This article was written by Ron Schuler
Major-league pitcher and umpire J. Harry Colliflower was born on March 11, 1869, in Petersville, Maryland. His first name was the same as his father’s: James, a carpenter. His mother was Catherine Cramer Colliflower. The family was reasonably well-off; they had a domestic living with them at the time of the 1870 U.S. census. There were four children in the family, an older sister named Lillie, an older brother, Charles, and a younger brother, Robert.
Colliflower only pitched one partial season in the majors, and is remembered today, if at all, as a paragon of big-league futility. It was Colliflower’s fate to be picked up in July 1899 by the Cleveland Spiders, a National League ballclub that was destined to set a record as the worst team in major-league baseball history — yes, even worse than the 1962 New York Mets, who finished with a .250 win percentage.
In 1889, the Cleveland National League franchise, then known as the “Forest Citys,” was purchased by horse-drawn streetcar tycoon Frank DeHaas Robison. Under Robison’s leadership, the Cleveland Spiders were built into one of the most successful franchises of the 1890s — the 1895 Temple Cup champions and perennial contenders, featuring future Hall of Famers such as Cy Young and Jesse Burkett.
Things changed overnight for the Spiders when, after the 1898 season, Robison bought the St. Louis ballclub in a sheriff’s sale. In what has become the living embodiment of major-league sports prohibitions against the ownership of more than one competing club by a single owner, Robison decided that St. Louis would be a more profitable baseball city, and essentially robbed his Cleveland club of its best players to support his preferred St. Louis team, which he named the Perfectos. That left Robison’s brother Stanley to run the Spiders as a “sideshow,” populating the club with a rag-tag collection of minor-league and semipro players, and whomever else Brother Stan could manage to snag on short notice.
In their first 38 games of the 1899 season, the Spiders lost 30 and won only 8. That’s when Stanley Robison fired his player-manager, brave Lave Cross, and did him the favor of exporting him to St. Louis. Slick-fielding second baseman Joe Quinn picked up where Cross left off, and the results were even worse, if you can imagine it: the Spiders won just 12 games out of their next 116. On July 15, the Spiders reached the depths of ignominy when they were held scoreless in a doubleheader against Baltimore, losing 10-0 and 5-0.
The team was so bad and so unloved in Cleveland, that after July 1, they gave up playing in Cleveland altogether, playing the rest of their season on the road. Thereafter, the newspapers began referring to them as the “Wanderers,” or the “Exiles.” Meanwhile, sportswriter Elmer Bates recounted the reasons why it was good for one to follow the Cleveland Spiders: “You have everything to hope for and nothing to fear. Defeats do not rack your nerves or disturb your sleep. An occasional victory affords both surprise and delight. You are in no danger of being displaced by some team that has been designated by the critics as no good . . . You are not asked fifty times a day: ‘What’s the score?’ People take it for granted that that the club was defeated . . .” 1
In 1899, Harry Colliflower was a Washington, D.C., carpenter who had gained a bit of local renown as a semipro southpaw hurler with the Eastern Athletic Club. He had some minor-league experience, first playing for Norfolk in 1894 and 1895, for both the New Haven Texas Steers in 1896 and the Austin Senators in 1896 and 1897, and he’d played for part of 1898 for Oswego. At the beginning of the 1899 season, the 30-year-old was considering some minor-league offers and almost signed with a Texas club. But on July 21, Colliflower was still pitching for Eastern when Joe Quinn, whose Spiders were in town to face the Senators, signed him to pitch.
In his first major-league appearance, Colliflower shined, giving up only three runs on six hits to lead the Spiders to a 5-3 victory in the first half of a doubleheader. The Washington Post gushed, “Colliflower possesses every quality that is required in a major league twirler. He has fine control of the ball, good speed, and, the requisite amount of nerve.”
From there it was all downhill for poor Harry. Staying with the club for the rest of the 1899 season, Colliflower amassed a record of 1-11 with an ERA of 8.17. On one outing in September, Colliflower gave up the first two-major league hits to future Hall of Famer Sam Crawford. Colliflower pitched his last game on October 12 during the Spiders’ final road series in Cincinnati, and losing to the Reds, 6-2. For their last game of the season (and of the franchise), the Spiders’ starting pitcher was a 19-year-old cigar stand clerk they found in Cincinnati named Eddie Kolb. The Spiders lost to the Reds, 19-3.
The Post for the most part kept mum about Washington’s favorite son during the season, noting merely that Colliflower was batting well in September. True enough, Colliflower added more to the team as a hitter, finishing the season with a batting average of .303; Quinn put him in center field and at first base a few times just to get his bat into the lineup.
The Cleveland club, which finished in last place with a record of 20-134, folded at the end of the season as the National League contracted from twelve teams to eight. Robison may have ruined Cleveland, but he didn’t manage to reap any rewards with his St. Louis super-club – they finished the season 18 1/2 games out of first place.
Having lost his major-league berth, Colliflower drifted during the next few years – after playing for three different clubs in 1900 (Wilkes-Barre in the Atlantic League, and New Haven and Derby in the Connecticut State League). He then kept busy pitching and/or coaching for one or another of Washington’s semipro clubs or in the Virginia State League, umpiring high school games or refereeing in the nascent Professional Basketball circuit. In 1905, he coached Georgetown University’s baseball team before catching on as a semipro and minor-league umpire, returning to D.C. in the offseason to work in the D.C. Highway Department. A couple of years after his marriage to Lillian Genevieve Rice in June 1906, he umpired for two seasons in the South Atlantic League before being engaged by American League president Ban Johnson to report for duty as an American League umpire in July 1910.
The Colliflowers had three children: Dorothy, in 1907, Edward in 1909, and Harry in 1910.
Writer David Q. Voigt notes what a difficult time Colliflower had adjusting as a major-league umpire: “When an earnest young neophyte named Colliflower joined the American League staff, he was cruelly mocked for the name. He changed his name to James, but this was a bad choice since antagonists took to calling him ‘Jesse.’ Under such conditions, survival demanded that a man have tough moral fiber.” 2 According to Retrosheet, he umpired in 46 games, 19 behind the plate and 27 at first base.3
Colliflower umpired in the Southern League in 1911, and returned to D.C. in 1912 as an umpire for the “Departmental League,” a collection of ballclubs organized by clerks in the various branches of the federal government. (The box scores from these games are quite entertaining –there’s probably nowhere else one can find Interior beating the War Department, for example.)
As the years progressed, Colliflower spent some time scouting for the major leagues, allegedly discovering Detroit first baseman Lu Blue, but for the most part, he worked as a clerk for his nephew James E. Colliflower’s fuel oil and coal company. James E. Colliflower was known as a leading citizen of D.C., “the fellow who has a hand in everything that goes on around Washington,” and is enshrined in the Georgetown Sports Hall of Fame for coaching the Georgetown varsity basketball squad from 1911 to 1914, having received his bachelor’s degree and three law degrees there. Harry eased into a graceful retirement from the sporting scene, coming out occasionally to perform “Casey at the Bat” for athletic club luncheons. Harry passed away at the age of 92 on August 14, 1961, in Washington, D.C., leaving behind his wife Genevieve Rice Colliflower, daughter Dorothy and son Harry, Jr.4 He was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
In addition to the sources noted, the author consulted Sporting Life, The Sporting News, and other publications of the day.
1 Sporting Life, July 22, 1899, 5.
2 David Quentin Voigt, American Baseball. Vol. 2: From the Commissioners to Continental Expansion (University Press, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1983), 103.
4 The Sporting News, August 30, 1961. Colliflower’s District of Columbia Certificate of Death states his date of death as August 14, not the previously-understood August 12. Harry and Genevieve had two sons, the eldest of which had played semipro baseball before a bad injury “took him out of the game.” See letter from Dorothy Colliflower Newell to Joseph Simenic, April 23, 1974. The letter is in Colliflower’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In the letter, Mrs. Newell says that Ty Cobb used to visit the family home when she was a very young girl and that she was always her father’s “date” every year for Opening Day; he had a season pass from Clark Griffith every year.