This article was written by Bill Lamb
Until a devastating ankle injury effectively ended his major-league career, George Van Haltren was late 19th-century baseball’s premier leadoff man. A lefty hitter with keen strike-zone awareness and a quick bat, Van Haltren topped the .300 mark in 13 of his 14 seasons as a lineup regular. He also drew a slew of walks, stole 583 bases, and scored more than 100 runs a dozen times during his heyday. Fleet afoot with a converted pitcher’s throwing arm, Van Haltren was also a fine defensive outfielder, leading the National League in outfield assists on three occasions.i Despite these accomplishments, Van Haltren is largely forgotten today.
This neglected standout was born George Edward Martin Van Haltren in St. Louis on March 30, 1866, the fourth of the five Van Haltren children to survive infancy.ii His Catholic immigrant parents, Peter Van Haltren, a plasterer born in Holland, and Ireland native Alice Sheehan Van Haltren, met, married, and started their family in the American Midwest. In 1868 the Van Haltrens relocated to Oakland, California, the city that George would call home for the remainder of his life.iii Young George took up baseball as a schoolboy and began his playing career in 1885 as a left-handed catcher for a local team called the Emeralds. He quickly advanced to the Greenhood & Morans, a crack Bay Area semipro nine. Thereafter, a stunning 16-strikeout effort in an emergency hurling appearance led to Van Haltren’s conversion to pitching.iv
As he continued to excel, Van Haltren developed into that then rarest of prospects – a quality left-handed pitcher from the West Coast. During the winter of 1886-1887, impressive performances against a touring team of major leaguers brought the young lefty to the attention of National League bigwigs. In February 1887 Pittsburgh acquired the rights to Van Haltren but his passage to the NL would not be a smooth one. With his mother seriously ill, George refused to leave home, playing instead for the San Francisco Haverly of the California League. This prompted Pittsburgh’s transfer of the Van Haltren rights and $2,000 to the Chicago White Stockings in exchange for pitcher Jim McCormick, just coming off a 31-win season but a near permanent resident of manager Cap Anson’s doghouse. Unintimidated by threats to have him blacklisted issued by Chicago club owner A.G. Spalding, Van Haltren remained close to home until his mother died in late May 1887. Only then did Van Haltren report to Chicago and sign the $1,400-a-season contract that awaited him.v
Measuring 5-feet-11 and weighing 170 pounds, and already sporting the thick, dark mustache that would be a lifelong trademark, 21-year-old George Van Haltren made his major-league debut against Boston on June 27, 1887. He began well, striking out Beaneaters leadoff batter Joe Hornung before the proceedings turned nightmarish. At the end of nine innings, Van Haltren had walked 16 Boston batters on his way to a 17-11 loss.vi Following this inauspicious debut, he settled down and by season’s end his log stood at a respectable 11-7, with 18 complete games.vii He also played 25 games in the White Stockings outfield, hitting an unimpressive .203.viii
In 1888 Van Haltren took a regular turn in the pitcher’s box, going 13-13 in 245⅔ innings for the second-place White Stockings. He even pitched a rain-shortened six-inning no-hitter against Pittsburgh. But more and more, George’s future reposed in the outfield, where in 57 games he batted a much improved .283 with 27 extra-base hits. A switch in playing positions was not the only change on the horizon for Van Haltren. On March 27, 1889, he altered his marital state, taking as his bride Blanche O’Brien, a young Oakland woman born, like himself, in the Midwest (Michigan). In time, the birth of daughters Mary Elizabeth (1890) and Dorothy (1895) would complete the Van Haltren household.
Playing left field full-time in 1889, Van Haltren had a breakout season, batting .322 with 126 runs scored and 81 RBIs. His 175 hits (fifth highest in the National League) included 39 extra-base blows, while his 82 walks elevated his on-base percentage to a sparkling .416. Given his working-class origins and his rising stature in the game, Van Haltren was an obvious target for recruitment by the insurgents who formed the Players League. Signing with the Brooklyn Ward’s Wonders, Van Haltren was returned to the box by John Montgomery Ward, the team’s namesake skipper. Notwithstanding the year layoff, Van Haltren, by now often called Rip in newspaper sports coverage, pitched decently, going 15-10 in 223 innings. Additional appearances in right field (67 games) and the infield (5 games) got him to the plate some 420 times during the 1890 season. A .335 batting average confirmed that the hitting of his previous campaign had not been a fluke and permanently settled Van Haltren’s playing status. For the remainder of his career, Rip would be an everyday player.ix
At the conclusion of the 1890 season, the Players League folded with most of its franchises merged or absorbed by National League counterparts. But George Van Haltren did not remain in Brooklyn, jumping instead to the Baltimore Orioles of the rival American Association. Mortally wounded by the Players League strife, the American Association was in its final season as a major-league circuit, with each of its clubs scrounging for talent. This necessitated improvisations such as the Orioles’ placement of the left-handed Van Haltren at shortstop for 59 games, where his fielding was predictably substandard: 57 errors and a dismal .836 fielding average. His bat, however, was not adversely affected. Feasting on lackluster Association pitching, Rip hit .318 and was a top-ten performer in hits, runs scored, home runs, slugging percentage, on base percentage, and total bases. He also swiped a career-high 75 bases and was even credited with invention of the Baltimore chop.x
At the close of the 1891 season, the American Association ceased operations. Thereafter, Baltimore was awarded a franchise by the National League, now expanded to 12 teams. Among those promptly signed by Baltimore club owner Harry von der Horst was a new player-manager: George Van Haltren. But Rip’s tenure as Orioles skipper was brief and unsuccessful. His 1-10 record (including a forfeit loss occasioned by Van Haltren’s failure to inform the umpire that a game would have to end in time for the Orioles to catch a train) led to his replacement by John Waltz, a salesman for the von der Horst brewery. Eight games thereafter, the astute Ned Hanlon took the Baltimore reins. All the while, Van Haltren remained in an Orioles uniform but his play had “lost its edge. He lost ball games by dropping lazy fly balls or foolishly getting thrown out at third base.”xi Late in the season, Hanlon decided that the club was better off without its disgruntled ex-manager and shipped Van Haltren to Pittsburgh in return for prospect (and future Hall of Famer) Joe Kelley and $2,000. Rip underperformed in Pittsburgh, as well, reducing his aggregate season batting average to .293, the only time he hit less than .300 as an everyday major-league player.
With Pittsburgh’s permission, Van Haltren appeared in a handful of games for Oakland and San Jose of the Pacific Coast League in the offseason. When he returned to big-league play, Rip, like every other hitter, derived benefit from pitching rule changes – the elimination of the pitcher’s box and the elongation of the pitching distance to the current 60 feet 6 inches.xii For Pittsburgh, Van Haltren bounced back with a .338 batting average and a career-best .422 on-base percentage, a basepath frequency that enabled him to score 129 runs in only 124 games played. The professional highlight of the year for George Van Haltren, however, came after the 1893 season had ended. On November 16 he was sold to the New York Giants for $2,500. And once in New York, Van Haltren would commence a period of sustained excellence, ascending to the pinnacle of his long playing career.
An immediate boon to Van Haltren was reconnection to New York player-manager John Montgomery Ward, his former Players League mentor. Except this time, Rip’s abilities would not be dissipated via pitching assignments. Ward made him the Giants regular center fielder and leadoff man. Van Haltren responded by batting .331, with 109 runs scored and a career-high 105 RBIs. His new club, moreover, had considerable other on-field talent, with future Hall of Fame members at second (Ward), third (George Davis), and on the mound (Amos Rusie). The New York lineup also featured hard-hitting right fielder Mike Tiernan, a solid backstop in Duke Farrell, the able, if disagreeable, Jack Doyle at first base, and a standout second starter in right-hander Jouett Meekin. By season’s end this aggregation had produced a sterling 88-44 record. But that mark was good only for second place. Hanlon’s Baltimore Orioles had been three games better. Still, the Giants’ showing placed them in the 1894 Temple Cup, the first and only time that George Van Haltren would see postseason championship play. He made the most of his opportunity, batting .500 as the Giants swept the Orioles in four one-sided games to take the Cup. To these laurels, another distinction was added. In a late-season poll conducted by the New York Mercury, Van Haltren was a landslide choice as the favorite player of New York and Brooklyn baseball fans. A silver-encased bat was subsequently presented to him to memorialize the honor.
Van Haltren maintained a high caliber of play for the next seven seasons, posting batting averages of .340, .351, .329, .312, .301, .315, and .335, while averaging 116 runs scored and 39 stolen bases during that span. He was the National League leader in triples (1895) and stolen bases (1900) and in the top five in the circuit in walks (1897), hits (1896, 1898), doubles (1900), triples (1898), total bases (1896, 1898), and runs scored (1898, 1900). Rip was also the league leader in outfield assists in 1897, 1900, and 1901.xiii Regrettably for Van Haltren, this great run occurred during the darkest period in New York Giants history: the reign of Andrew Freedman as majority owner and club president. Freedman, a real-estate millionaire and Tammany Hall insider, had acquired control of the franchise in January 1895. For the next seven seasons, the Giants would be a team in turmoil, destabilized by mercurial managerial changes, clubhouse dissensionxiv and the absence of staff ace Rusie, who sat out the entire 1896, 1899, and 1900 seasons in disputes with club boss Freedman. Apart from a third-place finish in 1897 (when Freedman was preoccupied with Tammany’s municipal election campaign and largely ignored the club), the former Temple Cup champs were not pennant contenders during the Freedman regime.
Now 37 years old, Van Haltren got off to a slow start in 1902, his batting average hovering in the .250 neighborhood in the early going. Then calamity struck. An aborted slide into second base during a May 22 game in Pittsburgh resulted in a severely broken right ankle. Rip was finished for the season. He returned for the 1903 campaign but clearly was not the player he had been before. As the season wore on, a young Roger Bresnahan began to assume Van Haltren’s duties in center field. A .257 batting average in part-time duty precipitated Van Haltren’s release by the Giants and brought the 17-year major-league career of George Van Haltren to an end. By any measure he had turned in outstanding service. A .316 lifetime batting average with 2,544 base hits,xv 1,642 runs scored, and 583 stolen bases topped the list of his statistical accomplishments. He had also been a fine defensive outfielder. Rip even posted a creditable pitching log, having gone 40-31in 689 innings tossed.
After his release by the Giants, Van Haltren returned to Oakland, where he resumed his offseason occupation as a lather. But he still could not get baseball out of his system. In 1904 he assumed the position of manager for the Seattle Siwashes of the Pacific Coast League. He was also the team’s everyday center fielder, playing in all 222 games of the grueling PCL season and hitting .270 in an astonishing 933 at-bats. Early the following season, he replaced Pete Lohman as pilot of the Oakland Oaks, again installing himself in center field and the leadoff spot in the batting order. Van Haltren remained player-manager at Oakland through the 1908 season, hitting in the mid-.250s and guiding the Oaks to also-ran finishes. At the start of the 1909 campaign, club management assigned Van Haltren a co-manager named Bernie McCay. This arrangement did not last long, as both men were displaced at the helm by Oaks hurler Bill Reidy in early May. The new manager expressed his desire to keep Van Haltren in the Oaks lineupxvi but this attitude, too, did not last long. A month later, the now 43-year-old Van Haltren was deemed too old to be of further playing use and dropped from the team.xvii Less than a week later, Rip was back on a PCL diamond, this time clad in umpiring blue. His inaugural appearance for a contest between the Oaks and the San Francisco Seals was later reported to have drawn a sustained ovation from appreciative fans.xviii But not all was smooth sailing for umpire Van Haltren. The following season, Seattle owner Dan Dugdale publicly blasted his work and demanded Van Haltren’s dismissal on grounds of incompetency.xix Whether the league acted on the Dugdale complaint or not, Rip finished the 1912 season calling games in the less prestigious Northwestern League.
For the remainder of his life, Van Haltren lived comfortably, supporting his family through construction jobs and property rental income. He kept his hand in baseball as well, scouting part-time for Pittsburgh and drawing peculiar praise from club owner Barney Dreyfuss for never signing a single prospect for the Pirates. Dreyfuss esteemed Van Haltren’s stern assessment of playing talent, lauding him for having never given the club a “bum steer” on a young player.xx Rip was also a regular at West Coast old-timers games. Still physically fit, he drilled a line-drive single to right in a 1934 event at the age of 68.xxi His last reported public appearance placed him alongside Ty Cobb, Tony Lazzeri, and other retired stars at a hot-stove gala in Alameda in February 1945.xxii On September 29, 1945, George Van Haltren died at his Oakland home from the complications of heart disease. He was 79. Following a funeral Mass at St. Francis de Sales Church, he was laid to rest in nearby St. Mary’s Cemetery. Surviving were his wife, Blanche; a daughter, Dorothy Van Haltren Manlond; and his sister, Mary Van Haltren Mead.xxiii
Van Haltren’s death precipitated a brief West Coast push for his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Contemporaries like Hugh Duffy, Jim O’Rourke, and Tommy McCarthy had recently been summoned to Cooperstown, but Rip never got the call. His champions had to content themselves with the Hall’s acceptance of the silver-encased bat awarded Rip in 1894, donated by his widow via the Oakland Old Timers Club.xxiv The bat still remained on display in 2011, a fitting reminder of George Van Haltren, an outstanding, if not quite immortal, 19th-century ballplayer.
In addition to the sources specifically cited in the Notes below, the following were consulted during the preparation of this profile:
- Bill James, The Politics of Glory: How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1994).
- Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds., The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd ed., (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1997).
- David L. Porter, ed., The Biographical Dictionary of American Sport: Baseball (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000).
- John Thorn et al., eds., Total Baseball, 7th ed., (Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, 2001).
i In the estimation of one prominent commentator, Van Haltren had the best outfield throwing arm of the 1890s. See Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 59.
ii The biographical information contained in this profile is derived from various US censuses and material preserved at the Giammati Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York, including the George Van Haltren player questionnaire and a September 9, 1963, letter from daughter Dorothy Van Haltren Manlond to Cooperstown historian Lee Allen. The Van Haltren children were Albert (born 1858), William (1860), Mary (1864), George (1866), and Charles (1871). An earlier Charles and perhaps other Van Haltren newborns did not survive infancy.
iii California records have family head Peter Van Haltren registering to vote at an Oakland address on September 2, 1868.
iv As recounted in a circa 1888 New York Clipper profile of Van Haltren. The accompanying ink drawing depicts the young ballplayer with the prominent mustache that would become a lifelong signature.
v See Francis J. Pendleton, “George Edward Martin Van Haltren,” in Nineteenth Century Stars (Cleveland: SABR, 1989), 129.
vi The 16 walks stand as an unenviable record for the most allowed in a major-league pitching debut. In the young lefty’s defense, the umpiring ball-and-strike calls were sufficiently egregious for manager Anson to file a formal protest regarding the game’s outcome.
vii The statistics cited herein are from baseball-reference.com.
viii Applying the walk-equals-base-hit scoring rule peculiar to the 1887 season raises the Van Haltren batting average to .267.
ix After the 1890 season, Van Haltren made only 15 more mound appearances, going 1-1 in 69⅓ innings
x Burt Solomon, Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 59.
xi Solomon, 50. Van Haltren committed a league-leading 45 outfield errors in 1892 and showed little of the fielding range that became a hallmark of his later career.
xii The back line of the pitcher’s box had previously been 55½ feet.
xiii Research by members of the SABR Records Committee has recently uncovered the fact that in a June 23, 1897, game against Baltimore, Van Haltren became one of the very few major-league outfielders to participate in three double plays in a single game. The writer is indebted to Records Committee chairman Lyle Spatz for bringing this previously unnoted Van Haltren accomplishment to his attention.
xiv One particularly ugly team imbroglio had the 1900 Giants divided into factions, with Van Haltren aligned with those supporting shortstop George Davis’s purported efforts to undermine the authority of new manager Buck Ewing. Davis vigorously denied the accusation when it was publicly aired by Jack Doyle but Davis nevertheless succeeded Ewing as Giants manager shortly thereafter.
xv Incorporating the anomalous 1887 scoring rules raises Van Haltren’s career numbers to 2,552 hits and a .317 BA.
xvi Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1909.
xvii Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1909.
xviii Washington Post, July 18, 1909.
xix Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1912.
xx Washington Post, May 15, 1910.
xxi Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1934.
xxii Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner, February 13, 1945.
xxiii Oakland Tribune, October 1, 1945. Van Haltren’s three brothers and his daughter Mary Elizabeth Van Haltren Walter had died earlier.
xxiv Oakland Tribune, October 17 and November 10, 1945.