The highlight of Fred Curtis’s professional baseball career was a two-game appearance in St. Louis subbing for injured rookie first baseman Hal Chase and the 1905 New York Highlanders. Curtis’s personal life, however, hit a tragic low just four years later with the loss of his two infant children in an apartment fire.
Frederick Marion Curtis was born on October 30, 1880 in Beaver Lake, Michigan, to Stephen Luther Curtis (1854-1927) and Georgetta (Parker) Curtis (1862-1907). He had one sister, Maude Mae Curtis (born 1881). The Curtis family eventually moved to Calumet on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Not much information is available on Curtis’s childhood.
In 1902, Curtis played for the Leaders amateur team in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. He also had a position with A.M. Mathews & Co, a painting and decorating firm in town, then returned to Calumet in October after the season. In 1903, Curtis played semipro ball for Calumet. Before the 1904 season, Curtis, “the speedy Calumet second baseman,” signed with the Duluth White Sox of the new and affiliated Class D Copper Country League.1 However, the Duluth franchise opted to stay with their prior Class D Northern League. They required much-longer travel to destinations such as Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. For that reason, Curtis returned to play first base for Calumet, now called the Aristocrats and part of the Copper Country League. One of his teammates was pitcher Eddie Cicotte.
On March 20, 1905, Fred married Cora M. Dumonthier (1885-1940) in Calumet. The next month, Curtis began playing with a Roanoke, Virginia, semipro team.2 In June, Curtis signed with the Sault Ste. Marie Soos, back in the Class D Copper County League.3 Finally, on July 23, he signed with the New York Highlanders.4 It was quite the rapid climb for the tall, husky (6’1”, 190 pound) righthander.
Two weeks prior, the Highlanders and player-manager Clark Griffith had undergone a merry-go-around at first base. On July 13, Hal Chase, who had claimed the job in the spring, was hit in the face by a batting practice ball off the bat of teammate Jack Powell. Chase’s nose was broken and he was knocked unconscious. Jack Doyle (for one game, his last in the majors), Wid Conroy, and Doc Powers (hitting .182 at the time) were all first base stand-ins before Curtis was summoned. New York also had injuries piling up as they concluded their 19-game road trip through Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and finally, St. Louis.
Curtis was immediately inserted into the Highlanders lineup by Griffith. On July 24, he batted seventh and played first base against the St. Louis Browns at Sportsman’s Park. He collected a single in five at-bats, with a stolen base, against Jim Buchanan in a 10-5 victory. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat stated that the Highlanders gave Curtis, “the Copper league find, his chance to make his first bow, while St. Louis tried out young (catcher Tubby) Spencer of the Texas league.”5 It also noticed that Curtis “is a big fellow, awkward in his movements and plays as though he was used to a skinned diamond and rough grounds. He made a couple of nice stops, and may do when Griffith has ground off some of his roughness.”6 The New York Times remarked that Curtis “covered first base in good style. He played an errorless game and gathered in several hard hits.”7
Another writeup was proffered, courtesy of the Evening World:
Now about Fred Curtis? Well, sir, he done noble. At times he opened out like an old-fashioned bat rock and seized bad throws with one mitt; again he contracted a mere blot on the grass, but holding the bag in his arms. For a time the Browns tried to pull their clouts toward the Copper League giant, but after he had fielded a bunt and caught his man at second by starting the ball St. Louis gave him up. Fred did not scoop the bunt, but allowed it to intrude between his feet, whence it rolled upward along his anatomy and nestled in his maulers. Every time he went to bat the bleachers roared “Hey Rube!” but Fred only took another chew, swallowing, of course, the old one. In the Copper League the boys are not wasteful.
But Fred will have to go. Griffith has no use for him now that Chase is O.K.8
The next day, Curtis collected an RBI double and walk in four at-bats against Barney Pelty, as the Highlanders claimed a 10-4 victory. Curtis flawlessly fielded 18 chances in two games in the field. These two wins were New York’s second and third of a 12-game winning streak. Sadly, these would be Curtis’s first and last major league contests. The Highlanders headed home to Hilltop Park, and Curtis returned to northern Michigan. Chase recovered well enough to return to the lineup for New York’s next game.
A little over a week later, Fred and Cora welcomed their first child, Averil (nicknamed Bonnie), born August 7. Exactly one year later, to the day, a son, Frederick Marion, was born.
Curtis opened the 1906 season as the first sacker for the Cedar Rapids Rabbits of the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League. He hit only .186 in 44 games, with a league-worst .958 fielding percentage. He committed 21 errors at first base. Curtis was released in July, sliding to the Ottumwa Champs of the Class D Iowa League.9 Ottumwa, whose “bad plight” worried Iowa State League executives, finished last in the eight-team league. Curtis hit .232 in 64 games. He returned to the Rabbits in 1907, but was released 12 games into the season with a sore arm.
In 1908, Curtis signed with Jack Hendricks and the Fort Wayne Billikens of the Class B Central League. However, he lost the first base competition with incumbent Guy Dickey and was sold to the Madison Senators of the Class D Wisconsin-Illinois League.10 He was the opening day first baseman for the Senators, but within two weeks he was sold within the W-I League to play outfield for the Oshkosh Indians. Oshkosh was owned by J.M. Pulliam, brother of National League president Harry Pulliam. Curtis hit .277 in 116 games on the season.
On January 7, 1909, tragedy struck the Curtis family. Their two small children, Averil (“Bonnie”), age four, and Marion, age three, were tragically killed in a fire in their small apartment in Calumet. The children, confined to their bedroom with measles, were trapped when a fire from a furnace engulfed the structure, their bodies being “found burned beyond recognition.”11 Apparently, the furnace had broken open, scattering coal, followed by an explosion in the gas main.12 There were no fire escapes in the structure, and firemen were forced to work in below-zero temperatures. Fred’s wife Cora suffered an injured ankle and face lacerations.13 Two residents in an adjacent apartment were also killed.
For the 1909 baseball season, the still-grieving Curtis signed with the Winona (Minnesota) Pirates of the new Minnesota-Wisconsin League. He hit .248 in 113 games. Curtis returned to Winona in 1910, and had a better second season, hitting .294. He was later picked up in September to play for the Wausau (Wisconsin) Lumberjacks of the M-W League for a post-season series against the Appleton Papermakers of the neighboring Wisconsin-Illinois League.14
In 1911, Curtis showed up as the starting right fielder for the Decatur (Georgia) Twins of the Class D Southeastern League.15 Decatur finished in last place, and afterwards Curtis returned to play for Winona.
Heading into the 1912 season, Curtis was now tapped to manage Winona.16 Unfortunately, the league folded in July, so Curtis moved to play first base for the Superior (Wisconsin) Red Sox of the Central International League. The next year, Curtis was selected as the player-manager of Superior, now in the Class C Northern League. He “pulled down an easy $1,500 commission” on the sale of Rube Schauer to the New York Giants.17
In the 1914 preseason, Curtis and Superior owner William Sommer could not reach “common ground”18 regarding the percentage awarded to the manager on the sale of players.19 Thus, Curtis left in January20 to become the player-manager for the Winnipeg Maroons, still in the Northern League.21 To add a twist, Winnipeg owner A.H. Pulford was then unceremoniously voted out of the league by the other owners. Manager Curtis arranged for his new squad to train in Owatonna, Minnesota, close to his Winona home.22 However, Curtis was still technically considered property of the Superior franchise. Secretary John H. Farrell of the National Association ruled against Winnipeg and in favor of owner Sommer, deeming Curtis still property of Superior.23 Eventually, Curtis and Sommer met in person, coming to an agreement allowing Curtis to play and manage in Winnipeg.24
In June, “Fred Curtis’ crew of ball players from far away Manitoba, not far from the Saskatchewan, handed Virginia [Minnesota] a 5 to 4 defeat,” all under “a leaden sky that threatened damp disturbances from the region of the Milky Way.”25 Curtis steered Winnipeg, the Northern League’s attendance leader, in a tight race with the Duluth White Sox. Curtis, of whom “there is no better manager in a league of this classification, kept his fighting Maroons at the enemy.” 26 Sadly, Winnipeg ended the season one-and-a-half games behind Duluth.
In 1915, Curtis returned as player-manager to Superior, now owned by Minneapolis businessman A.L. Steece.27 The manager’s pre-season report declared that “the prospects are bright for a winning ball club in Superior.”28 Instead, it was a challenging year. In June, owner Steece did not make player payroll, forcing league president John Burmeister to hustle over to town to quell the turmoil. He not only put Curtis in charge of the squad, he also made him team owner. Curtis showed “good faith” by dipping into his own pocket to meet payroll.29 Regrettably, Superior, along with Grand Forks, disbanded on July 5. Curtis returned north of the border to play and manage for Winnipeg, replacing Roy Patterson. Fred hit .252 in 103 games for the Maroons, and led them to a fifth-place finish. That would be the end of Curtis’s professional playing and managing.
On his war draft registration in September 1918, Curtis disclosed that he was sole proprietor of a cigar store in Superior, Wisconsin, with the Curtises taking up residence in the Superior Hotel in town.
In the 1920s, Fred and Cora moved to Minneapolis, where Fred ran the Loeb Arcade Recreation lunch, fountain, and beer concessions. He also worked as an interior painter, and volunteered as a swim meet timer. Fred Curtis passed away on April 5, 1939, at age 58, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cause of death was kidney cancer. His body was cremated. Curtis was survived by his wife Cora and sister Maude.30
This bio was edited by Bill Lamb and Bruce Harris and fact-checked by Terry Bohn.
In addition to the sources shown in the notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com and MyHeritage.com.
1 “Duluth and Superior Jump Northern Baseball League,” Saint Paul (Minnesota) Globe, February 28, 1904: 16.
2 “Copper League Will be Fast,” Detroit Free Press, April 9, 1905: 14.
3 “Copper Country Excited,” Minneapolis Journal, July 3, 1905: 3.
4 “Curtis Signs with Highlanders,” Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1905: 4.
5 “Notes of the Games,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 25, 1905: 11.
6 “Notes of the Games.”
7 “Greater New Yorks Won from St. Louis by Good Batting,” New York Times, July 25, 1905: 5.
8 Allen Sangree, “Would Back the Highlanders,” Evening World (New York), July 26, 1905: 3.
9 “Fred Curtis Released,” Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), July 5, 1906: 3.
10 “Fred Curtis, First Baseman, Sold to Madison (Wis.) Club,” Fort Wayne (Indiana) News, April 13, 1908: 12.
11 “Four Lives Lost in Calumet Fire,” Detroit Free Press, January 8, 1909: 6.
12 “Four Die in Calumet Fire,” St. Joseph (Michigan) Daily Press, January 8, 1909: 1.
13 “Woman Killed in Leap for Life,” Duluth (Minnesota) News-Tribune, January 8, 1909: 2.
14 Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Northwestern, September 19, 1910: 8.
15 “Decatur Signs 12 Good Men,” Selma (Alabama) Times-Journal, April 11, 1911: 1.
16 “Minny League Roster,” (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, May 6, 1912: 10.
17 “Curtis Gets Easy Money,” Star Tribune, February 2, 1914: 12.
18 “Northern League Fans Thrill as Teams Come Under Wire,” Star Tribune, September 6, 1914: 24.
19 “Sommer Wants Fred Curtis,” Star Tribune, February 20, 1914: 15.
20 “Curtis to Head Winnipeg,” Star Tribune, January 16, 1914: 15.
21 “Superior Will Divide Squad,” Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald, March 25, 1914: 6.
22 Grand Forks Herald, March 23, 1914: 6.
23 “Curtis’ Status Unsettled,” Virginia (Minnesota) Enterprise, March 13, 1914: 7.
24 “Fred Curtis Pulls One That Causes a Big Mixup,” Star Tribune, March 8, 1914: 27.
25 “Peggers Take Second Game by 4 to 3 Score,” Virginia Enterprise, June 5, 1914: 3.
26 “Northern League Fans Thrill as Teams Come Under Wire,” Star Tribune, September 6, 1914: 24.
27 “Local Man Becomes Superior Club Owner,” Star Tribune, March 31, 1915: 13.
28 “What Northern League Managers Say of Chances,” Virginia Enterprise, May 7, 1915: 3.
29 “Superior Magnate is Nowhere to be Found When Payday Arrives,” Star Tribune, June 17, 1915: 15.
30 “Fred Curtis,” Minneapolis Star, April 6, 1939: 18.