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Philadelphia Baseball Ghosts: Jake Virtue

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Dirty tricks and maimed teammates highlighted the career of defensive virtuoso Jake Virtue.

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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

Eddie Stanky

Zeke Wrigley

Abraham Lincoln Wolstenholme

Shorty Wetzel

***

Jacob Kitchline "Guesses" Virtue

DOB: March 2, 1865

What was happening in Philadelphia at the time: Born the same year as the mysterious Shorty Wetzel from last week, we must, to avoid redundancy, avoid discussing the frozen rivers and assassinated presidents that dominated Philadelphia news at the time.

Fortunately, in Jake Virtue's case, we have an actual date to include with his date of birth. Unfortunately, one of the chief historical tent poles for the region in the month of Virtue's birth was a monstrous ice blockade causing colossal damage and biblical flooding as it was swept down the Susquehanna River.

Telegraph lines were deemed unusable, parts of cities, including Harrisburg, were underwater, critical assets like water mills and gas distilleries were shut down, bridges and homes were smashed to rubble, and river levels hit record highs. It wasn't until later in the month, around March 20, that the waters finally began to recede.

In the midst of the chaos, Jake Virtue was born in Philadelphia, and a quarter of a century later, he was on the cover of the 1891 Cleveland Spiders program (bottom right).

MLB career: 1B/CF for the 1890-94 Cleveland Spiders; .274/.376/.376, 7 HR, 275 BB, 140 SO, 9.5 WAR in 1764 AB

Bio: Virtue was a prolific defender at first base and center field, committing 12 errors in 666 chances in 1890, his rookie season. What people also really liked about Virtue was that he looked even better when compared to the man whose roster spot he took, a grown man named Peek-a-Boo Veach, who according to the team did not have "the moral courage to leave whiskey alone."

The next season, people liked Virtue slightly less when his gun shot one of his teammates.

Shortstop Ed McKean was the king of the Spiders; he came aboard as a 26-year-old in 1889 and was a team leader by the time Virtue showed up. He hit .282 and led the league in playing time, making it into 141 games and getting 603 AB. He was gearing up for another big year in April 1892, when, while "monkeying" with Virtue's pistol in the locker room - the place our founding fathers intended for firearm usage to take place - he shot off part of his left index finger, and was assigned a "vacation for about ten days."

Fortunately for Virtue, McKean returned a month later and was somehow even more powerful, suddenly even more adept at knocking in runs (he would post his highest career total that year with 93 RBI).

Virtue's 1893 season included a key role in one of the sport's more classic games, back when baseball was defined by pinpoint pitching and skillful defense, not the unsexy bits like home runs and extra base hits. The Spiders were taking on the Boston Beaneaters in an affair that saw Cy Young of the Spiders taking on Boston's "Happy Jack" Stivetts for 11 innings.

Naturally, even the players were getting bored at this point - there wasn't so much of a humiliating error in the game to that point just to spice things up. One of the players in question was the Beaneaters' catcher, Mike "King" Kelly, whom historians almost unanimously report was best known for being just a huge, huge prick. Stivetts popped up to start the ninth inning, and Kelly started screaming for Virtue, playing first, to make the catch, even though Clelveand's catcher Charles Zimmer already had a beat on it.

Obviously the two collided and Stivetts reached base safely while, presumably, Kelly laughed himself stupid and started shoving nearby children to the ground. Somehow, the play had no impact on the game, which ended in a tie. Kelly was fined ten dollars. Did I mention this was an exhibition game? It was.

Virtue's last game was in 1894, when he only made it into 29 games for the Spiders; having his job at first stolen by his own manager, Patsy Tebeau. In 1895 he considered a comeback tour with the minor league Louisville Colonels, but, at 30 years old, somehow suffered a stroke prior to the season.

He eventually died in Camden, NJ at 77 years old and was buried in Mount Vernon Cemetery. We can probably assume that Mike Kelly laughed through the whole funeral.

What a team meeting might be like after a gun accident in the locker room:

Well, guys, what can I say. My bad.

Obviously, I know how much Ed meant to this team - sorry, you're right, how much he means to this team. He's not dead. I can't stress enough how alive Ed still is, despite the circumstances.

But his presence will be missed, especially in the lineup, because he's, you know. Really good at hitting the baseball with the baseball bat. And it's because of how prescient his absence will be that coach asked me to say something to you guys while he went into his office and wept. So, here we are.

I can't promise to make up for what Ed brought to the lineup with his bat, but I can promise you that I will work to prevent the other team from scoring runs with some of the best first base defense you all have ever seen. Right? Okay? All right! Let's get out there!

Guys, I noticed I was the only one to run out onto the field just now. I kind of thought we were all going to go out together, as a sign of solidarity and, you know. Forgiveness.

What is it? I apologized, didn't I?

I didn't? Oh, right. I suppose... I suppose I didn't. Well, I'm sorry. There. Happy?

Is this... is it the gun? Yes, the gun is still in my locker. Yes, it's the same gun that Ed shot his finger off with just hours ago. What's the big deal?

Is it that the smell of gun residue is lingering in the air, and that in turn is reminding everyone of Ed's horrible, horrible screams as he clutched the grisly nub that used to be a digit while blood spurted out in a way none of us have seen since the war? I guess I can understand that. But guns are so cool, you know? Just to like, have. And look at. And play with.

Here, see, let me just pick the gun up so I can show you how safe it

Huh. Okay, in my defense, I had no idea the gun was going to go off again just now. I actually have no clue how it works, to be honest. Fortunately, you don't have to know stuff like that before you buy one, or just, you know, find one laying around.

Look, if I stop twirling it around on my finger like a gunslinger, will that make you guys feel safe? Okay, I can agree to that. Let's just say I get two gun twirls a day, and that's it. Well, three. I'm telling you right now I'm going to need at least three.

I can tell by the glowering stares I'm getting right now from everyone that it's an agreement - four or five gun twirls per day, and that's it. And if Ed... sorry, when Ed comes back, because he definitely is, I will do my best to twirl the gun only when he is not in the room, or is at least facing away from me.

All right. I think we're in a good place. I'm really glad about the 10 gun twirls per day compromise. I feel like the season is going to work out just fine. Let me just put the gun back down in my

Wow, these things really just go off for any reason, huh? Seems pretty dangerous. I'll tell you what, why don't I just get a few of my daily gun twirls out of my system now so I'm not thinking about it all game long.

Further reading:

"Reporting Baseball's Sensational Season of 1890: The Brotherhood War and the Rise of Modern Sports Journalism," by Scott D. Peterson

"Ed McKean: Slugging Shortstop of the Cleveland Spiders," by Rich Blevins

"Of Tribes and Tribulations: The Early Decades of the Cleveland Indians," by James E. Odenkirk