This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Bullet Jack Thoney was once called “the unluckiest player in the history of baseball.”i Boston Red Sox owner John I. Taylor had paid what was thought to be the most money ever paid for a player at the time, but it seemed as though every time Thoney made a major-league team, he broke a limb. Then, in 1912, Thoney was one of six players traded by the Red Sox to Jersey City in exchange for catcher Hick Cady. He was at the end of a career that had seemed to offer him stardom, but he’d never been able to realize his potential. He’d slipped on a banana peel and lost a full year due to a shoulder injury. He’d supposedly set the “world record” for speed, bunting and then running from home to first in 3 1/5 seconds.ii
Thoney had been born as John Thoeny, to Elias and Regina Thoeny of Highland, Campbell County, Kentucky, on December 8, 1879. Campbell County is across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. An Army base was established in the area in 1890 and named Fort Thomas. Elias Thoeny was a painter, a German immigrant as was his wife. National boundaries have, of course, changed over time. The Thoenys appear to have come from the southern part of current Germany; in the 1920 US Census, perhaps in order to avoid branding as German in the wake of the World War, John listed his father as from Tyrol and his mother from Switzerland. The 1880 census has her from Baden.
The couple had at least seven children before John joined the family. By the time John turned 20, his father had become a saloonkeeper, living in the part of the area still known as Highland. John and a younger brother were both listed as day laborers at the time of the 1900 census (which also reported John as having been born in 1878, not 1879 – there is the possibility that he later made himself appear a year younger for baseball purposes). The saloon trade proved good enough to allow Elias the opportunity to retire and live on his own income by 1910. John was still living with his parents at the time, appropriately listing his own profession as “ballplayer.”
John’s baseball career began in Wheeling (Western Association) in 1901. He played in 74 games, as a third baseman, and hit .295. The team actually began the season in Grand Rapids, but shifted its base to Wheeling on June 3. (A little oddly, in July the Louisville team relocated to Grand Rapids.)
John was thought to be 19 years old when he joined the American League’s Cleveland Bronchos in 1902. Described as “the Cincinnati boy,” he had gone to New Orleans in March “with the Jumping Jacks.”iii He made the Cleveland team and played in his first major-league game on April 26, 1902. He entered in midgame, taking over for Frank Bonner at second base. Thoney didn’t get a hit but he did see his pitcher, Addie Joss, throw a one-hitter and beat St. Louis, 3-0. He played in 28 games as a utility fielder, covering shortstop, second base, and the outfield for a couple of games. The Chicago Tribune said, “Thoney appears to make good anywhere Manager [Bill] Armour puts him. He was sent to right field and made four pretty catches, one a difficult fly from Davis’ bat in the third inning. Thoney is the hero of the baseball rooters these days.”iv A report in May saw him “quite a promising youngster … an agile fielder and good batter.”v He might have played more but for a broken finger in June that sent him back to Fort Thomas for a period of time.
In September Cleveland loaned Thoney to Baltimore for the balance of the season. Today that would seem a very unusual transaction, but in the first few years of the new American League trying to get established, it was not that rare a circumstance. Thoney appeared in three games for Baltimore, and was 0-for-11 at bat. He’d hit .286 in 105 at-bats for Cleveland.
Back again with Cleveland in 1903, Thoney played the earlier part of the season for Cleveland, was then traded to Columbus in the American Association, where he was asked to play third base and made “errors galore.”vi He was recalled to Cleveland late in August and played some center field for the Naps. He’d missed a few weeks before the recall due to a knee injury.
The perception of Thoney’s work seemed to deteriorate at the very end of the campaign. Manager Nap Lajoie was pleased with his work in September and he was said by Sporting Life in its September 19 issue to be doing “first-class work.” On the 26th the publication wrote, “The Cleveland fans like the way Thoney is playing the outfield.” A month later, Sporting Life’s Jay Knox wrote, “Thoney has shown up miserably since rejoining the Blues over a month ago, and will hardly be retained for next year. He can throw and run as good as anyone, but that seems to let him out. He is a frost as a batter and his judgment as a fielder might be better.”
In 1904 Thoney played in the Eastern League for Rochester and Montreal, and in the American League for Washington and New York. It’s confusing to try to follow his contractual path that season. He was on a Cleveland contact in 1903, but began the 1904 season with Washington. He played right field for Washington on Opening Day and drove in a run in a losing effort, though he appears to have been on a New York Highlanders contract at some point too. Sporting Life wrote in April that Thoney “late of Cleveland, was secured from New York.”vii
Thoney had been a last-minute acquisition for the Senators, and sportswriter Paul Eaton was impressed with his first day’s work: “[T]he locals opened the ball with a somewhat improvised team. Thoney was remembered here chiefly for his rather sloppy work with Cleveland in one of last season’s late games. He provided the fans an agreeable surprise by his hard, timely hitting, rapid transit on the bases and satisfactory fielding.”viii
On May 8 Thoney’s contract was sold to the New York Highlanders. He had appeared as an outfielder in 17 games for the Senators, batting an even .300, and the Washington Post wrote, “Thoney has been both sensational and stupid, but withal a good man, and probably as good as the club could get at this time.”ix
For New York Thoney was pressed into duty playing third base in 36 games but hit for only a .188 average. One hit was a big one, though. On May 20 he helped the Highlanders beat the Chicago White Sox. Not only did he handle 11 chances “in fine style” at third base during a 12-inning game, but in the bottom of the 12th, after John Ganzel had doubled, Thoney, after failing twice to lay down a sacrifice bunt, hammered a pitch off Chicago’s Doc White to drive in Ganzel. Sporting Life said, “Thoney is a gingery, willing worker, with a whip of steel and speed to burn; but he is an outfielder, and therefore his efforts at third deserve praise.”x
On May 28, however, Thoney committed two errors at third base and New York lost, 1-0, to Philadelphia. Three days later he was traded to Rochester in exchange for Orth Collins – both Thoney and Collins stayed on their teams through June, even though Rochester was “yelling for Thoney, whom Griffith had promised the Flower City tailenders, but not even threats of legal proceedings will move New York in passing the speedy youngster to the dead ball town.”xi
With Kid Elberfield about to return, New York manager Clark Griffith finally let Rochester have their man. Once Dave Fultz came back, too, both Collins and Thoney were surplus.
Thoney may not have been the happiest of campers in Rochester. No less a personage than Henry Chadwick condemned the team and Thoney in particular. Chadwick termed Rochester the “worst managed team in the Eastern League” and said its players in general were “the least creditable to their club and the league.” He added, “They have some good material in the team, but the rough element prevails too much for the welfare of the club. One of them Thoney made a cowardly blackguard of himself in the Buffalo-Rochester game of July 11, in assaulting Umpire Eagan. What the character of the management of the Rochester Club is, and how ill-fitted to govern the organization its Board of Directors are, may be judged from the fact that the player who so disgraced his club and the fraternity at large on July 11 still played on the Rochester team, encouraged in his vile conduct alike by the team manager and the club officials, on July 16 at Rochester, despite of President Powers’ indefinite suspension.”xii The Washington Post called Thoney’s blow “a wallop on the jaw” to the umpire, whose name it spelled “Egan.”xiii Indeed, his suspension had been lifted but he was fined heavily for his assault on the umpire. (Note the difference in the spellings of the umpire’s last name.)
A week later it was reported that Thoney had been suspended for insubordination, which sounds like another matter altogether. And the week after that, he was reported to have signed with Montreal. His Eastern League statistics are combined for Rochester and Montreal, and he hit .341 in 36 games.
Thoney spent the full 1905 season back in the American Association, this time with Indianapolis, though he was understood to still be under a New York Highlanders contract. He played 147 games and hit .275 for Indianapolis.
In May 1906 Thoney was released to Toronto and played both ’06 and ’07 for the Maple Leafs, batting .294 and .329 in Eastern League play, with six home runs in the latter season tying his career high. He seems not to have been involved in any altercations with umpires. But taking advantage of his speed, he was said to have scored from second on infield hits twice in the same game, against Baltimore’s Tim Jordan.xiv
Bizarrely, the same issue of Sporting Life (August 3, 1907) reported in different notes Thoney’s sale to John McGraw’s New York Giants and to the Boston Americans team. Specifics were provided in each instance – McGraw had supposedly paid $8,500 to Toronto, which knew Thoney would be leaving after the season in any event. McGraw purportedly outbid the Philadelphia Phillies to get him. The story on the New York acquisition said that Thoney was “a fast little man, but he was considered too light for the major league then. … He is a clever base runner and has developed into a good batter, and is easily the star outfielder of the Eastern League.”
On the very same page 13, a large photograph of Thoney appeared with a story saying he had been “sold for September delivery to the Boston American League Club.” This story agreed that Thoney was “the leading batter of the Toronto Club and star outfielder of the Eastern League,” and quoted Toronto manager Joe Kelley as saying, “Thoney is one of the fastest men in the field and on the bases that I have ever seen, and he has an arm of steel. He is far and away the best player in the Eastern League today. If he can keep up his hitting in faster company, as I think he can, he will be a great star next season. Pittsburg, the Athletics and several other clubs were crazy to get him, but he goes to Boston.”
Thoney had been a hot item for a couple of months. Back on June 4, it had been reported that the Phillies had acquired him. And the June 19 New York Times reported that Boston had traded Moose Grimshaw and Larry Schafly to Toronto for Thoney. Another story said that Boston’s John I. Taylor had purchased the rights to Schafly for the sole purpose of packaging him in a trade to Toronto get Thoney, who had – it was said – run around the bases in 13½ seconds, equaling the best time previously recorded (by Marty Hogan). He was also said to have set a new record of bunting and getting from home to first base in 3 1/5 seconds.xv
The St. Louis Browns also somehow thought they had a string on Thoney. He was a hot commodity for sure. The July 27 New York Times, in a variation on its June 19 story, said Boston had traded Grimshaw, Schafly, Bill Carrigan, and Frank Oberlin for him, and given New York some money, too. The paper had it right the first time. Boston’s Taylor prevailed, and Ed Barrow assured Taylor in the early winter that “Thoney will prove to be a greater sensation than Ty Cobb was this season.”xvi There were big expectations. Thoney had, after all, led the Eastern League in batting (.329) and runs scored (93) in 1907. Toronto won the pennant by nine games.
It was back to the big leagues in 1908, and Thoney became a member of the first Red Sox team (the Boston Americans had changed their name in December 1907). There truly was a big buildup in Boston before his arrival. It was said he “probably cost John I. Taylor more than any player in the history of base ball. It is understood that Taylor paid $8,500 cash for Thoney in addition to turning over Larry Schafly and Myron Grimshaw. … He returns to the American League a ‘$13,500 beauty.’ ”xvii There was some difficulty negotiating terms, and Thoney became a holdout, but matters were resolved.
On Opening Day in Boston, April 14, Thoney caught Pickering’s long fly ball in the top of the first, recording the first out during the first game the team played as the Red Sox, and – as the leadoff man – was the first batter for a Red Sox team.
Cy Young won the game for the Red Sox, beating Washington, 3-1. Thoney was hitless. When he first came to bat, he got a round of applause. Thoney walked his first time up, stole second base, reached third on a sacrifice, and scored on a passed ball – the first time a player wearing a Red Sox uniform scored a run. He covered a lot of ground but also committed an error. And it was just three weeks before he threw his arm out. It was originally thought he’d torn ligaments, but the injury proved not to be that serious. Thoney did get into 109 games, batting .255. He drove in 30 runs; often the team’s leadoff batter, he scored 58 runs. His reputation for speed sometimes gave him an additional edge, noted someone who’d watched him in Boston: “He had the faculty of getting on base frequently as the result of beating out an infield grounder or because an infielder juggled the ball in his anxiety to beat Jack.”xviii He would apparently also take an unusually long lead off first base, because of an “uncanny ability to beat the pitcher’s throw back to first base.”xix
Thoney came out of the springtime in 1909 “playing the bench and not in good shape,” and suffered a prolonged bout of malaria (the April 29 Boston Globe said it was pneumonia) that cost him much of the early season.xx He left the Red Sox before the end of the season after breaking a bone in his right leg near the ankle on June 29 against the Athletics. He did get into 13 games, but hit only .125 in 40 at-bats. He did win a game for the team, but it was a most disappointing season.
Thoney was unable to play at all in 1910, after he slipped and fell on a banana peel on February 5 while walking in Fort Thomas, and broke and dislocated his right shoulder.xxi He gamely made his way to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the Red Sox were training, and began to work out with the team, but threw his shoulder out again while making a throw – “the sound that followed was like the breaking of a green stick,” according to the March 19 Boston Globe. He’d tried to come back too soon. A remarkable streak of bad fortune seemed to haunt Thoney. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times later said he “holds the record for hard luck among the big league stars” due to his frequent injuries.xxii
In early June an unusual story surfaced to the effect that Red Sox owner Taylor had wired Thoney and asked him to take over as team manager, replacing Patsy Donovan. Taylor issued as firm a denial as one could expect.xxiii
Come 1911, Thoney was ready once more. Taylor commented in January, “He cost the Boston club about $12,000, and I would like to get a little of my money back if possible, so I will take another chance.”xxiv A couple of weeks later, Taylor said that the team would see if Thoney could play first base and he said he was very willing to give it a shot, that he’d played first base some in the minors, and that if Donovan wanted him “to carry the bats, then bats I’ll carry.”xxv
Thoney traveled west to join the Red Sox in Redondo Beach, California, for 1911 spring training. He was among the players who suffered some ill effect due to the chilly sea air in the beach hotel where they were initially housed before moving farther inland. He was tried in the outfield, but just didn’t have the strength in his arm. The Boston Journal showed Thoney hitting .244 in 18 spring-training games.xxvi
Thoney did play in 26 games for Boston during the 1911 season, but had only 20 plate appearances (batting .250). He was often used as a pinch-runner, and did a lot of coaching work. He stuck with the team deep into the season, into August, but he was ultimately sent to the Jersey City Skeeters. He hit .261 during 34 games in 1911 for Jersey City.
During the 1911-12 offseason, Thoney pursued an action against both the Red Sox and Jersey City, claiming $3,000 from Boston and $160 from Jersey City, but both claims were rejected by the National Baseball Commission in April.xxvii
Thoney played in 84 games for the 1912 Skeeters, batting .254. It was his last year in Organized Baseball. The Boston Journal wrote a feature on him, calling the “the unluckiest player in the history of baseball.”xxviii
There was thought of another comeback attempt with Toronto in 1913, but it came to naught. The Seattle Daily Times reported in January 1914 that Thoney was again thinking of returning to baseball, and commented obscurely, “The ‘Bullet’ used to pack a speedy pair of legs, but his throwing arm was a Republican.”xxix
It was quite a comedown for a player who’d once shown so much potential, winning a batting title one year only to suffer a series of physical reverses.
In his life after baseball, Thoney did help lead the Fort Thomas Boosters semipro club in 1915 and was working in Fort Thomas as a farm laborer at the time of the 1920 census. A decade later, he had moved to nearby Covington, Kentucky, and was working as a guard for what we believe was an armored car company – the census listing is “guard, armor express” in 1930 and “guard, money express” in 1940, when he lived as a lodger across the Ohio River in Cincinnati.
Thoney died on October 24, 1948, in a Covington hospital. The immediate cause of death was given as arteriosclerotic heart disease, though he also suffered from emphysema and chronic nephritis.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Thoney’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i Boston Journal, December 25, 1912.
ii The Sporting News, November 3, 1948, and Baseball Magazine, March 1912, 53.
iii Sporting Life, March 29, 1902.
iv Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1902.
v Sporting Life, May 31, 1902.
vi Washington Post, May 19, 1903.
vii Sporting Life, April 23, 1904.
ix Washington Post, May 9, 1904.
x Sporting Life, May 28, 1904.
xi Washington Post, June 30, 1904.
xii Sporting Life, August 6, 1904.
xiii Washington Post, July 14, 1904.
xiv Omaha World Herald, January 2, 1926.
xv Sporting Life, June 8 and October 5, 1907. It’s almost impossible that anyone could actually circle the bases in 13½ seconds. The bunting competition was held on September 11 at League Park in Cincinnati and was reported in the September 12 Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, among other publications.
xvi Sporting Life, December 21, 1907.
xvii Sporting Life, February 15, 1908.
xviii Boston Herald, March 10, 1943.
xx Sporting Life, April 3, May 8, and October 9, 1909.
xxi Boston Globe, February 6, 1910. The incident was variously reported as having occurred in a fall on ice (Sporting Life, February 12, 1910) and in a gymnasium (Boston Globe, February 8, 1910).
xxii Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1911.
xxiii See, for instance, the June 6, 1910, Boston Globe and the June 10, 1910, Sporting Life.
xxiv Boston Globe, January 15, 1911.
xxv Boston Globe, February 6, 1911.
xxvi Boston Journal, April 10, 1911. For some of Thoney’s adventures on the Red Sox’ extended cross-country spring-training trip, see the author’s book The Great Red Sox Spring Training Tour of 1911 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2010).
xxvii New York Times, April 11, 1912.
xxviii Boston Journal, December 25, 1912.
xxix Seattle Daily Times, January 24, 1914.