In Pursuit of Bull Durham

This article was written by Bill Haber

This article was published in 1983 Baseball Research Journal

This article was selected for inclusion in SABR 50 at 50: The Society for American Baseball Research’s Fifty Most Essential Contributions to the Game.

Perhaps the most intriguing mystery in our pursuit of “missing” ballplayers is the case of Louis “Bull” Durham. He pitched briefly in four seasons in the major leagues between 1904 and 1909, and also attracted considerable attention in 1908 when he pitched and won five consecutive doubleheaders for Indianapolis in the American Association. The Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia indicated he was born in Bolivar, N.Y., in 1881 and was a brother of James Garfield “Jimmy” Durham, a contemporary ballplayer. Both facts proved to be incorrect, the one about their relationship being rather obvious. Both were listed as being born in 1881, one in New York and the other in Kansas.

For 13 years, this writer conducted a serious effort to turn up clues about the life and death of Louis Durham. The newspaper accounts of his baseball exploits indicated that he was married about 1907, but the name of his bride or the site of the marriage was never determined. Newspapers indicated that the player spent the winter of 1906-07 studying law in Geneva, Ohio. However, no such learning institution could be identified in or near that city. A newspaper note indicated that he was a patent medicine specialist, a jack of all trades, but there was no specific information reported which could be used to trace the man.

Although diligent efforts to pursue Mr. Durham were begun in 1969, a definite clue to the man’s identity wasn’t located until October 1982, when two other SABR members became involved. Ray Nemec of Illinois located a note in a 1906 Pennsylvania newspaper which indicated that Bull Durham’s correct name at birth was Charles Staub. Al Kermisch of Virginia, who has researched the early decades of professional baseball, had found a reference to a Louis Staub pitching in Pennsylvania in 1900-02. This Staub reportedly was born in New Oxford, Pennsylvania, in 1879.

With that knowledge in hand, a random phone call was made to several Staub families listed in the current New Oxford telephone directory. One such call referred this writer to a young lady in York, Pa., who has compiled a genealogy of all the Staub families of southeastern Pennsylvania dating back to the 1700s. A phone call to this lady produced the information that Louis Raphael Staub was born in New Oxford, Pa., June 27, 1877, the eighth of nine children. Within several weeks after making this discovery, two daughters of this man were found. They were able to provide biographical information needed for the record of their father to be brought up to date.

Louis Staub began playing professional baseball about 1898. In 1902, he found himself with the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ballclub, a teammate of the above-mentioned Jimmy Durham. The latter, also a pitcher, fared well at Cedar Rapids and earned a trial with the Chicago White Sox. Louis failed at Cedar Rapids and was released by June. By August he was pitching at McSherrystown, Pa., his hometown. It was just about this time that Louis Staub changed his name to Louis Staub Durham, perhaps because of his liking for the popular Bull Durham tobacco of that period, or because of his friendship with Jimmy Durham, or perhaps a combination of the two. In any event, Louis “Bull” Durham, the silverhaired right-hander, became a better pitcher. He had a pretty good year at Augusta in the South Atlantic League in 1904, although he lost his debut on April 26. This also was the Organized Ball debut of Ty Cobb, the center fielder of Augusta, who broke in with a home run.

The Brooklyn Dodgers brought up Durham in September and on the 22nd of that month, “the white-haired lad from Atlanta” pitched a 4-hit, 3-1 win over Pittsburgh. The Atlanta reference was one of the many false leads about Durham, who had a very erratic career. He moved ever so quickly from the minors to the majors to the minors, to semipro ball, to the majors, etc. For one or two years there is no playing record of him at all. He was up with the Washington Senators briefly in 1907 and the New York Giants in 1908-09 after that great 19-6 season with Indianapolis when he won those five doubleheaders. His pro ball career apparently ended in 1913 when he pitched briefly and played the outfield for Long Beach and Pasadena in the Southern California League. At that location, Durham made the transition to a career as a silent screen movie actor in Hollywood.

Backtracking a little, we note that Durham (Staub) had attended Georgetown University briefly before the turn of the century. His first marriage in 1906 or 1907 ended about 1909 when his wife died of tuberculosis or a similar ailment. He married a Pittsburgh girl about 1914 and had one child, a daughter, by this marriage. In early 1918, his motion picture work came to an end and he moved back to Pittsburgh with his family. By the early 1920s, this marriage ended in divorce and Durham headed back to California. However, he never made it.

For some reason (perhaps to visit Jimmy Durham of Coffeyville, Kansas) Durham stopped off in Kansas on his way west. He met a young lady, married her in 1927, and made his home in Kansas for the rest of his life. Louis Durham adopted his third wife’s two children and the couple proceeded to have six more children. He was employed as a geologist in Kansas until his retirement, and died in Bentley, Kansas, June 28, 1960. His obituary in the Halstead Independent gave not the slightest indication that he had been a ballplayer, an occupation he had filled for about 15 years.

There still are a number of things we don’t know about Louis Durham. We can only speculate about why he changed his name and why he moved to Kansas, and why there was no mention of his long baseball background in his obituary. The family is of the opinion that he used the pseudonym of Bull Durham because of his appreciation for the popular smoking tobacco. However, one can’t help but wonder if his friendship with Jimmy Durham had something to do with it. The two had developed a close relationship when they first met as members of the Cedar Rapids pitching staff of 1902. Their friendship continued in 1907 when the two combined to win 34 games at Louisville. As a matter of fact, the 1907 Louisville team photo shows Jimmy seated with Louis standing right behind him. And, it has to be something more than mere coincidence that Louis settled in Kansas, the home state of Jimmy, upon heading west during the 1920s. Also, we know Jimmy was in the oil business in Kansas, and Louis became a geologist. Louis’ widow doesn’t recall him mentioning Jimmy by name, but then again, we know he was a mysterious sort of fellow, don’t we?

Ironing Jimmy by name, but then again, we know he was a mysterious sort of fellow, don’t we?