This article was written by Keith Olbermann
This article was published in 1986 Baseball Research Journal
Many of even the most casual fans are familiar with the legendary 1909 baseball card of Pittsburgh Pirates’ immortal Honus Wagner. The card was apparently withdrawn by the manufacturer, the American Tobacco Company, because either Wagner protested being associated with cigarettes or because the company didn’t compensate Wagner sufficiently for the use of his likeness and name.
However, most non-hobbyists, and in fact most card collectors, are unaware of the curious saga of a player depicted on a card issued contemporaneously with the Wagner card and which rivals it in scarcity, if not in value. It was part of a nationally-distributed set featuring the major leaguers of 1912, yet it depicts a man who never played a single inning in the major leagues. The card is that of Irving Lewis, listed as a rookie catcher for the Boston Braves.
The card itself is at once both a challenge and a roadblock to those who seek some record of Lewis, for the biography on its reverse is riddled with errors. It reads: “Irving Lewis, who started the season of 1912 with the Boston Nationals, is a New York boy who was picked up by John M. Ward, president of the club, from the lots of Staten Island. He came to the Braves as a catcher and had played only semi-professional ball before. Manager Kling took Lewis on the Southern training trip, but while he had a good arm and ability in other lines it was evident that he needed more experience before joining a big league team. Boston carried him until June, and then released him to the Lowell club of the New England League.”
In fact, Boston newspaper accounts tell the story of Lewis joining the club on June 18, 1911, having been somehow picked up by them as they returned via New York from a Western trip. Who saw Lewis first and how he came to join Boston are apparently lost in history, but if Hall of Famer
John Montgomery Ward had any part of it, it was purely unofficial. Ward did not become president of the Boston team until December, 1911. Curiously, though the reports of Lewis’ “arrival” referred to him as a top sandlot catcher, it was as a pitcher that he had made his semi-pro reputation. A brief 1912 profile in the Lynn (Mass.) Item says that Lewis had played with the Empire team in Panama in 1909 and a year later was with “the Long Island Independent club,” for whom he posted a record of 17 wins in 17 games.
The Irving Lewis itinerary now suffers the first of its dark gaps. Cryptic references in both an index card file in the offices of The Sporting News and that same Lynn newspaper article suggest that Lewis’ 1911 stint in Boston ended abruptly because of an unspecified illness. In any event, on March 21, 1912, Lewis reported – a week later than this teammates – to the training camp of the newly-christened Braves in Augusta, Ga. This time he was heralded in the Boston Journal as, “Irvine [sic] Lewis, a new pitcher from New York.” Whatever pitching Lewis might have done in camp that spring was purely on the sidelines, for his only two appearances in boxscores came once as a catcher and once as a first baseman, both times in intrasquad games. Lewis batted four times and recorded two hits.
Nevertheless, when the Braves broke camp, they took Lewis with them. If he was indeed a catcher, he was no better than fourth-string. Johnny Kling, a long time Cubs’ standout catcher, had by this time become Boston’s player-manager, and the Braves’ roster also featured youngsters Hank Gowdy and Bill Rariden, both of whom would star behind the plate later in the decade. In addition, Mike Gonzalez of subsequent “good field, no hit” fame joined the Braves toward the end of the season as a catcher.
When Lewis finally appeared in a Braves’ game, it was not behind the plate, but as a pitcher. On April 28, 1912, he defeated the Paterson team of the Inter-State League in a Sunday exhibition game played in New Jersey. Lewis struck out four, walked five and gave up nine hits in the 4-3 triumph. His pitching opponent that day was Paterson’s player-manager, Andy Coakley, a veteran of Connie Mack’s pitching staffs in Philadelphia.
That exhibition game victory and those four spring training at-bats were the extent of Irving Lewis’ major league career, such as it was. Early in June two things happened to Lewis, seemingly contradictory and baffling. On June 5 Braves’ president Ward signed Lewis to what was apparently his first contract, almost a year after he first joined the club. The deal was retroactive to April 10 and called for Lewis to receive $150 a month (about $900 for the season). The following day, June 6, the Braves shipped Lewis to the Lynn, Mass., team of the New England League (not Lowell, as the card reports). The transaction, according to newspaper accounts, was a 15-day conditional one.
In his long-delayed professional debut for Lynn, Lewis yielded only three hits, but errors gave New Bedford a 3-2 triumph. The Lynn News reported, “Lewis pitched fine ball and seems to have something besides a big league reputation.” However, later reviews were hardly so kind.
In a loss to Brockport, his pitching was described as “pretty bad” and “indifferent.” At the end of the two weeks’ assessment time, the Lynn team decided it didn’t want to purchase Lewis and returned him to the Braves on June 22.
The Boston American saluted Lewis’ return to the Braves by calling him “one of the most promising youngsters in the business,” but whatever the promises might have been, they weren’t kept in Boston. Lewis may have remained with the Braves for the remainder of the season or he may have returned to the sandlots of New York; whatever the case, there is no further mention of him in the Boston papers nor does he appear in the official statistics of any minor league for 1912.
However, Lewis’ curious career was not over. He finally made some impact in 1913 when he appeared in 58 games for Kingston of the New York-New Jersey League. He had turned to catching full-time and batted .272 for Kingston.
In 1914 the New York-New Jersey League became the Atlantic League, and Lewis switched to the Poughkeepsie team. He batted .355 as Poughkeepsie won the league title, and he appears in the champions’ team pictures printed in both the Reach and Spalding Baseball Guides the following year.
Had Lewis compiled comparable statistics in Poughkeepsie in 1915, he might possibly have returned to the majors, but during the winter of 1914-15 the Atlantic League folded and he was adrift again. The Sporting News card file traces Lewis back to the New England League in 1915, appropriately enough with Lewiston, but he doesn’t appear in the league’s averages and presumably played in fewer than ten games, if he played at all. The file says Lewiston dropped Lewis in May, whereupon he landed with Fall River of the Colonial League. Lewis’ Atlantic League experience repeated itself: The Fall River team disbanded on July 10, and the entire league a massive farm club for the Federal League – went out of business along with the Federals in the winter of 1915-16.
That apparently was the finish of Lewis’ pro baseball career. Records of an obscure minor league called the Central Texas list a Lewis catching for the Marlin team in 1916, but the player is referred to variously as “Louis” and “J. Lewis.” Given both that discrepancy and the imposing geographical gap between Fall River, Mass., and Marlin, Tex., it is probably safe to assume that particular Lewis isn’t our hero.
The biographical details on Lewis are just as scarce as his baseball records. Both the surprisingly extant copy of his Boston contract and the Lynn Item listed his hometown (and possibly birthplace) as Hempstead, N.Y. The same paper said he was six feet tall and 23 years old, placing his birth year as 1888 or 1889, and while all indications suggest he was both a righthanded batter and thrower, sources disagree as to his middle initial: either “J” or `”R.”
Some of the mysteries about Irving Lewis, then, are a little clearer, though many remain. Yet it is somehow fitting that his only baseball card is as hard to find as is information about the player himself.
(Research assistance for this article was provided by Lew Lipset and Bob Richardson.)