June 20, 2018

John L. Sullivan: Base-Ball Player

May 28, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

sullyJohn L. Sullivan was largely considered the first heavyweight champion of the bare-knuckle variety and a greatly popular boxer of his era.

But Sullivan also played some semi-pro baseball growing up in Boston and had, according to the New York Times, “always been identified with base-ball, and at one time was a promising player.”

On May 28, 1883, Sullivan got a chance to perhaps live out a dream – pitching and playing for a major-league team.

Just two weeks prior, on May 14, Sullivan had fought Englishman Charlie Mitchell at Madison Square Garden. Knocked down in the first round, Sullivan rallied and sent Mitchell to the canvas five times in the third round before the fight was called.

Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Sullivan would pitch in a game with the New York Metropolitans of the American Association (then a major league in competition with the National League) against a “picked nine” of his choosing.

Stunts like this were hardly an exception. Sullivan was wildly popular and would post challenges for fights, races (one such proposal was for a 100-yard to 150-yard dash while carrying a 120-pound man on his back) and offers to play for minor-league baseball teams (for which Sullivan would usually charge $500).

Sullivan appeared to be taking this game with the Metropolitans seriously, “practicing curves and up and down chutes lately, and it is said they will prove as effective as his round hitting.”

The game itself was much like a team scrimmage, with some other pro players included to help fill out the rosters.

On the “picked nine” team Sullivan would face were several Metropolitan players, including catcher Bill Holbert, first baseman Dave Orr and future Hall of Fame pitcher Tim Keefe, who would play shortstop and first base during the game. Among those helping fill out the roster were Pittsburgh Alleghenys outfielder George Creamer and Jim Holdsworth, who had played in the National Assocation as far back as 1872 and had been with several National League teams, but was with minor league Trenton in 1883.

Sullivan would be teamed up with such New York players as shortstop Candy Nelson, first baseman Steve Brady, third baseman Dude Esterbrook, outfielders Chief Roseman and Ed Kennedy, pitcher Jack Lynch (who played center field), catcher Charlie Reipschlager and second baseman Sam Crane.

Tickets for the game were 50 cents to a dollar, with the price of grandstand seats doubled their usual rate. Still, an estimated 4,000 people showed up to watch Sullivan take the mound.

Sullivan, who wore the home white uniform (with a blue shield in the upper left corner) with blue socks and a white cap, said he had not played baseball in six years. The Times noted that “the short sleeves of the garment displayed a pair of brawny arms from the shoulder down. His breadth of shoulder, thick legs, and expansive rump distinguished him from every other player in the field.”

After the Metropolitans scored a run in the first inning – they won a coin toss and elected to hit first – Sullivan strode to the mound with all eyes upon him. “Mr. Sullivan’s gait at once attracted attention,” reported the Times. “No Bowery boy could have swaggered more gracefully over the ground.”

Sullivan’s pitching did not match his confident walk, however. He struggled to find the plate, but yet he did not allow a run in each of the first two innings (likely due to the fact that the picked nine team helped by swinging at a lot of pitches).

When Sullivan batted, he heard a great applause – which was soon followed by laughter as he swung and missed, spinning around in the process. The Times reported that the pitcher, known only as Creeden, then tossed slower pitches to Sullivan, who was able to hit the ball. Although, again, there might have been some help from the opposition as the Times hinted Holdsworth made a bad throw to first base on purpose, allowing Sullivan to chug his way to third base.

Later in the game, Sullivan had a sharp single then stole second and third, but was caught trying to steal home, “where he lay sprawling and covered with dust.”

In the field, Sullivan had his ups and downs. He caught a couple of pop flies with his bare hands – apparently eschewing even the small gloves fielders used back then. But he was also charged with four errors, his throws to first base routinely finding the fence (as did many of his pitches, albeit behind home plate not first).

In addition, all his running the bases tired him out and made his pitching worse – and also more hittable, “for the picked nine sent his balls flying in every direction.”

Sullivan did double in the game and the entire crowd roared when Sullivan scored his only run during the seventh inning.

The game itself was truly an exhibition. The Times reported it “was anything but brilliant, and but for Mr. Sullivan’s presence would have flattened out completely.”

Of course, without Sullivan, 4,000 people wouldn’t have attended, producing an estimated $1,200 of gate receipts, of which Sullivan would earn half. A wire story claimed Sullivan’s take was actually $1,595 in a game which was “wretchedly played.”

The game itself was played in 2 hours, 19 minutes – quite longer than the 11 minutes in the ring Sullivan had spent two weeks earlier against Mitchell. Thirty-five runs were scored (the Mets won, 20-15) – although just 21 earned – and 71 total hits. There’s no tabulation for walks, but Sullivan is credited with one strikeout and three wild pitches, while making two putouts and one assist with his four errors.

Perhaps Sullivan learned a thing or two from this game, as he then headed to Philadelphia to pitch for the American Association’s Athletics against a picked nine from local players (“who had the courage to face” Sullivan).

About 3,500 attended that game – and, again, Sullivan would take home half the gate receipts – with Sullivan’s team winning 15-2.


One Response to “John L. Sullivan: Base-Ball Player”
  1. Cliff Blau says:

    They weren’t the New York Metropolitans, they were the Metropolitans (and same thing goes with the Alleghenys). Also, he couldn’t have taken the mound since there was no mound then. Furthermore, Dave Orr wasn’t on the Metropolitans in May 1883 (except for one game as a fill-in); I believe he was with the Newarks then.

    I’m sure you’ll do better on your followup article on “Gentleman” Jim Corbett’s baseball adventures.

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