Tuesday, October 23, 2012

134. Charlie Sweasy: Cincinnati's first second baseman

I'm angry. And disappointed, too. Once again my ball club has let me down. I wrote a long and recklessly eloquent intro piece on how the Reds blew the playoffs this year and my explanation of why they did. Oh, it was magnificent in its unrelenting venom and just looking at the card of Charlie Sweasy of the 1869 Red Stockings I had designed specifically for the day when the Reds clinched the 2012 National League pennant made me angry all over again. Then all at once I stopped. It wasn't worth it. Anyone who comes here can simply read the same thing at countless other blogs all over the internet - disappointed Angels fans, angry Cardinals nuts and perennially pissed-off White Sox aficionados probably wrote more or less the same stuff I had. 

So I pressed delete. 

Who the heck needs another rant? Let's get to some good old-time base ball...

It was the end of August, 1870. For the past 2 years the Cincinnati Red Stockings criss-crossed the nation destroying all who were foolish enough to engage them on the field of battle. They were the first all-professional baseball team  assembled and they lived up to all the expectations anyone ever had of them, but by the time the team disembarked from a river steamer at Portsmouth, Ohio their success was such that it was starting to work against them.

The novelty of seeing a Red Stockings game no longer had that certain shine any longer - they were going to win and that was that. Attendance suffered. Once you saw them there wasn't any reason to go again such was the usual lopsidedness of the exhibitions. The team also became a victim of their success on the field. The ballplayers who were once held to vows of abstinence from alcohol was now starting to cut loose. Where once the Red Stockings were the only professional team in the nation, two years after their founding many of the players were being courted to jump the Red Stockings and join newly formed pro teams for more money. With the threat of being tossed off the only paying ball club now irrelevant, the ballplayers became lax on and off the field and it was starting to show.

On the ball field at Portsmouth, the once invincible Red Stockings were losing to the half-rate local Riverside Base Ball Club. When the 9th inning rolled around Portsmouth was ahead 27-23. After Cal McVey and Charlie Gould made 2 quick outs, it looked like the Red Stockings were about to lose their 3rd game of the year. With one out needed to secure a Portsmouth win, Fred Waterman chiseled out a base hit when the shortstop dropped an easy play. Doug Allison and Harry Wright singled to keep the inning alive and suddenly the bases were full of Red Stockings. Andy Leonard then launched an easy fly ball to left field and as the Portsmouth outfielder settled under it for the final out, Leonard slammed down his bat and swore. But the left fielder lost track of the ball, then found it again and made a jumping catch for what appeared to be the final out. Waterman and Allison had crossed the plate but it was in vain as the umpire ruled it an out, game over.

Cincinnati manager Harry Wright ran over to the umpire and claimed it wasn't a catch, that he saw the left fielder drop the ball. Wright and the umpire went out to the left fielder who was picking himself up off the grass. Astonishingly, he willingly admitted he did in fact drop the ball. The umpire ruled a hit and Waterman and Allison runs counted bring the score to 27-25 Portsmouth.

Asa Brainard came up next and his single loaded the bases once again. That brought up Cincinnati's second baseman Charlie Sweasy. He was the team's leading slugger that season, and that afternoon in Portsmouth, Ohio, he certainly didn't disappoint. With a mighty wallop, Sweasy drilled the ball to deep center. Watching the ball carry, Wright, Leonard and Brainard roared around the bases followed closely by Sweasy. Since there was no outfield fence, the center fielder eventually came up with the ball and threw towards the infield - but it was too late. Charlie Sweasy's inside the ballpark home run put Cincinnati ahead 29-27.

It was a close one - too close. To all present it was obvious the quality of the Cincinnati Red Stockings ball playing had seriously deteriorated. While the Portsmouth win was certainly exciting, there was no reason it should have even been close. Nightlife and offers of more cash had taken its toll on the greatest best ball team in history.

As the sun set, the Red Stockings boarded the river steamer Fleetwood for the overnight trip back to Cincinnati. Because of the mixed emotions of that day's game, the team settled into the steamers restaurant and drank freely. The teams once stringent alcohol policy was all but forgotten by now, and most of the men drank continuously through the night. The tanked-up ballplayers became more and more agitated and the air was right for something to happen. When breakfast was being served, Charlie Sweasy, the hero of the previous day's win, began fighting his teammates. Reporters accompanying the team didn't say what the argument was all about, but it's easy to assume it was over his teammates' lousy play of late. Sweasy was in the process of taking on 2 or 3 other Red Stockings when the Fleetwood's captain threatened to run the ship aground if the fighting didn't stop. 

The thought of being marooned somewhere along the rural Ohio River wisely put an end the brawl. When the team returned to Cincinnati, its executives decided to suspend Sweasy from the team. Discipline had been breaking down for some time and it was obvious Harry Wright was losing control of his men. 

So now Charlie Sweasy, Cincinnati's first second baseman was now professional baseball's first suspended ballplayer.

Charlie Sweasy was a product of Newark, New Jersey's bleak and seamy slums. The city made the young man strong and tough, and it was inevitable that this athletic scrapper would become roped in by the area's burgeoning baseball scene. The game had been popular since before the Civil War, and by the time Sweasy picked up a bat North Jersey boasted some of the most competitive baseball in the country. After cutting his teeth with a few of the many sandlot teams in Newark, Sweasy was recruited by the New Jersey Irvingtons. This was the ball club that launched Sweasy as well as his teammate Andy Leonard to stardom. Their play with the popular Irvingtons got them both a lucrative offer from the Cincinnati Buckeyes from whom they were in turn snatched away from when the Red Stockings formed in 1869. 

With Cincinnati, Sweasy became their solid and dependable second baseman. While not their best hitter, he was 2nd on the team with 30 home runs in 1869 and first the next year with 18, securing his reputation as the Red Stockings' premier slugger. When he felt his $800 salary for 1869 was not enough for the following season, Sweasy held out for a couple hundred more and became baseball's first hold-out.

But the man the Red Stockings swiped from the Buckeyes was to prove a complicated fellow. At times belting out popular songs and appearing gregarious and witty, he was also cranky and irritable. By the time the Red Stockings swiped him off the Buckeyes' bench, Sweasy was known as a troublesome character. Booze was mostly to blame, and the Red Stockings' enforced abstinence kept Sweasy from becoming his own worst enemy for most of 1869 and 1870. When fame started destroying the team in the late summer of 1870, Sweasy was its first casualty.

The suspension of the team's best slugger was unpopular with the press and fans, resulting in a quick reinstatement. The decision further brought out the Red Stockings' problems: when the team completed its schedule it was announced that Harry Wright was taking the Red Legs name and most of the marquee players and heading for Boston. Sweasy, though he led the team in home runs, wasn't one of the players invited to join. More than anyone else, Harry Wright knew that left to his own devices, Charlie Sweasy was a shipwreck waiting to happen. Though he didn't take his old second baseman to Boston he did vouch for him to other clubs, being careful to tell them that he performs best when held under strict guidelines to ensure sobriety. Along with old pal Andy Leonard he went to Washington but his play never came close to what he'd become known for with Cincinnati and he left after a season. From then on his career was like a pinball machine - Cleveland, Boston, Brooklyn, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Providence and finally back in Newark. Somewhere he picked up rheumatism to add to his alcoholism and he dropped out of the game, spending the rest of his life peddling oysters on the dank streets of Newark.

  • Rhodes, Greg and Erardi, John, The First Boys of Summer: The 1869-1870 Cincinnati Red Stockings (Road West Publishing, 1994)
  • Guschov, Stephen D., The Red Stockings of Cincinnati (McFarland & Company, 1998)
  • Wheeler, Lonnie and Baskin, John, The Cincinnati Game (Orange Frazer Press, 1988)
  • This Game of Games (thisgameofgames.blogspot.com)

1 comment:

  1. Love your work and the whole style that you have created. You served as a type of inspiration and I started designing my own cards.

    Presidential themed baseball cards in honor of election day.