Walter Henry Snell was a baseball player turned scientist. Following his brief six-game stint in major league baseball as a reserve catcher for the 1913 Boston Red Sox, Snell earned a Ph.D. degree in botany and went on to a distinguished career as a college professor and athletic coach at Brown University.
Snell was born on May 19, 1889, in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the first of five children of Alton and Clara (Leach) Snell. He played football, basketball, and baseball at Brockton High School, graduating in 1907. Snell then attended Phillips Andover Academy for two years, graduating in 1909, before enrolling at Brown University.
At Brown, Snell was both a scholar and an athlete. He was a Phi Beta Kappa in academics and was a catcher for four years on the varsity baseball team under coach Harry Pattee. In his senior year, Snell was captain of the team. Because of his baseball exploits at Brown, Snell received an offer to play professional baseball with the Philadelphia Athletics and was said to have received a $500 advance from Connie Mack.
On June 18, 1913, Brown awarded Snell a bachelor’s degree. Commencement Day was a bittersweet occasion for Snell, though, since Snell broke his thumb in the first inning of the traditional varsity-alumni baseball game that day. “Snell was badly injured in attempting to catch a foul tip, the ball striking the thumb on his right hand, tearing the flesh badly and causing a double dislocation,” the Providence Journal reported the next day. “It is stated that the injury will keep him out of the game the balance of the summer, and will prevent his playing with the Philadelphia Americans, to whom he was scheduled to report on July 1.”
Philadelphia sent the injured Snell to the Boston Red Sox. Because his broken thumb hadn’t healed properly, Snell was sidelined for several weeks. The thumb would remain twisted and stiff through the rest of his life. On August 1, he made his first major league appearance, as a pinch hitter in the third inning of Boston’s game with Cleveland at Fenway Park.
“Walter Snell, the Brown University captain of last year, made his major league debut, hitting for Dutch Leonard, and cracked out a single to center field,” the Boston Herald reported the next day. The first-hit-in-his-first-at-bat feat seemed to be a fond remembrance for Snell. His single off Indian pitcher Nick Cullop was recalled in newspaper profiles and also chronicled more than sixty-five years later in Snell’s obituary, embellished with an additional detail that the hit went past second baseman Napoleon Lajoie, a future Hall of Fame player.
Snell pinch-hit three more times within the next four days. In a doubleheader on August 2, Snell batted in both games but failed to make a hit. Then on August 5, he pinch-hit in the ninth inning and singled off St. Louis hurler Carl Weilman.
After his 2-for-4 exploits as a pinch hitter, Snell carried his .500 batting average for seven more weeks before he appeared in another regulation game. Snell was just one of five catchers the Red Sox used during the 1913 season. He did play a few innings at catcher for the Red Sox in an August 27 exhibition game with Syracuse of the New York State League, where he went 0-for-2 at the plate.
On September 27, Snell played catcher in a regulation game for the first time with the Red Sox, against the Philadelphia Athletics, the team he had expected to join following his graduation from Brown. Snell caught pitcher Ray Collins that day in a 5-3 Red Sox victory, while going 0-for-4 at the plate and committing one error in five chances accepted.
In Boston’s season finale on October 4, Snell caught a second game. He went 1-for-4 in the team’s 10-9 loss to the Washington Senators, in a game the Boston Post headlined “Red Sox Lose in Farcical Windup.” Washington’s star pitcher Walter Johnson played center field in the game, while Washington used eight pitchers in the game (a league record until 1949), including 43-year-old Washington manager Clark Griffith appearing in his only game that year.
In his six-game major league career, Snell compiled a .250 batting average with his 3-for-12 performance. Older editions of baseball encyclopedias inaccurately indicate a more stellar short-term performance, 3-for-8 for a .375 average, failing to include his participation in the September 27 game.
Following his three months of service with the Red Sox, Snell began graduate school studies at Brown in the fall of 1913, becoming more interested in plants as a graduate student rather than the animals he had studied for his biology degree as an undergraduate. That October, he also married Adelaide Elva Scott, who gave birth to three sons over the next eight years.
Snell continued to play some minor league baseball while studying for his master’s degree. During the summers of 1914 and 1915, he played with Toronto and Rochester of the International League and Manchester in the New England League (where he switched from catcher to first baseman). Snell then retired as an active baseball player.
After he received his master’s degree from Brown in the spring of 1915, Snell began to pursue his doctoral studies in 1916 at the University of Wisconsin. During the summers, he was a forest pathologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He completed work for his Ph.D. in 1920, including a thesis “Studies of certain fungi of economic importance in the decay of building timbers, with special reference to the factors which favor their development and dissemination.”
In 1920, Snell became a botany professor at Brown University, commencing a 39-year career in academia. During the summers, he worked in the Adirondack Mountains for the New York State Conservation Commission studying white pine blister rust.
Snell also returned to the athletic field at Brown. His coaching career lasted from 1921-1939, including stints of five years as varsity baseball coach from 1922-1926 and four years as freshman baseball coach from 1936-1939. He also was an assistant football coach from 1921-1939. He resigned his coaching duties in 1940 to devote more time to his scientific research.
“The manifold duties of his vocation and his avocation can’t spare the time that it takes on the playing fields to coach,” the Providence Journal remarked in the summer of 1939. “And yet, he’ll tell you that 35 years of dividing his day between classroom and laboratory and the playing fields has provided the spark that keeps him going.”
During World War II, Snell served as athletic director at Brown from 1943-1946, to guide Brown’s athletics during tough times when Brown’s AD had entered the military.
“Schedules, transportation, and supplies were all hard to get,” Snell remembered in an unidentified newspaper article contained in his Brown University alumni file. “One year we had six baseball bats, and we had to go around to the drugstores and hardware stores to get them. The only way we could get baseballs was through George Weiss of the Yankees, whom I know. Those were rough years.”
Snell was a thorough and precise person who had high standards for both himself and his students. Despite a gruff exterior, Snell was always willing to help students reach their potential. His perfectionism was a good trait for a scientist studying arcane subject matter to find new discoveries.
When Dr. Snell retired as a professor in 1959, he had written numerous professional papers on research in his field, published in scientific journals such as Mycologia and Phytopathology. His research delved into four areas: (1) forest tree diseases, especially white pine blister rust, (2) decay in building timbers and toxicity of creosotes to wood-destroying fungi, (3) language of mycology, and (4) taxonomy of boletes and hydnums (types of mushrooms and fungi).
Upon his retirement, the Providence Evening Bulletin on June 4 published a cartoon on its sports page depicting Snell, pipe in mouth, and his athletic contributions. “Prof. Walter Snell, one of Brown’s most beloved and famous sons is retiring,” the text of the cartoon read. Commenting on a smaller drawing of Snell next to a large pile of wooden matches, the cartoonist Frank Lanning wrote, “For a man who has spent his life protecting forests, he has burned a lot of lumber lighting that pipe.”
Snell, who had tirelessly worked six days a week, may have retired from teaching, but he never left the Brown campus. In retirement, he apologetically admitted that he only worked four days a week in the summer. The culmination of his scientific work was the publication of The Boleti of Northeastern North America, a book written with his long-time assistant Esther Dick and published in 1970. The book included four hundred of Snell’s watercolor paintings of plant specimens.
After his wife Adelaide died in 1975, Snell married Ms. Dick. He died at age 91 in Providence, Rhode Island on July 23, 1980.
Summing up Snell’s life quite succinctly in a 1983 biographical essay in the scientific publication Mycologia, David J. McLaughlin wrote, “Walter Henry Snell, or Wally as he was usually called, was an unusual combination of scientist, athlete, mycological artist and glossarist who might not have pursued a career in science except for an accident in his last undergraduate baseball game.”
Boston Post. 1913.
Brown University Library Archives, alumni biographical file.
McLaughlin, David J. “Walter Henry Snell, 1889-1980,” Mycologia, November-December 1983.
Nutter, Joe. “Snell, Veteran Brown Coach, Nearing Termination of Work in Athletics,” Providence Journal, August 1, 1939.
Providence Evening Bulletin. “Prof. Walter H. Snell, 91; Botanist, Scholar, Athlete,” July 24, 1980. [obituary]
Providence Journal. “Snell Hurt; Will Loaf This Season,” June 19, 1913.