July 23, 2014

Charles Dexter–The Pretty, The Pretty Bad, and The Pretty Darn Heroic

February 5, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

When I first started work on this article I envisioned its title as “Charles Dexter—The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, focusing on the events of August 23, 1904 and October 2, 1905. But when further research brought to light the events of December 30, 1903, I decided to change that title. Readers will see why.

Charles Dexter was born in Evansville, Indiana, on June 15, 1876. According to contemporary reports he carried the reputation of being the youngest man to enter the National League when he was signed to the catching staff of the Baltimore Orioles at the age of 16. It was reported he was released because of a sprained knee. Baseball-Reference records his first minor league appearance with the Evansville Black Birds of the Southern Association in 1895. He played with Louisville in the National League from 1896 to 1899. He was then purchased by the Chicago National League club and played in the Windy City until going to the Boston Beaneaters in July 1902. In spring 1904 the 27-year old catcher was purchased by Louisville of the American Association, to become the Colonels player/manager. He started 1905 again as the catcher/manager of the Colonels, but was given his unconditional release in early July—reportedly due to his injured hands–and immediately signed to manage St. Joseph in the Western League. In August Dexter left St. Joseph and signed with the Des Moines Underwriters of the same league, as a utility player. In September Underwriter manager Herman Long resigned, due to a falling out with president Mick Cantillon, and Dexter became the team’s manager. He continued to play in Des Moines until the 1908 season.

With that brief summary of Charlie Dexter’s playing career, I focus here on three days in his life.

August 23, 1904 – The Pretty

The Louisville Colonels came to Milwaukee for a two game series on Tuesday, August 23, 1905. Before the first game was played, cupid took his turn at bat. Charlie Dexter had brought his fiance Mary Olson of Boston to Milwaukee, and the couple appeared in the judicial chambers of Judge Neelen in City Hall. With the couple was his best man, Brewer manager Joe Cantillon, and a witness. Unfortunately the couple did not know a 5-day interval after the license was issued was required for the ceremony to be performed. The judge, appreciating the fact that the captain of a baseball team is entitled to a special dispensation, waived the 5-day waiting requirement. Within minutes the new groom, bearing on his arm his bride, hastened almost unobserved to the elevator and out of the building. As Tuesday was Ladies’ Day at the ballpark, the new Mrs. Dexter said she would be at Athletic Park to see her husband’s team beat the Brewers.

Cantillon and married couple MJ 8-23-04

And beat the Brewers the Colonels did in this first game of the series, by a score of 10 to 5. Unfortunately, the new Mrs. Dexter did not see her husband in the whole game, as he was ejected from the grounds for “coaching too loudly” by umpire Bill Klem.

October 2, 1905 The Pretty Bad

After the regular 1905 American Association season ended most of the members of the Milwaukee Brewers went on a barnstorming tour. On September 27 this tour went to Des Moines, Iowa, that city’s Underwriters being the 1905 Western League champions. This club was owned by Milwaukee manager Joe Cantillon and his brother Mike. Charlie Dexter was the manager of this team. The Underwriters won the first two games, but then the Brewers came back to win the last three games. The night after the series ended–Monday, October 2–a number of the players from both teams made a final round of the local saloons. Exactly what happened is open to debate. What is known is that Charlie Dexter produced a knife and cut Brewer first baseman Quait Bateman in the chest.

Quait Bateman

Quait Bateman

Reports in the following days, from several Iowa and Milwaukee newspapers, is a reminder of how facts get distorted in the telling and re-telling. All reports have one fact in common. The players had been drinking–according to the Milwaukee Journal the players were “badly intoxicated”.

At the corner of Sixth Avenue and Walnut Street at 8:00 in the evening something happened. Initial reports stated Dexter, “who had partaken freely until he was in an ugly humor”, drew Bateman aside and the two became engaged in a heated argument, allegedly over the portion of the cab fare Dexter thought Bateman owed. The Muscatine (Iowa) Journal of October 3 gives this melodramatic description of the supposed following events:

Bateman was heard to apply an epithet to Dexter, and the next instant a knife glittered in Dexter’s hand and descended on Bateman’s breast, cutting a deep gash in the right lung. Bateman sunk to the sidewalk with a groan. He was immediately taken in an ambulance to the office of Dr. L D. Rood, where he made a statement to the effect that he and Dexter had been together for a time renewing old acquaintances and were engaged in a few words on Walnut Street. “I didn’t think he would do it,” said the injured man, “but without any warning he pulled a knife and stabbed me. I didn’t think ‘Dex’ would do it.” Loss of blood prevented a further statement.

Bateman was taken to Mercy hospital. Dr. Rood made the statement there he doubted Bateman’s recovery. Dexter remained on the street corner after the stabbing, and to friends who tried to reason with him he made threats of violence. Finally an officer placed him under arrest. He is now held in the city jail. He refuses to talk. No charge has been made against him yet.

Other reports in the next day or two described the knife as “a big pocket knife” and Bateman’s wound as “piercing the lung and opening a six inch gash”. Another had Dexter “in a fit of demoniac temper” utter an oath, and draw a “huge pocket knife from his pocket and plunge it straight into Bateman’s bosom, cutting a gash six inches in length and several inches in depth.”

The Ireton (Iowa) Weekly Ledger ran a quote from Dr. Rood:

The physician in attendance said that he feared for the injured ball player. “The cut is a very deep one and gives every indication of being fatal. It is in the right lung and is a cut six or seven inches long. Of course anything coming in contact with the lung is apt to be dangerous, not to say fatal. Bateman bled profusely and the loss of blood rendered him very weak. It will be some time before I will be able to determine his exact condition, but for the present I believe he is in a most dangerous condition”.

To show how the story quickly got out of hand, the published report in the Waterloo Times Tribune the day after the incident had the cutting happen during the game:

STABBED ON BALL FIELD
In the seventh inning of a ball game in the series being played in this city (Des Moines] between the Milwaukee team of the American Association and the Des Moines team of the Western League, catcher Charles Dexter of the Des Moines team pulled a long knife and stabbed first baseman Bateman of the Milwaukee team, striking him several times with the knife and cutting gashes that will undoubtedly result in the death of Bateman.

The two teams have been playing a long series in this city and a strain of bad blood between the two players had been allowed to grow unchecked during the series, the trouble becoming greater each day until this afternoon, when the stabbing occurred. The act by Dexter was done so quickly that none of the players nor spectators could interfere.

Dexter is under arrest and will be held pending the death or recovery of Bateman. The affair caused a great disturbance between the player and in the grandstands. At a late hour the death of Batemen seemed imminent and he is sinking quickly.

Charlie Dexter

Charlie Dexter

Charlie Dexter was arrested and taken to jail. Quait Bateman was treated by a doctor. But within a day the severity of his injury and treatment was being reported differently. On October 4 the Algona Advance (and other sources) reported there was very little of a fight. The players in the group said Dexter had a small pen knife in his hand and was talking in a loud tone. He struck out with his hand and the knife went through the clothing of Bateman, who happened to be the nearest to Dexter. The cut was little more than a scratch, and Bateman walked himself to the doctor’s office.

However, the cut must have been a little more than a scratch, as Bateman was taken to and admitted to Mercy Hospital. The Waterloo Daily Courier of October 4 stated reports from the hospital showed that Bateman was in very good condition and would be able to be out in a few days. His temperature and general condition were normal and the big Texan was able to talk of the affair, which he deplored “as having been the unnecessary cause of a great deal of noise”. The wound, not considered especially serious after all, was long and deep and the knife had splintered one of Bateman’s ribs. He would be in the hospital a few weeks.

Quait Bateman told authorities his injuries were minor and did not wish to prosecute. He signed an affidavit to that effect and Charlie Dexter was released from police custody, immediately taking off for Chicago. Bateman’s injury had to be more serious than put on, as shortly after the first of the year it was reported he was still weak, but hoping to be ready for spring training.

It was thought in some quarters this lack of prosecution desire by Bateman was brought on by a hospital visit form Mike Cantillon, manager of the Underwriters. The Oxford [Iowa] Mirror later wrote Cantillon visited the ball player at Mercy Hospital and after talking with him had influenced Dexter to withhold charges against the Des Moines player.

It appears the entire incident was totally out of character for both players. The Milwaukee Journal told its reader that Bateman was considered one of the quietest players on the team, and in fact, it was said he was not even a drinking man.

An unknown person wrote to the Waterloo Times Tribune shortly after the incident saying this:

In reference to the stabbing of a ball player in Des Moines a few days ago it has been asserted that Charlie Dexter, the man who did the stabbing, is possessed of a very bad temper and is pugnacious at all times. This writer, from person acquaintance, is in a position to refute this statement and positively assert that Dexter is as fine a fellow as one would care to meet. While of a disposition which might be construed by those not well acquainted with the personality of the ball player, he might be regarded as surly but even by his enemies he has never been accused of being belligerent. Dexter’s reputation has always been of the best and in all of the writer’s personal experience with Charlie Dexter he has never known the player to be guilty of a dishonorable action. Dexter, however seems to have acquired the disposition known in base ball circles as a ‘crab’ but other than that nothing can be said against Dexter’s personality.

Quait Bateman would recover and play 155 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1906.

The above article telling us Dexter was never guilty of a dishonorable act does not even come close to telling the heroic tale in Dexter’s life only two years before.

December 30, 1903 The Pretty Darn Heroic

On the afternoon of December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago presented a matinee performance of “Mr. Bluebeard” before a standing room only crowd. Many of the estimated 2,000 persons in attendance were children. Shortly after the beginning of the second act an arc light shorted out and ignited a curtain. Efforts to put the fire out were not successful. In the hysteria to get out of the theater hundreds of people were trampled, crushed or asphyxiated. Others made it to the inadequate fire escapees and jumped to their death. In the end, at least 605 people perished.

John Houseman

John Houseman

In the audience that afternoon were Charlie Dexter and his friend Frank Houseman, a former baseball player, who played a little in Chicago nine years earlier. The two had purchased seats in an upper box, and Houseman commented there were a great many of women and children present. When the fire was first noticed Houseman and Dexter told the patrons in the box with them of the situation and began to leave the theater quietly, as not to start a panic. The flames started to intensify and spread, and panic did ensue. Dexter was separated from Houseman, so decided the best thing to do was to jump on the stage and get out through the stage door. Dexter said people were running all over and he ran into a crowd of little children. In his own words Dexter explained what happened next: “The people were running over one another. I saw some draperies hanging and I opened them. I didn’t know where I was going, and I found two doors of glass or wood. I didn’t stop to examine them but I opened them. I found myself up against some iron doors. I didn’t know how to work them. The only thing I could see was a cross-bar, and I started to shove that up, and I couldn’t shove very well, and I started to beat at it. By this time the people were pushed up against me, and I didn’t know whether I would be able to get it open or not. I had all the poor little kids around me, and I beat the thing until finally it went up, and as it did of course the people behind me—we went out into the alley. I turned and looked back and saw a wave of fire sweeping over the whole inside of the theater”.

Charlie Dexter

Charlie Dexter

W. A. Phelon, Jr. wrote about the heroics of both players in Sporting Life. He related what one little boy wrote in a letter to Dexter. The kid thanked Charlie for saving his tiny life. The boy had been trampled down in the rush to get out and was laying on the floor, “when Dexter seized him, lifted him up, and catching another child with his remaining hand, bore both the little ones to safety”. Phelon wrote that “Houseman’s old-time skill came back to him as he caught a frantic woman leaping from the balcony—he braced for the shock just as he would have braced himself to withstand a sliding runner, and, though knocked down and bruised, succeeded in keeping the woman from injury”.

Even given that Phelon used some poetic license in describing the actions of Dexter and Houseman at the fire, he was no doubt correct when he wrote: “The coolness of the ball players in the hour of dread and danger was something as marvelous as it was heroic”. Later reports credited the ball players with saving 200 to 300 lives. This number could be high, but the two men did what they could in a terrible situation.

Charlie Dexter should be remembered for his actions inside the Irioquis Theater, the other incidents placed as footnotes of a heroic man.

Dennis Pajot
Milwaukee

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