This article was written by Fred Ivor-Campbell
This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles
This article was originally published in “Baseball in Chicago,” the 1986 SABR convention journal.
In his major league debut in Chicago with the White Stockings on June 27, 1887, Californian George Edward Martin Van Haltren struck out the first batter to face him, then went on to tie a National League record by walking 16 men in a 17–11 loss to Boston. (No National League pitcher has since walked more than 14 batters in a game.) But Van Haltren settled down after his shaky inaugural to win 11 of his 17 remaining starts that season, yielding on average fewer than three walks per game.
One of the most popular and highly regarded ballplayers to come of the West in the 19th century, Van Haltren was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 30, 1866, but he grew up and learned baseball in Oakland, California. He began his professional career in 1886 with Oakland’s Greenhood and Morans, a club organized by tailors and clothing store owners Jacob Greenhood and James T. Moran. In May 1886, a few games into the summer season, the G&M’s finished third in the four-team league. He batted only .237, but that was good enough to his team and rank third in the league.
That winter Van Haltren signed with Pittsburgh for $1,400, but he was soon traded to Chicago for the brilliant but troublesome pitcher Jim McCormick. Van Haltren, offered a raise in pay to remain in Oakland, tried to back out of his big league contract, but Chicago president A.G. Spalding held on to his new pitcher by threatening to blacklist him and prevent other major leaguers from playing off-season in California. Before Van Haltren could report to Chicago, however, his mother became ill, and Rip (as he was called) obtained the club’s OK to arrive late. He began the season in Oakland, but a month after his mother died, he reported to Chicago and embarked on a 17-year major league career.
The California League season extended into November, and Van Haltren would return after the National League season ended to finish out the year in California. But his fame lay in the East—as a hitter and baserunner.
Rip pitched in 20 big league games in 1887, 30 the next year, and 28 in 1890. But almost from the start of his major league career he was used primarily in the outfield. From 1891 on, he pitched only 15 more games, all but one of them in relief. He did well enough in the box—compiling a 40–31 big league record, with a six-inning no-hitter in 1888—but his potency at the bat and skill on the bases were too great for him not to be used every day. In the 13 years from 1889 through 1901 his batting average fell below .300 only once. In 11 of those seasons he scored more than 100 runs, and twice drove in more than 100. He stole over 30 bases 11 years in a row, with a high of 75 in 1891.
Chicago sold its difficult ace John Clarkson to Boston after the 1887 season, despite his 38 victories that year. Van Haltren was expected to take up much of the slack, and his pay was raised to $2,500. But despite four shutouts, including the short-game no-hitter, Rip pitched only .500 ball (13-13) in 1888. In 1889 he was not used as a pitcher at all, and responded with his first .300 season at the bat, 126 runs scored, 81 driven in, and a career-high nine home runs.
Van Haltren, along with most of the National League’s best players, jumped to the outlaw Players League for the 1890 season, signing with the Brooklyn club managed by John Montgomery Ward, the driving force behind the new league. Because Brooklyn had to scramble to assemble a team after some of its expected players from the Indianapolis club jumped back to the National League, nothing much was expected from the team. But “Ward’s Wonders” surprised everyone with a second-place finish behind Boston. Once again alternating between the outfield and the pitcher’s box, Van Haltren won 15 games against 10 losses as the club’s third best pitcher. More significantly, his .335 batting was also the team’s third best, and in slugging he ranked second only to the powerful Dave Orr.
When the Players League folded after one season, Brooklyn’s National League club hoped to sign Van Haltren, but the offer of $3,500 salary, $1,000 of it in advance, lured him in 1891 to Baltimore in the American Association. Offensively, Rip’s 1891 season was among his finest. His 251 total bases ranked second in the Association, both his 180 hits and 136 runs scored (in 139 games) tied for second, his 75 stolen bases ranked third, and his .318 batting average ranked fifth. He also duplicated his 1889 career-high nine home runs. When Orioles manager Bill Barnie quit just before the end of the season, Van Haltren filled his place for the final games and was named to manage the club in 1892.
In the American Association merger with the National League after the 1891 season, Baltimore was one of four AA clubs to survive. Van Haltren proved a disaster as manager and was relieved of his duties after a 1-10 start. Baltimore finished deep in the cellar of the 12-team league in the first half of its split season, but—now managed by Ned Hanlon—played around .500 in the middle of the pack for six weeks of the second half before fading to tenth place. Rip was not there for the finish, though. He was unhappy playing under Hanlon, and in September the new manager began the famous series of trades that built the Oriole powerhouse of the mid-1890s, sending Van Haltren to Pittsburgh for left fielder Joe Kelley and $2,000. Rip was hitting over .300 (though at Pittsburgh he slipped to .293 for the season), and the young Kelley had not yet demonstrated his major league potential. But Hanlon must have seen something in him, for although Van Haltren remained a star player for another decade, Kelley outperformed him nearly every season en route to the Hall of Fame.
In 1893 Van Haltren’s batting average rose 45 points to .338, and his on-base average rose 49 points to a career-high .422. Seen in isolation, the rise appears significant, but in this first season of the new, longer 60’6” pitching distance, league batters as a whole improved nearly as much as Rip had done, so his relative offensive production remained about the same as the year before. Still, he was one of the top performers on a Pittsburgh team that finished second to Boston with the club’s best record prior to its glory years at the start of the 20th century.
The first seven seasons of Van Haltren’s major league career were divided among four clubs in three leagues; the remaining 10 Rip played for a single club, the New York Giants. His first Giant season found him once again under the leadership of Monte Ward, starring for a team that spurted from seventh place to third in one week at midseason, then in mid-September overtook Boston to finish second. But because 1894 inaugurated the postseason competition for the Temple Cup, Rip found himself in his first— and, as it turned out, only—World Series, facing the now mighty Baltimore Orioles. Though Baltimore had won the pennant, New York swept the Series, finishing with a 16-3 rout in Game 4. Van Haltren shone. He scored the Series’ first run in the fifth inning of Game One after tripling, and garnered six more hits for a .500 Series average. (He had to leave the final game in the sixth inning after colliding with Oriole shortstop Hughie Jennings while trying to stretch a single into a double.) Following the Series, Rip was awarded a silver bat as the Giants’ most popular player.
When entrepreneur and Tammany Hall politician Andrew Freedman purchased control of the Giants that winter, manager Ward retired to his law practice, and the Giants embarked upon eight dismal seasons under the oppressive reign of their abrasive new owner. Freedman ran through 13 managers during his ownership, if we count George Davis twice for his two tries at the job. Even John B. Day, who had founded the club in 1883, came back to manage the team briefly in 1899. Of all the managers, only Scrappy Bill Joyce—with a third-place finish in 1897—brought the club in higher than seventh.
Among the players, only Van Haltren remained a Giant through Freedman’s full tenure. Although the club’s performance in the Freedman years disappointed the fans, Van Haltren himself enjoyed several of his finest seasons. He reached a career high in slugging in 1895 (.503), and a new batting high of .340, which he topped the next season with his career peak .351. His career-best 21 triples in 1896 tied for the league lead, and his 136 runs scored tied his personal best. In 1898 he surpassed the 200-hit mark for the only time as a major leaguer, with 204. In 1901, his final full big-league season, Rip extended to nine his consecutive seasons batting over .300.
Freedman’s final season as owner also saw the beginning of the end of Van Haltren’s major league career. On May 22, 1902, Rip, hitting only .261 at the time, broke his ankle sliding into second base and was out for the rest of the year. By the time he returned for the 1903 season, John T. Brush was the Giants’ new majority stockholder, and John McGraw was the club’s manager. In his brief stint as Baltimore skipper in 1892-92, Van Haltren had managed the then-teenage shortstop. Now a 30-year-old McGraw was the aging Van Haltren’s manager. Rip played 84 games in 1903, but he batted only .257, and McGraw released him after the season’s end. Just as he had been traded away from Baltimore as part of Ned Hanlon’s Orioles rebuilding project, now he was released as part of McGraw’s Giants rebuilding. Rip would not be around to enjoy the first of McGraw’s 11 Giant pennants the next year.
No longer a major leaguer in 1904, Van Haltren was by no means out of baseball. He returned to the West Coast, where he played and managed five seasons and part of a sixth in the new Pacific Coast League. He never again hit above .300, but in the lengthy PCL seasons he compiled impressive hit totals of 253 in 1904 for Seattle (while setting a league record of 941 at- bats), and 220 the next year in 220 games for Oakland, where he played and managed until he was let go in June, 1909, at age 43. He finished the 1909 season as a PCL umpire, scouted for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the next two years, and umpired in the Northwestern League in 1912.
As Rip’s active career in baseball wound down and ended, he continued to earn his way as a skilled lather and plasterer. He died September 29, 1945, in Oakland, at age 79.
Some believe that with his .316 lifetime major league batting average and his rank among the top 20 in stolen bases (583), top 30 in runs scored (1,639), and top 40 in triples (161), George Van Haltren belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He did receive one vote in the first veterans ballot cast in 1936, and it can be argued that lesser players have been enshrined. It is little consolation to know that other stars of his era—like Pete Browning, Bill Dahlen, Bid McPhee, Jimmy Ryan, and Harry Stovey—also remain outside the Hall. But it may be consolation enough to honor Van Haltren as one of the very best major leaguers—perhaps the best—to come out of California in the 19th century.