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Philadelphia Baseball Ghosts: Highball Wilson

Sometimes a little hair 'o the dog is just what you need to sleep through a literal trainwreck.

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For many ball players, Philadelphia becomes merely a second home. What we aim to do with the "Philadelphia Baseball Ghosts" series is take a look at those who are born within Philadelphia city limits before they set off on their grand baseball adventure somewhere else in the vast, horrible world.

Past entries:

William "Yank" Robinson

Harry "Socks" Seibold

John Francis "Phenomenal" Smith

Alan Strange

Ed Sixsmith

Oyster Burns


Highball Wilson

DOB: August 9, 1878

What was happening in Philadelphia at the time: 1878 was a prideful year of Philadelphia sporting, as it saw the second ever regatta of the Fairmount Rowing Association, as well as a separate fall regatta for the American Rowing Club, featuring equal or greater pomposity (These are merely two of the five rowing regattas the city hosted that year - what a time to be alive). On top of the rivers' bustling activity, a rifle shooting contest erupted at 21st and Diamond; like, a real one between the Norristown and Keystone Rifle Clubs, not the kind that might occur there in 2015.

An international cricket match broke out in Germantown in October, and two boastful men agreed to a swimming race from Bridesburg to an island in the Delaware River. Shockingly for a pre-1900 sporting event, no one was killed or burst into flames.

It was also a big year for the sport of thief-killing, as right around the time that Highball Wilson was being birthed in early August, a band of river pirates set upon a ship anchored in the Delaware River captained by a man named L. Stillman, who welcomed them aboard with a hail of gunfire that killed one and wounded two.

MLB career: 1899 Cleveland Spiders; 1902 Philadelphia Athletics; 1903-04 Washington Senators

3.29 ERA, 86 SO, 71 BB, 1.480 WHIP, 37 CG, 4.3 WAR in 371.2 IP

Bio: With 132 pro at-bats under his belt, the league had some time from 1899-1904 to determine just what sort of hitter Highball Wilson was. However, history shows us that nobody could have been paying too close attention, as Baseball Reference lists his handedness as "unknown." I'm no statistician, but this appears to be some of the easiest information to record about a hitter; all it requires is the official scorebook keeper to look up from his 1800s girly mag, once. But that's too much to ask, I suppose, you old perv.

Regardless, Highball took the mound for the Cleveland Spiders in 1899, dreaming of a long, illustrious career. He made one start, gave up eight runs, 12 hits, five walks, and only one strikeout in eight innings, and did not pitch on the big league level again until 1902. He dug in with the minor league Norwich Witches in 1900, getting 21 starts, throwing complete games in 20 of them, keeping his SO/W just about even (18 SO, 19 BB) and avoiding be burned at the stake.

In 1902 with the Philadelphia A's, Highball got to take part in some baseball history in his hometown as the A's and Phillies were to begin the season with a fun little exhibition series. Things got off to a not-great start when a rain delay put the idea in the A's head that they should strike for some reason. A's manager Connie Mack succeeded in talking everybody down, probably by yelling at them, and the games were set to go on. The Athletics' star pitcher was Rube Waddell, who came out and threw nine perfect innings - but his offense gave him the Cole Hamels Special, and he was sent back out to pitch the tenth in a scoreless game.

What followed was a horrific baseball disaster-inning that probably caused Waddell to give up the sport and go live in the mountains for the rest of his days: A lead-off walk, a painfully slow throw to second off a grounder that did not get the runner, an infield fly on which the runner on second went to third anyway and the umpire deemed everything totally fine with that situation, a hit batsman, and finally, the Phillies went up 2-0 on a sac fly and a single. That's how the game ended as the A's couldn't get anything together in their half of the tenth.

The A's dropped game two of the series as well, putting a lot of pressure on young Highball Wilson, who was sent out in the wake of an epic baseball catastrophe to maintain the Athletics' dignity. Things went about as well as you'd expect for a 23-year-old pitcher who was also completely wasted.

"Wilson had highballs the night before and during this game, as the Phillies shellacked him for six runs."

--Rube Waddell: The Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist, by Alan H. Levy

Highball being drunk a lot of the time actually helped him keep his calm when the Athletics' train went off the rails and wrecked as the team traveled from St. Louis to Detroit. Frantic teammates poked him to tell him what had occurred to the train he was currently on and he just rolled over and said,

"Well I can't help it; the train isn't mine."

--Highball Wilson after a horrible train disaster, via Alan H. Levy

Way to keep your cool, Highball. It was that serenity/possible drunkenness that would allow him to outpitch Cy Young in 1903 in a 1-0 win over the Red Sox while Highball was with the Washington Senators. He would retire at  25 after the 1904 season and die at the age of 56 in Havre De Grace, Maryland.

What trying to help a drunk idiot during a trainwreck like was probably like:


SOCKS SEIBOLD: Highball, wake up.

HIGHBALL WILSON: [rolling over] Mmm; go 'way.

OSSEE: Highball, wake up, the train's crashing.

SOCKS: Seriously. We're in mid-crash right now. The raucous noise of metal being crushed as if it were nothing should really be rousing you.

HIGHBALL: I know what we should do! [reaches for flask that isn't there]

SOCKS: Now's not the time for a drink, Highball, you old lush.

OSSEE: That's our Highball!

HIGHBALL: Aw, fellas, who knobbed off with my hooch.

SOCKS: I've been alive for most of the 1870s and even I am not familiar with that expression.

OSSEE: That's our Highball!

SOCKS: But seriously, the train only just finished crashing, so perhaps we should gather with our teammates and make sure everyone is okay.

HIGHBALL: I'll tell you what I'll be doing: finding that hooch thief.

OSSEE: I'll bet you will, Highball.

HIGHBALL: And then I will murder him.

SOCKS: ...

HIGHBALL: I will murder the man who took my booze. What sort of cowardly face-haver swipes a man's bedside booze?!

SOCKS: I think everybody's got a face, Highball. Not sure who you're ridiculing with a statement like that. But I think I just saw our equipment manager run by the window on fire, so maybe we should--

HIGHBALL: It was you, wasn't it, Socks? You damn whiskey-sipper. But I shall leave you unscathed, you know why? Because I respect you.

SOCKS: Highball, are you soiling yourself? Right now?


OSSEE: That's our Highball!

HIGHBALL: [almost chokes to death on own vomit]

Further Reading:

Baseball's Iconic 1-0 Games by Warren N. Wilbert

Rube Waddell: The Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist, by Alan H. Levy