This article was written by Bill Lamb
Harry Luff was amenable to manning every position on the diamond except catcher. That afforded him brief tours of duty in four different 19th-century major leagues: the National Association (1875); National League (1882); American Association (1882-1883), and Union Association (1884). He also played in various minor leagues during an 11-season professional career that ended in 1885. At almost every juncture, drunken, disreputable—and, at times, criminal—conduct led to the termination of Luff’s employment. Some years after his playing days were over, a police court magistrate denounced Luff as “the worst man in the world without exception” before ordering his incarceration in a Pennsylvania penitentiary.1 Upon his release, Luff receded into anonymity, living and working quietly in Philadelphia until his death in 1916. The life story of this forgotten old-time ballplayer-villain follows.2
Henry Thomas Luff was born in Philadelphia on September 14, 1852. He was the older of two children born to Walter Hamilton Luff (1832-1905), a Gibraltar-born immigrant of British descent, and his Irish wife, the former Elizabeth Armstrong (c. 1831-1883). Shortly after Harry’s birth, the family relocated to Canada, where younger sister Sallie (Sarah Jane) was born in 1856. By 1860, the Luffs had returned to Philadelphia, where Walter, originally an iron molder by trade, soon became involved in local real estate. His success in that field ensured that the family resided in comfort as the Luff children grew up.
Little is known of Harry’s early years apart from the fact that he was well-educated, reputedly a graduate of Polytechnic College of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia mathematics and engineering institute.3 By 1873, the Philadelphia City Directory listed Henry T. Luff as a civil engineer sharing office space with his father’s real estate practice. He would maintain that directory listing on and off through 1890.
In his youth, Harry spent time his leisure playing ball on Philadelphia sandlots and with local amateur clubs. Good-sized (eventually 5-feet-11, 175 pounds), strong-armed,4 and versatile, Luff began his professional career in 1875. He signed with the fledgling Elm City Club of New Haven, a new entry in the National Association, baseball’s first major league. Here his teammates included infielder Billy Geer, about to embark upon life as a career criminal. As might be expected, New Haven was a lousy ball club, losing its first 15 games against NA opposition. Third baseman Luff contributed his share to team misery, posting a .689 fielding average in 30 games at the hot corner, atrocious even by the bare-handed standards of the day. He did somewhat better with the stick, batting a respectable .271, with a club-high 15 extra-base hits and 18 RBIs.5 Luff also filled in as the club’s change pitcher, and on May 31, 1875, he notched New Haven’s maiden NA victory with a route-going 9-2 triumph over the almost-as-bad Washington Nationals.6
New Haven ended its first and only season as a major league club with a dreadful 7-40 (.149) record. By then, however, Luff was no longer with the team, having been dismissed following his arrest on a theft charge in mid-September. During a late-season exhibition game sojourn to London, Ontario, the club stayed at the upscale Tecumseh Hotel. Several expensive items, including a dress coat and a gold watch, were thereafter reported missing from the room next to that shared by road roommates Harry Luff and Billy Geer, who had been observed leaving the hotel with suitcases bulging. Police later discovered the missing goods, as well as a previously reported stolen revolver, in the New Haven boarding house room that the two shared. Fished out of a local tavern, the pair were placed under arrest and jailed until released on bond.7 The charges against Geer were subsequently dismissed for lack of evidence (presumably because witnesses were disinclined to travel the considerable distance from Ontario to the New Haven Police Court to prosecute a mere theft charge).8 That outcome, in turn, dictated the administrative dismissal of the complaint against Luff.9 This, however, would not be the last time that Geer or Luff saw the inside of a criminal courtroom, and neither would always be so fortunate in future.10
Following his sacking by New Haven, Luff was signed for the 1876 season by the Memphis Reds, a newly organized independent professional nine.11 Memphis played all comers with Luff at third or pitching. His next stop was the 1877 Rochester Flour Cities of the non-major International League. Alternating between pitching, shortstop, and the outfield, Luff appeared in 18 league games, batting a solid .284.12 The following year, Harry hooked on with the Pittsburgh Alleghany of the International Association for a time, but spent most of the season in the outfield of the independent Forest City club of Cleveland. There a local press account described him as “a pleasant, good-natured fellow, and he attracts the attention of the ladies more than any other member of the club.”13
Although he was apparently wanted back by Forest City for the 1879 campaign, Luff remained home in Philadelphia during the next two baseball seasons, either working in his father’s real estate business or as a government office clerk. He also spent time on the ball field with the Athletics of Philadelphia, a top-notch independent pro club, where he was subsequently deemed “an excellent fielder and a hard hitter” by a distant newspaper.14
During this period, Luff also began dabbling in Philadelphia politics, being appointed a census enumerator in spring 1880,15 and thereafter touted as a potential candidate for the Pennsylvania state legislature.16 But visions of a future in governance came to an abrupt halt in September 1881 with publication of news that Luff was the target of official inquiry into the suspicious death of Lydia Apker, a 20-year-old Philadelphia woman whom he had “paying attention [to] for some time.” According to a coroner’s jury, the deceased “came to her death from congestion of the brain, the result of criminal malpractice at the hands of Harry Luff.”17 Physician Edward F. Guth and druggist George W. Knight were named as “accessories before and after the fact” by the jury, but both were officially exonerated days later.18 Meanwhile, Luff fled Philadelphia, his whereabouts unknown to authorities who held a warrant for his arrest. In time, Luff was located and taken into custody, only to be released on a writ of habeas corpus. A police court judge ruled that “there was nothing against him to [sustain] a conviction.”19
With legal troubles behind him for the time being, Luff was free to sign with the Providence Grays of the National League,20 but he was cut prior to the start of the regular season. A three-game audition for the NL Detroit Wolverines ensued. He went 3-for-11 at bat, with six errors at second base, and was released in late May 1882.21
His next stop was the Cincinnati Reds of the major league American Association, where his tenure with the club was short but eventful. A shift to first base reduced the harm that Luff could do defensively, but he underperformed with the bat, hitting a powerless .233 in 28 games. He also proved a headache to club management, refusing to sign the contract that formalized the terms that Luff had agreed to when he joined the Reds. It was then discovered that Luff was in secret negotiations to jump the club to play for the Buffalo Bisons of the National League. He was immediately expelled by Cincinnati.22
Seemingly contrite, Luff appealed for a second chance before the club directors and was thereafter reinstated.23 But six weeks later, Reds manager Pop Snyder imposed a $5 fine upon Luff for a fielding miscue (either a muffed one-handed catch of a foul pop-up or a dropped throw at first base, accounts differ). That brought Luff’s days with the Reds to a close. He resigned from the club, supposedly to accept an offer from an old college classmate to join a civil engineering firm.24 According to one local newspaper, Luff said “that he decided to quit base ball, and to confine himself strictly to his calling.” The story added, improbably, that “he graduated first in his class, and is reported to be a marvelous mathematician. Luff is a good fellow, and Cincinnati loses a strong man.”25
Luff’s pursuit of his “calling” did not last long—if he attempted it at all. The following spring, he was back in harness for the Brooklyn Grays of the minor Interstate Association.26 Plagued by an injured throwing arm and batting an anemic .117,27 Luff was set adrift by Brooklyn in July.28 Yet for reasons unclear, the pennant-contending Louisville Eclipse of the American Association decided to take a chance on him.29 In six games, Harry hit poorly (4-for-23) and fielded worse, seven errors between the outfield and first base. But “drunkenness and disgraceful conduct” was the proximate cause of his indefinite suspension by Louisville.30 Underlying this sanction were a missed game with $25 fine imposed by Louisville manager Joe Gerhardt, and a hotel fight with a local policeman that resulted in an assault conviction (with $10 fine, but no jail time).31
Over the ensuing winter, Luff’s release by Louisville removed his name from baseball’s ineligible list,32 but clubs in the National League and American Association had no further interest in him. He therefore sought employment with a rival organization then taking shape: the upstart Union Association. In short order, hometown connections and friendship with incoming manager Fergy Malone landed Luff a berth with the UA’s Philadelphia Keystones. And on Opening Day, Harry found himself paired as second baseman with shortstop Billy Geer, his erstwhile New Haven partner in crime. Luff reportedly kept sober for the first weeks of the season, but a late-May trip to old haunts in Cincinnati proved his undoing. Intoxicated, he boarded a horse-drawn street car, “raised a rumpus,” threated the conductor with a knife, and ended up in a jail cell.33 Released on bond, Luff skipped his court date on disorderly conduct charges and had to be re-arrested. He was subsequently fined $25 by a police court judge, but his 30-day jail sentence was suspended.34 Despite a decent .270 batting average in 26 games, dismissal by the Keystones followed.35
The Kansas City Cowboys, a midseason UA replacement franchise,36 afforded Harry Luff his last hurrah in the majors. Signed in early July, he lasted five games with Kansas City, drawing his release after going 1-for-20 at the plate and committing a ghastly 12 errors between assignments at third base and the outfield.37 That ended his career as a big-league ballplayer. In parts of four seasons with six different major-league clubs, Luff accumulated a .247/.258/.331 slash line in 106 games, combined. During those contests, he registered 27 extra-base hits and 27 RBIs. On the other side of the ledger, Luff had proved a difficult man to hide on defense, with only his .923 FA in 37 games as a first baseman being tolerable.38
Back home in Philadelphia, Luff married Minnie Cunningham,39 an already pregnant 20-year-old, in late February 1885. Some six months later, Minnie gave birth to Walter Hamilton Luff II, the first of the seven children she would bear over the next nine years. In the meantime, a Memphis newspaper reported that “Harry Luff of the old ‘Reds’ has married and settled down, and now wants a position with some good club as a third baseman or fielder. He is a fine batter and should be engaged by some first-class club.”40 He soon got his wish, offered a contract by the Augusta (Georgia) Browns of the Southern League.41 Luff began the season as the Augusta first baseman, but by early May his name had disappeared from Southern League box scores. A month later, the likely reason was reported by a Cleveland newspaper: “Jack Leary and Harry Luff are playing down in Georgia with the Augusta team. Since their debut there, several saloons have run out of liquor.”42
Released by Augusta, Harry returned to Philadelphia, gathered up his growing family, and relocated to nearby Pottsville, where second son George was born. Luff’s last known baseball engagement was with a local semipro club there.43 By 1889, he was back home where (probably via his father’s influence) he landed a job as a sub-officer with the Philadelphia Fire Department.44 Thereafter, Luff’s life continued its downward spiral until a few years later, reckoning time came before an irate Philadelphia police court judge.
On September 18, 1891, Luff appeared before Magistrate John F. Pole on an unspecified criminal charge. The court wasted little sympathy on the accused. “I think that you are the worst man in the world without exception,” declared Pole. “I know you and know you well,” he continued. “You have beaten your wife, neglected your family, blackened the eyes of your sister, blackguarded your father who has kept you for years, and done everything else you could to be in keeping with your habitual drunkenness. You have tried to get rid of your wife who is a good woman, and I think it is about time the community was rid of a beast like you.” To that end, the court thereupon sentenced Luff to a one-year term in the Philadelphia House of Correction.45
After his release from prison, Philadelphia city directories list Henry T. Luff as working in his father’s real estate office. Soon, tragedy descended upon the family. Long-suffering Minnie Luff took ill and succumbed to pneumonia in February 1895. She was only 30. Months later, her last child, infant Frank Luff, also died. Thereafter, press mention of our subject was confined to notice of lawsuits filed against him by creditors seeking to attach Minnie’s estate.46 In April 1904, Harry remarried, taking 41-year-old Elvira George as his second wife. His father Walter Luff died the following year, presumably leaving his only son at least something in his will. In any event, Harry was employed as a clerk in a government office and living quietly with Elvira at the time that the 1910 US Census was taken. Six years later, his only sibling, nephritis-stricken sister Sarah Luff Munce, passed away. Harry followed soon thereafter, dying from heart disease at Philadelphia General Hospital on October 11, 1916.47 He was 64. Funeral services were followed by interment in an unmarked grave in the Luff family plot at Laurel Cemetery, Philadelphia.
The death of the old-time ballplayer went unrecognized by a new generation of Philadelphia baseball scribes, but received passing mention by Sporting Life’s billiards columnist. “Harry Luff, who died recently in this city, was, at one time or very many years ago, a fine billiards player,” wrote John Creahan. He then added, “If I am not mistaken, Mr. Luff was, in his young manhood, a noted base ball player.”48
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Joel Barnhart and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.
Sources for the biographical information imparted above include the Luff entry in David Nemec, Major League Profiles, 1871-1900, Vol. 2 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2011); US Census and other government records accessed via Ancestry.com, and certain of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Unless otherwise specified, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.
1 See “A Scoundrel Is Sized-Up,” Pittsburg Dispatch, September 19, 1891: 9.
2 Modern reference authority like Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet currently list our subject by his birth name of Henry Luff. But during his lifetime, this formality was usually confined to reportage of Luff’s court appearances and published legal notices. On the sports pages of his playing career, he was most often called Harry Luff, the name that will be utilized in this profile.
3 Per “On Exhibition,” Cleveland Leader, August 8, 1882: 5, and “Diamond Dust,” (Springfield) Illinois State Register, August 13, 1882: 3.
4 It was reported that Luff had once heaved a baseball some 375 feet on the fly, then a near-record distance. See “Short Stops,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, August 13, 1881: 4, and “Sporting Matters,” Cleveland Leader, August 16, 1881: 3.
5 Modern baseball reference works list the way in which Luff batted and threw as unknown, and the writer was unable to locate any explicit indication of same while reviewing contemporaneous reportage on Luff’s playing career. But the probabilities and circumstantial inferences suggest that Luff was a righty batter and thrower.
6 Washington posted a 5-23 (.179) log before ceasing play.
7 As reported in “New Haven Base Ball Club,” Hartford Courant, September 18, 1875: 3; “Base Ball Extraordinary,” (New Haven) Columbian Register, September 18, 1875: 3; and elsewhere. See also, “New Haven 200: City’s One Season with a Major League Baseball Team an Inglorious One,” New Haven Register, August 11, 2012.
8 See “A Base Baller Exonerated,” San Francisco Call, September 23, 1875: 2, and “The Geer Adjusted,” Waterbury (Connecticut) American, September 23, 1875: 2.
9 Per “Local Affairs,” Columbian Register, October 2, 1875: 3.
10 In time, Geer gave up baseball to become a fulltime criminal, becoming an accomplished con man and bad check writer sought by police from Boston to Salt Lake City. He disappeared from public view in the 1890s, his subsequent activities and fate unknown. For more, see the Billy Geer entry in David Nemec, Major League Profiles, 1871-1900, Vol. 2 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 261-262.
11 As reported in “Base Ball,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, March 15, 1876: 5; “Over the State,” Nashville American, March 16, 1876: 16; and elsewhere.
12 The great majority of Rochester’s games were played against non-International League opposition. According to an Rochester baseball historian, the Flour Cities posted a 43-47-4 record against all comers. See Priscilla Astifan, “History of Rochester: Baseball in the 19th Century, Part V — 1877, Rochester’s First Year of Professional Baseball,” a 2002 Rochester Public Library publication, 8.
13 “Our Boys: The Members of the Forest City Base Ball Club,” Cleveland Leader, July 3, 1878: 8.
14 According to “Notes,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 20, 1882: 8.
15 Per “More Enumerators Appointed,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 17, 1880: 2.
16 According to the Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1880: 17, re-printing an item originally published in the New York Clipper.
17 Per “A Young Man’s Crime,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 29, 1881: 2. Although the nature of the underlying event was not disclosed, it bears the hallmarks of an abortion-related anesthetic drug overdose.
18 Ibid., and “Exonerated,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 1, 1881: 3.
19 Per “Saturday in the Courts,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1882: 3.
20 As reported in “Diamond Dust,” Cleveland Leader, April 18, 1882: 6, and “Notes,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 20, 1882: 8.
21 As reported in “Notes,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, May 26, 1882: 2, and “Notes,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, May 27, 1882: 4.
22 As reported in “To-Day,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, June 15, 1882: 5: “Base Ball,” Cincinnati Gazette, June 16, 1882: 3.
23 See “Diamond Dust,” Cleveland Leader, June 17, 1882: 5. A succinct overview of the contretemps subsequently appeared in “Sporting Summary,” (Concord) New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, June 22, 1882: 3.
24 According to “On Exhibition,” Cleveland Leader, August 8, 1882: 5; “Diamond Dust,” (Springfield) Illinois State Register, August 13, 1882: 3.
25 “Diamond Dust,” Cleveland Leader, August 6, 1882: 5, re-printing commentary earlier published in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
26 As reported in “Luff Heard From,” Sporting Life, April 15, 1883: 2.
27 Per the official averages subsequently published in “The Inter-State,” Sporting Life, November 14, 1883: 2.
28 As noted in “Daisy-Cutters,” Saginaw (Michigan) News, July 13, 1883: 2, which added that “Luff, the odd and wealthy player lately released by Brooklyn … plays base-ball for the enjoyment it affords him.”
29 Luff’s signing by Louisville was reported in the Denver News, July 16, 1883: 2.
30 Per “Diamond Hits,” Boston Herald, August 7, 1883: 2. See also, “Notes,” Indianapolis Journal, July 28, 1883: 6 (suspended indefinitely for drunkenness).
31 Per Nemec, 267.
32 See “The Black List,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, December 21, 1883: 6.
33 “As reported in “City News,” Cincinnati Post, May 22, 1884: 4; “Cincinnati 10, Keystones 9,” Boston Herald, May 23, 1884: 8.
34 Per “Base Hits,” Cleveland Leader, June 2, 1884: 3; “Luff Falls,” Sporting Life, June 4, 1884: 2.
35 As reported in “Notes,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, June 26, 1884: 4.
36 Kansas City took the field on June 7, 1884, replacing the Altoona, Pennsylvania club that had abandoned the UA a week earlier.
37 Luff’s signing by Kansas City was reported in “Base Ball Notes,” Cleveland Leader, July 10, 1884: 7; his release days later. See “Base Hits,” Cleveland Leader, July 12, 1884: 6.
38 Overall, Luff posted an .818 career fielding average, with 59 errors in 172 chances at third base (.657 FA) providing the lowlight.
39 Certain contemporary sources give Minnie’s maiden name as Smith, but son George Herbert Luff identified his mother as Minnie Cunningham Luff in a 1934 military pension application, and his younger brother Harrold was given the middle name Cunningham.
40 “The Diamonds,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, March 17, 1885: 5.
41 As reported in “On the Diamond,” Boston Herald, April 24, 1885: 2.
42 “Base Ball Notes,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 22, 1885: 5.
43 See “All Known in Harrisburg,” Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Patriot, February 5, 1887.
44 Per “The History of One Day,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 12, 1889: 2.
45 See “A Scoundrel Sized Up,” Pittsburg Dispatch, September 19, 1891: 9.
46 See e.g., legal notices published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, May 24, 1897: 10, and October 10, 1897: 19. The assets sought to be attached were parcels of Philadelphia property. While this is speculative, it is possible that well-to-do Walter Luff endeavored to protect the future well-being of his daughter-in-law and grandchildren by placing real property in Minnie’s name, rather than that of his reprobate son.
47 The Luff death certificate lists the official cause of death as “generalized arteriosclerosis.”
48 John Creahan, “Affairs in the Billiards World,” Sporting Life, November 11, 1916: 21.