Major league ballplayers have not been immune to sudden, life-ending mishaps. To the contrary, the game’s necrology has no shortage of the drownings, hunting accidents, house fires, and auto accidents that have brought the lives of countless ordinary citizens to an abrupt close. Some ballplayer deaths – Ed Delahanty’s plunge over Niagara Falls; the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman; the plane crashes that killed Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson – have been especially poignant, cutting down prominent, much-admired players still at or near their playing primes.
The demise of Jimmy Dee,1 a 12-game shortstop in 1884 for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys of the major league American Association, holds a distinction of a different order. At age 32, Dee was buried alive by grain funneled into the hold of a Great Lakes steamship, making his death perhaps the most macabre in baseball annals. But there was more to Dee’s life than the bizarre and tragic way that it ended. That story follows.
James J. Dee was born on December 27, 1864, in Safe Harbor, Pennsylvania, a small farming community located about 75 miles west of Philadelphia. He was the youngest of three sons born to common laborer Timothy Dee (1829-1893) and his wife Margaret (1837-1895), both Irish Catholic immigrants. When our subject was still a boy, the Dee family relocated to Buffalo, New York. There, Jimmy received the grammar school education typically afforded the children of immigrants and thereafter joined the local work force.
When he reached his teenage years, Dee followed his older siblings onto the Buffalo sandlots. By the early 1880s, he was playing for an amateur nine called the Rockets.2 In time, Dee attained area prominence wearing the livery of the Travelers Base Ball and Sporting Club. Incorporated in September 1883 for “literary, social, and gymnastic” purposes,3 the Travelers soon fielded Buffalo’s fastest amateur baseball team. The Travelers were also very much a Dee family affair. Eldest brother John (born 1857) served as non-playing club vice-president, while team captain Michael (b. 1859) alternated between the pitcher’s box and third base.4 The team star, however, was slick-fielding shortstop Jimmy Dee, “one of the best amateur base ball players of this city.”5
While the Travelers headed toward the first of three consecutive Buffalo Amateur League championships, gloom descended upon the baseball scene in Pittsburgh. At the start of the 1884 season, the arrival of the renegade Union Association swelled the ranks of major league clubs to 32 (National League: eight; American Association: 12; UA: 12) and placed many marginal ballplayers in uniform. The Pittsburgh Alleghenys, destined for a 10th-place finish in AA final standings (30-78-2, .278), were among the most talent-deprived. With the club hopelessly out of the pennant chase by late July, the Alleghenys underwent reorganization with new players auditioned at several positions.6 Supplanting Bill White at shortstop was a prospect recently signed from amateur legions: 19-year-old Jimmy Dee.7
Dee had good size (5-feet-9½, 180 pounds) for a middle infielder of his day. Presumably, he was right-handed.8 The youngster made his major league debut against the Baltimore Orioles on July 30. He handled five fielding chances flawlessly, drawing praise for his “brilliant fielding” from a Pittsburgh newspaper.9 But he was woefully overmatched at the plate against Orioles righty Hardie Henderson, going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in a 9-2 Allegheny setback.10 Dropped to ninth in the batting order, Dee took the collar the following day with more strikeouts in a 4-3, extra-inning Pittsburgh win over the Philadelphia Athletics.11
Dee finally broke into the hit column with a pair of singles off right-hander Billy Taylor in a 7-2 loss to Philadelphia on August 2. It was the only multi-hit game of his brief stay in the majors. Thereafter, he reverted to form, going 3-for-29 in his remaining nine major league appearances. What kept him in the lineup through mid-August was first-rate defensive work. For example, Dee “created a decided impression in his favor” by accepting 11 chances without a miscue in a 7-1 loss to the Athletics on August 7.12
On August 16, Dee went hitless in a 6-0 loss to the New York Metropolitans. By then it was obvious that the young recruit was not up to hitting major league pitching, his batting average standing at a feeble .125 (5-for-40), with all five base hits being singles. And in 12 games, Dee had not scored a run or driven one in. His defensive work (13 putouts, 36 assists, and eight errors, for an .860 fielding percentage) had been competent for a barehanded shortstop, and markedly better than that of position predecessor White (.807). But decent fielding was hardly enough for him to retain a roster spot, and Dee was released.
He promptly returned to the Travelers and led the club to Buffalo’s Amateur League crown. Thereafter, he and his brothers pulled committee duty for the Travelers’ autumn social gala – John on arrangements; Michael on floor, and James on reception.13 With Mike and Jimmy anchoring the left side of the infield, the Travelers repeated as Buffalo city champs in 1885, with a local newspaper declaring that the “club would do credit to Buffalo in the [professional minor New York] State League another season.”14
That winter, Jimmy succeeded his brother Mike as captain of the Travelers.15 And he continued as the team’s star player, leading the Travelers to a three-peat as Buffalo Amateur League champions in 1886.16 But that August, Dee also appeared in a few games for a professional club based in Bradford, Pennsylvania.17 During the ensuing off-season, he returned to the professional ranks, signing with Bradford, which had become a member of the newly created Pennsylvania State Association.18
In late February 1887, the 21-year-old Dee was appointed playing captain of his new club,19 and he led by example. In a stunning reversal of form, he posted a robust .393 batting average for Bradford (72-for-196).20 He also led the club in slugging percentage (.587) and total bases (115). But in late July, the collapse of the Pennsylvania State Association left Dee in search of new employment. Thereafter, he played briefly for the Scranton Miners, a mid-season replacement club in the International Association.21 Later signed by Sudbury of the Central Pennsylvania League, he resumed his hitting tear, rapping out 15 base hits during a six-game stint with the club. He then completed his 1887 odyssey by securing his release from Sudbury “in order to accept a better offer” from the Zanesville Kickapoos of the Ohio State League.22 There, Dee’s batting bubble burst, as he could manage only a .156 BA (7-for-45) in 12 games.
Dee returned home in time to rejoin the Travelers for a post-season exhibition game against the Clippers, a familiar Buffalo Amateur League rival.23 For the rest of the year, the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, an incessant Dee cheerleader, campaigned for his signing by the hometown Buffalo Bisons of the International Association.24 But now factoring into Dee’s employment equation was a new consideration: marriage and family.
The historical record yields conflicting evidence regarding the domestic affairs of James J. Dee. But sometime between 1885 and early 1887, he took Buffalo teenager Nellie (Ellen) McDonald as his bride. The first of their three children, daughter Sadie (Sarah), arrived in 1887. She was followed by Ella (born 1889) and Etta (1891). And for the remainder of his baseball playing days, the need for Jimmy, otherwise an unskilled laborer, to remain employed close to his growing family largely dictated when and where he played ball.
In early 1888, Dee decided that Albany was close enough to home and signed with the Albany Governors of the IA.25 On their way to a wretched (19-86, .181) last-place finish, the Governors proved a poor fit for Dee. Much to the displeasure of the sporting press back in Buffalo, Albany manager Tom York stationed accomplished shortstop Dee at second base. The position did not suit him. Grandstand shadows prevented him from getting a good jump on batted balls.26 Also, a badly split finger hampered his throwing, normally a strong part of Dee’s game.27 By club standards, Dee’s .239 batting average, 10 extra-base hits, and 14 stolen bases were well above the norm. Nevertheless, manager York released him after 28 games.28
Back home in Buffalo, Dee pondered “several good offers to sign with out of town baseball clubs.”29 For the time being, however, he suited back up for the Travelers, now managed by oldest brother John Dee, and played shortstop in a 13-10 win over the Clippers on July 1.30 Days later, Jimmy decided to give pro ball another shot, signing with the Shamokin Maroons of the Central Pennsylvania League.31 Shamokin abandoned play before his arrival, but Dee managed to land a berth with another CPL club, the Mt. Carmel Reliance.32 But his tenure there also proved short-lived, as the circuit disbanded in mid-August. Although still only 23, the brief tour in Mt. Carmel brought the professional playing career of Jimmy Dee to a close.
The following March, it was reported that Dee and one-time Travelers teammate Bill Bent were “both considering offers from out of town clubs” for the 1889 season.33 But in June, the pair rejected contracts offered by the Seneca Falls Maroons of the New York State League. The NYSL schedule was “too short and would not pay them” enough, reported the Buffalo Courier.34 Instead, Dee remained home in Buffalo and spent the summer playing for the Travelers. And once again, his play attracted attention, with manager Jack Remsen of the Mansfield Indians of the Ohio State League reportedly bent on signing Dee for the 1890 season.35 But a Mansfield contract offer failed to materialize.
The name James Dee was on Travelers player rosters published in early 1890.36 He spent the summer as the club’s shortstop, turning down a mid-June job offer from an independent pro club in Meadville, Pennsylvania.37 The following spring, a harrowing incident foreshadowed the violent death that awaited Dee. While working his off-season job with the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, he “was struck by a coal chute and knocked off the box car” on which he had been standing. But this time, he escaped with only a bad bruising.38
The 1891 Travelers season proved Dee’s final one; the last discovered press mention of his ballplaying appeared in late August.39 Ensuing reportage covered matters occurring away from the diamond and did not always portray our subject in a flattering light. The Dee family had long been foot soldiers for Buffalo’s Democratic Party, and in November 1893 James Dee was among those accused of registering a false address as part of a political attempt to colonize a Republican-leaning ward.40 During court proceedings, it was revealed that Dee had separated from wife Nellie and had “not supported his family for a year and a half.” He had been “living all around,” with his pay garnished for rent by a boarding house landlord.41
Sometime thereafter, the Dees reconciled. But in March 1897, Jimmy left the family again to search of work on the Chicago docks. Weekly letters home to Nellie as well as to brothers John and Mike kept him in touch with the homefolk. In mid-August, however, the family became concerned when those letters inexplicably stopped coming. Solving the mystery took another month and required a trip to the Midwest by the elder Dee brothers.
Leaving the Chicago docks on August 25, 1897, was the steamship Owego, bound for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula via Lake Michigan.42 Funneled into the hold of the 325-foot vessel were tons of grain. When unloaded at the Great Lakes port of Gladstone three days later, the hold yielded a gruesome discovery: the corpse of an unrecognizable man buried sitting upright enveloped by grain. Autopsy subsequently revealed the cause of death as suffocation, as the deceased had been literally buried alive, smothered by the grain.43 His identity still undetermined, the man’s remains were then laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Fernwood Cemetery, Gladstone.
A month later, the search for Jimmy Dee brought his brothers to Chicago where the proprietor of the rooming house where Jimmy had lived put them onto the scent of the Owego. By the time that John and Mike Dee got to Gladstone, however, the body discovered in the ship’s hold had already been buried, frustrating a visual identification of the corpse. Further investigation by the attorney handling the Dee estate led to the determination that the Owego body was, in fact, that of the missing Jimmy Dee. But whether he had been a member of the ship’s crew or a stowaway remained an unsettled question.
News of Dee’s demise shocked and saddened Buffalo, with the ever-supportive Buffalo Commercial declaring that “Jimmy Dee will be recalled as one of the most popular as well as one of the best ballplayers who ever stepped on a diamond in Buffalo.”44 Perhaps because the body stayed interred in Michigan, no local funeral services were conducted. Dead at the tender age of 32, James J. Dee was survived by widow Nellie; daughters Sadie, Ella, and Etta; and brothers John and Michael – all of whom, perhaps ironically, lived into their eighties.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Terry Bohn.
Sources for the biographical info imparted above include the Dee profile in The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires, David Nemec, ed. (Jefferson North Carolina: McFarland, 2012); US and New York State Census data accessed via Ancestry.com; and certain of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.
1 Although Jim is the common nickname for James, the name Jim Dee does not appear anywhere in the discovered record published during our subject’s lifetime. Rather, the name Jim Dee was introduced in the 1957 second edition of the baseball encyclopedia of Turkin and Thompson. During his playing days, Dee was usually called James Dee by the hometown Buffalo baseball press. But upon his death, the Buffalo Commercial, September 22, 1897: 8, lamented the passing of Jimmy Dee, the appellation adopted herein.
2 According to “Much in Little,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, July 23, 1887: 3.
3 Per “More Buffalo Organizations Incorporated,” Buffalo Evening News, September 3, 1883: 5.
4 Per “Sporting Notes,” Buffalo Sunday Morning Express, January 13, 1884: 4. See also, “Sporting Paragraphs,” Buffalo Evening Telegraph, May 3, 1884: 3.
5 See “Sporting Notes,” Buffalo Evening News, August 4, 1884: 1.
6 See “The Reorganized Allies,” (Pittsburgh) Evening Penny Press, July 30, 1884: 2.
7 The Dee signing with Pittsburgh was reported in “Sporting,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, July 26, 1884: 3: “Sporting Matters,” Buffalo Evening Telegraph, July 26, 1884: 4; “The Amateurs,” Buffalo Times, July 26, 1884: 4; and elsewhere.
8 Modern baseball reference works list Dee as bats and throws unknown, but southpaw shortstops had all but vanished from professional baseball by the mid-1880s. Had Dee been such a left-handed oddity, it would doubtless have been noted in the press.
9 See “The Poor Allies,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, July 31, 1884: 8, which also extolled Dee’s “marvelous catch” in short field.
10 Per the box score published in the Baltimore Sun, July 31, 1884: 4. See also, “Sporting in General,” Evening Penny Press, July 31, 1884: 4: “Dee, the latest acquisition to the Alleghenys, struck out every time he went to the bat yesterday.”
11 See “Twelve Innings,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, August 2, 1884: 2.
12 “Didn’t Make an Error,” Cleveland Leader, August 8, 1884: 3. The hometown press was in accord, praising Dee’s “remarkably fine fielding.” See “Only 7 to 1,” Evening Penny Press, August 8, 1884: 1.
13 Per “The Travelers’ Ball,” Buffalo Times, November 21, 1884: 4.
14 “Sporting Notes,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, November 13, 1885: 3.
15 As reported in “Sporting Notes,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, January 11, 1886: 3. Jimmy’s brother Michael and their uncle Dan Geary were appointed to the club’s executive committee.
16 The Travelers defeated perennial rival Clippers for the title in October. See “Amateur Champions,” Buffalo Times, October 11, 1886: 5.
17 See e.g., “Sporting News,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, August 11, 1886: 3, regarding Dee’s play for Bradford in a 10-5 victory over the Ridgeway club.
18 First reported in “The Amateur Baseball League,” Buffalo Morning Express, December 26, 1886: 14.
19 See “Athletic Affairs,” (Buffalo) Sunday Morning Truth, February 27, 1887: 8; “Tuesday Sporting,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, February 22, 1887: 3.
20 While the one-year walk-equals-base hit rule of 1887 inflated batting averages across baseball, it was not a likely cause of the dramatic surge in the batting average of Dee, an impatient hitter. The rule also does not account for the unprecedented power (22 extra base hits, including four homers) demonstrated by Dee during the 1887 season.
21 See “News of the Day,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, July 22, 1887: 3. The Scranton Miners replaced the Oswego club in the International Association, but no stats for Dee’s stay with the Miners were found.
22 Per “Sports of All Sorts,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, September 6, 1887: 3.
23 See “Autumn Sports,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, October 17, 1887: 3.
24 See e.g., “Field, Turf and Ring,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, December 14, 1887: 3; “Rainy Day Sports,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, November 10, 1887: 3; “Monday Sporting,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, October 31, 1887: 3.
25 As reported in “All about Athletes,” Sunday Morning Truth, February 19, 1888: 8; “James Dee Will Play with the Albanys,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, February 13, 1888: 3.
26 Per “Notes,” Buffalo Morning Express, June 22, 1888: 6.
27 Per “Notes,” Sunday Morning Truth, December 30, 1888: 8.
28 As reported in “Autumn Baseball,” Buffalo Morning Express, June 24, 1888: 10; “Sports of the Season,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, June 20, 1888: 3.
29 “Sports of the Season,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, June 28, 1888: 3.
30 As reported in the Buffalo Courier and Buffalo Morning Express, July 2, 1888.
31 Per “Amateur Baseball,” Buffalo Morning Express, July 8, 1888: 21, and “Base Hits,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, July 7, 1888: 3.
32 As subsequently noted in “Base Hits,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, August 2, 1888: 3.
33 Per “Passed Balls,” Buffalo Morning Express, March 3, 1889: 3.
34 See “Base Hits,” Buffalo Courier, June 9, 1889: 3. See also, “Notes,” Sunday Morning Truth, June 9, 1889: 8.
35 According to “On the Green Diamond,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, August 21, 1889: 3.
36 See “The Buffalo League,” Buffalo Morning Express, February 23, 1890: 3, and Buffalo Courier, February 21, 1890: 8.
37 As reported in “Travelers’ Athletic Club Briefs,” Sunday Morning Truth, June 29, 1890: 8; “Travelers Athletic Club,” Buffalo Commercial, June 27, 1890: 8. Note: Advertiser was dropped from the newspaper masthead in February 1890.
38 As related in “Among the Amateur Ball Players,” Buffalo Commercial, May 2, 1891: 12.
39 See the Buffalo Morning Express, August 31, 1891: 6, reporting on an 11-4 Travelers win over the Elks.
40 See “Some Colonizers,” Buffalo Commercial, November 2, 1893: 10; “Improperly Registered,” Buffalo Enquirer, November 2, 1893: 2.
41 Per “For Cheaper Board,” Buffalo Courier, November 4, 1893: 6.
42 The narrative regarding the events attending the death of Jimmy Dee has been drawn from the reportage of the Buffalo Commercial, Buffalo Courier, Buffalo Enquirer, Buffalo Evening News, and Buffalo Morning Express, September 22-27, 1897.
43 For more on Dee’s cause of death, see “James Dee Found,” SABR Biographical Research Committee Report, November/December 2014, 1.
44 “Dee Disappeared,” Buffalo Commercial, September 22, 1897.