In March 1884, young pitching prospect Jim McElroy1 joined a contingent of ball-playing California hopefuls headed east in search of employment by a professional club. Before the season was out, McElroy achieved his objective, pitching for both the National League’s Philadelphia Quakers and the Wilmington Quicksteps of the Union Association. But success eluded him, as McElroy won only one of his 14 decisions. A lack of control was his principal shortcoming. Regrettably, McElroy proved unable to control his off-field conduct, as well. His life rapidly spiraled downward, with addiction to alcohol and opium leading to his demise at the tender age of 26. The sad story follows.
James D. McElroy was born on November 5, 1862, in Napa County, California. He was the third of four children2 born to common laborer James McElroy (b. 1832) and his wife Mary (b. 1833), both Irish immigrants. By the time that Jim was ready for school, the McElroy family had relocated to San Francisco. Little is known of his activities before McElroy began attracting notice on San Francisco semipro nines as a teenager. A Napa County newspaper profile provided a different ball-playing font, maintaining that “James D. McElroy … commenced his career on the diamond while attending St. Mary’s College in 1880.”3 On the personal side, McElroy was described as “a hearty, genial, whole-souled fellow and numbers his friends by the thousands.” As for baseball abilities, “[H]e has command [of] all the known curves, can change his pace and disguise it at will, is an intelligent base runner and a fair batsman.”4
Good-sized for his time (a shade under 5-feet-11 and 175 pounds)5 and presumably right-handed,6 McElroy pitched for a San Francisco club called the Haverlys before moving on to the faster Renos in August 1882. After observing him in action, the San Francisco Examiner was impressed. “McElroy, the new pitcher of the Renos, has a remarkably true delivery, is effective, and a decided acquisition for the club,” the Examiner reported.7
That off-season, McElroy worked as a tinsmith. After hours, he enjoyed barroom amusements that sometimes led to the fracases that punctuated his life. In November, McElroy “became involved in a row with some unknown critic in a [San Francisco] saloon” who chased him out into the street with a billiard cue. There, McElroy collided with a horse-drawn motor coach and was trampled while lying on the ground. Luckily, he escaped with only several facial cuts,8 but a precedent for future antics was nevertheless set. The following spring, McElroy was engaged by the Redingtons, the amateur champions of San Francisco.9 Later that year, he pitched for the semipro Stars club of Portland, Oregon.10
Professional baseball exploded with playing opportunities in 1884. The arrival of the upstart Union Association swelled the ranks of major league ball clubs to 32, while a half-dozen newly minted minor leagues also came into existence. In January, McElroy signed with the Baltimore Monumentals of the new minor Eastern League.11 His stay was a short one, as the Baltimore club started poorly (3-10, .231) and disbanded in late May. While with the Monumentals, McElroy posted a misleading 2-4 record – his other numbers (1.00 ERA, with only 36 hits surrendered in 54 innings) were excellent. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the estimable Harry Wright was on the lookout for talent for his struggling National League club. In Baltimore on May 9 for a Monumentals game against the Richmond Virginias, Wright witnessed McElroy throw a two-hitter but lose, 3-2. When the Monumentals disbanded later that month, Wright quickly signed McElroy and batterymate Joe Kappel for his Quakers.12
Jim McElroy made his major league debut on May 26, 1884, dropping a 10-4 home decision to Boston. The outing was a harbinger of things to come. The new Philadelphia hurler threw hard – reportedly faster than Boston ace Jim Whitney – and was difficult to hit, allowing only six base hits, two of the scratch variety.13 But he was undone by control problems (five walks/five wild pitches) and the inability of sore-handed catcher (seven passed balls) Kappel to receive him effectively. Indeed, McElroy’s lack of control and the punishment that his fastball and sharp breaking stuff inflicted on the minimally protected hands of his backstops would become a recurring problem.
Succeeding outings led to similar results. Reporting on a 9-1 loss to New York on June 13, Sporting Life observed that “McElroy was swift but wild and [catcher John] Crowley had hard work to support him. The majority of New York runs were made on battery errors.”14 A week later, the story was the same, McElroy fanned seven Boston batters but also walked seven and threw three wild pitches, while catcher Kappel, his hands pounded into “shocking condition” by McElroy fastballs,15 contributed 12 passed balls. With all but one Boston run unearned, McElroy was an 11-2 loser. After that, a dissatisfied Harry Wright informed the press that “McElroy will be given another trial in the West. If he does not improve he will be released.”16
McElroy was pounded when he returned to the box almost four weeks thereafter, beaten by New York on July 11, 17-3. But with his record then standing at 0-8, he turned in a sterling effort in a rematch three days later. He nursed a 2-1 lead into the ninth but then muffed a popup and threw wildly on a comebacker, putting on the New York base runners who sent McElroy to a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat.17 Days later, a 6-1 loss to the Providence Grays lowered his pitching log to 0-10.
Undaunted, McElroy took the ball against Providence once more on July 23, 1884, and played an incidental role in the making of major league baseball history. With Providence cruising to victory in the eighth, Grays manager Frank Bancroft decided to rest starter Charlie Sweeney, sending him to right field for the final two innings. But Sweeney refused the assignment, unleashing a torrent of abuse on Bancroft and then storming off the field. This reduced the Grays defense to eight players. In the ninth, the Quakers seized upon the uncovered space in the two-man Providence outfield to mount a stunning eight-run rally against reliever Cyclone Miller.18 Staked to an unexpected 10-6 lead, McElroy set down Providence in the bottom of the frame to seal the victory, the first and only of his career in the big leagues. Meanwhile, the ensuing suspension of Sweeney by Providence club management prompted the Grays to place the entirety of the pitching load on Hoss Radbourn, who responded with his all-time major league record-setting 60-win campaign.19
On August 8, McElroy threw a four-hitter at Providence. But eight Philadelphia errors (including three by McElroy himself) let in five unearned runs and caused a 6-0 setback. The defeat dropped McElroy’s record to a woeful 1-12 (.077). A week later, Philadelphia released him.
McElroy did not remain idle long, signing with the Wilmington Quicksteps, a former Eastern League club recently admitted into the renegade Union Association as a replacement franchise.20 But he was removed after five innings of an August 21 outing against Washington, the only one of McElroy’s 14 major league starts that he failed to complete. The clubs did not complete the contest either, the ninth inning of the 12-1 Washington rout being “omitted by mutual consent.”21
The appearance was McElroy’s last; his career as a major leaguer over at age 21. In 14 games overall, he posted a 1-13 (.071) record, with a 5.12 ERA in 116 innings pitched. He struck out 48, while walking 54 and throwing 46 wild pitches. Enemy batsmen hit a lusty .336 off McElroy servings. He had been a harmless hitter himself (7-for-50 .140 batting average); as a barehanded defender on the mound, his fielding percentage was a tolerable .821.22
McElroy returned to the Eastern League for the 1885 season, joining the Norfolk club.23 His performance (5-7, .417, but with an excellent 1.87 ERA in 12 outings) was about on par with that of the Norfolk team as a whole (32-44, .421), but not good enough for him to retain a spot on the roster. Released in mid-June,24 Mac (as he was sometimes called) signed shortly thereafter with the Springfield (Massachusetts) club in the Southern New England League.25 In six games, he went 2-3, with a 1.96 ERA in 46 innings pitched, before the circuit folded in late August.
McElroy began 1886 by advertising that he was “open for engagement, particularly by a Southern League club.”26 The Memphis Grays of that circuit promptly obliged, signing him to a pact,27 but McElroy drew his release before the season started.28 His next stop was the Topeka Capitals of the Western League.29 Sidelined for a time by an undisclosed illness, McElroy posted a record in the 4-5 (.444) neighborhood30 for a Topeka club headed for a mid-pack finish (35-45, .438). But McElroy was long gone by then, released by the Capitals in late July.31 After a brief stay with a semipro club in Burlingame, Kansas,32 he and backstop Harry Smith joined an unaffiliated pro club in Abilene, Texas.33 There, the two also secured off-season jobs as brakemen for the Santa Fe railroad.34
In 1887, McElroy landed a berth with the Wellington Browns of the four-club Kansas State League.35 Apart from arm trouble that idled him in June,36 he proved a reliable second starter for Wellington, the league leader (20-15, .571) when the KSL abandoned play in early August. From there, he made his way to New Mexico and pitched for an independent pro club in Albuquerque in late-year match games.37
McElroy remained in Albuquerque over the winter, only to become embroiled in an alcohol-fueled dustup at a brothel that ended up with him being convicted on a disorderly conduct charge.38 McElroy’s “connection and trouble with a notorious woman of the town and his record here as a ballplayer made him unpleasantly prominent and he left … and went to Arizona.”39
Although only 25, first liquor and then drug abuse had by then taken their toll on McElroy. Expected to pitch for Albuquerque again in 1888, he was physically unfit to play for most of the summer.40 Then in September, an accidental shooting sidelined McElroy for the remainder of the year.41 It was also reported that he had somehow “lost a finger.”42
The end for Jim McElroy came in Needles, California, a hardscrabble Mojave Desert settlement situated near the confluence of the California-Arizona-Nevada state lines. There he spent the winter of 1888-1889 tending bar at a dive called the Needleline and indulging his vices. Newspaper accounts of McElroy’s death on February 24, 1889, are garbled and sometimes inconsistent, but here is a shorthand version of what most likely happened.43 Around noon, McElroy left the Needleline to “smoke a pipe” at a nearby opium den. After he had fallen into a deep stupor, a fellow “opium fiend” attempted to rouse him with an injection of morphine, an analgesic depressant that had the opposite effect of that intended. At about 1:30 p.m., McElroy succumbed to this narcotics overdose. He was 26.
Subsequently taken into custody and charged with the murder of McElroy was one John “Kid” Eubanks, an opium den regular arrested across the border in Mineral Park, Arizona, and returned to Needles. But when a coroner’s inquest rendered a verdict of “death by poison administered at the hands of some unknown person,” Eubanks was released under instruction to leave Needles immediately.44 In the meantime, McElroy had been buried in an unmarked grave at Needles Riverview Cemetery. Unmarried and with no known family survivors, James D. McElroy was remembered in the press as “his own worst enemy, and many an old friend and acquaintance … will heave a sigh over his sad fate.”45
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Russ Walsh.
Sources for the biographical info recited above include the Jim McElroy file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; the McElroy profiles in Major League Baseball Profiles, Vol. 2, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011) and Frank Russo and Gene Racz, Bury My Heart at Cooperstown: Salacious, Sad, and Surreal Deaths in the History of Baseball (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2006); and various of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Unless otherwise specified, statistics have been taken from Baseball-Reference.com.
1 During his lifetime, our subject was usually identified as James McElroy. The only McElroy nickname printed contemporaneously was Mac. See e.g., “McElroy’s Death,” Santa Fe (New Mexico) New Mexican, March 7, 1889: 1; “Base Ball Notes,” Wellington (Kansas) Sunday Press, May 7, 1887: 1; “Topeka League Notes,” Topeka (Kansas) Press, April 30, 1886: 4. The ahistorical Jim was first assigned to McElroy in 1969 by the Macmillan baseball encyclopedia, and its use by baseball reference works continues to this day. The bio caption above conforms to current usage.
2 McElroy’s siblings were Margaret (born 1856), Mary (1859), and Anna (1867).
3 “The Pitcher of the Redingtons,” Napa County (California) Reporter, July 13, 1883: 1, drawing upon a McElroy profile recently published in The Spirit of the Times. It was also asserted, improbably, that McElroy graduated from the college “with high honors.” Located in Moraga, St. Mary’s College would become a West Coast baseball factory.
4 “The Pitcher of the Redingtons,” above.
5 According to “Topeka League News,” (Topeka) Kansas Democrat, April 30, 1886: 4. Modern reference works list McElroy as 5’10”, 170 pounds. No photo or other image of McElroy survives, but press reports described him as “handsome blonde” (“Ready for the Campaign,” Wellington Sunday Press, May 3, 1887: 1), and a “prepossessing blonde.” See “Memphis Players,” Memphis Avalanche, March 17, 1886: 8.
6 Modern baseball reference works list McElroy as bats and throws unknown. But roughly 90% of the American population has always been right-handed, and the writer subscribes to early game scholar David Nemec’s dictum that, with left-handed pitchers being a relative rarity in 19th century baseball, right-handedness may be presumed absent express press mention that a hurler was left-handed.
7 “Baseball,” San Francisco Examiner, August 14, 1882: 3.
8 See “San Francisco Items,” (Sacramento) Record-Union, November 7, 1882: 4; “McElroy’s Miscue,” San Francisco Examiner, November 6, 1882: 3.
9 Per “Town and Country,” Napa County Reporter, May 11, 1883: 3.
10 According to “Athletic,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 8, 1884: 3.
11 As reported in “California Notes,” Sporting Life, January 23, 1884: 2, and “Athletic,” above.
12 See “A Hunt for Ballplayers,” Philadelphia Times, May 24, 1884: 2.
13 Per “Base Ball,” Philadelphia Times, May 27, 1884: 3. See also, “Boston Wins Again,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 27, 1884: 2.
14 Sporting Life, June 18, 1884: 3.
15 Per “Boston’s Revenge,” Philadelphia Times, June 19, 1884: 3.
16 Per “Base Ball Notes,” Philadelphia Times, June 22, 1884: 2.
17 See “A Brilliant Game of Ball,” Philadelphia Times, July 15, 1884: 4.
18 As reported in “Sensational Episode,” Boston Journal, July 23, 1884: 3; “Sweeney Expelled,” Providence Evening Bulletin, July 23, 1884: 5; and elsewhere.
19 For more detail on the game, see Edward Achorn, Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had (New York: Smithsonian Books, 2010), 199-203.
20 See “Dots from the Diamond,” Reading (Pennsylvania) Times, August 22, 1884: 1. In early August, Wilmington replaced the (21-46, .313) Philadelphia Keystones on the Union Association schedule.
21 Per the box scores published in the Reading Times and (Wilmington, Delaware) Republican, August 22, 1884.
22 In three games as an outfielder, McElroy botched three of his nine fielding chances, good for a .667 FA at that position.
23 As reported in “The Norfolk Baseball Team,” Norfolk Virginian, February 8, 1885: 1.
24 Per “Notes of the Game,” Norfolk Virginian, June 14, 1885: 1.
25 According to “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, July 1, 1885: 7, and “Base-Ball Items,” Norfolk Landmark, June 30, 1885: 1.
26 Per “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, January 13, 1886: 3.
27 See “Southern League Contracts,” Sporting Life, January 27, 1886: 4.
28 Per “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, March 31, 1886: 3.
29 McElroy’s signing with Topeka was noted in “Diamond Dust,” Memphis Avalanche, April 13, 1886: 4.
30 As calculated by the writer from the reportage of Topeka newspapers. Baseball-Reference provides no data on McElroy’s 1886 season.
31 As reported in “Henry Moore Reinstated,” The Sporting News, August 9, 1886: 1, and “Base Ball Brevities,” (Topeka) Commonwealth, July 28, 1886: 4.
32 It was reported that he and batterymate Harry Smith “were doing great work for the Burlingame club.” See “Base Hits,” Commonwealth, August 29, 1886: 4.
33 As reported in The Sporting News, August 23, 1886: 2.
34 Per “The Emporia Club,” The Sporting News, December 31, 1886: 3.
35 As reported in “The Game To-Day,” Wellington (Kansas) Morning Quid-Nunc, May 5, 1887: 4; “Ready for the Campaign,” Wellington Sunday Press, May 3, 1887: 1.
36 Per “Base Ball Notes,” (Wellington, Kansas) Sumner County Press, June 2, 1887: 1.
37 The Albuquerque (New Mexico) Journal reported that McElroy stuck out 11 in a high stakes victory over a Las Vegas club on October 31, 1887.
38 See “Chippy Chasers,” Albuquerque Journal, February 7, 1888: 4. The incident revolved around McElroy’s slapping prostitute Lizzie McGrath and then getting into a physical altercation with a deputy sheriff summoned to the scene. McElroy was fined $5 for disorderly conduct. A companion charge of resisting arrest was dismissed by the court.
39 “A Base Ball Man Dead,” Albuquerque (New Mexico) Morning Democrat, February 26, 1889: 1.
40 As subsequently revealed in “McElroy Dead,” Albuquerque (New Mexico) Citizen, February 25, 1889: 4.
41 See “Extracts from Our Exchanges,” Las Vegas Optic, September 22, 1888: 3.
42 See “Got ‘Nother One,” Santa Fe New Mexican, September 18, 1888: 4.
43 The narrative of events attending the death of Jim McElroy and its aftermath has been stitched together from the reportage of the Albuquerque Citizen, Albuquerque Morning Democrat, (Mineral Park, Arizona) Mohave County Miner, San Bernardino (California) Courier, and the national press.
44 “Short Mention,” San Bernardino Courier, March 5, 1889: 3
45 “A Base Ball Man Dead,” above.
James D. McElroy
November 5, 1862 at Napa County, CA (USA)
February 24, 1889 at Needles, CA (USA)
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