This article was written by Terry Bohn
While playing in the Western Association in 1906, Harry Cheek was reportedly “one of the best catchers in the league notwithstanding that he is one of the smallest in stature. He is always full of pepper and is fast in chasing fouls. He knows how to handle a pitcher and pegs to second with the best of them. Outside of his hitting, which is not as good as it might be, he is as good as any man in the league.” The next year Sporting Life declared him “one of the lightest weight catchers in the league. He is also one of the best. But, Harry’s only weakness is his hitting.”1
These assessments accurately summed up Harry’s career. The diminutive catcher stood 5’8” and most seasons struggled to hit his weight of 160 pounds. None of his minor league season batting averages — .174, .178 twice, .189, and .195 — broke the Mendoza line. However, his superior defensive abilities enabled him to carve out a career in professional baseball spanning more than 20 years, including a two-game trial with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1910. Remarkably, he hit far better in the big leagues, rapping two hits in four at-bats, than in any season he played in the minors.
Harry Gordon Cheek was born April 23, 1879, in Kansas City, Missouri, to John and Martha (nee Matthews) Cheek. He was the youngest of three children; brother Freddy and sister Laura were both older. His parents were Tennessee natives, and his father listed his occupation as a teamster on the 1880 US Census. By that time the family had moved to Sedalia, Missouri, halfway between Kansas City and the state capital of Jefferson City.
Cheek apparently began playing baseball in the Kansas City area as early as 1900. On July 13 that year, the Kansas City Star noted in its “Amateur Baseball Notes” section, that the paper had a letter for “Harry Cheek, catcher.” He caught for an independent team in Nevada, Missouri, in 1901 and the following year, his first in organized baseball, played with the same club when the Nevada Lunatics joined the Class D Missouri Valley League. The next season, he played for the Fort Scott (Kansas) Giants of the same league.2
He split the 1904 season between Grand Forks, North Dakota, of the Northern League and Rock Island, Illinois, of the Three-I. During the season reports circulated that the club in Topeka, Kansas, tried to acquire him, and that he was negotiating with the Pittsburgh Pirates. As a result, three different clubs, Grand Forks, Rock Island, and Waterloo, Iowa, all laid claim to Cheek’s rights. Eventually the National Association’s board of arbitration awarded him to Rock Island.3
Nonetheless, Sedalia, Missouri, of the Class C Western Association acquired him. He played for that team in 1905 and remained in the league for the next three seasons, 1906-1908, with Webb City, Missouri. Around this time Cheek began playing ball in warmer climates during the offseason. Although Webb City still held his rights, in October, 1907 he played with Bisbee, Arizona and later that winter in southern California. During the winter of 1908-1909 he reportedly played in Cuba.4
Cheek got an opportunity to move up into faster company when the Boston Americans, whose new name Red Sox, hadn’t fully caught on yet, drafted him in 1909. But Boston was set at the catcher position with Bill Carrigan and back-ups Tubby Spencer and Pat Donahue, so they optioned Cheek to the Baltimore Orioles of the Class A Eastern League. He hit .223 in 43 games before being farmed out to the Albany Senators in the New York State League in mid-June, although later in the season Baltimore briefly recalled him.5 .
In November 1909, Jack Dunn bought the Baltimore franchise from Edward Hanlon and then approached Boston president John I. Taylor about loaning Cheek back to the Orioles for the coming season. These discussions about Cheek may have been the start of the association between the two franchises that eventually led to Dunn selling Babe Ruth to the Red Sox a few years later. Instead of sending him to the Orioles, Boston put Cheek on waivers, and all of the clubs in both leagues passed on Cheek, except Horace Fogel of the Philadelphia Phillies.6
Now Philadelphia’s property, Cheek went to spring training with them and made the club’s opening day roster. He made his major league debut on April 30 against the New York Giants at home in the Baker Bowl. Starting catcher/manager Red Dooin, who was also Cheek’s manager, put him in as a late-inning defensive replacement for himself. Cheek collected a single in two AB against Giants pitcher Rube Marquard. His second, and last, major league game, was on May 12 against the Reds in Cincinnati. He again replaced Dooin and led off the seventh inning with a double. He thus completed his big league career with a sparkling lifetime slash line of .500/.500/.750 — two for four (one hit a double), a run scored, and eight innings behind the plate in the two games.
The Phillies then purchased catcher Pat Moran from the Chicago Cubs leaving Cheek the odd man out. Dooin tried to arrange a deal to send Cheek back to Baltimore, but the teams couldn’t reach satisfactory terms. So, Cheek was optioned to his former team in Albany. The frustrated and angry catcher refused to report and only did when Albany agreed to match his MLB salary, $500 a month. The rest of the 1910 season was uneventful except for an incident in August when Cheek and several teammates were arrested for violating the ban on Sunday baseball when the team was in Binghamton, New York, for a game.7
After an early season suspension for refusing to sign his contract, he returned to Albany in 1911. His season was cut short when he was beaned in September and hospitalized for a concussion. The Sacramento Sacts of the Pacific Coast League (PCL) drafted him during the offseason, and he spent the next five years of his professional career on the west coast. He hit .263, his career-best seasonal batting average in 1912 for Sacramento but illness, especially a severe bout of pneumonia early in the 1913 season, caused him to miss much of it. By the end of the year he had recovered enough to organize a team of PCL and Northwestern League players for a barnstorming tour, including a stop at the Arizona State Fair.
In January 1914 Sacramento sold Cheek to the Vancouver Beavers of the Northwestern League. And the following month several sources reported that Cheek had signed with Chicago’s Federal League team; he and Chicago manager Joe Tinker had played ball together on the sandlots of Kansas City some 15 years earlier. Whether he ever signed is unclear, but perhaps he didn’t make the team. In mid-March the Seattle Times reported, that Cheek “could not land a job so will report to Vancouver to talk business.” He finally agreed on a contact with Vancouver and had another strong season: hitting .256 in 115 games and being named one of two catchers on the league’s post-season all-star team. Somewhat reminiscent of Crash Davis in Bull Durham, Cheek, who had briefly been in the “show,” mentored a young, 20-year-old left-handed pitcher in Vancouver named Dutch Ruether.8
The veteran catcher had lost none of former hustle and enthusiasm. He still sprinted down the line to back up first base on infield outs and chose not to wear shin guards because he felt they interfered with his ability to chase foul pops. He played two more seasons with Vancouver, 1915-16, and when the U.S. entered World War I, took a job with the Ames Shipbuilding Yard in Seattle. Vancouver had sold his rights to a ball club in Great Falls, Montana, but Cheek decided to stay retired from baseball. “I have had 16 years of baseball and made up my mind if I got with a firm where I could advance myself I would stick,” he said.9
An amusing incident happened while working at the Ames plant. Some years earlier Robert Blewitt, then president of the Pacific Coast League, fined Cheek $25 for some infraction. Blewett now found himself working at the same shipyard as Cheek but didn’t remember him. Cheek was in charge of a tool room, and at the end of each shift workers, including Blewett, had to check in their tools with him. Even though all the tools were returned, Cheek recorded that Blewett had lost tools over several days in a row and deducted the amount of the loss in his next paycheck. When Blewett complained, Cheek laughed. “Remember that $25 you fined me in Vancouver?” Then he turned and walked away.10
According to the 1920 US Census, Harry was still living in Seattle and working as a foreman at the Ames shipyard. On May 27, 1921, he married Wilma Emler in Bellingham, Washington, and on the marriage certificate he listed his occupation as salesman. What line of sales Cheek was in wasn’t stated, but it may have been related to sporting goods. While still an active player he worked off seasons as a ticket taker in ice arenas, first in Vancouver and most recently in Seattle. A1922 report said: “Harry Cheek is now identified with the professional hockey sport of this section.”11
Apparently, an injury to his right thumb “that he had not been able to bend since 1915” had been the cause for his premature retirement from baseball. An operation in 1923 corrected the problem, and Harry, now north of 40 years old, was still looking for job catching. The only opportunity available in 1923 was a job as a backup catcher with Hastings in the Class D Nebraska State League. However, his season was cut short when he broke his leg in a game in August. While recovering, he worked as the business manger for the club the rest of the season.12
After spending the winter at his home in Long Beach, California, Cheek returned to Hastings (now in the Class D Tri-State League) to manage the club in 1924. However, he left the team in mid-July upon the death of his mother, and apparently didn’t return to baseball. Harry Cheek died on August 25, 1927, at the age of 48 in Redwood City, California, and was cremated. His wife Wilma survived him, but he left no known descendants.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Tom Schott, and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.
Unless otherwise noted, all playing statistics taken from Cheek’s player page in Baseball-Reference.com (Chadwick ID: 035f30af) and family and geological information from ancestry.com.
1 Topeka (Kansas) State Journal, August 25, 1906; Sporting Life, May 25, 1907.
2 Kansas City Star, July 13, 1900.
3 Topeka State Journal, June10, August 2, 1904; “Diamond Gossip,” Rockford Illinois] Register-Gazette, September 21, 1904.
4 Topeka State Journal, January 30, 1909.
5 “Cheek and Dessau Drafted: Former Goes to Boston and Latter to Brooklyn Club,” Baltimore American, September 2, 1909; “Red Sox Strong Behind the Bat,” Boston Post, December 23, 1909.
6 “Taylor Sells Catcher Cheek to Philadelphia Nationals,” Boston Herald, January 7, 1910.
7 Sporting Life, May 21, 1910.
8 “Cheek Goes to Federals,” Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1914; Seattle Times, March 16, 1914.
9 Seattle Star, March 20, 1916; The Portland Oregonian), March 19, 1918.
10 Seattle Star, September 18, 1918.
11 Tacoma News, December 2, 1922.
12 Tacoma Ledger, February 15, 1923; “Harry Cheek Signed to Make Hastings Team Next Season,” Seattle Times, September 30, 1923; “State Leaguers Making Big Trip”, Beatrice [Nebraska] Express, September 4, 1923.