The photograph hanging on the wall of a Cincinnati area pizzeria inspired Russ Gastright to delve into some family history, specifically about the life and up-and-down career of a certain right-handed pitcher. A friend of Russ’s spotted the photo, a team shot of the 1896 Reds. One player’s name stood out.
“My friend, Mike Draznik, told me about a guy named ‘Hank Gastright,’” said Russ, who grew up in northern Kentucky just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. “I thought, ‘Wow, I guess it’s true. We really do have a major leaguer in the family.’”1
Russ had heard for years that one of his relatives played major-league baseball in the nineteenth century. His father, Bill, mentioned it several times. He played for the local team, the Reds, Bill said. But, what position did he play? How long did he play? Did he play for any team besides the Reds? The story was fuzzy. About 15 years ago, Russ began looking into the details. All because of that photo on the wall of a pizzeria. He wanted to fill in the gaps, on the field and off it.
First, Russ contacted a cousin in South Carolina who does genealogical research. Yes, she said, Hank Gastright is your great-great-uncle. Bingo! Russ began surfing the internet, writing letters to research libraries, and sending emails to historical societies, the Library of Congress, The Sporting News, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He collected newspaper articles and any other tidbits he could find about Hank, a 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pound hurler.
Hank Gastright enjoyed one big year in the major leagues and played seven total seasons (1889-94, 1896). He won 72 games, including 30 as a 25-year-old in 1890, although he never won more than 15 games in any other year. He also threw four of his six career shutouts in 1890, the only time he completed a campaign with a sub-3.00 ERA.
“What happened after that one big year? He was still young and at the peak of his strength and durability,” said Russ, 64, who counted Reds stars Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson as two of his boyhood baseball heroes. “You get started with this search and you really can’t stop. You want to know more about Uncle Hank.”2
Henri Carl Gastreich was born on March 29, 1865, in Covington, Kentucky, the son of German immigrant Frederick and Swiss immigrant Catherine (Borgman) Gastreich. Frederick was born in 1832, Catherine in 1836. The couple married in 1855 and had 12 children, according to the 1910 US Census. (The Census also reported that only five of the Gastreich children were still living.) Frederick worked as a miller in nearby Newport, Kentucky.
Hank found work at a local mill as a teenager. The future big leaguer played for the Favorites, a semipro team, and signed with the Toledo Maumees of the Tri-State League in late 1888 One year later, the newly formed Columbus Solons (also called the Buckeyes) of the major-league American Association purchased Gastright’s contract. (Hank eventually changed the spelling of “Gastreich” to “Gastright.” Most newspaper accounts of his playing career use the latter spelling, as do his descendants.)
Columbus finished 60-78 in 1889, in sixth place in the eight-team league. First baseman David Orr jumpstarted the Solons’ offense. He batted .327 and drove in 87 runs. Mark Baldwin led the pitching staff. He threw a league-leading 513⅔ innings, struck out 368 batters, and went 27-34.
Gastright, who made his major-league debut on April 19, 1889, started 26 games and relieved in six others as a rookie. He went 10-16 and posted a 4.57 ERA with 21 complete games. Bases on balls hurt him. Gastright walked 104 batters in 222⅔ innings.
Even so, Columbus manager Al Buckenberger liked what he saw. The kid had some talent. Buckenberger, though, feared that Gastright might jump to the newly formed Players’ League. (Future Hall of Fame pitcher and infielder John Montgomery Ward helped organize the league, which attracted many National League stars but lasted just one season.) The skipper wanted to keep his young pitcher in Columbus, and the two negotiated into the late-night hours at the Grand Hotel in downtown Cincinnati. They finally agreed to a deal worth $2,500.3
Gastright rewarded Buckenberger’s confidence in him. The second-year hurler won 30 games, lost 14 and sported a 2.94 ERA. He finished third among American Association pitchers in wins, seventh in ERA, and second (tied) in shutouts with four. Gastright completed 41 of his 45 starts, hurled 401⅓ innings, gave up 312 hits, struck out 199, and walked 135. He also hit 18 batters. The 24-year-old finished fifth in innings pitched during this rubber-armed era. (Sadie McMahon led the Association with 509 innings pitched with two teams.) Thanks in part to Gastright, Columbus vaulted ahead of several teams and finished in second place with a 79-55 won-lost mark.
The 1890 Solons relied on outfielder Spud Johnson to do much of the heavy hitting. He drove in 113 runs and batted .346 in his second big-league season. Third baseman Charlie Reilly smacked four home runs and catcher Jack O’Connor batted .324. Frank Knauss (17-12, 2.81 ERA), Elton “Ice Box” Chamberlain (12-6, 2.21 ERA, six shutouts), and Jack Easton (15-14, 3.52) rounded out the pitching staff.
Gastright, the Solons’ ace, grabbed many of the sports-column headlines. A Philadelphia Inquirer reporter wrote, “Gastright pitched phenomenal ball and was almost faultlessly backed up” in a 7-3 Solons win on May 8.4 Gastright also threw a solid game on June 19 against the Louisville Colonels. He won 7-1, allowing just the solo run in the second inning. “Columbus defeated Louisville hands down today,” wrote the Democrat and Chronicle, “thanks to the wonderful pitching of Gastright and the hard hitting of the home team.”5
In a July 15 home game against the Brooklyn Gladiators at Recreation Park, the Solons won a 16-2 laugher. A Brooklyn Eagle reporter grumbled about the Gladiators and reserved his compliments for the Solons’ starting pitcher: “Gastright was in great form. Only three scattered hits were made off him.”6
Gastright saved his best effort for a game late in the season. He hurled an eight-inning no-hitter at home against Toledo on October 12, winning 6-0 in front of about 4,000 fans. He struck out six and walked just one. Umpires were forced to call the game because of darkness. The Daily Ohio State Journal praised Gastright’s masterpiece: “All hail, King Gastright, Ruler of the Realm of the Pig-skin,” the writer exclaimed. “As for Gastright’s superb work, no such pitching has been seen this or any other year.”7
Columbus scored single runs in the first, fourth, and sixth innings and three more in the seventh. No Toledo runner reached third base. “You couldn’t curve a dinner plate as much as Mr. Gastright curves the ball,” the newspaper said. “Sometimes, it comes so swift that spectators in the grandstand have to tie themselves to their seats and hold their hats on.”8
It looked as though Gastright had emerged as a major-league star. A Wichita Daily Eagle writer called him “one of the crack twirlers of the American Association.”9 The 1891 campaign, though, turned sour for both Gastright and the Solons. Columbus fell to 61-76, slipping once again to sixth place. Phil Knell, in his third season, took over as the team’s top pitcher. He went 28-27 with a 2.92 ERA and 47 complete games.
Gastright dropped to 12-19. More telling, his ERA rose to 3.78, nearly a run higher than in 1890. He threw just 283⅔ innings, more than 100 fewer innings than the previous year, and walked 136. What went wrong? Russ Gastright thinks that the heavy workload from the 1890 campaign took its toll. “They wore him out,” said Russ, still trying to figure out why his great-great-uncle’s career took such a sudden downturn. “If he had promise, it was gone after that year.”10
Gastright’s Columbus career ended with the 1891 campaign. It had nothing to do with his frequent wild streaks. Rather, the American Association, which had been founded in 1882, went out of business after 10 seasons. Gastright, suddenly unemployed as a major-league pitcher, needed work. He signed with the Washington Nationals, who finished a woeful 44-91 in 1891 and were one of four AA teams (Louisville, Baltimore, and St. Louis the other three) that joined the now 12-team National League.
The 1892 Nats didn’t fare much better than the previous year’s team. They went 58-93 and ended up 10th. (The NL played a split-season format that year. Washington went 35-41 in the first half, good for fifth place, and dropped to last place in the second half with a 23-52 mark.) It probably wasn’t any fun playing losing baseball during a hot, sticky summer in the nation’s capital. At least Gastright missed much of the losing. He pitched in only 11 games and threw just 79⅔ innings, going 3-3 with a 5.08 ERA as a starter and reliever.
Next stop, Pittsburgh. Gastright signed a contract to play for the Pirates in 1893. It was a short stay. On the upside, he won three games and lost just one for a team (81-48) that finished in second place, thanks in part to three hitters (Jake Beckley, Denny Lyons, and Mike Smith) who each drove in over 100 runs. On the downside, Gastright had a 6.25 ERA. The bugaboo? Yes, too many baserunners. Gastright gave up a combined 113 hits and walks in just 59 innings. Pittsburgh released him in June. Gastright was once again free to look for a job.
The Boston Beaneaters gave him a shot, signing him in early July. Gastright had asked Beaneaters manager Frank Selee for a tryout, according to the Boston Post. Selee “always had a good opinion of Gastright … (who) always showed that he could pitch good ball. But he lost confidence in himself.”11
The Beaneaters were coming off another successful season. They finished 102-48 in 1892 to capture their second straight pennant, 8½ games ahead of the second-place Cleveland Spiders, and defeated them and the great Cy Young in a postseason series.
Boston featured top hitters like Hugh Duffy, Tommy McCarthy, and Billy Nash, and complemented them with excellent pitching. Kid Nichols, who would win 361 games in a Hall of Fame career, was the team’s workhorse and ace. Gastright blended in with a starting staff that included Jack Stivetts and Harry Staley in addition to Nichols.
The 1893 Beaneaters didn’t match the 1892 squads lofty record, but still went 86-43 and earned another pennant. Duffy batted .363 and drove in 118 runs. Nash knocked in a team-high 123 runs, while McCarthy brought home 111 runs and hit .346. Nichols hurled 425 innings and went 34-14, the third straight year that he won at least 30 games. (Nichols reached the 30-win plateau seven times in his 15-year career and topped the 400-inning mark five times.)
Stivetts finished 20-12, while Staley compiled an 18-10 mark. Gastright, for his part, went 12-4 with an elevated 5.13 ERA in less than a full season of work. He pitched in 19 games, starting 18. Over his 156 innings, he gave up 179 hits and walked 76 batters. (By comparison, Nichols walked 118 in his 425 innings.) Gastright struck out 27 batters and hit nine.
Clearly the Boston offense provided Gastright with plenty of run support. He led the NL with a .750 winning percentage (15-5 total won-lost mark) despite posting an overall ERA of 5.44 between his work with the Pirates and the Beaneaters.
Gastright hung in there and won games even if he didn’t always win pretty. He gave up eight runs against the Louisville Colonels on September 8, but the Beaneaters scored 11, highlighted by a five-run third inning. The Chicago Tribune reported, “The Louisvilles batted hard all-through the game, but the lead which the Bostons gained in the earlier innings was more than the visitors could overcome. The contest was long drawn out and tedious.”12
The Boston Post still lauded Gastright for his “masterly” pitching delivery. “Comments have been made on his great success. He wants the Bostons to win every game and, when not pitching, always helps the team by coaching,” the paper said. On a personal note, the Post reported: “Gastright is very attractive. In his street clothes, he would be taken for a clergy man, an actor or a student. He is tall and well-built and a modest, unassuming fellow.”13
An article in the October 14, 1893, edition of the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Leader labeled Gastright “one of the mysteries of the season,” adding, “Last year, he was a ‘floater,’ being engaged and released on an average of once a month.” Gastright began his tenure with Boston in a similar fashion, the writer explained. “When at last the Bostons gave him a trial, while Stivetts and Staley were almost useless, the other clubs (knew) that the champions were indeed in desperate straits. But here the unexpected happened. Gastright turned up in winning form.”14
Once again, though, Gastright packed his suitcase when the season ended. The Beaneaters released him in April 1894 after a short salary dispute. Gastright told the Cincinnati Enquirer that Boston wanted to cut his salary, so he refused to sign a contract.15
The Brooklyn Bridegrooms came calling. Gastright joined a team that went 65-63 the previous season and featured top pitchers Brickyard Kennedy and Ed Stein. The May 18, 1894, edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle paid Gastright several compliments. “Gastright is a man of exemplary habits, does not drink nor use tobacco in any form,” the paper said, adding, “He is quiet and gentlemanly on and off the field and is always in condition.”16
Gastright pitched only one season in Brooklyn despite his clean living. He started eight games and relieved in eight others. Gastright ended the year with a woeful 2-6 won-lost record and a sky-high 6.39 ERA. The problem was simple and the same old story. He allowed way too many baserunners. In 93 innings, Gastright gave up 135 hits (13.1 hits per nine innings) and walked 55 (5.3 BB per nine innings).
Even so, he threw one of the best games of his career on June 1. The 29-year-old hurled a one-hit shutout against the Chicago Colts. Only three runners reached first base. The Eagle reported that Gastright “pitched phenomenal ball and deserves all the credit of his victory.” His effort was, the Eagle decided, “a remarkable achievement for a pitcher in these days of heavy batting.” After the final out, “Gastright was showered with congratulations.”17
Usually, though, Gastright struggled during his time with Brooklyn. The Eagle offered some sympathy, especially after he lost a game late in June to the Senators. A reporter acknowledged that Washington “succeeded in knocking Gastright out of the box.” On the other hand, “Few people, however, recognize the difficulties under which Gastright labored. Those who have seen the Washington ball grounds would see the difficulties in an instant. These grounds are the worst in the circuit.” The writer even cut Gastright some slack over the pitcher’s now-typical control problems. A stiff breeze had swirled through the park that day, according the article. “An eddying wind also interfered with Gastright’s delivery and made it impossible for him to get the ball over the plate.”18
Brooklyn, which ended the season at 70-61 and in fifth place, released Gastright in August. The Eagle reported on August 4 that “Gastright will sever his connections with the club’s pay roll on Monday next.”19
Illness prevented Gastright from pitching in 1895. He explained to the Cincinnati Enquirer: “I took the typhoid fever and that is the reason I did not succeed. I have entirely recovered, and I am sure that I am as good as I was before I took sick.”20
According to the Pittsburgh Press, Gastright relaxed in his Kentucky home that spring and waited for a team to contact him. Apparently, he was a little picky. He didn’t want to pitch for just any ballclub. “He has had some offers from clubs in both the eastern and western leagues, but turned them down,” the Press reported.21
A Cincinnati Enquirer writer pushed the Reds to invite Gastright to spring training in 1896. “Fans will cheer even louder for a local guy to succeed on the baseball diamond,” the newspaper asserted. “Nine out of 10 of the local enthusiasts want the Cincinnati Club to give Gastright a trial. …. Come on, Buck (Ewing, the Reds manager), give Henry a chance.”22
Club officials finally relented and told the veteran hurler to join his new team in New Orleans. Gastright seemed thankful. He told the Enquirer that “it won’t take me long to find out whether I am a has-been or not.”23 (At least one newspaper objected to this media pressure: “In Cincinnati, the newspapers forced the hiring of Henry Gastright,” wrote the Buffalo Enquirer. “This kind of interference with the duties of a manager is the worst sort and always works harm.”24)
Injuries postponed Gastright’s comeback attempt. He pitched in a few practice games, but soon hurt his back “slipping on a stone slab in the pitcher’s box.”25 The mishap kept him off the field until early June. Finally, on June 5, Gastright took the mound again in a big-league game. Ewing asked Gastright to open the third inning against Brooklyn. Grooms hitters had knocked around Cincinnati starter Frank Dwyer. Gastright could not stop Brooklyn’s attack. He gave up eight hits and six runs (three of them earned) in six innings. Cincinnati lost, 10-1.
The Enquirer on June 6, 1896, pleaded that the hometown ballplayer simply needed a little more time to shake off the rust. “After a pitcher has been out for a year and three months,” it lectured; “it cannot be expected that he will jump in and pitch to championship form.”26
Gastright never pitched another major-league game. He contracted dysentery and went home to recuperate. The Reds released him in late July. Gastright signed with the Hartford Blue Jays of the Atlantic League. With Hartford he posted a 13-7 record and a 2.34 ERA in 1897. Gastright waited for one more chance to pitch in the big leagues but never got the call.
Gastright left major-league baseball with a lifetime record of 72-63. Of his 72 wins, 30 came in 1890. Gastright played in 173 games over his career, 171 as a pitcher, one as an outfielder, and one as a pinch-hitter. He started 143 times, completed 121 games and recorded two saves. Gastright struck out 514 batters but walked 584. Over his 1,301⅓ innings, he gave up 1,337 hits, and retired with a 4.20 ERA.
Gastright never married. He lived with his widowed mother for many years and then with his brother Tony. He pitched for several amateur teams in Covington, reportedly did some umpiring, and served on the Newport, Kentucky, police department. Later, he worked as a miller for the Union Hay and Grain Company. In his last years Gastright suffered from poor health, living mostly at the Campbell County Infirmary.
The former big leaguer was 72 years old when he died on October 9, 1937, in Cold Spring, Kentucky, just a few miles from his birthplace. He is buried at St. Joseph Cemetery in Wilder, Kentucky. Several Gastright family members are buried nearby.
Russ Gastright has compiled several folders filled with newspaper clippings, statistical pages, letters from research librarians, and more, about his great-great-uncle. Even so, he still has plenty of questions. Did the former ballplayer follow his hometown Reds? Did he do any coaching? The ultimate prize for Hank would be to find a diary. Did Hank write one? “Hank was born March 29, 1865,” Russ said. “Cy Young was born March 29, 1867. They played on opposing teams, but did they ever meet? Did they ever talk about sharing the same birthday? That would be cool to know.”27
The topic of Hank Gastright comes up frequently when Russ gets together with his brothers. Having a former big leaguer in the family also is quite the conversation piece when he talks about baseball with friends. “I tell people that my great-great-uncle played in the major leagues and he even played for the Reds, though it was just for one game,” Russ said. “At least he did have a few good seasons in the big leagues.”28
The author thanks Hank Gastright’s great-great-nephew, Russ Gastright, for his help in putting together this biography. Russ provided valuable information and feedback.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted baseball-almanac.com and baseball-reference.com.
1 Author interview with Russ Gastright, November 22, 2017.
2 Author interview with Russ Gastright, December 19, 2017.
3 “Hugh Duffy with the Brotherhood,” Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1890: 6.
4 “Gastright Pitched Phenomenal Ball,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 9, 1890: 6.
5 “Special Dispatch to Democrat and Chronicle,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 20, 1890: 7.
6 “Keeping It Up,” Brooklyn Eagle, July 16, 1890: 2.
7 Daily Ohio State Journal (Columbus), October 13, 1890: 1.
9 “Columbus’ Crack Pitcher,” Wichita Daily Eagle, January 21, 1891: 6.
10 Joe Heffron and Jack Heffron, The Local Boys: Hometown Players for the Cincinnati Reds (Covington, Kentucky: Clerisy Press, 2014), 80.
11 Boston Sunday Post, September 10, 1893: 15.
12 “Boston, 11; Louisville 8,” Chicago Tribune, September 9, 1893: 7.
13 Boston Sunday Post, September 10, 1893: 15.
14 “The Pennant Winners,” Allentown (Pennsylvania) Leader, October 14, 1893: 2.
15 Heffron and Heffron, 80.
16 ”Pitcher Henry Gastright. The Latest Addition to Brooklyn’s Ball Team,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 18, 1894: 6.
17 “Shut Out with One Hit,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 2, 1894: 5.
18 “We Are in Fourth Place,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 20, 1894: 5.
19 “A Game for Each Team,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 4, 1894: 5.
20 Heffron and Heffron, 80.
21 “Baseball Brevities,” Pittsburgh Press, April 25, 1895: 5.
22 Heffron and Heffron, 80.
24 “Spiders’ Makeup,” Buffalo Enquirer, April 1, 1896: 8.
25 Heffron and Heffron, 81.
26 “Baseball Gossip,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 6, 1896: 2.
27 Interview with Russ Gastright, November 22, 2017.