During a decade-long career in professional baseball, catcher George Starnagle had numerous contract disputes with his employers but was also the victim of unscrupulous tactics by team owners on several occasions. He was talented enough to have been drafted or signed by no less than six different major league teams, but all of this interest resulted in just a one-game cup of coffee with the Cleveland Bronchos in 1902. His career might best be summed up by the following: “George Starnagle has been drafted every year by the big clubs, all of whom have been pretty well supplied with seasoned catchers; hence his failure to be kept.”1
Despite his modest playing career, Starnagle did have one noteworthy contribution to baseball. He made an early challenge to the reserve clause when he had a statement added into his 1903 contract with Colorado Springs that he not be reserved for the following year. Team management, without Starnagle’s knowledge, later inserted another clause nullifying the first. Presented with this proof, the National Commission2 ruled in Starnagle’s favor, making him a free agent. When the same issue came up with another player a few years later, the Starnagle decision was cited as a precedent and the commission ruled that, henceforth, all written addendums to standard player contracts must be approved by both the player and the club.3
George Henry Steuernagle (it’s not known when he changed the spelling of his last name) was born October 6, 1873, in Belleville, Illinois to George and Mary (nee` Krieg) Steuernagle. His father was born in Germany (Prussia) and his mother in Switzerland. The elder George served with the 57th Illinois Infantry in the Civil War and died of typhoid in 1880. On the census for the same year, Mary was raising son George, an older brother Albert, and two younger sisters, Clara and Margaret, alone in Covington, Kentucky. By the time of the 1900 census, the family had moved back to Belleview and George was still living with his mother and younger sisters. Although he had begun playing baseball by this time, George listed his occupation as bricklayer.
Starnagle, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound right-hander, began his professional career catching a few games at the end of the 1897 season with the Little Rock Senators of the independent Arkansas State League. The following season he was back in Illinois, playing semipro ball for his hometown Belleview Clerks.4 Starnagle started the 1899 season with an independent club in Freeport, Illinois,5 but in July he and two teammates, Rudy Kling and Germany Shaefer, left the team to join a semipro club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He returned to Sioux Falls in 1900 and that season received but turned down contract offers from Walt Wilmot’s Minneapolis team and Sioux City of the Western League.6
In March 1901, Starnagle signed with the Terre Haute Hottentots of the Three-I (Illinois-Iowa-Indiana) League. There he caught future Hall of Famer Three Finger Mordecai Brown, who led the club with a 25-8 record in his rookie professional season. Starnagle batted .230 in 111 games and led league catchers with a fielding percentage of .964. He returned to Terre Haute in 1902 and, in 93 games, despite an anemic .180 batting average, continued to shine behind the plate. He was one of several Three-I players signed by the Cleveland Bronchos and brought to the big leagues for a trial in September.
He made his major league debut on Sunday September 14 in the second game of a doubleheader against the Browns at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. He and a fellow rookie also recently signed from the 3-I, Lou Polchow of Evansville, formed the battery. Starnagle went hitless in three at-bats before being lifted for pinch-hitter Harry Bemis in the ninth. He committed one error when he threw wildly to second baseman Nap Lajoie on an attempted steal by the Cardinals Bobby Wallace. Despite the results, a 5-2 win by St. Louis, comments were generally positive for the young battery. One report noted, “Starnagle and Polchow both seem to be good material. Their trial today does not prove just what they can do.”7 A follow-up story the next day added, “Starnagle…is a likely looking backstop, with size and build enough to make good.”8
Starnagle apparently remained with the club the rest of the season, but the one game was to be the extent of his major league career. One report said that he had been signed by Cleveland for 1903 and was expected to compete with Bob Wood for the backup catcher position behind the incumbent starter Bemis the following spring.9 However, in November, he signed with the Colorado Springs Millionaires of the Western League. Money might have been a factor. “Pretty good salaries in the Western,” Starnagle said after his signing.10
When Starnagle signed his Colorado Springs contract for 1903, handwritten across the section pertaining to the reserve clause was the statement, “Not to be reserved for 1904.”11 The contract was signed by Starnagle and Millionaire team representative W. L. Everett. Believing himself to be a free agent at the conclusion of the season, Starnagle signed with the St. Louis Nationals for 1904.12
Unbeknownst to Starnagle, Everett had later added another written statement underneath the earlier which read, “This will not be recognized by the club as binding,”13 and Colorado Springs placed him on their reserve list following the season. St. Louis appealed to the National Commission, arguing that Starnagle had signed with them before Colorado Springs placed him on their reserve list. The commission ruled in Starnagle’s favor and his contract with St. Louis was ruled valid.14
Starnagle was one of five catchers, along with Mike Grady, Dave Zearfoss, Bill Byers, and Harry McLean, the Cardinals took to spring training in Houston in 1904. He was still with the club on Opening Day but did not get into any games before being released to Minneapolis of the American Association in June.15 After Starnagle hit 224 in 38 games, the Minneapolis Tribune, under the heading “A Falling Star” reported, in August, that Starnagle would be returning to his home in St. Louis and added, “The hit he didn’t make here was a big one.”16 He wasn’t idle long, however, signing with Sioux City of the Western League a couple of weeks later where he finished the 1904 season.
He returned to Sioux City in 1905 and, in 23 games, splitting his time between catching and first base, batted .277 in 120 games. His strong season put him on the radar of four major league teams who were looking for catching help, Pittsburgh of the National League and Cleveland, St. Louis, and New York in the American17. No deal could be reached so in February 1906 Sioux City sold him to Lincoln (Nebraska) of the Western League for $500.18 Starnagle refused to report to Lincoln so to recoup his $500 investment, Lincoln manager James “Ducky” Holmes tried to arrange a trade with Seattle of the Pacific Coast League. Holmes reached a deal19 but Starnagle refused that move as well. Shortly thereafter Starnagle signed with the Altoona (Pennsylvania) Mountaineers of the then independent, or outlaw, Tri-State League.20
Although Lincoln still held his contract rights, after his 1906 season in Altoona, Starnagle was signed by two major league teams, the Philadelphia Phillies21 and the Cincinnati Reds.22 Starnagle contacted Holmes asking for his release, but Holmes, still stung from events that spring, played hardball saying, “I have now got him [Starnagle] where I want him. I paid $500 cash for him last year and the only way he can square himself with me is for $1,000, twice what I invested in him.”23
A couple of weeks later Holmes attended a meeting of the Western League in Chicago where he ran into Joe Cantillon of the Washington Americans. Holmes was able to make a deal to sell Starnagle to Washington “at a good profit” (later revealed to be $1,000). Holmes didn’t hide his bitterness toward Starnagle saying, “I don’t know what the old outlaw will think about our little deal. At any rate, I’ve got him off my hands now.”24 However, at the same time, the Tri-State League applied for and received protection from the National Commission, meaning they were now under the umbrella of Organized Baseball. This meant that there was still another dispute over who owned Starnagle, Washington or Altoona.25
The National Commission ruled in favor of Washington, so Starnagle reluctantly reported for spring training with his new club. When he arrived, he was fined $100 for being late (because he was waiting for the decision about his status) and was threatened with more fines if he was found to be not in condition. He then learned that Cantillon had no intention of having him compete for a major league job, but that he would be farmed to one of the minor league teams controlled by Joe Cantillon or his brother Mike, or even back to Holmes in Lincoln. When the contract offered by Cantillon was far less than his salary at Altoona, Starnagle left Washington.
The Altoona Times rightly described what was going on as a “…conspiracy between the Cantillons and Ducky Holmes” and “covering up” and suggested that Starnagle had grounds to appeal the National Commission’s earlier ruling, which he did. The Times article added, “Starnagle is another who has been added to a long list of base ball players who have been victimized by the unscrupulous oligarchy who have for several years, and are now, bringing reproach upon the great national pastime.”26 Starnagle declared that he would rather go back to “stacking the red” (bricklaying), his off-season occupation, at $6 a day, than play for the Cantillons. The issue became moot when Altoona purchased him from Washington, and he happily returned to his old club.
Injuries limited Starnagle to just 14 games in 1907 and there was a bit of friction prior to the 1908 season when he briefly held out for a larger salary despite missing most of the previous season. He recovered to play nearly a full season (93 games) in 1908 for Altoona but batted just .211. Nonetheless, still another major league team expressed an interest in his services, and he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.27 However, as had happened many times before, his hopes for a return to the major leagues ended when Brooklyn sold him to Toronto of the Eastern League.
He also played briefly for Montreal that season and concluded his career with Rochester, also of the Eastern League, in 1910, appearing in 11 games, although he may have played with Utica28 and/or Syracuse29 at the end of that season. That December Rochester traded him to Topeka of the Western League, but he never reported the following spring. He held out all of 1911 but early in 1912 Topeka was still expecting him to report. When Starnagle and the club could not agree on salary terms or advance money, he remained in Belleville and retired from baseball.
While playing in Altoona in 1908, George married a local woman, Bessie Kinkead, in Pittsburgh. They had a daughter Mary, and a son George Jr. After leaving baseball, Starnagle returned to his hometown and resumed his former trade, bricklaying, with various local contractors and construction companies. Starnagle died February 18, 1946, at the age of 72. He is buried at Walnut Hill Cemetery in Belleview.
This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and Keith Thursby and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics from Starnagle’s playing career are taken from Baseball-Reference.com and genealogical and family history was obtained from Ancestry.com. The author also used information from clippings in Starnagle’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
1 “Eastern League Gossip”, Montreal (Quebec, Canada) Gazette, March 18, 1909: 2
2 The National Commission was a three-person committee which oversaw organized baseball from 1903 to 1920. The commission was created by the National Agreement of 1903, which gave it the power to interpret and carry out the terms and provisions of the National Agreement, including mediating disputes and the ability to enact and enforce fines and suspensions.
3 “Answers To Baseball Queries” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 3, 1911: 10.
4 “Clerks At Evansville, Ind.,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 2, 1898: 5.
5 “Rockford (IL) Morning Star, July 29, 1899: 2.
6 “New Pitcher for Wilmot,” St, Paul Globe, August 13, 1900: 5.
7 “Polchow Loses to St. Louis,” Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Press, September 15, 1902: 5.
8 “Good Work Done by Three Eye Men,” Evansville Courier and Press, September 15, 1902: 5.
9 “Bemis Signs for Next Season,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 16, 1902: 6.
10 “Gossip of the Meeting,” St. Louis Republic, November 21, 1902: 6.
11 “Another Reserve Case,” Sporting Life, January 2, 1904: 8.
12 “Starnagle Will Go to St. Louis,” Indianapolis Journal, December 24, 1903: 9.
13 See “Another Reserve Case.”
14 “Cardinals Get Starnagle,” St. Louis Republic, December 24, 1903: 6.
15 “Catcher Starnagle Released,” St. Louis Republic, June 19, 1904: 27.
16 A Falling Star,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 22, 1904: 17.
17 “Carney’s Good Record,” Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Argus-Leader, August 29, 1905: 7.
18 “Starnagle Goes to Lincoln,” Des Moines Register, February 1, 1906: 7.
19 “Deal On,” Lincoln (NE) Journal Star, April 6, 1906: 1.
20 “Catcher Starnagle Has Jumped to Outlaw League,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, March 30, 1906: 1
21 “New Faces with the Beauts Today,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Mirror, August 4, 1906: 7
22 “Starnagle Signs with Reds,” Washington (D.C.) Post, September 23, 10906: 4.
23 The Tall Timber for Starnagle,” Lincoln Journal Star, December 10, 1906: 8.
24 “Holmes Sold Baseball Jonah,” Lincoln Journal Star, December 31, 1906: 8.
25 Starnagle A Mountaineer,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Tribune, March 18, 1907: 3.
26 “Starnagle is Given Lemons by Cantillon,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Times, April 15, 1907: 11.
27 “Starnagle For Brooklyn,” Altoona Tribune, September 2, 1908: 3.
28 Altoona Tribune, August 30, 1910: 2.
29 Buffalo (New York) Enquirer, December 15, 1910: 19.