Fred Gunkle’s career in professional baseball can only be described as dismal. Yet his failures on the ball diamond were just a short blip on a long and otherwise successful life.
He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 26, 1857, one of at least five children of German immigrants Fred Gunkle and the former Elizabeth Kalkhoff. The elder Fred Gunkle worked as a roadmaster for the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, and his son while attending Reading’s public schools found enough time to attain proficiency at the American national pastime.
As a youth, Fred was apprenticed to a machinist and he developed into a skilled artisan. In 1876, he moved to Chicago to accept a job with the Crane Brothers’ Manufacturing Company. His move to Chicago undoubtedly increased his interest in baseball, as the city was a hotbed for all levels of competition.
An unexpected opportunity arose in May of 1879. Cleveland’s National League entry experienced several injuries and became desperate for a catcher. Somehow Gunkle convinced the club management that he was the man to fill their need and hopped on a train to Cleveland. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 17, 1879)
Events proved otherwise. Gunkle proved so incapable of catching Cleveland pitcher Jim McCormick that the local paper wrote in disgust, “all that was necessary for a man to score a run was to get to first base somehow, passed balls would do the rest.” After being charged with seven passed balls and three errors, he switched places with one of the outfielders. As soon as the game ended, Gunkle returned to Chicago, although one reporter speculated that he would “have to walk back to Chicago as it was doubted he could catch well enough to catch the train.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 18, 1879) Not surprisingly that was the end of his professional playing career.
Later that year he relocated to Dubuque, Iowa, to work for the Iowa Iron Works. Two years later he accepted a position in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as traveling representative for the Chicago-based Samuel Bliss & Company. When the job ended in 1884, Gunkle made another effort to get back into baseball.
He was hired as a Northwestern League umpire, but his work prompted one reporter to write: “Gunkle, one of the Northwestern League umpires, is one of the finest specimens of a donkey that can be found anywhere … He accepted the position of official umpire because he was out of employment, and not because he knew anything about baseball, as he can’t tell a ball from a strike.” (National Police Gazette, June 7, 1884) Gunkle was soon out of work again, but before long he surfaced as manager of the Stillwater franchise in the same league. (Sporting Life, July 2, 1884)
He was no more successful as a manager than he had been as a player or umpire, and soon returned to Sioux City to become a traveling salesman for the Sioux City Steam Engine Works. Two years later, he accepted a similar job for a Dubuque cigar house. (Sporting Life, April 7, 1886) In this capacity he spent so much time criss-crossing South Dakota that one of that state’s newspapers began to refer to him as “the ubiquitous Gunkle.” (Mitchell Daily Republican, April 27 and 29, June 22, July 16, December 16, 1886)
The cruel words about his umpiring did not deter him from again taking that role at several games in South Dakota. After one game in Pierre, his work attracted more favorable notice, although he can’t have enjoyed the experience very much: “Gunkle made an excellent umpire, but met with a mishap. The jolly Fred got in the way of a red-hot foul and in trying to muff it, the ball struck him on the left optic. At last accounts the wounded eye was being carried around in a sling and a bread and milk poultice.” (Quoted in the Mitchell Daily Republican, June 22, 1886)
There may have been an ulterior motive for at least some of Fred Gunkle’s inveterate travels through South Dakota. On June 13, 1888, he wed twenty-two-year-old Emma Carter of Sioux Falls. The marriage lasted nearly fifty years but produced no children.
The couple settled in Sioux City, Iowa, and Gunkle stayed close to home during the early years of his marriage. The Sioux City directory lists him as a machinist in 1889 and 1890. In 1891 he received an appointment as deputy United States marshal for the western division of the northern district of Iowa, headquartered in Sioux City, and held the office until 1895.
At that point, he returned to Sioux Falls and became a traveling representative for the Andrew Kuehn Company. But after only one year he again quit the road to engage in the wholesale cigar and tobacco business in Sioux Falls. In this position, he continued to have regular opportunities to travel while maintaining a more stable home base. He took advantage to become involved in numerous Sioux Falls fraternal organizations, including the Elks, Knights Templar and Masons.
Around 1909 he and Emma moved to Indianapolis, and Fred returned to the road as a traveling representative for a lead paint company. He remained in this job for the next eighteen years, also serving on the advisory board of the Master House Painters’ and Decorators’ Association of Indiana. (Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, January 22, 1916)
Fred Gunkle retired in 1927, but he and Emma remained in Indianapolis for their sunset years. In November of 1936, he traveled to California, apparently for the purpose of an operation for a case of chronic prostatitis. But pneumonia set in after the operation, and Fred Gunkle died in Long Beach on December 21, 1936.
In a life of nearly eight decades, Fred Gunkle achieved much and also had some notable failures. Despite his singular lack of success on professional baseball diamonds, his resilience in the light of these fiascos undoubtedly helped to make “the ubiquitous Gunkle” effective at selling cigars, steam engines, lead paint and other products.
Contemporary newspapers and sporting publications, as noted; censuses and city directories; Doane Robinson, History of South Dakota, Vol. II (1904).