Faux Real: Dog and Badger Fighting During Spring Training in the Deadball Era

This article was written by Margaret A. Gripshover

This article was published in the 2007 Baseball Research Journal


The “sport” of dog fighting captured many headlines in 2007 with the conviction of Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons star quarterback who admitted to participating in the inhumane and illegal business of pit bull fighting as well as the execution of underperforming dogs. No major league baseball player has ever been similarly implicated in criminal dog fighting activity, but dog fighting and baseball do have a shared history during spring training in the Deadball Era. The type of animal fighting in the early 20th century was not necessarily the traditional dog vs. dog fight, but rather, a dog doing battle with a badger. And, more often than not, the “badger” fighting the dog was not a real badger at all, but rather, a prop used to perpetrate an elaborate practical joke.

The perception of animals as sentient creatures was not as well-accepted 100 years ago as it is today. In the late 19th and early 20th century it was not uncommon for baseball news and dog fighting reports to be included on the same sports page. In 1894, for example, the National Police Gazette enthusiastically recounted the 22-minute fight between two pit bulls in Brooklyn, as well as the results of a fight involving a bear and two dogs.1

The bear being muzzled and chained, fought at a disadvantage, as he could only use his forepaws, and with these he mauled the dogs pretty lively, but the latter finally got in their work and tore the bear badly. The bet ($200) was decided in favor of the dogs.2

In 1883, a dog fight near Buffalo, New York, not only made the news, but the scene included some “150 Buffalo sports writers [who] witnessed the battle, which was for $2,000 a side.”3 Not all in the sports community were supportive of the blood sport. In 1886, The Sporting News reported a large badger had been obtained for the purposes of a fight with a dog around Christmastime and urged the locals vehemently to discourage this “repulsive exhibition.”4

In the Deadball Era, reporters traveling with teams during spring training often documented the teams’ leisure activities, which, at times, included players observing or participating in various forms of dog fighting. While dog fighting was popular in rural and urban as well as northern and southern venues, the South was the epicenter for a particular type of animal fight—dog and badger fighting.

Not all dog and badger fights were what they purported to be. Some fights were authentic and involved a live dog and a live badger while others were hoaxes. For a real fight, the badger (often a trained animal) was kept in a barrel and yanked out of its friendly confines by a rope or chain held by the fight “referee.” The referee was chosen by the crowd as the person who had the least financial interest in the outcome, i.e., the one who would most honestly decide the outcome of the match. After the badger was extricated from the barrel, it was then forced to do battle with the dog until a winner was declared, sometimes posthumously.

Most dog and badger fights, however, did not involve a live badger, but rather were more likely to be of the hoax variety. For such a fight, an unsuspecting dupe was nominated as the referee and led to believe that he was about to yank a live, snarling badger out of a barrel, when in fact, at the other end of the rope, was not a vicious badger, but a harmless chamber pot, much to the amusement of the crowd, all of whom were in on the joke. Staged fights between a dog and a “badger” were more akin to the proverbial snipe hunt than to blood sport. And, as with snipe hunting, when faux dog and badger fights were covered by the press, newspaper reports of such entertainments rarely exposed the details of the hoax so as not to spoil the fun for future practical jokers.5

Sometimes it is difficult to determine the authenticity of a dog and badger fight based solely on newspaper accounts, but in San Antonio, Texas, real dog and badger fights were routinely covered by the press. San Antonio was home to an authentic dog and badger fighting club, whose rule book included such detailed regulations as to how much, or how little, you could sharpen your badger’s claws.6 Gambling was the main feature of these matches, and at times the violence between the animals was almost as fierce as the rivalries between bettors. At least one group of baseball executives during the Deadball Era experienced a real dog and badger fight in San Antonio. In 1911, an annual meeting of baseball magnates and officials from both major and minor leagues was held in San Antonio, and the participants were “treated” to a beefsteak dinner and an authentic dog and badger fight.

“Following the dinner the crowd adjourned to a roped off arena in which the badger fight was to be held. The participants, a snarling, clawing badger and a large bull dog were exhibited. Both had their backers and there was considerable discussion as to which would have the better of the argument.”7

The newspaper account of the spectacle made no mention of revulsion or moral outrage by the baseball men, leaving the reader with the impression that it was perfectly acceptable to top off a fine meal with a badger getting its just desserts.

The Chicago Cubs’ spring training camp at West Baden, Indiana, was another frequent setting for dog and badger fights, mostly hoaxes—and human boxing matches for that matter—which was part of the resort’s appeal to gamblers. In March 1911, then rookie pitcher Fred Toney was designated as the referee in a badger fight at West Baden, where Frank Chance had his team getting into shape for the new season. Toney’s physical stature as a rookie was so impressive that it was said that “the only sweater coat that would fit him was the one used last year by Orvie Overall.”8 Perhaps Fred’s impressive physique appealed to those looking for a fair and forceful badger puller. “Big Toney, the pitching recruit, was the unanimous choice for referee of the weekly dog and badger fight here tonight, and the crowd was all satisfied over the result.”9 Toney later gained notoriety on the slab as a member of the Cincinnati Reds for the famous twin nine-inning no-hitter along with pitcher Jim “Hippo” Vaughn of the Cubs, on May 2, 1917.10

The Cubs were not the only Chicago team that fancied the entertainment of dog and badger fights. The Chicago Federals, while in spring training in Shreveport, Louisiana, in March 1914, were involved in at least one such event. The badger fight was held the night after the Chifeds defeated the Centenary College nines, 14-0, summed up in this line from the Tribune’s coverage of the game, “The name of the college pitcher was Battle, but he didn’t live up to it.”11

Rookie Harry Swan was selected for the honors of “pulling the chain” to release the badger from the barrel.

“Harry Swan, one of our most aspiring young pitchers, was chosen tonight to decide a combat between a dog and a badger. Much money was wagered, and Swan’s decision was pleasing to all.”12

Hoax “fights” between a dog and a “badger” were common forms of amusement in the early 20th century, and a popular diversion during spring training. One memorable hoax fight took place in March 1908, at West Baden Springs. This was a classic setup, calling upon the unsuspecting Cubs’ rookie pitcher Martin Walsh. Manager Frank Chance invited him to join the Cubs camp at the suggestion of Martin’s brother (and future Hall of Fame pitcher), “Big Ed” Walsh.13 Unfortunately for Martin, he lacked his brother’s slithering spitball and never made a major league roster, but at least for one night he was star of the show.

That gay boy got in on the badger vs. bull dog fight tonight and fell as do all referees. All day long the gang worked on Martin and had him ripe for the adventure. He wanted to bet on the dog and said if the badger won he would send to Wilkesbarre [sic] for his own bull pup. According to Martin, the pup had a mouth like a hand bag. When he goes out for a fight he just picks up the other dog, carries the villain home, and devours him at leisure. After the battle tonight Martin decided to leave his eat-em-alive dog at home.14

The Cubs veterans continued the “badger fight” tradition throughout the Deadball Era. In February 1917, while on their way to Pasadena, the Chicago Cubs made a stop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they were invited to the local Elks Club where, “a dog and badger fight was staged.”15

In February 1910, the New York Giants engaged in spring training at Marlin Springs, Texas, where a dog and “badger” fight was staged as a practical joke at the expense of an unsuspecting greenhorn. The rube for this battle was the rookie outfielder Ernest Lush, younger brother of Billy Lush. Billy recommended his brother to John McGraw and thought the “star football and baseball player at Villanova,” with semi-pro experience with a Bridgeport, Connecticut, team, had major league potential.16 McGraw had big plans for Ernie and claimed, “I think I can make a great bunter out of that fellow—he has all the characteristics that made Billy Lush, his brother, a fine player.”17

Ernie Lush and some of his Giants teammates arrived at Marlin Springs via New Orleans on the steamer Proteus.18 Lush and the rookies were accompanied by Fred Merkle, and among those giving the boys a bon voyage were veteran pitcher Christy Mathewson and John McGraw.19

Entertainment options were severely limited in Marlin Springs. Ernie Lush and fellow Giant Chief Meyers and others entertained the locals with their singing talents at the Marlin Springs Opera House on March 16, 1910.20 Christy Mathewson found his own fun by slipping off to go duck hunting.21 One form of recreation that Lush certainly wasn’t prepared for was the dog and “badger” fight that was staged for the team’s amusement on February 18, before the work of spring training was to begin the following day.

To-night the players are arranged for a big badger fight with a bird dog. Unless the reader knows how the badger fight game is worked he will not be able to sympathize with the young recruits from the East, who are ready for what they think will be keen sport. Daly and Lush have volunteered to hold the imaginary badger, while Zacher declares he is not afraid to sit on the barrel. As the reader perhaps knows, the badger is not always on the other end of the string.22

Unfortunately for Ernie Lush, the illusion of the “badger fight” would prove to be a metaphor for his ill-fated career. Ten days after his badger fight initiation, while attempting to steal second base, he tripped on a rock in the base path and severely twisted his ankle.23 In an exhibition game on March 26 between the Giants and a semi-pro team from Dallas, he was the only New York player to go hitless in the 14-3 romp over the locals and, on top of his poor performance at the plate, committed an error at shortstop.24 Lush’s career was over almost soon as he pulled the rope on the “badger.” He was cut from the Giants, the same day as veteran first baseman Fred Tenney.

Lush’s fellow badger fighters did not fare well in their major league careers either. In May 1910, Elmer Zacher (who sat  on  the  barrel),  was  sold  to  the St. Louis Cardinals and played a total of 48 games in the majors. George “Pecks” Daly, who pulled the “badger” rope with Lush, had pitched the previous season with the Giants, then failed to make the 1910 squad.

Thankfully, few dog and badger fights staged during spring training camps were of the authentic variety. Hoax fights were the more common form, a popular practical joke executed at the expense of the uninitiated. Certainly being chosen to referee a dog and badger fight, authentic or hoax, was a rite of passage for rookie ballplayers. For many, the hoax may have turned out to be a coincidental jinx, given that few of the referees went on to successful careers in baseball. It seems, for most, the joke was truly on them. 

MARGARET GRIPSHOVER, PH.D., is an adjunct associate professor of geography at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she specializes in cultural and economic geography. She recently contributed a chapter on the “Wrigleyville” neighborhood to the forthcoming Essays in the Social History of the Chicago Cubs, Gerald C. Wood and Andrew Hazucha, editors (McFarland, 2008). She is currently writing a book on the life and times of Charles H. Weeghman, the onetime owner of the Chicago Federals and the Chicago Cubs. She is a member of the Grantland Rice-Fred Russell Tennessee SABR chapter.

 

Notes

  1. “The Latest Sporting News,” National Police Gazette, November 3, 1894, 10.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “A Buffalo Dog Fight,” Chicago Tribune, April 10, 1883, 12.
  4. “Rod, Dog, Gun,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1886, 6.
  5. Smith, Johana , “In the Bag: A Study of Snipe Hunting,” Western Folklore, 16, 2, 1957, 107-110.
  6. Holt, Thomas , “Tom Holt Protests Badger Fight if Its Claws Are to Be Sharp,” Ada Evening News, September 2, 1920, 4.
  7. “New Yorker Acts as Referee of Fight,” San Antonio Light, November 16, 1911, 10.
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Weller, Sam, “Winter Returns to Block Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1911, 4.
  10. Marshall, Brian, “Fred Toney,” The Baseball Biography Project, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/fred-toney. Accessed October 1, 2007.
  11. Weller, Sam, “Feds Swamp Centenary, 14-0,” Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1914, 13.
  12. Ibid.
  13. “Many Brothers Starts in Baseball,” New York Times, December 29, 1907, C4.
  14. Dryden, Charles, “Cubs Bunged Up in the Physique,” Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1908, B1.
  15. Crusinberry, James, “Raids, Thrills, and Gunplay Put on for Cubs in Santa Fe,” Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1917,
  16. “Donlin Has Not Signed,” New York Times, February 4, 1910, 8.
  17. “Giants Start for Dallas,” New York Times, February 26, 1910, 9. 
  18. “Donlin and Brush Agree on Terms,” New York Times, February 12, 1910, 7.
  19. “Giants Sail Southward,” New York Times, February 13, 1910, S1.
  20. “Giants to Play for Ladies’ Social Club,” New York Times, March 17, 1910, 10.
  21.  “Giants Start for Dallas.”
  22. “Young Giants at Marlin,” New York Times, February 19, 1910,
  23. “Two Young Giants Hurt,” New York Times, March 1, 1910, 7.
  24. “Mathewson Shows Texans How to Pitch Winning Baseball,” New York Times, March 27, 1910, S1.

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