Wednesday, March 20, 2013

146. Charlie Hoover: Talented But Troubled

When I was looking for any kind of reference on Humpty Badel, I could find only one other person who had written about him in the last 90 or so years - Thom Karmik. His website Baseball History Daily is a joy to read, a fact that I can personally testify to. After reading the Badel story I found myself going deeper and deeper into his archive of past stories until I had to restrain myself - I was getting dangerously off the track of my Badel research. His endless trove of interesting ballplayers and new (to me) stories had me hooked. Seeing that we both share a similar taste in obscure players and stories, I emailed Thom and asked him if he'd be interested in writing a story for my site as a guest author. Lo and behold he agreed and quickly sent me this great bit of original research on a really interesting guy from the early days of the game. So, without further delay, I'll turn it over to Thom Karmik...

Charles E. Hoover is one of a select group; Major League players for whom no information is available about when or where he died.  Like many 19th Century ballplayers he eventually became better known for his demons than for his ability, and eventually faded into obscurity.

Hoover was born in Mound City, Illinois in September of 1865; the town, upriver from Cairo was incorporated just seven years earlier and was the site of the Union Army’s largest hospital in the west and a shipyard that produced three Union ironclads:  the U.S.S. Cairo, the U.S.S. Mound City, and the U.S.S. Cincinnati.

Nothing is known about Hoover’s childhood, but at some point he settled in Hannibal, Missouri, where he would return throughout his life. 

His professional career began in 1886 with the Lincoln Tree Planters in the Western League.  Hoover played for three teams in the Western League in 1887, and his .342 batting average and growing reputation as a solid catcher with an excellent arm earned him a contract with A.G. Spalding’s Chicago White Stockings. 

Between the 1887 and ’88 seasons Hoover’s troubles began.

He was drunk in Lincoln, Nebraska (some contemporary papers said the incident happened in Kansas, but it appears Lincoln was the site) in early December of 1887 when he was arrested for shooting at a carriage driver.  In January a wire service report which appeared in several papers said Hoover had been released from jail and would be joining the white Stockings in the spring:

“(Hoover) has written a letter to President Spalding in which he proves by the court record that the charge preferred against him was entirely fictitious and the work of two men he whipped in a fight.”

The story said a fight broke out between Hoover and the two men and the gun “accidently discharged” and, “Spalding, after investigating all the evidence at hand has come to the conclusion that Hoover, while perhaps a little hotheaded, did nothing especially reprehensible.”

Hoover joined the White Stockings in the spring, but was released to the Western Association before the season began.  The catcher split time between the Chicago Maroons and the Davenport Onion Weeders.  He was purchased for $8500 at the end of the season by the Kansas City Cowboys in the American Association and made his major league debut in October, appearing in three games for the Cowboys.

The following season in Kansas City was a stormy one.  There were numerous reports that he and Kansas City manager Bill Watkins did not get along, and Hoover’s reputation as a talented, but “troubled” player grew.

After another disagreement with Watkins in July, The Sporting Life said:
“Hoover is a peculiar ball player. Fines, bad treatment and threats of expulsion don't seem to  have any effect on him. The management had tried everything on him. It was thought for a time that he would be released, but yesterday he was put in to catch and caught the best game ever played in this city. His work was simply wonderful.”

Then, a few days before the end of the season, Hoover fought with a fan in Kansas City.  The Sporting Life was not ready to give up on him and provided his defense, despite acknowledging he was probably drunk:

“Many a ball player has done worse and has been forgiven readily. Hoover had been drinking. He was mad and angry and when a spectator insulted him, he lost his temper altogether.”

Besides, The Sporting Life said “He did some of the best catching this season in the American Association.”

Despite his defenders, Hoover was finished with Kansas City. When he returned to the Western Association the following season, The Denver Republican said:

“(He) is a good backstop, an excellent thrower, fair hitter and rapid baserunner.  He is cursed however, with a tinder-like temper, which no manager has yet been able to control.”

There are no available statistics for the1890 season.  Hoover began the season with the Kansas City Blues and was acquired in August by the Lincoln Rustlers. 

Hoover’s troubles continued.  The Omaha World-Herald reported that summer that Hoover’s “Mistress” in Lincoln, was the “Keeper of a disreputable house at 6th and M Streets,” and shortly after the end of the 1891 season Hoover was arrested in Lincoln another incident involving Hoover shooting at someone while drunk.

The erstwhile catcher managed to avoid prosecution again when he was signed to a contract with the Sacramento Senators of the California League.  In February, The World-Herald said:

 “At 5 o’clock this morning Charley Hoover was escorted to the Burlington depot by an officer and put upon a train bound for California… (The) ballclub telegraphed $150 and from it he extracted $25 and paid his fine.  If he ever shows up in Lincoln again he will be prosecuted for assault with intent to kill.”

The Sporting Life said Hoover “Who but for his besetting sin, drink, would be one of the great catchers of the profession…He has signed a contract to abstain from liquor, a forfeiture of salary being the penalty for a violation of his agreement.”

By late May Sacramento manager John McCloskey had tired of Hoover and the catcher was released.  Hoover went first to Hannibal, and then signed a contract to play for a semi-pro team in Bozeman, Montana.  The next season he signed with the Omaha Omahogs of the Western League.  The World Herald said Hoover was:

“One of the best backstops in the business…he has been signed on the condition that he keeps straight.”

He didn’t, and was released before the season began.  Hoover spent the year working as a bricklayer in Butte, Montana.

He was next heard from in January of 1893 when The Sporting Life said “Hoover got into several scrapes in Butte, so the town became so hot for him that he shook the dust off his feet and returned to his Hannibal, MO home.”

That spring, Charlie Comiskey was desperate for a catcher to back up Farmer Vaughn and signed Hoover.  The Sporting Life’s opinion of Hoover had soured, and the paper did not support the move:

"Comiskey is sufficiently hard up for a catcher to take chances with an unreliable man, notwithstanding costly experience. He is trying Charlie Hoover, the ill-tempered and bibulously inclined ex-Kansas City catcher."

Hoover’s last chance at the Major Leagues ended when Comiskey chose to stick with Morgan Murphy, who had hit .197 and committed 18 errors in 74 games the previous season, as Vaughn’s backup.  Hoover dropped out of sight for the remainder of 1893, but returned the next two seasons playing in the Southern and Western Associations—the 29-year-old’s professional career was over after the 1895 season.

Hoover returned to Hannibal and was not heard from again until 1899.  Hoover was drunk when he attempted to pass a bad check at the Stillwell Packing Company in Hannibal.  He was arrested, and for the first time convicted and sentenced to prison—for five years. 

In 1902, Missouri Governor Alexander Dockery pardoned Hoover.  The St. Louis Republic said:

"Hoover’s propensity to gaze upon the wine when it was red has caused him all his trouble.”

But the paper was hopeful for Hoover’s future:

“He is considering several offers to play ball and will probably accept one of them.”

The 36-year-old Hoover did not sign with any professional team.  That was last that was heard from Hoover--one of the few who reached the Major Leagues and disappeared without a trace.

Be sure to visit Baseball History Daily. When I asked Thom to write about what his site is all about, this is what he said: 

“In the days before electronic media the players who toiled in hundreds of small and medium sized towns across North America were heroes, idols and sometimes villains; and they were household names.  While organizations like SABR have provided reams of research on professional baseball, so many of those household names, and the teams and the leagues in which they played, have been lost in the mists of time.”

"What I’ve also discovered is that just as many stories of the players who reached the pinnacle of their profession and played in the largest cities in country have also faded into obscurity."

"What has made it especially fun and satisfying for me is that I have actually heard from ancestors of some of the players I’ve profiled and had them tell me they learned something about a great-grandfather or uncle that they hadn’t known. I’m a former broadcast journalist and also worked on political campaigns for a decade;  I relocated to Las Vegas a year ago and no longer do either of those things." 

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