Monday, August 3, 2015

Arthur Irwin and Kalamazoo Bats

Recently, my good friend Tim Wiles asked me about this wonderful posed action shot of Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Arthur Irwin:

He asked me what can be learned about this old photograph?

First, a little bit about Irwin, a man of many talents. Arthur Albert Irwin Jr. played baseball in 13 big league seasons, from 1880 to 1891 and then a one-game appearance in 1894. The Canadian-born ball player was the starting shortstop for the 1884 Providence Grays, the winners of the first post-season series for baseball's World Championship. He is seen standing second from right in this photo of the 1884 Grays at Providence's Messer Street Grounds:

Irwin managed in the big leagues, minor leagues and collegiate ranks, and in 1895 penned a baseball manual titled "Practical Ball Playing."

In the 1880s, Irwin helped popularize the use of baseball gloves:

And in 1899, he earned a patent on a football (yes, football) scoreboard:

But today, Irwin is probably best known for the strange story surrounding his surprising demise.

In June of 1921, the 63-year-old Irwin learned that he had terminal cancer. While in the hospital, family members came to visit the sick man ... family members from two different families: one in Boston and another in New York. Apparently, Irwin had led a double life for decades, with neither of the families learning about the other until the former ballplayer's health problems surfaced.

Irwin married his first wife, Elizabeth, in 1883, and with her had four children. The family lived in Boston. In the mid-1890s, he married a second wife, May, in New York. The couple had one child.

Just weeks after the families learned of his polygamy, Irwin boarded a steamship in New York bound for Boston. When the ship arrived in Boston, Irwin was nowhere to be found. It was concluded that, during the trip, the distraught Irwin had jumped overboard, meeting his end in the Atlantic Ocean.

New York Times, July 17, 1921

But, back to the photograph ...

The picture is remarkably similar to one that was used to create this baseball card:

This card was one of a set of some 60 produced by Charles Gross and Company, a Philadelphia-based cigar dealer. Each pack of their "Kalamazoo Bats" cigars included one of these baseball card giveaways. The cards are extremely scarce and much sought-after by high-end baseball card collectors. One of the reasons for their rarity is that the company offered various prizes for the cards if returned in bulk, the offer being detailed on the back of each card:

Some historians believe that the company may have made this offer as nifty way to cut costs, simply reusing the returned cards as inserts in new packs of their cigars. Of course, the cards may also be scarce simply because very few were produced. Little else is known about this obscure card set, which has long been speculated to date from 1887, but a fine article about the set was written by Keith Olbermann back in 2007.

The tobacco card shown above is labeled "CAPT. IRWIN and MAUL, Phila." We've already been introduced to Arthur Irwin, who played for the National League Philadelphia Phillies (sometimes referred to as the Quakers) from 1886 to 1889, and that one-game appearance in 1894. The other player is Albert Joseph Maul:

New York Clipper, August 31, 1889

The Phillies purchased pitcher/outfielder Al Maul (a native of Philadelphia) from Nashville of the Southern League in June of 1887. He spent the rest of the season with the club and was traded to Pittsburgh in early January of 1888. Thus, the photograph used to make the Irwin/Maul tobacco card had to have been taken sometime between June and the end of the 1887 season.

Compare the tobacco card with our original photo above:

Note that the images are similar, but not identical. Art Irwin has moved slightly from one picture to the next, and the players seen in the background of the original photograph are missing from the one used for the tobacco card. But clearly the pictures were taken at the same photo shoot, just moments apart.

Now take a look at this photograph:

It certainly appears that this picture was taken at the same park as the Irwin/Maul example, likely on the same day and during the same photo shoot.

This photograph was also used as the basis of a "Kalamazoo Bats" tobacco card. In this case, the image on that tobacco card and the photo are absolutely identical:

This card is labeled "BASTIAN 2nd B. with LYONS, Phila." The second baseman is Philadelphia native Charlie Bastian, who played for the Phillies from 1885 through 1888, and one game in 1891. But who is Lyons?

A number of sources identify the base runner as Denny Lyons, but that seems unlikely, since Denny never played for the Phillies. He did, however, play for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association from 1886 to 1890. The only player named Lyons who played for the Phillies in 1887 was Harry Lyons.

So which Lyons is pictured? Denny or Harry? Take a close look at the runner's face (middle below) and compare it with known images of both Denny (right) and Harry Lyons (left):

Clearly, the player at left is a match for the base runner. Thus the tobacco card features Charlie Bastian and Harry Lyons.

Harry Lyons made his major league debut with the Phillies on August 29, 1887. In fact, that was his only game with the club that season, as Philadelphia released him in early September. He caught on with the St. Louis Browns for a few games before the season ended. Thus, the photo of Bastian and Lyons had to have been taken some time between mid-August and early September of 1887.

Now compare the scoreboard in the background of the Irwin/Maul photo with that seen in the Bastian/Lyons photo:

Though the players in the Irwin/Maul photo are partially obscuring the background, the scoreboards are showing the same four match-ups for the games being played in the National League: Philadelphia v. Indianapolis, Pittsburgh v. New York, Chicago v. Boston, Washington v. Detroit. As noted above, there's little question that these photos were taken on the same date at the same park.

The park was the Philadelphia Baseball Grounds, also known as the Huntingdon Street Grounds. This ball park should not be confused with Boston's Huntington Avenue Grounds, site of the first modern World Series game in 1903. The Philadelphia Baseball Grounds opened on April 30, 1887, and was heralded by Sporting Life newspaper as the "finest base ball park in the world." So, in these photos we are treated to a view of a brand new, much-celebrated, state-of-the-art ballpark.

It is important to note that during these early days of the game, the first (top) team listed in a match-up was not necessarily the road team. Indeed, in this case, the team listed at the very top of the scoreboard was the home Phillies, who were hosting Indianapolis when the photo was taken.

A quick check of the National League schedule for 1887 reveals that the four match-ups occurred on the same date just twice that season: August 22 and August 23. On those days, Philadelphia hosted Indianapolis, New York hosted Pittsburgh, Boston hosted Chicago, and Washington hosted Detroit.

These late August dates are consistent with the time frames that have already been deduced: the Irwin/Maul photo being taken between June and the end of the 1887 season, and the Bastian/Lyons photo being taken between mid-August and early September of the same year. Furthermore, close examination of the top of the scoreboard reveals the words "NEXT GAME AUG ??" with the exact date being too blurry to discern.

It is quite likely that a number of other "Kalamazoo Bats" tobacco cards were taken during the same photo shoot, including this card of pitcher/outfielder Charlie Buffinton (misspelled Buffington), who struck out 417 batters in 1884:

... and this card of southpaw pitcher Jim Devlin:

Note that Devlin's jersey has cut-off sleeves and he wears his jersey in a rather droopy fashion. It is apparently the same jersey, worn in the same haphazard fashion, that he is seen wearing in this team photo of the 1887 Phillies at the Philadelphia Baseball Grounds. Devlin is seated, second from left:

Now take another look at the player at left in the background of the Irwin/Mail photograph:

He's wearing the same cut-off sleeves and droopy jersey. No doubt it's Jim Devlin, perhaps waiting his turn to be photographed.

Speaking of Devlin, take a look at this "Kalamazoo Bats" baseball card:

The caption states "Lyons, L.F. with Taylor Trainer," but clearly the player is, once again, Jim Devlin. As for Taylor, numerous sources identify this individual as Billy Taylor. But Billy Taylor was a ballplayer, not a trainer. No, this is Tom Taylor in 1887, his first year as trainer for the Phillies. In fact, he was one of the first men ever hired as a trainer on a baseball club.

Finally, take a look at this photograph, the one that was actually used for the Irwin/Maul tobacco card:

Now compare it to the photo first introduced at the top of this posting:

Once again we see that Arthur Irwin has moved slightly, and the players seen in the outfield (the one at left we now know being Jim Devlin) are missing from the one used for the tobacco card. But look at the outfield wall in the background. This newly introduced photograph shows advertisements for "A.J. Reach and Co. Base Ball Supplies" and "Gumpert Bros. Cigars," while the first photo introduced has mostly blank outfield walls. How is that possible if both pictures were taken at the same photo session?

Take a close look at this detailed comparison of the area where the "Gumpert Bros." advertisement is seen:

The outfield walls actually featured the advertisements for Reach and Gumpert. But careful examination of the photo with the "blank" walls reveals evidence that the photo was altered and the ads carefully "removed": a rudimentary 19th century "Photoshop" job.

But why remove such ads? Remember that one of the main purposes of the tobacco cards is to advertise "Kalamazoo Cigars." Why should Charles Gross and Company give free advertising to other cigars ("Gumpert Bros.") or other businesses ("A.J. Reach and Co.") when they can virtually "whitewash" the outfield walls, leaving them blank?

In summary, we now know that the original mystery photograph features Arthur Irwin, Al Maul, Jim Devlin and a fourth, unidentified ballplayer in a posed action shot taken at the Philadelphia Baseball Grounds. The photograph was taken in late August of 1887, likely the 22nd or 23rd of the month. This and another photograph (that of Charlie Bastian and Harry Lyons) were taken at the same photo session and thus the tobacco cards that featured these photographs were created sometime thereafter. Furthermore, it is likely that some of the other photos used for the "Kalamazoo Bats" tobacco cards were taken at the same time.


  1. Wow. Very interesting. Well done.

  2. Wow. Excellent research on this, Tom. Arthur Irwin is definitely one of the most interesting ballplayers ever to come from Canada. Thanks for all your work on this.

  3. Really nice. The misidentified Devlin as Lyons photos can also be found at NYPL, and they are very stubborn about making corrections.

    I am intrigued by the pair of images that seem to show Irwin in motion. They do appear to be taken a fraction of a second apart, but how was that done c1888?

    Mark F

    1. Hi Mark - Regarding the two Irwin/Maul photos, my guess (and it's just that: a guess) is that they were taken MANY seconds apart, not just a few. Loading new glass plates would have taken a while (enough time for Devlin and his friend to move out of or into the background). Maul could easily remain in place on the ground. Irwin has the toughest task, essentially remaining in the same position for a while.

  4. Hi Tom, very nice. A question for you-- what is Irwin gesturing with his right hand as he applies the tag with left hand? I have seen this in other studio poses as well. It looks like Irwin is asking the umpire for "time" but I doubt that is correct. What is he recreating? Was this gesture typical to get the umpire's attention? Or maybe to suggest to the umpire the runner is out? I appreciate any insight. CB

  5. Really enjoyed this. Thank you for the great research! Love 19th Century Base Ball stories!

  6. Wow! Now THAT's traveling down the rabbit hole!
    Thanks for your work on this!!