This article was written by Terry Bohn
A catcher’s close proximity to the home plate umpire doesn’t bode well for a receiver with a propensity for umpire baiting and “rowdy tactics.” This was the case for Harry “Spike” LaRoss, whose many fines and suspensions, along with many injuries, necessitated a move to the outfield early in his career. The 5’11”, 170 pound right-handed hitter could fill in at first base as needed and catch in an emergency, but he could better showcase his speed and strong throwing arm in the outfield. This versatility helped LaRoss carve out a 12-year career in professional baseball, including a one-month trial with the Cincinnati Reds in 1914.
Harry Raymond LaRoss was born January 2, 1888, in Easton, Pennsylvania, to William, a railroad switchman and brakeman, and Florence LaRoss. He had two older brothers, Charles and Fred, and a younger brother Leland. By the time of the 1900 US Census the family had moved to Chicago where Harry lived for the rest of his life except when he was playing ball. Incidentally, Harry’s brother Leland, nicknamed “Dago,” played two years (1921-22) with the Chicago Cardinals in the new National Football League.
LaRoss’s first appearance in organized baseball was with the Winchester, Kentucky Hustlers of the Class D Blue Grass League in 1911. He opened the season as the team’s stating catcher and hit .252 in 93 games despite missing considerable time with a split finger, one of his numerous injuries. However, he had tried out with Madison in the Class C Wisconsin-Illinois League in 1910 but didn’t make the cut. Described as “a sort of utility man who catches, plays, first, and the outfield,” he apparently played later that year as the name LaRoss appeared in a box score, as right fielder for Madison in May. Moreover, LaRoss listed his occupation as “ballplayer” in the US census that year.1
The Battle Creek Crickets of the Southern Michigan League signed LaRoss the following March. A couple of months into the season, the first of many confrontations between LaRoss and umpires occurred. On June 11, two Michigan papers reported that an umpire named Conklin had fined LaRoss during a game in Bay City and that afterwards, Battle Creek’s manager Ed McKernan confronted Conklin at a hotel in town. McKernan gave Conklin the choice of withdrawing LaRoss’s fine or “taking a thrashing.” When Conklin replied that the fine was going to stick, McKernan left and returned a few minutes later with LaRoss, shortstop Wese Callahan, and according to some witnesses, catcher Garland Nevitt. LaRoss then “hit Conklin on the head, knocked off his cap, and threw it in his face.” LaRoss also threatened to “get” league president Bowen during his tirade. Bowen immediately suspended LaRoss and began an investigation into the other participants’ role in the incident. He decided not to issue any more suspensions, “for fear of crippling the team when it is fighting so hard in the race.”2
The Battle Creek ballplayers were well aware that a month earlier, on May 15, Detroit’s Ty Cobb had gone into the stands in New York and assaulted a fan. AL president Ban Johnson promptly suspended him. But Cobb’s teammates refused to play unless he was reinstated and went on strike in support of him. A team of replacement players Detroit had to field for a game against the Philadelphia A’s lost the game 24-2. Battle Creek briefly considered striking in support of their suspended teammate. Whether their threat had any effect or not, LaRoss was back in the Cricket lineup by June 18.3
Later in August LaRoss had another dustup with a home plate umpire named LaRocque The ump should’ve “wept on the shoulder of his nearest friend,” according to a reporter, “but instead kept up an appearance of fortitude, and ejected LaRoss from the park. The supply of police having been exhausted by previous calls upon their number, a deputy sheriff, Charlie Cross, acted as usher to LaRoss.” Despite the altercations with umpires, and a stretch of time missed due to blood poisoning from a spike wound, he ended up hitting .241 in 109 games for Battle Creek.4
After a brief salary holdout, LaRoss met with Southern Michigan League president Bowen before the 1913 season. Bowen convinced him that he was hurting his chances to advance because “scouts” were increasingly “looking with disfavor on the players who are continually ruled off the field.” In short, he had a better chance of advancing in baseball by “laying off the umpires.” Subsequently LaRoss was mostly on his best behavior. However, he was suspended in August for “threatening talk to umpire Green.” Now primarily an outfielder, LaRoss had another strong season hitting .259 in 115 games.5
That offseason LaRoss claimed he had an offer from Joe Tinker to join the Chicago Federal League team. “Chicago has offered to use me for the season,” he asserted, “at a guaranteed price of twice what I got at Battle Creek last year.” Like many players of the time, LaRoss may have been using the threat of jumping to the Federal League as leverage to extract a higher salary from his current club. Whether the offer was legitimate or not is not known, but he re-signed with Battle Creek in late February. “Tinker is evidently not so anxious to sign the big outfielder as he [LaRoss] intimated,” was the only explanation offered.6
The 1914 Cincinnati Reds got off to a good start and were still atop the NL standings on June 1. By mid-June the Reds still clung to second place, six games behind the New York Giants, and manager Buck Herzog wanted to inject more speed into his lineup. The Reds therefore purchased LaRoss, who was hitting .300 and leading the Southern Michigan League in stolen bases; he made his major league debut on June 24. Starting in centerfield (one of 15 men to appear in center for the Reds that season), he went 0-for-4 against Chicago Cubs starter Larry Cheney. Two days later he rapped two singles in four at-bats against the Chicago’s Hippo Vaughn in the first game of a doubleheader. He played almost every day over the next two weeks, but after that was relegated mostly to pinch-running or a late-inning defensive replacement duty. In 22 big league games, LaRoss collected 11 hits, all but one of them singles, in 48 at-bats for a .229 batting average.7
On July 24 returned to Battle Creek where he finished the season. In October the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association bought him for the $500 draft price. He opened the 1915 season there, but Class AA proved to be too fast a company for LaRoss, so after 12 games he was sold back to the Southern Michigan League, this time to the Bay City, Michigan, Beavers. The Beavers welcomed him, as since he was considered the fastest outfielder and base runner in the circuit during his time with Battle Creek.8
He spent one season with Bay City and was then signed by Terre Haute, Indiana, of the Central League for the 1916 season. In March 1917 South Bend acquired him in a trade. When the South Bend club folded in July, another member of the Central League, the Peoria Distillers, picked him up, and he played a couple of weeks with them until he enlisted in the quartermaster corps. He was in the US Army the rest of 1917 and all of 1918, but he returned to baseball with the Beaumont Oilers in the Class B Texas League in 1919. He hit just .190 in 123 games, and after the season he was on the move again to Charleston, South Carolina, in the South Atlantic League. However, Charleston released him in mid-May to get under the roster limit, and he returned to Chicago where he played semipro ball for the rest of 1920.9
LaRoss expressed an interest in the open manager’s job with his old team in Battle Creek, but when that opportunity fell through, he hooked on with Redfield, South Dakota, in the Class D Dakota League in 1921. He finished his career in organized ball the following season playing in 66 games with Fargo, North Dakota. Ironically, for someone who was so abusive to umpires early in his career, LaRoss turned next to umpiring. He worked games in the fast Chicago semipro leagues, including games for the famed Logan Squares, and in 1925 was hired as a full-time umpire by the Western League.10
Little is known of the last two decades of LaRoss’s life. In 1920 he was living with his brother Leland and his family in Chicago and listed his occupation as ballplayer on the census form. By the time of the 1930 census he was living in a rooming house in Chicago and working as a salesman in golf goods. No evidence indicates that LaRoss ever married or had children. He died March 22, 1954, at the age of 66 in Chicago and was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Tom Schott, and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.
Unless otherwise noted, all playing statistics taken from LaRoss’s player page in Baseball-Reference.com (Chadwick ID: 19443819) and family and geological information from ancestry.com.
1 “Howdy Drops 6; Is Weeding Out”, Rockford [IL] Morning Star, Apr 20, 1910.Rockford Republic, May 11, 1910.
2 “Disgrace to League,” Flint [MI] Journal & “Crickets in Trouble with Umpire Conklin,” Adrian (Michigan) Telegram, Jun 11, 1912.With roster sizes of maybe 13 or 14 men, suspension of players imposed an extreme hardship on teams.
3 Bill Dow, “The Day the Tigers Went on Strike to Support Ty Cobb,” Apr 24, 2011, accessed Mar 30, 2020, https://www.vintagedetroit.com/blog/2011/04/24/the-day-the-tigers-went-on-strike-to-support-ty-cobb/ ; “Crickets Emulate Tigers’ Example,” Flint Journal, Jun 12, 1912.
4 “Crickets Won the Final in a Riot,” Adrian Telegram, Aug 17, 1912.
5 Jackson MI Citizen-Patriot, May 16, Jun 21,1913.
6 “Spike LaRoss Gets Big Offer,” Bay City [MI Tribune, Jan 27, 1914; ibid., Jan 27, Feb 27, 1914.
7 “New Man Coming,” Cincinnati Post & “Spike LaRoss Sold to Cincinnati,” Jackson Citizen-Patriot, both Jun 24, 1914.
8 “Harry LaRoss Sold to the Milwaukee Club,” Jackson Citizen-Patriot, Oct 23, 1914; American Association Batting Averages, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 16, 1915; “Jenkins Signs New Outfielder,” Bay City Tribune, May 22, 1915.
9 Sporting Life, Jul 25, 1917.
10 Denver Post, Mar 14, 1925.