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The Tommy Barlow Story

This is the Tommy Barlow Story. Spoiler alert: it is not a rollicking good time. It is just sad. Many of you have heard part of this story before (more on that below) but probably not the full story. This turns out to be even sadder than the part people know.

But first I will begin with

The Happy Part

Barlow was a pretty good defensive catcher and shortstop for three seasons from 1872 to 1874. He was the starting catcher for the Atlantics of Brooklyn in 1872 and 1873. They were but a shadow of the Atlantics of a few years previous, when they were a perennial powerhouse, but they were still one of the top half dozen or so clubs in the country. In 1874 he signed with the new Hartford Club as their everyday shortstop, which he did well.

His fielding, however, is not what he was known for. He was known for his hitting: specifically, his bunting. He did not, as is sometimes claimed, invent the bunt, but he was an early adopter. Nowadays the bunt is only pulled out for special occasions, but it was not immediately obvious that it was destined to be relegated to a bit role. The rules of the day favored bunting more than those of today. Foul balls were not called strikes, and this was the era of the fair-foul. A ball was fair or foul based on where it touched the ground, regardless of where it went after that. A bunt inside the line with some spin on it could skitter off into foul territory. How can you defend against that? Fair-foul bunts for doubles were not uncommon. It was reasonable for Barlow to experiment with making the bunt a primary offensive tool. He took it further by using a miniature bat, matching his own small stature.

Barlow was personally popular, and crowds took to him:

[Baltimore vs. Atlantic 8/7/1872] Little Barlow, with his little bat, then went up to the plate, and though the Baltimore men were prepared for him gave one of his little hits, just dropping the ball in front of the plate, and safely reached his first, amid laughter and applause. Source: New York Sun 8/8/1872

[Atlantic vs. Athletic 9/1/1873] Barlow took his penholder and bounced the ball in front of home plate, obtaining first amidst considerable applause.  Source: Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch September 7, 1873

Then in August of 1874 he fell ill. He recovered, but appeared in only a handful of games before relapsing. There followed contradictory reports of his recovery, his illness, and even his death. He returned to the field in 1875 with his old club the Atlantics. They were in 1875 on their last legs, reduced to being little more than a series of pick-up teams. Barlow, slated to be their starting catcher, was not fit to play even on such a reduced team. He played but one game, with a report that his “physique had been materially weakened by his Winter’s illness.” He played one game later that summer for New Haven, then bounced around several semi-pro clubs.

What happened? This brings us to

The Sad Part

Barlow was arrested in September of 1877 for petty larceny. He was walking down Broadway in New York City and stopped to examine some sidewalk goods on display in front of a clothing store. He apparently started walking down the street while holding some merchandise. The clerk stopped him and he was arrested. This caught the attention of the press, and so Barlow gave an explanation:

“It was on the 10th of August, 1874, that there was a match game of base ball in Chicago between the White Stockings of that city and the Hartfords of Hartford, now of Brooklyn. I was catcher for the Hartfords, and Fisher was pitching: He is a lightning pitcher, and very few could catch for him. On that occasion he delivered as wicked a ball as ever left his hands, and it went through my grasp like an express train, striking me with full force in the side. I fell insensible to the ground, but was quickly picked up, placed in a carriage and driven to my hotel. The doctor who attended me gave a hypodermic injection of morphine, but I had rather died behind the bat then have had that first dose. My injury was only temporary, but from taking prescriptions of morphine during my illness the habit grew on me and I am now powerless in its grasp. My morphine pleasure has cost me eight dollars a day at least. I was once catcher for the Mutuals, also for the Atlantics, but no one would think it to look at me now.” Source: Boston Times September 16, 1877

I wrote earlier than many of you have heard this story. This account is why. It was featured in the Ken Burns Baseball documentary. [1][2]

This is the part of the story that is widely known. It is a sad enough story, but it gets worse.

The Sadder Part

is that Barlow’s story is bullshit. It is an addict’s tale of self-justification. The injury never happened.

Nearly every detail of the story can be shown to be wrong. I am inclined to be lenient in judging stuff like getting the date right, so I am not particularly concerned that the Hartfords were not in Chicago that day. They only made one trip to Chicago, in May. They were at home on August 10, playing the visiting Philadelphia Club. Nor am I too concerned that Barlow didn’t catch in any championship (i.e. regular season) game that year (though he did in a few exhibition games).  I’ll overlook, though think odd, that he incorrectly claims he played for the Mutuals. But the fact of there being an injury is the key to his story.

Barlow played all nine innings of the August 10 game, playing shortstop, getting two base hits and scoring once. Nothing remarkable was reported about the game. This changes with the game of August 11, also against the Philadelphias. Barlow was reported to have come on the field sick, when he should have been in bed, and he withdrew from the game in the seventh inning. The next day the Hartfords traveled to Boston, but Barlow stayed home due to his illness. He was unable to return to the lineup until the end of August. He played for two weeks, not up to his usual standards. On September 14 he was reported as being “too ill to come to the grounds” and three days later he was admitted to Hartford Hospital. He was unable to return that season.

What is missing here? Any report of an injury. The press was not in the least bit shy about reporting player injuries. This game was between two important clubs, and was thoroughly reported. It is highly unlikely that any serious injury would have gone unmentioned. Yet Barlow’s incapacity is uniformly referred to as an illness, not an injury.

The explanation is that the press often was discreet about self-inflicted incapacitation. Players went on binges with distressing regularity, and showed up at the ballfield hung over, or still inebriated. Reporters tended to look the other way. Everybody’s interests lay in promoting the game. Embarrassing the players and the management went against this. Stories of drunken debauches only came out when the incidents were too public to overlook (usually involving criminal prosecution), or when the reporter decided that things had gone too far and a public airing was necessary, or when a player managed to personally annoy a reporter.

The Barlow story is a bit exotic in that it involved morphine rather than alcohol, but it otherwise follows the pattern. Barlow was universally popular. The Hartford Club paid his full salary, and even held a benefit game for him at the end of the season. Reporters wrote of his illness, not his drug addiction. The only hint is from a season roundup in the Hartford Times, which recounted that Barlow “became used up and went to the hospital as the result of his indiscretions.”

His 1877 arrest and trial pushed the story into the “too public to overlook” category. Barlow’s story about being injured while playing was either public relations or self-delusion to make his addiction more respectable. Morphine addicts were all too familiar in the 1870s, in aftermath of the Civil War. The honorably wounded soldier who got addicted was a pitiable figure, but far better than the person who got addicted on his own. Barlow’s story served to move him into the first category.

It gets worse:

The Saddest Part

of the story is Barlow’s death. We don’t know a thing about it. This is a remarkable fact. Earlier generations of baseball researchers have obsessively tracked down nearly every player in major league history. Guys who got picked out of the stands to fill in for one game have been identified, with their dates of birth and death duly recorded. We all know about Moonlight Graham from Field of Dreams?(or, for the more literary minded, Shoeless Joe). He was a real guy. Some researcher figured out who he was and researched his life. At this point pretty much the only players whose dates of death are unknown are guys who played one game, named “Jones” with no first name listed. Them and Tommy Barlow. He is by far the most prominent player with that datum missing.

Which brings us to an interview he gave a reporter for the New York Telegram while serving his sentence of ten days in jail [3]. The reporter described him as having the “livid, haggard expression” of an addict. Prior to his arrest, Barlow recounted, he was consuming twelve grains of morphine a day. The jail apparently doubled as a detox center and he was under the care of a physician, who was weaning him off with progressively smaller doses. (Props, by the way, to the Brooklyn jail. I would not have guessed anything so progressive as this existed at the time.) The reporter asked about his prospects

“There is no hope for me,” he said. “I shall go along until it is time to commit suicide, and then I suppose I shall commit it.” Source: St. Louis Globe-Democrat September 13, 1877, quoting the New York Telegram.

And there we have it. I imagine an anonymous body in a ditch, destined for the potters’ field.

[Credit where credit is due: I recently came across Barlow’s account of his injury. I had known the story from the Ken Burns documentary, but had not pursued it. I was inspired to follow it up. I had gotten as far as the August 11 game and knew that the story didn’t smell right. Then a bit of due diligence in secondary sources turned up that my SABR colleague David Arcidiacono had already invented this wheel. He kindly sent me his full write-up, from his book Major League Baseball in Gilded Age Connecticut. This post was based in part on his research.  I agree with his conclusions, which he states more gently than do I.]


[1] Go back and re-read it in Garrison Keillor’s voice. I’m not sure that Keillor was the voice actor, but that is how I hear it in my mind’s ear.

[2] If you have not seen the documentary, you should. It is, like most of Burns’ oeuvre, at once fascinating, flawed, and infuriating:  worth seeing if only to take exception to.

[3] The sources agree that the crime occurred in New York City, but he was tried and jailed in Brooklyn. I have no explanation for the discrepancy.


[Image: 19th century baseball team, via Wikipedia]

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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9 thoughts on “The Tommy Barlow Story

  1. Props, by the way, to the Brooklyn jail. I would not have guessed anything so progressive as this existed at the time.

    They were into prison reform before it was cool.


  2. As an addendum, to illustrate the dangers the catcher faced, here is a bit I just came across. It is from a game played July 12, 1877 between the Hartford and Cincinnati clubs:

    Hastings, who was playing close behind Start’s bat, was hit in the mouth by a sharp foul-tip. He fell senseless, as if shot, with his face in the dust and his arms extended. The players left their positions, ran to his assistance and carried him from the field. He soon revived, when his injuries were found to be severe, but not disastrous. None of the teeth were destroyed, but the upper lip was cut open in two places clear through to the jaw bone. He immediately left for the city to procure surgical aid in sewing up the woulds, while Booth took his place behind the bat. Hastings used no rubber between his teeth, else the injury might have been avoided. It is universally regretted in base-ball circles that he has thus been disabled for a day or two. Source: Cincinnati Enquirer July 13, 1877

    Gotta love that this counts for two days off, then get back in there. They had pluck.


    • I am reminded of the small Iowa town where my grandparents lived. Up through the 1930s, the town’s fortunes were based on the shallow local coal seams that provided fuel for two different Chicago-to-Kansas City rail lines. I remember asking my father once, “Why are so many of Grandpa’s friends missing some fingers or a whole hand?” Easy to get a finger (or more) caught in the various gears in those days.


      • He in fact was back in the lineup for an exhibition game on the 17th, though playing center field. He caught against Boston on the 20th. Spot checking through August, he seems to be the regular catcher. How, then, to explain his only playing in 20 games for the season? The history of the Cincinnati Club in 1877 is, um…, complicated. I may write about that. In the meantime, just go with it. I don’t know if Hastings’ retiring from the game after the season had anything to do with his taking a ball in the face or not. He turned thirty years old in 1878. Lots of crazy shit that seemed like a good idea in your twenties suddenly don’t seem very smart in your thirties.


        • Much less your forties. I’m still willing to throw myself headlong in goal to try to tip a shot around the bar, even at pushing 49. But it takes an effort to close down an attacker knowing that there’s a decent chance that the block will be with my face. And going out into the scrum to deflect a cross, not knowing what will come from my blind side? That pretty much doesn’t happen anymore.

          I sucked behind the plate at 25, even if my noodle arm meant that I shouldn’t be there. I can’t imagine doing it at 35.


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