This article was written by Karl Lindholm
In the first edition of David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball (Donald J. Fine, 1997), he tells an absorbing story of Thomas J. Lynch. Nemec’s Tom Lynch was a major league ballplayer in the 1880s who went on to umpire in the big time in 1898, 1899 and 1902. He gained brief notoriety in 1890 when he was shot and almost killed in a drunken quarrel in Cohoes, New York. (Sporting Life, a widely-read national baseball weekly of the time, reported prematurely, “Ball Player Fatally Wounded in Saloon Row”.) He recovered, however, and assumed prominence in baseball as President of the National League, serving as the NL’s chief executive from 1909 to 1913. Nemec then reported that Lynch survived another 40 years before succumbing in 1955 at age 94 at his home in Cohoes.
Quite a life!
The trouble with this account is that it combines the lives of two different Thomas J. Lynches. One was an itinerant ballplayer of the 1880s and ’90s who enjoyed a brief major league career before returning to his New York home to work for the Cohoes Department of Public Works, dying just a few days short of his 95th birthday. The other was indeed a well-known umpire who later headed the National League and whose death in New Britain, Connecticut, in 1924 was attended by many of baseball’s most significant personages. Nemec’s conflation is easy to understand: for years the Hall of Fame’s file on League President Thomas J. Lynch mistakenly included the Sporting Life item on the other Thomas J. Lynch’s illfated encounter outside John Donovan’s tavern that left him with a bullet next to his heart for the rest of his life, some 65 years. (Nemec corrected the story in later editions of his book.)
Our Tom Lynch is not the dignitary. The Green Mountain Boy is the peripatetic early ballplayer, city laborer and nonagenarian and even his claim to status as a Vermonter is tenuous indeed. This Thomas James Lynch was born in Bennington, Vermont, on April 3, 1860, the son of Bartholomew and Ann Reilly Lynch, both of County Cavan, Ireland. Shortly after his birth, however, the family moved to Cohoes, and there in that town outside Albany he grew up, and there he returned when his ballplaying days were over to live out his long life. So Vermont has only the most literal claim on him.
Thomas J. Lynch, the ballplayer, was a rugged (for his time) and versatile player, wellknown for his hitting. Total Baseball lists him at 5’10 1/2″ and 170 pounds at a time when most ballplayers were from 5’4″ to 5’9″. Lynch played a number of positions on the diamond, including catcher early in his career, and later first base and outfield. An item in Sporting Life from 1886 describes him as “a good catcher and a particularly fine hitter.” Box scores show him batting in the middle of the order, in the second through fifth spots. While playing for Wilmington in 1884, Lynch was acknowledged in Sporting Life for one game in which he hit three home runs and another when he went 5for-5 with two homers. Later in his career, his good batting eye was demonstrated when he reached safely over 90 times by bases on balls in 81 games for Hartford in 1889.
Lynch was a professional ballplayer for at least ten years: on his marriage license in 1884, he listed his occupation as “base ballist.” He played in the majors with the 1884 Wilmington [Delaware] Quicksteps of the Union Association and the 1884-85 Philadelphia Quakers of the National League coincidentally the only two team nicknames in major league history to start with the letter Q. Lynch also labored throughout the country east of the Mississippi in lesser leagues in cities from Birmingham, Alabama, to Hamilton, Ontario.
Tom Lynch’s major league career encompassed some 41 games in 1884 and ’85. Prior to those seasons, he played in Wilmington in the Eastern League (1882-83) and Reading of the American Alliance (1883). Lynch returned to Wilmington in 1884 and played 55 games for that team before it joined the Union Association, the shortest-lived of all the major leagues, surviving only that one year. Like most of the “Onions” (as Union Association teams were called), the Wilmington team lost money and it disbanded in August 1884, its players drifting to other teams. Lynch joined Philadelphia of the National League, which was managed by Hall-of-Famer Harry Wright of Cincinnati Red Stockings fame, the father of professional baseball himself.
In his 29 major league games in 1884 (16 for Wilmington; 13 for Philadelphia), Lynch batted a combined .292. When considering Lynch’s batting average, it should be kept in mind that his era was a time of pitching dominance. Pitchers delivered the ball just 50 feet from home plate and generally held the upper hand. The present dimensions of 60′ 6″ from the pitching box to home plate were not established until 1893, whereupon batting averages skyrocketed.
Lynch’s experience in Wilmington in 1884 yielded more than a sterling baseball performance: it also provided him with a wife. In the off-season, on November 3, the 24-year-old Lynch married 19-year-old Mary Agnes “Minnie” Batterbury of Wilmington. The Cohoes Daily Mirror reported that Lynch and “his fair young bride” were surprised by his “schoolmates… who presented him with an elegant goldheaded cane” and his bride “with a handsome solid silver castor.” The next summer, in August 1885, a daughter, Anne Margaret, was born in Wilmington.
In the summer of 1885, Tom Lynch returned to Philadelphia but played in only 13 games, batting a meager .189. He also spent time later that season with Newark of the Eastern League and Atlanta of the Southern League. In 1886 he went back to Atlanta for the entire season, playing in 86 games, coming to the plate 340 times, and batting .279, the tenth-highest average in the league. Atlanta was as baseballcrazed as the rest of the country. In the full season Lynch played there, its fans followed the fortunes of the club on the road from the local opera house, where boys dressed in team uniforms duplicated the action of the game on a diamond on the stage: “They run the bases by telegraph, as it is being done in the game at the other end of the wire.”
Then, in 1887, Lynch played the entire season in Syracuse of the International League, a prestigious league just a notch below the two major leagues of the time. That season he played in 82 games and batted .286. His play with Syracuse made him a witness to the intense drama of early integrated ball. In 1887 the International League was in the forefront of interracial play; seven black ballplayers played alongside whites. Their play was hardly harmonious. On July 14, 1887, Cap Anson uttered his infamous imprecation, “Get that nigger off the field,” threatening a boycott if George Stovey, Newark’s ace pitcher, were allowed to take the mound. That same day the directors of the International League announced that teams would no longer be allowed to sign African-American players.
Lynch’s experience in Syracuse included some trouble that may have prefigured his difficulties outside Donovan’s Saloon a few years later. Lynch was suspended in September for “drunkenness,” a “problem” that had occasioned a fine earlier in the season. Sporting Life acknowledged that Lynch would be “badly missed at this stage of the fight as his hitting qualities are wellknown and many games have been pulled out of the fire by Tom’s good stick work.” Evidently Lynch displayed proper remorse for his indiscretions with alcohol, as Sporting Life reported a few days after the original story that “Tommy Lynch has reestablished himself in the good graces of the Syracuse management.”
In the fall of 1887, after Lynch’s successful season in Syracuse and just two years after the birth of his daughter, his marriage ended in tragedy. On November 28, his second child, George, born only six months earlier, died of consumption. On December 8, his wife, Mary Agnes, succumbed at age 22 from acute rheumatism: Lynch, then, lost a baby and his wife within two weeks of one another. Perhaps deciding that the life of a “base ballist” did not allow for the upbringing of a twoyearold daughter, Lynch left Anne Margaret in the care of his wife’s family in Delaware.
Tom Lynch later remarried and fathered seven more children, but he never had a relationship with the daughter of his first marriage. Many years after Lynch’s baseball career was over, a meeting was proposed between Lynch and Anne Margaret. Feeling that she had been abandoned by her father, she chose not to see him and they lived their whole lives unreconciled.
The summer following the deaths of his baby and wife, 1888, Lynch continued his baseball career, playing 45 games in Birmingham, Alabama (batting .331), and another 51 games for Hamilton of the International League (batting .242). In 1889-90 he maintained a solid professional standard, batting .293 in 81 games for Hartford in 1889, and, returning to the mid-Atlantic region, batting .273 in 1890 for Jersey City and Wilmington.
In the offseason of 1890, Tom Lynch’s name came before the baseball public for other than his skills on the field when he was shot and so seriously injured that Sporting Life reported his death. In Cohoes the incident became known as the “Doyle-Lynch Row” and garnered considerable attention in the Cohoes Daily News. It seems that for some years there had been bad blood between Lynch and Bert Doyle, a local millworker. Doyle reported that Lynch had “been down on me” since an altercation three years earlier.
In the early morning of October 27, 1890, after a night of drinking, Lynch and Doyle revived their quarrel. Sporting Life reported that Lynch was “a muscular fellow and able to hold his own with most anybody”; Doyle was “his inferior in size and strength.” After Doyle was struck by Lynch, he left Donovan’s Saloon to get a weapon and later returned (to recover his hat, he told police). When Lynch saw him a second time, he said, “You want more, do you?” and knocked him down again. That was when Doyle shot him.
The bullet struck Lynch so perilously close to his heart, according to the Cohoes Daily News, that the attending physician “dared not to probe for the ball.” The coroner was called from Albany and at 9 a.m. the following morning Lynch’s “antemortem statement” was taken. At the same time Sporting Life was reporting that Lynch was “not expected to live forty-eight hours,” the Cohoes newspaper was describing Lynch’s “puzzling” condition:
He apparently suffers no pain or inconvenience from the presence of a thirty-two calibre bullet in his body near the heart. He slept well last night and unless restrained by friends he would be out on the street… No effort has been made to recover the ball. Unless some unforeseen complications arise, he will undoubtedly recover.
It is said that early ballplayers were a tough lot; Lynch would seem to prove that.
Indeed, Lynch did recover. In fact a “Lynch” played ball for Troy (a neighboring city to Albany, just a few miles from Cohoes) in the Eastern League the following season. This Lynch didn’t have much of a year, however, batting safely only 32 times in 157 atbats (.203). Perhaps he was limited by the after-effects of a near fatal shooting some months before.
At that point the trail grows cold. It is fair to surmise that Tom Lynch’s injuries effectively ended his baseball career. We know that he lived out his long life in Cohoes, working for 25 years as a city laborer (according to his obituary in the Troy Times-Record). At some point in the 1890s, now in his 30s, he married Mary A. Skelly and started another family.
Thomas J. Lynch does not appear in the 1900 census in Cohoes, but does in 1910. That census indicates that he was working in the knitting mill and living with his seven children — four boys and three girls ranging in age from 17 years old to five months. The 1920 census shows Lynch, then 60, working for the city, still living with his seven children, all of whom except Ellen (age 10) had blue-collar occupations. Two Skelly brothers-in-law, a forester and a laborer, also shared the expansive Lynch home.
In the days before his death on March 28, 1955, Lynch was considered to be the oldest surviving major league ballplayer. His obituary in the Troy Times-Record acknowledged his long life and celebrated his baseball career that had him competing with the greatest players of the 19th century: “Pop” Anson, Hoss Radbourn, Only Nolan, Bill Purcell and others.
In a life that encompassed nearly a century, Tom Lynch witnessed enormous change in baseball and American life. In 1887 he was there when the color line was drawn; in his last decade, he saw that line broken by Jackie Robinson. He was born at the outset of the Civil War and lived through two world wars in the 20th century. He lived to see the distance from his birthplace in Vermont to his home and resting place in Cohoes, a significant trip by horsedrawn coach or train in his youth, reduced in the time of his maturity to a mere hour or so by automobile.
Thomas James Lynch: not a league president in the majors, but a “base ballist” who lived his life “with a ball near his heart.”
A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).
In researching this article, the author made use of the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Sporting Life, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers.