This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Judge Nagle came by his nickname honestly. And baseball may have saved his life. He grew up connected to a courthouse, where his father was employed. Walter Nagle was born in Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, California, on March 10, 1880. His father, Fred Nagle, was a native of New Zealand, born there of English parents. Fred had come to the United States as an infant in 1851. By 1880 when Fred Nagle was 31, he worked as a searcher of records in the courthouse. Fred’s wife, Helen (Williams), was a native Californian, born to a father from Michigan and a mother from New York. Walter was the third of the couple’s four children.
Twenty years later, Fred Nagle had risen to become deputy county clerk. His first-born son, Arthur, worked as a carpenter and the next youngest, Ralph, worked as a bookkeeper. Walter was 20 that year, working as a laborer. His first year in Organized Baseball came when he was 25, in 1905. He’d been a bank clerk in San Francisco and beginning around 1900 had played for the Columbian Bank team on weekends.i He was working as a note teller and real-estate clerk at the bank, but left when a San Francisco doctor put him on a liquid diet and told him he had only six months to live. Walter was 6 feet tall, but weighed 142 pounds and was anemic. (His later playing weight was 176.) ii
Nagle resigned his position at the bank and turned to something he enjoyed. “There was only one sport that I was infatuated with, and that was the old national pastime,” he said in 1911. “As sick as I was, the zing of the ball and the crack of the bat always kept me interested and, naturally, the first thing I did was to get out in the lots and bat them around. Modesty forbids me to sign any self praise, but truth compels me to say that with a few weeks of rest I managed to get a place on the Los Angeles team, which was playing in my town.”iii A pitcher, he was given a one-month contract, won his first three games and was invited to continue – and his health improved.
Nagle had some ballplaying in his past, but not professionally, but did appear in an August 20, 1902, game for San Francisco in the California League. Described as “a Santa Rosa amateur,” Nagle “handled himself like a veteran” and held Sacramento to six hits for a 5-3 win.iv (He was 2-for-4 as a batter.)
When he began in the Pacific Coast League, he had a spectacular first season for Los Angeles, not only winning those first three games but winning every game in which he pitched, for an undefeated 11-0 year with a 1.37 ERA in 14 games. One game he was perhaps fortunate not to lose was a 6-6 tie against Tacoma on October 12.
Nagle’s family had perhaps been a bit aghast at first that he had taken up playing ball, but he said his father had come to his first game and was the loudest rooter. “And after that he announced that being a ball player was an honor to the family.”v
Nagle had a more difficult year in 1906, his season interrupted by the great earthquake in April that devastated not only San Francisco but Santa Rosa, 55 miles away, as well. He went to Buffalo at one point, along with some other players who were tempted by an offer there, but the National Board, which governed Organized Baseball, ruled that they all had to return.vi Then Nagle saw another side of court proceedings outside of Sonoma County when he was arrested in Fresno, California, on August 5 for assaulting a fan he said had insulted him. Both fan and Nagle were arrested for disturbing the peace.vii
Nagle had a less successful year in 1907, with a final record of 9-16, but had pitched well enough that Philadelphia’s Connie Mack traveled to the West Coast to look him over after the American League season had ended. In the six years from 1905 through 1910 that he pitched for Los Angeles, Nagle’s 3.03 ERA in 1907 was the only time that he had an ERA above 2.26. His won/lost record was 16-12 in 1907. On May 18 of that year he married Miss Leota Pedigo of Santa Rosa. They had known each other since childhood.viii
Nagle was good enough at the plate and in the field that he played some second base and some third base; on July 17, 1908, in San Francisco, playing third base, he had a three-hit day and batted in two runs while scoring the winning run. His pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth drove in the only two runs of the game for L.A. on October 5, beating San Francisco, 2-1. As a pitcher, he became a 20-game winner for the first time in 1908 (24-10). He was 20-10 in 1909 and then 25-16 in 1910, with an astonishing 400⅔ innings of work in 51 games (41 starts.) His best games were a one-hitter against Sacramento on July 11, 1909, and a one-hitter against San Francisco on August 10, 1910.
A couple of days before Christmas of 1910, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Nagle to a big-league contract. He was offered a contract “at a much higher figure than expected. Dreyfus [sic] believes in having his youngsters satisfied at the start so that he can get their best efforts.”ix
Nagle made the team in spring training and first appeared on April 26, throwing two hitless innings in relief to close out a 2-1 win against the St. Louis Cardinals. He closed the game on the 28th, too, a 4-3 win over the Chicago Cubs. He pitched in eight games for the Pirates, went 4-2, and then was sold to the Boston Red Sox on June 21. “The first intimation Nagle had of the matter was when he received a letter from President Barney Dreyfuss telling him of the sale and ordering him to turn over all of his equipment and report to the Boston team.”x He wasn’t told why his contract had been sold, and neither had the newspapers, but speculation was that it was simply an effort to cut costs.
Nagle suffered from a “weak arm” while with the Red Sox. Joe S. Jackson of the Washington Post wrote that he “tried various remedial agencies without relief, and a week or two ago since announced that he was taking Christian Science treatment.”xi A story in an unidentified August 1911 clipping said he was “making daily visits to one of the most eminent Christian Science practitioners and declares he is already being greatly benefited thereby.”xii Jackson then offered his opinion that “(b)ringing Christian Science into baseball was an innovation that some people would consider bordering on the sacrilegious. Whether such a contention is correct or not, Nagle’s course was certainly in bad taste, for he allowed the matter to be given widespread publicity in self-advertising.” The comment referred to an article Nagle wrote that was published in numerous newspapers around the country in June.xiii He’d told the story of how he’d been given just six months to live, six years earlier, but through working outdoors playing baseball had saved his own life.
Nagle pitched 27 innings in five games for the Red Sox, and was 1-1 with a 3.33 ERA.
Lou Guernsey of the Los Angeles Times said of Nagel, “Nagel is a mighty good mound artist, but I don’t think he is strong enough to stand the major league gaff.”xiv
On September 5, 1911, the Red Sox sold Nagle back to Los Angeles. He got into two games, winning one and losing one, before he had to call it a year in mid-October and return home to Santa Rosa to recuperate. “His health was impaired by the Eastern climate, to which he was not accustomed, and when he returned to the Angels there was a noticeable difference in his work,” wrote The Oregonian.xv
In 1912 Nagle was back with L.A. and was 8-6 in 22 games. He had a remarkable inning (dubbed a world’s record) in the eighth inning of a game on August 29, retiring the side on just three pitches.xvi But his season ended early when a hard-hit line drive struck him in the chest, breaking two ribs, during a game against San Francisco on September 9. The ball hit Nagle so hard that it rebounded 20 feet off his chest. He “staggered over to the ball and threw [the batter] Gedeon out at first,” then “pitched forward on his face and stiffened spasmodically.”xvii He was unconscious for a while, and there were fears for the worst, but he’d made the play and he recovered in the hospital.
In October it was announced that Nagle would manage the Tufts-Lyon semipro team in the California Winter League. He played for the team, too, often as an infielder – a position he hoped to win with Los Angeles in 1913, first base or (more likely) third base, given that his pitching arm was ailing. On March 27, 1913, however, Nagle was signed by the San Jose Bears to manage the California State League team. He pitched in a few games, as player-manager, and was 1-3.
Nagle was noted as popular – and perhaps pursued – by the ladies. The San Jose Mercury Newsxviii welcomed him to the city, noting that it was a good thing Mrs. Nagle was so understanding. The article was a little over the top. It said he had been “the baseball idol of all the belles of the Southland” when he played for Los Angeles. “Hundreds of girls and women worshipped at his shrine. Daily from their points of vantage in the grandstand and the bleachers, they vocally petted, caressed, scolded, encouraged, entreated, advised, cheered and openly, among thousands of people, among them their own husbands, and sweethearts, fathers, and brothers, made love to Walter Nagle; they threw him their corsage bouquets and would no doubt have gone into the sacred precincts of the ballfield and embraced him had they not been restrained by the police and a screen of wire netting.” The local newspaper ventured beyond hyperbole into outright fantasy when it reported on July 20 that “Giovanni Murphy, newly elected president of the California league, has suspended Manager Walter Nagle for the rest of his natural life for rowdyism, using profane language, bar-room tactics on the ballfield, and on general principles. This is the first official act of Mr. Murphy since coming into the presidential chair, and he is to be congratulated for his fearless stand. Although Nagle is a close personal friend, he has shown already that he will treat all offenders alike, whether friends or foes.”xix One presumes this struck fans in the know as humorous. The article was tagged “Somebody Else’s pipe dream.”
Nagle, in fact, continued to lead the team through the rest of 1913, but these were his last games. He was not brought back for 1914. He’d approached the team’s struggles with a bit of his own humor, writing a letter to the editor of the Mercury News that “we are losing games as regularly as ever.” Of the August 23 game, he said, “We made about eight errors, but he [the scorer] only gave us four. I guess he felt sorry for us,” and he talked about the “immense crowds (?). Wednesday we had a $15.00 gate and yesterday $14.00.”xx The question mark was Nagle’s own. He did play some Winter League ball in the San Jose area that November. He was disappointed to learn that December that the California League team didn’t intend to bring him back, and said he’d been promised a one-third interest in the team and might sue.xxi Nothing appears to have come of it.
In 1915, according to an obituary, Nagle “managed to focus world-wide attention on botanist Luther Burbank and Santa Rosa by arranging to divert Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and Henry Ford and their special railway car, floating it to Sausalito from San Francisco.”xxii
Nagle umpired in Santa Rosa in 1916.xxiii In January 1917 he was secretary-treasurer of the California State Association of Commercial Secretaries, while working for the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.xxiv
When Nagle registered for the military draft in September 1918, he was working as a secretary at the Reno Commercial Club. He was back in Santa Rosa with his wife, Leota, and his mother-in-law, and had turned to another job by 1920, as a retail merchant dealing in tires. He was also involved in discussions toward organizing a new California State Baseball League.xxv
Nagle never lost interest in the game. A 1925 article in The Oregonian said he was secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in Sausalito, but had dropped by the Los Angeles office of the Pacific Coast League to put in an application as an umpire in the PCL.xxvi
In 1930 Nagle was a secretary at the Elks Club in Santa Rosa, while Leota taught in the public schools. And a decade after that, he was back in court – the county clerk of Sonoma County.
Nagle lived until May 26, 1971, when he died of congestive heart failure in Santa Rosa at the age of 91.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Nagle’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1911.
ii Denver Post, June 6, 1911.
iii Denver Post, June 6, 1911.
iv Los Angeles Times, August 31, 1902.
v Denver Post, June 6, 1911.
vi Sporting Life, July 28, 1906.
vii Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1906.
viii San Jose Evening News, May 18, 1907.
ix New Orleans Item, February 26, 1911.
x Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1911.
xi Washington Post, August 10, 1911.
xii Unidentified clipping found in Nagel’s Hall of Fame player file.
xiii For example, the Denver Post of June 6, 1911.
xiv Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1911.
xv The Oregonian, Portland, October 12, 1911.
xvi Sporting Life, September 21, 1912.
xvii Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1912.
xviii San Jose Mercury News, April 13, 1913.
xix San Jose Mercury News, July 20, 1913.
xx San Jose Mercury News, August 24, 1913.
xxi The Oregonian, December 7, 1913.
xxii Unidentified newspaper clipping found in Nagle’s Hall of Fame player file.
xxiii San Jose Mercury News, April 16, 1916.
xxiv San Jose Mercury News, January 25 and June 9, 1917.
xxv San Jose Evening News, October 18, 1920.
xxvi The Oregonian, January 4, 1925.