Tommy Hess (Sioux City Journal, 1905)

Tom Hess

This article was written by Stephen V. Rice

Tommy Hess (Sioux City Journal, 1905)“Catchers are in demand,” declared the Fort Worth Record in 1907; they “are scarcer than snowflakes in July.”1 Catchers’ equipment was primitive, and injuries were common. Who wanted to endure abuse from fastballs and foul tips?

Tommy Hess was willing. From 1890 to 1911, he caught for minor-league teams in at least 10 U.S. states and Canada. He appeared in one major-league game with the 1892 Baltimore Orioles. In his long career, he mentored many young pitchers, including future Hall of Famers Vic Willis and Jack Chesbro. Hess caught with a graceful ease and was known “for his keen knowledge of the fine points of the game and his splendid throwing.”2

According to baseball record books, Thomas Joseph Hess was born on August 15, 1875, in Brooklyn, New York, and he was 5-foot-7 and 157 pounds. But sources disagree. In 1916 he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, with which he served during World War I. Documents in the Canadian archives provide information about him but also contradictions: A birthdate of August 11, 1876, appears in one document, though 1869 is indicated in another; and two birthplaces are noted, Brooklyn and Albany, New York. His height is listed as 5-foot-5½, and his religion Roman Catholic. It is also noted that the fingers on his right hand were deformed; this was a legacy from his years of catching.3

On his 1918 U.S. draft registration, Hess gave his birthdate as January 16, 1873, and his nearest relative as Mary Hesslin of South Brooklyn. His birth name was probably Hesslin.

His 1945 burial record at St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, New York, indicates his birthplace as Brooklyn and his birth year as 1870, and spells his name “Heslin.” The interred at this graveyard were predominantly Irish.4, citing the Dictionary of American Family Names,5 states that Heslin is an Anglicized form of the Gaelic Ó hEislin.

In 1888 Hess was mentioned in newspaper articles as a catcher for the amateur Nassau Athletic Club of Brooklyn.6 In the spring of 1890, he played professionally for Albany.7 If he was born in August 1875 or 1876, then he was only 13 or 14 years old when he became a professional. Surely, he was born earlier and was 17 to 21 years old when he turned pro.

In summary, from the available sources, it seems that Hess was born Thomas Joseph Hesslin in Brooklyn between 1869 and 1873. He was about 5-foot-6 and 157 pounds. His parents, who are unknown, were probably Irish immigrants.

On June 18, 1890, the Albany Senators defeated Cobleskill, New York, 14-4. Hess contributed three hits and scored two runs.8 On August 13 against Johnstown-Gloversville, New York, “Hess’s work behind the bat” was “careful, skillful, [and] conscientious.”9 He was a right-handed thrower with a strong arm. It is unknown whether he was a right- or left-handed batter.

In 1891, the Senators finished second in the eight-team Eastern Association. Hess appeared in 77 games and batted .259; his statistics were published under the name “Hesslin” in the Spalding Guide.10 On June 28, 1891, he “played a magnificent game behind the bat” as Albany edged Providence, 2-1.11 The New York Sun reported that among Eastern Association catchers, “none attracted so much attention as young Hess.”12 In the offseason he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles of the National League.

Hess played for the Orioles in exhibition games in the spring of 1892 and made “a favorable impression.”13 When the season began, the Orioles kept him as insurance in case catchers Wilbert Robinson or Joe Gunson were injured.14 That spring, Hess befriended teammate John McGraw, who was also Irish and about the same age as Hess.

In Washington on June 6, 1892, Benjamin Harrison became the first sitting president to attend a major-league game. That day in Baltimore, Hess made his major-league debut in the Orioles’ 23-1 rout of Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts. In the fifth inning, with the Orioles ahead 13-0, center fielder Curt Welch took ill and was removed from the game. Gunson, the catcher, went to center field, and Hess went in to catch. But his appearance was brief. In the seventh inning, after he was struck on the knee by a ball, Robinson took his place.15 Shin guards were not yet part of a catcher’s accoutrement.16

League rules required the Orioles to reduce their roster to 13 men by July 3. The club felt it could not afford to keep a third-string catcher, and it released Hess on June 14.17 He never returned to the majors.

Hess rejoined the Albany Senators and batted .214 in 61 games. In 1893 he hit much better for the Senators, achieving a .302 average in 95 games. On May 27, 1893, in a 12-inning victory over Troy, New York, he collected four hits and was applauded for his running catch of a foul fly.18

For the next two seasons, Hess played for Syracuse, New York, in the Eastern League. He hit well: .299 in 1894 and .320 in 1895. His ninth-inning double drove in the winning run against Troy on July 7, 1894.19 He swatted a single, double, and home run on August 29, 1894, in a 17-5 triumph over Erie, Pennsylvania.20

Hess was a “brilliant catcher”21 and fan favorite.22 His tireless effort was observed and appreciated. Newspapermen sat in the press box behind home plate and could “hear Hess cuss under his breath, steadily and with a soulful intensity, from the time the game started until it was finished.”23

In 1896 Hess batted .209 in 44 games for Syracuse24 and mentored pitcher Vic Willis, who two years later would win 25 games for Boston in the National League. It was an off year for Hess, and he was released by Syracuse in August. He rebounded in 1897 with Galveston in the Texas League. In the first half of a split season, he hit .321 and scored 65 runs in 69 games,25 and his fine play helped Galveston secure the second-half title.26

In 1898 and 1899, Hess played a vital role on the Richmond (Virginia) Bluebirds of the Atlantic League. The Bluebirds won the pennant in 1898 and were in first place when the league disbanded in August 1899. Hess was a valuable mentor to Richmond pitchers Jack Chesbro, Sam Leever, Tully Sparks, and Bill Donovan, all of whom went on to successful major-league careers. Hess “is a catcher who uses his head, and who helps the pitchers out of hard places,” said the Richmond Dispatch.27 And he was the team comedian, who knew how to “drive away a case of [the] blues.”28

Two thousand fans, including Virginia Governor James Hoge Tyler, attended Richmond’s home opener on May 8, 1899. Hess came to bat in the third inning and was beaned by Newark pitcher Joseph Herndon. He was struck in the temple and had to be carried to the bench, where he was attended to by a doctor.

Morris Steelman, Richmond’s backup catcher, was unavailable due to injury. So, when it was time for the Bluebirds to return to the field, the gutsy Hess donned his mitt and mask and went to his position “while the spectators roared their delight,” reported the Dispatch. “Though the blood was streaming down his face, and he wore an expression as if he had taken dope, he continued to work behind the bat, his wounds being dressed at intervals by the physician.”29 Chesbro hurled a five-hitter that day, and the Bluebirds prevailed, 7-1.

Hess had another off year in 1900. He hit .188 in 48 games for Youngstown, Ohio, in the Interstate League and was released in June.30 He returned to the Albany Senators in 1901 and batted .293 in 98 games, and the Senators won the pennant in the New York State League.31 In 1902, the Senators again won the pennant, though his batting average dipped to .230 in 85 games.32

Hess began the 1903 season with Albany but jumped his contract in May and joined the Portland Browns of the Pacific Coast League. His season, however, was cut short by an injury to his right hand.33 That fall, Chesbro, a 21-game winner for the 1903 New York Highlanders, encouraged his manager, Clark Griffith, to acquire Hess, but no deal was made.34

Over the next few seasons, Hess at times was more interested in alcohol than baseball. He missed some games and was fined and suspended.35 Though still a first-rate catcher, he was considered unreliable, and he bounced from team to team. He played for Sioux City, Iowa; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Waterloo, Iowa, in 1904; Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1905; Sioux City in 1906; and Galveston in 1907. Whenever one team gave up on him, another was willing to hire him.

Hess began the 1908 season with Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but after he refused to go with the team on a road trip, he was released.36 He finished the year at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He played for Albany and Elmira, New York, in 1909; Jackson, Michigan, in 1910; and Hamilton, Ontario, in 1911. He then called it quits after 22 years of professional baseball. It was a career of extraordinary duration for a catcher.

At Hamilton on February 11, 1916, Hess, an unmarried man in his 40s, enlisted in the 173rd Highlanders Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, part of the British Army during World War I. The Highlanders wore kilts into battle. In July 1916, he served with them at the Battle of the Somme in France and was “gassed, shell shocked and wounded severely on the right side, just above the hip, by shrapnel.”37 He was cited for bravery and discharged from service on December 14, 1916.

Hess returned to New York, and there were reports of his hospitalization in 1918 and 1923 for “nervousness due to shell shock.”38 It seems he suffered for years from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In his later years, Hess resided in Albany, and he died there on December 15, 1945. Little is known about his life after the war. A week after his death, an article appeared in an Albany newspaper that told of his lifelong friendship with John McGraw, who managed the New York Giants from 1902 to 1932: “Tommy was at the Giants’ training camps a number of times and finally wound up working at the Polo Grounds. McGraw gave him this job.”39



This story was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Rory Costello and factchecked by Terry Bohn.


Sources and, accessed February 2024.

Morris, Peter. Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2009).

Photo credit: Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, March 25, 1905: 7.



1 “Sport for Sport’s Sake” and “Sport Erratics,” Fort Worth (Texas) Record, April 27, 1907: 8.

2 “Catcher with Great Record,” Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, March 25, 1905: 7.

3 Library and Archives Canada, accessed February 2024.

4 Troy Irish Genealogy Society,, accessed February 2024.

5 Patrick Hanks, Simon Lenarčič, and with Peter McClure, Dictionary of American Family Names, 2nd Edition, New York: Oxford University Press (2022).

6 “Coming Ball Players,” New York Sun, June 25, 1888: 3; “Second Championship Game,” Brooklyn Citizen, June 28, 1888: 3; “Suffolks vs. Nassaus,” Brooklyn Times, September 4, 1888: 1.

7 “Deeds on the Diamond,” Albany (New York) Argus, May 14, 1890: 7.

8 “Albany Wins Once More,” Albany Argus, June 19, 1890: 7.

9 “Albany Downed Again,” Albany Argus, August 14, 1890: 1.

10 Henry Chadwick, ed., Spalding’s Base Ball Guide and Official League Book for 1892, Chicago: A.G. Spalding & Bros. (1891): 143, 145.

11 “The Albany Game,” Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle, June 29, 1891: 9.

12 “Baseball,” New York Sun, November 18, 1891: 4.

13 “Outdoor Sport,” Baltimore Sun, April 5, 1892: 3.

14 “Base-Ball Gossip,” Baltimore Sun, May 3, 1892: 6.

15 “Pity Poor Anson,” Baltimore Sun, June 7, 1892: 6.

16 Roger Bresnahan is credited with introducing shin guards to the major leagues in 1907. See Chapter 13 in: Peter Morris, Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee (2009).

17 “Ball-Players Dropped,” Baltimore Sun, June 15, 1892: 6.

18 “This Is More Like It,” Albany Argus, May 28, 1893: 11.

19 “Beaten at Home,” Buffalo Courier, July 8, 1894: 20.

20 “Pounded the Egyptian,” Buffalo Courier, August 30, 1894: 10.

21 “Syracuse Scintillations,” Sporting Life, October 27, 1894: 4.

22 “Star Scintillations,” Sporting Life, September 8, 1894: 9.

23 “Tommy Is Tired,” Buffalo Enquirer, March 7, 1902: 4.

24 Henry Chadwick, ed., Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide for 1897, New York: American Sports Publishing, (1897): 108.

25 Henry Chadwick, ed., Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide for 1898, New York: American Sports Publishing, (1898): 150-152. Statistics were provided for only the first half of the 1897 Texas League season.

26 “Last Game of the Season,” Galveston (Texas) News, August 16, 1897: 3. Galveston won the second-half title of the 1897 Texas League season with a 32-13 record.

27 “Gossip of the Diamond,” Richmond (Virginia) Dispatch, May 1, 1898: 14.

28 Hugh L. Cardozo, “Radiant Richmond,” Sporting Life, July 23, 1898: 17.

29 “First Game Here,” Richmond Dispatch, May 9, 1899: 5.

30 Reach’s Official Base Ball Guide for 1901, Philadelphia: A.J. Reach Co. (1901): 105; “Notes,” Mansfield (Ohio) News, June 25, 1900: 6. The Youngstown team relocated to Marion, Ohio, after Hess was released.

31 Francis C. Richter, ed., Reach’s Official American League Base Ball Guide for 1902, Philadelphia: A.J. Reach Co. (1902): 193, 195.

32 Francis C. Richter, ed., Reach’s Official American League Base Ball Guide for 1903, Philadelphia: A.J. Reach Co. (1903): 219, 221.

33 “Tommy Hess Has Left the Browns,” Oregon Journal (Portland), August 4, 1903: 6.

34 “Chesbro Wants Hess,” North Adams (Massachusetts) Transcript, September 10, 1903: 5.

35 “Tommy Hess Suspended,” Des Moines (Iowa) Register and Leader, April 26, 1904: 7; “New Catcher and Fielder,” Sioux City Journal, July 15, 1906: 11.

36 “Fanitorials,” Twin-City Sentinel (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), May 30, 1908: 7; “Around the Circuit,” Western Sentinel (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), June 5, 1908: 3.

37 “Tommy Hess Will Reside in Ilion,” Utica (New York) Herald-Dispatch, January 5, 1918: 12.

38 “Tom Hess Suffers from Shell Shock,” Syracuse (New York) Journal, February 8, 1918: 14; “Hess Is Recovering,” Minnesota Star (Minneapolis), June 14, 1923: 13.

39 Charles Young, “Sport Stadium,” Albany (New York) Knickerbocker News, December 22, 1945: 5-B.

Full Name

Thomas Joseph Hess


August 15, 1875 at Brooklyn, NY (USA)


December 15, 1945 at Albany, NY (USA)

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