His last fall-down, therefore, was too much for patience, and Ed. can go his way.”xiii
Comiskey had had enough. On January 2, 1908, he traded McFarland to the Red Sox for catcher Al Shaw. It was hoped that a change of scene would do McFarland good, and he did begin training in good faith and in good health. It didn’t take long to become untracked, however. A notice datelined April 25 said: “Eddie McFarland has rejoined the Boston team and has promised to be good for balance of season.” The promise didn’t last long. He missed most of the first five weeks, and though he got into a number of games (19 in all, mostly in late May and in June), when the Red Sox arrived in New York in the final days of June, McFarland was suspended for failure to keep in condition. The suspension seemed not to have served as a sufficient “wake-up call.” The first day the Red Sox played after a seven-game road trip was July 7. That is the day McFarland received his unconditional release.
The Lynn Shoemakers of the Class B New England League thought about making a play for McFarland in August but decided it was not worthwhile. He had reached his end in Organized Baseball.
After baseball McFarland became, according to a nephew, a landlord. He apparently didn’t keep up with former teammates or others in baseball; National League President Ford Frick at one point issued an appeal to the public to locate a couple of dozen major leaguers – including McFarland – with whom the league had lost touch. In 1942, in the year he turned 69, McFarland married Zelda Palmer.
McFarland had to have had a strong constitution, since he lived to the age of 86. In November 1959 he suffered a fall that broke his pelvis, and after undergoing treatment at Cleveland’s Huron Road Hospital, McFarland died on November 28.xiv
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed McFarland’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i Although some sources have listed 1874, his birth record, death record, and military record all say 1873.
ii Sporting Life, April 20, 1895
iii Sporting Life, November 2, 1895
iv Sporting Life, November 30, 1895
v Sporting Life, November 30, 1895
vi Sporting Life, March 28, 1896
vii Sporting Life, August 28, 1896
viii Sporting Life, October 3, 1896
ix Sporting Life, January 9, 1897
x Sporting Life, March 16, 1901
xi Sporting Life, September 24, 1904
xii Sporting Life, February 18, 1905
xiii Sporting Life, September 21, 1907
xiv The Sporting News, December 16, 1959