This article was written by L. Robert Davids
This article was published in the 1983 Baseball Research Journal
Imagine former boxing champion Muhammed Ali playing baseball for the Louisville Colonels, or current heavyweight champ Larry Holmes playing for the Rochester Red Wings. It seems pretty farfetched. But there was a former heavyweight champion who played several regulation minor league games – while he was champion and right after he lost the crown. This was James J. Corbett, world’s heavyweight champion from 1892 to 1897.
Most knowledgeable baseball fans assume that “Gentleman Jim” Corbett’s connection with baseball was through his younger brother Joe, who pitched several years in the majors between 1895 and 1904, and won 24 games for the Baltimore Orioles in 1897. But Jim, who was nine years older than Joe, was an all-around athlete and a good ballplayer on his own. He also was one of the biggest names in sports in the 1890s.
Jim Corbett, a member of the Olympic Athletic Club of San Francisco and a leading contender, knocked out the reigning heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan, in 21 rounds in New Orleans on September 7, 1892. Sullivan had held the world championship for ten years and was a 4-1 favorite in this first championship fight under the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Corbett’s victory, achieved through speed, conditioning, and cunning over the powerful slugger, caused a sensation across the land. Tall, good-looking, and articulate, Corbett became a national celebrity. He put on numerous boxing exhibitions as champion, but, ironically, defended his title only once in five years – knocking out Charlie Mitchell of England in 1894.
Corbett, sometimes called “Pompadour Jim” because of his hair style, also spent considerable time on tour as an actor. These theatrical tours, directed at taking full advantage of the boxer’s great popularity, were arranged by his manager, Billy Brady, a shrewd businessman and promoter. It was Brady who made the arrangements for Corbett to appear in professional baseball games for part of the gate in 1895. Two of these games were official Eastern League contests. On August 12, 1895, Jim Corbett played first base for Scranton against Buffalo while his brother Joe played shortstop. Jim had two hits and knocked in two runs and he and his brother were involved in a double play. Almost a month later, on September 11, the two repeated their roles for Toronto against Buffalo. They again pulled a double play, but Jim went hitless in four trips.
Young Joe, still 19, had a pitching tryout at the end of the 1895 season with the Washington Senators. He didn’t make the grade with them, but caught on with the Orioles, who farmed him out for most of the 1896 season. The Orioles brought him up in September and he won three games.
On March 17, 1897, Jim Corbett defended his championship in Carson City, Nevada, against Bob Fitzsimmons, the British-born former middleweight champion. Corbett, the heavy favorite, was ahead on points when Fitz knocked him out in the 14th round with the famous solar plexus punch. Although Corbett lost the crown, most boxing fans thought he was done in by a lucky punch and he was still generally regarded as the top fighter in the world.
Since Fitzsimmons would not give him a return bout, Corbett agreed to exploit his own popularity by playing baseball. He negotiated arrangements with several minor league clubs to play first base for 50 percent of the gate. Between June 16 and September 20, 1897, Corbett, in addition to playing a number of exhibition games, took part in 26 regulation games in six minor leagues. He played for Scranton and Rochester in the Eastern League, Meriden in the Connecticut League; Hartford, Reading, Paterson, and the Athletics of Philadelphia in the Atlantic League; Youngstown, Mansfield, Springfield, Dayton, and Wheeling of the Interstate League; Des Moines, Burlington, and Quincy in the Western Association; and Milwaukee in the Western League. The Atlantic League tour included visiting team games in Richmond and Norfolk, Va., and Harrisburg, Pa. He twice played doubleheaders and once played three cities in three consecutive days.
The typical procedure would include a promotional story by the local newspaper a few days prior to the game. It would sometimes include a picture of Corbett in baseball garb. He wore his own uniform. It was plain gray without distinctive lettering and included black stockings and a checkered cap. Large crowds came out to see him. In Meriden, Connecticut, for example, 2400 jammed into the stands and 1000 stood on the grounds. Attendance ranged from 2000 on a bad-weather day to 6000. Corbett’s take was $300 to $500 per game. It was estimated that he made $17,000 by playing ball that summer – making him a rich man in a second sport. The New London Telegraph stated that “James J. Corbett can devote himself to winning fame in the American Game which will utterly eclipse the former championship.”
Fan and press reaction to Corbett as a ballplayer was generally good. When he played for Meriden against Waterbury on July 26, for example, “Corbett surprised everyone by his good work. He made two of Meriden’s four runs, got a fine hit and accepted fifteen chances without an error. The big fellow was very much in the game.”
There also was some tongue-in-cheek reporting: At Hartford on July 28, “Corbett’s seat on the bench was saturated with oil of pennyroyal to keep the mosquitoes away. One boy killed several on Corbett’s back and sold them for five cents each.” Another example: “The Readings, who usually kick on every close decision at first base, are expected to be very quiet on Tuesday.” At Richmond on 8-5, he was hit by a pitched ball. The crowd waited for some pugilistic reaction, but Corbett took it with good humor. In Youngstown on September 5 when a fight broke out in the stands right back of the first baseman’s position, the crowd called for him to intervene but he declined. Another time “the umpire called strikes on him with a recklessness that made the small boys in the crowd shiver.”
On July 14 in Philadelphia, where the Atlantic League Athletes were based, “Leever pitched for Richmond and delighted in fanning Corbett twice.” This was Sam Leever, who would shortly move up to the majors. This game was part of a twinbill where some liberties were taken by management, as noted in this report.
The first game was called at the end of the 11th inning with the score a tie at six. The game was called to allow the second to begin, in which Corbett was to take part. There is no baseball rule allowing such a proceeding, but the President of the Atlantic Association (Ed Barrow), who was present, sanctioned it. The second game also ended in a 1-1 tie in 11.
All reports of Corbett’s play or participation were not complimentary. The Youngstown Vindicator said on September 5 after a loss to Fort Wayne: “It was a big throng and an anxious crowd and they left the grounds in a disgusted mood because the game was lost and Corbett could not play marbles.” (He went hitless and made two errors.) On September 13, criticism was voiced in Youngstown that games in which Corbett plays “should be declared non-league games because he technically has not signed with a club.”
On September 22 the Cleveland Plain Dealer said “There has been a steadily growing opposition against Jim Corbett playing baseball and it is said that a motion to forbid the engagement of pugilists by any baseball club in the National Agreement is likely to be introduced at the next league meeting.” The reference to pugilists was, of course, directed at Corbett, but the wording was open to broader interpretation as both John E Sullivan and Bob Fitzsimmons umpired one or more games in 1897. The latter was upset that, while he was the champion, Corbett was the one reaping the rewards.
Corbett sometimes included a boxing exhibition with his baseball appearances. One of these occasions was at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on September 14-15-16, when he played three Western Association games against Burlington. That was his longest stint in one city. He wound up the 1897 season by playing for Milwaukee: in the final game of the season against Minneapolis. This Western League contest was not only his last game, but probably his best. He collected two hits and was credited with knocking in the winning run in the 7-6 Milwaukee victory.
Going over the stats of his 26 regulation games in 1897, we find that Corbett collected 27 hits in 103 at bats for a .262 average. He scored 13 runs and knocked in 12. As far as can be determined, he had only two extra-base hits. One was a triple for Paterson against the Athletics on August 15. At Wheeling on September 10 he hit the ball over the short left-field fence and was given a ground-rule double. It was one of three hits he collected that game. One reporter noted that he swung the bat like he boxed; he jabbed and chopped and did not employ a haymaker swing. This carried over to his fielding where he seemed to keep his hands close to his body, maintaining good balance but not diving or stretching vigorously for the ball. In one game he “missed three wild throws which a better first baseman could have handled.” In his 26 games at first base, he made 270 putouts, 10 assists, and 17 errors for a .943 fielding average. That is not good by today’s standards, but wasn’t bad for 1897.
At the end of the season, there was some talk of Corbett buying into a major league club and playing first base on a regular basis. That did not materialize. There was some suggestion that he might have played a game or two for the San Francisco Olympics in the California League in 1898, but a box-score search proved fruitless. Corbett continued his theatrical tours and even took a shot at serious drama. He also continued boxing. Fitzsimmons lost the championship to Jim Jeffries in 1899, and Corbett tried twice to take the title from Jeffries, his former sparring partner, but lost on both occasions, in 1900 and 1903. That was his last professional fight, although he continued to give exhibitions.
Jim maintained his interest in baseball long after his playing days. For many years he was a familiar figure in a box at the New York Polo Grounds right over the Giants’ dugout. He was on close terms with manager John McGraw for the rest of his life. Corbett died of a heart ailment in Bayside, N.Y. in 1933. He was 66.