A tenacious, feisty catcher who played six years in the 1890s with the Chicago club of the National League, Tim Donahue appeared in 466 major league games and compiled a .236 lifetime batting average. He was an outspoken individual, having what one sportswriter termed “a tongue as nimble as a squirrel’s and as sharp as a swallow of whiskey.” Donahue died young, at the age of 32, less than one month after playing his last major league game with Washington of the American League in 1902.
Timothy Cornelius Donahue was born on June 8, 1870, in Raynham, Massachusetts, a small town just outside the city of Taunton, located about thirty miles south of Boston. Donahue was one of the youngest of 10 children of Irish immigrants Tim Donahue and Bridget Ryan, who raised their large family amid the iron foundries of Taunton. Tim had three older brothers (Patrick, John, and Philip), five older sisters (Alice, Mary, Josephine, Margaret, and Hannah), and one younger brother (Tom). People spelled the family’s surname different ways over the years, as many public documents and newspaper stories spelled the name Donahue in variations such as Donohue and Donahoe.
Donahue’s father worked in an iron foundry most of his life; his occupation listed in U.S. Census records from 1860 to 1880 was “puddler” or “works in rolling mill.” According to the 1880 Census, his five sisters all worked in a mill (even 13-year-old Hannah) while Tim and his brother Tom attended school. At this time, the Donahue family resided on Albro Avenue in the Whittenton section of Taunton. Like his older siblings, Tim probably also worked in a mill as a teenager before he embarked on a baseball career, beginning with the local Whittenton nine.
By 1891, Donahue was playing for a baseball team in the Clyde section of Warwick, Rhode Island, where he attracted the notice of the Boston club in the American Association during its series of Sunday exhibition games that summer in the Rocky Point section of Warwick (Sunday baseball was illegal in Massachusetts at the time, but tolerated at Rocky Point). Donahue made his major league debut quietly on July 29, 1891, substituting at catcher in the late innings. Donahue’s bat wasn’t quite ready for the major leagues in 1891, though, as in his seven at-bats he struck out five times without making a base hit.
After stints in the New England League at Lewiston, Maine in 1892 and Dover, New Hampshire, in 1893, Donahue caught the attention of Jimmy Manning, a Massachusetts native who was forming a Kansas City team in 1894 to play in a new minor league, the Western League. The toughness in Donahue started to show during his days at Kansas City, where he reportedly caught 137 consecutive games for Manning’s team. Cap Anson, manager of the Chicago National League team, picked up Donahue for the 1895 season as a reserve catcher to back up Malachi Kittridge.
Anson usually carried at least two catchers, because injuries often sidelined catchers in the rough-and-tumble nature of major league catching in the 1890s. Donahue caught about half of Chicago’s games in 1895 (63 games). He would have caught a greater share of games in 1896 and 1897 had he been injured less frequently. Anson even had to don a mask and play catcher several times those two years, when both Kittridge and Donahue were unable to play. The injuries on the field demonstrated some of Donahue’s tenacity.
On August 2, 1896, Donahue was spiked at home plate in the seventh inning by a Louisville runner. “Clingman tried to slide to the plate, but instead slid against Donahue’s hand, cutting his fingers to the bone with his sharp spikes,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “Donahue claimed that he had been spiked purposely, and so enraged was he it was all [umpire] Emslie and the others could do to prevent him from burying his own spikes in Clingman’s side.”
Two weeks later, on August 19, a foul ball struck the little finger of Donahue’s right hand and fractured the joint. Donahue shrugged off the injury and finished the game, but afterward, Anson sent him to a surgeon, “where it required three hours to dress the hand and set the broken bones,” presumably without the benefit of anesthesia. Although it had been reported that Donahue would be out for the remainder of the 1896 season, he was back in action on September 5. “He deserves great credit for his hard work behind the bat,” the Chicago Tribune noted of Donahue. “There is probably not another catcher in the league with ‘sand’ enough to attempt to catch with two fingers in splints.”
His tenacity could also be directed at the opponents on the field, such as the August 18, 1899, game in Baltimore when Donahue took exception to the lack of an interference call on the Orioles. “In his rage Donahue howled at the umpire, screamed, and as Brodie gibed at him the Chicago catcher grabbed a fistful of dust and threw it in Brodie’s face,” the Chicago Tribune related the episode. “As Brodie with uplifted bat menaced Donahue,” the umpire ejected Donahue, who was then accosted by “a citizen of the brand that leads mobs.” A full-scale brawl broke out on the field, as John McGraw led his Baltimore teammates in fighting the Chicago players.
Donahue was also known to take on his own teammates when he felt offended by them, such as in a 1900 spring training dispute where “the peace of the Chicago club was rudely disturbed on Tuesday by a game of fisticuffs between Donahue, the aggressor, and Wolverton. The fight may have one good result. It may cause Donahue to resign his post as critic extraordinary. The battle was the natural outcome of the little bickerings and jealousies that have hurt the club in years past.”
While Donahue was a hard-nosed catcher on the field, he was a weak hitter at bat. “Donahue and Kittridge are great backstops and their throwing to bases is of a high order, but neither is a good batter,” the Chicago Tribune wrote after the 1896 season ended. Anson often slotted Donahue last in the batting order, behind the pitcher, and several times Clark Griffith, a pitcher, pinch-hit for Donahue in the late innings of a game.
After Kittridge was sent packing to Louisville in early 1898, Donahue became the number one catcher for new Chicago manager Tom Burns, who took over for the departed Anson. Donahue caught 122 games for Chicago that season, but because he batted just .220, the newspapers suggested that he was trade material. “If the two youngsters, Chance and Nichols, prove up in trial, Donahue may be traded as he is better trading material than the others,” the Chicago Tribune remarked. “Besides, trading Donahue would relieve much of the friction in the team. ‘T.’ is antagonistic to Ryan, and Ryan is aggressively antagonistic right back at him. If one of the jarring elements were eliminated, the club would get along easier.”
Donahue had a celebrated feud with Jimmy Ryan, which began when Donahue believed Ryan cheated him on his share of the proceeds from a California barnstorming tour. “The trouble came from the fact that both men are born critics,” the Tribune noted. “Ryan has a habit of saying what he thinks, which hurts some players, especially as his thinks come extremely near the truth. Donahue has a habit of saying what he thinks he thinks. This stirs up others. … The intentions of Ryan and Donahue are good, but the sooner one is dropped the better for the team.”
Tenacity and a natural talkative nature combined to produce bluntness of speech. Donahue was honest to the bone, but his words often came out the wrong way. Donahue was a man that wore his emotions on his sleeve.
His honesty was demonstrated during a game on June 20, 1896, when Donahue was pressed into service as a substitute umpire, calling the game while Chicago was at bat while a Cleveland player did the same for the other team. “Donahue’s work was fair to the extreme of favoring Cleveland, and the only protest against him came from the Chicago side,” the Chicago Tribune reported. Donahue even had the temerity to end one of manager Anson’s at-bats via a called third strike.
But Donahue also gave honest assessments of management decisions, which didn’t endear him to Chicago owner Jim Hart. When Chicago traded shortstop Bill Dahlen for Gene DeMontreville in early 1899, Donahue, with characteristic bluntness, told the Tribune, “I am not knocking De Mont. He is a good, clever little ball player, but he does not class with Dahlen.” He then added his own view on where Chicago would finish in the standings. “The team Burns will start the year is weaker than at any time Anson had it. It looks to me like a second division club.”
Following that rant, Donahue sparred with Hart over many things during the 1899 and 1900 seasons, especially pay. Donahue, as a salary holdout, was one of the last of the Chicago players to sign a contract for the 1900 season.
In 1900, Donahue caught less than half of Chicago’s games, just 66 of its 140 contests under new manager Tom Loftus. Donahue’s understudy, Frank Chance, caught 51 games while mid-September roster addition Johnny Kling caught 15. With both Chance and Kling hitting at close to a .300 clip at bat, Donahue’s days with Chicago were numbered. Chance, as first baseman, and Kling, as catcher, both went on to be mainstays of Chicago’s string of four championship teams over the five years 1906-1910.
After the 1900 season concluded, Donahue was slated to join players from the pennant-winning Brooklyn team on a barnstorming trip to Cuba, scheduled to begin after the National League’s post-season series between Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. Donahue made a bundle gambling on the Brooklyn-Pittsburgh series, which Brooklyn won three games to one, according to an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that October. “Among the heaviest bettors during the world’s championship series was Tim Donahue of the Chicagos, who not only won heavily on the outcome of the series but also gathered in quite a sum betting on fouls.”
At the dock of the steamship Havana in New York, Donahue met the team but bowed out of the Cuba trip. “Donahue exhibited a badly swollen hand, cashed in [his ticket] and sailed away in a cab, bound for Chicago,” the Eagle reported. Perhaps there were complications in collecting his gambling winnings. In any event, Donahue arranged a series of games in Chicago in early November, where after one loss, the Chicago Tribune said, “Some feeling exists because of the defeat of Donahue’s team on last Sunday by the Unions, and there is much talk about big wagers on the outcome.
Donahue had a love for gambling, with his winnings supplementing his ballplayer salary. Newspaper accounts are spiced with Donahue comments reflecting gambling terms or statements that outright recognized his “hobby.” When some ball clubs contemplated offering bonuses to players for the team finishing high in the National League standings, the Tribune said, “Donahue thinks the Chicago club management ought to offer prizes, but says if they refuse he will win enough bets to make up for the loss.” When once asked about an odd Griffith pitching motion during a game, Donahue replied, according to the Washington Post, that the toss “looked suspiciously as if Griffith had a good trained crap hand, and the gesture showed that Griffith could differentiate as to a little Joe and a seven.”
By 1900, Donahue had a comfortable lifestyle. Chicago owner Hart was paying him $2,000 per season to catch for the ball club, with a bonus in the hundreds of dollars, during a time when the average manual laborer earned less than $500 a year. Barnstorming pay in the baseball off-season augmented his salary. He and his younger brother, Tom, also operated a saloon in downtown Chicago, on Dearborn Street near Washington, which presumably added a few coins to Donahue’s income based on his popularity as a ballplayer. Who knows how much Donahue cleared in gambling stakes? The Donahue brothers lived in a house at 164 South Green Street, which was located halfway between the West Side Grounds, where Chicago played its home games, and downtown Chicago where the saloon was located. They employed two live-in servants, according to the 1900 U.S. Census, a housekeeper named Aggie Lepoint and a porter, a black man named Willy Wilson.
The last straw for Hart no doubt was Donahue’s involvement with the Base Ball Players’ Protective Association, a union forming during the period in which the American League was ramping up as competition for the National League. A headline in the December 20, 1900, edition of the Chicago Tribune said it all: “Chicago Players Are Not Signed; Tim Donahue Says All the League Men Are Holding Off.” The heart on his sleeve was directly visible in his quoted remarks. “The National League is making a big bluff in turning down the players’ demands. They are simply doing it to test the real strength of the players’ movement, and when they find out they will be ready for a compromise,” Donahue said. “All we have to do is to stand together and refuse to sign contracts until an agreement is made. That will prove to the magnates that we mean business. The players will stand together, too. You can be sure of that.”
With Donahue a holdout for a second straight year, Hart told the Washington Post that “the club didn’t want Tim any longer anyway, that he had been trying to trade Donahue but nobody wanted him.” Hart further elaborated that Donahue’s contract for the 1900 season was for $2,200 and “that was about $1,200 more than he was worth, but we paid it just the same.” No club in the National League took on Donahue, although they acquired other less talented catchers, signaling that Donahue had been blacklisted by Hart; not even one team in the fledging American League signed Donahue.
With his gambling winnings, money from his saloon business, and perhaps some money saved from his relatively hefty player salary, Donahue embarked in 1901 on becoming a baseball owner himself. After telling the newspapers that he was in negotiations for a team in Duluth in a new minor league, he wound up with a deal as part owner of a new Western League team in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
As his farewell to the Chicago ball club, Donahue issued a manifesto that Loftus read to the team:
“Former Comrades: Ye called me knocker, and ye did well to call me such. Upon the West Side grounds I made you look like soiled deuces in a clean deck. I beat you all in batting, fielding, and base running. None of you had any edge on me. I was too good for you. I was too good to mix any longer in the low comedy of baseball. The magnates became sarcastic in their jealous rage. Boston took Kittridge and turned me down because the players were afraid I’d show them up. St. Louis took Nichols and said I was too hard to handle. They were all kidding and waiting for me to come down on my price and work for 30 cents. They all said they didn’t want me, but I fooled them. I am now a magnate. Veni, vidi, vici-that is, until Loftus came too. Anson and Burns listened to me. Loftus listened too, but got tired of hearing about his mistakes. I am a magnate. Beside me Freedman and Brush are deuces. I will win the pennant in the Western League. If not in the Western, then in the Lee County league. I am popular. When you folks are playing ball I will be an Alderman. John L. Sullivan’s name will go down with mine in history. Ireland forever. Vale!-I bid you farewell. – T. Donahue”
As the Chicago Tribune noted, “The late lamented ‘T’ got the farewells of G. Washington, Sparticus and others rather mixed but he managed to express his sentiment.”
In April 1901, though, the Western League owners reportedly turned down Donahue as a part owner of the Colorado Springs team with Bill Huler. With no other choices, Donahue went there anyway and became player-manager for the downtrodden team, which finished last in the league with a 45-73 record.
Whether as part owner or just an investor, Donahue most likely lost a fair amount of money on the Colorado Springs venture. By December he had signed to play catcher during the 1902 season for the Washington team in the American League, which was managed by Tom Loftus, his manager in Chicago during the 1900 season.
Besides the setback to his baseball career, the Colorado Springs experience probably cost him his life too. Colorado Springs, because of its alpine desert climate with dry, clean air, was a favored destination to heal tuberculosis patients. Donahue contracted Addison’s disease, which at the time was nearly always caused by exposure to tuberculosis. Addison’s disease slowly killed Donahue, before kidney failure ultimately claimed his life. When the illness became apparent during the winter of 1902, Donahue told Loftus he’d be late reporting to the Washington club due to his stopover at an Indiana health resort.
“Tim Donahue, quite unfit to play ball, reported to Manager Loftus last night,” the Washington Post reported on April 23, 1902. “He will not be played for at least two weeks. He is a sick man, although he said he was much improved by his stay at West Baden, to which place he went after his illness in Chicago.”
Donahue played just three game for Washington in the 1902 season, getting his first action on May 13 when he substituted for catcher Lew Drill in the last inning of a Washington loss. He played a full game the next day, but, said the Washington Post, “had little of his old-time snap and ginger. While his catching excited the praise of all, the excruciating torment of running to a base aroused pity for Tim Donahue. The old fellow is very far from the once dashing backstop.” Although he went 2-for-3 at bat in his final major league game on May 17, the Post opined, “Tim Donahue is in no condition to play and the easy walks to second [stolen bases] contributed largely to the result [a loss].”
Although in great pain, Donahue took a train from Washington to return to his hometown, Taunton, Massachusetts. He died there on June 12, 1902, at his family’s home at 141 Bay Street. Donahue was laid to rest on June 16, after a service at the Immaculate Conception Church attended by his many friends and family, including members of the Boston and Pittsburgh National League teams before their game that afternoon in Boston. “The funeral cortege that followed the body to the grave was one of the longest ever seen in the city,” the Taunton Gazette noted in its June 16 edition that afternoon following the funeral.
Donahue never married, so his heirs were his five sisters and his younger brother, Tom (the older brothers had all predeceased him). Tom eventually moved back to Taunton from Chicago, and lived at the home on Bay Street with unmarried sisters Josephine and Hannah, who opened up a milliner store. On the death certificate of their deceased brother, the siblings faithfully recorded his occupation as “Ball Player.”
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Betting on the Base Ball Games a Necessary Evil in Pittsburg,” October 24, 1900.
Chicago Tribune, 1895-1902.
Donahue, Bill. “Taunton’s Ancient Baseball Hero,” Taunton Gazette, September 15, 1994.
Massachusetts State Archives Vital Records.
Taunton Gazette, “Tim Donahue Dead; Famous Ball Player Passes Away,” June 13, 1902.
U.S. Census, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910.
Washington Post, 1902.