With an obscure baseball pedigree, right-hander Elmer Horton was misperceived as a young pitching prospect when auditioned by the Pittsburgh Pirates late in the 1896 season. Unbeknownst to his employers, Horton had just celebrated his 30th birthday. Whatever his age, it quickly became obvious to Pittsburgh brass that the newcomer lacked the stuff needed for success at the game’s highest level, and he was jettisoned that winter. Ensuing tryouts with two other National League clubs were equally brief and unavailing.
Horton persisted, pitching for minor league, semipro, and town league ball clubs in upstate New York well into his 40s. He made his living, however, as owner-proprietor of summer resort hotels on Lake Oneida until a heart attack brought his life to an abrupt end in August 1920. To the extent that it has been uncovered, his story follows.
Ellis Elmer Horton was born on September 4, 1866, in Hamilton, Ohio, a rural county seat situated near the Indiana border. He was the fourth of five children born to local farmer Squire P. Horton (1835-1910) and his wife Rebecca Jane (née Kemp, 1842-1907).1 Elmer, as he was known, spent his formative years in the nearby hamlet of Reily, and was educated locally through the eighth grade.2 Little else was discovered about the early life of our subject, including when, where, and how he began playing baseball. There is, however, suggestion in the historical record that Horton had relocated to Oklahoma Territory by the time he reached early adulthood.
In April 1890, Horton surfaced in Colorado, pitching and occasionally playing right field for the Mays Base Ball Club in the amateur Denver City League.3 By this time, he had matured into a handsome, clean-shaven man of unremarkable proportions (5-foot-9; 157 pounds). Thereafter, Horton disappeared for a few seasons until reemerging as “Bud” Horton, manager and staff ace of the Port Gamble (Washington) nine, champions of an 1894 amateur Puget Sound circuit.4 That fall, he reportedly relocated to Los Angeles in anticipation of turning professional.5
In 1895, Horton belatedly entered Organized Baseball, signing with the Terre Haute (Indiana) Hottentots of the fledgling Class B Western Interstate League at 28 — an advanced age for a professional novice and one not likely disclosed by the new signee.6 That April, a relief appearance in a preseason game against the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Western League precipitated the first discovered newsprint comment on the signature feature of Horton’s hurling: a convoluted, seemingly spastic windup. “Horton has a peculiar manner of delivery,” observed the Indianapolis Journal. “He winds up like a spring and then by two or three jerks uncoils and lets the ball fly.”7 In little time, Horton’s singular pitching motion gave rise to the nickname by which he would thereafter be known: Herky Jerky. The late-May collapse of the Western Interstate League, however, momentarily placed exhibition of Horton’s twirling moves on pause.
He soon got another chance, signed by the Rockford (Illinois) Reds of the Class B Western Association.8 Despite being sidelined for several weeks by malarial fever, Herky Jerky posted a useful 13-15 record in the box and played ten more games in the outfield for fourth-place Rockford, becoming a local fan favorite in the process.9 Reserved by the Reds for 1896,10 Horton spent the offseason in Oklahoma, reconnecting with family and occasionally pitching for sagebrush semipro clubs.11 The following year, Horton’s work with Rockford and thereafter with the Albany (New York) Senators of the Class A Eastern League captured the attention of National League officials, including Pittsburgh Pirates manager Connie Mack. After personally working him out in mid-July, ex-catcher Mack pronounced the awkward-throwing hurler “all right.”12 Two months later and with the Pirates headed for a middle-of-the-pack finish in NL final standings, Mack decided to test Horton against big league competition.
On September 24, 1896, the 30-year-old made his major league debut, taking the ball in an away game start against the St. Louis Browns. Plagued by early inning jitters, Horton had trouble finding the strike zone and surrendered seven runs in the first two frames before settling down to go the distance in an 11-5 setback. Although his stat line — 13 base hits and five walks surrendered — was unimpressive, Pirates defensive lapses made five of the opposition runs unearned, and reviews in the hometown press were reasonably benign. “Horton did fairly effective work at times, and moved around the infield like a man who understood his business,” observed the Pittsburg Post. Also noted was the new pitcher’s “peculiar delivery. He winds his arms around his head, and when ready to pitch untangles them in a mysterious sort of way, letting the ball go with a jerk.”13 Against this convoluted delivery, the Browns “could not do much.” But when Horton had to use a more orthodox motion with runners on base, “he was hit hard.”14
Two days later, Horton encored in the final game of the season but the result was much the same: a seven-inning complete game loss to St. Louis, 7-3. In the post-mortem estimation of one Pittsburgh sportswriter, Horton “did better yesterday than in his first trial, but it is not a sure thing that he can hold his own in the league.”15 Despite some competent work during an ensuing barnstorming tour,16 club brass came to the same conclusion and dispatched Horton to Baltimore as a throw-in a multi-player November trade.17 Meanwhile, Horton was back in Rockford, offering his services as player-manager to those in charge of the Western Association club.18 But no agreement was reached. Although it had been “the dream of his life to get on the Baltimores,” Horton returned his contract unsigned to Orioles manager Ned Hanlon, as “he thought he was worth a little more money than was offered.”19 By mid-February 1897, however, Horton had come to terms with the club.20
As it turned out, Horton’s time with Baltimore was not a happy one. He pitched well enough during spring camp to make the club, showing “speed, a fast high ball, and a quick break to his curve ball.”21 But once the season started, manager Hanlon declined to use him. Instead, he proffered Horton as trade bait to minor league clubs after the Orioles were struck by a spate of player injuries.22 Finding no takers, Hanlon finally gave Horton an early-June start against the Cincinnati Reds. From the outset, the rusty hurler suffered control problems, walking the first two batters that he faced before being tagged for run-scoring base hits. With the Orioles down, 6-0, after three innings, Hanlon had seen enough of Horton and summoned Arlie Pond to the box. Moments later, threatening skies opened, producing a downpour that brought the contest to an end. Because the rainout occurred before the game became official, our subject’s lone regular season appearance for Baltimore was erased from the record book.23 But in the words of the Cincinnati Post, “while ‘Herky Jerky’ Horton escaped the charge of a defeat, he lingered long enough for the Reds to seal his doom” as a member of the Baltimore Orioles.24
Against the odds, Horton was not released immediately. Instead, he remained idle and discontented in Baltimore for almost the next two months until being “farmed out” to the Reading (Pennsylvania) Actives of the Class A Atlantic League in early August.25 There, he saw as much action at shortstop (six games) as he did in the box (six games) but did little to impress at either position, batting .174 and compiling a 1-4 pitching log. Still, Baltimore had suitors for Horton and sold his contract to the Syracuse Stars of the Eastern League in early September.26 Finding upstate New York much more to his liking, Horton promptly contributed two complete game victories and saved another Syracuse win during the stretch drive that captured the league championship for the Stars.
Curiously, Horton returned to the Orioles for a post-season cross-country exhibition game tour against an aggregation of National League stalwarts dubbed the All Americas. Pitching consistently effective ball against the likes of Jesse Burkett, Jimmy Collins, Bill Dahlen, and Patsy Tebeau, Horton revived his major league prospects. His unique pitching delivery, meanwhile, captivated the West Coast press. After he came on in relief of Joe Corbett, a Sacramento newspaper reported that “Baltimore put a youth named Horton in the box and his gyrations were wonderful. He twisted and squirmed like an eel on a skillet and tied himself into several kinds of knots to deliver the ball. But when he succeeded in turning it loose, it was all that even the warmest admirer of Jay Hughes could expect.”27
Horton’s success on tour did not go unnoticed. In December, he was selected in the minor league player draft by the National League’s Brooklyn Bridegrooms.28 But Horton’s stay with the club would prove even more frustrating than his tenure in Baltimore. Some four weeks after drafting Horton, Brooklyn manager Billy Barnie determined that his roster was overstuffed with pitchers. He therefore rescinded the selection of Horton and returned him to Syracuse.29 But spring training holdouts, sore arms, and second thoughts soon obliged Barnie to reacquire the pitcher.30 Operating under the illusion that the now-31-year-old Horton was a “youngster,” the Brooklyn Eagle approved the move, citing his “great speed, a good drop ball, and elegant control of both.”31 Despite often being relegated to center field during intra-squad games, a strong late-camp pitching performance against the Newark Colts of the Atlantic League cinched a regular season pitching berth for Horton. He would not keep it for long.
Given a starting assignment in the second game of the campaign, Horton “was pounded all over the lot” by the Philadelphia Phillies.32 He was raked for 16 base hits, surrendered six walks, and struck out none, but staggered through a 13-5 complete-game defeat. Notwithstanding that dismal performance, manager Barnie intended to match Horton against his former teammates in an upcoming away game in Baltimore. But on the evening before, “Horton and Ralph Miller, two of the young Brooklyn pitchers, … attended a French ball … and returned to the hotel in anything but a proper condition.”33 Waiting in the lobby was their infuriated manager, who promptly fined the revelers $25 apiece and then sent them back to Brooklyn.34 The escapade was seemingly out of character for Horton, a convivial man but not known as a problem drinker. Yet the banishment not only cost the pitcher a chance to show up erstwhile skipper Ned Hanlon, but also brought the major league career of Elmer Horton to an end.
The Horton stat line is a symphony of threes — three major league seasons; three major league teams;35 three game appearances; three starts; three strikeouts recorded, three complete games, and three losses. His other numbers are uglier: a 9.75 ERA in 24 innings pitched, with 38 base hits and 15 walks allowed. Nor did Horton help himself or his teams with the bat (.091 BA) or glove (.750 FA). Simply put, Elmer Horton, tried thrice and found wanting, was not a major league-caliber talent.
While Horton awaited his baseball fate, he got engaged to young Lois Cain, “one of Rockford’s fairest daughters.”36 But in time, Horton’s occupational difficulties — he lingered in professional limbo while Brooklyn decided what to do with him — bled into his private life, hampering the setting of the couple’s wedding date.37 Eventually, the two grew apart and went their separate ways. Finally, Horton was released by Brooklyn, and thereafter signed with the Eastern League’s Buffalo Bisons. He went 3-5 in eight pitching appearances there, including a bad early-July outing that cost him his job.38 Horton’s next stop was Rochester, where he arrived just in time to post a complete-game victory over Wilkes-Barre before the franchise relocated to Ottawa.39 When the 1898 dust settled, Horton ended his three-club Eastern League odyssey with a 10-17 (.370) record, overall.40
Although the fortunes of the pitcher (by then 33) had seemingly hit the downside, the 1899 season provided the statistical summit of Elmer Horton’s baseball career. Joining the EL’s Worcester Farmers, he went 20-14 with two shutouts, and posted professional bests in wins, winning percentage (.588), appearances (37), innings pitched (297), complete games (33), strikeouts (102), and WHIP (1.394). He was reserved by Worcester for the next season.41
The year 1900 proved a watershed for Horton, determining the course taken for the remainder of his days. The catalyst for this life change was a January marriage to Louise Cole Fiedler, a 36-year-old widow with a pre-teen son. The newlyweds promptly settled in the bride’s upstate New York hometown of North Bay, a small resort on Lake Oneida. That spring, Horton left the area for the final time in his ballplaying career to rejoin Worcester. But he could not replicate the previous campaign’s success. Horton’s pitching log tumbled to 13-19 (.406), and all his other numbers were down as well, save for a career-best (27-for-104) .260 batting average. After the season, Horton secured his release from Worcester and thereafter made both his baseball and business homes exclusively in the Empire State.42
Horton’s New York experiences included a brief return to the Syracuse Stars, where he escaped with only minor scrapes when an early June trolley car derailment left several teammates with serious injuries.43 He finished the season as pitcher-manager for the Ilion Typewriters of the Class C New York State League,44 and then announced that he was giving up the game to “devote all his time” to a new business venture: Horton’s Hotel, a lakefront tourist hostel in North Bay.45 But when the weather warmed in spring 1902, Horton was back in harness, eventually going 12-18 (.400) in 31 appearances for the Eastern League Rochester Bronchos.
The following year, Horton endeavored to keep his ballplaying from interfering with his business interests, accepting only a late-season post as pitcher-manager for the nearby Utica Pent-Ups of the NYS League (by then Class B).46 He returned to that position for the 1904 season but resigned in late July. Horton finished the campaign pitching for another NYS League club, the Amsterdam-Johnstown-Gloversville Hyphens.47 A brief tour of duty with the 1905 AJG club brought his time in Organized Baseball to a close. Horton retired to concentrate his attentions on his hotel and a café that he had opened in Utica.48
Despite the press of business, Horton kept his hand in the local baseball scene, playing, managing, and umpiring in the amateur Empire State League into his mid-40s. During winter months, he supplemented his income from the hotel trade by cutting and hauling ice from Lake Oneida.49 Seemingly in good health, Horton was stricken by a heart attack and died on the front lawn of his home in North Bay on August 12, 1920.50 Ellis Elmer “Herky Jerky” Horton was 53, and was survived by widow Louise, stepson John Fiedler, and his brothers Edward and Fillmore Horton.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and checked for accuracy be SABR’s fact-checking team..
Sources for the Biographical info recited above include the Elmer Horton file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; the Horton profile in David Nemec, The Rank and File of 19th Century Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012); US Census and Horton family data accessed via Ancestry.com, and certain of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Unless otherwise specified, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.
1 The other Horton children were Edward (born 1861), William (1864), Fillmore (1865), and Hattie (1872).
2 Per the 1870 and 1880 US Census.
3 As reported periodically in the (Denver) Rocky Mountain News, April 21 to September 29, 1890.
4 As reported in the Seattle Intelligencer, July 8 to September 21, 1894. See also, “In the Field of Sport,” Seattle Intelligencer, January 15, 1900: 7.
5 According to a recap of Horton’s career to date contained in “The Base Ball Pit,” Boston Herald, April 9, 1899: 34.
6 Per “Terre Haute Tips,” Sporting Life, April 13, 1895: 3. As was common practice, Horton shaved three years off his age, a subterfuge only discovered relatively recently as baseball encyclopedias through the seventh edition of Total Baseball (2001) listed Horton’s birth year as 1869, rather than the bona fide 1866.
7 Per “The Tail Holt Follows,” Indianapolis Journal, April 12, 1895: 4.
8 See “Food for the Fans,” Rockford (Illinois) Register-Gazette, May 29, 1895: 3. The Horton signing was also noted in the Rockford Morning Star, May 28, 1895: 4.
9 See the Rockford Register-Gazette, July 15, 1895: 3. A righty batter, Horton hit only .200 but scored 33 runs in 42 games for Rockford that season.
10 Per “Close of Baseball Season at Rockford,” Chicago Record, September 26, 1895: 2.
11 As reported in the Downs (Oklahoma) Democrat, October 18, 1895: 1; Kingfisher (Oklahoma) Free Press, December 12, 1895: 8; and elsewhere.
12 Per “Herky’s a Favorite,” Rockford Register-Gazette, July 22, 1896: 1, re-printing an item published in the Pittsburg Chronicle-Telegraph.
13 “Horton and the Browns,” Pittsburg Post, September 25, 1896: 6.
14 Same as above.
15 W.B. Locke, “It Is Over Now,” Pittsburg Press, September 27, 1896: 6.
16 Horton “put up a great game” in a 3-2 victory over a semipro club in Cambridge, Ohio. See “Pittsburg’s Luck Changed,” Pittsburg Press, October 3, 1896: 5.
17 The centerpiece of the transaction was Pittsburgh’s swap of outfielder Jake Stenzel for his opposite number with the Orioles, Steve Brodie. See “Good-By to Jakey Stenzel,” Pittsburg Press, November 11, 1896: 1. Stenzel and Horton had landed themselves in Pittsburgh club president William Kerr’s doghouse for getting arrested during the exhibition game tour in Zanesville, Ohio. The charges were contrived and the $7 fine initially imposed on Horton was later rescinded by a local court. See “Pirates’ Profits,” Pittsburg Press, October 9, 1896: 10, and “Pittsburg Points,” Sporting Life, October 17, 1896: 8. The extent, if any, that the incident had on Horton’s future in Pittsburgh can only be speculated upon.
18 See “City Brevities,” Rockford Register-Gazette, November 12, 1896: 6.
19 Rockford Register-Gazette, December 1, 1896: 7.
20 Per “Horton Comes to Terms,” Baltimore Sun, February 20, 1897: 6.
21 As subsequently reported in “The Reds Were Ahead,” Baltimore Sun, June 4, 1897: 6.
22 As reported in “Now Stenzel Is Sick,” Baltimore Sun, May 29, 1897: 6, and “Charges Crippled,” Sporting Life, June 5, 1897: 6.
23 See “The Reds Were Ahead,” Baltimore Sun, June 4, 1897: 6, and “How Cincinnati Lost,” Boston Advertiser, June 4, 1987: 8.
24 Per “New Pitcher,” Cincinnati Post, June 4, 1897: 4.
25 See “Horton to Be Farmed Out,” Baltimore Sun, August 6, 1897: 6. Horton expressed displeasure at the disposition that manager Hanlon had made of him, having worked hard but being given only “one meager chance” to show his stuff with the Orioles.
26 As reported in “Eagen Goes to Brooklyn,” Baltimore Sun, September 3, 1897: 6. Later, it was reported that Orioles boss Hanlon had given Horton his release after the pitcher objected to his sale to the Eastern League Toronto Maple Leafs. This allowed Horton to sign with Syracuse as a free agent. See “Hanlon and the Orioles,” Baltimore Sun, January 31, 1898: 6.
27 Per “Up Against a Hard Game,” Sacramento Record-Union, November 26, 1897: 5. Hometown Sacramento hero Jay Hughes was then on the cusp of National League stardom.
28 As noted in the Brooklyn Eagle, Brooklyn Standard Union, and newspapers nationwide, December 15-17, 1897.
29 See “Horton’s Draft Recalled,” Brooklyn Citizen, January 13, 1898: 14; “The Release of Horton,” Brooklyn Eagle, January 14, 1898: 5; “Comment on Sport,” Brooklyn Times Union, January 15, 1898: 9.
30 As reported in “Pitcher Horton Secured,” Brooklyn Eagle, March 1, 1898: 2.
32 Per the New Haven (Connecticut) Register, April 19, 1898: 11.
33 Per “Base Ball and French Balls Mix Badly,” Brooklyn Eagle, April 28, 1898: 5. The exact nature of the festivities attending a “French ball” was undiscovered by the writer, but the suspicion is that it involved a fair amount of drinking.
34 Same as above. See also, “Too Much French Ball,” Sporting Life, May 7, 1898: 5.
35 Including Horton’s 1897 season with the Baltimore Orioles in which his only regular season appearance was erased from the record book.
36 See “Lois Cain-Elmer Horton,” Rockford (Illinois) Republic, May 24, 1898: 5.
37 As related in the Rockford Register-Gazette, June 21, 1898: 7.
38 Per “Minor Mention,” Sporting Life, July 2, 1898: 4.
39 The Rochester Patriots morphed into the Ottawa Senators on July 13, 1898.
40 Per Eastern League stats published in Sporting Life, October 22, 1898: 6. Baseball-Reference provides no numbers for Horton’s stay with Rochester-Ottawa.
41 See “Eastern League Reserve List,” Sporting Life, September 30, 1899: 7.
42 See “Few Bits About Base Ball,” Utica (New York) Press, November 24, 1900: 3.
43 As reported in “Syracuse Players Injured in Trolley Car Accident,” Pawtucket (Rhode Island) Times, June 6, 1901: 2; “Trolley Car Wrecked,” Worcester Spy, June 6, 1901: 1; and elsewhere.
44 Per the Oswego (New York) Times, June 22, 1901: 7.
45 According to “Herky Says He Is All In as a Ball Player,” Worcester Spy, September 1, 1901: 2.
46 As reported by the Utica (New York) Herald-Dispatch, August 22, 1903: 3.
47 Horton’s signing with AJG was noted in the Utica Herald-Dispatch, August 13, 1904: 4.
48 Per “League Loses Veteran,” Utica Herald-Dispatch, July 17, 1905: 6. In time, Horton would operate several other lakefront inns.
49 As highlighted in “Veteran Ball Player Now Lives on Shore of Oneida Lake,” a front-page feature on E. Elmer Horton published in the Utica Sunday Tribune, January 29, 1911: 1.
50 Horton’s passing was reported in “Sudden Death of Elmer E. Horton,” Rome (New York) Sentinel, August 12, 1920: 6; “E. Elmer Horton, Old-Time Pitcher, Dies at North Bay,” Syracuse Journal, August 13, 1920: 6; and elsewhere. The place of deceased’s interment was not published.