This article was written by Peter Mancuso
This article was published in the The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)
George A. “Tuck” Turner was a member of the National League and American Association for seven seasons (1893–98) and a utility outfielder for the Phillies for the first five of those big league seasons. How Tuck Turner became a major leaguer and a member of the Philadelphia Phillies is an unusual story. Bill James observed and commented, “At the age of 21, Tuck Turner hit .416 and scored 91 runs in 80 games, he also drove in 82 runs. His career degenerated quickly after that. I can’t remember that I ever read anything about him, and I have no idea what the story was.”[fn]James, Bill, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, New York, The Free Press, 2001; 62.[/fn]
James was referring to George A. “Tuck” Turner, a member of the National League and American Association for seven seasons (1893–98) and a utility outfielder for the Phillies for the first five of those big league seasons.
Turner was born on Staten Island on Cherry Lane, the same street his father George, a laborer, and mother, Caroline, a house keeper, had both been born.[fn]Obituary of George A. Turner, Staten Island Advance, Staten Island, NY, July 17, 1945.[/fn] Cherry Lane is in the West New Brighton community on the Island’s north shore. According to every baseball reference until recent times, Tuck Turner was born there on February 13, 1873.
How Tuck Turner became a major leaguer and a member of the Philadelphia Phillies is an unusual story. Before joining the Phillies and appearing in his major league debut on August 18, 1893, Turner never played organized professional baseball, but he had played on some of the best amateur teams on Staten Island, and we know that he was on the island’s best semi-pro team of his day, the West New Brighton Corinthians, and several other highly respected semi-pro clubs in the greater New York City area.
In 1892, and for the start of the 1893 season, Turner played on one of the very best of these semi-professional teams, the New York State Asylum team in Middletown, New York. Some of the players worked at the asylum and others came to play on the team; patients did not play. The Asylum team would also be a stopping off place in 1894 for pitching great Jack Chesbro en route to his hall-of-fame, major league career.
Before Turner’s mid-August major league debut with the Phillies in 1893, he played for another excellent semi-pro team, the Plainfields of New Jersey.[fn]Mayer, Robert, email, Turner’s minor league teams; unpublished; January 9, 2007. In 1893 Turner played for the Plainfield Club in the New Jersey League (The Sporting News, August 25, 1894) which was most likely the Central New Jersey League. On July 13 and August 16, the team traveled to Middletown where the Asylums defeated the club 10–7 and 17–8 with Turner playing in the first game against the Asylums. The Middletown newspaper report referred to the team as the Crescents of Plainfield. Turner also played in several games for the Asylum team that year. In 1904 and 1905, Turner played for Hoboken, and on September 29 played with the Asylum BBC in their reunion game against the Cuban X Giants with Chesbro pitching against Frank Grant and Clarence Williams. (Phil Dixon, Phil Dixon’s American Baseball Chronicles Great Teams: The 1905 Philadelphia Giants, Vol. 3, (Charleston, SC: BookSurge, LLC 2006), 83, and Robert Mayer; email; unpublished, March 24, 2013).[/fn] Like the New York Asylum team, this team played against top competitors, including exhibition games with major and minor league teams, top college clubs and other semi-pro organizations, including racially segregated African American teams like the great Cuban Giants.
In 1893, two other Staten Islanders were playing for the Philadelphia Phillies; both were from Turner’s West New Brighton neighborhood. The first was right hand pitcher John “Brewery Jack” Taylor, who was in his first full season with the club, and who would, in just another year, become the Phillies’ top ace for several seasons. Taylor would be traded from the Phillies to St. Louis after the conclusion of the 1897 season and then on to Cincinnati for one season before a tragically young death at age 26 in February 1900.
The other was former New York Giants pitcher, then Phillies utility player, Jack Sharrott. Sharrott had come to the attention of New York Giants’ manager Jim Mutrie in early 1890 as Mutrie was in desperate straits to field a team as a result of the players’ rebellion that particularly decimated the New York roster. Mutrie’s “discovery” of Sharrott, who turned out to be a surprisingly good pitcher, is a story in itself, involving a mugging, a police intervention, a cop whose son was a pitcher, a tryout with the Giants, and a degree of entertaining speculation.
Sharrott had a brief, sometimes headline-grabbing, career as a Giants hurler before a base-sliding injury to his shoulder ended his days as a pitcher. He was a skilled enough athlete and hitter, however, to remain a Giant for another season before he was sent to the Phillies in 1893 in a high profile trade which included Giants future Hall of Famer Roger Connor.
It was in that season (1893) when Sharrott called to the attention of Phillies’ manager Harry Wright the presence of a young guy from his neighborhood back on Staten Island. This young man, Tuck Turner, now had a chance to show his skills. Playing only semi-pro ball at the time, Turner was free to try out for the Phillies. Harry Wright liked what he saw and immediately signed Turner and inserted him into the Phillies line-up every chance he had for the remaining six weeks of the 1893 season. Turner played in 36 games with 155 at-bats, which resulted in a very impressive .323 batting average; not too shabby for a 20-year-old rookie.
In one of those ironies of baseball and life, it was Jack Sharrott’s fate to be replaced on the Phillies’ roster by the person he scouted, his old friend, Tuck Turner. Sharrott was cut from the team’s roster shortly before opening day of the 1894 season, ending his four-year major league career. His departure, however, did not take place until the end of spring training and not before the taking of a team photo showing Turner and Sharrott (along with fellow Staten Islander Jack Taylor), causing endless confusion for modern researchers who do not understand how an 1894 Phillies team photo depicts all three players, while team records show Sharrott was not on the Phillies that year.
Although his major league career was over, Sharrott was an enterprising young man and remained attached to baseball for another two decades, mostly in the New England minor leagues. He even served on occasion as a baseball scout and signed a couple of players for the Detroit Tigers in the early twentieth century.
Not unnoticed by baseball historians, in 1893 (Turner’s debut season) the pitching distance was moved back. The pitching rubber was set 60 feet, six inches from home plate, instead of the forward line of the old pitcher’s box, 50 feet away. The new rule mandating that the pitcher keep a rear foot on this rubber slab resulted in a net difference of approximately four and a third feet further from the pitcher’s new release point to the plate.
Today’s observer might be shocked by the style of play in Tuck Turner’s era. Legendary baseball analyst Bill James describes baseball of the 1890s as:
Dirty. Very, very dirty. The tactics of the eighties were aggressive; the tactics of the nineties were violent. The game of the eighties was crude; the game of the nineties was criminal…. Players spiked each other. A first baseman would grab the belt of a base-runner to hold him back a half-second after the ball was hit. Occasionally, players tripped one another as they rounded the bases. Fights broke out from day to day. Players shoved umpires, spat on them, and abused them in every manner short of assault. Fans hurled insults and beer bottles at the players of opposing teams.[fn]James, Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, New York, Villard Books, 1998, 38.[/fn]
Imagine Tuck Turner, at five feet, six-and-one-half inches and 155 pounds out there in the rough and tumble baseball world of the 1890s, competing with the best of them. And, compete he did!
After his August 1893 debut, he appeared in 36 games with 155 at bats. In addition to his .323 BA, he hit four doubles, three triples, and one home run. He stole seven bases and struck out only 19 times, while driving in 13 runs and scoring 32. Not bad for a short season rookie.
There remained a problem for manager Wright: Turner was an outfielder, and not a very impressive defensive one but adequate enough given his lively bat. Wright had arguably the finest starting outfield in all of major league history: “Big Ed” Delahanty in left field, “Sliding Billy” Hamilton in center field, and “Big Sam” Thompson in right field. All three would eventually be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and all three were at the prime of their careers in Philadelphia in the early and mid 1890s. Utilizing Turner as a Phillie, particularly as an outfielder, would be a challenge, but the opportunity would unexpectedly present itself the very next season.
After spring training in 1894, the Phillies were about to embark on the finest offensive season in major league history. The team’s record-breaking collective season batting average of .350 has never been surpassed.[fn]Westcott, Richard and Bilovsky, Frank, The Phillies Encyclopedia, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2004, 17.[/fn] Leading the way in 1894, of course was that incredible Hall of Fame outfield: Delahanty, .404; Hamilton, .403 and Thompson, .415. Amazingly, however, Tuck Turner outdid all three of them, hitting .418.
Turner’s .418 was not just a pinch hitter’s batting average. Due to injuries suffered by two of his outfield teammates, particularly Thompson (102 games) and Delahanty (116 games), Turner managed to play in 82 games and had 347 at bats.
From 1876 through 1920 the accepted standard for a player to qualify for the batting title was that a player had to appear in at least 60 percent of his team’s scheduled games.[fn]Daniels, John E., “Where Have You Gone, Carl Yastrzemski?: A Statistical Analysis of the Triple Crown,” The Baseball Research Journal, vol. 37, Cleveland, SABR, 2008, 107.[/fn] Tuck Turner met that standard in 1894. In that same season, however, Boston’s Hugh Duffy of that city’s National League team hit for the highest single season batting average in major league history, .440. This effectively gave Tuck Turner the first of his three major league records, the highest single season batting average not to win the league batting title.[fn]Dewey, Donald and Acocella, Nicholas, The Biographical History of Baseball, Chicago, Triumph Books, 2002, 428.[/fn]
Unlike a streak, when a player grows hot for a few weeks or even a few months and attains an exceptionally high batting average over that one portion of the season, Turner’s ability to hit at such a high level was sustained throughout the entire season, giving some savvy baseball observers reason to suspect that “park effect” might explain his level of sustained performance. That would be a reasonable speculation given that at the start of the 1895 season the Phillies moved into their new home field, Philadelphia Park (later known as Baker Bowl and the team’s home field through 1938). However, SABR researcher Trent McCotter’s paper, “The .400 Club,” which is a comparative analysis of all .400+ season batting averages, puts the “park effect” theory to rest. One of McCotter’s findings is that Turner achieved the highest on-road single season batting average in major league history, a sizzling .443.[fn]McCotter, Trent, “The .400 Club,” The Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 33, Charlton, Jim, Ed.; Cleveland, SABR; 2004; 64–70.[/fn] This is the second of Turner’s two records. As it turns out, there was no “park effect” in Philadelphia; it was all Turner, hitting at a record pace across 11 other major league cities.
Although outpaced by Duffy’s .440, Turner ended up ninth on the all-time highest single season batting averages list.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] He set a third record which is likely to remain unbroken. Turner’s .418 season average is the highest single season average ever recorded by a switch hitter.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
In 2010 the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame inducted Turner posthumously and installed a plaque honoring this native son. In considering the six inscriptions on that plaque, two of these career accomplishments deserve further comment:
“Hit .323, .416, .386 in first three seasons with 1890s Philadelphia Phillies” and “Had 11 straight multiple-hit games, third best all time.”
Had there been a bigger plaque, two more inscriptions might have been included; one to give credit to his highest season average for a switch hitter and the other for Turner’s 12 consecutive games with at least one RBI, tying him with ten other players for eighth overall among all major leaguers.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] There are only seven players above him on that RBI list.[fn]McCotter, “Record RBI Streak Discovered,” Baseball Digest, Vol. 67, No. 3, Ibid, May 2008, 62–64.[/fn]
Although we may never know the full story of Tuck Turner’s obviously short career, there is something we do know today about Tuck Turner that Bill James and everyone else before him didn’t know; that is, when Tuck Turner hit .418 and scored and drove in all those runs in 1894 he was not a 21-year-old kid in his second big league season. He was actually 27 years old.
Turner had been practicing one of baseball’s oldest traditions, lying about one’s age. To all in the baseball world, Turner was born in 1873, when in reality he was born in 1867 making him a slightly less impressive 26-year-old freshman whose image was featured on the front page of The Sporting News.[fn]Image of George A. (Tuck) Turner, The Sporting News; August 25, 1894, 1.[/fn] Naturally, Turner’s West New Brighton teammates knew he was considerably older than they were, but this was baseball, and the practice of presenting one’s self as younger was so much a part of the game it was almost expected.
This tongue-in-cheek approach to lying about one’s age, however, didn’t keep Turner from giving up the charade after baseball. When he died on July 16, 1945, at his son’s home in Staten Island it was even recorded on his death certificate that he was born on February 13, 1873, which would have made him 72.[fn]Certificate of Death #1625, Borough of Richmond [Staten Island], Bureau
of vital Statistics, Department of Health, City of New York, filed July 18, 1945.[/fn] His obituary in the local newspaper was even more lenient about his age, it was headlined “New Brighton Ex-Ballplayer Dies at 70.”
Turner, however, was not going to mess with the US government. When the census taker visited the Turner household in 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930, Turner told Uncle Sam his true age, which was always six years older than his baseball age. In addition, George Turner Sr., Tuck’s father, not knowing in 1870 and 1880 that his son would be trying out for the Phillies in the future, reported in those years’ censuses that his son George’s ages were three and 13 respectively. Finally, we arrive at the Turner family plot in Oceanview (formerly Valhalla) Cemetery in Staten Island where he was laid to rest beside his wife Louise (Kiley) Turner, who predeceased him in 1942 (they had been married for 52 years). The family headstone is inscribed, “George Turner 1867–1945”, making him 78 years old at the time of his death, which matches the census data.
Age was probably only part of the explanation of Turner’s major league decline. Part of the story seems to be playing time. His outfield teammates were three future Hall of Famers. He was not going to replace any of those stars. And, even though the Phillies completed one of the worst trades in baseball history in 1896, sending Billy Hamilton to Boston, they did acquire (in a different deal) another future Hall of Famer, second baseman, Napoleon Lajoie, who as a rookie they used mostly at first base.
The final blow for Turner might have been his transfer to St. Louis, which in 1896 was “baseball hell.” The National League and American Association Browns (later to be known as the Cardinals) were at the mercy of their megalomaniac owner, German beer baron Chris von der Ahe. Von der Ahe, who made, spent, and lost a fortune was, by 1896, the most erratic owner in all of baseball. His wife was suing him for divorce, his mistress was suing him for false promises, he had been “kidnapped” by agents of Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfus to stand trial for “kidnapping” Pirates pitcher Mark Baldwin, whom he tried to drag into State Court for breach of contract.
Von der Ahe, now cash strapped, was wheeling and dealing players like Monopoly properties. When Turner arrived in St. Louis, before he could put on a Browns’ uniform, he immediately found himself in St. Paul, Minnesota, as a minor leaguer, another Von der Ahe deal.[fn]Brooklyn Eagle, “Base Ball Notes,” June 29, 1896, 5.[/fn] He returned to St. Louis in time to play in 51 games, where he hit only .246. He followed up nicely, however, in 1897 with a .291 average, playing in 103 games. But, after a slow start in 1898, he was released after 35 games. He was now 31 years old, not very old, but not young by baseball standards.
Turner continued to play baseball in the minor leagues for another eight seasons, but never returned to the major leagues. His first year in the minors was in 1899 with Kansas City, of the top minor circuit Western League, which in 1900 would become the American League. From 1900 through 1906 Turner played in the competitive Eastern League, Connecticut State League, and New England League.
On July 16, 1905, Turner played in one of the finest displays of baseball in the era of racial segregation. Playing for his old Hoboken club, Turner accepted a challenge from the African American Philadelphia Giants and their great pitcher “Rube” Foster. Foster, a legendary pitcher in the early twentieth-century, later founded the Negro National League but on that July day in 1905, 38-year-old Tuck Turner had one of the only four hits that Foster allowed in a 2–1 Hoboken victory.[fn]Dixon, Phil S., Phil Dixon’s American Baseball Chronicles Great Teams: The 1905 Philadelphia Giants, Vol. III, Charleston, SC, Book Surge, LLC, 2006, 83.[/fn]
With his playing career behind him in the first decade of the twentieth-century, Turner worked as a laborer in various locations throughout New York City. He and Louise and their two sons, who were separated by 22 years (Harry, born in 1892 and Wilfred [a.k.a. Charles] born in 1914), lived both in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In the early 1930s, due to Louise’s declining health they returned to Staten Island and lived an almost invisible but idyllic life on a houseboat in a tidal estuary known as Lemon Creek on the island’s eastern shore. By World War II, Tuck and Louise were living not far from his old neighborhood on Staten Island’s north shore in the house of his now married younger son, Wilfred. With Louise’s passing in 1942, Turner remained at his son’s home where he died on July 16, 1945.
At the time of his death, Turner had not only survived his two Phillies Staten Island teammates, Jack Taylor (d. 1900) and Jack Sharrott (d. 1927) but he also survived all of Staten Island’s 19th-century major leaguers: Dude Esterbrook (d. 1901), George Sharrott (d. 1932), Jack Cronin (d. 1929) and major league manager Jim Mutrie (d. 1938). Only Esterbrook and Mutrie were born before Turner.
PETER MANCUSO is Chairman of SABR’s Nineteenth Century Committee. A native of Staten Island, New York he is the former Assistant Director of Training for the NYPD. He is an owner and partner of Mancuso Show Management which organizes and presents quilting festivals, antiques shows, and antiquarian book fares.