Friday, March 1, 2013

145. Humpty Badel: Almost Major League

Although I'm originally from New Jersey, I've come to adopt the Commonwealth of Kentucky as my home. It wasn't a quick decision - over the years I'd moved here and then left 2 times - yet last year when I was looking for a place to settle after 6 years in Los Angeles there was only one place that truly felt like home - Kentucky. I live right across the Ohio River from Cincinnati and within minutes I can go from a Reds game to the beautiful farm where my girlfriend boards her horse, Lefty (great name, huh?). For some reason, of all the places I've called home over the years, Jersey, Baltimore, Chicago, Colorado - Kentucky is where I want to be. And as a little private way to say thanks to my adapted state, I like to feature players with Kentucky roots like Pee Wee Reese, Carl Mays and Bill Niemeyer.

But there's one team I always wanted to do a card for: the short-lived Covington Blue Sox. Covington, Kentucky is the city directly across the Ohio River from Cincinnati and in 1913 was host to a franchise in the newly-formed Federal League. That first season was a trial run for what in 1914 would become almost a third major league. The Blue Sox lasted only a few months before they were forced to move west to Kansas City, becoming known as the Packers. Since I lived in Covington and know the spot Federal Park once stood, I have been avidly searching for the perfect player to represent Covington's brush with baseball history. After rummaging through pages and pages of 1913 Cincinnati newspaper files, I found that certain player and his story was better than I could have hoped for...

At a time when the only way someone with a handicap could get onto a professional ball club was as a mascot, hunchback Fred Badel came surprisingly close to making the major leagues. Badel came from Carnegie, one of the many gray steel towns outside Pittsburgh. He was born in 1881, or maybe before that, we just don't know for sure - like many ballplayers throughout the history of the game, he probably shaved a couple of years off as he grew older. Newspaper stories during his playing career make note of his peculiar accent and that he spoke German so he was probably the son of immigrants, of which the greater Pittsburgh area had no shortage of. He suffered from a severe curvature of the spine called Kyphosis which caused a hump to form on Badel's back. In those pre-politically correct times it inevitable he would be known as "Humpty". He could neither read nor write and contemporary sportswriters weren't shy in declaring Badel a bit on the slower side of things. He apparently had trouble remembering simple instructions and one manager said he lacked common sense. Newspaper articles called him "odd" and "picturesque." Humpty could, however, play ball.

Badel got his professional start around 1902 or 1903 playing for Youngstown in the Ohio-Pennsylvania League. In 1905 he surfaced with the Johnstown Johnnies of the "outlaw" Tri-State League. The "outlaw" brand meant that the league wasn't affiliated with the minor or major leagues which fell under the umbrella of the National Association. While playing outfield for the Johnnies, Badel attracted the attention of the Buffalo Bisons of the Class A Eastern League, which was the equivalent of today's AAA.

The manager of the Bisons was George Stallings, later manager of the 1914 World Champion Boston Braves. Stallings became very smitten with Badel during spring training. Accounts state that he was above average contact hitter with a good eye. On the base paths he was described as a "whirlwind" and fearless. Moreover, Badel used his disability to his advantage: due to his hump and curved spine his strike zone was quite small making him a hard man to pitch to. By the time the Bisons broke camp and headed towards Buffalo, he was penciled in as the starting right fielder.

Playing their way north, the Bisons stopped in Cincinnati to play the Reds. After a short series between the two clubs reds manager Ned Hanlon offered Stallings $5,000 then and there for Badel but was rebuffed. Stallings felt he had a budding star and wanted him for himself. 

The presence of a hunchback on the club was as much a source of interest and amusement for press as it was for his new teammates. It was a different time and like black children and midgets, hunchbacks were considered good-luck charms by superstitious ballplayers. "Rubbing the hump" for luck was as time-honored a tradition in baseball as spitting. Unfortunately for Badel, some of his new teammates couldn't differentiate between the ball-playing Badel and the lucky hunchback Badel.

Bisons' ace pitcher Rube Kisinger was so infatuated with Badel's hump that he would wait for him to come in from the outfield after each inning and rub his hump all the way to the dugout. While Kisinger probably meant no disrespect doing what a newspaper at the time called an "affectionate demonstration", Badel was mortified by the superstitious ritual and pleaded to the Bisons' management for relief. None came. Rube Kisinger was a former big leaguer and the best pitcher on the Bisons. Though Badel was warmly accepted by the Buffalo fans and he was holding his own in the league, by July the "humpstroking business" became unbearable. He was also having a hard time learning the club's field and batting signs and his teammates began to poke fun at his illiteracy and ignorance. Badel was also disgruntled with his pay on the Bisons which was less than what he was getting in outlaw ball. A 1907 Sporting Life article relates that Badel borrowed $100 from Stallings then told him he was jumping the club. A hundred bucks in 1906 was a hefty sum and Stallings had to have his lawyer talk him out of physically attacking Badel and beating his money out of him. On July 6th he quit the club.

By leaving the Bisons Badel effectively KO'ed his chances at making the majors. Breaking a professional baseball contract, especially one in the high minors, was career suicide. Not only would a club think twice about signing a known "jumper" but in most instances couldn't because the rebellious ballplayer would be blacklisted from any league that was part of the National Association. That's exactly what happened to Badel who had no other choice but to return to Johnstown. He hit a nice .302 for the remainder of the season but suffered a setback when health problems and the death of his mother and brother kept him off the diamond in 1907.

Back with the Johnnies in 1908, Badel played for Ed Ashenback, a life-long minor leaguer who also wrote a very funny and insightful book about his career called "Humor Among the Minors". Ashenback describes how Badel couldn't comprehend simple hit-and-run signs or any other instructions for that matter. Discovering Badel spoke fluent German like himself, Ashenback tried simply shouting base running instructions in that language. This too came to naught since Badel would become excited while speaking German and get picked off base. 

Badel spent the next decade in and out of baseball, mostly in the low minors or Midwestern independent and outlaw leagues. In 1912 he was with the outlaw Cincinnati Pippins. The Pippins were part of the United States League which was formed to challenge the National Association's vice-grip on professional baseball. The league tried to place teams in many big league markets but their brand of ball was of a much lower standard than the majors and fans stayed away. Badel was popular with the sparse Cincinnati fans who did turn out for Pippins games and in May was batting a smooth .364. Unfortunately poor attendance and sub-standard talent forced the league to fold after less than 30 games.

In late July Badel surfaced in the South Atlantic League where he managed the Columbia Comers. Stats show he hit a paltry .203 but he made headlines when he took the mound for the Comers and pitched a complete game win over Columbus. 

For 1913 Badel returned to the Cincinnati area. Crossing the Ohio River to Kentucky he joined up with the Covington Blue Sox. Covington was a franchise in the new Federal League which grew in part out of the ashes of the defunct United States League. The 1913 season was to be a trial run for the Federals who aspired to become a third major league. By this time Badel was mostly playing first base, likely due to his age being somewhere in the mid-thirties range. He apparently still possessed his legs because in June he was listed as leading the Federal League in doubles. The Blue Sox played in a bread box of a stadium called Federal Park that held a cozy 6,000 and boasted outfield dimensions of 218 feet down the right field line, 267 feet to center and 194 feet down the right field line. With the big league Reds a trolly car ride away, the Blue Sox couldn't make ends meet and wisely moved to Kansas City in June.

Badel had one more year of baseball with Maysville, Kentucky of the Ohio State League, batting .246 before he was released in June. After that I could find no other mention of Badel anywhere. Giving it one last try I stumbled on a very impressive blog by Thom Karmik called Baseball History Daily. Karmik wrote the only modern summary of Badel that I've come across and it was through his story that we can get one last glimpse of him (as well as his approximate date of birth and name of the condition he suffered). According to his World War I draft registration, Badel moved back to Ohio and became a carpenter. After 1919 he simply disappears from history.

  • The Sporting Life (July 1, 1905)
  • The Sporting Life (March 2, 1907)
  • Washington Evening Star (January 23, 1907)
  • Washington Times (August 3, 1912)
  • Ashenback, Edward, Humor Among the Minors (M.A. Donohue & Company, 1911)
  • Okkonen, Marc, The Federal League of 1914-1915 (Society for American Baseball Research, 1989)
  • Thom Karmik (Baseball History Daily)

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