April 22, 2021

Cup of Coffee: Ed “Irish” Conwell

January 19, 2020 by · 2 Comments 

(The following was first published here on October 2, 2009)

The movie “Field of Dreams” made Archibald “Moonlight” Graham a household name and tugged at our heartstrings. Graham, played in that scene by the legendary Burt Lancaster, laments that his only regret in life was never having batted in a major league game (he played two innings in right field for the Giants on June 29, 1905, but never got a chance to hit). Ed Conwell did get his one major league at-bat and fielded a chance at third base, and had he bumped into Graham on the street, he probably would have warned “Moonlight” to be careful what he wished for. Neither play went well.

On September 22, 1911, 21-year-old third baseman Ed “Irish” Conwell made his major league debut for the St. Louis Cardinals, taking over the hot corner for Wally Smith in the top of the eighth inning with his team trailing Red Ames and the first-place New York Giants, 3-0. The game was of consequence to neither team—the Giants boasted a comfortable lead over the second-place Cubs and were well on their way to their third pennant of the modern era; the Cards were mired in fifth place, 17 games out of first.

Nevertheless, Cardinals manager Roger Bresnahan wasn’t about to roll over for anybody and started bringing players off his bench in the seventh. Denney Wilie, a 20-year-old outfielder who batted .360 and slugged .509 for Corpus Christi of the Southwest Texas League before making his major league debut on July 27, was called upon to pinch hit for Smith and promptly grounded out to Ames to start off the frame. Catcher Jack Bliss lined out to second and pitcher Roy Radebaugh fanned to end the inning.

Enter Conwell, who took over at third base to start the eighth. Conwell had starred for the Portsmouth Cobblers of the Ohio State League, hitting .306 and leading the team with 197 total bases, while committing only 14 errors in 140 games before getting his big break. Radebaugh retired the Giants in order in the eighth, and then the Cardinals took advantage of some sloppy play in the bottom of the inning to cut the score to 3-1. The Giants went down easily again in the ninth and the Cards came to the plate down by two with only one more shot to win or tie.

Conwell led off the inning and became Ames’ seventh strikeout victim when he fanned against the veteran righty. However, Bliss singled, pinch hitter Ivey Wingo walked, and second baseman Miller Huggins singled to load the bases and knock Ames from the box in favor of southpaw Rube Marquard who was en route to a 24-7 record on the season. Marquard had just beaten the Cardinals two days earlier on a complete-game four-hit shutout to earn his 22nd win on the year. In fact, in his previous four starts against the Cardinals, Marquard had allowed only 14 total hits and two runs in 36 innings, throwing three shutouts, including a one-hitter on August 28. Needless to say, he had the Cards’ number.

Bresnahan countered John McGraw’s move by bringing in rookie outfielder Otto McIvor to pinch hit for centerfielder Rebel Oakes, but McIvor fanned for the second out and it looked like Marquard was going to save the game for Ames. But Ed Konetchy spoiled things for the Giants by doubling in the tying runs before Marquard could retire Rube Ellis for the final out. With the game tied 3-3, the teams moved into extra innings.

Bresnahan continued to rely on youngsters and brought in rookie hurler George Zackert who was making his major league debut after going 17-12 for Seattle of the Northwestern League. Zackert was in his sixth season of professional ball but was facing major league competition for the first time. His career got off to a promising start when he struck out shortstop Art Fletcher for the first out of the inning. Then he coaxed catcher Chief Meyers to ground to Conwell at third for what should have been the second out, but Conwell booted the ball for an error. Marquard batted for himself and fanned, but Josh Devore doubled in Meyers to give the Giants a 4-3 lead. Zackert got out of the inning without further damage and the Cards stepped to the plate one last time with their backs to the wall.

St. Louis staged another rally when Steve Evans drew a leadoff walk, followed by an Arnold Hauser single that put runners on first and second with no outs. Conwell prepared to take his place in the batter’s box with a chance to redeem himself, but Bresnahan took no chances and replaced the rookie with veteran infielder Mike Mowrey, who sacrificed the runners to second and third with a bunt to the left side. Bliss walked to load the bases, but Marquard retired pinch hitter Jim Clark, yet another rookie, and Huggins to end the game and earn his 23rd win of the season.

After only two major league innings, in which he struck out in his only at-bat and committed an error in his only chance in the field, Conwell witnessed the beginning and end of his major league career on the same day. He never set foot on a major league diamond again.

1910 Porstmouth Cobblers. Ed Conwell (front row kneeling, #16)

Conwell, a native of Chicago, began his professional career with the Class D Portsmouth Cobblers in 1909 at the age of 19 after failing to earn a spot with the Marion Diggers, who released Conwell in favor of George Watkins. He didn’t join the Cobblers until late in the season, but made an immediate impression. “Red” Nelson of the rival Lima Cigar makers told reporters that Conwell “had the most perfect position at the bat he ever saw,” and predicted Conwell would become one of the Ohio State League’s “most dangerous hitters.”  And the Portsmouth Daily Times lauded Conwell for playing third base “splendidly.”

Less than two weeks later, Conwell made a play against Lima that was a “brilliant piece of work” and he was already being touted as the “classiest third baseman in the league.”

He batted only .161 in 34 games but his fielding and potential were so great that Portsmouth management invited him back for the 1910 season and “breathed a sigh of relief” when he finally mailed in his contract in mid-March after holding out for more money. He wasted no time impressing the papers again when he got off to a hot start to lead the team in a handful of categories, batting .368 with eight runs scored in his first 19 at-bats and accepting 24 chances without an error. However, he couldn’t keep pace and batted only .208 with a scant 16 extra-base hits in 131 games.

Regardless, Cobblers manager and second baseman Pete Childs remained high on Conwell and predicted big things for his third sacker in 1911. “Irish Conwell will be on third and I look for him to advance this season,” Childs told reporters prior to the season. “He is one of the most promising players I ever saw and his hitting will improve because of the confidence he gained last season.”  Childs could afford to be patient with his young third baseman; the Cobblers won the Ohio State League pennant in 1910 and Conwell was part of what Sporting Life magazine called the “stonewall infield,” that also featured Childs, along with Ed Irwin at first and Wesley Hornung at shortstop.

Childs proved prescient. Conwell batted .306, led the team in hits with 160 and in total bases with 197, was second in triples with 10, and stole 22 bases. In the field, only outfielder Homer Cain (.991), first baseman James Edwards (.977), and catcher John Weinberg (.972), posted better fielding percentages than Conwell’s .968, and only one other third baseman in the league had a fielding percentage as high.

His performance led to his aforementioned ill-fated major league debut, but he soon found himself back in Portsmouth where he would spend the next three seasons trying to claw his way back to the big leagues. He enjoyed another fine season in 1912, batting .292 and leading the team in at-bats (555), hits (162), doubles (29), and total bases (203), and was especially good over his last 60 games, hitting .306 to finish ninth in the league in batting during that span. He also earned some extra money in August when he received a $50 check from the Bull Durham Tobacco Company for hitting the bull on one of their billboards during a game on July 30.

It was the second time he had accomplished the feat, but he was far from being the only player in the Ohio State League to do so, prompting the Portsmouth Daily Times to issue an ill-advised recommendation.

“The ball players of the Ohio State League should smoke Bull Durham tobacco for the rest of their lives, for the company has been mighty good to them,” wrote the paper. “Most of the players have driven out home runs, which entitles them to a coupon calling for a 75¢ carton of the famous tobacco. Several have walloped the bull, for which they always receive a check for $50.”

Later in August, Sporting Life reported that several Ohio State League players would most likely be drafted, including Conwell. “That the Ohio State League will not only be riddled and fine-combed by the draft, but that several sales might be expected before the opening of the drafting season on September 1, was the belief expressed by a big league scout in this city [Lima, Ohio] in the early part of the week.”  Other potential draftees among the Cobblers were pitcher Lester Hartwig, shortstop Emmett Cain, and outfielder Homer Cain.

However, Conwell again manned third for Portsmouth in 1913 and improved his batting to .299 and slugging to .368, while finishing second on the team in hits (165) and doubles (32), and third in total bases with 203. His fielding went south, however, as he committed 33 errors in 100 games for a team-worst .914 fielding percentage. He enjoyed a few thrills, though, collecting a hit and fielding flawlessly in a late September exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs on “Al Bridwell Day” in Portsmouth.

Bridwell, the Cubs’ shortstop, was from nearby Friendship, Ohio but grew up and played ball in Portsmouth before making his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 1905. He spent most of his career with the Boston Braves and New York Giants before joining the Cubs in 1913. The game attracted fewer fans than expected, but by all accounts, the day was a rousing success. The patrons who showed up were enthusiastic and the Cobblers put up a game fight, holding the Cubs scoreless for five innings before bowing to them by a score of 6-1. The Cubs’ catcher proved to be none other than Roger Bresnahan, Conwell’s former Cardinals manager, and the Hall of Fame backstop warmly greeted Conwell with a handshake when the latter stepped to the plate for the first time.

But Conwell also experienced some setbacks. On October 25, the Times reported that he would have to undergo surgery to remove a growth in his left eye and that the obstruction had been bothering him for some time. It wouldn’t be the last time that Conwell would suffer serious health issues.

He recovered from the surgery, then went out and enjoyed his best season to date, batting .316 in 1914 with a career-high .389 slugging percentage. He was second on the team in games played (134) and hits (174), third in total bases with 214, and legged out 10 triples for the second time in his career. He also moved over to second base to make room for Eddie Goostree, who played third for the Cobblers for one year before moving on to the Rocky Mount Carolinians in the Class C Virginia League in 1915.

Conwell was rewarded for his efforts when the Waco Navigators of the Class B Texas League drafted him in November 1914. The Cobblers also lost outfielder John Hickey to the draft after Hickey batted .316 and paced the club with 16 triples.

“Local fans, while pleased to see Conwell and Hickey go higher, will regret to part with their services,” wrote the Portsmouth Daily Times. “For several years Conwell has been considered the best infielder in the Ohio State [League].”  About Hickey, the paper wrote, “He is a favorite here and is a grand ball player.”

Hickey struggled with Waco and batted only .220 in 26 games. Conwell seemingly adapted well, batting .281 and belting his first two home runs of his career, but he lost his second base job to Walter Malmquist and found himself on the bench in July. Navigators’ manager Ellis Hardy reconsidered later in the month, however, and started playing Conwell all around the infield. Conwell eventually settled in at shortstop and was considered the best shortstop in the league.

Conwell held out for more money prior to the 1916 season and returned his contract unsigned to Waco officials three times before finally agreeing to terms. He shifted back over to third base, but struggled at the plate, batting only .245 with an anemic .296 slugging percentage. Still, it was rumored in late June that the Cincinnati Reds had shown interest in Conwell and were on the verge of acquiring him.

According to St. Louis Browns scout Charles Barrett, “There is no doubt but what the Reds will buy Conwell as their scout has recommended his purchase.”  At the time of the report, the Reds were two games under .500, in fifth place, seven games out of first, and their infield was a mess. Heinie Groh, who by the end of the decade was widely considered the National League’s best third baseman, manned the hot corner, but five different men played second, led by Baldy Louden who batted only .219, and eight different men played shortstop.

Regardless, the call never came and Conwell remained in Waco. His slide continued in 1917 when he batted only .227 for the Navigators and saw his playing time reduced to 282 at-bats in 100 games. Then he suffered through a terrible 1918 season when he batted only .205 in 12 games with the Fort Worth Panthers. He landed with the Evansville Evas of the Class B Three-Eye League in 1919 and rebounded nicely, batting .318 with a team-leading 149 hits, and finished third in total bases with 168. In the field, he paced all Three-Eye third basemen in fielding percentage at .937.

Again, Conwell’s play attracted the interest of scouts and in late June several from the Double-A American Association had their eyes on him thanks to his .350 batting average and fielding prowess. But again, the rumors proved to be just that and he stayed with Evansville.

He didn’t play in 1920 but rejoined Evansville for the 1921 season. Before he was able to get back in playing shape, however, the 31-year-old Conwell suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to his home in Chicago where he sought out the help of a specialist. Then things turned from bad to worse when he was paralyzed in mid-August and was listed in critical condition.    According to newspaper reports, Conwell’s family didn’t expect him to recover. However, less than two months later, he was in good health and moved from Chicago back to Portsmouth.

His stay in Portsmouth didn’t last long, however, as another undisclosed illness forced him back to his parents’ home in Chicago in January 1922. Conwell lived in poor health until May 1, 1926 when he died in a Chicago hospital at the age of 36.

“Mr. Conwell played ball several years with local Ohio State League teams and in his day was one of the best third basemen in the minors leagues,” wrote the Portsmouth Daily Times two days after his death. “He fielded his position gracefully and accurately and had an arm of steel. He also was a dependable hitter. Conwell came to Portsmouth from the sand lots in Columbus and, under the resourceful late Pete Childs, he developed into a corking good infielder right off the reel. He was quick to learn, had the faculty of diagnosing plays of the enemy and soon was considered the premier third sacker in the Ohio State League.”

 

Comments

2 Responses to “Cup of Coffee: Ed “Irish” Conwell”
  1. Cliff Blau says:

    Graham played 2 innings in the field- it was the movie character who only played one inning.

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    Thanks, Cliff. I always thought the real life Graham played only one inning, but I stand corrected. I’ll edit the post to reflect this new information.

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