The major league baseball record book entry for pitcher Ernie Hickman consists of a two-month tour of duty with a lousy ballclub in the short-lived Union Association. Yet Hickman’s life and career are not without interest. In June 1884, he posted the first victory ever recorded for a big-league team that called Kansas City home; he thereafter led the club in several pitching categories. Some seven years later, Hickman achieved a distinction of a different sort. He ended his life ignominiously, fatally shooting his wife before taking his own life. This grim deed made Ernie Hickman the first major league player to have perpetrated a murder-suicide.
Hickman’s stay with the Kansas City Cowboys is well documented, and a small waterfall of newsprint attended his demise. But apart from that, time has largely erased the memory of Ernie Hickman. The little biographical data about him that survive do not include his ethnic heritage, middle name, birth date, siblings, or level of education. Nor is a photograph, ink drawing, or other likeness of Hickman known to exist. His baseball career is similarly shrouded. Among other things, it is unknown when, where, or how Hickman first became involved in the game. Nor has much been uncovered about his playing days prior to the 1884 season. More unknowns are Hickman’s height and weight, along with the side from which he batted and threw, although the presumption is that he was right-handed.1 Still, the historical record is not completely silent on our subject. From the shards of documentary and vintage newspaper evidence that remain, the following far-from-complete profile of Ernie Hickman has been crafted.
Ernest P. Hickman was born on an undiscovered date in 18562 in East St. Louis, Illinois, then a sparsely populated working-class enclave located across the Mississippi River from the bustling city of St. Louis, Missouri. He was the son of J.H. Hickman and his wife Mary, both natives of New York. During Ernie’s youth, the exploding population and burgeoning economy of St. Louis spilled across the river to East St. Louis. In 1873, the National City Stockyards Company commenced construction of the slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilities that soon led to East St. Louis being dubbed the Hog Capital of the Nation. Ernie’s father was a National City “commission man.”3 Thus, it is unlikely that his beginnings were as hardscrabble as those typical of 19th century professional ballplayers.
In 1879, Hickman married the ill-fated Anna Varley, like himself an East St. Louis native. From all outward appearances, their childless 12-year union was a congenial one, making the events that brought their lives to an end even more perplexing. The US Census of the following year indicates that Hickman was living and working as a clerk in St. Louis, a post-Civil War hotbed of baseball and home of a National Association team by 1875. St. Louis also hosted thriving amateur and semipro baseball leagues. Again presumably, Hickman was exposed to the game while residing in St. Louis, if he had not been earlier, and began his playing days there.
Originally an outfielder, Hickman is reported to have played for a semipro club in Vincennes, Indiana; in 1883 he was a member of the unaffiliated Nationals of East St. Louis.4 Thereafter, his whereabouts become easier to trace. In December 1883, he and Nationals teammate Johnny Ward were signed to contracts by the St. Louis Browns of the major league American Association. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch applauded the acquisitions, especially that of the defensively versatile Ward. The Browns’ engagement of Hickman, “a good general player and a good outfielder,” was also viewed favorably.5
Like a host of other marginal talents, Hickman was the beneficiary of an expansive phase in big league history. Following the 1882 season, the newly arrived American Association, the more established National League, and the minor Northwestern League reached accord on a compact that established some order in baseball. Perhaps the foremost provision of the National (or Tripartite) Agreement was the one mandating mutual respect of player contracts held by member organizations. After a season of relative peace and stability in 1883, the new establishment was threatened by the arrival on scene of a rogue competitor with major league aspirations, the Union Association. Not a party to the National Agreement, the UA had no compunction about signing players claimed by other baseball organizations.
In response, the establishment devised various strategies to stymie UA access to players. One adopted by certain NL and AA clubs involved signing excess playing talent and then consigning these spare players to newly formed reserve teams, thereby depriving the Union Association of the chance to acquire them. Hickman was one of the surplus players signed by St. Louis Browns boss Chris Von der Ahe.6 He might not have figured in Von der Ahe’s plans for the big club, but Hickman was likely to become a useful member of the Browns’ reserve nine. And his signing made one fewer player available to the UA.
During spring training, Hickman played center field for the reserves in intrasquad games against the Browns varsity. His “veteran work at center” drew favorable notice in the local press.7 He also played center when the St. Louis Reserves squared off against other American Association backup squads, including a 4-3 loss to the Allegheny (Pittsburgh) Reserves on May 24. Meanwhile, the fledgling Union Association was having franchise problems. First to abandon the fold was the Altoona (Pennsylvania) Mountain City club, playing poorly (6-19, .240) in the field and not drawing at the turnstiles. The franchise disbanded on May 31. Assuming Altoona’s place in UA ranks were the Kansas City Cowboys, a newly minted ball club and the first major league team to be based in Kansas City.8 Because the new club was joining a circuit which was not bound by the National Agreement, Kansas City management was at liberty to poach players under contract to National League and American Association clubs. One of the first of those gathered was Ernie Hickman, recruited as a “change [or relief] pitcher.”9
With Hickman in the pitcher’s box, the Kansas City Cowboys made their UA debut with a home game at Athletic Park against the Chicago Unions on June 7, 1884. “The pitching of Hickman was very effective,” declared the Kansas City Times.10 He limited Chicago to only five hits over 12 innings but was undone by atrocious defensive work (13 Kansas City errors) and dropped a 6-5 decision. The Cowboys lost their next three contests to Chicago before Hickman notched their maiden victory with a five-hit, 8-4 complete-game win on June 14.11 In the interim, he had been pronounced “the best pitcher yet tried” by the club.12 His hurling assets included a peculiar hopping delivery, and he had the “curve down fine,” said the Times.13
Hickman authored his major league masterpiece on June 24, holding the Washington Nationals to two hits while striking out five on the way to a 2-1 victory. In a rematch three days later, he beat Washington again, 8-7.14 The win elevated Kansas City’s record to 3-7 (.300), with all three triumphs registered by Hickman. From there, both he and the club went into a tailspin. At the end of July, the Cowboys’ record stood at a dismal 4-28.15 The club’s fourth victory had also come courtesy of Hickman, over Chicago on July 22. By then, there was dissension in the ranks, with Hickman threatening to leave Kansas City for a rumored engagement with a National League team.16 But he remained with the Cowboys through the end of the month, seeing his final game action in center field during an 8-8 tie with the UA powerhouse St. Louis Maroons on July 30. Thereafter, the name Hickman disappeared from Kansas City box scores.
In a thumbnail profile of Hickman, David Nemec (scholar of 19th-century baseball) states that Hickman was fired by Cowboys manager Ted Kennedy in early August.17 No cause for Hickman’s discharge is cited. By the time that he was let go, Kansas City’s record had plummeted to 4-31 (.115). Other staff members had combined for 18 losses without a single victory.
The termination brought Hickman’s brief turn as a major leaguer to a close. In 17 outings, he had gone 4-13 (.235), with a 4.52 ERA in 137 1/3 innings pitched. He struck out 68, while walking 36 and throwing 27 wild pitches. Enemy batsmen posted a healthy .287 batting average against Hickman, but he had also been undermined by a porous Kansas City defense – over half the runs that Hickman surrendered were unearned. He himself had been no jewel in the field, chipping in 15 errors in 21 games, total. And he did his cause little good with the bat, posting a tepid .167 average, with only one extra-base hit in 72 at-bats. Still, when the final numbers for the 16-63-3 Kansas City club were tallied, Hickman led the 24 pitchers whom the Cowboys had utilized during the 1884 season in starts (17), complete games (15), and innings pitched, and he tied Bob Black in victories (4).
In 1885, Hickman resurfaced close to home, pitching for the independent Belleville (Illinois) Nationals. But following a loss in late July to the St. Louis Reds, he and a batterymate named Daly were “given the grand bounce” by Belleville management.18 Hickman did not remain idle long, joining an unaffiliated club in St. Joseph, Missouri, in mid-August.19 Although he did some pitching there, he soon settled in as “a fabulous shortstop” for the St. Joe Red Stockings.20
St. Joseph fielded a club when the minor Western League was revived for the 1886 season, but Hickman did not return to the Reds. Rather, when the WL-rival Lincoln (Nebraska) Tree Planters were reorganized in early July, Hickman was part of the new blood infused into the franchise – notwithstanding that he was about 30. Indeed, upon signing, he became the oldest player on the Lincoln roster.21 As in St. Joseph, he spent more time at field positions than in the pitcher’s box, with his defensive play in the outfield again drawing press plaudits. “Hickman in center field made the catch of the game,” declared a Denver newspaper in reporting on a Denver Mountain Lions win over Lincoln in mid-July. “[George] Tebeau knocked a ball to center for what seemed a certain hit, but by hard running Hickman caught it and is entitled to great credit.”22
Hickman lasted about a month in Lincoln. By the end of July 1886, he was gone, his whereabouts for the next several years uncertain. In all probability, however, he was the Ernest Hickman periodically mentioned in newspaper coverage of events occurring in and around East St. Louis. In March 1888, one Ernest Hickman was accused of impersonating a police officer.23 More certainly, several months later, “Ernest Hickman, late of the Belleville Nationals and Mr. Fred Heim, both of East St. Louis,” were reported visiting friends in nearby Belleville, Illinois.24 And given his father’s local prominence, our subject may well have been the Ernest Hickman appointed an East St. Louis delegate to a September 1890 St. Clair (Illinois) County Democratic Party convention.25 Hickman also became a member of Eureka Lodge No. 50, Order of Chosen Friends.26
During his post-baseball years, St. Louis area city directories sometimes listed Hickman’s occupation as salesman.27 By late 1891, he had no steady employment but “was recently engaged in the office of his father J.H. Hickman” at the National City stockyards.28 At the time, Ernie was living with his wife in the Varley residence in East St. Louis. That April, the widowed Mrs. M.J. Varley died suddenly.29 As a result, Ernie and Anna were living alone “in a nice home, well-furnished and arranged in good taste.”30
By November, Hickman was under a local doctor’s care, likely suffering from alcoholism, mental illness, or both. In the aftermath of the murder-suicide to come, however, a family friend publicly disputed the alcohol abuse diagnosis, maintaining that “while Hickman did drink occasionally, he had not drunk anything for a long time.”31 Rather, “the cause of his madness was due to a long-continued illness. He had been, for a number of years, a sufferer from acute stomach trouble, and at times its severity temporarily unbalanced his mind.”32 Treatment in New York City had provided a respite, but when Hickman returned home, “his old trouble came back on him more severely than ever.”33
The events that ended the lives of Ernest and Anna Hickman commenced on the morning of November 19, 1891.34 According to his briefly surviving wife, Hickman (by then 35 years old) had returned the previous evening from a trip to St. Louis “sick and exhausted.” He received medical attention that evening and awoke the next day “physically strengthened but delirious.” At around 11 a.m., he accosted his wife with a loaded revolver and forced her into a bedroom, where he told Anna, “Now, we will die together.” Hickman then shot her in the face, but not fatally (at first). After a brief struggle over the gun, Anna pushed her husband aside and staggered out of the house. Two more shots rang out before she reached the safety of a neighbor’s door.
Drawn to the commotion was a passing constable. As he entered the Hickman residence, another shot rang out. Then, silence. The dead body of Ernie Hickman was discovered crumpled on the bedroom floor, a bullet wound to the forehead plainly visible. Meanwhile, Anna Hickman was rushed to nearby St. Mary’s Hospital, where attending physicians discovered that a spent bullet had traversed her jaw and lodged behind the right ear. The bullet’s proximity to the brain ruled out surgery, and death was considered inevitable. But for a time, Anna remained conscious and coherent, supplying the details of her husband’s conduct.35 Unaware that Ernie was dead, Anna called out his name, promising to forgive him. She also insisted that Hickman would not have harmed her had he been sober and requested that he not be arrested.36 Thereafter, she slowly faded into unconsciousness.
Following funeral services at the Free Christian Church of East St. Louis, Ernest P. Hickman was buried at nearby St. Peter’s Cemetery. Some five hours after the interment, Anna Varley Hickman died.37 Days later, she was laid to rest next to her husband. In the meantime, a St. Clair County coroner’s inquest determined their deaths to be a murder-suicide, with no further official action necessary.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and David Bilmes and factchecked by Ray Danner.
Sources for the biographical information recited above include the Ernie Hickman file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; the Hickman profile in Major League Player Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 2, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011); US Census data accessed via Ancestry.com; and certain of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Statistics have been taken from Baseball-Reference.
1 The presumption of right-handedness is based on statistical probability (as about 90 percent of American males are right-handed) and the absence of any newsprint mention that Hickman was a lefty, an 1880s baseball anomaly usually noted in the press.
2 According to Hickman’s TSN player contract card and modern baseball reference authority. The November 1891 report filed by the St. Clair (Illinois) County coroner placed Hickman’s age at death as 32, indicating a birth year of 1858-1859.
3 The description of J.H. Hickman in “Did Deadly Work,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1891: 4.
4 Per “New Reserve Men,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 11, 1883: 8.
5 “New Reserve Men.” See also, “Under Contract,” Sporting Life, December 26, 1883: 2. Infielder-outfielder-pitcher Johnny (John T.) Ward is not to be mistaken for future Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward, then playing shortstop for the National League New York Gothams.
6 See again, “New Reserve Men” and “Under Contract,” above. Note: Our subject has sometimes been confused with T.J. Hickman, a pitcher for the Newark Domestics of the Eastern League. Ernie Hickman came to Kansas City via the St. Louis Browns Reserves, not Newark.
7 See “Sporting,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 7, 1884: 7.
8 See “The Union Association,” Sporting Life, June 18, 1884: 4.
9 Per “The Kansas City Unions,” Kansas City Times, June 6, 1884: 8.
10 “First Blood for the Strangers,” Kansas City Times, June 8, 1884: 5.
11 Per “Kansas City Unions, 8; Chicago, 4,” Chicago Tribune, June 15, 1884: 6.
12 “Base Ball,” Kansas City Star, June 12, 1884: 4.
13 See “Diamond Dust,” Kansas City Times, June 23, 1884: 1.
14 Per the box score published in the (Washington, DC) National Republican, June 25, 1884: 1.
15 In addition to its Union Association schedule, the Kansas City Cowboys played unaffiliated pro clubs on off days. By mid-July, the club had won four such contests without a defeat. See “The Kansas City Unions,” Kansas City Evening Star, July 19, 1884: 1.
16 See “War Among Ball Clubs,” Philadelphia Times, July 14, 1884: 4.
17 Hickman profile in Major League Player Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 2, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 396.
18 Per “Diamond Dust,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 24, 1885: 8.
19 As reported in the St. Joseph (Missouri) Herald, August 14, 1885: 5. See also, “Base Ball Notes,” St. Joseph (Missouri) Gazette, August 14, 1885: 4.
20 “Notes,” St. Joseph Herald, August 29, 1885: 4.
21 See “Raised to Life,” (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal, July 7, 1886: 8. See also, “Sporting Notes,” Omaha World-Herald, July 7, 1886: 2.
22 “Lincoln Laid Out,” (Denver) Rocky Mountain News, July 15, 1886: 8.
23 See “East St. Louis: Items of Interest from the City Across the Great Bridge,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 15, 1888: 5.
24 “Belleville Briefs,” St. Louis Republic, September 13, 1888: 12.
25 See “East St. Louis and Belleville,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 13, 1890: 7.
26 Per “East St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 12, 1892: 15. A $2,000 indemnity payment was subsequently made to the estate of Anna Hickman by the lodge treasurer.
27 See e.g., the 1887 St. Louis city directory. Salesman is also the occupation entered on the November 1891 St. Clair County coroner’s report on Hickman’s death, contained in his player file at the Giamatti Research Center.
28 According to “Did Deadly Work,” above. See also, “Drunken Husband’s Act,” St. Louis Republic, November 20, 1891: 11.
29 See “Died Suddenly,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 26, 1891: 16. The 50-year-old Mrs. Varley “was a very estimable lady, and was well known throughout [East St. Louis], having been in the millinery business for a number of years.”
30 Per “Drunken Husband’s Act,” above.
31 “Neighborhood News: Mrs. Annie Hickman May Recover,” St. Louis Republic, November 21, 1891: 7.
32 “Neighborhood News: Mrs. Annie Hickman May Recover.”
33 “Neighborhood News: Mrs. Annie Hickman May Recover.”
34 The above account of the murder-suicide is derived from the reportage of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and St. Louis Republic, November 19-24, 1891. Much of the incident detail was provided by Anna Hickman who survived her gunshot injuries for several days before succumbing.
35 The most detailed account of Anna Hickman’s post-shooting revelations was published posthumously in “St. Louis Siftings,” Sporting Life, November 28, 1891: 4
36 “Suburban: East St. Louis,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, November 24, 1891: 11.
37 Per “East St. Louis: Mrs. Anna Hickman Dies of Her Wound,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 23, 1891: 4.