Ken Burns’s documentary Baseball opens with a line that characterizes the hard-driving spirit of Irish-blooded players like Jimmy Esmond, who came up in the early twentieth century. “The game’s greatest figures have come from everywhere: coal mines and college campuses, city slums and country crossroads. A brawling Irish immigrant’s son [John McGraw] who for more than half a century preached a rough and scrambling brand of baseball in which anything went so as long victory was achieved.”
James Joseph “Jimmy” Esmond was born on October 8, 1889, in Albany, New York. Days earlier Thomas Edison showed the first motion picture. William McKinley was the 25th president of the United States and the first all-New York City World Series was about to debut with the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Bridegrooms.
From the cradle to the grave, Jimmy’s life was influenced by his love of baseball. He grew up in a bustling immigrant neighborhood near Washington Park in Albany, where kids played stickball in the streets. The arc of his baseball career may have been at its highest on the afternoon of April 21, 1912, when Esmond hit the first major-league home run at Crosley Field when he played for the Cincinnati Reds.1 For a brief period, Esmond joined the “outlaw” band of Federal League ballplayers who could have changed the structure of Organized Baseball.
When Esmond died at age 58 on June 26, 1948, he was buried at St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, New York, near Troy, with six major-league players including Joe Evers (Giants), Bill Fagan (New York Metropolitans, Kansas City Cowboys), Matty Fitzgerald (New York Giants), Ed McDonald (Boston Braves/Chicago Cubs), Jack O’Brien (Washington Senators/Cleveland Blues/Boston Americans), and Mellie Wolfgang (Chicago White Sox).2
Esmond was always curious about his ancestral roots. If given the chance to write his own SABR biography, he might open with a story that newspapers ran about his quest to trace his family line back to nobility in England and Ireland. In 1912, at the height of Esmond’s career, baseball fans were surprised, and delighted by this news flash: “Jimmy Esmond, Cincinnati shortstop may be a real lord.”3
Jimmy’s parents were first-generation Americans, born to Irish immigrants who sailed to the United States from Queensland, Ireland, and Liverpool, England. His father, John, a strapping carpenter, was born in Pennsylvania. His mother, Helen, was born in New York. When the 1910 Census was recorded, Jimmy was listed as the second oldest child, with an older sister, Mary, and a younger brother Henry and sister Helen.
Located on the east end of the Erie Canal, the state capital of Albany thrived on the import and export of furs, meat, iron, and lumber at the turn of the century. Albany housed more saw mills than any other city in the country and was second to Boston as a major producer in book publishing. With a stout population of German, Dutch, and Irish settlers, Albany was also known as a mecca for beer, producing brews rebranded by F&M Schaefer Brewing Company.
Jimmy’s first address on record was 109 Lark Street, where his family rented a three-story brownstone. Built in 1892, the house, built with a signature window box, still stands on the hill overlooking the city. It sits among hipster art galleries and eateries, blocks away from Empire State Plaza, a group of state government buildings conceived by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s. Lark Street set the scene for the 1987 film Ironweed, in which Jack Nicholson portrayed a washed-up baseball player who deserted his family around 1910, right around the time Esmond broke into professional baseball. Based on William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Nicholson’s character gives viewers an intimate glimpse into Esmond’s world, focusing on the immigrant community’s love of home, poverty, the chance for re-invention, and America’s love of baseball.
Like the flower ironweed, known for its tough stem, and posture that never slouches in flooding or heat, Esmond was a solid student and a resilient athlete at Albany High School, where he played multiple sports. As a teen, he was a handsome sort, with intense blue eyes, wavy brown hair, and a fair, ruddy complexion. The natural shortstop stood 5-feet-11-inches tall, and threw and batted right-handed.
Though Esmond was extremely fast on his feet, it was his feisty spirit that inspired reporters to describe him as a guy filled with “pepper and anxiety.”
The edgy, impatient attitude became his trademark in professional baseball, in which Esmond played shortstop, second base, and third base during a transitional period in the major leagues from 1911 to 1915. Like many of the Irish-blooded ballplayers, he came up during the Deadball Era (1901-1919), when a single ball was often used in games until it literally unraveled. Deadball was characterized by low scoring and an emphasis on pitching techniques and defense. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Shoeless Joe Jackson were getting started during this period, when players wore uniforms with upturned collars and sleeves below the elbow, swung heavy wooden bats, and fielded balls with tiny gloves stitched together with scraps of rawhide. Fans were literally part of the Deadball games, gathering in foul territory and standing in the grass behind the outfielders, rooting for teams and yelling at players. Sometimes the rowdiest fans jumped into games, grabbing the balls and making plays, and from a distance there were always the gamblers.
Despite its downcast name, Deadball was an enterprising time when the first giant steel stadiums sprang up in big cities, and ballparks were connected to train lines and trolleys. Long before NFL football and NBA basketball became spectator sports, investors realized they could make millions off America’s most popular, most accessible spectator sport. Hard-scrabble players wanted a piece of the profits too, taking Organized Baseball down new roads that could have altered the structure of the game forever.
During the Deadball years, the American League joined the National League as a top-level professional baseball circuit. At the peak of Esmond’s career, a third, renegade league emerged for only two seasons. The Federal League operated in 1914 and 1915, and Esmond played for two of the best Federal teams, the Indianapolis Hoosiers and the Newark Peppers.
Breaking into Baseball
Esmond got his start in professional ball in 1908 with the Gloversville-Johnstown/Elmira nine of the New York State League, a team manned by constituents from upstate New York. Thirty years later, the team would be reconstituted from 1938 to 1951 in the Canadian-American League.
After two seasons with Jersey City of the Eastern League, Esmond broke into the big leagues on April 20, 1911, with the Cincinnati Reds. Playing in 73 games, he batted .273 that season.4 It was the last year the team played in the grand stadium nicknamed the Palace of the Fans with hand-carved Corinthian columns, a covered grandstand, and private opera-style boxes with carriage parking like the luxury suites of today. Early on, Esmond was considered quite the prize for the team. “I consider I have in Jimmy Esmond the greatest young infielder in major league circles,” said Clark Griffith, the Reds manager.5
On April 21, 1912, in his second season with the Reds, Esmond hit the first home run into the stands in the newly christened Crosley Field before 20,000 fans. On that hot Sunday afternoon, the hometown Reds rallied from a 5-1 deficit to defeat the Cubs, 10-6.6 By May, Esmond was a darling of the press, who credited him for playing a “dashing game,” and stepping in as the only “real” shortstop Cincinnati had since Tommy Corcoran.7 Just as the Cincinnati Enquirer called Esmond one of the “most consistent players” on the team, he was knocked out cold by two serious head-on collisions, and retired from a game.8
In September 1912 Esmond was plagued by chronic stomach issues. “His digestive apparatus balked like a mule on a gangplank on a Mississippi River steamer,” wrote a reporter who described Esmond as a nice, clean-cut youngster. Due to a somersaulting stomach he was demoted to the International League’s Montreal team.9
The embryo Federal League came together in early 1912 when Chicago baseball promoter John T. Powers set his sights on making a fortune with an outlaw league. A year earlier, Powers failed to launch the Columbian League, when his main investor pulled the plug before the first game was played. Powers’ plan for the Federal League was more structured, and he had deep pockets. Teams were planned in major cities including Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. Financiers included wealthy merchants and industrialists, among them Oklahoma oil baron Harry Ford Sinclair, ice magnate Phil Ball, and George Ward, whose baking empire introduced Twinkies and Wonder Bread.
Playing in the outlaw league allowed players to avoid the restrictions of the organized leagues’ reserve clause. The competition of another more lucrative league caused players’ salaries to skyrocket, demonstrating the bargaining potential of free agents for the first time.10 When James A. Gilmore took over the league in 1913, well-known players were jumping on board. Major leaguer Joe Tinker became the first to sign with the Chicago Whales, as a player-manager. Other prize recruits included Three Finger Brown, Solly Hoffman, Danny Murphy, Howie Camnitz, and Al Bridwell.
Players like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Walter Johnson got bonuses when the AL and NL worried that they would be picked off by the Federals. Joe Jackson was reportedly offered $25,000, more than four times his salary with Cleveland, to join the league. He wisely turned down the offer.
The League Opens in 1914
The 1914 Federal League season opened with teams in Brooklyn, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Kansas City, Buffalo, and Indianapolis, where parks had been built. The Chicago Whales opened the season in the park that would eventually be known as Wrigley Field — a ballpark that endures as the Federal League’s only lasting monument.
Initially, Federal League attendance was comparable to that of the established AL and NL teams, and for a while, its teams received equal billing in Sporting Life and other major papers.
On February 18, 1914, it was announced that Jimmy Esmond signed with the Feds.11 Initially, the shortstop suspected that he might be sent to the Brooklyn team, and even called on as a manager. Instead, Esmond became one of the first players to sign with the Indianapolis Hoosiers. With limited major-league competition, his performance was impressive. That season he hit .295 and tied for the league lead with 15 triples. He got more playing time than most of his teammates. His hitting improved, and without serious injury, Esmond enjoyed what was described as his “most successful” year ever.12
In 1914 the Indianapolis Hoosiers won the championship, beating out the Chicago Feds by 1½ games.13 With the victory, team owner Harry Sinclair thought his players were good enough to compete with the Yankees and the Giants. With Sinclair’s nudging, the Hoosiers made history as the first team to ever relocate after winning a league title. Rebranded as the Peppers, they became the only major-league team to ever call New Jersey home.14 From the very beginning, it was an ill-fated move that sealed the Federal League’s destiny, haunting some players forever. The Peps were not only blocked from setting up shop in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Tip-Tops were not pleased about another Federal League team moving in on their overcrowded turf.
Esmond’s debut in Newark on Opening Day in 1915 was described by sportswriters as like a July 4 celebration with floral horseshoes and movie operators. According to the New York Times, everyone quit work when the 12 o’clock whistle blew, put on their spring spangles and headed to the ballpark where there were parades and Boy Scouts, Scotch bagpipers, drummers, and brass bands along with Elks and Eagles clubs setting the scene for a major-league extravaganza. There were caravans of tooting automobiles, and people carrying banners welcoming the Federal League to New Jersey.
“Newark and its surrounding hamlets were seized with a violent attack of baseball yesterday, accompanied by a high fever and laryngitis. The ailment can be directly traced to the opening of the Newark Federals at their new, roomy park in Harrison. The epidemic spread among nearly 25,000 Jersey folk who jammed the new park to see ‘Whoa Bill’ Phillip’s ‘Peps’ make their home debut against Otto Knabe’s Baltimore Terrapins,” the Times wrote.
The Times described Esmond as a ghost who made two serious errors during the 1 hour 54-minute game. The Terps won, 6-2.15
Esmond played well, and the Peps carried on, hanging onto first place into early May. But after 11 losses they fell into fourth place. To boost game attendance, the Federal League experimented with reduced ticket costs. Fans poured into games in Newark for 10-cent bleacher seats, 25 cents for pavilion seats and 50 cents for grandstand seats.16 The team rallied in August to recapture the top spot but it “faded down the stretch and ended up in fifth place in a razor-thin five-team pennant race.”17 The Chicago Whales finished in the top spot, with the Peps in Fifth place.
Though the Federal League had solid funding, and good prospects, all three leagues suffered from having too many teams in the same markets. Game attendance waned as legal tensions mounted. Jimmy Esmond played his last Federal League game on October 3, 1915.
That year the FL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the AL and NL. The case was heard in federal court in Chicago, presided over by Judge Kenesaw Landis, the future commissioner of baseball, who had hoped for a peaceful resolution. With war brewing in Europe and financial losses weighing down baseball, the Federal League sued its competitors.
The Federal League folded its tent by early 1916. Robert Wiggins, author of The Federal League of Baseball Clubs, The History of an Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915, describes the scene at the annual National League meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria on February 9, where the owners of the Boston Braves purchased Federal League players like Ed Konetchy for $12,000. That same day, team President Pat Powers transferred Jimmy Esmond of Newark back to the Cincinnati Reds.18
By the time the major leagues paid its obligations to the Federal League and legal fees were settled, baseball’s most costly war finally ended. Harry Sinclair fared well, turning a $2 million profit on his Peps in 1916, forming Sinclair Oil Company. In the 1920s Sinclair sank millions into horse racing and saw his horses win three Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby.
After the Federal League
On January 10, 1917, Esmond married 22-year-old Marion B. Hannan.19 The World War drew in hundreds of major-league players and future managers including Grover Alexander, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Branch Rickey, Larry MacPhail, and Casey Stengel. In the spring of 1917 Jimmy registered for the military draft at age 27.20
As war raged in Europe, Esmond remained stateside imagined that his baseball days were over.
Not so. At age 31, he came back with Syracuse of the Independent League in 1921. Esmond moved to the Eastern League and played a season each for Waterbury, Albany, and Pittsfield. The proud Irish shortstop played his last game in 1924.21
In 1942, at age 52, Esmond registered for the World War II draft. He was still fit, with the same height and weight, though his wavy auburn hair was gray. By 1943 he was working as a contractor and an income-tax examiner, living at 83 Rykman Avenue in Albany with his wife, who worked as a machine operator at a felt company.22 In 1945 he and Marion moved back into his childhood neighborhood near Washington Park to Idlewild Street.
It is not known if Esmond ever confirmed his royal ancestral heritage. At 58, he died in a hospital in Troy, New York, on June 26, 1958, from a cerebral edema several weeks after an operation.23 With modern research on concussions, one wonders if his hard-playing style and epic head-on collisions played a role in his demise. St. Agnes Catholic Cemetery returned the shortstop to the company of major-league players from immigrant families. Ironically, that cemetery with its winding paths and scenic vistas also sets the opening scene of the novel Ironweed, when the former ballplayer returns to Albany to make peace with his roots.
The Esmonds had two daughters, Mary (born 1918 — died unknown) and Shirley (born 1927 — died 2017). It is believed that Marion Esmond lived until 1971.24
1 “Crosley Field/Cincinnati Reds,” Ballpark Digest, February 13, 2010. ballparkdigest.com/201002132500/major-league-baseball/visits/crosley-field-cincinnati-reds-1.
2 Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology: The Post-Baseball Lives and Deaths of More Than 7,600 Major League Players and Others (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2003), 486.
3 “Jimmy Esmond a Lord,” Fort Scott (Kansas) Republican, August 11, 1912: 6.
6 Ballpark Digest, February 13, 2010. Information pulled from the website ballparkdigest.com/201002132500/major-league-baseball/visits/crosley-field-cincinnati-reds-1.
7 Long Branch (New Jersey) Daily Record, May 23, 1912: 7.
8 Cincinnati Enquirer, June 15, 1912: 8.
9 Buffalo Enquirer, September 16, 1912: 6.
10 Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League of Baseball Clubs, The History of an Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2009), 5-7.
11 Wilkes-Barre Record, February 18, 1914: 16.
12 Indianapolis News, October 2, 1914: 18.
14 Nick Acocella, “New Jersey’s Team: Baseball in Newark,” New Jersey Monthly, April 27, 2015. njmonthly.com/articles/jersey-living/jerseys-team-baseball-newark/.
15 “Baseball Fever Hits Newark Hard,” New York Times, April 17, 1915: 12.
16 “Sinclair on 10-C Ball Says Talk of Cheapening Sport Is Silliest Kind of Rot, New Scale Brings More Fans,” Baltimore Sun, August 15, 1915: 24.
18 Wiggins, 294.
19 New York State Marriage Index.
20 1917-1918 US Military Draft Card.
21 Statscrew.com Minor League baseball. Information pulled from the website statscrew.com/minorbaseball/roster/t-mr13125/y-1912.
22 1943 City Directory, Albany, New York, 188. Also note 1945 City Directory, Albany New York, 190.
23 Baseball Necrology, 121.
24 Death record, Marion B. Esmond, State of Maryland, 1971, Silver Spring, Maryland.