Tommy Tucker Appreciation Day
The All-Star break drags on, and Craig Biggio was never hit by a pitch on July 13th so it's an excellent time for a special feature. Today we have a special guest blogger - an author of several books on pre-1900 baseball with expertise on the subject of Tommy Tucker. Tommy Tucker is #2 on the all time hit-by-pitch list and held the record from 1893 to 1901 when Hughie Jennings passed him, 2 years after Tucker's retirement. Howard W. Rosenberg has graciously contributed the following to Plunk Biggio:
Among the all-time top three in HBPs, easily the least-known player is Tommy Tucker. However, in a way, he used to be a household name greater than Craig Biggio and Hughie Jennings. That’s because when he played 100 years ago, a Mother Goose poem bearing his name had yet to fall into obscurity.
The Tommy Tucker of Mother Goose and his baseball namesake didn’t have much in common except for drawing lots of laughs. That the baseball Tucker was a target of humor may seem quite remarkable considering that he is the leading candidate for dirtiest player of the 19th century. I concluded that in my 2005 book Cap Anson 3, which features tricky and dirty play. In one of the chapters, Tucker shares top billing with the sport’s greatest pest through 1900, Baltimore third baseman John McGraw.
I found that Tucker was easily the dirtiest first baseman through 1900. At the base, he was known for blocking off runners on pickoff plays. However, while he was hit by a pitch so many times, I didn’t find reporting that claimed he was being retaliated against for his blocking around the base.
He overrode his image as a blocker by being so entertaining in his coaching, fielding and sliding. Those were the days when the coaching was done by active players and not washed-up ones. He was playing for Boston in 1894 when a writer compared his style of talking to that of Chicago captain-manager Cap Anson. "Gow an, git a gait! Move up there, yer kin steal home," Tucker had said in a recent game while Anson, from first base, spoke in this tone: "Two men out, gentlemen."
"Has the hub of the universe shifted several points westward?" the above writer said, mocking Boston as the intellectual hub of the country.
One day in 1893, three-fourths of the Boston crowd had applauded for a minute when he first came to bat. During the applause, "a few old ladies blushed at such hilarity from a cultured Boston assemblage." After the game, "Tucker looked like an invited guest to a boiler explosion," the Boston Globe said. "His clothes were covered with mud, but he felt good—his fielding bordered on the phenomenal, and the spectators cheered him all through the game for the interest and life he put into the boys."
Early in the 1894 season, former player Sam Crane wrote the following in the New York Press, after seeing him play: "Tom Tucker’s earnestness is refreshing. He grabs at thrown balls as if to say `Come here, I want to eat you.’ And he eats them."
Tucker had come under strong criticism in 1893 after Cleveland’s Chief Zimmer suffered a broken collarbone when he dove back into first base, and Tucker blocked him off. In 1894, the Globe printed the following: "R. C. J. writes to ask The Globe whether Tucker is considered a dirty ball player or not." The response, possibly by the Globe's Tim Murnane, himself a former player who added the “e” to his last name to sound more sophisticated, was, "Tucker is a hard worker and very earnest, a little loud at times, but one is not considered a `dirty' player until he tries to injure a fellow player."
Tucker’s most famous moment on the road took place in 1894 at Philadelphia. That July, Boston tried in vain to delay a game during an inning in which Philadelphia had taken a large lead. Boston had been ahead at the end of the last fully played inning and wanted the umpire to call the game to darkness before the current one was completed. That way, the score would have reverted to the end of the prior inning, and Boston would have won. After Philadelphia was able to end its turn at bat by running one of its players out of the base line, Boston refused to continue and the umpire forfeited the game to Philadelphia. Right after he did, some fans seemed to have had a "preconcerted plan to attack Tucker, for they fairly swarmed around this player before he had gotten three steps from first base." Contrary to some reporting, Tucker’s cheekbone was not broken; he merely had a "slight swelling on his left cheek." Three Philadelphia players and police helped get Tucker away from the fans.
The next day, while he was in Boston’s carriage, an "unripe tomato" landed full on his face. One of Tucker’s teammates went to the boy who threw it and "slapped and kicked him." When Tucker got out of the carriage, a man hit him in the mouth and fled on a passing trolley car. Tucker told a policeman to arrest the man, and when he got away, Tucker verbally abused the officer and was arrested. His manager, Frank Selee, obtained his bail just before Boston's train was to leave.
Two days later, Tucker told the Boston Journal, "I don’t care to go through such a scrape again. I’m not looking for trouble; you know that. There’s nothing in it for me."
In the following month, Brooklyn's Oyster Burns was leading off first. On a pickoff throw, he "started for second, and at the same time threw some dirt in front of Tucker, so that that player could not see the ball." Burns made it to third. After the inning, "Tucker tried to find sympathy with the spectators, but his tale of woe was greeted with laughter." Tucker and a fan said this to each other, as captured by the Brooklyn Eagle:
Tucker: It was a dirty trick.
Fan: Oh, I dunno. How about your self [sic]?
Tucker: Who, me? Why I never did anything like that in all my twelve years of playing. I might kick [argue with the umpire] and yell, but I’d never throw dust in a man’s eyes. That’s a dirty trick.
Tucker had been drawing colorful coverage back in the 1880s, soon after the start of his big league career in 1887, with Baltimore. He was still with Baltimore in 1889 when longtime writer Henry Chadwick reportedly roasted him for his boisterous coaching. The Baltimore writer for the weekly Sporting Life, gave this defense:
Father Chadwick has given people who are not acquainted with Tucker the impression that he is a hoodlum. Tucker is a married man, and as such should be very domestic in his habits. Father Chadwick himself cannot boast of better morals than Tom Tucker practices. When he is not engaged on duty at a game or practice he is at home with his family, and not frequenting saloons or gambling places. When he is on the road with the team he is the one in whom the manager can place implicit confidence as to personal conduct. In fact, Tom manages his own conduct better than a [Charley] Comiskey[, captain-manager of St. Louis, the best team in Tucker's league, the American Association,] could manage it for him. No doubt Comiskey could drill him into even a better player than he is now, but Tucker’s morals are quite as perfect as Comiskey’s, or any other base ball player. Tucker is boisterous and noisy on the field, and that is the worst that can be said of him. Father Chadwick observes this, and immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is a tough.
Jumping to the end of Tucker’s career:
In 1898, his second-to-last season, he figured in the following report with Hughey Jennings (that was how Jennings’s name was spelled at the time). Tucker was now with St. Louis and the St. Louis Star said, "Jennings complains that when playing off first Mr. Tucker resents his attempts to return suddenly by putting his knee in his face or else sitting down on him. Mr. Tucker says that Mr. Jennings always returns spikes first and with malicious intent."
His final season, 1899, was with Cleveland, and he was the first baseman on a team that won just 20 games and lost 134, the worst record in big league history. The Cincinnati Enquirer called him "the harum scarum first baseman of the scrub Cleveland team."
He went out with a flourish, as one of his most entertaining plays occurred in September. After Chicago’s George Magoon beat out a grounder by sliding into first base, Tucker ran to the umpire to argue. Then Tucker reversed himself "and picked Magoon up, swinging him clear of the ground, after which performance he stood the shortstop on his feet and brushed the dust off his uniform." Magoon and Tucker were about the same size and weight.
A native of Holyoke, Mass., he died 30 miles north of there, in Montague, in 1935. By all accounts, although he had a number of children, and some of his grandchildren are alive today, life was never the same after his retirement, and, of course, baseball was never the same, especially as players never again had so much freedom to do boisterous coaching. Tucker did tell stories in the twentieth century of his scrapes with various players, including Baltimore’s McGraw. However, getting hit by so many pitches was kind of an afterthought. Rather than opposing pitchers, it was runners who visited at first or opposing fielders on the basepaths, who tried to get even with him, that provided his greatest memories.
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