Hugo Duesenberg

This article was written by Peter Morris

St. Louis merchant and businessman Hugo Duesenberg died on February 14, 1941, and his passing was noted by the Post-Dispatch in a brief item that listed a wife and five children as survivors. No mention was made of the notorious act thirty-four years earlier that had made headlines all across the country. Perhaps that is just as well – after all, how many of us want to be remembered for the worst moment of our lives? Yet Hugo Duesenberg’s return to obscurity was also a reflection on baseball’s regrettable reluctance to protect its most vulnerable participants.

Hugo A. Duesenberg was born in Carlinville, Illinois, on June 30, 1890, the son of Charles Duesenberg, a German immigrant, and the former Louisa Breymann. The family had moved to Missouri by the time of the 1900 census and eventually settled in St. Louis, where Charles Duesenberg found work as a teacher and Hugo became a clerk for the German Consul. On September 15, 1907, Hugo decided to take in a ball game and became part of an enormous crowd that flocked to Sportsman’s Park for a Sunday doubleheader between the Browns and the Detroit Tigers.

The overflow crowd of nearly 20,000 necessitated roped-off areas in the outfield and special ground rules to deal with any ball hit there. As fate would have it, Harry Howell of the Browns lofted a long drive that traveled over the affected area. Umpire William G. “Billy” Evans, a twenty-three-year-old Cornell University graduate in his second year on the American League staff, ruled the blow a home run and was immediately subjected to vigorous protests. In response, Evans walked down the left-field foul line to point to the exact spot where the ball had landed. When he returned to the infield, the argument continued and a restless fan threw a pop bottle toward the group. (Whether its hurler was aiming for the irate Tigers or was afraid that Evans would reverse his call is not clear.) A second bottle followed, and this one struck Evans squarely in the back of the head. The umpire “pitched forward on his face” and lay motionless.[1]

A hush fell over the spectators as members of both teams rushed forward to attend to Evans, whose prone form led many of the horrified onlookers to fear that he was dead. In the stands, an equally disturbing scene was unfolding – seventeen-year-old Hugo Duesenberg had been identified as the thrower of the pop bottle and was being subjected to attempted assaults and threats of lynching. The frightened teenager at last dashed onto the field and fled toward a group of policemen who were stationed in the outfield to restrain the overflow crowd. The result was a bizarre scene – while the gravely injured umpire was being administered to in the clubhouse and then rushed to Mullanphy Hospital, his assailant was being escorted to the station house by a procession of policemen who had all they could do to save Duesenberg from vigilante justice.

The shocking sequence of events made for sensational headlines, along with plenty of finger-pointing. Hugo Duesenberg naturally came in for much of the blame, being branded a hoodlum and worse. Ban Johnson arrived in St. Louis to visit Evans’s hospital bed, and the American League president declared that he had hired a special prosecutor to help bring the bottle-thrower to justice.

Yet some recognized that the problem went well beyond the senseless act of one teenager. It was an all-too-common occurrence for pop bottles to be thrown onto baseball playing fields, but nobody seemed to be concerned. As one account put it, “It has been customary for bottle-throwing to be laughed at and encouraged by people in the bleachers, and the management of parks everywhere have never considered it worth while stopping – until someone got hurt, as was the case yesterday.”[2] For that matter, another bottle had landed on the diamond just before the one thrown by Hugo Duesenberg, and the fan who had hurled it had escaped unpunished.

To Ban Johnson’s credit, he had never been one to ignore the underlying issue. “My position on the pop bottle proposition is a matter of record,” he told reporters upon reaching St. Louis. “I called our club owners’ attention to the evil and nuisance at our 1906 annual meeting and insisted that players and umpires should be given protection. In midseason I issued a strong bulletin containing a warning that clubs in whose parks pop bottles were used as missiles would be fined. The blame for such outrageous affairs as the attack on Evans is on club-owners. If some of the cowards who make targets of players from a place of security were arrested and vigorously prosecuted, the practice would stop.”[3] So as Billy Evans lay in Mullanphy Hospital with a fractured skull, it looked as though some good might come from the horrific events at Sportsman’s Park.

Instead a strange thing happened. Evans made a complete recovery and accepted the apology of young Duesenberg, who admitted his guilt but insisted that he threw the bottle out of excitement over the home run with what was described as “no more idea of killing an umpire than he had of assassinating the Ahkoond of Swat.”[4] With Evans having urged Johnson not to press charges, Duesenberg pled guilty to assault and was let off with a fine of $100.[5] The story had now lost all its sensational overtones, so the newspapers found other things to write about, including the dramatic pennant race that saw the Tigers pull out their first American League pennant.

As a result, Browns owner Robert Hedges announced that pop bottle sales would continue at Sportsman’s Park, and the calls for a real solution to the menace tapered off. The possibility of a league-wide ban on bottles was raised at that winter’s league meetings, but no action was taken. Sporting Life editor Francis Richter argued that this was a reasonable course that would benefit fans who wanted to quench their thirst. But others had a more cynical perspective, with sportswriter I. E. Sanborn observing, “Whenever the good of the game conflicts too seriously with the pockets of the club owners, no reform ever has been made until something happens to unite the public in demanding reform.”[6] Hugo Duesenberg had nearly provided that “something,” but the requisite outrage had died down when Evans made a full recovery and forgave his assailant.

So things went back to normal, if the word “normal” can be used to describe a state of affairs in which a defenseless umpire was liable to have a twenty-four-ounce glass object hurled at him from the grandstands with potentially deadly force. Billy Evans resumed an umpiring career that would earn him induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Hugo Duesenberg was only too happy to return to obscurity, helping to found the Barthel-Duesenberg Piano Company and raise a family during a life in which his name never again appeared in the headlines.

But while baseball had chosen to ignore the larger problem, it could not escape the consequences. Bottle-throwing was especially prevalent in the minor leagues, with longtime minor league umpire Harry “Steamboat” Johnson making regular references in his autobiography to games in which batters “came thick and fast and collided in mid-air and broke into pieces around the plate. One or two hit me on the shoulder and several hit my legs.”[7] Yet organized baseball continued to disregard the menace, fulfilling Sanborn’s prophesy that nothing would be done “until something happens.”

On May 11, 1929, the inevitable tragedy occurred during a game at Cleveland’s League Park between the Indians and the Athletics. A controversial umpiring decision and the protests of Cleveland manager Roger Peckinpaugh caused a near-riot in which Indians fans littered the diamond with bottles. Order was only restored when the Cleveland general manager took the field and implored the fans to stop. The general manager knew the dangers all too well because he was none other than Billy Evans, who had hung up his umpiring gear two years earlier.

Sadly, Evans’s intervention came too late to prevent the barrage of bottles from taking a frightful toll. Athletics shortstop Joe Boley and third-base umpire Emmett “Red” Ormsby were both struck by bottles, with Ormsby suffering a severe concussion that caused him to miss nine weeks of action and nearly ended his career. Less fortunate was a twenty-eight-year-old fan named Lee Porter, who did not seek treatment after being struck by one of the missiles. After returning to his home in Akron, Porter began to exhibit alarming symptoms and died three days later of a fractured skull.[8] 

The tragedy helped to finally bring about the long-needed reform.  “Any man who will throw a bottle or any other life-endangering object from the midst of a crowd at any official or player is the rankest type of coward,” editorialized the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “He is a low-down cur that has no place in modern society.”[9] Baseball owners at last got the message, and over the next year they began agreeing to prohibit pop bottles from their stadiums.[10] Though long overdue, the decision undoubtedly prevented other calamities – one shudders to think at what might have happened if the fans who pelted Joe Medwick with fruit during the seventh game of the 1934 World Series had had access to bottled beverages.

Billy Evans’s involvement in the tragic events at League Park prompted him to reveal why he had declined to press charges against Hugo Duesenberg twenty-two years earlier. Evans recalled that his first post-injury memory was of waking up in Mullanphy Hospital with an aching head and finding that he was being lovingly attended to by one of the Sisters of Charity. The nun soon directed his attention to the flowers that filled the room and let him know that the Duesenberg family was responsible for the largest bouquet. She also told him that Hugo Duesenberg had been a constant visitor at the hospital, arriving early each morning and staying until late at night in hopes of having the opportunity to offer a personal apology.

But the doctors had warned Evans not to have any visitors who might cause him stress, so the youngster waited in vain. Day after day, he arrived with a fresh bouquet of flowers and “begged to be taken” to Evans’s room, then patiently bided his time in the waiting room until closing time. As the stricken umpire regained his health, he began to find the reminders that Duesenberg was still outside “very embarrassing.” So at last he relented and gave the lad permission to visit his room.

As Evans recalled, Hugo Duesenberg “came over to my bed and fell to his knees and sobbed his troubled heart out. I was moved to tears myself. ‘Nothing but a kid,’ I thought. ‘Just an unthinking boy and now a mighty sorry boy.’ He told me how terribly sorry he was. Would I get well? Could I ever forgive him for the terrible thing he had done? And that was embarrassing to me in the extreme. So the nurses took him away, after I had told him that as far as I was concerned the incident was forgotten. I would hold nothing against him. And so he left.”

“But that was not all. Still the flowers came and then, one day, the family’s lawyer, prepared to come to an agreement on a ‘cash settlement.’ ‘I don’t want any money,’ I told him. ‘You can’t pay me for my weeks in the hospital, and money can’t compensate me for the fact that I was almost killed, but for the sake of the boy, I’ll intercede with my boss, B. B. Johnson, president of the American League, and if he’s willing to call it off, I am.’

“And that’s what I did. Mr. Johnson didn’t like it one bit, but there was no prosecution. The boy got no punishment; the family suffered no disgrace and no one was the loser but me. But, as I said before, I learned a lot about human nature. I was to learn that there was [sic] those who forgot and those who didn’t forget.”[11]

Surely that lesson is a better way to remember Hugo Duesenberg than for a single rash act committed when he was still an “unthinking boy.”          

SOURCES: This piece relies heavily on coverage in Sporting News, Sporting Life, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the immediate aftermath of the incident and on Billy Evans’s revelation of his conversations with the Duesenberg family, which appeared in the Baltimore Sun on December 17, 1929. I have also made use of entry 8.2.3 on the physical abuse of umpires in my A Game of Inches (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006). Also very helpful were David W. Anderson’s More Than Merkle (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), Robert M. Gorman and David Weeks’s Death at the Ballpark (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), and Harry “Steamboat” Johnson’s Standing the Gaff (1935) (reprint: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

[1] “Evans Injured,” Sporting Life, September 21, 1907, 6. Not surprisingly, there were minor differences in the various news accounts of the events at Sportsman’s Park that day. I have done my best to present the version that best squared with the eyewitness accounts.

[2] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 16, 1907, 10

[3] Sporting News, September 19, 1907, 4

[4] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 17, 1907, 12

[5] Baltimore Sun, October 30, 1907, 10

[6] Sporting Life, February 15, 1908; Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1908; both quoted in David W. Anderson, More Than Merkle, 18

[7] Harry “Steamboat” Johnson, Standing the Gaff, 69; see also 62, 68, 99 and 112.

[8] Robert M. Gorman and David Weeks, Death at the Ballpark, 155-156; Sporting News, May 12, 1932

[9] Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 13, 1929, 19

[10] Joe Williams, New York World Telegram, July 24, 1930, reprinted in Peter Williams, ed., The Joe Williams Baseball Reader (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1989)

[11] “Evans Forgave Bottle Tosser,” Baltimore Sun, December 17, 1929, 16. I have silently corrected several punctuation errors in this account.

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