In the early spring of 1912, it seemed possible that Ralph Capron’s future would take him to Chicago for the United States Olympic Trials, then maybe to Stockholm, Sweden for the Summer Games as a member of the sprint team. However, rumors of professionalism cast a shadow over those aspirations. After three years without making a player signing recommendation, Pittsburgh Pirates Pacific scout George Van Haltren contacted owner Bernhard “Barney” Dreyfuss to say the University of Minnesota footballer and speedster had all the makings of a professional outfielder. Ralph chose baseball, but by the summer of 1914 it looked like Van Haltren had spoken too soon. After only a handful of major league appearances with the Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies, Ralph Capron’s major league baseball career was over. He would return to the football field as a part-time semi-pro player and coach before playing one game in 1920 for the APFA (later renamed the NFL) Chicago Tigers, joining the likes of Jim Thorpe as an early two-sport major league athlete.
Ralph Earle Capron was born June 16, 1889, in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Charles and Hattie Capron. Charles worked as a conductor with the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. Hattie and Charles raised Ralph along with his four brothers in the South Minneapolis neighborhood adjacent to the rail yards southeast of the downtown area, formally known as Cornell’s addition. Ralph was active in baseball as a youngster, managing the local “Cornells,” even placing ads in a couple Minneapolis papers looking for games against other under-13 teams.
Capron was a vagabond high school athlete, clearly focused on athletics, not academics. He spent his freshman year at nearby Minneapolis South High, then switched to St. John’s Prep in Collegeville, Minnesota, fifty miles north of Minneapolis. Although only a high school sophomore, Capron played football, baseball, and ran track for the St. John’s College team. The fall of 1908 saw him back in Minneapolis at Minneapolis West High School. He played football that fall but was declared academically ineligible to participate in spring sports, and rumors started to appear the local papers that he might be heading east for his senior year. In May 1909, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that Capron was heading east to play football.1 He would end up attending Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, though there are no records or reporting that show Capron finished the academic year at Mercersburg.
Capron’s older brothers, George and Harry, both played football at the University of Minnesota so it was back to Minnesota to start college for Ralph, whose college career would mirror that of his brother George. An outstanding kicker, George played freshman football in 1907, then starred on the 1908 team, where he would account for 44 of Minnesota’s 55 points scored and was named third-team All-American by Walter Camp. Likewise, Ralph, nicknamed “Cape,” played with the freshman eleven in 1910, then moved up to varsity for the 1911 season, in which Minnesota won the Western Conference title with an overall record of 6-0-1. His individual highlight was a 90-yard opening kick-off return in a 6-6 tie at Wisconsin. At season’s end, just like his brother George, he was named by Walter Camp a third-team All-American. His blazing speed was also an asset for the Minnesota track team.
The speedster then turned his attention toward the 1912 Summer Olympics. A failure to place in a tune-up race in Seattle and questions about his professional past may have pushed Capron to reconsider that path and turn toward baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates made a contract offer to Ralph’s older brother George in January.2 Rebuffed by the elder Capron, the Pirates turned their attention to the younger brother. On March 19, 1912, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Ralph, thus ending his Olympic hopes and any possible return to Minnesota to play football. The contract reportedly paid right-handed throwing, left-handed hitting, Capron $3,500 for the season whether he played with the Pirates for the whole season or not.3 Part of the reason for the high price may have been the need to overcome the lure of both the Olympics and returning to Minnesota for his junior football season. The Pittsburgh Daily Post demurred, saying the sum was half that and there were questions about Capron’s amateur eligibility due to rumored baseball professionalism the previous summer.4 Capron commented, “I tell you it’s tough, I wanted to remain at school and the fellows wanted me to stick . . . but, I had the professional baseball fever and when Mr. Dreyfuss’s offer came, I found it irresistible.”5
Capron joined up with his new team in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Although the 5’ 11” speedster played most of the spring with the second team, referred to as Yannigans, he made the Opening Day roster as the team left for their final exhibition games in Memphis and Kansas City. He never really had a chance at becoming a starter; batting in the low .200s during spring training. W. B. McVicker, writing for the Pittsburgh Press, summed it up this way, “If fielding alone could cinch a job for an outfielder, then Ralph . . . would be guaranteed a position in the Pirate outergarden. This wing pedaled athlete is getting every ball hit within ‘a mile’ of him and once he gets his hands on the bulb there is no such thing as a fumble. He has not found his batting eye to date.”6 Always the extra man in the outfield, Capron occupied the bench for the first nine games of the season. Finally, on April 25, 1912, in the 10th game of the season and opening game of a home series with the Cincinnati Reds, Capron made his major-league debut. With the Pirates trailing 1-0 and two outs in the ninth, second baseman Alex McCarthy singled, and manager Fred Clarke inserted Capron as a pinch runner. But as the Cincinnati Enquirer reported, “Capron . . . is said to be one of the fastest men on his feet that ever broke into baseball. He did not get a chance to show his speed for while he was preparing for a fast dash around the bases, Ham Hyatt unkindly whiffed.”7 Ralph Davis of the Pittsburgh Press likened him to a “thoroughbred racehorse . . . at the post while awaiting the word to go.”8 He wouldn’t see any more action and on May 1 was sold with “strings attached” to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association.
After ten games with Milwaukee, a Pittsburgh headline, keeping track of the rookie, compared him to Ty Cobb.9 With 14 hits, 12 runs scored, and three steals, Capron had Pirates manager Clarke predicting he would be back with the Pirates for the end of the season; but things didn’t turn out like he planned them. By the middle of June, doubts about Capron’s ability to hit were taking hold. After 36 games, the average was down to .275. Milwaukee manager Hugh Duffy benched Capron on June 19. By the end of June, the batting average stood at .259. On July 23, frustrated with Capron’s inability to hit and his eleven errors, the Brewers released him back to Pittsburgh. Four days later, Pittsburgh sent their recruit to the St. Paul Saints for more seasoning. Saints skipper Mike Kelley told the local press “In Ralph Capron, I have one of the classiest pieces of raw baseball material ever handed a manager for development.”10
As 1912 drew to a close, printed reports told of Capron looking to return to football as a coach; the possibilities included St. John’s (MN) and even the head position at Purdue University. Nothing came of it, though; he was pressed back into service at the University of Minnesota to do some part-time instruction on punting. His rights still being held by Pittsburgh, Capron waited for news of a contract for the 1913 season.
Bad news arrived on February 3 when Pittsburgh transferred Capron’s rights to St. Paul to complete a previous year’s deal involving pitcher Marty O’Toole. The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote, “He didn’t know that he had been ‘peddled’ off to the Saints until he was handed a contract in register letter form from the faithful mail carrier who packs down the snow in the Kenwood [Minneapolis] district.”11 Though not pleased about the turn of events, Capron planned to head to Excelsior Spring, Missouri on March 10 for spring training. Rumors of a possible signing by Frank Chance of the New York Highlanders never materialized and neither did a signed contract with St. Paul. Capron balked at the offer by Saints manager Bill Friel and quickly wired Dreyfuss, asking to be sent anywhere but St. Paul. The reply ordered him to report to Hot Springs for a second spring training with the Pirates. After a week of games with the Yannigans, Capron was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies. He was the first player shown the door by the Pirates, Dreyfuss noting, “They want him, and we have no place for him.”12 On March 24, he boarded a train bound for Raleigh, North Carolina to join the Phillies.
Capron was immediately inserted into spring games and made the opening day roster. On Opening Day, Manager Red Dooin decided to go with his veterans as starters; Capron would have to wait to see any action. His debut with the Phillies was inauspicious. In the Phillies’ 11th game of the season, on April 30 at the South End Grounds in Boston, Capron was sent into leftfield as a ninth inning replacement after starter Cozy Dolan had been pulled from the game for a pinch-hitter. In the only instance of his brief major-league career that he actually touched a live baseball, he messed up. Boston’s first batter, Rabbit Maranville, hit the ball to left field and stretched a single into a double as an observer saw “Capron carelessly heaving the ball back to the infield and past (shortstop Mickey) Doolin.”13 (There was no error charged on the play). After a sacrifice and single, the game was over; a 2-1 loss.
As the May 15 deadline for teams to get down to their final 25-man roster loomed, Capron appeared in four more games, each time as a pinch runner. On May 8, with the Phillies down 5-3 to the Cardinals, Phillies manager sent pinch-hitter Jimmy Walsh up to lead off the bottom of the ninth. Walsh singled and Capron was inserted as a pinch runner. Following another single and a hit batsman, Capron stood on third with no outs. Otto Knabe lifted a sacrifice fly bringing in Capron; his first major league run scored.14 In similar circumstances a week later, he scored his second and last major league run during a ninth-inning rally to tie the game during a 6-5 10-inning win against Chicago on deadline day. After Walsh had doubled in a run, Capron was sent in to pinch-run. A sacrifice moved him to third, and Knabe singled him in with the tying run.15 After the game, Capron was loaned to Baltimore of the International League. He ended his major league record having appeared in six games, five as a pinch-runner, without recording a plate appearance.
The Baltimore Sun introduced readers to Capron by recounting his 11 errors the previous year in Milwaukee. Like in Milwaukee and St. Paul, Capron was quick out of the blocks but faded fast. In and out of the lineup, he soon got of the wrong side of the Evening Sun sportswriter C. M. “Abe” Gibbs. On July 10, Abe wrote, “Yuh never see hardly no figgers after his name ‘cept times at bat, but he’s still in there anyhow.”16 In August, he was left behind in Baltimore when the Orioles took their last trip to Montreal. He finished his 43-game stint hitting .258 with 15 steals. He was then traded to Elmira of the Class B New York State League, though he only appeared in two games before quitting to return to Baltimore, complaining of an injured knee. A note in the State League Baseball Gossip column of the Elmira Star-Gazette reported he was recovering from a knee injury and that “He plans to return to college in the west . . . and says he will quit the game rather than play with a bunch of ‘bushers.’”17
Capron did return west, but not to return to college. Instead, he went into the real estate business with his brother George. Setting up an office in Minneapolis in October of 1913, the business would prove very lucrative for George, but Ralph still harbored hopes of continuing in baseball.
He was back with the Orioles in the spring of 1914. By May the columnist Abe was back denigrating Capron’s abilities to the locals, “speakin’ o’ vegetables, I see where that Capron gink was in th’ game fer th’ Birds yestiddy with both feet. He’s all right jest as long as yuh don’t ask him t’ do any of that THINK stuff.”18 On May 27, after 20 games and hitting only .195, he was released and headed back to Milwaukee for his final professional games. On July 22, his playing career ended with his unconditional release by Milwaukee.
Following his exit from baseball, Capron returned to Minneapolis. On June 2, 1915, he married Minneapolis socialite Dorothy Harrington, whose father was a prominent civil engineer. He went back to work with his brother and from time to time returned to the gridiron either as a player or coach. He played in the 1915 Thanksgiving game with a group of former college stars against the semi-pro Minneapolis Marines; the game drew 9,000 fans to Nicollet Park. In 1918, as a member of the Fourth Minnesota Infantry, he coached the soldier’s football team. On November 7, 1920, the Chicago Tribune announced that the Chicago Tigers of the fledgling American Professional Football Association would be “reinforced by the addition of Ralph Capron, former University of Minnesota halfback.”19 Before a crowd of 7,000 at Cub Park, Capron became one of the earliest athletes to have played in both Major League Baseball and the fledgling American Professional Football Association (renamed the National Football League in 1922).
The following January, Minneapolis newspapers were reporting Capron was looking to manage a Minneapolis entry into the APFA. Capron’s Gophers were to be a team composed of all-Western and all-American stars with Nicollet Park secured for its 1921 home games.20 The team never materialized, and Capron headed off to California with his wife Dorothy and son Robert.
After moving to Los Angeles, they welcomed a daughter Caprice. Capron again worked with his brother George and, over the years, was listed in the Los Angeles City Directory as a financier, builder, and salesman. Life in the Golden State soon turned troublesome when Ralph was arrested in Long Beach, charged with multiple counts of bank fraud and embezzlement. Although he was never convicted, his marriage soon came apart with a separation in September 1922; in October Dorothy sued for divorce alleging physical abuse, lack of financial support and womanizing.21 He was arrested again in 1925 on fraud charges but those charges were also dropped. Following his divorce, Capron briefly worked as a sales manager at a car dealership in Pasadena. There he was reacquainted with Jim Thorpe. Thorpe had played against Capron’s brother in college and, following Ralph’s aborted attempt to manage in the AFPA, the two got to know each other. In 1937, Thorpe announced that he would work with Capron selling cars, but soon after decided to return to the movie industry. Capron would continue his friendship with Thorpe, working as a field representative for Jim Thorpe Sports Enterprises, introducing Jim at school assemblies, speaking engagements, and press tours. Thorpe lived with Capron briefly in 1945 before joining the Merchant Marines.22
Ralph’s daughter Caprice would later become friends with actress Joan Collins. Caprice was a witness at Joan’s 1967 wedding to actor Anthony Newley. Collins also credited Caprice as the inspiration for the character Alexis Colby on the hit 1980’s TV show “Dynasty.”23
Capron married Isabelle Russell in 1951 and they resided in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles until his death on September 19, 1980. Ralph Capron is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and Jake Bell and fact-checked by Jeff Findley.
In addition to the sources shown in the Notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com
1 “Ralph Capron Will Enter Eastern School,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, May 6, 1909.
2 “Lucky Contract for Geo. Capron,” The Spokesman-Review, Feb 1, 1912.
3 “Ralph Capron, Football Star, Signs Contract with Pirates,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, March 19, 1912.
4 MacPherson, L.C., “By the Sporting Editor” Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 20, 1912.
5 “Ballplayer is Snubbed,” Buffalo (New York) Enquirer, March 27, 1912.
6 McVicker, W. B., “Brief News Notes of Buccaneers in South,” Pittsburgh Press, April 5, 1912.
7 “Real Article Handed Out by Suggs,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 26, 1912.
8 Davis, Ralph, “Ralph Davis’ Column,” Pittsburgh Press, April 26, 1912.
9 “Ralph Capron is Proving Regular Chain Lightning Ty Cobb in Minors,” Pittsburgh Press, May 19, 1912.
10 “St. Paul Manager Says Ralph Capron is a promising Player,” The Huntington Herald, September 17, 1912.
11 McInerny, F. A., “Ralph Capron Must Play with the Saints,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 4, 1913.
12 “Bobby Byrne Badly Beaned by One of Smoky Joe’s Benders,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 20, 1913.
13 “Brennan Let Down in Ninth Round,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1, 1913.
14 “Cardinals Snatch Game Away by Scoring 3 Runs While 2 Were Down,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 9, 1913.
15 “Phillies Finish Strong and Win Opening Game from Cubs in Tenth,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 16, 1913.
16 “Abe Keeps Weilding His Hammer and Bustin’ Int’ Poetry,” Baltimore Evening Sun, July 10,1913.
17 “State League Baseball Gossip,” Elmira Star-Gazette, September 8, 1913.
18 “The Terrapins’ Trip Has Shown That They Are Good Mud Turtles, Says Abe,” Baltimore Evening Sun, May 12, 1914.
19 “Ralph Capron with Tigers Against Cardinals Today,” Chicago Tribune, November 7, 1920.
20 “Capron Sponsors Local Grid Team,” Minneapolis Tribune, January 15, 1921.
21 “Athlete Sued for Divorce,” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1922.
22 Wood, Hal, “New Way of Life Beckons Thorpe Staging Comeback,” Oakland Tribune, January 28, 1945.
23 Netto, David, “Alexis Nexus”, Town & Country, September 2018