This article was written by Jon Daly
Tacks Latimer was a journeyman catcher during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although his major league career was brief, 27 games and 86 at-bats spread over five different seasons (the writer Bill James has suggested that this might be some sort of record), he played professional baseball for over a decade and a half. His playing career took him south to Montgomery, Alabama; north to Montreal; and west to Denver among many other stops.
Making Latimer’s life compelling, though, isn’t his baseball career, for his story becomes a tale of murder and redemption.
Latimer was born Clifford Wesley Lattimer on November 30, 1877, in Loveland, Ohio, to John Wesley and Nora (nee McAdams) Lattimer. “Lattimer” was the original spelling, appearing that way in the 1910 census and even in later news accounts on occasion. It is possible that someone spelled it with one “t” on one of his early baseball contracts and the change stuck. The surname Latimer (Lattimer/Lattimore) is usually Irish, although it is sometimes English.
Some early baseball encyclopedias show 1875 as the year of Latimer’s birth, but Latimer might have given this earlier date when he was trying to break into pro ball at 17. It is not known if he had any siblings, but he may have had older ones. His parents were married in Clermont, Ohio, on June 24, 1867. Little is known of his early life, but, according to a March 31, 1900, Sporting News profile of him, Latimer “learned the rudiments of the game [baseball]” in nearby Cincinnati for the Cincinnati Gymnasium Club. The profile also noted that Latimer “does not smoke, chew or drink.” This, along with the middle name Wesley of both Clifford and his father, suggests a Methodist and English background, not unlike that of Branch Rickey, another Ohio catcher just a few years his junior.
Latimer’s professional career got its start in 1895. He appeared in the outfield in one game for Montgomery in the Southern Association and also saw some action with Norfolk of the Virginia League as well as Findlay of the Inter-State League. Little is known about what he did in 1896 except that he played independent ball somewhere. In 1897, Latimer played eight games for Minneapolis in the Western League. It was here that manager George “Doggy” Miller converted him into a catcher, according to sportswriter John H. Gruber in a column many years later. The next year, he went down to Austin of the Texas League, where Latimer received the nickname “Tacks.” According to the April 18, 1903, Sporting News, a fellow player by the name of Mike O’Connor gave him the sobriquet. Said Latimer, “He had a craze for nicknaming everybody with whom he came in contact, and he probably handed one out to his grandmother. He had no reason for branding me thus for life, I am the most quiet man in the world, and have never made trouble. I was never fresh in a ballgame, either.” This suggests that the nickname Tacks meant an edgy person. According to SABR researcher Jerry Jackson, Austin (and the Texas League) disbanded mid-season owing to the Spanish-American War, and Latimer moved on to Dayton until New York of the National League drafted him at the end of the season. He made his major league debut on October 1, 1898, and appeared in five games before season’s end.
There are conflicting reports about what happened prior to the 1899 season. Latimer told The Sporting News in April of 1903 that, “there was some complication and the National Board of Arbitration awarded me to Youngstown, where I played in 1899.” Gruber stated that John B. Day, the New York manager, released Latimer shortly before the season. In any case, Latimer played at Wheeling and Youngstown of the Inter-State League before Louisville of the National League bought his services on September 24. He had a mint julep with the club, appearing in nine games.
Latimer was one of many players who moved from Louisville to Pittsburgh before the 1900 season. Among his teammates with both the Colonels and the Pirates were Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and the colorful Rube Waddell. At one point Latimer and Waddell were roommates.
According to Latimer, he caught malaria during spring training down south, and thus only caught four games for Pittsburgh in 1900. He was sent to Syracuse and later had to go home to Cincinnati, suffering from exhaustion. In 1901, Latimer joined John McGraw‘s Baltimore Orioles (in the American League’s first year as a major league) but only saw action in one game. He was the third catcher behind Wilbert Robinson and Roger Bresnahan and couldn’t get any playing time, so he found his way to Fort Wayne of the Western Association and later on Saint Paul.
Tacks started the 1902 season in Atlanta. He played the majority of the team’s games until he fractured a finger on his right hand while catching. The team released him in August. Latimer had a contract for the full season and considered suing Manager Ed T. Peters for his salary for the remaining month. No record was found whether or not a suit was filed or a settlement was made. In any case, Latimer did make it up to the Brooklyn Superbas for one last taste of major league experience, appearing in eight games.
Latimer continued to play in the minor leagues for another eight years. He was acquired by Norwich of the Connecticut League in 1905. According to the Norwich Bulletin, he arrived with his wife and two children. According to Barbara McIlrath, a great-granddaughter-in-law of Latimer, Tacks married a Lottie May Dawson who was born in 1880 in Logan County, Ohio. The marriage date is unknown. Together, Clifford and Lottie had two daughters, Leola (Leala) Frances (?-?), the eldest, Grace Harriet (1899-1969), and one son, Dawson (1917?-?).
Latimer did some scouting toward the end of his minor league days. He also kept a scrapbook of his playing career from the beginning on forward. In it, he had a complete record of his career. It is unknown what has become of this scrapbook. The SABR Scouts Committee has confirmed that two players Latimer signed made it to the major leagues, George Suggs and Bob Vail. One unconfirmed account credits Latimer with discovering Red Faber. However, this does not fit with what is known about Faber. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has records of Latimer’s occasional correspondence with Cincinnati owner Garry Herrmann about prospective players. Around 1918, he became a full-time scout with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Later on, Latimer worked as a laundry agent. Involved in local politics, he was a candidate for the Republican nomination for sheriff in his county (most likely Clermont, but Loveland is part of three counties, Hamilton and Warren being the other two) but was defeated. At some point in either 1920 or 1921, he took a job as a policeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Xenia, Ohio. Railroad police were basically a security force for the railroad, and the position entailed such duties as guarding the depots and rolling stock as well as looking out for hoboes. In 1922, Latimer saved an excursion train from being wrecked by two men who held a grudge against the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Columbus Citizen said that he received a Carnegie Medal for this (his second, after receiving one in 1912 for saving a boy in the Shawnee River), but SABR researcher Mike Lackey has found this to be inaccurate. Latimer was nominated for the award at sometime “around 1920,” but he never received the award.
Lieutenant Charles Mackrodt, something of a blackguard, was Latimer’s superior officer with the police. Indeed, Mackrodt once burned his automobile out in the countryside, presumably to collect the insurance. He had knowledge of a department store robbery. He had threatened to kill the county coroner for having him kicked out of the local Ku Klux Klan (the Klan was rather prevalent in southern Ohio and that portion of the Midwest during this period). Finally, he had threatened to kill Latimer and even took potshots at him on a couple of occasions. Events came to a head in Xenia on November 26, 1924, the day before Thanksgiving.
Three months prior, Mackrodt had been relieved of his duties with the Pennsylvania Railroad Police when he refused a demotion from the rank of Lieutenant. Mackrodt accused Latimer of making false statements about him, which Latimer denied. That Wednesday was payday for the railroad employees, and Mackrodt showed up early downtown, waiting for Latimer. It was like a scene out of a Western. According to testimony, the two men got into an argument. Mackrodt accused Latimer of slandering him, brandished a knife at him, and said, “I’ll get you before sundown, if I have to get you in your backyard.” At this point, Latimer shot Mackrodt four times with a .38 caliber police revolver, killing him instantly. Two officers rushed out to approach Latimer, who surrendered peacefully.
Tacks claimed self-defense, but all four shots hit Mackrodt in the back. He was arraigned that day and went on trial about a month later. The trial was quite the event in the southern Ohio town. The defense introduced character witnesses such as former Cincinnati Reds hurler Long Bob Ewing who, at the time, was sheriff of Auglaize County. They also tried to claim that the killing of Mackrodt was in self-defense. But it was for naught. On New Year’s Eve, Latimer was found guilty of second-degree murder. Several days later, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus.
According to all accounts, Latimer was a model prisoner at the Ohio State Penitentiary. Warden P. E. Thomas made him a trusty within a year of his incarceration. Tacks also managed the penitentiary baseball team, which was part of the Columbus Municipal Baseball League.
It was shortly after 2 PM on November 8, 1926. Thirteen so-called “Red Shirts” of Company K, prisoners classified as too desperate for work duty, were exercising in the inner court, not far from the main entrance. A group of visitors was being escorted into the prison when the Red Shirts made a break for freedom. Brandishing concealed knives and bunk hooks and a table leg, they clubbed and stabbed a guard, Edward Callahan, in the guardhouse. Latimer was normally assigned to the main gate, but William Chatfield, a one-time Republican candidate for lieutenant-governor serving time for embezzlement, had that duty at the time of the escape attempt. Instead, Latimer was in the Board of Clemency office with Warden Thomas when Chatfield raised the alarm. Thomas gave Latimer a gun and said, “Go to it!” Soon, the guard force, Latimer, and other trusties joined battle with the Red Shirts. George “Jiggs” Loestiner, a Cleveland bank robber and cop killer, fired the first shot. He shot at Latimer, who returned fire.
Upstairs at the warden’s residence, the warden’s daughter Amanda was getting ready for a party when the pandemonium broke loose. She rushed downstairs in a black negligee, revolver in hand. Latimer shielded her on the stairway and shot at the escapees. For her part, Miss Thomas performed admirably during the crisis, fetching weapons for the guards and calling local radio stations to let them know of the escape.
Eight of the Red Shirts reached the street and carjacked a vehicle driven by Miss Eva Burnside. Another escapee, James Johnson, obtained a vehicle somehow and followed the others. Latimer boarded a vehicle driven by Leo Curtin (possibly a civilian volunteer). Together with a motorcycle patrolman, they were part of a posse that pursued the two cars. Two miles north of London, Ohio, the prisoners ditched their cars. Johnson was caught, but the others proceeded on foot into a cornfield. A regiment of guards, Columbus and London police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and volunteers were able to capture the prisoners. Although there were no fatalities, four guards and five convicts were wounded during the escape attempt.
Almost immediately, there were calls for medals and clemency for Latimer. The local papers sang praises of his heroism and disregard for his own safety when he protected the warden’s daughter. But nothing happened immediately. One mark against Tacks was the fact that he had shot Mackrodt in the back. In May of 1929, a movement led by Latimer’s old friend, Eugene Hull of Columbus, together with men in baseball and other athletic fields and Latimer’s old employer, the Pennsylvania Railroad, sought a pardon for the old catcher. However, it took a while for their efforts to be rewarded.
Meanwhile, Easter Monday of 1930 (April 21) saw the worst disaster in Ohio penal history. In the early evening a fire started when a candle ignited some oily rags left on the roof of the West Block, also known as the Big Block, of the penitentiary. The fire killed 322 inmates. Latimer helped summon outside help and assisted the guards in maintaining peace during and after the conflagration.
Finally, on Christmas Eve of 1930, Governor Myers Cooper pardoned Tacks Latimer, making him a free man. Latimer returned to Loveland, Ohio, and was reunited with his aging mother Nora. However, his wife Lottie was not there to greet him. At some point early in his incarceration, she divorced him. In 1927 she was remarried to a widower, one Harry Mouser. Mouser had a moving van business in Xenia and six young children to raise.
Little is known about Latimer’s life after prison. He may have returned to the employ of the Pennsylvania Railroad, but that is unknown.
According to The Sporting News, Tacks accepted an invitation to Cincinnati’s first Old-Timer’s Day in 1931. On December 30 of that year, he married 38-year-old Mildred Elizabeth Shawan. They had one daughter, Juanita, born in 1933.
Latimer suffered a heart attack on April 23, 1936, and died the next at his home in Loveland, Ohio. He was 56. He was buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Milford, Ohio.
The author would like to thank Dick Thompson for mentioning the Latimer story in passing in a back issue of The National Pastime. The author would also like to thank Bill James for inspiring him to give baseball a deeper look. Finally, Jerry Jackson provided information about the disbanding of the Texas League in 1898.
Information on Latimer’s baseball career:
Norwich (CT) Bulletin
The Sporting News via paperofrecord.com
Information on Latimer’s later life:
Cincinnati Enquirer (This, and all Ohio newspapers, courtesy of Mike Lackey)
Columbus Evening Dispatch
Los Angeles Times via proquest.com
New York Times via proquest.com
Ohio State Journal
The Sporting News via paperofrecord.com
Wapakoneta (Ohio) Daily Journal
Washington Post via proquest.com
John H. Gruber column (date and origin unknown) courtesy of Eric Enders
Numerous e-mails with Barbara McIlrath; former wife of Latimer’s great-grandson