Mother Watson


Mother WatsonHis professional playing career was brief, distinguished only by one of the most peculiar nicknames in major league baseball history. Otherwise, Mother Watson, a two-game pitcher for the 1887 Cincinnati Reds of the American Association, was a nonentity, a performer who left an impression on the game so indistinct that modern reference works cannot even identify which way he threw or batted. Watson’s life away from the game was similarly shrouded in obscurity, penetrated only by the brief spasm of press attention that surrounded his death from gunshot wounds in November 1898. Still, the historical record is fragmentary, not silent, and traces of Watson’s life can be extracted from century-old reportage, census data, and surviving shards of circumstantial evidence. Through use of these sources, this essay will endeavor to present a coherent, if less than complete, profile of one of 19th century baseball’s least-known figures.

The Watson life story begins with his birth on January 27, 1865 in Middleport, Ohio, a small but bustling Ohio River outpost located on the southeast border of the state. Christened Walter L. Watson, our subject was the youngest of the 11 children born to riverboat engineer Elisha Watson (1818-1899), and his wife Martha Jane (née Cotsman, 1820-1907), both native-born Ohioans.1Despite the size of his brood, father Elisha’s income was apparently sufficient to permit several of his sons to continue their education beyond the eighth-grade level common for boys of the time. This included Walter, whom the 1880 US Census records as still in school at age 15. Apart from that, nothing is known of his early life except that when it came time for Walter to enter the work force, he did not follow his father and older brothers onto the river. Rather, his first known employer was a nail manufacturing plant.2

Like countless teenagers, the youthful Watson spent much of his leisure time playing baseball and soon developed a local reputation as a pitcher, a positional choice perhaps dictated because he was “not strong in baserunning and batting.”3 Of average height but lightly framed (5-foot-9, 145 pounds), Watson did not throw hard, relying instead on a baffling assortment of breaking pitches and cool-headedness in tight spots.4 He first attracted wider attention during the 1886 season pitching for an independent club in Zanesville, Ohio.5 In reporting on a 17-strikeout no-hitter thrown at the Columbus Browns, the Zanesville Daily Signal captioned its story: “Sissy Watson At Home.”6 For the most part, however, the local paper referred to the club’s star hurler as Mother Watson.7

Mother WatsonLater often described as “the Zanesville phenomenon,”8 Watson reportedly racked up 52 victories in 58 starts against top amateur and semipro clubs in Ohio and the adjoining regions.9 Particularly eye-catching were a pair of exhibition outings wherein he held the American Association champion St. Louis Browns to four hits each time. Elevated to prospect level by these two impressive showings, Watson thereafter signed contracts with both the Class AA Cincinnati Reds and the Syracuse Stars of the minor International League, with the ensuing inter-club dispute being resolved in Cincinnati’s favor.10

The Reds had finished a non-contending (65-73) fifth in 1886 American Association standings, and improvement was needed in all playing departments. This included the pitching staff, where the club ace, the talented but temperamental Tony Mullane, needed support. Young Watson was one of a host of newly-minted professionals who would be auditioned by the Reds. He joined the club as something of an unknown commodity, as word of his Zanesville prowess had not carried to many ears in Cincinnati. His prospects of sticking with the Reds, moreover, received decidedly mixed reviews in the better-informed baseball press. A non-bylined piece in Sporting Life related: “Watson, one of Cincinnati’s young twirlers, played with Zanesville last season and won a wide reputation. He is beyond doubt, a good pitcher but it remains to be seen how” he would fare against major league batsmen.11 Far less hopeful about Watson was the weekly’s Wheeling, West Virginia correspondent, who wrote: “I see [Cincinnati manager] Gus Schmelz is expecting great things from Watson … but I am afraid that he will not last long. In the first place [Watson] has but little speed, and the success he had last season was the result of headwork mainly. … The reason why he won so many games for Zanesville was not because he was an extraordinary pitcher, but because he had a superior team behind him, one that seldom got rattled.”12

But as the regular season approached, a more optimistic tone was adopted by the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, which cited Watson’s impressive pitching performances against the St. Louis Browns the previous year: “Watson is speedy in his delivery and uses great headwork for so young a player. … Should he prove a failure it would be quite a damper to the sanguine hopes of the management.”13 Accompanying the Commercial Gazette’s thumbnail bio of Watson was the inked portrait of him reproduced herein. Until recently, this was believed to be the only image of Watson known to exist.14

Commenting on Watson’s chances with the Reds, the Cincinnati Enquirer observed: “The people here [in Zanesville] are wondering what Cincinnatians think of ‘Mother’ Watson’s personal appearance. He is not a dude, but he can twirl a ball to perfection.”15 Then on April 11, the Sandusky (Ohio) Register advised readers that: “Zanesville will probably have a chance to secure their old pitcher ‘Mother’ Watson before the season is far advanced. He has not shown very well in Cincinnati and will likely be released.”16 Days later, the paper revised that forecast following a strong Watson preseason outing against Columbus, relating that “‘Mother’ Watson seems to have been a Jonah for the Capital City boys in yesterday’s game.”17

This Mother moniker, obviously, was a peculiar one, but at the time, conferring a feminine nickname upon a ballplayer was not unprecedented.18 Indeed, only a few seasons before Watson’s arrival in Cincinnati, Reds catcher Phil Powers had been called Grandmother. But the reason why Walter Watson was nicknamed Mother is far from clear.

The nickname did not originate in Middleport. To hometown friends and acquaintances, he was “Wal [or Wall] Watson, the ball player,” the appellation later employed in local newspaper coverage of Watson’s shooting in an area saloon and subsequent death.19 In Major League Players: 1871-1900, Volume 2, eminent baseball scholars David Ball and David Nemec maintain that Watson was “nicknamed ‘Mother’ because fellow players felt he needed his mother with him at all times. … [He] was a complete greenhorn when signed by Cincinnati for $1,500 in the winter of 1886-87 and had been victimized by ‘half a dozen bunko men before he had been in [Cincinnati] a week.’”20

Well, maybe. But the description of Watson as a “complete greenhorn” is questionable—Watson was not some bumpkin just come to town from the farm, whatever his appearance. He had grown up in a small but busy river port and had the life example of six older brothers to guide him, as well. By the time that he joined the Reds, moreover, Watson already had a season away from home and parents under his belt. Last but perhaps most important, Watson acquired the Mother nickname BEFORE he connected with the Cincinnati Reds. The Zanesville Daily Signal, Cincinnati Enquirer, and Sandusky Register articles noted above clearly indicate that he was called Mother Watson while playing for Zanesville.

An alternative theory asserts that “’Mother’ was a nickname for those who did not indulge in the typical vices of smoking, drinking, swearing or brawling. By all accounts, Watson conducted himself as a gentleman.”21 The placement of Watson in the virtuous player class also finds support in his Commercial Gazette profile: “Watson is a strictly temperate young man.”22 There is, of course, something ironic about this temperance paragon later dying as a result of a saloon shooting. More to the point, if Mother was a generic nickname applied to players who avoided debauchery and ungentlemanly conduct, how is it that Walter Watson is the only one of the multitudes of such players in baseball history to have ever been called Mother? In short, the theory is neat, but unpersuasive.

Those critical of other nickname contentions bear the responsibility of offering a plausible alternative to them. Thus, the writer will offer his own pet theory—one unencumbered by hard evidence but with a certain logic grounded in the experience of sports: Mother was a pejorative sandlot nickname, 1880s trash talk that probably began as soon as Watson advanced beyond the neighborhood pickup game stage of his career. Crucial to the argument here is the fact that the name Mother Watson was already in the public domain by the time that young Walter Watson took up playing baseball. One of the popular Horatio Alger novels, for example, contained a villainess named Mother Watson.23 And Mother (Mrs. H. A.) Watson was also the much-publicized headmistress of a Los Angeles home for wayward girls.24

Given this, and the politically incorrect sporting past of this country, saddling a young opponent named Watson with the discomforting, effeminate nickname Mother would have been a natural putdown, the kind of cutting but period-appropriate mockery indigenous to 19th century baseball. Thereafter, the baseball press would have had no compunction about adopting the Mother nickname and putting it into newsprint once there was caused to bring Watson’s existence to reader attention. The same would have been standard practice, witness Nig CuppyOne-Arm DailyPiano Legs Hickman, etc.

Sad to say, no evidence validating this theory has been found. In the end, the obscurity of our protagonist and the passage of more than a century since his demise make discovery of a definitive explanation of how Mother Watson got his nickname probably beyond reach. We will just likely never know.

However he got his moniker, Mother Watson was projected as one of the staff members who would support Reds ace Mullane in 1887. But club plans for the new season were promptly jeopardized when Watson and fellow hurling prospects Billy SeradElmer Smith, and Mike Shea came down with arm miseries once spring camp opened.25 And when he was fit to enter the box, Watson pitched inconsistently, being hit hard in an early intra-squad game but then shutting down league rival Columbus in a more seriously played preseason contest. All in all, he showed just enough in camp for management to place the name Walter L. Watson on the Reds’ roster for the 1887 season.26

Watson made the team but saw no action in Cincinnati’s first 24 games. He finally got his chance on May 19, courtesy of a Tony Mullane hissy fit. The mercurial Mullane refused to accept the ball for a home game against Brooklyn, complaining that it was not his turn to pitch. Mullane was suspended on the spot by manager Schmelz, who then seized upon the untested Watson as an emergency replacement. In his major league debut, Watson lasted five innings, leaving the game with Cincinnati ahead, 9-6. The following day, wire service reports stated that “Watson, the Zanesville phenomenon, did extremely well for a few innings. His arm gave out and [Pop] Corkhill came into pitch.”27 The hometown press concurred, the Cincinnati Post stating: “Watson, the new Cincinnati pitcher, did well.”28

The glowing reviews, however, are difficult to reconcile with the game’s box score. It reveals that Watson surrendered six runs on six base hits, walked four, struck out none, and threw three wild pitches. He also muffed two of his three fielding chances. Still, Watson could have been credited with a victory, had not Corkhill surrendered the lead before the Reds rallied to win, 14-10. Also on the plus side, Watson, ordinarily a near-helpless batsman, had managed a single and a walk in six plate appearances against Brooklyn right-hander Hardie Henderson. He’d also done no harm as Corkhill’s replacement for two innings in left field (no balls were hit Watson’s way).

Mother Watson made his second and final big-league appearance eight days later. Given a start against the Philadelphia Athletics, “the Zanesville phenom Watson pitched a fair game but was miserably supported by [catcher Kid] Baldwin,” who had five passed balls.29 Watson went the route and lost, 9-5, but only two of the runs charged against him were earned. But he also surrendered 16 base hits, and the contest had not been particularly close. The following day, Cincinnati announced the signing of Bill Widmer, a hard-throwing right-hander from the amateur ranks in nearby Cumminsville.30 The acquisition signaled the end of Mother Watson’s stay with the Reds, and he was given his release shortly thereafter.

Unbeknownst to the 22-year-old Watson, his career as a major league pitcher was over. In his two appearances, he had posted a 0-1 record, with an unsightly 5.79 ERA in 14 innings pitched. His log also showed 22 base hits and six walks surrendered, while he had struck out only one opposing hitter. In his May 27 outing, no balls had been hit back to him, leaving Watson’s fielding average at a dismal .333, while he finished 1-for-8 as a hitter (with a .125/.200/.125 slash line), and one run scored. Still, the experience was sufficient to permit Mother Watson to rightly claim the status of former major leaguer in the years thereafter.

Although the historical record is muted, it appears that Watson returned home to Middleport following his release and resumed working at the nail manufacturing plant.31 And he apparently did no further pitching in 1887.32 The following January, Watson was back under contract, a member of the Zanesville Kickapoos of the newly formed Tri-State League.33 Before the 1888 season started, however, it was widely reported that Watson had been released by Zanesville.34 But when the Kickapoos got off to a poor start, it was Watson to the rescue. Following a 6-4 Zanesville triumph over Kalamazoo, Sporting Life reported: “The poor showing of the home team the first week of the season was rather disappointing, but Thursday ‘Mother’ Watson slipped into the pitcher’s box and his appearance seemed to inspire the team with confidence as they put up an elegant game. It was Watson’s first for almost a year, and taking it all in all, was decidedly creditable to him. Twelve hits were made off him but he kept them scattered and his old time coolness did a great deal for him at crucial points.”35 Three weeks later, the Canton Repository proclaimed: “’Mother’ Watson, a phenomenon who failed with the Cincinnati’s of 1887, has come again and is pitching Zanesville’s best ball.”36

In time, Watson settled in as Zanesville’s second pitcher, a steady helpmate of staff ace Ad Gumbert. A personal highlight for Watson was a June 18 exhibition game victory (8-2) over the National League Pittsburgh Alleghenies and future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin.37 The Kickapoos were a pennant contender until late August, when Gumbert was sold to the St. Louis Browns.38And a week or so before the season ended, the Zanesville club disbanded, its successful 63-39 record notwithstanding.39 No final Tri-State League pitching stats have been uncovered,40 but examination of published Zanesville Kickapoos box/line scores puts Watson’s record in the neighborhood of 12-13.

After his 1888 tour with Zanesville, Watson never played another game in Organized Baseball. And with that, the light on the life of Walter “Mother” Watson goes dark. He withdrew to the anonymity of private life, and his name would not appear in newsprint for the next 10 years, leaving his whereabouts and activities during that time period almost entirely unknown.41 But from snippets of information published at the time of his shooting and subsequent death in November 1898, it can fairly be said that he lived the remainder of his life with his parents and various siblings at the family residence in Middleport; that he never married; that he became a member of the town’s volunteer fire department; and that he continued to do some pitching for independent and semipro teams in the southern Ohio-West Virginia region. Watson’s last known engagement was with the Mason Citys, a crack Charleston, West Virginia nine.

Watson reemerged from the shadows on November 7, 1898. It was Election Day, and after the polls closed he repaired to Gardner’s Saloon, a popular watering hole in nearby Pomeroy. While there, he encountered Lewis Schreiner, 32, once a clerk at the Middleport post office. The two men were long acquainted, but, according to one source, there had been “a slight altercation” between them several days earlier.42 Another report had the two men quarrelling “about politics” that evening.43

Whatever the underlying circumstance, things turned violent at about 1:00 a.m., when Schreiner uncovered a pistol and fired three shots at Watson. Watson returned fire with his own weapon, shooting twice.44 Only one round found its target, with Watson being struck in the chest or stomach (news accounts varied). He managed to stagger to the saloon door but then collapsed onto the floor. Sometime thereafter, Watson was borne on stretcher to the family residence, but given little chance of recovery.45Schreiner, meanwhile, quickly fled the saloon and disappeared, reportedly to the mountains of West Virginia,46 if not out of the country entirely.47

A week later, Watson was still alive, with recovery now predicted.48 Alas, it was not to be. On the morning of November 23, 1898, Walter Watson died in his bed from the effects of his gunshot wound. He was 33. The obituary subsequently published in the Middleport Republican Herald described the deceased as “of a kind disposition and [he] numbered his friends by the score.”49 Funeral services were conducted by two local clergymen, the Reverend Brainard, pastor of the Middleport Christian Church, assisted by Reverend Williams of the Methodist-Episcopal Church. Among the throng in attendance were Watson teammates from the Mason Citys ballclub and the Middleport Fire Department dressed in full uniform, their presence attesting to the “high esteem in which Walter Watson was held in his home town.”50 Interment was at Hill Cemetery, Middleport. Survivors included his elderly parents and five siblings.

Several days after Watson had been laid to rest, Meigs County Coroner Scott released the findings of his inquest. Post-mortem examination revealed that the fatal ball had passed through the liver, damaged the kidney, and then exited the body.51 Sometime thereafter, the fugitive Schreiner was apprehended. The disposition of any criminal charges against him, indeed whether or not formal charges were even instituted, is unknown.52 Whatever the case, Lewis Schreiner was a free man, living openly and unmolested by the law in Columbus, Kansas at the time the 1900 US Census was collected.

By then, the memory of the two-game Cincinnati Reds pitcher named Watson had already dimmed, and today he is long forgotten. Still, 130 years after the fact, our subject retains one modest distinction: he is still the only player in major-league history ever nicknamed Mother.

 

Acknowledgments

This bio is adapted from the writer’s keynote address to the April 2017 Fred Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Committee conference in Cooperstown. It was originally published in Base Ball 10: New Research on the Early Game, copyrighted 2019, edited by Don Jensen. It is republished here by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640, www.macfarlandbooks.com.

This version was reviewed by Rory Costello and Joel Barnhart and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

The sources of the biographical info provided herein include the Mother Watson profile published in Major League Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 2, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011); US Census data and Watson family posts accessed via Ancestry.com; and various of the newspaper articles cited below. Unless otherwise noted, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.

 

Notes

1 Walter’s older siblings were William (born 1842), Charles (1845), John (1849), Mary (1850), Elisha (1854), Jonas (1857), Madora (Dora, 1858), and Robert (1861). Two other Watson children, names unknown, did not survive infancy.

2 Watson’s off-season engagement at the nail manufacturing plant was mentioned in Sporting Life, March 21, 1888, and in the Watson profile contained in Major League Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 2, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 411.

3 As per Sporting Life, February 9, 1887.

4 The writer subscribes to early baseball scholar David Nemec’s dictum that because left-handedness was a relatively uncommon 19th century playing trait likely to be noted by the baseball press, the absence of press mention that a particular player threw lefty supports the presumption that the player was right-handed, the same as roughly 90 percent of the American population. Thus, the fact that Watson was never described as left-handed by the baseball press seems telling. And while Watson’s pitching repertoire featured the deceptive curveball nowadays associated with the crafty lefty, a puzzling assortment of breaking pitches was frequently attributed to any pitcher rising to fast company in the 19th century.

5 See e.g., the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 28, 1886, taking note of a three-hit shutout pitched by Watson against the semipro Cincinnati Clippers. Other mentions of outstanding Watson hurling efforts for Zanesville were published in the Cleveland Leader, August 12 and 25, 1886, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 11, 1886.

6 Zanesville Daily Signal, August 20, 1886. The writer is indebted to baseball historian/author Rick Huhn for finding and synthesizing the Zanesville reportage on Watson.

7 See e.g., the Zanesville Daily Signal, August 25 and September 7 and 13, 1886.

8 See e.g., the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 16, 1887, and Canton (Ohio) Repository and Sporting Life, May 16, 1888.

9 Nemec, 410.

10 Nemec, 410.

11 Sporting Life, February 9, 1887.

12 “Pickwick,” Sporting Life, March 16, 1887.

13 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, April 24, 1887.

14 A headshot of Watson in the team photo of the 1888 Zanesville Kickapoos was discovered by Carson Lorey and published in Reflecting the Past (the newsletter of SABR’s Pictorial History Research Committee), June 2017:1, 16.

15 “Ohio League Notes: Zanesville,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 20, 1887. Again, many thanks to Rick Huhn for tracking down Cincinnati reportage inaccessible to the writer.

16 Sandusky (Ohio) Register, April 11, 1887. The writer is indebted to baseball author and historian Dennis Snelling for unearthing and supplying the Sandusky reportage about Watson.

17 Sandusky Register, April 15, 1887.

18 A prominent Watson contemporary was pitcher Lady (Charles) Baldwin. For more on feminine nicknames in early baseball, see James K. Skipper, Jr., “Feminine Nicknames: Oh You Kid: From Tilly to Minnie to Sis,” Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 11 (1982)Perhaps the most bizarre of these monikers was the one attached to National Association outfielder Charlie Pabor: The Old Woman in the Red Cap.

19 See e.g., the Pomeroy (Ohio) Tribune Telegraph, November 8 and 23, 1898, Pomeroy Democrat, November 9, 1898, and Pomeroy Leader, November 10, 1898.

20 Nemec, 410. As the writer understands it, the Watson profile was researched by David Ball, a Cincinnati native and a scrupulous baseball historian. Regrettably, the underlying sources of the profile passages placed in quotes are not provided, and Ball’s untimely death in 2011 has prevented their identification.

21 Mike Shannon, Moments from the Cincinnati Reds History (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2008), 3. The Bullpen section of the Baseball-Reference entry on Mother Watson also mentions the virtuous person hypothesis.

22 See again, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 24, 1887.

23 Mother Watson was the hero’s cruel landlady in Mark, The Match Boy, or Richard Hunter’s Ward, published in 1869.

24 See e.g., the Los Angeles Times, May 17, October 23, and December 9, 1887.

25 As reported in Sporting Life, April 6, 1887, and the Baltimore Sun, April 7, 1887. The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 12, 1887, later maintained that Watson’s arm had gone lame prior to spring camp, and others attribute the problem to an injury suffered at the nail manufacturing plant the previous winter. See Nemec, 410.

26 As per Sporting Life, April 13, 1887.

27 See e.g., the Cleveland Plain Dealer, New York Herald, and New York Tribune, May 20, 1887.

28 Cincinnati Post, May 19, 1887. The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 19, 1887, was less impressed, deeming the performance of “Watson, the Zanesville wonder” neither a “glittering success” nor “a dismal failure.”

29 Philadelphia Inquirer, May 28, 1887. The box score in the Cincinnati Enquirer, May 28, 1887, charged Baldwin with six passed balls.

30 As reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 29, 1887.

31 See Sporting Life, March 21, 1888.

32 The Watson who anchored the pitching staff of the 1887 Kalamazoo (Michigan) Kazoos of the Ohio State League was Art Watson, not our subject.

33 As reported in the Wheeling (West Virginia) Register, January 2, 1888, and Canton Repository and Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 8, 1888. Zanesville had entered Organized Baseball the season before as a member of the Ohio State League.

34 See e.g., the Sandusky Register, March 20, 1888, Wheeling Register, March 22, 1888, and Canton Repository, March 27, 1888.

35 “Zanesville Zephyrs,” Sporting Life, May 9, 1888.

36 Canton Repository, May 16, 1888.

37 As reported in the Canton Repository, June 19, 1888.

38 As reported in the Wheeling Register, August 20, 1888. Gumbert would go on to have a solid nine-season major league career.

39 The Kalamazoo and Sandusky clubs also abandoned play before the season’s close. The champion of the 1888 Tri-State League was the 74-35 Lima (Ohio) Lushers.

40 Baseball-Reference provides no stats regarding Watson’s 1888 season in Zanesville.

41 The search for the post-baseball Watson is handicapped by the unavailability of the 1890 US and Ohio state censuses, both lost long ago to fire.

42 According to the Pomeroy Leader, November 10, 1898. The writer is indebted to Wanda Ashley of the Meigs County (Ohio) public library system and Mary Cowdery of the Meigs County Historical Society and Museum for their generous help in securing local reportage of the incident and the Watson funeral.

43 See the Cincinnati Post, November 9, 1898, and Sporting Life, November 19, 1898..

44 As per the Pomeroy Tribune-Telegraph, November 9, 1898. The Pomeroy Leader, November 10, 1898, stated that Schreiner had fired only twice, but with “little provocation.”

45 The assessment of the Pomeroy Democrat and Pomeroy Tribune-Telegraph, November 9, 1898, and Pomeroy Leader, November 10, 1898.

46 According to the Denver Post, November 23, 1898.

47 Cincinnati Post, November 9, 1898.

48 By the Pomeroy Democrat, November 16, 1898.

49 Middleport Republican Herald, November 25, 1898.

50 Middleport Republican Herald, December 2, 1898.

51 As reported in the Pomeroy Tribune-Telegraph, November 30, 1898. Despite a “diligent search” of the saloon, the fatal pistol ball was not recovered.

52 A dissertation on the application of penal statutes is beyond the scope of this profile. Suffice it to say that not every homicide constitutes a criminal offense. Certain types of killing – combat in war, capital punishment, and acts of self-defense, defense of a third person, accident, and/or misadventure – may be legally justified or excused. Regrettably, the documentary record needed to say more about the Watson-Schreiner affair could not be obtained by the writer.

His professional playing career was brief, distinguished only by one of the most peculiar nicknames in major league baseball history. Otherwise, Mother Watson, a two-game pitcher for the 1887 Cincinnati Reds of the American Association, was a nonentity, a performer who left an impression on the game so indistinct that modern reference works cannot even identify which way he threw or batted. Watson’s life away from the game was similarly shrouded in obscurity, penetrated only by the brief spasm of press attention that surrounded his death from gunshot wounds in November 1898. Still, the historical record is fragmentary, not silent, and traces of Watson’s life can be extracted from century-old reportage, census data, and surviving shards of circumstantial evidence. Through use of these sources, this essay will endeavor to present a coherent, if less than complete, profile of one of 19th century baseball’s least-known figures.

The Watson life story begins with his birth on January 27, 1865 in Middleport, Ohio, a small but bustling Ohio River outpost located on the southeast border of the state. Christened Walter L. Watson, our subject was the youngest of the 11 children born to riverboat engineer Elisha Watson (1818-1899), and his wife Martha Jane (née Cotsman, 1820-1907), both native-born Ohioans.1Despite the size of his brood, father Elisha’s income was apparently sufficient to permit several of his sons to continue their education beyond the eighth-grade level common for boys of the time. This included Walter, whom the 1880 US Census records as still in school at age 15. Apart from that, nothing is known of his early life except that when it came time for Walter to enter the work force, he did not follow his father and older brothers onto the river. Rather, his first known employer was a nail manufacturing plant.2

Like countless teenagers, the youthful Watson spent much of his leisure time playing baseball and soon developed a local reputation as a pitcher, a positional choice perhaps dictated because he was “not strong in baserunning and batting.”3 Of average height but lightly framed (5-foot-9, 145 pounds), Watson did not throw hard, relying instead on a baffling assortment of breaking pitches and cool-headedness in tight spots.4 He first attracted wider attention during the 1886 season pitching for an independent club in Zanesville, Ohio.5 In reporting on a 17-strikeout no-hitter thrown at the Columbus Browns, the Zanesville Daily Signal captioned its story: “Sissy Watson At Home.”6 For the most part, however, the local paper referred to the club’s star hurler as Mother Watson.7

Later often described as “the Zanesville phenomenon,”8 Watson reportedly racked up 52 victories in 58 starts against top amateur and semipro clubs in Ohio and the adjoining regions.9 Particularly eye-catching were a pair of exhibition outings wherein he held the American Association champion St. Louis Browns to four hits each time. Elevated to prospect level by these two impressive showings, Watson thereafter signed contracts with both the Class AA Cincinnati Reds and the Syracuse Stars of the minor International League, with the ensuing inter-club dispute being resolved in Cincinnati’s favor.10

The Reds had finished a non-contending (65-73) fifth in 1886 American Association standings, and improvement was needed in all playing departments. This included the pitching staff, where the club ace, the talented but temperamental Tony Mullane, needed support. Young Watson was one of a host of newly-minted professionals who would be auditioned by the Reds. He joined the club as something of an unknown commodity, as word of his Zanesville prowess had not carried to many ears in Cincinnati. His prospects of sticking with the Reds, moreover, received decidedly mixed reviews in the better-informed baseball press. A non-bylined piece in Sporting Life related: “Watson, one of Cincinnati’s young twirlers, played with Zanesville last season and won a wide reputation. He is beyond doubt, a good pitcher but it remains to be seen how” he would fare against major league batsmen.11 Far less hopeful about Watson was the weekly’s Wheeling, West Virginia correspondent, who wrote: “I see [Cincinnati manager] Gus Schmelz is expecting great things from Watson … but I am afraid that he will not last long. In the first place [Watson] has but little speed, and the success he had last season was the result of headwork mainly. … The reason why he won so many games for Zanesville was not because he was an extraordinary pitcher, but because he had a superior team behind him, one that seldom got rattled.”12

But as the regular season approached, a more optimistic tone was adopted by the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, which cited Watson’s impressive pitching performances against the St. Louis Browns the previous year: “Watson is speedy in his delivery and uses great headwork for so young a player. … Should he prove a failure it would be quite a damper to the sanguine hopes of the management.”13 Accompanying the Commercial Gazette’s thumbnail bio of Watson was the inked portrait of him reproduced herein. Until recently, this was believed to be the only image of Watson known to exist.14

Commenting on Watson’s chances with the Reds, the Cincinnati Enquirer observed: “The people here [in Zanesville] are wondering what Cincinnatians think of ‘Mother’ Watson’s personal appearance. He is not a dude, but he can twirl a ball to perfection.”15 Then on April 11, the Sandusky (Ohio) Register advised readers that: “Zanesville will probably have a chance to secure their old pitcher ‘Mother’ Watson before the season is far advanced. He has not shown very well in Cincinnati and will likely be released.”16 Days later, the paper revised that forecast following a strong Watson preseason outing against Columbus, relating that “‘Mother’ Watson seems to have been a Jonah for the Capital City boys in yesterday’s game.”17

This Mother moniker, obviously, was a peculiar one, but at the time, conferring a feminine nickname upon a ballplayer was not unprecedented.18 Indeed, only a few seasons before Watson’s arrival in Cincinnati, Reds catcher Phil Powers had been called Grandmother. But the reason why Walter Watson was nicknamed Mother is far from clear.

The nickname did not originate in Middleport. To hometown friends and acquaintances, he was “Wal [or Wall] Watson, the ball player,” the appellation later employed in local newspaper coverage of Watson’s shooting in an area saloon and subsequent death.19 In Major League Players: 1871-1900, Volume 2, eminent baseball scholars David Ball and David Nemec maintain that Watson was “nicknamed ‘Mother’ because fellow players felt he needed his mother with him at all times. … [He] was a complete greenhorn when signed by Cincinnati for $1,500 in the winter of 1886-87 and had been victimized by ‘half a dozen bunko men before he had been in [Cincinnati] a week.’”20

Well, maybe. But the description of Watson as a “complete greenhorn” is questionable—Watson was not some bumpkin just come to town from the farm, whatever his appearance. He had grown up in a small but busy river port and had the life example of six older brothers to guide him, as well. By the time that he joined the Reds, moreover, Watson already had a season away from home and parents under his belt. Last but perhaps most important, Watson acquired the Mother nickname BEFORE he connected with the Cincinnati Reds. The Zanesville Daily Signal, Cincinnati Enquirer, and Sandusky Register articles noted above clearly indicate that he was called Mother Watson while playing for Zanesville.

An alternative theory asserts that “’Mother’ was a nickname for those who did not indulge in the typical vices of smoking, drinking, swearing or brawling. By all accounts, Watson conducted himself as a gentleman.”21 The placement of Watson in the virtuous player class also finds support in his Commercial Gazette profile: “Watson is a strictly temperate young man.”22 There is, of course, something ironic about this temperance paragon later dying as a result of a saloon shooting. More to the point, if Mother was a generic nickname applied to players who avoided debauchery and ungentlemanly conduct, how is it that Walter Watson is the only one of the multitudes of such players in baseball history to have ever been called Mother? In short, the theory is neat, but unpersuasive.

Those critical of other nickname contentions bear the responsibility of offering a plausible alternative to them. Thus, the writer will offer his own pet theory—one unencumbered by hard evidence but with a certain logic grounded in the experience of sports: Mother was a pejorative sandlot nickname, 1880s trash talk that probably began as soon as Watson advanced beyond the neighborhood pickup game stage of his career. Crucial to the argument here is the fact that the name Mother Watson was already in the public domain by the time that young Walter Watson took up playing baseball. One of the popular Horatio Alger novels, for example, contained a villainess named Mother Watson.23 And Mother (Mrs. H. A.) Watson was also the much-publicized headmistress of a Los Angeles home for wayward girls.24

Given this, and the politically incorrect sporting past of this country, saddling a young opponent named Watson with the discomforting, effeminate nickname Mother would have been a natural putdown, the kind of cutting but period-appropriate mockery indigenous to 19th century baseball. Thereafter, the baseball press would have had no compunction about adopting the Mother nickname and putting it into newsprint once there was caused to bring Watson’s existence to reader attention. The same would have been standard practice, witness Nig CuppyOne-Arm DailyPiano Legs Hickman, etc.

Sad to say, no evidence validating this theory has been found. In the end, the obscurity of our protagonist and the passage of more than a century since his demise make discovery of a definitive explanation of how Mother Watson got his nickname probably beyond reach. We will just likely never know.

However he got his moniker, Mother Watson was projected as one of the staff members who would support Reds ace Mullane in 1887. But club plans for the new season were promptly jeopardized when Watson and fellow hurling prospects Billy SeradElmer Smith, and Mike Shea came down with arm miseries once spring camp opened.25 And when he was fit to enter the box, Watson pitched inconsistently, being hit hard in an early intra-squad game but then shutting down league rival Columbus in a more seriously played preseason contest. All in all, he showed just enough in camp for management to place the name Walter L. Watson on the Reds’ roster for the 1887 season.26

Watson made the team but saw no action in Cincinnati’s first 24 games. He finally got his chance on May 19, courtesy of a Tony Mullane hissy fit. The mercurial Mullane refused to accept the ball for a home game against Brooklyn, complaining that it was not his turn to pitch. Mullane was suspended on the spot by manager Schmelz, who then seized upon the untested Watson as an emergency replacement. In his major league debut, Watson lasted five innings, leaving the game with Cincinnati ahead, 9-6. The following day, wire service reports stated that “Watson, the Zanesville phenomenon, did extremely well for a few innings. His arm gave out and [Pop] Corkhill came into pitch.”27 The hometown press concurred, the Cincinnati Post stating: “Watson, the new Cincinnati pitcher, did well.”28

The glowing reviews, however, are difficult to reconcile with the game’s box score. It reveals that Watson surrendered six runs on six base hits, walked four, struck out none, and threw three wild pitches. He also muffed two of his three fielding chances. Still, Watson could have been credited with a victory, had not Corkhill surrendered the lead before the Reds rallied to win, 14-10. Also on the plus side, Watson, ordinarily a near-helpless batsman, had managed a single and a walk in six plate appearances against Brooklyn right-hander Hardie Henderson. He’d also done no harm as Corkhill’s replacement for two innings in left field (no balls were hit Watson’s way).

Mother Watson made his second and final big-league appearance eight days later. Given a start against the Philadelphia Athletics, “the Zanesville phenom Watson pitched a fair game but was miserably supported by [catcher Kid] Baldwin,” who had five passed balls.29 Watson went the route and lost, 9-5, but only two of the runs charged against him were earned. But he also surrendered 16 base hits, and the contest had not been particularly close. The following day, Cincinnati announced the signing of Bill Widmer, a hard-throwing right-hander from the amateur ranks in nearby Cumminsville.30 The acquisition signaled the end of Mother Watson’s stay with the Reds, and he was given his release shortly thereafter.

Unbeknownst to the 22-year-old Watson, his career as a major league pitcher was over. In his two appearances, he had posted a 0-1 record, with an unsightly 5.79 ERA in 14 innings pitched. His log also showed 22 base hits and six walks surrendered, while he had struck out only one opposing hitter. In his May 27 outing, no balls had been hit back to him, leaving Watson’s fielding average at a dismal .333, while he finished 1-for-8 as a hitter (with a .125/.200/.125 slash line), and one run scored. Still, the experience was sufficient to permit Mother Watson to rightly claim the status of former major leaguer in the years thereafter.

Although the historical record is muted, it appears that Watson returned home to Middleport following his release and resumed working at the nail manufacturing plant.31 And he apparently did no further pitching in 1887.32 The following January, Watson was back under contract, a member of the Zanesville Kickapoos of the newly formed Tri-State League.33 Before the 1888 season started, however, it was widely reported that Watson had been released by Zanesville.34 But when the Kickapoos got off to a poor start, it was Watson to the rescue. Following a 6-4 Zanesville triumph over Kalamazoo, Sporting Life reported: “The poor showing of the home team the first week of the season was rather disappointing, but Thursday ‘Mother’ Watson slipped into the pitcher’s box and his appearance seemed to inspire the team with confidence as they put up an elegant game. It was Watson’s first for almost a year, and taking it all in all, was decidedly creditable to him. Twelve hits were made off him but he kept them scattered and his old time coolness did a great deal for him at crucial points.”35 Three weeks later, the Canton Repository proclaimed: “’Mother’ Watson, a phenomenon who failed with the Cincinnati’s of 1887, has come again and is pitching Zanesville’s best ball.”36

In time, Watson settled in as Zanesville’s second pitcher, a steady helpmate of staff ace Ad Gumbert. A personal highlight for Watson was a June 18 exhibition game victory (8-2) over the National League Pittsburgh Alleghenies and future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin.37 The Kickapoos were a pennant contender until late August, when Gumbert was sold to the St. Louis Browns.38And a week or so before the season ended, the Zanesville club disbanded, its successful 63-39 record notwithstanding.39 No final Tri-State League pitching stats have been uncovered,40 but examination of published Zanesville Kickapoos box/line scores puts Watson’s record in the neighborhood of 12-13.

After his 1888 tour with Zanesville, Watson never played another game in Organized Baseball. And with that, the light on the life of Walter “Mother” Watson goes dark. He withdrew to the anonymity of private life, and his name would not appear in newsprint for the next 10 years, leaving his whereabouts and activities during that time period almost entirely unknown.41 But from snippets of information published at the time of his shooting and subsequent death in November 1898, it can fairly be said that he lived the remainder of his life with his parents and various siblings at the family residence in Middleport; that he never married; that he became a member of the town’s volunteer fire department; and that he continued to do some pitching for independent and semipro teams in the southern Ohio-West Virginia region. Watson’s last known engagement was with the Mason Citys, a crack Charleston, West Virginia nine.

Watson reemerged from the shadows on November 7, 1898. It was Election Day, and after the polls closed he repaired to Gardner’s Saloon, a popular watering hole in nearby Pomeroy. While there, he encountered Lewis Schreiner, 32, once a clerk at the Middleport post office. The two men were long acquainted, but, according to one source, there had been “a slight altercation” between them several days earlier.42 Another report had the two men quarrelling “about politics” that evening.43

Whatever the underlying circumstance, things turned violent at about 1:00 a.m., when Schreiner uncovered a pistol and fired three shots at Watson. Watson returned fire with his own weapon, shooting twice.44 Only one round found its target, with Watson being struck in the chest or stomach (news accounts varied). He managed to stagger to the saloon door but then collapsed onto the floor. Sometime thereafter, Watson was borne on stretcher to the family residence, but given little chance of recovery.45Schreiner, meanwhile, quickly fled the saloon and disappeared, reportedly to the mountains of West Virginia,46 if not out of the country entirely.47

A week later, Watson was still alive, with recovery now predicted.48 Alas, it was not to be. On the morning of November 23, 1898, Walter Watson died in his bed from the effects of his gunshot wound. He was 33. The obituary subsequently published in the Middleport Republican Herald described the deceased as “of a kind disposition and [he] numbered his friends by the score.”49 Funeral services were conducted by two local clergymen, the Reverend Brainard, pastor of the Middleport Christian Church, assisted by Reverend Williams of the Methodist-Episcopal Church. Among the throng in attendance were Watson teammates from the Mason Citys ballclub and the Middleport Fire Department dressed in full uniform, their presence attesting to the “high esteem in which Walter Watson was held in his home town.”50 Interment was at Hill Cemetery, Middleport. Survivors included his elderly parents and five siblings.

Several days after Watson had been laid to rest, Meigs County Coroner Scott released the findings of his inquest. Post-mortem examination revealed that the fatal ball had passed through the liver, damaged the kidney, and then exited the body.51 Sometime thereafter, the fugitive Schreiner was apprehended. The disposition of any criminal charges against him, indeed whether or not formal charges were even instituted, is unknown.52 Whatever the case, Lewis Schreiner was a free man, living openly and unmolested by the law in Columbus, Kansas at the time the 1900 US Census was collected.

By then, the memory of the two-game Cincinnati Reds pitcher named Watson had already dimmed, and today he is long forgotten. Still, 130 years after the fact, our subject retains one modest distinction: he is still the only player in major-league history ever nicknamed Mother.

Acknowledgments

This bio is adapted from the writer’s keynote address to the April 2017 Fred Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Committee conference in Cooperstown. It was originally published in Base Ball 10: New Research on the Early Game, copyrighted 2019, edited by Don Jensen. It is republished here by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640, www.macfarlandbooks.com.

This version was reviewed by Rory Costello and Joel Barnhart and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

Sources

The sources of the biographical info provided herein include the Mother Watson profile published in Major League Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 2, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011); US Census data and Watson family posts accessed via Ancestry.com; and various of the newspaper articles cited below. Unless otherwise noted, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.

Notes

1 Walter’s older siblings were William (born 1842), Charles (1845), John (1849), Mary (1850), Elisha (1854), Jonas (1857), Madora (Dora, 1858), and Robert (1861). Two other Watson children, names unknown, did not survive infancy.

2 Watson’s off-season engagement at the nail manufacturing plant was mentioned in Sporting Life, March 21, 1888, and in the Watson profile contained in Major League Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 2, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 411.

3 As per Sporting Life, February 9, 1887.

4 The writer subscribes to early baseball scholar David Nemec’s dictum that because left-handedness was a relatively uncommon 19th century playing trait likely to be noted by the baseball press, the absence of press mention that a particular player threw lefty supports the presumption that the player was right-handed, the same as roughly 90 percent of the American population. Thus, the fact that Watson was never described as left-handed by the baseball press seems telling. And while Watson’s pitching repertoire featured the deceptive curveball nowadays associated with the crafty lefty, a puzzling assortment of breaking pitches was frequently attributed to any pitcher rising to fast company in the 19th century.

5 See e.g., the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 28, 1886, taking note of a three-hit shutout pitched by Watson against the semipro Cincinnati Clippers. Other mentions of outstanding Watson hurling efforts for Zanesville were published in the Cleveland Leader, August 12 and 25, 1886, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 11, 1886.

6 Zanesville Daily Signal, August 20, 1886. The writer is indebted to baseball historian/author Rick Huhn for finding and synthesizing the Zanesville reportage on Watson.

7 See e.g., the Zanesville Daily Signal, August 25 and September 7 and 13, 1886.

8 See e.g., the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 16, 1887, and Canton (Ohio) Repository and Sporting Life, May 16, 1888.

9 Nemec, 410.

10 Nemec, 410.

11 Sporting Life, February 9, 1887.

12 “Pickwick,” Sporting Life, March 16, 1887.

13 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, April 24, 1887.

14 A headshot of Watson in the team photo of the 1888 Zanesville Kickapoos was discovered by Carson Lorey and published in Reflecting the Past (the newsletter of SABR’s Pictorial History Research Committee), June 2017:1, 16.

15 “Ohio League Notes: Zanesville,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 20, 1887. Again, many thanks to Rick Huhn for tracking down Cincinnati reportage inaccessible to the writer.

16 Sandusky (Ohio) Register, April 11, 1887. The writer is indebted to baseball author and historian Dennis Snelling for unearthing and supplying the Sandusky reportage about Watson.

17 Sandusky Register, April 15, 1887.

18 A prominent Watson contemporary was pitcher Lady (Charles) Baldwin. For more on feminine nicknames in early baseball, see James K. Skipper, Jr., “Feminine Nicknames: Oh You Kid: From Tilly to Minnie to Sis,” Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 11 (1982)Perhaps the most bizarre of these monikers was the one attached to National Association outfielder Charlie Pabor: The Old Woman in the Red Cap.

19 See e.g., the Pomeroy (Ohio) Tribune Telegraph, November 8 and 23, 1898, Pomeroy Democrat, November 9, 1898, and Pomeroy Leader, November 10, 1898.

20 Nemec, 410. As the writer understands it, the Watson profile was researched by David Ball, a Cincinnati native and a scrupulous baseball historian. Regrettably, the underlying sources of the profile passages placed in quotes are not provided, and Ball’s untimely death in 2011 has prevented their identification.

21 Mike Shannon, Moments from the Cincinnati Reds History (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2008), 3. The Bullpen section of the Baseball-Reference entry on Mother Watson also mentions the virtuous person hypothesis.

22 See again, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 24, 1887.

23 Mother Watson was the hero’s cruel landlady in Mark, The Match Boy, or Richard Hunter’s Ward, published in 1869.

24 See e.g., the Los Angeles Times, May 17, October 23, and December 9, 1887.

25 As reported in Sporting Life, April 6, 1887, and the Baltimore Sun, April 7, 1887. The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 12, 1887, later maintained that Watson’s arm had gone lame prior to spring camp, and others attribute the problem to an injury suffered at the nail manufacturing plant the previous winter. See Nemec, 410.

26 As per Sporting Life, April 13, 1887.

27 See e.g., the Cleveland Plain Dealer, New York Herald, and New York Tribune, May 20, 1887.

28 Cincinnati Post, May 19, 1887. The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 19, 1887, was less impressed, deeming the performance of “Watson, the Zanesville wonder” neither a “glittering success” nor “a dismal failure.”

29 Philadelphia Inquirer, May 28, 1887. The box score in the Cincinnati Enquirer, May 28, 1887, charged Baldwin with six passed balls.

30 As reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 29, 1887.

31 See Sporting Life, March 21, 1888.

32 The Watson who anchored the pitching staff of the 1887 Kalamazoo (Michigan) Kazoos of the Ohio State League was Art Watson, not our subject.

33 As reported in the Wheeling (West Virginia) Register, January 2, 1888, and Canton Repository and Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 8, 1888. Zanesville had entered Organized Baseball the season before as a member of the Ohio State League.

34 See e.g., the Sandusky Register, March 20, 1888, Wheeling Register, March 22, 1888, and Canton Repository, March 27, 1888.

35 “Zanesville Zephyrs,” Sporting Life, May 9, 1888.

36 Canton Repository, May 16, 1888.

37 As reported in the Canton Repository, June 19, 1888.

38 As reported in the Wheeling Register, August 20, 1888. Gumbert would go on to have a solid nine-season major league career.

39 The Kalamazoo and Sandusky clubs also abandoned play before the season’s close. The champion of the 1888 Tri-State League was the 74-35 Lima (Ohio) Lushers.

40 Baseball-Reference provides no stats regarding Watson’s 1888 season in Zanesville.

41 The search for the post-baseball Watson is handicapped by the unavailability of the 1890 US and Ohio state censuses, both lost long ago to fire.

42 According to the Pomeroy Leader, November 10, 1898. The writer is indebted to Wanda Ashley of the Meigs County (Ohio) public library system and Mary Cowdery of the Meigs County Historical Society and Museum for their generous help in securing local reportage of the incident and the Watson funeral.

43 See the Cincinnati Post, November 9, 1898, and Sporting Life, November 19, 1898..

44 As per the Pomeroy Tribune-Telegraph, November 9, 1898. The Pomeroy Leader, November 10, 1898, stated that Schreiner had fired only twice, but with “little provocation.”

45 The assessment of the Pomeroy Democrat and Pomeroy Tribune-Telegraph, November 9, 1898, and Pomeroy Leader, November 10, 1898.

46 According to the Denver Post, November 23, 1898.

47 Cincinnati Post, November 9, 1898.

48 By the Pomeroy Democrat, November 16, 1898.

49 Middleport Republican Herald, November 25, 1898.

50 Middleport Republican Herald, December 2, 1898.

51 As reported in the Pomeroy Tribune-Telegraph, November 30, 1898. Despite a “diligent search” of the saloon, the fatal pistol ball was not recovered.

52 A dissertation on the application of penal statutes is beyond the scope of this profile. Suffice it to say that not every homicide constitutes a criminal offense. Certain types of killing – combat in war, capital punishment, and acts of self-defense, defense of a third person, accident, and/or misadventure – may be legally justified or excused. Regrettably, the documentary record needed to say more about the Watson-Schreiner affair could not be obtained by the writer.

Full Name

Walter L. Watson

Born

January 27, 1865 at Middleport, OH (USA)

Died

November 23, 1898 at Middleport, OH (USA)

If you can help us improve this player’s biography, contact us.

Tags

None

© SABR. All Rights Reserved