The Old Ball Game

The Oregonian
September 19, 1994
Edited by Bob Hicks
© Bill Donahue

ON ITS COVER RECENTLY, U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT ran a picture of a dough-faced Babe Ruth palming a Louisville Slugger as if it were but a toy. Inside, we saw a grainy old picture of Jackie Robinson sliding towards home. The images announced the then-upcoming TV documentary, ”Baseball,” which began playing nationwide Sept. 18 on PBS. They also were supposed to evoke a chord of nostalgia, a longing for grass fields and flannel knickers and players who will settle for less than $1 million.

But actually, they just made me want to climb down some stairs.

I have my own idol, you must understand, and he lives in my basement. Down there, just past the cobwebs, is the scrapbook extolling the glorious feats of my great-grandfather’s brother, Tim Donahue, the catcher.

Old Tim played for the Chicago Colts (now the Cubs) in baseball’s National League back in the late 1890s, in the days when fans rode coaches to games and shouted things like ”Hurrah!” He never hit the ball all that well, compiling a lifetime average of .236 over eight ragtag seasons, but that is no matter.

The man’s greatest assets were his spine and his mouth. Tim Donahue was a fiery Irishman in a game that was wonderfully elegant but just as corrupt, and fraught with player-management feuds, as baseball is today in the age of The Strike.

Tim spent much of his career fighting team owners like a mad dog. He also raised his dukes on the field a few times, and had a habit of chattering gibberish at opposing batsmen as they stood at the plate. He had, as one journalist noted, ”a tongue as nimble as a squirrel’s and as sharp as a swallow of whiskey.”

He was a media darling. The Chicago papers ran his witty, long letters to the editor verbatim, and sportswriters liked him so much that, at times, they called him ”Philosopher T.” The man was, in short, a sort of Gay ’90s Charles Barkley, and he started almost from nothing.

The son of an immigrant, Tim grew up amid the iron foundries and stove-manufacturing plants of Taunton, Mass., playing with a squad called the Whittendons. He was, in the words of one bygone scribe, ”as attenuated as a Westchester scarecrow,” and he would whip a baseball riflelike down to second.

Cap Anson noticed him. Anson, the legendary player/manager who headed Chicago’s team from 1879 to 1897, cajoled the Colts’ primary owner, A.G. Spalding, into signing Donahue.

Then the real fun began. Great-great-uncle Tim started buying gold watches, fine bowler hats and 25-cent cigars. He also began, after a while, to speak his mind. In the Sept. 25, 1897, Chicago Tribune is a long story spelling out Donahue’s wry views on baseball’s various cities. ”Baltimore,” Tim snipped, ”is inhabited by amphibians and webfeet . . . If one Baltimorean calls another a liar, the insulted one says, ‘I hope the next crab you eat will choke you.’ ”

The piece was lighthearted, but it hid a dark truth. Eight or nine months before, Tim had cultivated a serious grudge against right fielder Jimmy Ryan, a simpering lackey who’d been appointed team captain by the Colts’ crooked president, James A. Hart. Ryan supported Hart even as Cap Anson was writing, in his autobiography, that Hart had turned baseball into ”a gigantic monopoly . . . that is alienating its friends and disgusting the . . . public.” And, it seems, the outfielder also liked to mimic his boss.

Jimmy Ryan took my great-great-uncle Tim barnstorming through California early in ’97, and ripped off the old catcher. ”We played four games and took in $323,” Tim complained, ”and when I left to go east, Ryan gave me seven dollars.”

The tension was thick. ”Tim glowered out at Ryan from his position behind the bat,” Chicago’s Daily news reported, ”and Ryan dodged sunbeams to return the glower, and so it went all through the disastrous season.”

This was not Tim Donahue’s first battle, and it was by no means his last. In 1898, after Ryan’s teammates had forced him to resign, old Tim led the team in a mutiny at their spring training camp. The Colts were staying then at a podunk hotel in Waycross, Ga., that provided only two bathtubs for 18 men, the infields were weedy patches of sand, and the cuisine outraged the ballplayers.

”The murmuring,” the Tribune reported, ”rose into a strenuous kick. Tim Donahue said that (first baseman Bill) Everett had barnacles in his stomach from the food. The men filed hungrily out of the dining room and held an indignation meeting.” The players sent a telegram of protest to Hart, the club president, and appointed a committee to press the issue. The following year, spring training was moved to better quarters in New Mexico.

Great-great-uncle Tim was on a roll. Later that spring, when a reporter probed the Colts for their views on the looming Spanish-American War, T. knew just what to say. ”The war would be a walkover for our side,” he said. ”You see, the Spanish pitcher would let down after delivering a few torpedo curves and then…”

I DON’T KNOW WHAT SORT of fan loved Tim for his bravado; I just know that, on game days, small boys rushed onto the field to bestow him with flowers, silk umbrellas, gold-tipped canes and cigars. In my mind’s eye, these generous kids are bad apples, the type of youths who today might be saggy-slacked skate-punks. They slouched and sneered as they slinked about Chicago’s old West Side Grounds, but inside they bore a deep-seated passion.

When my ancestor began quarreling with Jim Hart in 1899, the newspapers covered his contract disputes thoroughly, as though they were crucial to the soul of Chicago. And when Tim Donahue decided the next year to tell Hart that he was quitting the Colts, the sports sections were thick with the aroma of tragedy. ”Tim wasn’t like most catchers,” lamented pitcher Ned Garvin. ”I’ll never forget a close game down in Philadelphia…”

After Donahue left Chicago, his career quickly fizzled. He launched (and co-owned) an ill-fated minor league team, the Colorado Springs Millionaires, in 1901, and then the following season he started, quite literally, to die as he warmed the bench for the lowly Washington Senators. Addison’s disease, an adrenal disorder, struck in mid-season.

My scrapbook contains a crumbling article which passingly notes that old Tim played his two final games with a horrible pain in his gut.

READING THAT STORY over last week, I wanted to know more. I wanted the full-blown tale of my ancestor’s exit, so I called Washington, D.C., and found a kindly librarian. She squinted at microfilm for two hours, and then phoned me back.

”Nothing in the papers here about that old ballplayer,” she said. ”Not even an obit.”

I did not want to hear this. Indeed, I am trying hard now to forget that Tim Donahue lived his last days ignored and in agony.

So what I remember is this: On opening day of the 1899 season, 10,000 baseball fans crammed into the old West Side Grounds. A giddy joy filled the ballpark and, as game time approached, the delirium mounted. Out of the dugout emerged the young Colts. They were, one paper reveled, ”outwardly clad in flowing gray bathrobes (and) salaaming low to the glory that was heaped upon them.”

And great-great-uncle Tim was among them. He was, folks, the star.

”When Tim Donahue came to bat,” the Tribune wrote, ”the crowd all around the long rows of bleachers stood up and roared approval, and it looked as though the select party on top of a neighboring building would jump off in excess of delight.”