John Sterling

This article was written by Tim Hagerty

John Albert Sterling was a 19th-century pitcher whose only major-league appearance was a start for the Philadelphia Athletics on the final day of their woeful 1890 season. He was listed only as “Sterling” before researchers confirmed his first name and other biographical details in 2023.

Sterling was born in Philadelphia in September 1865 to parents Jesse and Henrietta (Jones).1 Jesse worked as a sailmaker and Henrietta was a homemaker. Sterling had four younger brothers.2 Although little information about his youth has surfaced, he lived in at least two New Jersey cities, Camden and Gloucester, as an adult.

Sterling pitched professionally in 1888 for minor-league clubs in Minneapolis; Jackson, Michigan; and Ashland, Pennsylvania. While with Ashland, he earned a late-July tryout with the American Association’s St. Louis Browns, a major-league team on its way to its fourth straight league pennant.

Sterling was officially signed by St. Louis,3 and he joined the Browns in Baltimore on July 28. The plan was for him to start against Cleveland in the Browns’ road game on July 29,4 but first he had to audition by pitching to Browns catchers Jack Boyle and Jocko Milligan. The audition did not go well: the two catchers said Sterling was “no good,” and he was cut loose by St. Louis.5 Despite his disappointment, Sterling remained confident and said he was “ready to pitch the game of his life” if a team gave him an opportunity to make his major-league debut.6 He would get that major-league opportunity two years later.

Sterling, a righthander who stood six-foot-one and weighed 172 pounds, pitched in 1889 for the Middle States League’s Philadelphia Giants, a minor-league team managed by former Philadelphia Athletics co-owner Charlie Mason. He was back with Mason’s Philadelphia Professionals club in 1890 and when Mason relocated early that season to manage the Eastern Interstate League club in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Sterling followed him and pitched there. Allentown went 1-19 and then folded. Sterling then signed with the New York State League club in Albany in June 1890, but he got released the following month for drunkenness.7

Multiple players whom Mason managed in 1889 and 1890 ended up on the 1890 Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association, whose skipper was Mason’s former A’s co-owner, Billy Sharsig. Mason’s previous role with the Athletics included scouting and acquiring players,8 and Mason and Sharsig were in touch in 1890.9 Thus, it appears likely that Mason recommended some of his minor-leaguers to Sharsig’s Athletics, including Sterling.

The Athletics were the third-most popular major-league team in Philadelphia in 1890, behind the National League and Players League clubs there, and the Athletics’ low attendance led to significant financial issues. In early September, Athletics secretary W.H. Whitaker admitted the club was bankrupt. A carpenter sued the club after he was not paid for repairing the Jefferson Street Grounds ballpark; creditors also demanded money owed to them. Players hadn’t been paid in six weeks,10 and they met with lawyers to discuss legal steps.11

The Athletics offered their players a percentage of the gate receipts for the remainder of the season, instead of a guaranteed salary, but the established players refused and quit in mid-September.12 Rather than folding, which clubs occasionally did in the middle of 19th-century seasons, the Athletics decided to finish their schedule with a haphazardly assembled group of amateurs and minor-leaguers. At 3:00 A.M. on September 17, an Athletics executive sneaked into the clubhouse and seized all the uniforms so the new ragtag squad would have something to wear on the field.13 This move required clandestine action because the uniforms were paid for and owned by the veteran players who left.14

The on-field results for the inexperienced team were predictably disastrous. They went 0-21 after the roster turnover and were outscored 273-59 during that stretch. It is still the most runs allowed and worst run differential in a 21-game span in major-league history.15 A 2012 article about the club’s dysfunction was headlined “The 1890 Athletics: The Worst Team in Major League Baseball History.”16

Sterling started the last game of the season-ending 21-game losing streak on October 12. With Sunday ball banned in Philadelphia, the game was held at Gloucester Point Grounds in Gloucester, New Jersey, a city full of gambling, racetracks, and saloons. One author said Gloucester was, at that time, a “nineteenth-century Sodom.”17

The visiting Syracuse Stars came in winners of six of their last seven games, with four of the wins in that span coming against the Athletics. Syracuse scored 12 runs in the first four innings against Sterling and won 12-2 in a five-inning game. While 19th-century games occasionally ended early because of darkness, there’s no evidence definitively showing why this game lasted only five innings.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reporter covering the game observed that the “visitors took kindly to the curves of Sterling.” The same article noted Sterling’s attire because it was so unusual. It described the pitcher as being “arrayed in a black cloth suit, with (a) low cut vest and white stand-up collar, and before they had finished with him the Jerseyman’s spirits were as wilted as his collar.”18 The Athletics not having an available uniform for their fill-in pitcher illustrated the dreadful state of the club. Sterling’s major-league career consisted of that one appearance – a lopsided loss at an alternate site in front of only 20 fans.19

A few fill-in Athletics position players from that game are so obscure that they are still listed as only a last name in baseball books and websites. John Sterling was listed only as “Sterling” before researchers confirmed his identity in 2023 after years of effort.20 It appears Sterling never played in another minor-league game after his lone major-league appearance. The Athletics franchise folded after the 1890 season and a new ownership group revived the Philadelphia Athletics name for 1891.

Sterling continued performing in front of people, albeit in a different role, in the late 1890s. He traveled the country as a singing comedian and minstrel show performer and reportedly had a tenor voice.21

He stayed in the public eye as a politician in the early 1900s. In September 1904, Gloucester’s Democratic party nominated Sterling as its candidate for Overseer of the Poor, an elected office that assisted residents who were dealing with health or financial issues.22 On Election Day in November, both Sterling and his Republican opponent, Frederick Williams, received exactly 1,052 votes.23 Sterling asked for a recount,24 claiming there were errors in the counting of ballots.25

The ensuing court hearings and developments were the talk of the town, with headlines like “MUCH INTEREST IN THE RECOUNT” appearing atop pages of The Morning Post, a newspaper that covered Camden and Gloucester.26 The recount showed that Sterling won by 10 votes,27 and he was sworn in at City Hall in early December, a month after Election Day.28 Sterling lost an election by a similarly slim margin in 1905, when Republican Martin Rothschell defeated Sterling, 610 votes to 600, for Gloucester Constable.29

Sterling was “lying seriously ill”30 at his home in Gloucester in early November 1908 and he passed away there on November 10, leaving behind his wife Maggie.31 His funeral was held three days later at his home, and it was attended by the members of the Gloucester Democratic Club.32 Sterling is buried at Union Cemetery in Gloucester, 17 miles from where he appeared in his lone major-league game.



This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Terry Bohn. Correspondence with SABR member Justin Mckinney provided research assistance.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also used,,, and



1 Pennsylvania Births and Christenings, 1709-1950.

2 US Census Bureau, 1880 US Census.

3 “Base Ball Notes,” Pottsville (Pennsylvania) Republican, July 31, 1888: 4.

4 “Base Ball Notes,” Philadelphia Times, July 29, 1888: 2.

5 “Grand-Stand Chat,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 8, 1888: 8.

6 “Grand-Stand Chat.”

7 “Base Ball Notes,” Albany Morning Express, July 4, 1890: unlisted page number.

8 “’Pop’ Mason Dies; Gave A’s First Title,” Atlanta Constitution, October 23, 1936: 23.

9 “Base Ball Confab,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 7, 1890: 3.

10 “Base Ball Comment,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 7, 1890: 7.

11 “Players Want Their Money,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 6, 1890: 3.

12 David Nemec, Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 2: The Hall of Famers and Memorable Personalities Who Shaped the Game, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland (2011): 245.

13 “Players in Demand,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 18, 1890: 2.

14 “Welch Goes to Baltimore,” Philadelphia Times, September 18, 1890: 2.

15 Justin Mckinney, “1890 Philadelphia Athletics,” SABR 19th Century Speaker Series, SABRvideos.

16 Cliff Blau, “The 1890 Athletics: The Worst Team in Major League Baseball History,” October 9, 2012, Seamheads,

17 Jerrold I. Casway, The Culture and Ethnicity of Nineteenth Century Baseball, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland (2017): 137.

18 “The Athletic and Syracuse Clubs Play Five Innings at Gloucester,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 13, 1890: 3.

19 “The Athletics Disband,” The Sporting News, October 18, 1890: 3

20 “John Sterling Found,” January/February 2023 Report, SABR Biographical Research Committee, 1.

21 “Cycling,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 22, 1898: 5.

22 “Mayor Boylen Renominated,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1904: 4.

23 “Recount of Votes in Gloucester,” Morning Post (Camden, New Jersey), November 15, 1904: 5.

24 “Much Interest in the Recount,” Morning Post, November 19, 1904: 6.

25 “Applied for a Recount,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 1904: 4.

26 “Much Interest in the Recount.”

27 “Thompson Wins Contest,” Gloucester County (New Jersey) Democrat, December 8, 1904: 1.

28 “Latest Contest in Gloucester,” Morning Post, December 8, 1904: 5.

29 “Thompson Defeated for Freeholder Seat,” Morning Post, November 8, 1905: 10.

30 “Gloucester Notes,” Morning Post, November 10, 1908: 5.

31 “Home Wedding at Gloucester City,” Camden Daily Courier, November 11, 1908: 2.

32 “Gleanings from Gloucester,” Camden Daily Courier, November 13, 1908: 3.

Full Name

John Albert Sterling


September , 1865 at Philadelphia, PA (USA)


November 12, 1908 at Gloucester, NJ (USA)

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