This article was written by William Akin
In January 1903 twenty-eight year old George Barclay “Win” Mercer had already played nine years in the major leagues, won 131 games, just been given his first managerial job, and was enormously popular with fans and players. He seemed to have the world in the palm of his hand. Yet, less than two weeks into the new year he took his own life.
Rumors abounded at the time of his death with two versions emerging almost instantly. The Sporting News offered contradictory explanations of Mercer’s motives in its front page coverage. First, “there is no denying the fact that he had been gambling and apparently saw no way to make the deficit good.” According to this version, his losses included not only his own money but the funds of barnstorming major league players who were with him in California. Estimates of his shortfall ranged from $3,000 to $8,000. “Mercer’s friends admit he was a defaulter” the story contends. A second version had him leaving notes which contained the tour’s account records “which seemed to be straight.” (TSN, 1/17/1903) This version blamed his downfall on women, although the exact role women played was never made clear.
Mercer was born June 20, 1874 in Chester, West Virginia, an Ohio River town in the state’s Northern Panhandle northwest of Pittsburgh. Young George’s family moved often, first to Wheeling, West Virginia and then to the industrial city of East Liverpool, Ohio across the Ohio River from Chester.
As a teenager he pitched so well for the town’s pottery factory teams that he acquired the nickname “Winner.” This was quickly shortened to “Winnie” and then “Win.” The nickname became so much a part of him that by the time he reached the majors many sportswriters assumed “Win” was a diminutive of Winifred.
Mercer began playing professionally at age nineteen. Only 5’7″ and a thin 140 pounds, clean shaven in an era of facial hair, with dark tousled hair he looked even younger. In 1893 he went north to play in the New England League for Fall River, Massachusetts, and Dover, New Hampshire. He posted an eye popping 20-13 combined pitching record.
Gus Schmeltz, manager of Washington’s National League club, saw Mercer pitch in 1893 and purchased him for 1894. Young Mercer had the misfortune to join a bad ball club in Washington and he never experienced a good one. Washington finished no better than seventh in the six years Mercer pitched for them (1894-1899), and then the league contracted leaving DC without a team. He spent a year with the last place New York Giants before jumping to the new American League, but his two AL seasons also were spent with second division teams.
In Mercer’s rookie season, the little right-hander got off to a terrible start, but before the season ended he became Washington’s star pitcher. He lost his first nine decisions for the Nationals, but went on to post 17 wins. In addition he saved three games in relief to account for 44% of Washington’s victories. He posted a 3.85 ERA. He did experience the sophomore slump in 1895 when he slipped to 13-23 with a 4.42 ERA. A decent hitter, albeit with little power, he began to play some games at shortstop when he was not pitching.
Mercer’s best years as a pitcher came in 1896 and 1897 when he put together back-to-back twenty win seasons for a bad Washington team. In 1896 he won 25 games, including nine straight victories. The diminutive right-hander proved to be a workhorse, pitching over 300 innings, starting a league leading 45 games and pitching 38 complete games. The following season, 1898, he finished 21-20 while recording a 3.18 ERA.
Mercer quickly became a fan favorite. Only nineteen when he arrived in Washington, young and handsome with piercing dark eyes, and an outgoing personality fans found him easy to like. According to sportswriter Fred Lieb “Mercer was one of the most handsome players in the game” (Lieb, 51-52). Women, especially, liked him, and Mercer “loved the ladies” (Nash and Zullo, 129). The team’s owners liked to pitch Mercer on Tuesdays and Fridays, days designated as Ladies Days, because he attracted a crowd. According to Nash and Zullo a 1897 Ladies Day game ended in shambles when women rioted after Umpire Bill Carpenter ejected Mercer. As they described the incident: “an army of angry females poured out of the stands. They surrounded Carpenter, shoved him to the ground and ripped his clothing .Finally police brought the situation under control” (Nash and Zullo, 129).
His pitching effectiveness fell off sharply after 1897. Never a power pitcher, he got by on craft, nibbling at the corners and a nasty curve. He issued a lot of base on balls, even in his best years he walked more than he struck out. So he threw a lot of pitches. The years of overwork caught up with him in 1898. His record dropped to 12-18 on a team that lost 101 games. The next season he was even less effective winning only 7 games against 14 losses. With his pitching role reduced, he began to play more in the field, shortstop and outfield were his main positions in 1898. Although he had little power, his .321 average led the Nationals. In 1899 he became the regular third baseman, although he played every position except catcher. He hit .299 and led the club in runs, and drove in a career-best 35 runs.
The NL disbanded the woeful Nationals following the 1899 season and Mercer ended up with the New York Giants in the eight-team league. In 1899 his pitching improved to 13-17, 3.86, and he batted .294 as a utility player. Still, the Giants finished last.
When the new American League begin signing players for 1901, Mercer jumped at the opportunity to return to Washington. He signed with the new Washington Nationals for a $3,000 contract. As in 1900, he struggled on the mound for Washington (9-13, 4.56) but again batted .300 as a utility player. His return to the capital, however, lasted only one year.
Tom Loftus, brought in to manage the 1902 Nats, wasted little time in selling Mercer to Detroit. The new surrounding helped him. In 1902 Mercer appeared to regain the pitching skills which had left him after 1897. Used exclusively as a pitcher he had his best season since 1897. His 15 victories led Detroit. Moreover, his 3.04 ERA was the best of his career. That year he had the pleasure of pitching a one-hitter and a two-hitter against his former teammates. His four shutouts were second in the league to Addie Joss. Following the 1902 season, Detroit announced that Mercer would be its manager the next year at a salary of $3,800. A Washington Post writer believed the salary was “much more than any other club would care to pay him” (1/2/03). Detroit sportswriter B. F. Waight wrote approvingly of Mercer’s appointment “He is one of the nicest fellows alive” (TSN, 10/11/1902).
Mercer, along with old-time St. Louis Browns’ star Tip O’Neill, organized a three-month barnstorming tour of the west. Teams of American and National Leaguers played each other almost daily in cities between Chicago and Los Angeles. Once in California the teams split up with each playing exhibitions against local clubs. The Americans included Harry Davis, Monte Cross, Fielder Jones, Bobby Wallace, Addie Joss, and Mercer. The Nationals big names were Jake Beckley, Sam Crawford, Willie Keeler, Jesse Tannehill and Jack Chesbro.
The scheduled tour finished in San Francisco with the Americans and Nationals playing a three game series. The teams laid over in San Francisco for a few days of relaxation before heading back to Chicago. It was then, on January 13, 1903, that Mercer left the teams at the Langham Hotel and registered at the Occidental Hotel under the name of George Murray of Philadelphia. After penning several notes, he ran a tube from the gas jet into his mouth and asphyxiated himself.
Historians differ as much as did contemporary versions. Tom Deveaux believes Mercer lost in excess of $8,000 at the horse track (Deveaux, 7). On the other hand, Fred Lieb denied that Mercer had lost the players’ money. According to him Mercer “ascribed his rash act to women” (Lieb, 52). Deveaux does note that Mercer’s note warned “A word to friends: beware of women and a game of chance” (Deveaux, 7). Addie Joss became a close friend of Mercer’s on the trip and accompanied the body back to East Liverpool. According to Joss biographer Scott Longert, Joss received his share of the tour proceeds, a healthy $600. Had Mercer gambled away the players’ money Joss would have received nothing. Although this may exonerate Mercer from fraud, the reasons for his suicide remain a mystery. Deveaux’s comment that Mercer was “given to bouts of depression” (Deveaux, 7) seems an understatement. Mercer is buried in his hometown of East Liverpool, OH.
Akin, William E., “George Barclay Mercer,” in Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tieman and Mark Rucker (eds.), Baseball’s First Stars. Cleveland: SABR, 1996, p. 111.
Bulger, Bozeman, “Twenty-five Years in Sports,” Saturday Evening Post, 200 (April 28, 1928) 8.
Deveaux, Tom, The Washington Senators, 1901-1971. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2001.
Gruber, John H., “Old-Time Ball Players: G.C. (Winnie) Mercer,” The Sporting News (April 1914).
Lieb, Frederick G., The Detroit Tigers. New York: G.P.Putnam, 1946.
Longert, Scott, Addie Joss: King of the Pitchers/. Cleveland: SABR, 1998.
Nash, Bruce and Zullo, Allan, “Turnstile Turnoffs: The Most Undignified Ballpark Promotions,” in The Baseball Hall of Shame. New York: Pocket Books, 1985.
The Sporting News, October 11, December 20, 27, 1902; January 10,17, 24, 1903.
“Winnie Mercer A Suicide,” New York Times, January 14, 1903.