An above-average centerfielder and one of the Deadball Era’s finest utility men, Artie Hofman was a timely hitter and one of the fleetest men in the game. Known as “Circus Solly,” a nickname some attributed to a comic strip character from the early 1900s, while others swore it came from his spectacular circus catches, Hofman garnered attention with his playing style and also his lively antics. He is “serious only when asleep,” jibed Baseball Magazine. Along with fellow free spirits Frank “Wildfire” Schulte and Jimmy Sheckard, Hofman completed what Ring Lardner once called “the best outfield I ever looked at.”
Arthur Frederick Hofman was born in St. Louis on October 29, 1882. One of five ball-playing brothers—Louis, Oscar, George, and Erwin were the others—Arthur received encouragement from his father, Louis Sr., who managed the well-known Mound City Ice and Cold Storage team that played its games at Lindell Park, then at the corner of Grand and Hebert, only a block north of Busch Stadium. His sister, Birdie, starred on the Central High School basketball team and was a teammate of novelist Fannie Hurst. All of the Hofman brothers played in the St. Louis Trolley League, and Oscar played briefly for Columbus in the American Association. An exceptional track star at Smith Academy, Arthur performed so well with the Belleville (Illinois) Clerks that he earned a contract with Evansville in the Three-I League, where he played third base in 1901 and 1902.
After appearing in a handful of games with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903, Hofman and Hans Lobert were farmed out together to Des Moines of the Western League for the remainder of the season. In 1904 Artie hit .301 as Des Moines’ regular shortstop, prompting his acquisition by the Chicago Cubs late that season. The rookie found it difficult to break into the famous Cub infield. “I know I can play better than Steinfeldt, Tinker, or Evers—but you won’t give me a chance!” Sid Keener recalled Hofman once saying to Frank Chance. “Besides, I’ve been watching you around first base and I’m convinced you’re slowing up, too. Give me that mitt and I’ll show you how first base should be played.” Admonished by Johnny Kling to keep his mouth shut, Hofman worked out at a different position each day until some of the infielders began worrying about their jobs. According to Keener, Evers took Chance aside and said, “I’ve been watching Slagle out in center field and he’s slowing up. Why don’t you try that kid Hofman?”
During his tenure with the Cubs, Hofman played every position outside of the battery and was universally regarded as the game’s best utility man before he became a regular in center field in 1909. Perhaps he is most famous as the outfielder who fielded Al Bridwell‘s single and called Evers’ attention to the fact that Fred Merkle had not touched second base. Merkle’s baserunning blunder and the disputed game forced a one-game playoff with John McGraw‘s Giants, allowing the Cubs to capture the 1908 flag. Hugh Keough, a newspaper writer who was friendly with Hofman, claims that the irrepressible Circus Solly fielded the ball and fired a curve to Evers, who missed it, allowing the ball to be picked up by Joe McGinnity, who lobbed it into the grandstand.
Before the 1908 World’s Series, Chance forbade Hofman’s wedding to Miss Rae Looker and demanded “for the good of the team” that the ceremony be postponed until after the season. The Cubs won their second consecutive World Series in Detroit on October 14, 1908, and the Hofmans did not dally. They were married the next day in Chicago. The couple moved to Akron, Ohio, where Hofman partnered with his brother-in-law, who owned two restaurants, and settled into family life. In 1909 Artie traveled to Cuba with A.M. McAllister‘s all-star team. Though the only man on the team who could play third base, Hofman abandoned the team when he received a letter reminding him that it was his six-month-old daughter’s first Christmas. “He put up such a plea,” The Sporting News reported, “that it melted even the Cuban soldiers, who couldn’t understand a word he said.”
In 1908 and 1909, Hofman was named to Collier’s Magazine‘s All-American teams, picked by Billy Sunday and Cap Anson, but his best season was 1910 when he hit .325 with 86 RBI and 29 stolen bases. On Cubs teams built around stealing bases, sacrificing outs for runs, and advancing runners, Hofman had a reputation as a speedy base runner and one of the game’s best sign stealers. Besides his role in the infamous Merkle play, Circus Solly owns the dubious record of playing eight innings at first base without making a single putout in a June 24, 1910, game against the Pirates.
In 1912 Hofman’s legs began to give him trouble, and in June Chicago traded him and pitcher King Cole to Pittsburgh for pitcher Lefty Leifield and outfielder Tommy Leach. The next year Hofman was sent to Kansas City but refused the assignment, asking to be sent to the Pacific Coast League, where he hoped to spend time with Frank Chance and other old friends. A month later he was sold to Nashville at $300 a month.
In March 1914 Hofman signed a $7,000 per year contract with Brooklyn of the Federal League. “The Brooklyn fans will forget all about Jake Daubert‘s fancy first basing after they watch me for a while,” he boasted. Hofman still maintained his old sense of humor: During the Brook-Fed’s 1914 training trip, he and outfielder Steve Evans volunteered to umpire an exhibition game with the University of South Carolina. Prior to the game, the jokesters sneaked a dozen baseballs into the hotel kitchen, where they put half of them on ice and baked the other half. During their teammates’ innings, the umpires gave them frozen balls to hit, but when the collegians were at bat, the baked (or live) balls were thrown in, and the college boys hit them a country mile.
In April 1915 Hofman clashed with manager Lee Magee because he failed to follow instructions to wait out the pitcher, instead hitting the first pitch. Artie claimed he was playing “Johnny Evers style” baseball; Magee replied that Lee Magee style ball would be played as long as he was in charge. A $10 fine for smoking cigarettes brought the conflict to its climax, and Hofman turned in his uniform and announced he was going home to Akron. One week later, “the kicking player” was sent to Buffalo in a four-club deal that brought southpaw Nick Cullop to Brooklyn.
When the Federal League collapsed, Hofman quit baseball and settled in Chicago where he owned a haberdashery and operated a youth baseball clinic on the abandoned West Side Grounds. He returned to the professional game briefly in 1916-17, filling emergency utility roles with the New York Yankees and the Cubs, before retiring with a .269 lifetime batting average. Hofman moved to St. Louis in 1918 but returned to Chicago as a high school coach in 1925. He was the uncle of Bobby Hofman of the New York Giants (1949-57). Hofman died in his native St. Louis on March 10, 1956, less than two weeks after Fred Merkle.
NOTE: An earlier version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D. C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2004).
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