John Foley

This article was written by Dana Sprague

Two rookies made their major league debuts for the Providence Grays at St. Louis’s Union Grounds on September 18, 1885. One of them, 19-year-old third baseman Denny Lyons, went on to compile a .310 batting average in 1,121 games over 13 seasons. The other, a 27-year-old southpaw named John Foley, pitched a complete game that day, giving up only six hits over eight innings … then he disappeared. For many years, he did not even contact his family, who thought he had been murdered. Finally, he resurfaced briefly in 1909, living in Peoria, but from there the trail again goes cold. Did Foley ever pitch again after his one game in the majors? If not, what did he do for work? And when and where did he die? We may never know the answers to those questions about John Foley, the lost Green Mountain Boy of Summer.

The oldest of seven children, John J. Foley was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, on October 25, 1857. His father, Hugh, came to the United States at the age of 17 from Leitrim, Ireland, landing in Boston in 1848, while his mother, the former Catherine Heffron, was born in Wicklowe, Ireland, and came to America as a young girl, initially settling in Burlington, Vermont. Both of John’s parents fled Ireland as a result of An Ghorta Mor, the Great Hunger, a five-year period in the late 1840s when blight destroyed the Irish potato crop on which the peasant class depended. Hugh worked for several years as a section hand for the railroad in different parts of the United States before coming to Brattleboro, while Catherine left Burlington around 1852 and found work as a cook at the Brattleboro Hydropathic Institution on Elliot Street, better known as the Wesselhoeft Watercure.

Despite an unfavorable notice in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, which suggested that practitioners of the water cure were fakes who took up the water cure only after failing in other schools of quack medicine, influential people such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Francis Parkman paid the considerable sum of $10 weekly ($11 in summer) to subject themselves to the frequent ice-cold “plunges.” Though Dr. Wesselhoeft’s establishment was famous for its amenities, Catherine’s cooking apparently was not much of an attraction; boarders frequently complained that two of the three daily meals consisted primarily of stale bread.

In Vermont, Hugh worked briefly for Dr. Chapin, the Windham County sheriff, before spending a decade in the employment of the Vermont Asylum, now known as the Brattleboro Retreat. Hugging the hilly west bank of the Connecticut River, Brattleboro was transforming from a quiet agricultural hub to a busy industrial center, and waves of Irish Catholic immigrants were finding menial jobs in its organ factories, cotton and paper mills, and in the convalescence industry. Like other nationalities, the Irish clustered in “patches,” and at the time of John’s birth the Foleys lived on Elliot Street, in the heart of the Irish ghetto, where four or five families crowded into single-family homes, adding lean-tos and sheds to accommodate the overflow. Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice was rampant among the Protestant native Vermonters.

After a short time in Guilford, where Hugh worked on a farm, the Foleys returned to Brattleboro’s Irish patch, settling down at 77 Frost Street, one block south of Elliot Street. Described as an “upright man,” “industrious,” and a “thrifty Irish immigrant who contributed much to society,” Hugh took a job with the Estey Organ Company, for which he performed “many years of faithful service.” Catherine too was described as “industrious” and “hard-working,” but she was also “very quiet and kept both her joys and sorrows to herself.” One of those sorrows occurred on a Friday night in the 1870s when John’s younger brother Bart was beaten up, only to return to the scene later with “a set of spikes driven through leather belting.” The incident was captured in a painting by Charles Brasor, a prolific Brattleboro artist whose sketches of events in the rough Irish neighborhood around Elliot Street often feature written narratives.

A few-hundred feet down the street from the Foley residence was the Frost Mansion, which had a large field called Frost’s Meadow where locals played baseball each night until dark. The earliest mention of John Foley playing organized baseball dates from 1875, when the 17-year-old recent graduate of Brattleboro High School pitched for a team called the “Fisk Juniors.” The team was named for James Fisk, Jr., of Brattleboro, a larger-than-life character whose meteoric career on Wall Street ended at age 37 when he was gunned down on the steps of New York City’s Grand Central Hotel in 1872. Foley also played on a team sponsored by his father’s (and eventually his own) employer, the Estey Organ Company. Then on June 29, 1877, a new team called the Brattleboro Baseball Club formed, with several players of Irish descent; in addition to Foley, the club included players named Sullivan, Manning, and Shea. According to the Vermont Phoenix, “the club contains some good players and is mostly made up from the old Union and Fisk clubs. They have handsome new uniforms of white trimmed with blue, white hats, belts and shields from New York and pants and shirts made at Whitneys.” The Phoenix reported that “Foley pitched well” in the team’s debut on July 6, 1877. The Brattleboro newspapers made little mention of baseball over the next few years, but John Foley did figure prominently in the Phoenix‘s report of a game on July 4, 1881:

“The Fourth was a day of victories for our Brattleboro boys who visited Keene, NH to join in the athletic sports there. In the matched game of base ball between the Brattleboro nine and the Keene nine, our boys won by a score of 9 to 5. They have reason to feel happy over their victory, for they took over their regular nine without outside help, while the Keene boys had a pick nine of the best players they could secure. Foley, the Brattleboro pitcher, appeared at his best, putting out 16 men during the game, each of the 16 having taken him three strikes without hitting the ball. Monroe, the catcher, got much credit for his grit by returning immediately to his place after getting a bad stroke under his chin from a bat.”

That Foley continued to make a name for himself is evident from an article dated September 7, 1883, describing Brattleboro’s seven-inning, 21-4 triumph over the Northamptons: “One of the largest crowds that ever assembled on Frost’s meadow to witness a game of baseball gathered there last Saturday afternoon to see the match game between the Northampton and Brattleboro nines. Foley, the famous left handed pitcher of the home club, proved a puzzle to the visitors, who made only two base hits, while 14 of them were struck out by Foley.”

As the 1883 season came to a close, John Foley proved himself as one of the top pitchers in northern New England. On September 27, he pitched 11 innings and struck out 13 in a 3-2 loss to Dartmouth College, which was described as “[o]ne of the most interesting games ever played on campus.” Foley ended the season with a pair of losses against Amherst College, though he struck out 22 batters along the way. During one of those contests, the Vermonter likely caught the eye of someone–—perhaps one of the opposing students–—with a connection to professional baseball in the Midwest; on May 2, 1884, the Brattleboro Reformer reported, “John Foley, the noted left-handed pitcher, has accepted a position with the Quincy (Ill.) base-ball club at a salary of $125 a month. His departure naturally cast a shadow over the local devotes [sic] of the bat.”

In his first professional game on May 3, 1884, Foley lost, 6-4, but made a favorable impression: “Although Foley was freely batted in the first two innings yesterday, he did fine work in the third,” the Quincy Whig wrote, “and it is the opinion of many of those present that a great mistake was made when he was taken out of the box, as he was just warming up to the work.” Foley gained his first victory in his next start on May 6 against Stillwater, Minnesota. The opposing catcher that day was Bud Fowler, the first black professional baseball player. Though he led the Northwestern League with 57 hits in 1884, Fowler went 0-for-3 against Foley. In Foley’s fourth win on June 16, “no less than 14 men struck the wind with their crutches and died at home plate.” After he beat Milwaukee on June 24, raising his record to 7-2, the Whig wrote, “The pitching of Foley in the last Quincy-Milwaukee game has caused considerable discussion among the baseball admirers of this city. It demonstrated the fact that he can pitch a very strong game and it is possible that he will hereafter be one of the regular pitchers for the club.”

Foley proved more dependable than the Quincy team. The Vermont-born southpaw won his next three games, gaining his tenth and final win with Quincy on July 10. “The pitching of Foley surprised the members of the Ft. Wayne team,” the Whig reported. “Corridon, who is considered one of the heavy hitters of the nine, was unable to hit him and ‘fanned out’ several times in a beautiful manner.” Foley lost his final three decisions with Quincy, dropping his season’s record to 10-5, and the team disbanded on August 10 due to financial difficulties. On September 1, 1884, the Quincy Whig noted that “Foley now pitches for the Keokuk (Iowa) Club.” The Vermonter won his only game for Keokuk before a crowd of 1,500 on a Sunday afternoon against Hannibal, Missouri, and five days later the Whig reported, “Messrs. Foley and Daniels have been employed by the Hannibal base ball club at a salary of $100 a month.”

We know that John Foley returned to pitch for the Hannibal Nationals in 1885, but we can only speculate on his performance because few newspapers from the Hannibal area remain from that season. I like to imagine that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) came to watch Foley pitch that summer, and it is a distinct possibility that it happened. We know that Clemens loved baseball and that both he and Foley were in Hannibal in 1885. We also know that Foley must have pitched well because that September, when the National League’s Providence Grays found themselves in St. Louis in desperate need of a pitcher, they called on him. Did Providence know of Foley because of his New England ties? Or was he the logical choice because he had pitched well that season and was only 75 miles upriver? Again, we probably will never know.

One year earlier, the Providence Grays had been the best team in baseball, winning what many consider the first World Series, but on September 18, 1885, they had won just four of their previous 27 games. Dupee Shaw had a sore arm, and Old Hoss Radbourn had been struggling. The Grays needed someone to beat the last-place St. Louis Maroons and prevent them from falling to the .500 mark for the first time all season. Into the breach stepped John Foley, whose performance in a 7-3 loss was described in a special dispatch to the Providence Journal:

Blundering with a Dead Ball in St. Louis
The Providence Nine Worse Than Demoralized
New Man from Missouri Ignorant of League Rules

ST. LOUIS, Mo., Sept. 18 — Providence presented two new men in to-day’s game. One of them was Lyons, said to have been the best third baseman in the Southern League, and the other Foley, late pitcher of the Hannibal, Mo., club. Lyons made the longest catch of the day, while he covered third in style. Foley proved a success as pitcher, being only hit for one earned run [note: actually four of the seven runs were earned], but he is too fleshy to run bases and as a batsman he is a complete failure. To-day, too, he shammed ignorance of the rules of the game. In the third inning St. Louis got three men to bases. McKinnon came to the bat and drove the ball safe to left field. Hines threw in to the plate, and the ball got by Daily. A boy who was attending to the bats stopped the ball and threw to Daily. Then he threw to Foley, who was standing near the plate. Dunlap, who noticed it was a dead ball, ordered all hands ground and Foley, not seeing the point, stood at the plate, waiting to touch them out. It was not until Captain Start had grabbed hold of and pulled him into his position that he saw his errors, but before he got back there three men had crossed the plate and McKinnon was at third. Two more hits and a base on balls brought in two more runs, and this long lead, as subsequent events proved, was far more than the home team needed. The Providence team is badly demoralized…. Last now Shaw is suffering with a lame arm and Carroll and Irwin are on the sick list. To-day’s game is not worth description. It was exceedingly decided, and the St. Louis appeared to win as they pleased.

The Providence Grays won only five of their remaining 14 games en route to their only losing record in franchise history. Both Foley and the Grays disappeared after the 1885 season, and neither ever played another major league game.

What happened to John Foley after his one and only appearance in a major league uniform is unclear. He did not return to Brattleboro for the funeral of one of his sisters in 1889, or his father’s funeral five years later. By the time his mother died in 1897, his whereabouts were unknown, and Catherine Foley went to her grave not knowing where her son was living–or whether he was even alive. She did leave part of her estate to John, but the bequest went unclaimed.

In April 1909, The Sporting News published an intriguing story under the headline “Old Ball Player Still Lives”:

Athol, Mass., April 2 — John Foley, 25 years ago a noted base ball pitcher, and for many years believed to have been murdered in Chicago, is as hale and hearty a man as lives to-day. His sister, Mrs. John Carney, of this town, to-day received a letter from her brother, who for years she mourned as dead. He is living in Peoria, Ill.

Efforts to pick up his trail from there have proven unsuccessful. There are many John Foleys listed in census records and city directories from around the country, but none seem to match the former major league pitcher born in Brattleboro, Vermont.


Special Thanks to Tom Simon, Suzanne Walker, Heline Henry, Harold “Jeff” Barry, Peg Barry, Joyoe Conley, Town of Brattleboro, Brooks Memorial Library, National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum, Society for American Baseball Research, Peter Morris, Brattleboro Historical Society, Gary Maize, Jean Kay, Eliane Sokolowski, JoAnn Thomas, Shane Eter, and Dartmouth College.


Vermont Phoenix

Brattleboro Reformer

Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions, and P. Jeffrey Potter. Freedom & Unity: A History of Vermont, 2004

David Nemec. The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball, 1997

John Thorn, Phil Birnbaum, and Bill Deane. Total Baseball, 2004

James A Riley. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro Baseball Leagues, 1994

Harold A Barry, Richard Michelman, Richard M. Mitchell, and Richard H. Wellman. Before Our Time, 1974

Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella. Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Teams, 1994

Joseph L. Reichler. The Baseball Encyclopedia

Manning Directories

The Sporting News

Providence Journal

John Holway. The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues

Bill James. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

David Ball. The Baseball Biography Project

The Dartmouth

Full Name

John J. Foley


October 25, 1857 at Brattleboro, VT (USA)

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