Fred Osborne

This article was written by Tim Hagerty

Fred Osborne was a Canadian pitcher and outfielder who won three consecutive minor league batting titles, played for the worst Pittsburgh team in National League history, and had to be institutionalized in his early 40s. His death details were unconfirmed until 2019.

Frederick W. Osborne was born in May 1865, in Alberta, Canada. His father Henry worked as a grocer and his mother Sarah stayed at home and maintained the house. Henry was born in England in 1827 and Sarah was born there in 1830. Osborne was the middle child of five children, with an older brother Charles and an older sister Alva, and a younger sister Edie and a younger brother Edwin.1 Osborne had an itinerant childhood, living in Alberta, Wisconsin, and Iowa before turning eight.2

Osborne’s professional baseball career began in 1888 with Las Vegas, New Mexico, of the New Mexico League. He batted third, pitched, and played center field for Las Vegas. In a May 19 loss to Santa Fe, a club that featured future Hall of Famer Bud Fowler, Osborne put together, in the words of the New Mexican Review, “the best pitcher’s box work the Santa Fe nine has met with this season.”3

He also excelled at the plate, winning the 1888 New Mexico League batting title.4 Osborne is the only New Mexico League batting champion in history; the league folded after its inaugural season.5

Left without a job, Osborne parlayed his batting title into a contract for the 1889 season. He signed with Aspen of the five-team Colorado State League and won that league’s batting title also.6

Osborne began the 1890 season with the West Virginia-based Wheeling Nailers of the Tri-State League. In a Wheeling early-season home game against Mansfield on May 2, the big, left-hand batting, left-hand throwing Osborne made an acrobatic catch in center field, spun around, and whipped a throw to first, doubling off Mansfield’s runner. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer called it “a brilliant catch” and noted the strong throw “was almost a line ball.”7

Five days later, shortly after a Nailers’ 3-1 home win over Springfield on Wheeling Island, tragedy struck near the ballpark. A yacht named Gertrude was approaching a dock in the Ohio River when a woman’s dress got caught in the pulley of the tiller rope. The captain lost control of the rudder and the yacht struck a barge and capsized. All 16 passengers flew into the water and one of them died. Several others, including Nailers’ official scorer William English, were knocked unconscious but survived.8 Wheeling catcher Dad Lytle, pitcher J. Sawyer, and left fielder Joe White were on the starboard of the yacht and survived.9

The boating accident had a ripple effect on the Nailers’ lineup and Osborne’s career. The day after the crash, Sawyer was unable to take his usual spot in the pitcher’s box because of the injuries he sustained. Needing a fill-in pitcher, Wheeling manager Bob Glenalvin called on Osborne, who, he knew, had pitched in previous seasons. The Daily Intelligencer recapped Osborne’s pitching by stating “to the surprise of all he put up a magnificent game, only allowing the Springfields four hits. With practice he will make an excellent emergency pitcher.”10 Osborne spun in impressive curveballs, and from that point forward, he split time between center field and pitcher for Wheeling.

Osborne hit .397 for Wheeling, and even though he did not finish the season there, he was awarded the Tri-State League batting title, his third batting crown in as many years.

The National League’s Pittsburgh Alleghenys, a struggling club that played 60 miles from Wheeling, noticed Osborne’s standout hitting, pitching, and fielding, and signed him on July 12 to perform all three roles for them. The Daily Intelligencer congratulated Pittsburgh on acquiring Osborne and called him “an earnest player, a hard hitter and a gentleman.”11

Osborne played solid defense and had one of Pittsburgh’s three hits in his major-league debut on July 14, a 17-1 loss in Philadelphia.12 The lopsided score was not surprising given how the Alleghenys were playing at the time. It was Pittsburgh’s 11th straight loss, and it moved the club’s record to 16-52. Osborne’s debut made him the first major leaguer who was born in Alberta.

The next day, in his second big-league game, Osborne had another hit but he dropped a fly ball in left field and the Alleghenys lost again, 8-4.13 After going hitless with two strikeouts in his third game with Pittsburgh, a 15-3 loss to the Phillies, the Pittsburgh Daily Post gave a critical and impatient review of the newcomer, writing “Osborne, the new fielder, does not appear to come up to expectations and will be released, though people who have seen him play several games are of the opinion that he will yet make his mark.”14

Alleghenys president J. Palmer O’Neill called Osborne into his office to assure him he was not on the chopping block. “Mr. Osborne, your ball-playing has been very satisfactory to this management. Don’t pay any attention to newspaper stories about your release being a certainty,” O’Neill is quoted as saying in a clipping from Osborne’s Baseball Hall of Fame player file. “Just you play ball, hit the ball out and start a little quicker in the field. You can do it, for you are quite speedy on the bases.”15 The clipping also said Osborne was not happy about the treatment he received from older teammates, who reportedly did not welcome him because he replaced their friend John Kelty.

Osborne stuck around and made his Pittsburgh pitching debut on July 18, allowing two Brooklyn runs in a three-inning relief outing at the end of the Bridegrooms’ 17-7 home win. Osborne followed John Coleman, who surrendered Brooklyn’s first 15 runs in his five-inning start. Coleman lost 48 games for Philadelphia in 1883, which is still the major-league record for losses in a season.

On August 6, at Cincinnati’s League Park, Osborne started in left field and made several catches that “were of the circus order and brought down the house,” according to the Daily Post.16 Despite Osborne bringing down the house, the Alleghenys lost for the 26th time in their last 28 tries, including 13 losses by 10 or more runs, lowering their record to 18-67.

The eventful series for Osborne continued on August 7, when he hit his first and only major-league home run. It came against Frank “Monkey” Foreman in Pittsburgh’s 23-17 loss on a rainy day in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd in Cincinnati.17 The Alleghenys hit a league-low 20 homers in 1890 and three of them came in this game.

The following day at Cincinnati, Osborne made his first major-league start as a pitcher. The Daily Post reported that Osborne “pitched a good game” in his complete game, 9-6 loss.18 He started four more games for Pittsburgh and went the distance in all of them.

Osborne started on August 13 in Cleveland and his counterpart was 23-year-old rookie Cy Young, who was making his third major-league start. The Spiders piled up 24 hits against Osborne and won 20-9, moving Young’s record to 3-0.19 The two starters that day took drastically divergent paths after the 1890 season; Osborne faded into obscurity, while Young became one of the best pitchers in history.

Osborne started and pitched decently in a 7-4 doubleheader Game 1 loss to Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts at West Side Park on August 19. The Alleghenys lost Game 2 also, dropping their record to 19-78, and the Daily Post began putting the club’s demise in colorful context. “The remains of a once stalwart ball team were picked up in National league park this afternoon, placed orderly in a hearse and driven quietly outside the city limits. A single mourner followed. He was a faithful dog, with long, shaggy hair and a woe-begone look. He felt sad, for he was once the mascot of the Allegheny team of base ball artists, but gaunt hard luck had risen in his might and the Alleghenys were no more,” the paper wrote on August 20.20

The Alleghenys reached a new low on September 1 when they lost three games in one day in Brooklyn to the Bridegrooms, who scheduled the tripleheader to make up for lost games and help their chances of securing the pennant.21 It sunk Pittsburgh’s record to 19-92 and it was also Fred Osborne’s last day as a major leaguer. The Alleghenys released him shortly thereafter.22

Osborne claimed he asked the Alleghenys to release him, saying he “would rather lay idle than play with that team. The rag is being chewed day after day.”23 After being released, Osborne spent a few days in Pittsburgh and then left to visit Wheeling.

Osborne’s major-league career consisted of 41 Alleghenys games in 1890, a .238 batting average, and 12 extra-base hits. He pitched in eight of those games, posting an 8.38 ERA in 58 innings.

The Alleghenys limped down the stretch after Osborne’s release and finished 23-113-2, in last place, 66.5 games behind first-place Brooklyn. Their .169 winning percentage is the second worst in National League history. They had the fewest runs scored, the most runs allowed, and made the most errors in the league that year. At one point, they lost 33 of 34 games. They drew just 16,064 fans, 132,302 fewer than league-leading Philadelphia. The Daily Post bluntly stated that “the team has been abused and kicked about in a really heartless manner, yet nobody seems to care what becomes of it, and there are very few who waste any sympathy on it.”24

The Alleghenys’ futility was partially due to nine of their top players fleeing for the Players League’s Pittsburgh Burghers.25 Osborne was one of 46 players used by the Alleghenys in 1890, a massive total by 19th century baseball standards. By comparison, the National League pennant-winning Bridegrooms used only 17 players that year. “Hardly a week passed when a new player was not sprung on the public,” the Daily Post quipped. “The team was filled up with players who were unheard of before the limited eyesight of an agent discovered them in clubs in out-of-the-way country towns.”26

Osborne continued his playing career in 1891, dividing the season between the St. Paul Apostles, Portland (Oregon) Gladiators, La Grande Grand Rhonders, and Walla Walla Walla Wallas minor league clubs. Also in 1891, the 26-year-old Osborne married 16-year-old Missouri native Emma (Merkele) in Jackson, Missouri.27 He played just nine games for the California League’s Oakland Colonels in 1892, which were the last nine games of his professional career.

Osborne settled in Walla Walla, Washington, with Emma and worked as a painter and a clerk in a paint store. In January 1898, Fred and Emma had their first child, a son named Ruth.28

Unfortunately, the Osborne family did not live happily ever after. Fred and Emma’s marriage unraveled by the turn of the century, and they were living separately in Walla Walla in 1900.29 On August 19, 1905, Fred was taken to the county jail because of insanity. Walla Walla’s Evening Statesman newspaper noted that Emma had moved to Portland in an article headlined “FRED OSBORNE INSANE – Former Ball Player Loses Mind Over Domestic Trouble.”30

Six days later, Osborne was examined before a judge and committed to Washington’s Medical Lake Asylum. The Evening Statesman reported that Osborne “is still possessed of the delusion that he is going to die” and “he declared that he was already dead and asked that he be taken out and buried. He spends most of his time in his cell, and only takes his food and medicine when ordered to.”31

Osborne’s death details were unknown for more than a century. In 2019, this author confirmed with Washington state officials that Osborne passed away at Medical Lake Asylum on August 31, 1907.32 He died in his early 40s from exhaustion from dementia. It was a sad ending to a well-traveled life.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and David H. Lippman and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also used Baseball-Reference.com, FamilySearch.org, Newspapers.com, and The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.

 

Notes

1 US Census Bureau, 1880 US Census.

2 US Census Bureau, 1870 US Census.

3 “Eight Straight,” New Mexican Review, May 24, 1888: 4.

4 David Nemec, The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Books, 2012), 257.

5 Milan Simonich, “Onetime Santa Fe Player Makes Hall of Fame 108 Years After Death,” Santa Fe New Mexican, December 9, 2021. https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/onetime-santa-fe-player-makes-hall-of-fame-108-years-after-death/article_995ebf12-5769-11ec-a510-775ff1fc951d.html

6 Nemec, The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires.

7 “Well Won Victory,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, May 3, 1890: 1.

8 “Shocking Accident,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, May 8, 1890: 4.

9 “A Thrilling Experience,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, May 8, 1890: 4.

10 “Base Ball,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, May 9, 1890: 1.

11 “The Revised Schedule,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, July 14, 1890: 4.

12 “Base Ball Notes,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 15, 1890: 6.

13 “John Coleman Pitched,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 16, 1890: 3.

14 “A Change in Management,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 17, 1890: 6.

15 “Osborne is All Right,” August 16, 1890, unidentified clipping in Osborne’s Baseball Hall of Fame Library player file.

16 “Score Another Defeat,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 7, 1890: 6.

17 “Slugging at Cincinnati,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 8, 1890: 6.

18 “National League Games,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 9, 1890: 6.

19 “Twenty Big Runs to Nine,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 14, 1890: 6.

20 “Tough Times at Chicago,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 20, 1890: 6.

21 “They Break All Records,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 2, 1890: 6.

22 “Base Ball Notes,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 4, 1890: 6.

23 “Osborne Talks on the Club,” September 6, 1890, unidentified clipping in Osborne’s Baseball Hall of Fame Library player file.

24 “Time-Honored Alleghenys,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 16, 1890: 10.

25 A.D. Suehsdorf, “The Last Tripleheader,” Society for American Baseball Research, /journal/article/the-last-tripleheader/

26 “Time-Honored Alleghenys.”

27 Missouri, County Marriage, Naturalization, and Court Records, 1800-1991.

28 US Census Bureau, 1900 US Census.

29 US Census Bureau, 1900 US Census.

30 “FRED OSBORNE INSANE – Former Ball Player Loses Mind Over Domestic Trouble,” Walla Walla Evening Statesman, August 19, 1905: 1.

31 “Osborne Declared Insane,” Walla Walla Evening Statesman, August 26, 1905: 8.

32 Tim Hagerty, “A Missing Major Leaguer: What Happened to Fred Osborne?” The Hardball Times, October 4, 2019. https://tht.fangraphs.com/a-missing-major-leaguer-what-happened-to-fred-osborne/

Full Name

Frederick W. Osborne

Born

May , 1865 at , AB (CAN)

Died

August 31, 1907 at Medical Lake, WA (USA)

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