The Last Ride of Baseball’s Dalton Gang
According to history books, the outlaw Dalton Gang terrorized the old west for several years in the 1890s. Baseball had its own version of the Dalton Gang in the 1950s and early 1960s and–at least according to the oral legend passed down in dugouts, clubhouses and team buses–they were only slightly less terrorizing in their assault on bartenders, waitresses, maids, hotel rooms and team rules.
The gang’s hideout was the clubhouse of the Philadelphia Phillies and it was made up of Dick (Turk) Farrell, Jim (The Bear) Owens and Jack (The Bird) Meyer. Others, such as Seth Morehead and Don Cardwell, occasionally rode with the gang as well. If none of them seem to be household names, there’s a reason: most of their best work was done at night, away from the lights of the ball field.
The Daltons were all pitchers, big and rough, and most of them had talent; enough talent to keep them on a major league roster while they were driving management crazy. The name for the gang was handed down in 1959 by the Phillies pitching coach Tom Ferrick, the poor soul charged with corralling them long enough to make it to the mound.
They were a particularly fun-loving bunch who enjoyed nothing more than hoisting a few and taking liberties, with the rules of both the team and civilized society. They knew the best nightspots in every town in the National League and, for most of them, they knew what the joints looked like at closing time–not that they could always remember. A teammate later said of them, “They were homicidally notorious. They would go into bars and beat up people, they’d tear clubhouses apart with their practical jokes, they would do anything anytime.” They were described in print as “pitchers who threw fast and lived fast and who were swept up in the excitement of being young and playing baseball for a living . . . outlaws who rode by night.”
Since most postgame activities were sanitized at the time by journalists who wanted to maintain their place in line at the team’s free press buffet, it’s difficult to say with certainty whether the Dalton Gang had more fun, or was any more destructive, than Mickey-Whitey-Billy or any number of other famously hard-living players of the era, but two things seem certain: few others tried harder and few others created a comparable legend. The singular aspect that made them notorious was the fact that, to a man, they tended to become very disagreeable when drunk. They often ended their evenings trying to inflict physical injury on: a) strangers, b) each other or, c) any offending nearby inanimate object. When they drank, violence was close behind. And they drank often. They left a wide path of destruction in barrooms and hotels.
The most talented of the bunch, on the baseball field, was Dick Farrell. He was also the unofficial leader of the gang. He pitched exclusively in relief for the Phillies and went 10-2 with a 2.38 ERA in 1957 as a rookie and made the All-Star team in 1958. Farrell loved pranks and was noted for pouring buckets of ice on teammates on the toilet, setting off firecrackers in the clubhouse, and slipping an alligator (presumably a small one) into the whirlpool in spring training. Once he got into the official game balls before a game against the Braves and wrote unmentionable messages on them to rival pitcher Lew Burdette. During the game Burdette would look at a ball and then yell into the Phillies dugout, “Same to you, Farrell.”
While he loved a good laugh, Farrell had a temper and could turn dark quickly. The 6-4, 225-pounder threw hard and was one of the most intimidating men in baseball. He would knock down a hitter for merely taking an excessively aggressive swing. He also firmly believed in the baseball version of an eye for an eye–call it Homer-abi’s Code–plus one. When Joe Morgan, a future teammate in Houston, was routinely getting brushed back as part of the trial all good rookies had to go through at the time, Farrell watched a few weeks, then decided he had seen enough. He approached Morgan in the dugout: “We’re gonna put a stop to that shit. Who do you want?” After that every time Morgan was brushed back Farrell would retaliate. “I”ll get one for you–and one for me. The pitcher’s mine.”When opposing hitters objected to being targeted and glared out at him, Farrell would scream at them and dare them to come to the mound. Once after he plunked Willie Mays, he was verbally assaulted by the entire Giants dugout. He yelled back at them, “I’ll take any one of you guys–or any two–right now.” No one took him up on the offer.
Farrell claimed to always carry a .45 pistol and later famously shot rattlesnakes near the field when the Colt 45s/Astros trained in Arizona. Philadelphia first baseman Ed Bouchee later said that when they were teammates in the minors in Miami, he was in the shared bathroom between his and Farrell’s hotel rooms when Farrell started shooting through the door. Between ice and bullets, teammates learned to never relax too much to relieve nature’s calls when Farrell was around.
Like Farrell, the other two main marauders, Meyer and Owens, were hard-throwing relievers. But after initially showing potential, neither improved, leaving observers to conclude that perhaps they couldn’t cash the checks Farrell was writing at night and that the group’s training regimen derailed their careers. Meyer came up to the Phillies first and led the National League in saves with 16 as a rookie in 1955. He added 97 strikeouts in 101 innings and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. He never lived up to the promise of his rookie season, however, and ended his major league career after five years with a record of 24-34.
Jim Owens was 12-12 in his first full season in 1959 but went 11-28 over the next three years while his ERA climbed north of 5.00. Farrell frequently defended his roomie’s talent, saying Owens only needed management to leave him alone and let him pitch and he would do well. Although Owens told the press that he was the kind of pitcher who could stay out drinking all night and then throw a shutout, it eventually became evident that he was only correct about the first part. A teammate later said, “He really could have been a good pitcher if he had stuck to the straight and narrow.”
But straight and narrow wasn’t their style.
Their reputation was soon known to players across the National League. John Callison, who joined the team in a trade in December, 1959, later said that when the trade was announced he was cautioned by a veteran player, “You’re a kid with a promising future. Don’t get hooked up with that Dalton Gang.”
“Everybody in baseball knew about the Dalton Gang,” Callison explained. “Other teams would come into the city and ask me where the Dalton Gang was headed after the game. . . There was a little bar near Connie Mack Stadium. The Dalton Gang used to sneak out or send somebody out to buy brews for them during the game.”
Baseball, by nature of its slower pace and large amount of down time during the six month season, lends itself to storytelling more than other sports; and for years, former teammates of the Dalton Gang enjoyed propagating their tales. As they say, “History became legend. Legend became myth.” What is fact and what is fiction is hard to tell at this stage.
They were said to have broken every mirror in a plush San Francisco bar one night and to have damaged more than one hotel room with fire.
An unnamed gang member, referred to in print years later only as a “boozed up flame thrower,” broke the wrist of one of the Phillie’s better hitters during an alcohol-fueled disagreement.
A fringe gang member once disrobed a waitress (against her will) in a Clearwater, Florida parking lot during spring training. The Phillies reportedly paid $250 for a new dress and the whole deal was forgotten (by most).
After a game in Milwaukee, the gang was frolicking in a bar called Fazio’s when Farrell picked up the juke box and began dancing with it. After the owner told him to put it down or he’d called the cops, Farrell put it down, went to the washroom and ripped all the mirrors and towel holders off the bathroom walls. The Phillies got a bill for that one as well.
In order to recoup some of the team’s money being paid out for the destruction wrought by the gang, as well as in an attempt to slow them down, the team began slapping them with fines.
After a couple of Daltons busted up a bartender, general manager Quinn fined them for “being unsober.”
In 1959 Farrell had another fight with a barroom mirror in Milwaukee after a loss. He later said, “I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw so I threw a punch.” He was fined $250 for “Conduct unbecoming a major league ballplayer.”
Future Phillies general manager Paul Owens was a minor league manager for the Phillies during the Dalton’s rule and roomed with future Phillies manager Frank Lucchessi, also a minor league manager at the time, during spring camp. He later told a reporter, “We’d go to bed about midnight. Frank was a sound sleeper. I thought I was, but in the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of Christmas Carols. . . I get up and go down the hall . . .There are Turk Farrell, Jim Owens and a young catcher from Syracuse. They’re singing to this guy they have hung up by the back of his jacket on a wall hook. The poor guy’s feet were off the ground. Turns out he’s the night clerk who came upstairs to quiet them down.” Farrell was fined $500 and Owens $200 and sent the catcher was sent home.
When fines didn’t work, the team tried positive reinforcement. Owens’ conduct was explicitly discussed prior to his 1960 contract and he was promised a $500 bonus if he could stay out of trouble. The lure of extra cash provided great incentive for Owens to rehabilitate his behavior–for about a week; he didn’t make it through spring training. He got into a barroom brawl in Florida, lost his $500 bonus and was hit with an extra $100 fine.
The gang burned through managers the way they went through bars–rapidly and with much collateral damage. The Phillies were a bad team, having gradually shed most of their stars from the Whiz Kids days and were in the process of sinking to the bottom of the National League. Manager Mayo Smith, a guy who had trouble controlling his players everywhere (see McLain, Denny) was no match for the gang. Neither was Eddie Sawyer, who resigned after an opening day loss in 1960, leaving with this famous statement: “I’m 49 years old and want to live to be 50.”
When the team hired tough guy Gene Mauch to replace Sawyer, it appeared that a new sheriff was in town and Philadelphia might not be big enough for all of them. Mauch initially told reporters he would be able to deal with the gang, whose arms were sorely needed by the talent-poor Phils: “You have to find ’em, fine ’em, and play ’em.” But Mauch ultimately proved to have no more luck keeping the Dalton Gang focused than he would later have with Dick Allen.
Mauch initially tried to use intellectual strategy: he split up the roomies Farrell and Owens and paired them with assistant coaches Ken Slivestri and Peanuts Lowrey. It didn’t work. Farrell later said, “Silvestri would go to bed at ten o’clock. I’d order a few beers and keep the TV set on until four. Owens would do the same thing with Lowrey. We kept this up for ten nights.” After that the coaches went to Mauch and begged him to make a change. “I can’t room with this guy, Gene,” Silvestri said. “He never sleeps.”
By the criteria of any easily-googled checklist the guys obviously had a serious problem. But it would be decades before the baseball establishment and sportswriters–led by the courageous efforts of guys like Ryne Duren, Don Newcombe and Sam McDowell–would be ready to confront alcohol abuse in its ranks with anything other than a wink and a euphemism.
The beginning of the end for the Dalton Gang’s reign of terror came in early June, 1960. It started in a nightspot in Pittsburgh, just up the street from the Phillies’ hotel. After much lubrication, Meyer became involved in a heated shouting match with a local sports writer, reportedly over a trivial matter involving horse racing. When Meyer appeared to be losing control, he was soothed by Farrell and other Daltons and led back to his hotel room and put to bed.
As the night was still relatively young, Farrell quickly had a change of heart and decided it would be great fun to pour ice water on Meyer. Meyer came up screaming and fighting. After once more being subdued, he reportedly received a phone call that sent him over the edge. He trashed the room, ripping down blinds and destroying a radio, then fought uncontrollably with several teammates who tried to prevent further carnage.
In the process of all the commotion, Meyer hurt his back. And in the next few days it became apparent that the back injury was severe. Meyer was placed on the disabled list and sent back to Philadelphia by Mauch. Phillie general manager John Quinn then fined Meyer $1,200–an enormous amount for the time. It was said to be the largest fine, in proportion to salary, in baseball history (9 % of Meyer’s $14,000 salary).
When Meyer learned the amount of the fine, he was incensed, “What do they think I am, a millionaire?” he asked reporters. “I’ve got four kids to support.” He threatened to quit baseball, then demanded to be traded. Mauch told reporters, “Meyer is a problem. Do you think any manager wants to take a problem off my hands?”
After the damaged was cleaned, fines handed out, and the usual suspects rounded up, all was back to business as usual. And then the gang was immortalized in an article by Walter Bingham in the June 13, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated. The article, titled, “The Dalton Gang Rides Again,” began “When the game is over, a trio of fun-loving Philadelpia Phillies prowl the night in search of adventure.” Bingham called the boys “throwbacks to the raucous old days,” and “wild-living, fun’loving, hell-raising players.”
“Whenever one of their nocturnal escapades lands them in trouble and makes the papers, someone around the National League invariably says, ‘I see where the Dalton Boys were out riding again last night.” The article accused the gang of “hard-drinking, frequent fighting, late hours and casual relationships.” This kind of behavior from baseball players? Written about in a national magazine? Scandalous!
The article, exceedingly innocent by modern standards, was met with much indignation and threats of reprisals from inside the baseball establishment–not for the offenses of the guilty parties, understand, but because the writer and the magazine had broken the Wall of Silence of the clubhouse. At the time, the general public was only supposed to learn of baseball player’s conduct between the lines and the only off-field activities deemed appropriate for print usually involved photo ops with small children in hospitals.
Soon after the SI issue hit the racks, the very pro-establishment Sporting News stated, “The bid for sensationalism in journalism has entered the field of sports via the weekly magazines. Sports Illustrated came along with an article on the ‘Dalton Gang’ of the Phillies in which three players were branded as playboys constantly violating training rules. . . .Does that sort of vilification belong in sports?”
This incident represents an important watershed moment in the history of sports journalism. Sports Illustrated had printed an excerpt of Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season that spring. When the complete book was released in July it was roundly denounced for telling the public that ballplayers occasionally bent an elbow and looked at women (things ordinary people were not supposed to know). Unfortunately for Commissioner Frick and the poobahs of the game who sought to protect the innocent public from scandalous information about baseball heroes, readers tended to like this sort of stuff. Along with a wave of new-breed sportswriters who came to be known as “the Chipmunks,” Brosnan’s book and this article helped usher in a new era of sports journalism–no longer would fans be content with sports stars who merely sipped malts, politely signed autographs for little kids and frequently said, “Gee, whiz, fellas, we love this game so much we would play it for nothing.” Fans wanted more.They wanted the truth. Who knew?
Farrell, Owens and Meyer filed separate lawsuits against SI’s parent company, Time, Inc., because of the article. Meyer’s suit asked for damages of $5,000 or more for “defamatory statements” that “hurt him as a salesman in the off season, damaged his employment and jeopardized the possibility of his earning a living.” In Ball Four, Owens, by 1969 a Houston pitching coach, tells Jim Bouton about the lawsuit: “We’d have gotten a helluva lot more money if one of the guys hadn’t attacked a maid a week before the trial.”
The Dalton Gang was never quite the same after the Pittsburgh affair. Considering the amount of negative press and the amount of damage, along with the fact that the team was losing miserably, it was inevitable that the gang would be broken up. One by one, they were let go. Meyer missed the rest of the 1960 season with the back injury. He pitched in one game in 1961 before leaving baseball for good. Farrell was traded to the Dodgers in May, 1961 and Owens to the Reds in November, 1962.
Expansion teams are often left with the unpleasant task of taking on other team’s problems in order to field a team of major leaguers. And so it was that in 1964 Owens and Farrell were reunited in Houston. Together again, they both enjoyed several productive seasons on the mound. Although they were a little older, perhaps wiser, and Houston general manager Paul Richards (a no-nonsense tough guy in anybody’s book) warned them about their behavior, they did not change their lifestyle too much; they only used more discretion.
The pair left a lasting impression on young Joe Morgan. He later wrote: “Those desperadoes were genuinely, dangerously crazy.” Morgan noticed that they carried nice briefcases through airports on road trips, looking very much like serious businessmen. He soon discovered that their “business” included flasks of booze, which they liberally delved into–getting around a regulation prohibiting alcohol on flights. And while their exploits were not as heralded as in the Philly days, they still had their moments, such as the time a lubricated Owens attacked a writer on the team bus after an unflattering article about Farrell. Owens held the writer by his neck with his feet dangling and only the intervention of Farrell (“Let him go, Jim, he’s not worth it”) and a couple of teammates saved the red-faced reporter from serious injury.
Farrell was converted to a starter for a time and became one of Houston’s best pitchers during their early years, becoming a fan and media favorite due to his openness and quick wit. He was a hit on the team’s winter caravan and sold season tickets in the off-season. He was not above pulling the occasional hidden ball trick or loading one up in a key situation. Once after Stan Musial singled sharply to right field on a particularly nasty two-strike spitter that broke a foot at the plate, Farrell tipped his cap toward first and said, “You, sir, have to be the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen to have hit that ball with as much as I loaded on it.” Stan the Man smiled and replied, “I thought it looked a little wet coming up there.”
Also as he aged, Farrell realized that his arm wasn’t what it had been and he only wanted to pitch at night, not trusting his fastball in the light of day anymore, knowing that the poor vision in the gloomy lights of old Colt Stadium added five years to his heater. Once his regular turn in the rotation fell on a day game. After arguing with a coach to no avail, the next day Farrell didn’t show up. He walked into the clubhouse after the game with an innocent expression on his face and told everyone he thought the game started at night. After much yelling by the coaches and righteous indignation by Farrell for having his honesty questioned, he started the next night and won. He made the All-Star team in 1962, 1964 and 1965. He played for the Colts from 1962 to 1967, before finishing with an encore in Philadelphia from 1967-69.
While Owens later tried to downplay the reputation of their old days, Farrell reveled in it. He once stopped at the real Dalton Gang Hideout and Museum in Meade, Kansas and wrote back to a sportswriter friend, “Stopped off at the old hideout . . . brought back memories. Takes a while to raise a new gang, but will start soon.”
Once when asked by a young Houston reporter if he had been a member of the infamous Dalton Gang when he had been in Philadelphia, Farrell replied with pride, “I wasn’t just a member. I was the leader.”
The years were not kind to most of the Dalton Gang. Meyer died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of 35. Farrell, the most talented of the gang, lasted the longest in baseball. He had a 14-year major league career and ended with a lifetime record of 106-111. He moved to Great Britain where he worked on an oil rig off the coast but died in a car accident in 1977. He was only 43.
Owens became the Astros pitching coach after his playing days were finished and helped forge a staff that included Mike Cuellar, Larry Dierker and Don Wilson. He still lives in Texas.
Even though they were together only a short time, the Dalton Gang remains part of baseball lore; a reminder of a much different era.