This article was written by Bill Kirwin
This article was published in SABR 50 at 50
This article was originally published in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 29 (2000).
Imagine if a young major-league pitcher, like Andy Pettitte of the Yankees, decided, for whatever reason, to become an outfielder in the year 2001. And imagine if he hit over .300 for the next five years, culminating in 2005 by winning the league batting crown. And imagine if, upon his retirement in 2010, he had accumulated more than 1,700 hits and generated a lifetime batting average of over .300 to go along with his 60-plus pitching victories. Imagine all the articles that would be written at the close of the first decade of the twenty-first century calling for Pettitte to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
There was such a player, born a century earlier than Pettitte. He collected 1,723 hits and became a lifetime .303 hitter after he won 61 games as a major-league pitcher. His name was James Bentley “Cy” Seymour, and he is perhaps the game’s greatest forgotten name. Seymour won 25 games and led the league in strikeouts in 1898; seven seasons later, in 1905, he won the National League batting crown with a .377 average. Only one player in the history of the game — Babe Ruth — has more pitching victories and more hits than Seymour. The second most versatile player to ever play the game is almost totally unknown!
Of the approximately 14,000 players1 who have made it to the major leagues since 1893, only a tiny number have enjoyed success both on the pitcher’s mound and in the batter’s box. A few well-known players, like Sam Rice, Stan Musial, and George Sisler, began their careers as pitchers but became better known as hitters. Others, like Mike Marshall and Bob Lemon, switched from the field to the mound.
Only a handful, however, enjoyed success as both hitters and pitchers. Smoky Joe Wood’s blazing fastball enabled him to win 116 games before he blew his arm out. In 1918 he switched to the outfield, and he retired with 553 hits and a respectable .283 batting average. Rube Bressler began his career in 1914 as a pitcher, compiling a 26-32 record with Philadelphia and the Reds. Then he became a full-time outfielder, principally for Cincinnati and Brooklyn. Between 1921 and 1932 he collected 1,090 hits and produced a lifetime .301 batting average. Hal Jeffcoat, on the other hand, played the first six years of his career as an outfielder with the Cubs, and the last six as a pitcher with the Cubs and the Reds. He was 39-37 in 245 games as a pitcher, and accumulated 487 hits for a lifetime batting average of .248.
Since 1893, when the pitching rubber was moved back to 60 feet, six inches, only two major leaguers have pitched in 100 games and collected 1,500 hits.2 Ruth (1914-35) stroked 2,873 hits in his career and pitched in 163 games (94-46, 2.28 ERA). Seymour (1896-1913) got 1,723 hits and pitched in 140 games (61-56, 3.76 ERA).
Seymour’s pitching career highlights include that 25-victory season with a league-leading 239 strikeouts in 1898, tops during the transition era of 1893-1900. In addition to his hitting crown in 1905, he led both leagues in hits (219) triples (21), RBIs (121), and slugging average (.559). He was second in home runs (8), one behind the leader,3 and he led the National League in doubles (40). He also led the league and the majors in total bases (325), production (988), adjusted production (175), batter runs (64.7), and runs created (153).
Cy Seymour was a pitcher in the hitting era of the 1890s, and a hitter in a pitching era of the 1900s. Maybe this is why he is forgotten.4
“Balloonist” makes good
The 24-year-old Seymour began his professional career as a pitcher for Springfield of the Eastern League in 1896. He had been playing semipro ball in Plattsburg, New York, for a reported $1,000 a month.5 (His good fortune in Plattsburg, if true, undoubtedly delayed his arrival to pro ball.) His 8-1 record for Springfield earned him a shot with the New York Giants later that year. He won two games and lost four in eleven appearances.
In 1897, he was initially labelled a “balloonist” and an “aerialist” because he was prone to getting wild and excitable.6 The New York Times cited him as “the youngster with a $10,000 arm and a $00.00 head.”7 But the left-hander gradually began to blossom as a major-league pitcher.8 The New York Herald wrote at the end of the season that “Cy is rapidly improving, occasionally he gets a slight nervous chill, but by talking to himself with words of cheer and taking good self advice he lets the wobble pass away.”9
Seymour’s pitching featured a fast ball, a sharp-breaking curve, a screwball, and a wildness (he led the league in walks from 1897 through 1899) that must have induced a certain amount of terror into the 530 league batters that he struck out over the same period. Veteran catcher Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson said he had never seen anyone pitch like Cy, who would first throw near the batters’ eyes and then near their toes, causing them “to not know whether their head or feet were in most danger”10
He compiled an 18-14 record with a 3 .3 7 ERA for the third-place Giants (83-48, 9.5 games behind Boston).11 He led the league in strikeouts per game (4.83) and fewest hits allowed per game (8.23), and he struck out 149 batters, second only to Washington’s James “Doc” McJames (156). Batters hit only .242 against him — best in the league. This helped to offset his league-leading 164 walks.
Seymour’s 1897 record indicates that he was becoming a peer of teammate and future Hall of Fame member Amos Rusie. Of the 21 pitching categories listing the top five performers in Total Baseball, he ranks first in four and second in another. Rusie is first in one category (ERA, 2.54), second in nine, third in one and fourth in one. Future Hall of Farner Kid Nichols of Boston clearly led the league, being first in 10 categories and in the top five in all but three.12
In 1898 Seymour improved his record to 25-19, dropping his ERA to 3.18 for the disgruntled seventhplace Giants.13 He led the league in strikeouts with a total of 239, 61 ahead of McJames. He again led the league in strikeouts per game (6.03). He also began to take the field when he wasn’t pitching, primarily as an outfielder. As with Ruth 22 years later, the reason had little to do with managerial insight and more with a combination of injuries and the batting ineptitude of the Giants outfielders.14
Seymour hit .276 in 297 plate appearances, giving rise to speculation that he might be converted to a full-time outfielder despite the admonition by Wm. F. H. Koelsch in Sporting Life: “The suggestion that Seymour be placed in the outfield permanently is more than a rank proposition. As long as Seymour has the speed he has now he is more valuable on the slab than anywhere else.”15 Indeed, the Giants’ management was faced with a dilemma. His 45 pitching appearances and his 356 1/3 innings were vital. Yet the Giants were an anemic hitting squad that was being carried by the pitching of Rusie (who was also a good hitter) and Seymour.
Seymour’s 25 wins in 1898 were nearly one-third of the New York team’s total. He threw four shutouts (Nichols had five), two one-hitters, one three-hitter, four four-hitters, and six five-hitters. 16 Compare this with another 25-game winner in 1898. Cy Young threw one shutout, two three-hitters, and one fivehitter.17 Some felt that he had supplanted Rusie as the ace of the Giants’ pitching staff. The New York press said he had the best curve in the league, that “he could win with only five men behind him,” and that he had as much speed as Rusie ever had.18 He led the team in innings pitched, starts (43), and wins.19 Naturally, he felt he could look forward to a handsome new contract for 1899. But Andrew Freedman stood in his way.
Freedman, a New York City subway financier and Tammany Hall politician, purchased the controlling interest in the Giants in 1895 for $54,000. He quickly antagonized just about everyone in baseball when he attempted to run the team as if it were part of Tammany Hall. He banned sportswriters who were critical of the Giants from the Polo Grounds. When those same reporters purchased a ticket, Freedman had them removed from the park.20 Freedman regarded his team as a plaything and firmly believed that uppity players must always be put in their place.
In 1897 Rusie held out for the entire season rather than accept a $200 deduction in his 1896 salary for allegedly not giving his best in the concluding games of the season. He agreed to sign for 1898 only after a group of owners got together and paid his legal and “other” costs. Such actions, coupled with a losing team, engendered universal hostility from the world of baseball toward the Giants owner.21
Freedman saw no reason to reward either Seymour (25-19, 3.18 ERA) or Rusie (20-11, 3.03 ERA) for their 1898 performances. Rusie choose to retire.22 Seymour held out for the first month of the season before signing for a $500 raise to $2,000 on May 11.23 Playing for a dispirited Giants team that was to win only 60 of 150 games, he was able to compile a 14-18 record with an ERA of 3.56. He finished second in the strikeout race with 142, three behind Noodles Hahn of Cincinnati. He led the league in strikeouts per game (4.76).
How good a pitcher?
His pitching career was, for all practical purposes, over. He made only 13 pitching appearances in 1900. Historian and SABR member David Q. Voigt has written that “Seymour was converted to an outfielder because of his penchant for free passes.”24 It is true that Seymour walked 655 batters and fanned 584 in his career, a deplorable ratio by today’s standards. But it wasn’t so bad in Cy’s day. Rusie, for instance, struck out 1,934 batters in his career and walked 1,704. Doc McJames, who nipped Seymour for the strikeout crown in 1897 and finished a distant second to Cy in 1898, walked 563 and struck out 593 in his six years in the majors. Even the premier pitcher of the day, Kid Nichols, walked 854 and struck out 1,062 between 1892 and 1900.25
At the same time, Seymour held opposing batters to 67 points below the league average. Seymour’s wildness was partially compensated by his superb ability to strike out batters and severely limit their hitting. It is likely that overwork, not wildness, ended his pitching career. He was, for three seasons, a member of that elite fraternity of outstanding pitchers.
Why, then, is his record unappreciated? Context. On the one hand, the lack of a foul strike rule kept league-leading strikeout totals lower than we are used to. On the other, walks weren’t as damaging in an era when teams played for a single run as they are in our power-oriented time. A Sporting Life report of a 6-2, four-hit victory serves as an example of how Cy’s wildness may have been used for positive results when it stated: “Seymour was wild at times, [but] was effective at critical moments.”26 Hall of Famer Elmer Flick maintained that the best pitcher he ever batted against, when he was right, was Seymour, who “was practically unhittable. Cy had a wonderful control of his curve ball.”27
All players are subject to the limitations of the conventional wisdom of their particular era. An excellent relief pitcher today, for example, would have been nobody in particular 60 years ago.
Leaving the mound
Cincinnati pitcher Ted Breitenstein warned Seymour not to continue using the indrop ball (screwball) because it would leave his arm “as dead as one of those mummies in the Art Museum.”28 Perhaps he injured his arm in spring training, 1900. At any rate, he found himself playing center field for the “second team” in an intra-squad contest a few days before the regular campaign began. 29
Two days before the opener, the New York Times indicated that “Manager Ewing will give particular attention to Seymour”30 to decide if he would start it, since Rusie had failed to report.31 However, Cy did not get his first start until the eighth day of the season, when he was shelled. He was lifted in the second inning after he gave up four runs, signaling that something was indeed wrong.
He started again in Chicago in the middle of May, but he couldn’t find the plate and was shifted to center field after giving up ten runs· in six innings. He collected two singles in the 10-8 loss. He started the next game, in St. Louis, in left field. He again hit safely twice, but also made two errors in a 13-5 defeat.32 He then disappeared from the lineup except for a couple of mop-up appearances in which he was hit hard.33 He won his first game of the season in early June, a 10-3 victory over St. Louis. Ironically, it was announced that very day that he was to be farmed out to Worcester, and that Chicago’s Dick Cogan had been secured in a trade. Then, mysteriously, the Times reports that “Si [a frequent spelling in the press of the time] Seymour put in his appearance again at the Polo Grounds yesterday having been refused by the Worcester management as unfit. It is likely some deal will be fixed up for his retrading [sic] with Chicago.”34
He ended up in Chicago, playing briefly with Charlie Comiskey’s then minor-league AL entry. Suggestions were made that perhaps he would devote his time to playing the outfield, although one newspaper report blames “his prancing about in the gardens”(the outfield) as the primary reason for his lost pitching ability.35 He even had time to pitch for the Scoharie Athletic Club against the Cuban X Giants on August 24.36
By the end of the season, Seymour was still on the Giants’ reserve list as a pitcher, although Freedman was suspicious of his “habits” and demanded that manager Ewing discover exactly “what he is doing.37 If there is not a change in him, and it is due to his habits, he will be laid off.”38
This would not be the only time that Seymour’s “habits” would be noted. There is little doubt that he was a drinker. We have at least one report of him being removed from a game because he was inebriated. It is known that he suffered from severe headaches.39 Occasional reports of bizarre behavior find their way into the sporting pages, like the time he was mysteriously sent home from spring training in 1906 because it was simultaneously reported that, (a) he had a bad cold, (b) he needed to rest his tired muscles because the southern climate did not agree with him, and (c) he needed to attend his ill wife. Or the time he was coaching third base for the Orioles and tackled a runner who ran through his stop sign.
To McGraw and the bat
By 1901 Seymour was no longer a pitcher, but had jumped to John McGraw’s American League Baltimore Orioles to play right field. In two days in 1898 Seymour had started for the Giants and pitched three games against McGraw’s old National League Orioles. He lost the first game in the Polo Grounds and the first game of a doubleheader the next day in Baltimore, both 2-1. He finally beat the Orioles in the second game, 6-2. McGraw, years later, said that no player, not even Joe McGinnity, deserved the title “Iron Man” more than Cy Seymour.40 Perhaps it was this determination that convinced McGraw that Cy could be made into a good fielder.
The first seasons of the new century saw Seymour emerge as a star, batting .303 with the Orioles in 1901 and then, following the infamous breakup of the Baltimore team in 1902, going to Cincinnati, where he became the regular center fielder and hit .340 in 62 games. In the following years for the Reds, he hit .342, and .313, before leading the league with .377 in 1905.
He had to beat out the great Honus Wagner for the batting title, and the two met in a season-ending doubleheader. A newspaper account of the time sounds not unlike modern stories about Sosa and McGwire: “10,000 were more interested in the batting achievements of Wagner and Seymour than the games … cheer upon cheers greeted the mighty batsmen upon each appearance at the plate and mighty cheering greeted the sound of bat upon ball as mighty Cy drove out hit after hit. The boss slugger got 4 for 7 while Wagner could only get 2 for 7,”41 allowing Cy to win the crown by .013 points.
He also led the league in hits, doubles, triples, total bases, RBIs, slugging average, and what we would now call Production, Batter Runs, and Runs Created. He was also a close second in home runs, runs produced, and on-base percentage. This was a benchmark season. His average was the best in the National League, 1901-1919. (In the American League only Lajoie and Cobb topped it.)42 His slugging average of .559 was the best until Heinie Zimmerman’s .571 in 1913. His 121 RBIs weren’t exceeded again until Sherry Magee drove in 123 in 1910. His 40 doubles were the most hit by a National League outfielder until Pat Duncan collected 44 in 1922.
The first decade of the twentieth century brought the simultaneous development of “scientific baseball”43 and deadball baseball. The hit-and-run play was the hallmark of the era. A standard practice of the day was for batters to move to the front of the batter’s box in an attempt to slap the ball before it began to curve. Seymour eschewed this common practice, staying back in the box44 and waving his bat around,45 stating that it allowed him to “get that much more time to be sure which infielder is going to cover second base. A large portion of my base hits were made in this way.”46 He also used a wide variety of bats, depending on the pitcher. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he used a light bat when facing a location pitcher and a heavier one when he was up against a fireballer.47
Ned Hanlon, the Brooklyn manager, seemed to sense Cy’s unorthodox approach, and said, “I look upon Seymour as the greatest straight ball player of the age, by that I mean he is absolutely all right if you let him play the game in his own way. But if you try to mix up any science on him you are likely to injure his effectiveness.”48
In 1906, the New York World listed Cy, along with 10 other notables, such as Christy Mathewson, Ed Walsh, Wagner, Nap Lajoie, and Roger Bresnahan as the best in baseball.49 Even in 1909, when he became a part-time player, his .311 average left him atop all the reserve players in the league. Take a look at this comparison of offensive figures taken 1901-1908. Seymour is the only non-Hall of Famer listed.50
From 1901 through 1908 (excluding 1902),51 Seymour consistently ranked among the league’s best offensive players. In 20 categories, he ranked no less than fifth 41 times of a possible 140 (29 percent).52 Wagner dominated with 111 of the possible 140 (79 percent). Flick was 62 of 140 (44 percent).53 In contrast, future Hall of Fame third baseman Jimmy Collins was to make the leader category only 19 times (13.5 percent).54
Cy Seymour wasn’t Babe Ruth, but some comparisons are interesting.
- Each led his league in holding opponents to lowest batting average: Seymour 1897, .242; Ruth 1916, .201.
- Seymour won 25 games in 1898; Ruth won 24 in 1917 and 23 in 1916.
- Each had an 18-game-winning season: Seymour 1897; Ruth 1915.
- Seymour led league in strikeouts (1898); Ruth never did.
- Seymour led league in giving up walks three times; Ruth never did.
- Ruth placed within top five places of league-leading pitcher categories 25 times 1915-17; Seymour placed 10 times from 1897-99. (Twelve major-league teams, 1897-99; twenty-four, 1915; sixteen, 1916-17.)
- Each won one batting championship: Seymour 1905, .377; Ruth 1924, .378.
- Triple Crown eluded both by the slimmest of margins: Seymour in 1905 was one shy of home run title; Ruth in 1924 was second in RBIs, eight behind Goose Goslin, and in 1926 was .006 behind Heine Manush for the batting title.
- Seymour stole 222 bases; Ruth 123.
- Ruth led league in RBIs six times; Seymour once.
- Ruth led league in home runs 12 times, but never led league in doubles, triples, or hits; Seymour never led league in HRs but led once each in doubles, triples, and hits.
- Fielding Runs rating: Seymour +81; Ruth +5.
The end of the line
John McGraw is generally credited with the hiring of baseball’s first full-time coach, Arlie Latham. A longtime friend and former Oriole teammate of McGraw, Latham owed his good fortune indirectly at least to Seymour, and, conversely, Arlie was to impact Cy’s career.
In the days prior to the hiring of a full-time coach, players took to the coach’s box. Seymour was coaching one day when Harry McCormick attempted to stretch a triple into a home run and ran through Cy’s hold-up sign. This is when Cy tackled his own teammate. The surprised McCormick scrambled to his feet and was still able to score. When McGraw confronted Seymour about his bizarre behavior, Cy offered a feeble excuse about the sun being in his eyes. From that moment on, according to Christy Mathewson, McGraw realized the need for a full-time coach.55
Latham was, in the opinion of Fred Snodgrass, “probably the worst third-base coach who ever lived,”56 and seemed to ingratiate himself with McGraw with a variety of practical jokes apparently designed in the now time-honored belief that such measures keep a bench loose. During spring training in 1909, Cy took exception to a Latham prank and beat him up, causing McGraw to suspend Seymour from the team for eight weeks.57
In his first game back, Seymour received a career-altering injury in the first inning. Chasing a long fly ball, he collided heavily with his right-field teammate, Red Murray, and lay motionless for five minutes. He appeared to have recovered, and he resumed his position in center field. He caught a fly off the bat of the next Boston batter, but when he tried to throw the ball home (there was a runner on third) he collapsed. He had to be carried off the field.58 The injury to his leg, according to Mathewson, curtailed his effectiveness for the remainder of his career.59 Exactly two months after the injury he was able to play a few innings in left field in a game in Brooklyn,60 but speedy Cy (he averaged 20 steals per year) was never the same player after the accident.
Aside from the daily newspaper accounts and the sporting trade papers, little has been written about Seymour. 61 A brief survey of the literature reveals that he was, according to Christy Mathewson, one of the best “batsmen” ever. Alas, he was also a wild pitcher, and there is a dubious claim that he was a poor fielder. This is largely the result of his losing a fly in the sun during the one-game playoff between the Giants and the Cubs in 1908. The misplay allowed three runners to score.
The myth was that Mathewson, just prior to pitching to Joe Tinker, had turned and motioned Seymour to play deeper62 and that Seymour refused to move. Mathewson always denied this, saying that Cy “knew the Chicago batters as well as I did and how to play them”63 Mathewson also admitted that day that he “never had less on the ball in my life,” and that Cy would have caught the fly 49 times out of 50.64 In the clubhouse after the game Cy said to Matty: “I misjudged the ball. I’ll take the blame for it.” And abuse he took; sportswriters looking for an easy story took full advantage of his supposed refusal to take direction from the demigod Mathewson.
Seymour certainly was not a good fielding pitcher, committing 104 of his lifetime 252 errors on the mound. Yet it is hard to believe that John McGraw, his manager both in Baltimore and New York, would have put him in center field if he felt Seymour was a liability. In fact, in 1904 Sporting Life claimed that he “is as speedy and graceful as ever in centre field and covers a world of ground out there more than any other centre fielder in the National League.”65 Frank Selee, the Chicago manager called Seymour “a marvel and a pleasure to watch,” and was amazed at his range and ability to backpedal.66 In 1907 he made a spectacular diving barehanded catch that was widely reported to have been the best ever seen in New York City.
A comparison to some of his contemporaries indicates that he was a better than average center fielder. His Total Baseball Fielding Runs is +58. Compare that to Cobb’s +55, Tommy Leach’s +53, and Fred Clarke’s +61. Then compare it to Elmer Flick’s +24, “Circus”67 Solly Hofman’s +28, Dummy Hoy’s +3, and Socks Seybold’s + 1, not to mention Ginger Beaumont’s -26 or Mike Donlin’s -31.
Of all the regular center fielders68 playing in the National League in 1907 and 1908 only one, Roy Thomas, had a better lifetime rating, +71, than Seymour. Making an error at an inopportune time seems to have established Seymour as a poor fielder despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, a condition that Bill Buckner (+121) would undoubtedly understand.
Many have attempted the impossible task of compiling lists of the best players ever. Some are the all-time versions which are usually laden with recent performers; others attempt to categorize them according to specific eras. Almost no one mentions Seymour. David Voigt does include Seymour along with Turkey Mike Donlin and Buck Freeman as players passed over for Hall of Fame consideration in the 1895-1900 era.
During that particular era he was primarily a pitcher and for three of those years he ranked among the best in baseball. Yet he had the dubious privilege of pitching in an era when league batters were hitting at a rate of .282 (1897-99).
Then, in turn, he batted in the Deadball Era (1900-1908) when batters for the entire National League averaged but .256. His peak batting career average was .054 above his league’s average for the 1901-08 period, almost identical to that of Crawford (.052) and Flick (.058) His league leading .377 was .122 above the National League average in 1905. This differential would not be topped in the National League until Rogers Hornsby’s stupendous mark of .424 in 1924 (.151 above league average).
It is difficult to assess Seymour’s personality from the snippets of data available. Veteran catcher Duke Farrell relates an explosive emotional experience when Cy first started to pitch for the Giants. In Chicago the rookie pitcher was sailing along effectively until the eighth inning when he suddenly became very wild. He gave up nine runs and in the parlance of the day “ascended into the air.” His cheeks turned red, he threw his hat off after a bad pitch, then threw his glove away after another. “Finally,” Farrell states, “Cy was worked up to such a state that after making a pitch he would run to the plate and grab the ball out of my hands, hustle back and without waiting for my sign shoot it back … Nine Chicago runners crossed the plate [before the inning was over] … Seymour subsequently had many aerial flights, but nothing like his Chicago performance.”69
He was not only excitable and high strung, he dressed differently than his teammates and apparently was aloof. All characteristics that would give some fans, sportswriters, and ballplayers the chance to jeer him at the first opportunity.
There is one well-reported incident of him being removed from a game because he was inebriated. A follow-up report suggested, however, that the incident was isolated and that he then played like “a whirlwind.”70 Another said: “J. Bentley Seymour by his good batting is more than making amends to the Reds management for his one jag.”71 In another incident the Cincinnati Post complained to the Reds owner, August Herrmann, that Seymour threatened a photographer from the Post.72 Reports by Mrs. McGraw and Hans Lobert73 indicate that Seymour was a hard-playing, hard-drinking player. One might therefore surmise he was subjected to alcoholic binges and leave it at that.
On the other hand, I think that he saw himself as different. In a world that was determined to be right-handed he was very much left-handed. Conventional wisdom of the day often forced left-handed school children to write with their right hands. Similarly baseball, at the time, could not see left-handed pitchers to be equal to right-handed ones. He was unorthodox; his pitching and his hitting were contrary to the norms of the day.
Seymour seemed sensitive about his name, and came in for a good deal of chiding because he insisted that he was related to the Duke of Somerset.74 He apparently insisted upon being called J. Bentley or James Bentley rather than the nickname Cy (for Cyclone) that New York sportswriters gave him. He had at least three publicized altercations during his career — an offseason brawl with the ballplaying brothers Jesse and Lee Tannehill,75 the Latham affair, and a punch-up with Cincinnati pitcher teammate Henry Thielman during an exhibition game in Indianapolis. Thielman, according to the report, “kidded” Seymour about his name.76
On the other hand, he was apparently the person who applied the nickname “Tillie” to Arthur Shafer. Mrs. McGraw reports that in 1909, when her husband introduced the shy, good looking and young Shafer to the Giants in the Polo Grounds clubhouse, “Big Cy Seymour, an Oriole in word and deed, responded first with ‘We’re all damned glad to meet you Tillie!’ Then came the chorus! ‘Yes sir Tillie, glad to see you. Yes sir Tillie, glad to see you. Make yourself home, Tillie! Good Luck, Tillie … Save Your Money Tillie … Get the last bounce Tillie”‘77 Another report of the same incident has Seymour rushing over to Shafer and planting a kiss on Shafer’s cheeks saying “Tillie, how are you?” Shafer hated the nickname, but it stuck with him. 78
Perhaps this incident, coupled with the Latham episode, paved the way for Seymour’s departure to obscurity,79 and may be one of the reasons that John McGraw never mentions Seymour in his book My Thirty Years in Baseball.
Yet while Seymour was playing for Baltimore of the Eastern League in 1911, an opponent, former major leaguer Bobby Vaughn, said that he still had the best batting eye of anyone in baseball. Certainly an exaggeration, but the 39-year-old did hit .296 that year, and one is left to speculate that McGraw and others may have chosen not to employ Cy because of his peculiar personality traits. Vaughn lavishly praised Cy, but then curiously adds: “Many think him a shirker but he is not … Seymour is a conscientious ball player whatever else may be said.”80
He was also plagued by headaches. In the winter of 1904-05 he sought nasal surgery in an effort to solve his problem.81 Migraines? Occasionally he would exhibit strange behavior, like the morning that he decided to take on a lion at the Zoo. Mental illness? Some reports later said he was drunk, which was probably so, but he would not have been the first person to use alcohol as a cover-up of other problems.
On the other hand, there are reports that Seymour was “as straight and clean as the Bank of England,”82 and unlike some other players, he never took advantage of owner Garry Hermann’s generosity. Hermann attended Seymour’s wedding,83 added $100 a month to Cy’s $2,800 contract when he arrived from Baltimore, and arranged an offseason “job” which according to a newspaper report required him to do little more than walk the streets clad “in swell clothes.”
Cy certainly seemed the dandy. Sprinkled throughout the Seymour scrapbooks that reside in the Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown are accounts and pictures, some of them mocking, about Cy’s sartorial splendor. Like many athletes, then and today, he often seemed to take himself too seriously. Be it his dress, or his insistence that he be referred to as J. Bentley84 rather than Cy, or his reluctance to be photographed, he seemed very much the prima donna.
The 1906 sale of Seymour from the Reds to the Giants for $10,000 was one of the largest in baseball history.85 After playing but one game for the Giants in which he made a sensational catch — he demanded that he receive a portion of the $10,000 that he insisted Garry Herrmann, the Reds owner, had promised him if the sale was completed. Herrmann denied that a promise had been made. Cy threatened to go on strike. John McGraw was able to convince Seymour to reconsider, and Organized Baseball may have avoided a precedent similar to professional soccer, in which a player transferred from one club to another receives a percentage of the transfer fee.86
Seymour was not devoid of humor. Upon his first return to Cincinnati in a Giants uniform after the trade, he wore bright red false whiskers as a disguise that allowed him to receive front page headlines in the Cincinnati Post. Descending from the team carriage the bewhiskered Cy announced to the multitude “Cy Seymour I am pained to relate, ladies and gentlemen, is not coming to the park today. He is afraid that the Cincinnati fans will lynch him.” When he grounded out his first time at bat he was jeered and cheered by the local fans.87
Typical of aging stars of the day, Cy played minor-league ball in 1911 and 1912, for Baltimore and Newark. A newspaper report of his release in Baltimore stated that “although he played good ball his habits were such that it was decided that he would no longer play on the team.”88 Apparently able to correct himself, he was to make it, briefly and unsuccessfully, back to the majors with the Boston Braves in 1913.
The only remaining correspondence89 written by Seymour are two job enquiries made to Herrmann regarding managerial positions in 1913 or thereabouts. A letter written on November 28, 1913, gives some insight into the character of the man. He saw himself as a loner, but capable of making managerial decisions without being influenced by the press or hangers-on.
His letter also suggests that he may have been regarded as an odd character, because he told Hermann: “I may seem funny to you the way you know me. I am different on the inside than on the out & I know if I had half a chance I will make good. I am not much of a talker & [don’t] go around talking about myself.”90 On the other hand, his letter suggests that Herrmann be wary of baseball writers’ opinions, and is bold enough to say: “I am going to give you a tip now and always remember it. It takes [two] to run a ball club. The manager and yourself.”91 What Herrmann thought of the tip we cannot be certain, except that Cy did not get the job and found himself, at age 41, effectively out of Organized Baseball.
Seymour apparently contracted tuberculosis while working in the shipyards of New York during the First World War. He died in New York City on September 20, 1919. His death was overshadowed by the talk of the World Series involving Cincinnati and the now-infamous Black Sox. One obituary claimed that he worked on the docks because he was unfit for military service.92 Yet he was able to play 13 games for Newark in the International League during the 1918 season, when he was 46 years old. It might be assumed that he was an alcoholic; he was also rumored to have been penniless.93
Sporting Life said of Seymour “that he was one of the most brilliant though erratic pitchers the game ever produced. “94 Christy Mathewson said that he “was a mighty batsman … one of the best ever.”95 John McGraw thought he deserved the title of “lronman.” Former slick-fielding second baseman turned sportswriter Sam Crane wrote in the New York Journal that Seymour “proved himself to be one of the best outfielders in every department” and that Cy “put to rest the notion that pitchers could not hit well.”96 Now he is all but forgotten — the victim of being a pitcher in a hitters’ era and a hitter in the Deadball Era.
His burial was a simple one: his boyhood chums acted as pallbearers, and although a large throng attended the service, no one from Organized Baseball did.97 A search of the rural cemetery in his home town of Albany, New York, serves as a final irony. He is buried in the family plot, but no stone marks the accomplishments of the second most versatile player that the game has ever known.98
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:
Demaree, Al. “Tough Customers,” Collier’s, May 14, 1927.
Hertzel, Bob. “Baseball’s Hall of Blunders,” Baseball Digest, January 1973.
Mathewson, Christy. “‘Outguessing’ the Batter,” Pearson’s Magazine (American Edition), May 1911.
Mathewson, Christy. Pitching In A Pinch: Baseball From the Inside. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).
Rothgeber, Bob. “When Hitting Became a Science: Cy Seymour,” Cincinnati Reds Scrapbook. (Virginia Beach: JCP, 1982).
1 Thanks to Tom Ruane for this information. He reports that 13,561 have played ball from 1893 until through the 1998 season.
2 David Nemec, Great Baseball, Feats, Facts & Firsts (New York: Signet Sports, 1989), 331.
3 See Total Baseball, 3rd ed., John Thorn and Pete Palmer, eds. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 1932-33.
4 Prior to 1893 Al Spalding (252 wins and 613 hits), Hoss Radbourne (309 wins and 585 hits) Scott Stratton (97 wins and 379 hits) posted significant pitching and hitting records, yet none of them had two distinctive careers. Only the great John Montgomery Ward (164 wins and 2,105 hits) was able to challenge the accomplishments of Ruth and Seymour. And although Ward played until 1894, he was an infielder for the last ten years of his playing career. Thanks to Larry Gerlach for pointing this out to me.
5 See the Albany (New York) Times-Union, September 21, 1919. An unusually large salary considering that he only made $2,000 playing for the Giants in 1899! The report indicates that the Northern New York League was supported by millionaire sportsman, Harry Payne Whitney. Prior to playing in the NNYL he played for the Ridgeway team in his hometown of Albany, New York.
6 Seymour Scrapbook, 1896. These eight volumes, which are housed at the Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York, contain comprehensive press clippings of Cy’s career apparently compiled by his mother or father, arranged in a fastidious chronological order that is only marred by the fact that the names and dates of publications of the clippings have been eliminated by the compiler. My guess is that his father, Theodore, was the compiler. Correspondence from a Baltimore publisher is addressed to him. Thus, future reference to the scrapbooks shall read as, e.g., SSB 1897, except when the exact date or name of the publication is known.
7 New York Times, September 5, 1897.
8 The New York Times report does not jibe with Amos Rusie’s view. Rusie took Seymour under his wing in Cy’s rookie season and reported that Seymour was “a willing youngster and a good pupil,” See Amos Rusie file, HOF, “Fireball Rusie …Tells How He Held Out … “
9 New York Herald, September 19, 1897.
10 “Cy Seymour’s Pitching Arm,” SSB, July 27, 1898. Sam Crane, among others seemed to think his small hands was an important factor causing his wildness.
11 Total Baseball has him at 18-14 while Bill Weiss’s stats have him at 20-14. Personal correspondence, Weiss to Kirwin, November 1998.
12 See p. 1920 of Total Baseball, 3rd Ed.
13 Again, Weiss has him at 25-17.
14 Boston manager Ed Barrow once said: “I would be the laughing stock of the league if I took the best pitcher in the league (Ruth) and put him in the outfield.” See Jonathan Fraser Light, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1997), 579.
15 Sporting Life, October 15, 1898.
16 A typical 1898 victory saw Cy throw a four-hitter and collect two hits and score one run himself in a 6-2 win over Cleveland on May 30th, striking out seven and issuing as many walks.
17 Nichols had five shutouts, one three-hitter, one four-hitter and six five-hitters.
18 HOF SB 1898.
19 He also again led the league in walks with 213.
20 James D. Hardy, Jr., The New York Giants Baseball Club, The Growth of a Team and A Sport, 1870-1900 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1996), 157-161.
21 Seymour himself experienced Freedman’s parsimony when as a rookie he was fined $10 for leaving a ticket booth that he was occasionally required to man in order that he might watch his teammates play!
22 He did return to major-league baseball in 1901 to pitch in three games for Cincinnati. In exchange for Rusie, Cincinnati sent the Giants an obscure young pitcher — Christy Mathewson.
23 New York Times, May 12, 1899. It is of note that Freedman said a year earlier he would not trade Seymour for $10,000.
24 David Quentin Voigt, The League That Failed (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1998), 123.
25 Cy Young, of course, was a notable exception: although his won-loss record (72-48 vs. 57-51) was not radically different from Seymour’s during the 1897-99 seasons, Young walked only 134 batters during the three years in question, seventy-nine fewer than Cy during the 1898 campaign alone! On the other hand, Young, who had won the strikeout crown in 1896, only managed to strike out 300 batters from 1897-99 while Seymour struck out 534 in the same period.
26 Sporting Life, June 4, 1898.
27 HOF SB 1902. Flick added, “I have asked many baseball players who batted against him the days past, and they all agreed that he was the star of them all when in condition.”
28 HOF SB 1898.
29 New York Times, April 8, 1900.
30 New York Times, April 17, 1900.
31 New York Times, April 19, 1900.
32 New York Times, May 16 and 18, 1900.
33 New York Times, May 19 and 29, 1900.
34 New York Times, June 12, 1900; see also June 8, 1900.
35 HOF SB 1900.
37 Historian Bob Hoie hypothesizes that Seymour probably injured his arm or attempted to take something off his pitches to improve his control and that the Giants merely suspended him because of his arm problems. Personal correspondence, Hoie to Kirwin, December 28, 1998. Also, David Voigt in personal correspondence reflects a changed opinion regarding the pitching demise of Seymour, now believing that it probably had more to do with his arm problems than wildness. Personal correspondence, Voigt to Kirwin, undated, 1998.
38 Andrew Freedman to William Ewing, May 21, 1900; see James Bentley, “Cy” Seymour file, HOF.
39 Sporting Life, “The disappearance of ‘Cy,’” March 11, 1905.
40 See HOF Seymour file clipping “Cy Seymour’s Iron Man.” See also New York Times, October 13, 1898; McGraw thought the games were in 1896 or ’97 and that the second game of the doubleheader was a shutout. In 1897 Seymour pitched
both games of a doubleheader win against Louisville.
41 SSB 1905.
42 Lajoie hit .426 in 1901 and .384 in 1910. Cobb equaled Seymour’s .377 in 1909 and batted .383 in 1910.
43 The uses of the bunt, hit-and-run, Baltimore chop, and cutoff man were developed by Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon.
44 Bob Rothgeber, “When Hitting Became A Science,” Cincinnati Reds Scrapbook (Virginia Beach, Virginia: JCP, 1982), 36.
45 Sporting Life, January 6, 1906.
46 Rothgeber, “When Hitting Became A Science.”
48 HOF SB 1905.
49 New York World, September 22, 1906. The other five were Art Devlin, Giants; George Stone, St. Louis Americans; Johnny Kling, Chicago Nationals; Hal Chase, New York Highlanders; and Rube Waddell, A’s.
50 Almost as an afterthought, Seymour was added to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1998. Most of the media attention of that day focused on Tony Perez, who was also inducted.
51 During the 1902 season he ranked high in both RBIs and HRs in the combined league totals. See Top-Five Leading Categories.
52 If one wanted to stretch the case, the claim could be made that Seymour had the fourth highest number of home runs in 1904. The number is correct; however, six players had more home runs that he did. A similar case could be argued for 1906 triples. I choose the more rigid interpretation of including only the top five players wherever possible.
53 Since 1907 was Flick’s last year as a regular player, the 1900 season, his second best in category leadership (14) was used for comparison purposes. In 1902 his name does not appear in any of the categories. In the 1901-1907 seasons Flick’s category dropped to 34 percent.
54 1897-1904, excluding the 1902 season when he only played in 108 games.
55 Christy Mathewson, Pitching in a Pinch (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, reprint 1988), 120-21.
56 Charles C. Alexander, John McGraw (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, reprint 1988), 143.
57 New York Times, April 27, 1909.
59 Mathewson, Pitching in a Pinch, 135-36.
60 New York Times, June 26, 1909.
61 Even that his sale of 1906 from the Reds to the Giants for $10,000 (some reports claim it was $12,000) was one of the largest in baseball history up until that time has been ignored.
62 See Rube Marquard, The Life and Legend of a Baseball Hall of Famer (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1998), 5l.
63 Mathewson, Pitching in a Pinch, 186.
64 Ibid., 186-88.
65 “National League News,” Sporting Life, June 18, 1904.
66 Seymour HOF SB 1902.
67 Arthur Frederick Hofman was well known for his circus catches and was named after a comic strip character. See James A. Skipper, Baseball Nicknames (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1992), 127.
68 See Total Baseball, 3rd Ed., 2327-30. Does not include players who did not play at least 300 games in the outfield.
69 SSB 1903, “Seymour’s Airship.”
70 Sporting Life, August 15, 1903. Another report, probably in a Cincinnati newspaper, said that he had called in claiming he was sick when in fact he was drunk, requiring him to miss several games. The record indicates that he played in 135 of the 141 games the Reds played that year.
71 Sporting Life, August 29, 1901.
72 Ray Long to August Hermann, Seymour HOF file, January 31, 1906.
73 Lawrence Ritter, The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball — Told by the Men Who Played It (New York: Vintage, 1985), 192.
74 “Seymour the Straight,” Seymour HOF file, November 17, 1906.
75 Reported, apparently, in the Albany Times Union in 1903, citing a Cincinnati dispatch stating that Seymour walked away unmarked from a battle with the two Tannehill brothers. They in tum both required hospital assistance. See HOF SB 1903.
76 Sporting Life, October 11, 1902.
77 Mrs. John J. McGraw and Arthur Mann, The Real McGraw (New York: David McKay, 1951), 227. Thanks to Darryl Brock for this source.
78 James K. Skipper Jr., Baseball Nicknames: A Dictionary of Origins and Meanings (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1992), 252.
79 Ironically Fred Snodgrass, who was to soon replace Cy as the Giants regular center fielder, was also introduced that day.
80 HOF Seymour file, “Bobby Vaughn Talks of Cy’s Batting Eye.”
81 “The Disappearance of Cy,” Sporting Life, March 11, 1905.
82 “Seymour the Straight,” Seymour HOF file, November 17, 1906.
83 Sporting Life, December 27, 1902.
84 He picked up the name Cy when he first arrived in New York. The name referring to his pitching style derived from the word ”cyclone,” and was a rather common sobriquet applied to pitchers of the day. He may have wanted to put his pitching days behind when he resisted being called Cy, yet on the other hand it may have been simply to clarify the fact that he was not a Jew. A letter to the New York Globe asks “is Seymour a Hebrew or an Irishman?” and receives the following answer, “He is an American of English descent.”
85 Some reports indicated that it was $12,000.
86 Seymour certainly seemed to be not unaware of the upcoming sale, openly saying to the press, “Tell ’em I’m going away.” Whether by design or preoccupation, his indifferent play prior was reflected in his .257 batting average.
87 SSB 1906, Cincinnati Post, August 25, 1906.
88 SSB 1908. This scrapbook contains several items after 1908.
89 See “Cy Seymour in Disgrace,” SSB 1903.
90 Seymour to Hermann, HOF File, November 28, 1913.
92 New York Times, September 22, 1919.
93 Rothgeber, “When Hitting Became a Science,” 37.
94 Sporting Life, June 17, 1905.
95 Christy Mathewson, “’Outguessing’ the Batter,” Pearsons Magazine, May 1911.
96 HOF SB 1902.
97 Albany Times-Union, September 23, 1919.
98 Albany Rural Cemetery visit, June 5, 1999. Thanks to John Buszta for his help.