Bill Lange’s Classic Catch Re-Classified

This article was written by Art Ahrens

This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal


One of the greatest baseball tales of all time involved the famous catch by outfielder Bill Lange of the Cubs, when they were known as the Colts during the last century. It was in the mid 1890’s, according to the story, and Chicago was nursing a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the 11th at Washington. There were two out and a man on base for Washington as Kip Selbach, a dangerous hitter, stepped to the plate representing the winning run. He smashed a line fly to deep center for what looked like an extra base hit, at least. But Lange charged out from nowhere, dived, somersaulted, and crashed through the fence. Moments later, he emerged from the splinters, ball in hand, to save the game for Chicago.

It is an amazing and inspiring yarn, the kind of material that ought to be in every boys’ baseball book, to spur Little Leaguers on to their best. The only thing wrong with the story is that it never happened — at least not in the same circumstances as popular legend would have us believe.

Because a specific date is seldom given in popular versions of the story, its exact, fully-documented details were difficult to uncover. Lange played only seven seasons in the majors, 1893 through 1899. Selbach broke in with Washington in 1894 and was traded to Cincinnati after 1898, leaving a five-year overlap during which the event could have occurred precisely as told. But the Chicago papers of those years make no mention of any such incident, either with Lange and Selbach or any other combination. And something that unusual would have made headlines.

Lange was an outstanding fielder and he did make some spectacular catches and plays at Washington’s expense. One example was in Washington on June 2, 1897, when the Colts won 6-5. In the bottom of the eighth, Lange slid several feet making an outstanding catch off Zeke Wrigley. The next inning he tied the game with a bases-loaded single, after which Cap Anson drove in the winning run with another single.

On July 4, 1897, Lange made a diving catch off Selbach in the third inning in which he slid about ten feet in wet grass. The Colts won the game, 16-7, at Chicago.

Finally — and backtracking a bit — on August 27, 1895, the Colts were in Washington playing a game with the locals which went into extra innings tied at four apiece. In the 11th inning, Lange smashed one out of the park with a man on second to give the visitors a 5-4 win. Under today’s rules, Lange would have received credit for a home run, but under scoring procedures in force at that time, he was only credited with a single since the winning run was already on second base. The game was significant in that it was an 11-inning Chicago victory over Washington, won by Lange, although with his bat rather than his glove.

However, the game that comes closest to the fictionalized version probably was the one in the Nation’s Capital on August 31, 1896, which was well publicized in the local press. Chicago and Washington were tied scoreless in the bottom of the tenth. Washington had a runner on third with two gone. The next batter, Gene Demontreville, hit a low liner to left-center and Lange was on the move. The Chicago Tribune described what followed this way: “He (Lange) fell on his head and shoulders and rolled over on his back, holding the ball as high as he could reach his right hand.” The Washington Post was even more lavish in its praise of Lange’s artistry: “He stumbled and lost his balance and fell, but clung to the ball. From the grandstand it looked as if Lange covered almost half the distance spanned by the ball. The crowd arose and cheered him lustily, the players on the Washington bench joining in the applause.” Washington won, 1-0, in the 11th, when Selbach scored on Zeke Wrigley’s grounder to Fred Pfeffer.

But earlier in the tenth inning, Chicago first baseman George Decker had to be removed with a broken wrist, the result of an errant throw by Colt hurler Danny Friend. The leftfield fence of the ballpark was adjacent to a hospital. After escorting Decker to the fence, Kip Selbach grabbed a ladder and, using it for a battering ram, shattered several of the boards in the fence, Decker passed through the makeshift exit to the hospital, and two outs later Lange made his breathtaking grab. The incidence of Selbach splintering the fence lends credence to the probability that this was the day in which the elusive catch occurred. As time passed, memories might have confused Selbach smashing the fence with Lange crashing through the fence while snagging a drive off Selbach’s bat. As any policeman will tell you, ask five different “eyewitnesses” to a crime, and you are apt to get five different stories.

Combine the right elements of all these games, and you can come up with an 11-inning, 6-5 Chicago victory in which Lange went through the fence in making a catch off Selbach. Whether or not this is how the legend was created — either intentionally or otherwise — is pure extrapolation on the part of the present writer, but it is probably as good an explanation as any.

In an article written for the Chicago Daily News on January 24, 1944, Lange himself claimed that the date of the catch was July 27, 1896. Understandably, after a lapse of nearly half a century, Lange’s memory was playing tricks on him, for the Colts were nowhere near Washington that day. Instead, they were in Chicago beating the Pirates, 9-3. Nevertheless, he was only off by a month on the date (assuming he had the catch of August 31 in mind), even though it was a loss rather than a victory. Interestingly, Lange did not claim in the article to have gone through the fence, but only that he crashed against it. Teammate Clark Griffith added the part about him going through.

The legend of Lange going through the fence appears to have originated April 15, 1903 — already several years after the event — when the story showed up in a filler column of the Chicago Tribune, without giving a specific date or year. The column was unsigned, but the origin of the story is generally credited to Hugh Fullerton. It has since been widely circulated, appearing in several books.

Fullerton was a fine writer, but with a tendency to exaggerate. His anecdotal stories of the then not-too-distant past appeared frequently in the Tribune, especially during the 1906 and 1907 seasons when the stories were a Sunday feature. To say that they contained some “whoppers” is an understatement. A case in point concerned an 1899 game in which Chicago beat Louisville, 2-1. According to the Fullerton version told several years later, the Colonels had the bases loaded 1 2 times without being able to score, their lone run coming on an error by Lange. They supposedly had the bags loaded three times with no outs, and four times with one out.

In reality, the Cubs did beat Louisville, 2-1, on April 15, 1899 behind Jimmy Callahan, in the second game of the season. However, Louisville left the bases filled only three times, a far cry from 12.

Another Fullerton story involved a classic “fake out” by Chicago’s Johnny Evers against Jake Beckley of the Reds in late 1902 or 1903. It was late in the game and growing dark when Beckley knocked a grounder just beyond Evers’ reach. But Evers feigned a scoop and a throw to first base, at which point the seemingly obtuse Beckley headed for the Reds’ bench rather than run it out. By the time his teammates cued him, the ball had been retrieved and Beckley was an easy out — so the story goes. But none of the 1902 or 1903 newspaper accounts mentioned any such occurrence. Like Lange crashing through the fence, this surely would have made the morning papers. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the rookie Evers could have fooled old “Eagle Eye” Beckley with such a sandlot stunt.

Finally, an event need not have occurred in the 1890’s or 1900’s to have become quickly embellished. A “Bill Lange catch in reverse” occurred at Ebbets Field in the mid-1950’s, involving Eddie Miksis of the Cubs. Former Cub pitcher Warren Hacker, as a minor league pitching instructor of the Oakland A’s, recalled it this way in 1972:

We lost a lot of close games in those days because the Cubs weren’t scoring a lot of runs. But this one took the prize. I’m pitching one day against Brooklyn in the old Ebbets Field and we’re ahead, 2-0, in the bottom of the ninth. 

They got the bases loaded, two out. Then somebody hits this fly to right-center, and over goes Miksis, who was our center fielder. But he falls into a hole. Really, there was a manhole out there and the groundskeeper forgot to put the top on. Miksis falls right through, three runs score, and we lose, 3-2. I looked out there and thought a midget was playing center field.

This story appeared in Chicago Today of March 20, 1972, and was later reprinted in Baseball Digest.

Here is what really happened. At Brooklyn, June 27, 1956, the Dodgers came to bat in the bottom of the third when, with one out and nobody on base in a scoreless game, Rube Walker lifted a high fly to deep center. Miksis ran back through the rain-soaked warning path (the game had been twice interrupted by rain) and had to stop short by an open drainhole in front of the wall. He skidded into the drainhole cover that was leaning against the wall and had to leave the game with a bruised right thigh. In the meantime, Walker’s fly had gone over Eddie’s glove for a double. Jim Gilliam followed with a single to drive in Walker with the first run, as the Lords of Flatbush went on to a 6-2 triumph.

Hardly as colorful as the Hacker story, it it? But, then again, fiction often makes better copy than facts.

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