At the close of his maiden season in 1917, right-hander Oscar Horstmann loomed large in the plans of the St. Louis Cardinals. Effective as both a starter and reliever, the young hurler displayed an excellent fastball, an outstanding overhand curve, and exemplary work habits for the long-downtrodden Cards who were finally making some progress in National League standings. If Horstmann could only overcome the control lapses that sometimes plagued him, a bright major league future awaited.
Sadly, it was not to be. The following season, Horstmann’s career was derailed by arm miseries, chronic wildness, military service, and the onset of self-doubt. By early June 1919, he was back in the minors and headed for a premature exit from the game. One may only speculate about the effect that this reversal of fortune had on Horstmann, a taciturn man not given to public utterance. But a clue toward his feelings may reside in the player questionnaire that he completed some four decades after his career was over. He was that relatively rare responder averring that, if he had his life to live over again, he would NOT have played professional baseball.1 A look back at his tale of late-Deadball Era disappointment follows.
Oscar Theodore Horstmann was born on June 2, 1891, in Alma, Missouri, a rural flyspeck located about 55 miles east of Kansas City. He was the sixth of seven children2 born to German immigrant Herman Henry Horstmann (1848-1928), a grain elevator operator, and his Missouri-born wife Katharina (née Pelster, 1852-1939), of German descent. Oscar was educated in local public and Lutheran parochial schools through high school graduation.3 He then matriculated to St. John’s College in Winfield, Kansas, a two-year school operated by the Lutheran Church intended to prepare students for entrance into the seminary. And it was there that Bosco Horstmann, as he was known then, first attracted attention pitching for the St. John’s Saints. The career-long misspelling of our subject’s surname as Horstman also traces to his college playing days.4
In 1914, Horstmann forsook the ministry to assay making his living as a baseball player, signing with the Winfield Reds of the unrecognized Oklahoma-Kansas League. He proved an immediate success, going a reported 22-75 and attracting interest from various clubs in Organized Baseball, ranging from teams in the elite Class AA Pacific Coast League to the Hutchinson Packers of the lowly Class D Kansas State League.6 For the time being, however, Horstmann declined to sign with anyone. Instead, he accepted a one-game, non-contract engagement with the last-place Wichita (Kansas) Wolves of the Class A Western League.
On September 18, 1914, Oscar Horstmann entered the professional ranks in grand style, throwing a complete-game three-hitter against the league-leading Sioux City (Iowa) Indians. But shoddy Wichita fielding and his own wildness (eight walks) placed him on the short end of the score until a three-run, ninth-inning Wolves rally made the newcomer the winning pitcher in his pro debut.7 Convinced by the outing that he could make the grade professionally, and guided by Winfield Reds manager-mentor Mel Backus, Horstmann thereupon accepted a $150/month contract offer from the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL.8
By then 23, Horstmann had matured into a well-conditioned 5-foot-10½, 165 pounder,9 and fully looked the part of a major league pitcher. Shortly after his arrival in spring camp, Los Angeles manager Frank (Pop) Dillon decided to test the prospect’s mettle, thrice sending him out to face the Chicago White Sox, just returned from a globe-circling post-season exhibition tour. he was beaten each time, but pitched respectably. Still, manager Dillon concluded that the newcomer needed additional seasoning. With the Angels needing to cut their roster down to the 18-player limit before May 1, Horstmann was optioned to the Tucson (Arizona) Pueblos of the Class D Rio Grande Association.10
The Tucson club was the dregs of the four-club Association.11 Theylost at a rate of more than two of every three games played – except when Horstmann, who won seven of his final nine Tucson starts, pitched. With the league teetering on the verge of collapse, “Oscar Horstman sic risked his game leg and a possibly brilliant future with the Los Angeles club by pitching good ball” in a 13-5 victory over league-leading Phoenix on July 5.12 Two days later, the Rio Grande Association disbanded.
To make roster space available for Horstmann, the Angels promptly released ex-major league left-hander Sleepy Bill Burns.13 Back under the tutelage of veteran Angels manger Dillon, Horstmann “changed his delivery to an over-hand style” with good effect.14 He was also lauded as “the kind of twirler that thrives on hard work and gets better with each performance” in a midseason wire service dispatch published in the hinterlands.15 In 11 outings, mostly in relief, he went 2-3, with a respectable 3.38 ERA in 48 innings pitched. The Angels retained him for the following season.
Spring 1916 began with rumors that newly installed Los Angeles manager Frank Chance intended to unload Horstmann. First, it was reported that he was to be optioned to the Tacoma (Washington) Tigers of the Class B Northwestern League.16 Thereafter, a trade that would send him and others to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the Class AA International League was proposed but fell through.17 Evidently, erratic control was the deficiency that landed the young hurler in his manger’s doghouse. Chance attributed this shortcoming to Horstmann’s disinclination to pitch batting practice or otherwise throw on the sidelines.18
But in mid-June, a one-hit shutout of the San Francisco Seals redeemed him with the club leader, and soon Chance was touting Oscar and Angels batterymate Johnny Bassler as “destined for the big show.”19 Chance also took credit for the pitcher’s improved control, a product of positive suggestion that had been implanted in the pitcher’s brain. “You are what you think you are,” Chance counseled him. All Horstmann had to do was repeat to himself the mantra, “I ain’t wild. I got perfect control,” prior to windup and his pitches would go precisely where intended.20 He also purportedly added a new pitch to his repertoire – the “dust ball,” an offering delivered with a handful of dirt that obscured the ball’s trajectory until it “finally emerges from the cloud of dust as it nears the plate.”21
In almost no time, Horstmann was deemed “the most promising pitching prospect in the [PCL], possessing great speed, a fine curve ball, and, above all things, courage in the pinches,” according to a nationally syndicated article.22 “He has all the appearance of a great young pitcher who is rising to the top fast.” Such testimonials were somewhat belied by Horstmann’s numbers. Used as both a starter and reliever, he posted an underwhelming 11-14 (.440) record for the 119-79 (.601) league champion Los Angeles club. But a 2.56 ERA and only 189 base hits allowed in 232 innings pitched attested to the quality of Horstmann’s stuff. The 104 walks issued, however, remained worrisome. In mid-August, the Chance “big show” prophecy was borne out when the Cardinals acquired Horstmann.23 Under the terms of the transfer, he was to finish the extended PCL season with Los Angeles and report to Cardinals camp the following spring.
Horstmann’s arrival in the major leagues in April 1917 coincided with America’s entry into the Great War. To show patriotic fervor while awaiting the call to duty of their charges, St. Louis club brass had the Cardinal players doing rifle-bearing close order drill on the ball field during the preseason. When polled, all the players expressed their willingness to join the fight – with one exception: Oscar Horstmann. The new Cardinals pitcher “wants to dress wounds and not make them, and he will join the hospital corps if called upon.”24
With anti-German sentiment surging among the populace, Horstmann, the son of a German immigrant and bearer of an unmistakably Teutonic surname, was an inviting target for fan vitriol. Yet no evidence whatever survives to indicate that he was ever harassed at the ballpark because of his ethnicity. This may well have been a result of a well-publicized change in Horstmann’s attitude. In early May, he expressed the intention of applying for officer candidate training with a reserve Army infantry unit. Oscar explained his newfound stance thus: “I believe we should go into war right, now that we have entered it, and I do not believe that half-measures should be adopted. It is the solemn duty of every American to help his country force the war to a speedy conclusion and have it over with rather than let it drag on.”25
As it turned out, the war effort placed few demands on baseball during the 1917 season. A week into the campaign, Horstmann made his major league debut, coming on in relief of starter Bob Steele in a 9-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs. He fared poorly, giving up two hits and two walks in two-thirds innings pitched, but Cardinal errors made both the runs that he surrendered unearned. Given a start against Brooklyn a month later, he pitched well but dropped a 3-1 decision to the Robins. In late June, he broke into the win column with a five-hit, complete-game victory over the Cubs, 6-3. Used judiciously thereafter by manager Miller Huggins, Horstmann reeled off five consecutive victories in the ensuing month, including a doubleheader’s worth of relief wins against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 21. He began the season’s final month with a five-hit, 1-0 gem against Pittsburgh, his only shutout as a big leaguer. And closed the campaign with another impressive effort, a three-hit, 7-2 triumph over the Phillies that temporarily deprived the redoubtable Grover Alexander of his 30th victory.
Horstmann’s final numbers were promising. In 35 appearances (11 starts), he went 9-4 (.692) for a third-place (82-70, .539) St. Louis outfit that won a whopping 22 games more than it had the previous season. A 3.44 ERA and only 111 base hits allowed in 138 2/3 innings pitched were also more than respectable. The only seeming concern was his control, as reflected in his substandard ratio of 50 strikeouts to 54 walks. Still, St. Louis was high on the young pitcher. Club president Branch Rickey observed that Horstmann’s work had been “of such a nature to lead to the prediction that he would have a great year next season.”26
Yet unbeknownst to all concerned, Oscar Horstmann’s career was, in fact, irrevocably headed in the opposite direction. Indeed, he would never win another major league game. But front office confidence in Horstmann was so high that his new contract with the club was a two-season pact.27 The increasing personnel demands of World War I made his immediate future uncertain. Young, unmarried, and without dependents at home, Oscar was a prime candidate for the military draft. And he publicly resolved not to seek an exemption or otherwise try to avoid service if called.28 For the time being, however, he was free to report to the Cardinals spring camp – where he promptly developed a tender arm.
The Cardinals nursed Horstmann through spring training, but without much improvement in the condition of his arm. Used sparingly in the early regular season, he did not register a decision until May 17: an 8-1 loss to Boston. Wild and ineffective, he did not make it out of the second inning. An ineffective relief outing in early June concluded his season. Shortly thereafter, the long-expected call to military service arrived, with the pitcher directed to report on June 20.29
Upon induction, the college-educated conscript was sent to officer candidate school and thereafter commissioned as a second lieutenant assigned to an infantry unit. Lt. Horstmann spent the war stateside, the November 11 Armistice being declared before he could be deployed overseas. Honorably discharged in December, Oscar returned home to Alma where he continued to live with his parents and awaited the start of 1919 spring training.30
The layoff appeared to have been good for him; his early workouts pleased Rickey. “Horstman looks better than he has in two years,” the club boss told the hometown press in mid-March.31 But Horstmann’s progress was sidetracked when he and four other Cardinal pitchers were injured in a mid-April automobile accident. With staff ace Lee Meadows behind the wheel, their vehicle skidded on slippery pavement and collided with a St. Louis trolley car.32 “Entirely disregarding the fact that he was bleeding from several cuts and that one eye was completely closed, Oscar Horstman, calmly smoking a cigar, took the time to tell [bystanders] just how the other men were hurt [and] passed over his own hurts as superficial.”33 Although he was back on the mound within two weeks of the crash, he was ineffective. Suspicion lingered that the pitching progress that he had demonstrated in spring training had been derailed by the accident.34
Struggling with his control and hit regularly (14 base hits and 12 walks in 15 innings pitched), the major league career of Oscar Horstmann came to a close with a scoreless two-inning relief stint against the Cincinnati Reds on June 1, 1919. For the next four weeks, he sat idle on the Cardinals bench until optioned to the Columbus (Ohio) Senators of the International League in late June.35 Although it was hoped that the hurler (still only 28) would regain form and pitch his way back to St. Louis, it was not to be. In 50 major league appearances spread over three seasons, Horstmann posted a 9-7 (.563) record, with a 3.67 ERA in 176 2/3 innings pitched. He held opposing batsmen to a respectable .245 OBP.36 However, shaky control (80 walks versus only 61 strikeouts) had often gotten him into trouble.
Horstmann found little redemption in Columbus, going 2-5 (albeit with a decent 3.25 ERA) in 18 outings for the Senators before being “found wanting” and returned to St. Louis shortly before the IL season ended.37 Over the winter, the Cardinals dealt him to the Kansas City Blues of the Class AA American Association in exchange for shortstop prospect Jim McAuley.38 The Blues were a last-place club (60-106, .361) in 1920, and Horstmann’s record (9-16, .360) reflected His 240 innings pitched indicated that arm miseries might be behind him, but his overgenerous 274 base hits and 90 walks allowed over that span precluded his return to the majors.
Horstmann returned to Kansas City for the 1921 campaign, and during the early going he still flashed talent. But his lack of success perplexed local observers, who chalked it up to self-doubt. “Horstman’s case is difficult to fathom. He seems unable to win,” the Kansas City Star remarked. “He has the best curve ball in the league and a good fast one, but he seems to lack confidence in himself and lays them in too fat for opposing hitters.”39 Veteran circuit umpire Jim Murray subscribed to the same view. “Like a lot of others, [Murray] can’t understand why Horstman isn’t a winning pitcher. … He has everything that goes to make a winning hurler and why he does not get by is a mystery.”40 By late July, Blues manager Otto Knabe had pretty much given up on him, using him only sparingly. Oscar lasted out the season in Kansas City, but his final numbers – 4-6 in 33 games, with a 5.69 ERA in only 106 innings pitched – indicated that the end of the professional trail was drawing near.
In January 1922, Kansas City released Horstmann, who was then claimed on waivers by an American Association rival, the Louisville Colonels.41 Familiar questions about the pitcher’s psyche accompanied his relocation. According to one Louisville sportswriter, “[T]he case of Oscar Horstman … contains as many intricacies as the theory of relativity, one that would take the mind of Einstein to resolve. … Horstman has as much stuff as anyone in the league. Just why he can’t strike a winning stride has never been practically explained.”42 A tendency to lay in fat pitches “too often when in trouble” suggested that he “lacked guts. … [Yet] despite his many faults, Horstman is a hard worker and never was known to shirk a duty. He was always ready to work when called upon and gave his best, however poor that might have been.”43
Horstmann’s supposed psychological problems appeared a moot point when the hurler informed Louisville of his intention to leave Organized Baseball, declaring that “he can get more money out of independent baseball than he can playing with an Association club.”44 Two months later, he changed his mind, signing a Louisville contract and belatedly reporting to the club’s spring camp in Pensacola, Florida.45 But shortly after his arrival he was shelled by Brooklyn in an exhibition game outing, and thereafter complained of shoulder soreness.46 Eventually, it all ended badly. Horstmann was suspended by the club for failure to get into pitching shape. By mid-May, he was on his way home to Alma, having never thrown a regular season pitch for the Colonels.47
Following his experience in Louisville, Oscar Horstmann abandoned the game, retreating into an anonymity so complete that his name went all but unmentioned in baseball newsprint until his obituary was published in The Sporting News some 55 years later.48 By means of census and other governmental records now viewable online, it can be determined that Horstmann spent his first post-baseball decade living at the family residence in Alma and working in sales.49
In December 1933, the 42-year-old bachelor married Annabelle Smith, an insurance company secretary 11 years his junior. Their union would endure for the next 44 years but yielded no offspring. By 1940, the couple had relocated to Kansas City, where Oscar found employment as a grain inspector. Upon retirement in 1967, he and his wife moved to Salina, Kansas.50 Ten years later, he suffered a heart attack while at home and died in a nearby hospital. Oscar Theodore Horstmann was 85. Following funeral services, his remains were cremated and subsequently inurned in a mausoleum at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Kansas City.51 Immediate survivors were limited to widow Annabelle and younger sister Edna Horstmann Breitag.
This biography is adapted from an article originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Inside Game, the quarterly newsletter of SABR’s Deadball Era Committee.
This version was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Paul Proia.
Sources for the biographical info supplied above include the Oscar Horstmann file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; US Census and Horstmann family data accessed via Ancestry.com; and newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Unless otherwise specified, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Oscar Horstmann player questionnaire completed by Horstmann in 1960 and now contained in his file at the Giamatti Research Center in Cooperstown.
2 The other Horstmann children were John Frederick (born 1872), Henry (1875), Herman (1877), Otto (1882), Clara (1888), and Edna (1894).
3 Oscar Horstmann player questionnaire.
4 See e.g., “Twirled Great Ball and Lost,” Winfield (Kansas) Courier, May 18, 1911: 1, extolling the 16-strikeout performance of Oscar Horstman against Southwestern College.
5 “Horstman is in Los Angeles,” Winfield (Kansas) Free Press, March 4, 1915: 3.
6 As reported in the Winfield Courier, Arkansas City (Kansas) Traveler, and elsewhere throughout Kansas in September 1914.
7 “Soos Couldn’t Hit Horstman,” Wichita (Kansas) Beacon, September 19, 1914: 7.
8 “Bosco Signs,” Winfield Courier, September 26, 1914: 6. See also, “Los Angeles Offers Horstman $1200 Contract,” Winfield Courier, September 17, 1914, and “Horstman in Los Angeles,” Wichita (Kansas) Eagle, March 2, 1915: 7. The Horstmann contract covered the extended eight-month PCL playing schedule.
9 Oscar Horstmann player questionnaire.
10 “‘Bosco’ Was Farmed,” Blackwell (Oklahoma) News, May 6, 1915: 2. Also, Salt Lake (Utah) Telegram, April 16, 1915: 16, and El Paso (Texas) Herald, May 7, 1915: 10.
11 The Rio Grande Association began the 1915 season as a six-club circuit but teams in Las Cruses (New Mexico) and Douglas (Arizona) abandoned play in late May.
12 Lyle Abbott, “Being the Funeral Oration of a Luckless League,” (Phoenix) Arizona Republican, July 6, 1915: 2, 3. Horstmann had undergone minor surgery to repair a knee injury two weeks earlier. See “Horstman Undergoes Operation on Knee,” Tucson (Arizona) Citizen, June 22, 1915: 2.
13 “Angels Release Burns; Take on Horstman,” San Diego Evening Tribune, July 8, 1915: 8. Also, “Horstman Joins Angels,” (Portland) Oregon Journal, July 15, 1915: 12. Some years later, the released Burns would descend into baseball infamy for his role as go-between for players and gamblers in the Black Sox scandal.
14 Per the Winfield Courier, October 28, 1915: 4.
15 “Baseball Stories,” (Hurley, Wisconsin) Iron County News, July 29, 1915: 7, and (White River, South Dakota) Mellette County Pioneer, August 4, 1915: 4.
16 “Baseball Notes,” Oregon Journal, April 4, 1916: 13.
17 “Baseball Brevities,” Oregon Journal, April 29, 1916: 8, Also, “Diamond Dust,” Salt Lake Telegram, May 1, 1916: 10.
18 “Baseball Notes,” Oregon Journal, June 22, 1916: 13.
19 “All Have Forgotten,” (Portland) Oregonian, June 28, 1916: 15.
20 “Mental Suggestion Great Help to Young Coast Pitcher,” Bridgeport (Connecticut) Evening Farmer, August 5, 1916: 11. Also, William Peel, “Other Sporting Gossip,” Washington (DC) Herald, August 11, 1916: 9.
21 “Sportographs,” Riverside (California) Enterprise, August 16, 1916: 10.
22 Alaska Citizen (Fairbanks), September 11, 1916: 4.
23 “‘Bosco’ Horstman Joins St. Louis,” Winfield Courier, August 22, 1916: 6. Also, “9 Sold to Majors,” Oregonian, August 29, 1916: 13. In return for Horstmann, the Angels received pitcher Charley Hall, a player to be named later (eventually infielder Art Butler), and an unspecified amount of cash.
24 “Ball Players Will Serve If Needed,” (Boise, Idaho) Evening Capital News, April 5, 1917: 13.
25 “Cardinal Pitcher Preparing to Join Officers’ Reserve,” St. Louis Star, May 3, 1917: 13.
26 “Rickey to Barter for Talent When Magnates Gather,” St. Louis Star, October 30, 1917: 13.
27 “Paulette Accepts and Signs for Next Season,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 11, 1918: 20.
28 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 12, 1918: 12. Also, “Oscar Horstman and Long Ready to Do Their Bit,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 14, 1918: 14. Also, Clarence F. Lloyd, “Jack Hendricks Will Be Lucky If Outfield Isn’t Lost in Draft,” St. Louis Star, January 25, 1918: 13. When he registered for the draft the previous May, Horstmann had sought and exemption from service due to “swelling veins.”
29 “Oscar Horstman Called into Service June 20,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 12, 1918: 19. Also, “Jack Smith Departs While Horstman Is Notified That He Is Wanted,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 13, 1918: 7.
30 “Lieut. Horstman Gets Discharged from Army,” St. Louis Star, December 21, 1918: 9.
31 “Rickey Looks Them Over,” St. Louis Star, March 19, 1919: 22.
32 “Five Cardinal Pitchers Hurt in Automobile Smash,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 16, 1919: 30. Besides Horstmann and Meadows, the vehicle was occupied by fellow St. Louis hurlers Bill Doak, Red Ames, and Bill Sherdel, all of whom suffered injury.
33 “Among the Debris,” St. Louis Star, April 17, 1919: 17.
34 “Some Real Hard Luck,” St. Louis Star, December 3, 1919: 11. “Oscar Horstman, a really fine pitching prospect, was utterly ruined by the accident.” Also, “Short of Hurling Talent,” Kansas City Star, March 25, 1920: 12: “There is nothing sure that [Horstmann] will not be troubled from the injuries he received in the motor vehicle accident in St. Louis.”
35 “Horstman to Columbus,” (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette, June 26, 1919: 12. Also, “Horstman Slipping,” Chattanooga (Tennessee) News, June 26, 1919: 19. Also, “Horstman Joins Columbus Squad,” Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, June 28, 1919: 13.
36 John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Editors. Total Baseball, Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, 7th ed., 2001), 1530.
37 “Two Pitchers Go,” Columbus Dispatch, September 10, 1919: 30.
38 “Name Successor to Ganzel,” Columbus Dispatch, February 1, 1920: 27. Also, “St. Louis Nationals Building Up for Year,” Duluth (Minnesota) News-Tribune, February 1, 1920: 3.
39 “Horstman Lacks ‘Something,’” Kansas City Star, April 26, 1921: 11.
40 “Lack Only the Pitchers,” Kansas City Star, July 29, 1921: 14.
41 “Horstman Released,” Duluth News-Tribune, January 4, 1922: 9. Also, Grand Forks (South Dakota) Herald, January 4, 1922: 7. Also, “Louisville Gets Pitcher,” Washington (DC) Evening Star, January 8, 1922: 32.
42 Jack Hellman, “New Hurler Has Ability,” Louisville Courier-Journal, January 5, 1922: 6.
43 Hellman, “New Hurler Has Ability.”
44 “Horstman to Quit Game, He Declares,” Louisville Courier-Journal, January 6, 1922: 8.
45 “Former Blue Faces About,” Louisville Courier-Journal, March 11, 1922: 8.
46 Charles A. Reinhardt, “Twirlers Put Through Strenuous Practice; Francis Gains Favor,” Louisville Courier-Journal, April 1, 1922: 10. Reportedly, the overhand-throwing Horstmann was unable to raise his arm above his shoulder.
47 “Oscar Horstman Is Suspended,” Louisville Courier-Journal, May 21, 1922: 54.
48 “Obituaries: Oscar Horstmann,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1977: 53. In 1928, however, news of the signing of Alma pitching prospect Lou Fette mentioned his having been tutored by Horstmann. See the Macon (Georgia) Herald-Chronicle, March 3, 1928: 6.
49 1930 US Census.
50 “Oscar T. Horstmann (Obituary),” Salina (Kansas) Journal, May 11, 1977: 10.
51 Oscar Horstmann grave profile on Find-A-Grave.com, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/101260868/oscar-theodore-horstmann, accessed May 17, 2021. The gravesite page provides a photo of the mausoleum plaque for Oscar and Anna Horstmann (who died in 1999 at age 97).