Southpaw pitcher Pete Dowling made his major-league debut with the Louisville Colonels on July 17, 1897, just two days after his 21st birthday, and two days before Honus Wagner played his first game with the Colonels. Louisville acquired the two in separate transactions, Dowling from Paducah, Kentucky, of the Central League for pitcher Jim Jones and $900, and Wagner from Paterson, New Jersey, of the Atlantic League, for an undisclosed price.
The legendary Wagner logged 21 seasons in “The Show” with a .328 batting average, entered the Baseball Hall of Fame, and died in his 81st year. Dowling’s four-year career with three big-league clubs from 1897 through 1901 produced a won-lost record of 39-64, and his life ended at the age of 28 in a tragic train accident. Long after his death, in the 21st century Dowling finally achieved recognition for a historic achievement that had long gone unnoticed: throwing the first no-hitter in American League history, on June 30, 1901, with the Cleveland Blues.
Henry James Peter Dowling started life on July 15, 1876, in St. Louis, the first of seven children born to Irish immigrants Michael J. and Ellen Dowling. According to the 1880 US Census, Michael was employed as a laborer, while Ellen took in washing and ironing.
The sandlots of St. Louis were great places for aspiring ballplayers; one of the early stars of the game, James “Pud” Galvin, came out of the Irish settlement known as the Kerry Patch to log 365 major-league victories and earn a plaque in Cooperstown. Several years later other St. Louis sandlotters followed Galvin to the majors, including Jack O’Connor, Silver King, and Patsy Tebeau.
Young Dowling grew up on the local sandlots, and, equipped with a live fastball and sweeping curve, joined the professional ranks in 1897 with Paducah of the Class C Independent Central League. No individual statistics are available for the ’97 Central League; the six-team circuit disbanded on July 20.
The left-hander was acquired by Louisville several days before Paducah’s collapse; he compiled a 1-2 won-lost record in 26 innings with the Colonels. Thirteen players made their major-league debuts with Louisville in 1897, including Dowling, Wagner, and Rube Waddell. Pete finished the year in the Western League with Milwaukee, managed by Connie Mack. The 5-foot-11, 165-pounder posted good numbers with the Brewers, completing five of 12 starts and posting a 4-2 mark and a 3.04 ERA.
Back up with Louisville in 1898, Dowling completed 30 of 32 starts. His 13-20 won-lost mark and 4.16 ERA positioned him as the number-three starter on the NL’s ninth-place club. He earned the victory in his first major-league appearance in his hometown, holding the Browns hitless for the first seven innings. The Seattle Daily Times dubbed him “the best left-handed pitcher in the country, not barring Rube Waddell.”1 The Colonels featured a .300-hitting outfield of Charlie Dexter, William “Dummy” Hoy, and player-manager Fred Clarke; Wagner played first base and batted .299.
In 1899 Louisville finished ninth again, two games below the .500 mark at 75-77. Individually, Hoy and Clarke topped .300, The Flying Dutchman sparkled with a .341 batting average and 114 RBIs, and rookie right-hander Charles “Deacon” Phillippe contributed 21 wins. Dowling led Colonels hurlers in ERA at 3.05, pitched 298⅓ innings, completed 30 of 33 starts, and was victorious in 13 of 30 decisions.
Unfortunately, Dowling’s taste for alcohol began to impact his baseball career during the ’99 season. In one notorious outing, he pitched the second game of an August 17 doubleheader while noticeably drunk.2 The belligerent hurler spent so much time bickering with the umpire that the game was eventually called because of darkness. Remarkably, he still defeated the Boston Beaneaters, 2-1. On September 2, he went on a drinking spree in Louisville and made a public spectacle of himself the next morning.3 He was suspended for the remainder of the season.
After the ’99 season the National League reduced its ranks from 12 teams to 8, ousting Louisville, Washington, Cleveland, and Baltimore. In 1900 Louisville magnate Barney Dreyfuss became part-owner of the NL Pittsburgh Pirates, taking future Hall of Famers Wagner and Clarke with him. Dreyfuss also retained Dowling’s rights. Meanwhile, Western League President Ban Johnson, continuing a battle to gain major-league status, changed the name of his circuit to American League.
Dowling’s future appeared to be with the Pittsburgh club; however, his growing battle with alcohol was putting his baseball future in doubt. Pete went to Kentucky after the ’99 season to rejoin his family, now living there on a farm. The hurler strayed away from the farm a few weeks later, as noted by Sporting Life in its November 18 edition. “Pete Dowling, of the Louisvilles, got drunk in Paducah. When he was placed in jail he kicked over a stove, setting fire to the prison. Later he was brought before the police judge, who gave him one hour in which to leave town.”4
Milwaukee of the new American League purchased Dowling’s contract from Pittsburgh in February 1900. Charlie Comiskey’s Chicago White Sox bested Mack’s Brewers by four games to win the pennant, but Pete turned in a productive season. The southpaw led the Brewers in innings pitched (293), games started (36), complete games (29), and strikeouts (107). His 16 wins tied for second on the club, three behind Bill Reidy’s 19. He lost 19 games.
The American League, which began to aggressively raid National League rosters, attained major-league status in 1901. Outfielder Hugh Duffy replaced Mack at the Milwaukee helm when the Tall Tactician moved to Philadelphia to inaugurate a 50-year reign as owner-manager of the Athletics. With the managerial change and an influx of better hitters into the AL, Dowling’s spot on the Brewers became less assured.
The rising cost of player salaries led the league to reduce roster sizes in 1901.5 As a result, Milwaukee needed to get rid of a pitcher by June 1. A slow start by Dowling put his position on the team in further jeopardy.6 Asked about Duffy’s roster in late May, Mack replied, “If I had his staff of pitchers, I would not feel a bit uneasy. … It is hardly fair now to expect him to reduce to the limit.”7 Duffy made his decision, and on June 1 Dowling’s contract was sold to Cleveland.
Dowling gained a measure of revenge against Duffy and his old teammates the first time he faced them. On June 30 in Milwaukee, the Blues twirler shut them out, 7-0. The only player to come close to a hit was Wid Conroy, who hit a sharp groundball to third baseman Bill Bradley in the seventh inning. The wire-service story carried in newspapers across the country, along with an article filed in Cleveland by a Plain Dealer nonstaff correspondent, reported it as a “scratch single” and a one-hitter for Dowling.8 However, the Milwaukee Journal, Cleveland Press, and Cleveland Leader all declared it a no-hitter, with an error charged to Bradley on Conroy’s seventh-inning grounder.9 The most plausible explanation for the divergence is that the official scorer, who was probably a Milwaukee sportswriter, changed the hit to an error after the game had ended. The wire service and Plain Dealer stories weren’t corrected, and it is likely that at the end of the 1901 season relatively few people considered Dowling’s June 30 outing a no-hitter.
The outing was officially considered a one-hitter until the first edition of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia was released in 1969.10 It credited Dowling with having thrown a no-hitter on June 30, 1901. However, all nine subsequent editions of the “Big Mac” mysteriously failed to include it on the list of American League no-hitters. In the summer of 2020, both Retrosheet and Baseball Reference recognized Dowling’s June 30, 1901, outing as a no-hitter.11 Those well-respected organizations considered it the inaugural no-hitter for Cleveland’s American League franchise, and the first in the history of the American League.12
The Brewers continued to have difficulty hitting Dowling for the remainder of the season. On August 2 he threw a one-hit shutout against them in Milwaukee. He went 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA in four starts against his old club; facing all other teams, he posted a 4.57 ERA.
Dowling avenged Duffy’s decision to get rid of him with more than his pitching. A nasty brawl broke out at the conclusion of the August 7, 1901, game between the Blues and Brewers in Cleveland. At one point, Duffy, upset at a call that didn’t go his way, punched umpire Al Mannassau in the head.13 Cleveland players came to Mannassau’s defense, and Dowling punched Duffy in the face to “settle an old score.”14 Police stepped in to restore calm. Duffy was suspended, and two other Milwaukee players were fined for shoving Mannassau.15 Dowling was not suspended or fined.
Pete led the Cleveland mound corps in innings pitched (256⅓), games started (30), and complete games (28). He compiled an ERA of 3.86 with the Blues, although he won only 11 of 33 decisions. As of the end of the 2020 season, his 22 losses were still the most in a season for a Cleveland American League hurler. Coupled with the three defeats with Milwaukee, he dropped 25 contests that season. The left-handed swinger hit his lone home run with the ’01 Blues; he left the majors with a .198 career batting average.
Early in 1902 Dowling found himself without a contract for the coming season, largely because of his well-known drinking issues.16 He signed a conditional contract with the Milwaukee Brewers of the independent American Association in late February.17 The pact included a stipulation that a portion of the hurler’s salary would be withheld and not paid until he had demonstrated his sobriety over the whole season. Dowling had second thoughts a few weeks later and walked away from the contract.18 The Milwaukee Journal reported that “Pete evidently did not like his salary with a string to it when the amber fluid was so tempting.”19
Dowling headed west to play with Sacramento in the independent California League. He started off on a high note, shutting out Oakland, 1-0, on April 24. After discovering the local watering holes, however, his pitching slacked off; after 20 appearances and a record of 5 wins and 15 losses, he was released.
The dismissal came on July 12, a month after Dowling had endeared himself to the Sacramento populace by saving three men from drowning. The story was carried in newspapers across the nation. Sporting Life reported the incident as follows: “Pete Dowling, the baseball player, has saved the lives of three men. Patrolman Dupage, Alexander Stevens, and James McGrath were bathing in the Sacramento River. Stevens got into trouble and Dupage went to his aid. They both went down, and McGrath, in trying to get them out, became exhausted and helpless. Dowling dashed into the deep water and succeeded in dragging his companions to a sand bar.”20
Veteran player-manager John McCloskey, known as “Honest John,” was very familiar with Dowling’s pitching skills. A native of Louisville, McCloskey had piloted the Colonels briefly prior to Pete’s arrival there in 1897, and was managing Butte in the Class B Pacific Northwest League in ’02. He contacted the southpaw after hearing of his termination by Sacramento and offered a contract, again with a key provision: Lay off the booze.
After signing a temperance pledge in the presence of McCloskey and a Catholic priest, Pete had an outstanding season with the Miners. Near the end of the season, he pitched three games in a week against Portland, holding them to a grand total of one run.21 The trio of outstanding performances was a key point in the pennant race. Unfortunately, Dowling broke his pledge the day the team arrived in Seattle for the last series of the season with the championship hanging in the balance. McCloskey rushed him to a local priest, Father Prefontaine, and had him sign another pledge.22 This one stuck until the end of the season. Dowling regained his form, and Butte captured the league pennant by a three-game margin over Seattle.
Individual pitching records for the Pacific Northwest League’s 1902 season are unavailable; scattered news reports indicate that Dowling and three other former major leaguers (right-handed hurler Skel Roach, outfielder Walt Wilmot, and infielder Frank “Piggy” Ward) played key roles in Butte’s championship year.
In 1903 Butte became a member of the Pacific National League, a new Class A circuit consisting of eight teams. Dowling returned, as did Roach, Wilmot, and Ward. McCloskey chose to manage San Francisco in the new circuit. Pete turned in an outstanding year in ’03; the 26-year-old lefty led the loop’s hurlers with 30 wins and 249 strikeouts. With a won-lost record of 85-62, the Miners outdistanced Spokane by 4½ games to win the loop championship. The German-born Roach contributed 22 victories, and Ward and Wilmot each batted over .300.
When the San Francisco franchise disbanded in August 1903, McCloskey moved on to Salt Lake City in the same league. He was well aware of Dowling’s turnaround season, in stride with other admirers. The November 14, 1903, issue of Sporting Life said, “Dowling has been playing with Walter Wilmot and ‘Piggy’ Ward all season, and both veterans look to see him ‘make good’ in the National League.”23
Reports circulated that Dowling had been observed by scouts representing Brooklyn and St. Louis of the National League. November writings in Sporting Life were pro and con over whether the Cardinals would tender a contract. They did, and Pete celebrated long and hard over the winter in anticipation of pitching before the home folks in St. Louis. When he arrived at the St. Louis camp in the spring of ’04, his return to the bottle had left its mark. Out of shape, run-down, and unable to pitch, he was sent to his father’s farm to recover. Pete failed to respond, and in June 1904 St. Louis cut ties with the left-hander, returning him to Butte.
Things had changed in the Pacific National League when Dowling returned in midseason. The loop had been reduced to four members (Boise, Butte, Salt Lake City, and Spokane), resulting in its reclassification to Class B. The Walt Wilmot-piloted Miners finished in third place, 27 games in arrears of the Boise club, managed by John McCloskey. In 21 games, Pete posted 8 wins and 12 losses.
He wore a new uniform in 1905, as Ogden replaced Butte in the lineup of Pacific National clubs. In his fifth start of the season, on May 20, he was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of a Boise player and left the game with a broken jaw. Ten days later he was released in a move Ogden management made to reduce salary on a club that, along with the loop’s other members, was on shaky financial ground. When Salt Lake City withdrew on June 20, the Pacific National League disbanded.
Pete left Ogden with an even split in four decisions, and the hurler’s downward spiral continued. He signed to pitch for an independent semipro club in La Grande, a town of some 4,000 in eastern Oregon. La Grande played in the Bunch Grass League against neighboring teams in Pendleton and Baker City, Oregon, and Walla Walla, Washington.24
Scheduled to pitch over the Fourth of July weekend in La Grande, Dowling had gone to Hot Lake, a nearby health resort, for a few days of treatment after a reported heavy drinking spree.25 It appears that he did not consume any alcohol while in Hot Lake.26 On the night of June 30, he was ticketed for the return trip to La Grande, but failed to board the train. Dowling informed people at the station that he was going to walk to La Grande, and he set off westward along the tracks. About 1½ miles west of Hot Lake, an eastbound train approached him. The engineer didn’t see him until he stepped onto the track in front of the oncoming locomotive.27 Although the train’s whistle was sounded several times, Dowling paid no attention. He was killed instantly by the impact, with his head severed from his body.28
The remains of 28-year-old Henry James Peter Dowling were gathered and buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in La Grande.29 A large crowd attended the funeral, with members of the La Grande baseball team acting as pallbearers.30
Letters from the Dowling file at the Baseball Hall of Fame indicate that attempts were made to locate a death certificate, but neither the Oregon State Health Division nor the Oregon State Library was able to find one. The July 1, 1905, edition of the La Grande Evening Observer wrote, “(Dowling) and his wife arrived here from Ogden, Utah, on June 4.” This writer was unable to find another reference to a spouse.
The Seattle Daily Times of July 4, 1905, reported on Dowling’s passing: “When he was sober there was not a more decent chap in the business than this same erratic southpaw. McCloskey had tears in his eyes when talking about Pete yesterday. Mac was the only man who could manage Dowling.”31
The author added, “It was a sad ending to a brilliant career. He was as tender hearted as a woman and generous to a fault but he could not let liquor alone and his end was a tragic one.”
John McCloskey returned to the major leagues in 1906 to manage the St. Louis Cardinals. He remained there for three seasons, never piloting the club higher than seventh place. One can only speculate what contribution Pete Dowling might have given his hometown Cardinals, under the watchful eye of Honest John.
This original biography of Pete Dowling was updated and expanded by Gary Belleville in November 2020 and March 2021. Thanks to Kip Roberson and Richard Tourangeau for locating the La Grande Evening Observer articles related to Dowling’s death.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Ancestry.com, Baseball-Reference.com, GenealogyBank.com, LA84foundation.org, and Retrosheet.org, as well as the following:
Baseball Hall of Fame Library, player file for Pete Dowling.
Statistics from Dowling file of SABR founding member Ray Nemec.
Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball Third Edition (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, 2007).
1 “Gossip About the Players,” Seattle Daily Times, July 4, 1905: 9.
2 Dennis Pajot, “Barney Dreyfuss Remembers a Pete Dowling Story,” Seamheads.com, January 20, 2014, seamheads.com/2014/01/20/barney-dreyfuss-remembers-a-pete-dowling-story/, accessed November 25, 2020.
3 “Dowling in Disgrace,” The Sporting News, September 9, 1899: 4.
4 “As to Dowling,” Sporting Life, November 18, 1899: 4.
6 As of June 1, Dowling had a 5.62 ERA in four starts and six relief appearances.
7 “Connie Mack’s Views,” Milwaukee Journal, May 28, 1901: 10.
8 “Only One Scratch Single,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 1, 1901: 3; “Dowling’s Great Work,” Boston Globe, July 1, 1901: 9.
9 “Dowling Gets Even; Former Brewer Does Not Allow Duffy’s Men a Hit or a Run,” Milwaukee Journal, July 1, 1901: 8; “Dowling’s Great Work; Shut Out Milwaukee Without a Hit,” Cleveland Press, July 1, 1901; “Dowling Made a New Record; He Shut Out Milwaukee Sunday – Without a Man Making a Hit,” Cleveland Leader, July 1, 1901. The game stories in the Cleveland Press and Cleveland Leader were also written by a nonstaff correspondent.
10 Gary Belleville, “June 30, 1901: Pete Dowling Tosses the American League’s First No-Hitter − or Does He?” SABR Games Project, accessed December 5, 2020.
11 Belleville, “June 30, 1901: Pete Dowling Tosses the American League’s First No-Hitter − or Does He?”
13 “Duffy Struck Mannassau,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 8, 1901: 3.
14 “Fight Ends Game,” Milwaukee Journal, August 8, 1901: 10.
15 “Duffy Gets Ten Days,” Milwaukee Journal, August 9, 1901: 8.
16 “From the Fan Mills,” Saint Paul Globe, February 25, 1902: 5.
17 “Baseball Guff,” Milwaukee Journal, February 27, 1902: 12.
18 “Pitcher Pete Dowling Jumps,” Buffalo Express, March 12, 1902: 12.
19 “What Says,” Milwaukee Journal, March 13, 1902: 12.
20 “A Baseball Hero,” Sporting Life, June 28, 1902: 5.
21 “Gossip About the Players.”
22 “Gossip About the Players.”
23 “A New Cardinal,” Sporting Life, November 14, 1903: 6.
24 “Train Kills Pete Dowling at La Grande,” Butte Miner, July 2, 1905: 15.
25 “Train Kills Pete Dowling at La Grande;” “A Great Health Resort in Oregon,” Oregon Daily Journal, June 13, 1903: 5.
26 “Pitcher Dowling Killed by Train,” La Grande Evening Observer, July 1, 1905: 7.
27 The engineer reported that there was no time to stop the train to avoid the impact.
28 “Pitcher Dowling Killed by Train.”
29 As of March 1, 2021, the cemetery was known as Grandview Cemetery.
30 “Funeral Services,” La Grande Evening Observer, July 3, 1905: 6.
31 “Gossip About the Players.”