This article was written by Brian Flaspohler
Jack Gleason is the older of the two Gleason brothers who played on the inaugural St. Louis Browns team (the forerunner of today’s St. Louis Cardinals) in the American Association in 1882. Known as “Brudder Jack”1 and as one of the handsomest players in the league, he covered third base for the Browns for their first season. He was then pushed out of his position by the arrival of Arlie Latham and bounced around among several other teams. After his baseball career, he went on to a long career with the St. Louis Fire Department.
John Day Gleason was born on July 14, 1854, in St. Louis, four years before his brother Bill Gleason. His parents, Irish immigrants Michael and Ann (Day) Gleason, raised six children (Philip, Jack, Bill, Margaret, Ellen, and Thomas) in their St. Louis home. Michael’s job as a laborer supplied their complete income until the children were old enough to go to work. Jack Gleason attended Webster grade school (no longer in existence) and graduated after eighth grade. That was the extent of his formal education.
Jack and Bill were a pair of baseball stars. They got their start on a diamond at 10th and Benton Streets, where other excellent players of the era played.2 Jack typically played third base alongside Bill at shortstop in an era when baseball teams lived and died by infield defense. They played for local semipro teams, including the 1876 St. Louis Stocks and St. Louis Red Stockings. Both brothers went to the League Alliance Minneapolis Browns in 1877. At the end of the 1877 season, the local National League team, the St. Louis Brown Stockings, used Gleason for one game. He managed a hit in four at-bats while playing a flawless right field in a losing effort against the Louisville Grays. He also umpired a game for the team late that season.
This did not lead to an immediate major-league job for 1878, at least in part because the Brown Stockings signed players who were caught up in a betting scandal and the franchise folded before the start of the 1878 season. Jack and Bill played for the Peoria (Illinois) Reds in 1878.3
St. Louisan Ted Sullivan, a future major-league manager, then recruited the brothers for the Dubuque (Iowa) Red Stockings of the Northwestern League in 1879. With them manning the left side of the infield, Dubuque won the league championship. The team dominated the league so thoroughly that the league folded for lack of interest in the other cities. In 1880 and 1881 the Gleasons came back home to play on the best local semipro team, the St. Louis Brown Stockings.4
Gleason was a volunteer fireman before he was a professional ballplayer. He became a full-time member of the St. Louis Fire Department in 1881. The book The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, about the American Association, says his job was secured by Browns owner Chris Von der Ahe.5 While possibly true, it wasn’t a pure patronage job. Gleason was a real working member of the fire department. Late in 1881, he was seriously injured in a fire. There was concern that he would not recover to play baseball. But he did recover and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch posted an item quelling a rumor that he and his brother Bill were planning to leave the fire department before the 1882 baseball season.6
The American Association was formed in 1882 to rival the National League. Saloon and grocery-store owner Von der Ahe owned the St. Louis entry, managed by Ned Cuthbert. The 1881 Brown Stockings roster with a few upgrades became the St. Louis entry in the Association. In the first game of the season, when the Gleasons stepped on the field, they became the first brother combination to play the infield together in major league baseball.7 The 1882 Browns finished fifth in the six-team league with a 37-43 record, with Gleason manning third base in 73 games and the outfield in six. Gleason led the league in walks with 27, in a season when seven balls were required for the free pass. His offense was 6 percent above league average (measured by OPS) but his fielding appeared to be league average at best. The New York Clipper noted that “his third base play was magnificent away from St. Louis, but not so good at home.”8
Because of their hometown status and long association on the local teams, the brothers were very popular with the St. Louis fans. But Jack was especially popular with the ladies. “[He] is one of the finest looking men on the ball field,” noted the New York Clipper.9
Von der Ahe was not satisfied with a losing franchise. Like an early-day George Steinbrenner, he wanted a winner and wasn’t afraid to make changes to get one. He fired manager Cuthbert and hired local baseball pioneer Ted Sullivan, the Gleasons’ manager at Dubuque. Sullivan upgraded the roster, converting the Browns from an organization that used only local players to one that had the best players he could find from around the country. As part of the upgrade, he brought in Arlie Latham to play third base, leaving Jack Gleason as an outfielder for 1883. Jack complained that he couldn’t do himself justice playing out of position. Bill Gleason threatened to quit the team if Jack was released. After nine games (mostly in the outfield), Von der Ahe ignored Bill’s threat and released Jack. The Louisville Eclipse quickly picked him up and Bill remained with the Browns.
Louisville put Gleason to work at third base immediately. He responded, hitting .299 for the season. The only player on the Eclipse with a better offensive season was outfielder Pete Browning. But Gleason’s fielding was not reliable. He committed 50 errors in 84 games, making an error once every five times he had a chance at the ball. Louisville finished fifth in the league with a respectable 52-45 record but left Gleason off of their reserve list at the end of the season. Clearly they wanted to upgrade, as reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal: “They have already, six splendid men, and a first class short stop and third baseman will be secured [for next season.]”10
Gleason married Mary E. Hogan in 1883. They had 10 children between 1883 and 1903 (James, Lawrence, Mary, Margaret, Francis, Virgil, Celeste, Usher, Joseph, and Carmel). Usher did not survive but the remainder lived to adulthood.
In 1884 a third major league, the Union Association, was formed by St. Louis businessman Henry Lucas. Lucas provided most of the funding for the Maroons (although one other investor was Adolphus Busch) and he aimed to raid players from the other major-league teams. However, the existing major leagues agreed to blackball any player who played in the Union Association and they upped salaries for their current players to entice them to stay. While the Union Association as a whole wasn’t successful in raiding players from the established leagues, Lucas’s higher salaries did enable him to get more experienced players, including Fred Dunlap and Jack Gleason, for the Maroons.
Because of the quality and major-league experience of its players, the Maroons were far and away the best team in the Association. They romped to a 94-19 record, 21 games ahead of the second-place Cincinnati Outlaw Reds. Gleason hit a robust .324 but his fielding was even worse than in 1883. He made 80 errors in the 92 games he played, an error 25 percent of the times he handled the ball.
Three major leagues were one league too many and the Union Association was the weakest of them. It barely lasted for the 1884 season. The Maroons did survive to join the National League in 1885 after Lucas came to terms with Von der Ahe on sharing the St. Louis territory. But the National League maintained the blacklist against Union Association players, including Gleason, for most of the year. Gleason played only two games for the Maroons in late 1885, going 1-for-7 and making one error. He kept in baseball shape by practicing with the Browns before the season and with the Maroons during the season. He also played some semipro ball that season, including a game with the Boonville, Missouri, team against the Jefferson City team. Maroons owner Lucas staged a benefit game on June 28 for the blacklisted three (Gleason, Dave Rowe, and Tom Dolan). They and some local talent took on the local Prickly Ash Bitters team, winning 8-2. A crowd of between 5,000 and 6,000 showed up to support the players.11 Gleason also got to join his brother in a series in New Orleans the second half of November. A group of St. Louis players took on New York players in six games. The St. Louis team won four of the games, the New Yorkers won one, and one ended in a tie.
With the blacklist completely removed before the 1886 season and with the Maroons choosing to release him, Gleason was free to seek baseball employment anywhere he could get it. He was brought to the Philadelphia Athletic for the season. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “Jack Gleason, of St. Louis, will cover third, and if he does as well as he did with Von der Ahe’s team there will be no complaints.”12 Gleason tripled in the season opener but that was one of his season highlights. He made five errors in the first four games and was injured slightly in the fourth game. This set his pace for the season. He missed a number of games with minor injuries and hit poorly, batting .187 for the year. This was the first full season that his offense wasn’t better than league average. Also, he committed 60 errors in 77 games. In his last major-league game, on August 31, 1886, he went 0-for-4 and had no chances at third base. Philadelphia released him after the game. The Athletic finished the season with a 63-72 record, placing fifth in the American Association.
Gleason went back to St. Louis and continued as a full-timer with the fire department after his baseball career ended. Being a firefighter in that era was a dangerous job, at least for Gleason. In addition to his injury in 1881, he was injured in an electrical accident in 1893. He was reaching out of the firehouse second story and touched the wires of an external arc light. This injury put him in bed to recuperate for a month.13 Some permanent disability resulted from this injury but Gleason continued working.
Gleason was injured again in a 1901 fire. This injury, combined with the effects of his electrical shock, disabled him badly enough that he could no longer carry on a firefighter’s duties. However, disabled firefighters continued working for the department as watchmen assigned to important buildings in the city. They monitored a ticker waiting for calls so they could dispatch help. He was assigned to the City Hospital and worked 12-hour shifts five days a week. His salary in 1913 was $80 a month.14
Gleason raised his family in St. Louis, living with his wife’s parents until at least 1900, then moving out and renting homes in various Irish neighborhoods in North St. Louis. In retirement, he and his wife lived with daughter Margaret in a two-story brick brownstone, so typical of St. Louis residential construction. He was proud of his Irish heritage. Not only did he stay in the Irish neighborhoods of St. Louis, he and brother Bill donated to a Post-Dispatch defense fund for Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish leader spearheading the effort for Irish home rule in the late nineteenth century.15
Gleason died at the age of 90 on September 4, 1944, of “infirmities of age.” His funeral was held at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church. He is interred in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis (Section 26, Lot 442, Grave 3). His wife, Mary, died the following year and was laid to rest next to him.
Gilbert, Thomas. Superstars and Monopoly Wars (New York: Franklin Watts, 1995).
1 “Bean Ball a Cause of Howl,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 13, 1911: 7.
2 “Jack Gleason Of ’85 Browns Dies at 90,” St. Louis Star and Times, September 6, 1944: 15.
3 “John Gleason,” New York Clipper, December 30, 1882: 661.
5 Edward Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2014), 14.
6 “Sporting Briefs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 16, 1882: 2.
7 David Nemec, Major League Baseball Profiles, Volume II (Nebraska, Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, 2011), 314.
8 “John Gleason,” New York Clipper.
10 “Four to One,” Louisville Courier-Journal, September 14, 1883: 6.
11 “The Blacklisted Players,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 29, 1885: 5.
12 “Sports and Sportsmen, The Athletic Club,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 1886: 2.
13 “Jack Gleason Badly Burned,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 23, 1893: 5.
14 “Fire Department Watchmen Deserve an Increase in Salary,” St. Louis Star and Times, February 23, 1913: 46.
15 “The Post-Dispatch ‘Parnell Fund,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 11, 1889: 2.