May 1, 1903: Cleveland’s lengthy battle to acquire Hugh Hill ends with one at-bat in a game that slipped away

This article was written by Andrew Harner

Hugh Hill ( the transportation methods available in 1903, a trip from Cleveland, Ohio, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, would have been neither quick nor easy.

Cleveland Naps manager Bill Armour didn’t seem to care – that’s how badly he wanted to secure two-way minor-league star Hugh Hill’s services for the 1903 season.

After battling contract baiting from the Kansas City Cowboys of the American Association and some interference from Hill’s old manager, Newt Fisher, of the Southern Association’s Nashville Volunteers, Armour took matters into his own hands to make sure the player he purchased came to his team. In February Armour traveled south in an effort to persuade Hill to join the Naps on their way to New Orleans for spring conditioning in April, and it reportedly took just a few minutes of conversation to get a commitment from the standout 23-year-old pitcher and outfielder, who was initially purchased by Cleveland in November 1902.1

“When the Blues played at Nashville last April [1902], I was much impressed with this youngster and kept an eye on his record during the season,” Armour said shortly after the initial purchase was made. “… He is certainly a find.”2

“[H]e is the kind of man I want,” Armour added a few weeks later. “It does not make any difference how many men I have under contract. There is always room for a star.”3

Hill made Cleveland’s 1903 roster as a reserve outfielder, but despite the high praise, his career with the Naps was so short-lived that it didn’t even merit mention in newspaper reports – though he made plenty more headlines as battles for his rights continued until August. He had one at-bat with Cleveland, on May 1, in a 9-8 loss to St. Louis Browns that saw the Naps commit costly errors late in a game they once led by four runs.

Those errors, along with six walks over the final two innings, were the undoing for Cleveland, which had hoped to sweep the rain-shortened home-opening series against the Browns at League Park to build momentum for what was predicted to be a successful season.4

Even before Armour’s direct plea in Chattanooga, keeping Hill’s future whereabouts straight had been complicated. After the Naps purchased Hill for $500, it was discovered he had also signed a contract to play for Kansas City. On January 5, 1903, the National Association of Minor Baseball Leagues announced that Hill was released by purchase from Nashville to Cleveland. In the days prior to the announcement, Cleveland figured Hill had been lost to Kansas City.5

But that didn’t stop Kansas City president and manager Dale Gear from trying to get the player he felt he deserved. Gear sent Hill a letter in March that included a train ticket to Kansas City, as well as a letter Fisher had sent to Gear. In that letter, Fisher implied Hill couldn’t make it as a major-league player and therefore would be better off reporting to Kansas City.6 That letter only intensified Hill’s desire to find success in Cleveland, a city where his brother, Bill Hill, was a pitcher in 1899 for the Cleveland Spiders.

Hill didn’t see any action in the first five games of the campaign, but when Cleveland’s early-season pinch-hitter of choice, Jack Thoney, was pushed into the starting lineup for the sixth game, Hill became the first batter off the bench. He didn’t seize his chance, going 0-for-1 in a late-game situation when the Naps needed some offensive punch after blowing an early lead.

Against the Browns, Thoney drew his first start of the season in place of Nap Lajoie at second base. Lajoie had a lengthy offseason bout with pleurisy and didn’t want the frigid temperature to result in a flare-up. So instead of having one of the best players in the game at second, the Naps watched as Thoney “put up a decidedly erratic game and practically presented the Browns with the victory.”7

Also making his debut in the city was Cleveland starter Ed Walker,8 who was a “trifle wild” but showed “all the earmarks of making good”9 in the opening act of his quest to become the first successful left-handed pitcher for the Naps.10 Walker struck out Jesse Burkett on the first three pitches of the game, but the Browns – and his own defense – eventually spoiled his season debut.

Bobby Wallace led off the second by reaching on Thoney’s first error and moved around the bases on Barry McCormick’s walk and a groundout by Bill Friel. Wallace scored by beating Cleveland first baseman Charlie Hickman’s throw home on a grounder by Joe Sugden, and after Willie Sudhoff struck out, Burkett hit an RBI single for a 2-0 lead. The Browns extended the lead by a run in the fifth when Emmet Heidrick singled, moved to second a grounder, and scored on Wallace’s single.

The Naps got on the board in the bottom of that frame. With two outs, Harry Bemis lifted a double to deep center, and while looking to stretch his hit into a triple, he would have been an easy out had Friel not dropped the throw in. Walker then reached on a second error by Friel, allowing Bemis to score.11

In the sixth Friel singled, moved to second on Sugden’s sacrifice, and scored on Sudhoff’s single for a 4-1 advantage, but in the bottom of the inning, Sudhoff’s pitching struggles began. Cleveland scored seven runs on eight hits in the sixth and seventh innings, using “one of the greatest exhibitions of scientific hitting.”12

Jack McCarthy and Thoney opened the sixth with doubles, and Hickman and Bill Bradley followed with singles. All four scored for a 5-4 lead. In the seventh, McCarthy again opened the inning with a double, and after Hickman’s one-out single, Bradley sent a shot to left for a two-run triple. He scored on John Gochnaur’s single, and that rally and the Naps’ 8-4 lead were enough to end Sudhoff’s start after seven innings.

The St. Louis offense refused to believe the game was out of hand, and McCormick and Friel opened the eighth with walks. After Sugden filed out, Sudhoff hit into what could have been an inning-ending double play, but Thoney’s “rank muff”13 saw him drop the ball to instead leave the bases loaded. Burkett drew a walk, scoring McCormick, and Heidrick picked up the first hit of the inning to drive home Friel. Charlie Hemphill’s grounder brought Sudhoff across the plate, and Gochnaur couldn’t handle a sharp grounder from John Anderson – his error allowing Burkett to score and the Browns to tie the game.14

After the Naps came up empty offensively in the bottom of the eighth, Earl Moore was called on for the top of the ninth to try to keep the game tied. Wallace drew a leadoff walk, and Gochnaur committed his second error of the game when he couldn’t field a throw from Hickman on McCormick’s grounder.15 Friel sacrificed the runners ahead, and Sugden walked to load the bases. Moore struck out relief pitcher Red Donahue16 but couldn’t end the threat by issuing a bases-loaded walk to Burkett to bring in the decisive run.17

“Our men are slow rounding to, but when they get started they will forge to the front the way they did last year,” St. Louis manager Jimmy McAleer said after the third game of the series was postponed by rain on April 30. “All along, I have said that we finish one-two-three and I have no reason to change my belief now that we have lost a few games. Cleveland is the team that I fear the most, provided [Lajoie] rounds to.”18

St. Louis toiled in the top half of the standings in the early going, but a 5-21 stretch over late June and early July sank the Browns 11 games under .500. They never recovered on the way to a sixth-place finish with a 65-74 record.

Cleveland was facing the opposite battle. After being swept by Detroit to open the season, the Naps lost another four in a row to start the season at 2-7. They slowly chipped away at their deficit and remained in second or third for much of the final three-quarters of the season, finishing at 77-63 – though that was well behind the champion Boston Americans (91-47).19

Hill, however, had a more eventful summer than either the Naps or the Browns. He returned to Nashville after Cleveland released him on May 15, but a month later he was barred from playing for the Volunteers until it was independently determined whether he was under contract to Nashville or Kansas City.20

During the investigation, Hill played in independent leagues in Georgia and Alabama, while Nashville made attempts to sell him to the Philadelphia Phillies and agreed to the framework of a trade that would have sent him to the Washington Senators.21

Additionally, Kansas City tried to keep Hill from staying with Nashville by attempting to sell him to Birmingham, but the National Agreement required that Hill be returned to Nashville if he could not stick with Kansas City.

He ultimately played 20 games in Nashville, followed by 43 in Kansas City. Hill remained with the Cowboys in 1904, and also had a 23-game stint with the St. Louis Cardinals in his final major-league showing before heading back to the minors.



This author was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin and copy-edited by Len Levin.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, I used the,, and websites for statistics and team information.



1 “Armour Trip Successful,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 21, 1903: 6.

2 “Armour Likes Pittsburg Site,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 1, 1902: 3.

3 “Will Fight for Hill,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 21, 1902: 14.

4 The Cleveland Plain Dealer proclaimed, “The Blues will win the pennant this year” across the page when it printed the American League schedule on March 6, 1903. The Plain Dealer continued to refer to the club as the Blues as somewhat of a protest to the new name of Naps, which was chosen by fans in a contest run by the rival Cleveland Press.

5 “That Dove Has Another Chance,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 6, 1903: 8.

6 Henry P. Edwards, “Too Cold for Hard Work,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 25, 1903: 8.

7 “Blues Threw the Game Away,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 2, 1903: 6.

8 Walker made one start for Cleveland in 1902 at Detroit. He pitched in only three games in 1903, and his other two appearances came in relief.

9 “Browns Finally Won from Cleveland,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 2, 1903: 11.

10 In 1901 Pete Dowling was the sole left-handed starter for Cleveland throughout the year, but other than his no-hitter on June 30, he posted an unimpressive 11-22 record with a 3.86 ERA during his only season with the club. In 1902 none of Cleveland’s primary pitchers were southpaws. The first lefty to have an extended stay in Cleveland’s rotation was Otto Hess, who was a regular from 1904 to ’06.

11 The multi-error inning pushed Friel’s season total to eight errors in five games.

12 “Blues Threw the Game Away.”

13 “Blues Threw the Game Away.”

14 St. Louis attempted a double steal to take the lead, but Hemphill was put out at home to end the inning. He protested Silk O’Loughlin’s decision and was ejected from the game.

15 It marked the first of 21 multi-error games for Gochnaur during the 1903 season, which helped lead to an American League-record 98 errors. The all-time record of 122 errors in a season is shared by Herman Long (Kansas City Cowboys of the American Association in 1889) and Billy Shindle (Philadelphia Athletics of the Players’ League in 1890).

16 Donahue later joined the Naps, appeared in 16 games for Cleveland in 1903, and remained with the team through 1905.

17 Donahue retired Cleveland in the ninth to earn his first win of the season, picking up the decision for a second straight game. (He was on the losing end two days earlier when Cleveland won 4-1 in a game Donahue started.) It was the second series in a row that saw the Browns win the final game to avoid being swept.

18 “Storm Saved the Browns,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 1, 1903: 8.

19 The Naps finished a game and a half behind the runner-up Philadelphia Athletics (75-60). Cleveland moved into second place on August 21 and stayed there until dropping two of the final three games of the season to fall into third.

20 Kansas City submitted as evidence in the case a contract dated October 27, 1902, which was signed by Hill, as well as a letter Hill wrote that explained to Nashville that he signed with Kansas City first and intended to play for the Cowboys. “Rehearing Asked in Hill Case,” Little Rock Daily Arkansas Gazette, July 2, 1903: 6.

21 The Senators agreed to send Scoops Carey to Nashville in exchange for Hill, but the trade was disallowed by the National Board.

Additional Stats

St. Louis Browns 9
Cleveland Naps 8

League Park
Cleveland, OH


Box Score + PBP:

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1900s ·