On September 17, 1898, Bill Phyle of the National League’s Chicago Orphans became the first Native American to pitch in a major-league game, whitewashing the Washington Senators, 9-0 at Boundary Field in Washington. In so doing, Phyle also became only the second Native American to appear in a major-league game, a season after Louis Sockalexis debuted with the Cleveland Spiders.1 Unlike that of Sockalexis, Phyle’s Native American heritage was largely hidden, even well after his groundbreaking game.
Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe of Maine, was a renowned multisport athlete at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts (and briefly Notre Dame University), before joining the Spiders in 1897 to begin a three-season major-league career. Described as a full-blooded Indian when his signing was announced,2 Sockalexis’s heritage was mentioned in virtually every newspaper story about him throughout his career and beyond.
In contrast, Phyle lacked a national profile before his debut and was rarely identified as Native American during his playing days. It wasn’t until 1898, his fourth season as a professional ballplayer, that any newspaper alluded to Phyle’s heritage. Larry C. Hodgson of the Minneapolis Times did so indirectly when he called Phyle “little bronze Billy.”3 In 1906, during his return to the major leagues after a five-season absence, Phyle was first identified in the press as Sioux, a shortened version of a name first applied to the Lakota people by their rivals, the Ojibwe.4 (Modern references, such as Baseball-Almanac.com, list Phyle as a member of the Lakota people.
The limited mention of Phyle’s Native American heritage may have been the product of family preference. Each of the nine national and state census records found to include Phyle from 1880, the year of his 5th birthday, to 1950, three years before his death, identify him as “White,” rather than “Indian.” 5 It’s understandable that the Phyles might have wanted to obscure their Native American heritage, given the atrocities committed against the Lakota in the late nineteenth century (most notoriously at Wounded Knee, where approximately 300 were massacred by the US Army) 6 and the open discrimination most Native Americans faced for decades. The silence on Phyle’s Native American heritage and the fact that (retouched) newspaper photographs show a light-complexioned Phyle7 suggests that the press for several years went along with, or elected not to dispel, the notion that Phyle was White.
Phyle began his professional baseball career in Iowa in 1895 and blossomed in 1897 while playing in the Western League for Charles Comiskey’s St. Paul Saints. In 25 starts (all of them complete games), Phyle won 18 games with a 2.04 ERA. He put up a solid but less dominant 1898, going 18-15 by mid-September, according to the St. Paul Globe.8 Comiskey, who’d provided several players (mostly retreads) to NL teams from his St. Paul squad,9 persuaded the Chicago Orphans to give Phyle a try.10
When Phyle arrived, the Chicago Tribune labeled him “the best looking man on the team,” and “every inch a ball player” but added that he should be “regarded with suspicion”: Comiskey had “gold-bricked” Chicago twice before, the paper said.11 Though silent on his background, the Tribune did take note of Phyle’s skin color.
Chicago was in fifth place and trailing first-place Boston by 14½ games, with 20 games left in the season, as it opened a three-game set at Washington’s Boundary Field on September 17. In the midst of a four-city, 12-game road trip, the Orphans were no doubt happy to be facing the Senators, on their way to their first 100-loss season in franchise history. Hamstrung by a dreadful 7-24 start, the Senators were mired in 11th place in the 12-team league. Owners George and J. Earl Wagner had recently anointed third baseman Arthur Irwin the team’s fourth manager of the season, with the team winning just one of five games since he took the reins on September 14.12
Phyle, whom the Chicago Inter Ocean called a “great pitcher … recently extradited from the ‘wild and wooly West,’” became the 11th starting pitcher used in 1898 by Chicago manager Tom Burns.13 His batterymate was Art Nichols, who’d debuted the day before after being acquired from the Eastern League’s Springfield Maroons.14
Opposite Phyle for the Senators was 21-year-old “‘cannon ball’ twirler” Bill Donovan. Destined to be a multiple 25-game winner and a “big game” pitcher for the 1907-1909 pennant-winning Detroit Tigers,15 Wild Bill was just a struggling rookie in 1898: an occasional starter and frequent loser who usually hurt himself with walks. (He averaged 7.1 per nine innings.)
True to form, Donovan walked Chicago leadoff hitter Jimmy Ryan to start the game. A force-out erased Ryan but a single by Barry McCormick, followed by right fielder John Anderson’s boot of Bill Dahlen’s single, gave the Orphans a quick 2-0 lead. A groundout by Bill Everitt plated Dahlen for a third run in the inning.
Heinie Reitz welcomed Phyle to the majors with a single to lead off the Senators half of the first but was left stranded. Apparently unhappy with Donovan’s performance in the first inning, Irwin substituted right-hander Kirtley Baker in the second.16 Chicago scored twice in the inning, sparked by the daring baserunning of Nichols. The rookie, who was born on Bastille Day, July 14, in 1871, and died on the day an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, August 9, 1945, wreaked havoc in the second by singling, stealing second, and, after a splendid catch by Anderson robbed Phyle of a potential home run, stealing third as well. After Ryan walked, both he and Nichols scored on Sam Mertes’ double, which the Washington Times claimed landed in right-center field and the Chicago Tribune asserted bounced off the shortstop’s shins.17
As he’d done in the first inning, Phyle allowed Washington one hit (a double by Charlie Carr) but no runs in the second, using a side-arm motion that the Nebraska State Journal later called “quick, nervous” and “kinky.”18
Chicago added another run in the fifth inning on what would now be called a Little League home run. It began with third baseman James “Doc” Casey misplaying an infield popup hit by Dahlen, sending the Chicago cleanup hitter scampering toward second base. Casey tried to gun down Dahlen there but his throw was wild, rolling into the outfield.
As Dahlen advanced to third, center fielder Jake Gettman was unable to pick the ball up cleanly. Dahlen kept running. Gettman got the ball in to shortstop Jud Smith, but Smith’s throw home was off the mark, allowing Dahlen to score. The Chicago Tribune summed up the futility of the Senators’ efforts: “Their atrocious work and emotional throwing in trying to head off runners aroused the crowd until it settled back to jeer throughout the rest of the game.”19
Chicago tacked on its seventh run in the sixth inning, thanks again to its daring catcher. Nichols rapped out an infield single, stole second, and, according to the Washington Times, advanced to third on shortstop Smith’s mishandling of pitcher Baker’s pickoff attempt, and scored when Smith muffed Phyle’s pop fly, the eighth of Washington’s eight errors in the game.20 (The Chicago Inter Ocean reported Nichols reached third on Smith’s drop of Phyle’s popup and scored on a fly out by Ryan.) McCormick’s single, Everitt’s double, and Bill Lange’s triple in the seventh gave Chicago a commanding 9-0 lead that Phyle protected the rest of the way. A pair of singles in the eighth were all that the Senators could muster. Three fly outs in the bottom of the ninth secured the shutout for Phyle.21
The Washington Times called Phyle a young phenom “built of the proper material to make a good pitcher,” with “nerve and brains” and “all the necessary adjuncts to the art of twirling.”22 “Charles Comiskey has reason to be very proud. Burns has picked up a great pitcher,” said the Inter Ocean.23 Irwin offered even higher praise for Phyle’s batterymate, Nichols: “He is simply a marvel … the best catcher I ever saw.”24
In his next start, five days later, Phyle proved a “pudding” for the second-place Orioles, surrendering 15 runs on 19 hits in a game played in a near continuous drizzle.25 In his third and final start of the season, on a dry Chicago day, Phyle tossed a one-hit, six-inning shutout over the St. Louis Browns in the second game of a doubleheader.26 He finished his first major-league season with a sparking 0.78 ERA.
Phyle returned to the Orphans for the 1899 season, but illness, injury, and preference for attending boxing matches over practicing torpedoed his prospects.27 He resurfaced with the New York Giants in 1901 as their number-3 starter behind Christy Mathewson in his first full season, then fell back into the minor leagues. In 1903, while with the Southern Association’s Memphis Egyptians, Phyle was blacklisted for failing to substantiate his claim that the Atlanta Crackers had thrown games late that season.28 He was reinstated three years later, by which time he’d remade himself into a third baseman good enough to play 21 games there for the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 1945 Phyle’s son, William Jerome Phyle, killed a San Diego watchman during a botched robbery that netted him $1.25.29 Initially ruled insane by a jury, he was later deemed sane and sentenced to death.30 Phyle, by then in his 70s, contended that his son’s wartime experience as a paratrooper had caused him to go “haywire.”31 After William Jerome failed to secure a stay from a federal district judge in November 1951, he was executed at San Quentin Prison: yet another Lakota killed with the consent of the US government. 32
This article was fact-checked by Gary Belleville and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted David Fleitz’s SABR biography of Louis Sockalexis. The Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and statscrew.com/baseball websites also provided pertinent material.
1 “American Indian Major League Baseball Players,” baseball-almanc.com website, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/legendary/american_indian_baseball_players.shtml, accessed June 20, 2022.
2 Fort Wayne (Indiana) News, March 10, 1897: 1.
3 Larry C. Hodgson, “Diamond Campaign Is Hot …,” Minneapolis Times, April 24, 1898: 14.
4 Coincidentally, the next Native American to follow Phyle into the major leagues was a member of the Ojibwe, future Hall of Famer Charles “Chief” Bender. Lakota was known to be what Sioux called themselves long before 1906. Lakota were also sometimes referred to as Teton Sioux. “Is Billy Phyle Part Indian,” Akron Beacon Journal, March 14, 1906; “Gen. Sully’s Expedition,” Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1865: 2.
5 In the 1880 US Census (under the last name “Fyle”) and in the 1895 Minnesota State Census, every member of Joseph and Zoey Phyle’s household, including their son William, is identified as W (white), not I (Indian). This was also true for the 1905 Minnesota State Census when 30-year-old William was still living with his parents (and three adult siblings), and for US Census entries in 1920 through 1950, when William was living with his own family in Los Angeles. Phyle and his wife also appear in the 1911 Canadian Census, when he was working as a foreman in Toronto, but his listed race is illegible. 1880 US Census, Dayton Vilage [sic], Minnesota, Enumeration District 208, Supervisor’s District 208, Page 21, June 15, 1880; 1895 Minnesota State Census, St. Cloud, 4th Ward, page 55, July 9, 1895; 1905 Minnesota State Census, Minneapolis, Enumeration District 38, Ward 1, Sub-Division D, Precinct 8, Sheet 367, June 6, 1905; 1920 US Census, Los Angeles township, California, Enumeration District 446, Supervisor’s District 31, Precinct 195, Sheet 4, January 5 & 6, 1920; 1930 US Census, Los Angeles, California, Enumeration District 19-26, Supervisor’s District 16, Sheet 11A, April 9, 1930; 1940 US Census, Los Angeles, California, Enumeration District 60-104, Supervisor’s District 13, Ward 56, Sheet 2A; 1950 US Census, Los Angeles, California, Enumeration District 66-403, Sheet 19, April 21, 1950; 1911 Canadian Census, South Toronto, Ontario, Enumeration District 8, Page 9, June 7, 1911.
6 In 1890 alone there were three massacres of Lakota in South Dakota, at Buffalo Gap (several wagonloads killed), Stronghold (75 killed), and Wounded Knee.
7 See, for example “Snapshots of First Baseman Ganzel and Pitcher Phyle, Two of the New Giants,” New York Evening World, April 12, 1901: 8, and “Youngstown Star Players,” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, December 21, 1905: 11.
8 St. Paul Globe, September 13, 1898: 5. Baseball-Reference.com lists Phyle as having a 21-21 record for St. Paul in 1898.
9 The most notable youngsters sold by Comiskey to a major-league team were four-time 20-game winner Noodles Hahn (to the Cincinnati Reds) and speedy outfielder Sam Mertes (to the Philadelphia Phillies). Stephen V. Rice, Sam Mertes SABR biography, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/sam-mertes/.
10 “Two Games for Today,” Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1898: 4.
11 The Chicago Tribune is likely referring to Roger Denzer and Frank Isbell, two St. Paul pitchers purchased by the Colts/Orphans who performed below expectations. Isbell, a utility player and part-time pitcher obtained earlier in 1898, finished the year 4-7 with a 3.56 ERA and a .233 batting average (41 points below the team average) for the Orphans. After he was acquired by the then-Colts in 1897, Denzer went 2-8 with a 5.13 ERA in 12 appearances. “Two Games for Today,” 4.
12 This was Irwin’s third stint as manager for the Washington NL franchise. He first became player-manager of the 1889 Nationals in the middle of that season, then jumped to the Players’ League in 1890 to play for the Boston Reds. He spent 1891 as a player-manager of the American Association Boston Reds, and returned to the Washington Senators in 1892 and was the manager for much of the first half of the split season adopted that year. He was fired when the club started out the second half poorly. After several years with the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Giants, Irwin returned to the Senators in 1898. “Irwin Will Try Again,” Washington Evening Star, September 7, 1898: 9; Eric Frost, Arthur Irwin SABR biography, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/arthur-irwin/.
13 “Phyle Is a Wonder,” Chicago Inter Ocean, September 18, 1898: 10. The Orphans used 12 starting pitchers during the 1898 season, matching a franchise high set in 1893. Not until 1911 did Chicago use more starters in a season.
14 In his debut the day before, Nichols went 2-for-4 and drew raves from the Chicago Tribune for his handling of “wild and erratic” southpaw Walter Thornton. “The new man made a clever showing, fielding fast after high fouls, throwing freely and with good judgment.” Mertes Grows Too Bold,” Chicago Tribune, September 17, 1898: 4.
16 Newspaper reports of the game make no mention of any injury or illness for Donovan, so performance alone seems to be why he was removed after one inning of work.
17 Discrepancies also existed between newspaper accounts of Ryan’s trip around the bases. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Inter Ocean both claim Ryan stole second base after he walked, but the Washington Times makes no mention of Ryan stealing second in its play-by-play account. The Times box score shows Ryan with a stolen base, as do both Chicago newspaper box scores. “Shut Out by Orphans,” Washington Times, September 18, 1898: 8; “New Battery at Work,” Chicago Tribune, September 18, 1898: 6; “Phyle Is a Wonder,” Chicago Inter Ocean, September 18, 1898: 10.
18 The Nebraska State Journal was one of several newspapers that described Phyle’s pitching motion as identical to that of Jack Powell, a stocky right-hander with an easy side-arm motion who won 23 games in 1898 for the Cleveland Spiders. “Base Ball Gossip,” Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln), October 16, 1898: 14; “Good Work by New Men,” Chicago Tribune, September 25, 1898: 7; David Fleitz, Jack Powell SABR biography, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jack-powell-3/.
19 “New Battery at Work.”
20 The Chicago Inter Ocean tallied seven Washington errors. “Phyle Is a Wonder,” 10.
21 The score matched that of a game Chicago had lost by forfeit the day before, in Philadelphia. Umpire John Gaffney awarded the Phillies a 9-0 forfeit in the first game of their September 16 doubleheader with Chicago after Orphans acting captain Sam Mertes refused to leave the field following his ejection for arguing about a tag play at home plate. “Mertes Grows Too Bold.”
22 “Shut Out by Orphans,” 8.
23 “Phyle Is a Wonder,” 10.
24 “Manager Irwin Praises Nichols,” Chicago Tribune, September 18, 1898: 6.
25 “Slugged Mr. Phyle,” Indianapolis Journal, September 23, 1898: 6.
26 “Chicago Wins Both,” Chicago Inter Ocean, October 10, 1898: 4.
28 “Make ‘Billy’ Phyle a Baseball Outlaw,” San Francisco Examiner, October 26, 1903: 7; “Southern League Scandal,” Louisville Courier-Journal, October 3, 1903: 10.
29 “Ex-Paratrooper Held in Robbery Slaying,” Pasadena (California) Star-News, February 19, 1946: 2.
30 “Doomed Slayer Wins 10th Stay,” Oakland Tribune, January 19, 1951: 3; “William Phyle Is Finally Executed,” Santa Cruz (California) Sentinel, February 29, 1952: 1.
31 “Doomed Slayer Wins 10th Stay.”
32 Before his final request was denied, William Jerome had secured a dozen stays of his execution over a span of over six years, on the basis that he was insane at the time of the killing. “Slayer in $1.25 Killing Who Was Captured Here in ’45 Dies in San Quentin Chamber,” Escondido (California) Weekly Times-Advocate, March 7, 1952: 9.
Chicago Orphans 9
Washington Senators 0
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