How things change in 100 years. Until Cooperstown saw fit to resurrect John Alexander McPhee, he had all but faded into the mist of time. The game nearly passed him by when he played, then pretty much forgot him during the 20th century. Indeed, only a connoisseur of the most obtuse and arcane information about the sport would have any intimate knowledge of the man everyone once knew as “King Bid.”
For the record, Bid McPhee was the preeminent second baseman of 19th century professional baseball—which for all practical purposes lasted a scad more than two decades. Apart from his talents, Bid made a name for himself by way of his longevity (he ruled the diamond for 18 of those years), his loyalty (he spent every season save one playing in Cincinnati) and sobriety (he was a rarity in his era: a player who hit the baseball, but not the bottle).
One hundred years before eating quiche was considered something real men did not do, wearing a baseball glove topped that list. To most people, there was something unnatural about it. Ironically, though Bid may have shared this belief at one point in his life, he was as natural an infielder as had ever played the game. A fluid, graceful defender who anticipated well and played the game aggressively, his work at second was not only unparalleled; in many ways it was quite revolutionary.
Statistics, which rarely do justice when applied to a top-notch defender, speak volumes in the case of Bid. He led the league in double plays 11 times, fielding percentage nine times, putouts eight times, and assists and total chances six times. Yes, numbers lie, but not these. They paint a picture of a second sacker so far ahead of his peers that his nickname almost seems to diminish him.
Bid McPhee was born on November 1, 1859 in Massena, New York, which lies a few miles from the Canadian border. After the Civil War, when Bid was seven, he moved with his parents to Keithsburg, Illinois, a town of 1,700 people on the Mississippi River. As a teenager, he befriended Parke Wilson, whose father ran the local dry goods store. Bid worked for the elder Wilson and played baseball with the son, who was eight years younger. At the time, Bid was a catcher, a position that required quick feet and hands, a powerful arm and, as always, extreme toughness. It is no coincidence that Wilson followed in Bid’s footsteps, becoming a catcher himself. For seven years, in fact, the two squared off against each other in the National League, as Wilson became a regular for the New York Giants.
Bid’s path to the pros began as so many others did in his part of the world. The small-town star caught the eye of a big-city club, and by the summer of 1878, the 18-year-old backstop was a member of the Northwestern League team in Davenport, Iowa. There he acquitted himself well, batting .333 in 39 games. Baseball back then was viewed by most players as a way of having fun and picking up a few dollars during the summer. Their “real” jobs began in the fall, after the season ended. The prospects of making it all the way up to the National League were remote.
of progressing in pro baseball seemed to stall in the summer of 1879,
when the Davenport captain asked him to expand his defensive repertoire
to include the outfield and second base. He made it into just 20 games
and hit a meager .229. After the season, he secured a bookkeeping job
and decided to spend the winter in Davenport.
The summer of 1881 found the 21-year-old Bid on the diamond again, for an independent team playing out of Akron, Ohio. Whatever problems he encountered the year before he had solved, and was now playing a mean second base. Bid was also stationed much closer to a major-league city; Cincinnati was just a day’s journey from Akron. This proved fortuitous when, in mid-November, the Red Stockings—Cincinnati’s ballclub in the newly formed American Association—came calling.
The team’s emissary was none other than Charley Jones, who just two years earlier had been the top offensive player in the N.L. Jones was the principal loser in a battle that started in the late-1870s between the league’s owners and players. Arthur Soden, owner of the Boston Red Caps and author of what came to be known as baseball’s reserve clause, banished Jones from organized baseball over a minor salary squabble in order to send a message to the rest of his club. In 1880 and ’81, Jones had scratched out a living playing for an outlaw team in Portsmouth, Ohio. When the Red Stockings were resurrected, he was hired to scout and sign the top local talent. Jones was familiar with Bid’s Akron club. Besides him, there was catcher Rudy Kemmler and a hard-hitting shortstop named Sam Wise. Jones decided to ink all three.
At the time, Bid was working as a bookkeeper again, and by all indications making a handsome living at it. Initially he rebuffed Jones’s offer of summer employment. The A.A. was a renegade organization that planned to compete with the National League by scheduling games on Sundays and selling liquor in the ballparks. For Bid—who was considered a gentleman throughout his career—these “innovations” probably weren’t the reasons for his hesitancy. A more likely source was the potential for the new league to go belly-up.
Ultimately, what likely swung Bid’s attitude was the chance to compete with and against the best. And to restore the reputation of the great city of Cincinnati, which had been impugned two seasons earlier when the Reds had been cast out of the National League for playing on Sundays and making alcohol available to their patrons. The Red Stockings put Cincy back in the big leagues, with pitcher Will White, lefthanded third baseman Hick Carpenter and leftfielder Joe Sommer—all holdovers from the 1880 club. The team was managed by catcher Pop Snyder, the only legitimate star the American Association managed to sign in its first year of operation. Interestingly, Jones was never allowed to play. Despite promises made by the club’s owners, Justus Thorner and O.P. Caylor, in the end it was decided that his presence would only antagonize the N.L. and jeopardize its standing in the National Association, which still held sway over all of baseball, professional and amateur.
By all accounts, the A.A.’s inaugural campaign did not lack color. To give new fans a better understanding of the game, the league decided its players should wear uniforms color-coordinated by position. Bid, a second baseman, opened the year festooned in bright orange and black silk. There were far worse combinations—indeed, the players referred to the new uniforms as “clown suits”—but Bid wore the colors of his position uncomplainingly until the experiment was mercifully called off. The fans, it turns out, were not so dim-witted as the owners thought. Also, some circus-like confusion on the field helped the league realize that the get-ups made the game a lot harder to play.
The ‘82 season was a superb one for Cincinnati, which won the A.A. pennant by 11 and 1/2 games over the Philadelphia Athletics. Bid’s rookie year, however, was hardly an unbridled success. At .228, his batting average was the lowest of any Cincinnati regular. Bid’s sorry stats were partly a function of the pitching. In the early 1880s, hurlers threw from a box 45 feet away from home plate, and could waste seven deliveries before a batter was awarded first base. Young, anxious and undisciplined, Bid had trouble gauging the crafty offerings of aces like Tony Mullane of the Louisville Eclipse and Sam Weaver of the Athletics.
In the field, Bid ended up garnering high praise for his work. This after nearly getting run out of town following the May 2 opener against the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Bid, no doubt nervous in his debut, made a handful of bad plays in a 10-9 loss and was booed loudly by the crowd. But after 80 games (the length of the A.A. season), Bid was the top man at his position, leading all second basemen in fielding percentage, double plays and putouts.
That fall, the pennant-winning
Red Stockings agreed to play two games against the Chicago White Stockings,
pennant winners in the N.L. Both contests were held at the Bank Street
Grounds, where Cincinnati played its home games. The hometown fans viewed
the contests as more than the mere exhibitions they were meant to be.
By the first game, on October 6, the 2,700 on hand viewed the matchup
as nothing less than a battle of good versus evil—conveniently forgetting
that Sunday ball and booze in the ballpark had cast the A.A. in a slightly
For their part, the White Stockings, led by Cap Anson, were clearly the best team in all of baseball. Six of the sport’s top 20 players wore Chicago uniforms, including shortstop King Kelly, the most dynamic star of all. To defeat the White Stockings would bring respectability back to Cincinnati baseball, and earn more than a small measure of pride for the American Association, which was still perceived by cranks as a second-rate organization.
Apparently, Anson shared this opinion, for he chose to leave Kelly behind to rest up for Chicago’s subsequent series with the Providence Grays, who had finished second in the N.L. His confidence was only bolstered when he learned that Snyder would not be behind the plate, due to a hand injury. Replacing Cincinnati’s captain was Phil Powers, an anemic hitter who had not caught starting pitcher White at all during the year.
Playing his number-two pitcher (a staff of two was standard in those days), Larry Corcoran, at short, Anson watched in dismay as Cincy blanked the White Stockings, 4-0. White, the only 19th century player to wear glasses on the field, also happened to be the sport’s most intimidating pitcher. In the days before hit batsmen were awarded first base, he specialized in backing hitters off the plate by drilling them again and again during an at-bat. Standing in against him was foolishness, as the Chicagoans found on this day.
White retired the Chicago hitters with metronomic efficiency, and got big plays from the defense when he needed them most. In the top of the fourth inning, Abner Dalyrimple ripped a single, then tried to steal with slugger Ned Williamson at the plate. Powers gunned a perfect throw to Bid, who tagged the runner out. Williamson tripled moments later, but was stranded.
In the bottom of the sixth, Bid, the number-six hitter in the lineup, came to the plate with two men on and the Red Stockings leading 1-0. Stepping into a Fred Goldsmith pitch, he laced a liner to rightfield between George Gore and Hugh Nicol. By the time Nicol returned the ball to the infield, Bid was on third, having broken the game wide open. Goldsmith then bounced a pitch and Bid motored home for his team’s final run.
On the morning of Game Two, fans were treated to an epic retelling of the previous afternoon’s contest by the Cincinnati Enquirer, which likened the home team’s upset to the Spartans’ victory over Persia at Thermopylae. The Persians gained their revenge on this day, however, as Anson sent Corcoran to the mound to face White, who started for the Red Stockings again. It was a pitcher’s duel decided in the first inning, when Chicago sent two runners across the plate.
Bid, who would come to be known as the brainiest of ballplayers, was the victim of a play never before seen at the Bank Street Grounds. With one out and Gore on first, Anson called for a steal. As Bid closed in on the bag to await Powers’s throw, he watched helplessly as the batter, Williamson, expertly guided the ball through the very spot he had just vacated. Rightfielder Harry Wheeler, presumably angered by this trickery, heaved the ball wildly to the plate, which allowed Gore to trot home and Williamson to reach third base. Anson trickled a grounder to shortstop and was retired, but Williamson scored to make it 2-0, which is how the game ended.
The Chicagoans packed up and headed east, while the Red Stockings were officially reprimanded by American Association president Denny McKnight for playing the games without permission. Unofficially, baseball’s powers that be could not have been more delighted. A season-ending “world championship” had proved a fine idea.
Little did Bid suspect that this would be his final appearance in a postseason series. Although the Red Stockings enjoyed a fine year in 1883, the Athletics and St. Louis Browns also had terrific teams. The Browns had been a solid club in ’82 with Jumbo McGinnis on the mound. In ’83, they acquired Tony Mullane from Louisville, giving St. Louis a one-two punch that accounted for 63 wins. The Athletics were even better, thanks to first baseman Harry Stovey, who came over from the National League after the woeful Worcester Ruby Legs folded. Captain Lon Knight’s handling of his pitching staff, fronted by Bobby Mathews—a 32-year-old outcast from the N.L.—proved the difference, as Philly edged the Browns by a single game. The Red Stockings, with a sparkling 61-37 mark, finished five games out of first place. They had plenty of offense—much of it supplied by Jones, who was back in baseball’s good graces. But scoring runs when it counted proved a problem.
Bid, meanwhile, continued to build on his reputation as a miracle worker in the field, and became the club’s most popular young player. He began to show patience as a hitter, too, and even flashed some extra-base power, with 22 long hits. Bid was quickly moved up into the heart of the order, where he joined Jones, Hick Carpenter and 6-3 “Long John” Reilly, who had blossomed into the American Association’s premier longball hitter at the age of 25.
The 1884 season saw
the Red Stockings shorten their name to the Reds, and Bid continue to
build up his batting resume. His average was .278, which in a year that
pitchers gained some important advantages was considered very respectable.
In the National League, meanwhile, overhand pitching was allowed for the
first time, causing a sharp dip in batting averages and skyrocketing strikeout
totals. In the A.A., pitchers still had to deliver the ball at shoulder
level or below, but they had become quite adept at bending this rule.
Ironically, Cincinnati’s pennant hopes were dashed by another new pitching regulation. This one awarded first base to batters hit by a pitched ball (and meant that White’s days as an intimidator were numbered). Although they stayed in the hunt for most of the season, the Reds faded down the stretch and watched as the New York Metropolitans, paced by the hitting of Dave Orr, baserunning of Candy Nelson, and pitching of Tim Keefe, pulled away from what had been an exciting five-team race for most of the summer.
In 1885, the American Association adopted the overhand pitching rule. As hits became harder to come by, more emphasis was placed on baserunning and fielding. This elevated Bid to true star status. He was one of those players who made the routine plays look easy and the tough plays look routine. Bid had another good offensive season in ’85, batting .265, but it was his new keystone partner, Frank Fennelly, who stole the show. An unheralded sub the previous year, Fennelly surpassed Carpenter, Reilly and Jones as the Reds’ big run-producer, leading the A.A. with 89 RBIs in 112 games.
Yet despite the team’s “big four,” Cincy could manage no better than a second-place finish. White could no longer hold up under the strain of 50-plus starts a year, and his overhand deliveries lacked the zip that younger hurlers now brought to the mound. In desperation, the Reds gave regular work to five starting pitchers, but none could hold a lead with any consistency. They finished second, a heatlyh 16 games back. It was time to retool.
The first order of business was to insert Bid at the top of the lineup, a role for which he seemed ideally suited. Despite low walk totals, he was a patient hitte, an important attribute when the American Association enlarged the boundaries of the pitching box in 1886. The league also abolished the rule that stated a pitcher must deliver the ball with both feet on the ground. Hurlers who liked to take a running start before they let the ball go, or who favored whirling gyrations or other bizarre deliveries, were given unprecedented latitude to do so. Bid was not easily distracted, however, which would help him lay off bad pitches. In addition, his discipline at the plate figured to translate into more bases on balls, as the A.A. reduced the number of pitchers for a base on balls from seven to six.
What the Reds might
not have expected was that Bid’s development as a batter would pay
off in an another important way. Each year, he had gotten a little stronger
and a little smarter. He was now very good at picking out a pitch he liked
and driving it between two infielders, or dumping it in front of an outfielder
who was playing a few steps too deep. As a leadoff hitter, Bid became
a greater concern for opposing teams, and they often pinched in their
outfielders. Whenever Bid spotted this, he would wait for a pitch in his
wheelhouse and attempt to drive it over their heads.
In no time, Bid became Cincinnati’s most dangerous hitter. In the ‘86 campaign, with the help of 59 walks and 97 singles, Bid managed to score a whopping 139 runs, second in the A.A. to Arlie Latham of St. Louis. He also posted 23 doubles, 12 triples and eight home runs, all of which led the league. It is worth mentioning that triples and homers in those days were more or less identical. Invariably, they were produced by balls that went soaring over the heads of the outfielders. In the spacious parks of the 1880s, the difference between three bases and four usually came down to how far the ball rolled and how fast the runner was.
Unfortunately for the Reds, Bid and the aging Jones were about the extent of the offense in 1886. The addition of Tony Mullane gave the Reds decent frontline pitching, but past the man known by all as “The Apollo of the Box,” the rest of the staff fashioned an ungodly 32-46 record to send Cincinnati plummeting into the second division.
Bid’s rise to stardom was not well-timed from a financial standpoint. Prior to the ‘6 season, National League and American Association owners created a rule limiting player salaries to $2,000. Although this cost-control measure worked essentially as designed, in the case of the game’s top players, a group now including Bid, owners regularly skirted their own rule to keep their stars happy. In 1887, for instance, Bid signed a contract for $2,000, but was paid an extra $300 by the club. A handful of players, including King Kelly, received more than twice their salary in under-the-table payments.
As disappointing as 1886 was for the Reds, the ‘87 campaign still held great promise. Fearing that pitchers were beginning to dominate the game, the National League and American Association got together on ways to tip the balance back toward the offense. Pitchers were now allowed just one step before releasing the ball, and had to keep their back foot at a line 55’ 6” away from home plate. To this point, the sport’s toughest pitchers were the ones who took running starts, like Guy Hecker of the Louisville Colonels, one of the 19th centuries greatest all-around stars. Now they had to use a wind-up, and could not hide the ball as effectively. In turn, batters knew exactly where to look to pick up pitches. A second rule dropped the number of balls required for a walk to five, and increased the number of strikes a batter was allowed from three to four. A third rule, which limited how pitchers could deceive baserunners, also was implemented, thus shifting baseball’s running game into full gear.
These changes actually favored a team like the Reds, which had veteran hitters, fast and experienced baserunners, and an exceptional interior defense led, of course, by Bid. He and his Cincinnati teammates did indeed have a very good year in 1887. Lightning-quick Hugh Nicol—an despised enemy back in the postseason series of 1882—joined the club and ran wild. He was credited with 138 stolen bases, although a great number of those came on first-to-third dashes, which were counted as steals that year. Fennelly also tore up the base paths, as did Bid, who did a good job in the leadoff spot again, despite the fact that opponents had gotten wise to his approach at the plate. Still, he smashed 19 triples to lead the A.A. On defense, Bid was invaluable as always. He seemed to have an answer for whatever baserunning trickery an opponent concocted, in particular the double-steal. Bid was adept at cutting in front of the bag, catching the ball in his throwing hand, and then whipping a bullet right back to the catcher to nail the man trying to score from third.
Once again, however, the Reds came up short. The team that took the greatest advantage of the new rules was St. Louis, which took its third consecutive American Association pennant. The Browns had a little more speed, a little more power, and were three pitchers deep to Cincinnati’s two. St. Louis leftfielder Tip O’Neill had a season for the ages, leading the league in hits, runs, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, batting and slugging. And 19-year-old Silver King, a bench warmer for the National League’s Kansas City Cowboys in 1886, produced 32 wins.
Cincy’s own 19-year-old pitching “find,” Elmer Smith, won 34 games and had the league’s lowest ERA. But Mullane and Billy Serad’s combined 41-28 record, though good, could not compare with the 54-21 mark turned in by the St. Louis tandem of Bob Caruthers and Dave Foutz. Cincinnati finished second again, 14 games out.
In 1888 and ’89,
Bid and the Reds had above-average seasons, though nothing to write home
about. The team was treading water, never quite able to assemble a reliable
pitching staff and always missing a key offensive component. After the
‘88 season, manager Gus Schmelz jettisoned Fennelly, ending a record-setting
string of four seasons during which he, Bid, Reilly and Carpenter played
together. The Reds finished fourth both years, and though they did fashion
winning records, they never really contended for the pennant.
this period, Bid assumed his place as undisputed king of all second sackers.
His chief rival for this distinction was Fred Dunlap, who was playing out
the string. Dunlap had started his career with the National League’s
Cleveland Blues in 1880 and led the Union Association in hitting during
its lone year of existence in 1884. He then returned to the N.L. and ended
with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys
Another second baseman held in high regard during the 1880s was Fred Pfeffer, who held down that position for Anson’s White Stockings. With the immobile Anson rarely straying away from the bag at first base, Pfeffer’s territory was certainly greater than Bid’s. His ability to handle grounders was also first-rate. Pfeffer was a longtime favorite of Chicago’s German-American fans. Outside of the Windy City, however, few considered him King Bid’s equal.
Of note around this time was that Bid was unusual in a couple of respects. He understood the importance of playing off the bag at second, which was not deemed a prudent strategy when he first came to the majors almost a decade earlier. Second basemen typically positioned themselves within a couple of steps of the base, particularly with a runner on first and a righthanded hitter at the plate. This was the accepted practice even though flashing across the infield to snatch a throw out of the air and sweep it down on the sliding runner just was not a viable option in the pre-glove era.
Bid played a bit further from the base, which plugged the hole on grounders between second and first, a favorite target for batters of that era. Prior to 1887, hitters had been allowed to request pitches in certain locations, and almost always called for balls inside or over the middle of the plate. Assuming a righthander was batting, there was no reason to venture toward first base unless he asked for an outside pitch. In that case, everyone in the ballpark knew he was trying to shoot the ball to rightfield and infielders could position themselves accordingly, with the second baseman moving to his left and the shortstop covering second with a runner on first. When lefties came to the plate, second basemen stood roughly where they do today, and the shortstop stood near second. Interestingly, for several years after the called-pitch rule changed, second basemen still hovered around the bag, even when no runners were on. Bid, Dunlap and Pfeffer, were among the first to see the stupidity of this.
Bid also was aggressive on balls hit in the air. Infielders were discouraged from venturing back after pop-ups, for fear of colliding with outfielders, who played much shallower than they do today. Often, second basemen simply ignored fly balls unless they were hit within a few steps of the infield. Bid was one of the first to go after anything he could get his hands on, and he was by all accounts quite good at flagging balls down. His outstanding totals for chances and putouts confirm this.
By the 1890 season, Bid also stood out for the fact that he had opted not to use a fielder’s glove. Many infielders now sported gloves, which were valued above all else for cushioning the blow of hard hits. Bid told a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter that same year that he believed the use of gloves had gone a bit too far, claiming he had “never seen the necessity of wearing one” and could not “hold a thrown ball if there is anything on my hands.”
Prior to the ’90 season, the Reds—along with the Brooklyn Bridegrooms—moved from the American Association to the National League after a nasty power struggle over who would become the A.A.’s new president. Meanwhile, John Ward of the New York Giants had formed a third major league, the Player’s League, which siphoned off a considerable amount of talent and fans from the two established circuits. With baseball embroiled in unprecedented political and economic upheaval, Bid and his teammates went about the business of playing their games, albeit against quite a few unfamiliar faces.
Bid once again batted leadoff, and led the team with 55 steals, 82 walks and 125 runs, which ranked fifth in the N.L. His power numbers were excellent, with 16 doubles, three homers and 22 triples, which tied him for third in the league. The Reds, however, finished in the middle of the pack. The Bridegrooms, winners of the A.A. pennant in 1889, ran off with the National League title in their first year. The problem for Cincy, as always, was not-quite-first-rate pitching, and the lack of a dominant hitter in the middle of the lineup. The Reds had no one to match the offensive skills of a Sam Thompson, Buck Ewing, Roger Connor or Dave Foutz. John Reilly was good, but not great. Besides, he was in his early 30s now, a time when slugging skills tended to unravel quickly.
In 1891, it finally all came apart for the Reds, who suffered just their second losing season since Bid came aboard. The season began badly from a business standpoint, as the American Association placed a new franchise a few blocks away in Pendelton Park and named it Kelly’s Killers, after its star, manager and part-owner, King Kelly. Curiosity alone diverted thousands of fans away from League Park, where the Reds struggled to stay out of the cellar. Even when the rival Cincinnati club folded that August, the season could not be saved.
Bid and newcomer
Arlie Latham created much havoc at the top of the lineup, reaching base
well over 400 times and stealing more than 100 bases. But the rest of
the hitters struggled to drive in these two table-setters. Bug Holliday,
the team’s centerfielder since 1889, drove in 84 runs to lead the
Reds—a deplorable statistic considering the talents of Bid and Lathan.
Even the mid-season addition of the great Pete Browning did little to
create runs. And although Bid was happy to have Latham in the batting
order, he cringed each time a hard grounder was hit the third baseman’s
way. Unless the ball was hit within a steps of Latham, he rarely mustered
more than a half-hearted attempt to stop it. For decades after, when infielders
waved at hot shots, they were said to have “pulled a Latham.”
Cincinnati’s fortunes shifted somewhat in 1892, after the American Association was disbanded. In the resulting player-grab, the Reds ended up with some good veterans, including outfielder Tip O’Neill, pitcher Ice Box Chamberlain and first baseman Charlie Comiskey. Driving the ball through the right side of the Cincinnati infield must have been next-to-impossible in ’92. Bid still had unparalleled range and Comiskey had practically invented playing off the bag at first base during the previous decade.
Although still proficient in the field, Comiskey, who signed a three-year deal to manage the Reds, had nothing left as a hitter. And his interest in furthering the fortunes of the club often seemed secondary to the feathering of his own nest. During his stint in Cincinnati, “Commy” learned the business of baseball from the Reds’ new owner John T. Brush, whose taste for byzantine politics and financial ruthlessness was admired greatly by the player-manager. Comiskey also made the acquaintance of a Cincinnati-born sportswriter named Ban Johnson, who liked to cast himself as Brush’s mortal enemy. After the A.A. folded, Johnson began laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the American League. Not coincidentally, Comiskey would one day become the new league’s most powerful owner.
To generate more excitement among baseball fans (who in 1892 were watching every penny thanks to an economic recession), the National League opted for a split season, with the winners of each half playing for the championship. The Reds did not figure in either race, although they wound up with winning records in each half. Two teams on the rise, the Boston Beaneaters and Cleveland Spiders, ended the season in the pennant series, which went to Boston in a rout. Cleveland’s second baseman, Cupid Childs, had a terrific year, leading the league in runs scored with 136 and working pitchers for 117 walks. He was a tough, tricky player in a game that was becoming quite violent, particularly on the basepaths. Although Childs was hardly considered Bid’s equal as an all-around player, the Cincy second sacker—who also had an excellent year at the plate—had to have sensed the shifting wind. An unfailing gentleman, he must have felt like a dinosaur in this win-at-all-costs game.
The 1892 Reds were a good club with a lousy pitching staff. By the end of the year, Comiskey had so little faith in his mound corps that he was willing to try anything. On the final day of the season, a mystery man named Bumpus Jones walked into the clubhouse and claimed he could out-pitch anyone in baseball. An amused Comiskey gave Jones a uniform and sent him to the hill—where he proceeded to pitch a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates! Invited back the next spring, Jones made the club but failed to regain his touch and was released after just five starts.
The Reds again finished in the middle of the pack, winning just a couple of more games than they lost. Bid led the team in walks and scored more than 100 runs for the fifth year in a row. Latham, Holliday and catcher Farmer Vaughn also had good years, but nothing like the seasons enjoyed by the three hitting stars of the Philadelphia Phillies, Sam Thompson, Billy Hamilton and young Ed Delehanty. Each batted .365 or better, and combined for nearly 400 runs and more than 300 RBIs. Aamazingly, the Phillies finished third.
The problem for Cincinnati was pitching again. Prior to the season, this area appeared to have been addressed with the acquisition of Silver King. But a rule change moving the pitching distance back to the current 60’ 6”—and the insistence that a pitcher keep his back foot on the rubber—all but ruined King’s career. His weird sidearm delivery, thrown as he moved sideways through the pitching box, was now illegal. He lasted 15 starts and won just five games.
The Reds bottomed out in 1894, when the pitching completely fell apart. Cincinnati finished 10th, with a record of 55-75, a shame for the club’s fans because the offensive finally began to get on track. Bid, now 34, had one of his best seasons, with a .304 average and 88 RBIs to go along with his usual good totals in runs, walks and stolen bases. William “Dummy” Hoy, a deaf mute, came over from the Washington Senators, took over in centerfield and did a great job. Bug Holliday came into his own after shifting to leftfield, batting .372 and finishing among the league leaders with 13 home runs. Latham also had a great year, batting over .300, stealing 59 bases and scoring 129 runs.
Upstate in Cleveland,
the 27-year-old Childs hit.353 with 143 runs scored. A lefty who batted
leadoff for the Spiders, he and Bid likely had some intriguing encounters
during the 11 games the teams played against each other that year.
The Reds returned to mediocrity in 1895. Comiskey, who had had one foot out the door in ‘94, was replaced by Buck Ewing, who took over as the team’s manager and first baseman. Ewing, a mythic figure in 19th century baseball, did a better job than Commy on the bench and at the plate, proving to be the major difference between 55 wins and the 66 Cincy garnered in ’95. Ewing’s star turn was made even more delicious by the fact that he was acquired from the hated Spiders, who went on to lose the pennant by a scant three games.
Bid also had the last laugh in the battle of the second basemen. Childs, labeled as a thug, was one of the prime targets of a crackdown on dirty play ordered by the National League. He responded with a .288 average, 96 runs and just 22 extra-base hits to Bid’s .299, 107 runs and 37 long hits.
More important, the Reds seemed to have the makings of a decent team heading into the 1896 season. They could field a solid man at every position, and their pitching looked like it was coming around. Frank Dwyer, who had been with the team since the early 1890s, had coped with the change in pitching distance and seemed to be thriving. Frank Forman, a tall lefty, appeared to be regaining the form that had made him one of the better hurlers in the American Association. When veteran Red Ehret joined the team over the winter, Reds’ fans were actually feeling good about the team’s chances. No, these guys weren’t Kid Nichols and Cy Young, but they could keep the team in a tight game
The ‘96 season opened with one of the strangest sights anyone in Cincinnati could remember. Bid was wearing a thinly padded glove. A finger injury suffered in spring practice had necessitated its use, and he wore it throughout the season. Not surprisingly, Bid turned in a season that, statistically speaking, was nothing short of miraculous. His fielding average in 1896 (.982) eclipsed the old mark by 16 points, establishing a record that stood until 1925, when equipment and field conditions had undergone revolutionary improvements. No longer hitting at the top of the lineup (outfielders Eddie Burke and Dusty Miller had assumed the 1-2 roles) Bid became more of a role player on offense. He batted .305 and knocked in 87 runs, which ranked second on the club.
The Reds were strong up the middle, with Farmer behind the plate, the agile Germany Smith at shortstop teaming with Bid, and the fleet-footed Hoy in center. With Ewing calling the shots, the Reds played the same brand of smart, aggressive baseball in which the league’s top club, the Baltimore Orioles, specialized. Never before had a team averaged less than two errors a game; this year the Reds beat that record easily. Defense, pitching and, for once, timely hitting, propelled the Reds past Baltimore and Cleveland into first place early in the season’s second half. With a 61-29 record, the team was two games ahead of the Orioles at the end of July.
Sadly for Bid and his mates, that was as good as it got. As so often happens in August, old teams slow down, and this is what happened to the Reds. The inning-ending strikeout pitch became a single, the diving grab became a seeing-eye hit, and the booming triple became just another long out. Cincy finished out the year with just 16 more victories and slipped quietly into third place by two and a half games. Once again, Bid was denied a spot in the postseason. Instead, the detested Spiders finished second, earning a berth in the Temple Cup series against the pennant-winning Orioles.
The hand injury of 1896 was the first signal that age was beginning to creep up on King Bid. An ankle injury in 1897, which threatened to end his career, was the next. Bid was unable to play for nearly three months. When rumors began circulating that he might retire, Cincinnati fans took up a collection and raised $3,500—not an insignificant amount in those days.
Bid returned to full-time duty in 1898, and the Reds, who had finished fourth without him the year before, were right in the thick of the pennant race. Pitching was now the team’s strength. Ted Breitenstein, a terrific young pitcher acquired from the Browns, produced 20 wins and twirled a no-hitter against the Pirates in April. Frank Dwyer turned in a nice season as a part-time starter, as did young lefty Bill Damman in only his second year with the team—the pair combined for 32 victories.
The big boost, however,
came from Pink Hawley, a noted workhorse earlier in the decade with the
Browns and Pirates. Picked up before the season, Hawley surprised everyone
with a 27-11 record. Bill Hill, a 28-game loser for Louisville in 1896,
chipped in 13 wins to round out the most successful five-man starting
rotation in history to that point. Manager Ewing, who as a former catcher
knew a thing or two about handling pitchers, was hailed for going against
common wisdom (which dictated a three-man rotation) and living to tell
The Cincinnati offense had just enough punch to get the job done. Leftfielder Elmer Smith, an often overlooked star of the 1890s, came over from the Pirates to lead the club with a .342 average, while the RBIs came from the top of the order, in the persons of Miller and the team’s new shortstop, Tommy Corcoran, late of the Bridegrooms. Bid, who by this time was taking an occasional game off, finished second on the club in walks and stolen bases. He and Corcoran formed the game’s preeminent double-play combo.
The Reds surged into first place on May 11 and clung to a slim lead throughout June and July. On August 16, the Beaneaters ended Cincy’s stay at the top of the standings. Boston manager Frank Selee had done a brilliant job retooling the club that had dominated the league in the early 1890s, and he now had a powerhouse offense. Behind the usual superb pitching of veteran Kid Nichols and the shockingly good year turned in by rookie Vic Willis, the Beaneaters came together and put death grip on the pennant. A slot in the Temple Cup disappeared for the Reds a few weeks later, when the Orioles solved their pitching problems and snuck into second place.
Bid’s final season as a player was 1899. The team was very competitive, but there was no pennant race this time, as Brooklyn, Boston and Philadelphia each topped the 90-win mark. Perhaps that is what ultimately influenced King Bid to finally retire. At 38 he could still play the game, but that elusive pennant seemed to be getting farther and farther away. He knew how to handle his money from his days as a bookkeeper, and had socked away enough to get by on for a while. That last campaign was not a bad one for Bid, who appeared in 111 games and hit a respectable .279, fourth among the Cincinnati regulars.
After the ‘99 season, Buck Ewing headed back for New York, and Bob Allen was hired to run the team. Bid remained in Cincinnati and watched as Allen, a former shortstop with the Phillies, ran the Reds into the ground. He could see the club was getting a bit long in the tooth, but there were some talented youngsters on the roster, too. When Bid was approached to take over the managerial reins in 1901, he agreed to give it a shot.
Bid was looking forward to trying his hand at managing. Unfortunately, one of the kids he had so admired the summer before had been dealt to the Giants. His name was Christy Mathewson, a college kid who had lost all three of his decisions for Cincinnati in 1900. In return, the Reds received Amos Rusie, a perennial 20-game winner for the Giants who had held out in a salary dispute and missed the entire ‘99 and 1’00 seasons. Bid had once cracked three triples in one game off Rusie.
To Bid’s relief, he still had Noodles Hahn, the 22-year-old fireballer who had come up with the Reds in Bid’s final season as a player and led the National League in strikeouts two years running. Also in the lineup was a talented third baseman named Harry Steinfeldt, and 21-year-old Sam Crawford, who could already hit a pitched ball farther than anyone in the league.
Although Hahn and Crawford blossomed into superstars during the 1901 season, the rest of Bid’s charges fell far short of his expectations. Except for Crawford’s league-high 16 homers and veteran Jake Beckley’s 177 hits, the offense was horrible. The team’s pitching, even with Hahn’s great year, was still the worst in the National League. While Mathewson won 20 games for the lowly Giants, Rusie pitched in three games before being released. The Reds finished dead last for the first time since Bid joined the team 19 years earlier.
Undaunted, King Bid agreed to manage the club in 1902. Once again, Hahn and Crawford were great, Beckley was solid, and no one else did a thing. In a blink, the Reds were 10 games under .500 and going nowhere fast. For Bid, worse than the losing were the boos—something he had rarely heard from the fans as a player. When the club’s League Park burned after the 1901 season, a new facility was erected and dubbed “Palace of the Fans.” It was indeed fan-friendly, right down to the special field-level seating down the first- and third-base lines, where beer was sold 12 glasses for a dollar and a thin wire barrier was all that stood between Bid and his drunken critics.
Toward the end of
June, rumors began flying that American League president Ban Johnson had
double-crossed John McGraw of the Orioles, to whom he had promised a piece
of the New York franchise when the Baltimore team relocated there in 1903.
McGraw was busy plotting his revenge, which involved gutting the Baltimore
team. One of his accomplices was Reds owner John T. Brush, whose dislike
for Johnson dated back a decade. Part of the scheme involved moving Baltimore’s
30-year-old slugger, Joe Kelley, to Cincinnati. There he would reportedly
be paid to both play and manage the team, despite having no experience
in the latter. Cy Seymour, another top player, was also rumored to be
headed to the Reds. When Bid caught wind of this plot, he quit. This was
not the kind of baseball he wanted to be associated with. Brush sold the
team shortly after the Kelley fiasco came to light. Brush ended up buying
the Giants, and he and McGraw built a great team.
Bid remained in Cincinnati for several more years, tending to his various business affairs and working as a talent scout for the Reds. In 1909, he packed his bags, said goodbye to baseball and moved to Ocean Beach, in Southern California. He resurfaced in 1939, when the Reds won the National League pennant, granting interviews to local newspapers as well as The Sporting News. Otherwise, he remained in quiet retirement until his death, in 1943, in the City of San Diego.
By agreement of the Veterans Committee, Bid McPhee was the last 19th century player admitted to the Hall of Fame. There may be others from his era worthy of the honor, but none more deserving. Bid embodied all that was good about baseball’s first century and almost nothing that was bad. Brave, honest, imaginative and immensely talented, he is one of the few Hall of Famers who can honestly be called a “pioneer.”
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