The Terry Larkin Story

First the necessary preliminary:  This is about Terry Larkin, not Barry Larkin. Barry seems to have his act together. Terry, was we shall see, did not.

Terry Larkin was born in Brooklyn circa 1856. He made his way up through the amateur ranks, and first appears as a semi-professional with the T.B.F.U.S. Club of Bridgeport, Connecticut. (There is a difference of opinion as to what T.B.F.U.S. stood for. The official version is “The Bridgeport Friendly Social Union” but there is also a claim that it was “The Best Fucking Team in the United States.” I am skeptical of the latter claim. If that was what they were aiming for, they could have come up with an official name that incorporated a “T.”)

Terry pitched one professional game in 1876, but 1877 was his real professional debut. He went on to have three very good seasons, before developing a sore arm in 1879. He was washed up as a pitcher, but moved to the infield, playing for various proto-minor league clubs, most notably the Brooklyn Atlantics in 1881 and the New York Metropolitans in 1882.

So far, this was a pretty standard career progression for the time. Pitching was in a transitional era in the second half of the 1870s and first of the 1880s. Pitching at the beginning of the 1870s was underhand, with the arm kept straight (at least in theory). Teams typically had a starter and a backup “change” pitcher. Pitchers succeeded with speed and change of pace and good control. Some pitchers were developing a curve ball, but only a few could throw it effectively, and the delivery restrictions meant that it wasn’t really all that good a curve. Then the restrictions on the straight arm were removed. This led to the spread of the curve ball, 1875 being the breakout year. The old straight-arm pitchers quietly retired and a new generation of curve pitchers replaced them. These in turn systematically fudged on the underhand delivery, working for a faster fastball and a curvier curve, with the new arm angle becoming the de facto standard. In the meantime batters adjusted, so pitching never totally dominated. This led to pitchers fudging even more, and further adjustments by the batters. We come out of this process with three-man rotations doing this:

Almost all professional pitchers now use the overhand or half-overhand delivery and pitch only a fast, straight ball and a curve. The fast ball, thrown half-overhand and thereby given a rotation on a diagonal axis, “jumps” in the air, that is, it rises slightly and curves in, while the curve, pitched with the same motion, goes outward and downward. Source: John M. Ward, How to Become a Player (1888).

That, my friend, is modern pitching. In the meantime, however, they had to figure a lot out. Some pitchers had trouble keeping up their end of the adjust-and-adapt cycle, and found themselves ineffectively pitching in last year’s style. More simply blew their arms out. It was clear that the curve ball and the rising delivery point were putting new stresses on arms, but nobody knew how much abuse pitchers could take. Economics and human nature combined to overwork a lot of pitchers. The result was a string of pitchers who would dominate for a year or three, then suddenly become ineffective. Larkin was in good company.

Many former pitchers successfully made the move to the field. This wasn’t Larkin’s problem. His downfall came off the field. He was a drunk. Furthermore, he was a violent drunk. He seems to have kept it together in his heyday, but when he lost it, he went down hard. Just before the opening of the season of 1883, he was signed by Billy Barnie, the manager of the Baltimore Club, to play second base. In late April he prepared to travel to Baltimore to join the club. This is itself interesting. The “championship season” (what we would call the “regular season”) didn’t start until May, but clubs spent about a month or so playing exhibition games to prepare. So in the ordinary course of events Larkin would have been with the Baltimore Club a month earlier. Why was he so late? He would later claim that he was being treated for malaria, and he took to drink for the pain. This is possible, but there are reports that he had been on a five week drinking spree, that he had chased his father out of the house with a gun, and that his father had called in the police. He was arrested and kept overnight, but his father declined to press charges, and so he was released. The next morning Officer Phelan, in his social worker capacity, counseled Larkin to stop drinking.

Accounts differ on what exactly happened next. In one version, a neighborhood grocer ran to the police station with the report that Larkin had threatened to shoot him, and that he was crazed from his “long continued debauch” and was going to kill someone. Officer Phelan was dispatched, and as he approached the house he heard a woman screaming and a pistol shot. In the alternative, Phelan was keeping an eye on him. He got wind that Larkin had ordered his wife Kate home at gunpoint, and went to investigate. Upon hearing voices, he sent for backup. This being the less dramatic version, I give it more credence.

The accounts broadly agree about what happened next. Larkin indeed had a gun, and had his wife in the room with him. He shot his wife, and then at Officer Phelan. Once he ran out of bullets he took out a razor and slit his own throat.

It turned out that he was pretty bad at this. His wife eventually recovered; he only grazed Phelan; and he ended up in the hospital under police guard. The next day he made another attempt at suicide. Kate’s sister Alice Heaney visited him in the hospital and told him Kate was unlikely to live. In a fit of remorse he sprang up from his bed and tried to bash his head in on a steam radiator. This got him strapped down to the bed.

Connoisseurs of domestic violence cases will be unsurprised by what followed. Kate refused to testify against him, he claimed the gun discharged by accident, and he was let off. Getting away with shooting at the policeman is more surprising, but those were more innocent times, and it was just a graze: no harm, no foul, don’t you know?

In the meantime Barnie had found a warm body to play second base for the Baltimores, so Larkin was out of a job. This meant fewer interruptions from his busy drinking schedule, interspersed with beating his wife. Finally at the end of July she fled to the police in fear for her life. He was duly arrested and charged. She again refused to testify against him, but the judge took it upon himself to give Larkin six months in the penitentiary, and Kate a good talking to about self-preservation.

Upon his release he moved back in with his parents. This was in February, so his father gave him an overcoat. Larkin then pondered his next course of action, and made the only logical decision. He sold the overcoat, used the proceeds to buy a gun and to get drunk, and went back home, where he brandished the pistol and threatened to kill everyone in the house. He disappears for a couple of months, apparently in jail again, and reappears attending a baseball game in early May.

Now let’s take a set back and consider this. Suppose this were to happen today? What would be the response? First off, he would have excellent odds of having successfully committed suicide by cop. But suppose he got past that. There might well be several rounds of jail, and doubtlessly several rounds of rehab. But what then? Would teams be lining up to sign him, or would the concern that every payday might result in drunken gunplay keep him out of the clubhouse? Professional sports leagues have a pretty high tolerance for domestic violence, when they think they can get away with it, but are much less enthusiastic about players using performance degrading drugs, and about bad publicity. I suspect that someone like Larkin wouldn’t be considered worth the risk.

This, however, was 1884. 1884 was a peculiar year in baseball. Professional baseball had been expanding rapidly since 1882, reaching three major leagues, two solidly professional minor leagues, and innumerable lesser semi-pro leagues. Players were in demand: even players with histories like Larkin’s. He was signed–eagerly or reluctantly, I don’t know–by the Virginia Club of Richmond, of the Eastern League. Then later that season the Virginias transferred to the major American Association, replacing the bankrupt Washington club, giving Larkin a final stint in the majors. He seems to have kept himself together well enough to play out the season, and opened 1885 with the Eastern League Norfolk club. He disappears around the end of June–whether due to alcohol, poor play, or alcohol-induced poor play, I don’t know. And that is the end of his baseball career.

He reappears nine years later in a report in 1894 that he is in a hospital dying. He had spent the intervening years doing “little or no work, but has wandered around homeless and friendless, his only pleasure being drinking and the narration of his old triumphs on the ball field.” It’s not hard to see why he was friendless: a violent drunk and a bore. He died a bit over two months later, the official causes of death listed as “Nephritis Chronica” and “Marasmus.”

What strikes me about this story is how familiar the whole thing is. We see the same story happening today.  The only difference is the amount of money involved, making it worse today. A professional ballplayer in Larkin’s day made excellent money by working class standards, but not by middle class standards. A frugal and industrious player could use the income to leverage himself into the middle or even upper class. Others, like Larkin, drank it. The cliche was the impecunious ballplayer needing a loan to get to his club in the spring. They made enough to be popular with the barflies over the winter, but unlike today they didn’t make enough to surround themselves with full-time parasites, insulating themselves from the real world. Larkin’s story is a simpler one, of family trying to help him but being ill-equipped for the task. Today someone like that would have a shot at spending his time in a church basement in AA meetings, and possibly getting his life together.

There is a weird coda to the story two years later. Kate and her sister Alice were living together by this time, until the night Alice took an axe and crushed Kate’s skull in. This was in the era of yellow journalism. I offer up this image from the New York World of August 6, 1896, for your delectation:

The_World_Thu__Aug_6__1896_ (1)

Be sure to enjoy the surrounding headlines. Those were the days! They didn’t screw around with “weird tricks” when they went the clickbait route.

I also promised you a mystery. It is Terry Larkin’s name. Or rather, that wasn’t actually his name. His real name was Frank S. Larkin. Multiple accounts, while giving his legal name, noted that he was called “Terry.” What’s up with that? Heck if I know. The only suggestion I have seen is that his nickname came from his love of everything Irish. That would explain his drinking habits, but the idea that someone would say “See Frank over there? He sure does love everything Irish! I think I’ll call him Terry.” seems a bit non sequiturish. Is there some connection I am missing here?

Bibliographic note: In addition to various newspaper accounts, I also used the biography by David Nemec and Frank Vaccaro from Major League Profiles: 1876-1900.

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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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2 thoughts on “The Terry Larkin Story

  1. There’s usually not a lot of discussion on your essays because of the subject matter, but I immensely enjoy them.
    Thank you. This one was very interesting, as usual.


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