Saturday, December 29, 2012

140. Oscar Bielaski: Poles and Bats

There was a time when I was growing up when I had no idea what I was. I mean, I knew basically what I was - a 6 or 7 year-old boy growing up in New Jersey, just like all the other kids on my block. Then came the day when I suddenly had another name to describe what I was: "a Polack". It was one of the Irish kids' father from the next block who called me that. He was a rummy and there was always a stream of exotic-sounding words that shot out of his mouth as he stumbled home from the tavern, but this time it was directed at me. Later I asked my father what that word meant. I can still see the red in his face when I repeated "Polack" to him. After asking who'd called me that, he sat me down at the kitchen table and explained to me that what it meant was that my family was originally from a place called Poland. He went on to carefully say that while being from Poland is not bad, the word "Polack" is not a nice term. The proper word is "Pole" to describe a person from Poland. Having no idea of the world beyond Manhattan Island, hearing that my family came from some far away place was, well, neat. I knew both sets of grandparents spoke a different language when they didn't want me to know what they were discussing, now it was all starting to make sense. It was a little later when one of those Irish kids started in on the Polack jokes that I started to get the meaning of being lumped into an ethnic category. I didn't like it. After dispensing a few busted lips and bloody noses the Polack jokes dried up, but it started me on a life-long interest in my family's history and the land they came from. It was only natural that as a baseball fan I began looking for famous ballplayers of Polish heritage - Ted Kluszewski, Carl Yastrzemski and the brothers Coveleski were the obvious ones. Then came Al Simmons, aka Aloys Szymanski and Stan The Man Musial. If you dig deep you can find plenty of Poles in the big leagues, many with Americanized names like Johnny Podres and Jack Quinn. And then that got me thinking, who was the very first Polish-American big leaguer?

The people of the former kingdom of Poland, effectively wiped off the map at the end of the 18th century, seethed under the thumb of the combined rule of Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Their language was banned, religion eradicated and men conscripted into foreign armies. While many other countries under similar circumstances bent and withered, the Poles developed a proud and stubborn resilience inherent in their psyche to this very day. Under penalty of imprisonment they refused to forget their language and subversive schools and societies popped up to keep it alive. Their Catholic faith became stronger through threat of death and Polish soldiers honed their already formidable warrior reputation while biding their time in the armies of others. Freedom and the idea of liberty found a place in the heart of every Pole. By November of 1830 the Polish people had had enough and launched an insurrection against the Russian government in the eastern part of the country. Although terribly over matched in both numbers and weapons, the Poles fought valiantly capturing the attention of the world's press who overwhelmingly sided with the underdog Poles. The end came in September of the following year when the Russians succeeded in taking Warsaw after a bitter last-ditch stand by the Poles. It is this bitter determination to resist that became the root of the "stupid Polack" jokes. The Poles' natural inclination to fight back at all costs which they see as their only way to be free was perceived by other ethnicity's as stupid and useless. 

Survivors of the 1830 insurrection scattered to all corners of the globe in what became the first large wave of Polish immigrants. One ex-soldier, Russian-trained officer Alexander Bielaski, seriously wounded leading a commando-like unit during the final battle of Warsaw, landed in the United States. Settling in Illinois he made the acquaintance of a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. He made a living teaching sword fighting, then relocated to Washington, D.C. and put his engineering education to use for the U.S. General Land Office. Before Civil War broke out he took a wife, Mary and the two had six children: Rosetta, Victor, Oscar, Agnes Alexander and Eugene.

Being a bonafide, European-trained warrior, it was only natural the when war broke out Bielaski would offer his valuable experience to his adapted country. Quickly appointed a Captain he organized the Federal Army for it's first campaign in the Western theater, an attack on the Mississippi River Valley. It wasn't long afterwards that Captain Bielaski met his death in battle. Serving on the staff of General McClernand, Bielaski could have stayed out of combat but during the Battle of Belmont in Missouri he volunteered to lead troops at the front. Leading a massed attack, the Captain had his horse shot out from under him, then grabbed a Springfield Rifle from one of his fallen men and led the assault on foot. Seeing the flag bearer go down he dropped his rifle, took hold of the American flag and waved it aloft to inspire his men. As the attack continued he was hit in the head with a bullet, dead before he hit the ground.

After the heroic death of his father, 16 year-old Oscar ran away to join the army. Signing on with Troop A of the 11th New York Cavalry, he aimed to take up the fight just like his father. The 11th Cavalry had campaigned first around Virginia and Maryland, then penetrated into Mississippi and Louisiana. When Bielaski joined them in September of 1864, the regiment was camped in Louisiana awaiting orders. In the idle down time Bielaski learned a game that was spreading rapidly from regiment to regiment on both sides of the conflict - baseball. After serving as a trooper for a month his superiors found out he wasn't the 19 year-old he claimed he was and promptly discharged him from further service. Though I'm sure he was disappointed to have been thwarted in his attempt to avenge his father's death, the discharge may have saved his life: a month after he was sent home most of the regiment drowned when the troop ship North America sank off the Florida coast.

Bielaski returned to Washington and brought his interest in baseball with him. Still wanting to serve his country he joined the Navy when he turned 19 but missed out on any action. When his hitch was up he returned to Washington and continued to play baseball. He apparently trained as a clerk, which would have given him the opportunity to pursue his beloved sport since it was commonly played by young urban professionals. 

Apparently baseball had become a family affair for the Bielaski's as Oscar played in the same infield as his younger brother Alex on the Rosedale Club. Records show he then played for the Capitol and Union clubs in the years before any organized national leagues existed. In 1872, a year after the first professional league, the National Association was formed, Oscar Bielaski was signed by his hometown Washington Nationals, making him the very first professional Polish-American baseball player.

The Nats were a terrible club in 1872, losing all 11 games they stumbled through. Bielaski was one of their starting outfielders and though batting a paltry .174, he led the team in runs scored with 13, so when he got on base he at least made the most of it. The Nationals disbanded at the end of the season and were replaced by the Blue Legs who finished last of 9 teams but managed to win 8 of 39 games. Bielaski's .283 average was second best on the team and was about average for the National Association. He also led the team in walks. The Blue Legs folded too at the conclusion of the season and Bielaski packed his kit and moved over to Baltimore.

Besides having a terrible baseball name, the 1874 Baltimore Canaries were another lousy ball club, finishing in last in the National Association. Bielaski batted .241 and his 3 stolen bases led the team. Though this doesn't sound like much, Bielaski was a good player on bad teams. Newspapers called him a sure fielder and a good man to have in the clutch. Problem was, he was getting old and by this time he'd married his wife Mary and had a child on the way. Playing on lousy ball clubs that folded every Fall wasn't going to cut it for much longer.

In 1875 Bielaski migrated to Chicago to join the White Stockings. He hit .239, helping the team finish just under .500 for the season. When Al Spalding formed his own White Stockings the following year and entered them in the new National League, Oscar Bielaski was recruited to play outfield for them. Finally Bielaski had a berth on a real contender and the team, led by Cap Anson, Cal McVey, Deacon White and Al Spalding, stormed to the top of the standings becoming the very first National League pennant winners. 

That great championship season was the last for Bielaski. Taking his .243 career average with him, he returned home to Washington, D.C. where a stable career as a clerk in the auditor's office at the Navy Yard awaited him. In between raising his 3 sons and 2 daughters, the old outfielder kept his hand in the game by coaching teams made up of Navy Yard personnel. On November 8, 1911 while boarding a streetcar at 6th and G Streets, he had a massive heart attack and died on the way to the hospital. Following a funeral service attended by many ex-ballplayers, Oscar Bielaski was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His simple headstone is inscribed with his name, company and regiment, but nothing about his being the very first Polish-American to play professional baseball.

The Bielaski family produced a few other notables - remember Oscar's younger infield-playing brother Alex? He became a very highly respected Reverend in the Methodist Episcopal Church. One of his sons, also a stand-out high school and college ballplayer, A. Bruce Bielaski, became the head of the Bureau of Investigation before J. Edgar Hoover (see a trend here with directors of the F.B.I. initializing their first name?). 

So that's the story of the first Polish-American professional ballplayer. I went back and forth over the Christmas holiday about this story. You see, though I'm proud of and identify with my Polish heritage, I'm first and foremost an American. My family all came here with dreams of becoming a part of something big and great - the United States of America. A country so special that it attracts people of all religions, colors and ideals would never have become that way if everyone insisted on clinging to those hyphens many insert before the word "American". Teddy Roosevelt (a life-long hero of mine) said it eloquently and succinctly in 1915:

"There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism... a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts "native" before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance. But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else."
One of the reasons I love baseball so much is that it seems to have been one of the main things that helped new immigrants blend in and become American. The game was wholly an American one, a complex one but something everyone could learn if they tried hard enough. It wasn't something brought by Italians or Mexicans or Irish - it was something that was already here, something that could be found everywhere, no matter where one settled in the country. To play and understand baseball was your entry ticket to greater things. It made you an American.

That's why I struggled with this story. To call attention to "the first" anything - Pole, Jew, Italian, Japanese - simply erects walls that baseball had previously eliminated. I guess I finally decided to post this story tonight because of the story I related at the start of this piece. The day when that juicer called me a Polack, it helped me discover what it meant to be a Pole and the contributions Poles brought to the United States and how those blended and added to the contributions of all the other nationalities that make up the fabric of this nation, and that made me truly understand what this great country really was all about.


  1. I love your work. I don't often comment but I find your cards to be a lot of fun to look at (and read about).

  2. Wonderful post! As a fellow Pole from New Jersey (my dad's from South River; I'm from Little Silver but now live in Clifton), I really enjoyed it. I'd never thought of who the first professional player of Polish decent might be.