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Mike Donlin, Reluctant Ballplayer

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  • Mike Donlin, Reluctant Ballplayer

    Turkey Mike Donlin, Reluctant Ballplayer

    Michael Joseph Donlin

    Michael Joseph Donlin was born on May 30, 1878, in Peoria, Illinois but moved to Erie, Pennsylvania before his second birthday (All the other Donlin children were born in Pennsylvania which may suggest that the family was merely traveling when Mike was born). He was perhaps one of six children (can only locate three in Census records) of John and Margaret Donlin.

    John Donlin was born circa 1843 in Ireland to Michael and Margaret Donlin. The family immigrated to the United States between 1850 and 1855, first settling in Erie, New York. He worked as a railroad conductor, a job which took him away from his family for chunks of time (He was not listed with the family in the 1880 U.S. Census).

    Margaret (Maggie) Donlin, born circa 1849 as Margaret Clayton in Pennsylvania to Thomas, a railroad dispatcher, and Sarah Clayton, grew up in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania.

    John and Maggie’s children:
    Mary Ann, born circa 1870
    James, born circa 1875 (died July 31, 1909)
    Michael
    Joseph
    ??
    ??

    Mike attended elementary school in Erie. When he was about eight years old, his father was killed when a bridge collapsed (The SABR biography mentions that both parents were killed but the Sporting Life makes repeated comments about Donlin’s mother in 1902). Donlin, often in poor health as a child, found odd jobs befitting his age and even worked as a machinist as a teenager. About 1893, he was hired as a candy hawker aboard a western-bound train. He landed in California and settled there.

    Donlin had little money and seemingly few prospects after departing from the train. His was however extremely fast. He hired a manager and began running races for cash. Eventually, they found their way to Santa Cruz, a resort town. At a track in Pacific Grove, outside Santa Cruz, his racing career ended due to a freak accident. Winning the race, Donlin turned to catch sight of his opponent, Tommy Simms, just as Donlin was about to cross the finish line. Unfortunately, one of the tape holders didn’t let go as the runner passed the finish. Donlin was sliced about the face and strangled (which might be a problem for someone finishing a foot race) as he tumbled.

    MINOR LEAGUES

    Donlin, a 5’9”, 170 lb. lefty, also played baseball as a pitcher and outfielder, on the west coast. In 1897 he played for Los Angeles in a year that no league existed in California.

    The following year Donlin joined the Santa Cruz club of the new Pacific States League. For 1898, Fred Swanson, the owner of a Santa Cruz semi-pro team called the Beachcombers, entered his club into the Pacific States League. A month into the season the Pacific States League merged with the California League to form a new league, called the Pacific Coast League.

    Donlin started 1899 still as a member of Santa Cruz, now a member of the California League. He was batting .402 after 29 games in July when he was bought by Patsy Tebeau, manager of the St. Louis Perfectos (now named the Cardinals) of the National League for $500. A California correspondent for the Sporting News, a St. Louis-based magazine, passed along a tip about Donlin to editor Joe Flanner who in turn notified Tebeau. At the time of his sale Donlin was sitting in a Santa Cruz jail for being drunk and disorderly.

    ST. LOUIS

    Donlin showed up at League Park in St. Louis with a newspaper photo of himself pinned to his shirt (to facilitate his entry to the clubhouse). He debuted on July 19, relieving starter Willie Sudhoff in an 8-1 loss to Boston. The lefthander then volunteered to play shortstop while Bobby Wallace was injured. He put in one game of excellent fielding, but then booted nearly every chance in his next game.

    In all Donlin appeared in 65 games for St. Louis in 1899, 50 in centerfield, 1 in left field, 13 at first base, 3 at short and 3 on the mound. His wildness on the mound on August 29 versus Washington ended his pitching career (he would pitch in one more game for Cincinnati in 1902). He was removed from the mound after eight innings after walking nine batters, hitting one, throwing two wild pitches and balking in a 13-7 loss.

    However, he hit a home run, stole a base and scored twice that day. Tebeau decided to keep the rookie; he just couldn’t figure where to play him. His speed eventually settled Donlin in centerfield though.

    Donlin appeared in 78 games for the Cardinals in 1900, mainly in centerfield and at first base. Donlin’s speed gathered him ten home runs in 1900, ranking third in the league. He was recruited to umpire on the bases on September 15 during a doubleheader in Brooklyn.

    While in St. Louis, Donlin was in numerous off-the-field altercations; most were alcohol-related. He was cut one time in a midnight brawl, leaving a scar he would carry throughout his life.

    BALTIMORE

    Like many National Leaguers, Donlin jumped the Cardinals for the American League in 1901. He was first listed on Cleveland’s roster but by March 25 had signed for $2,800 with his old teammate from St. Louis, John McGraw, now manager of the Baltimore Orioles.

    On May 31 in Detroit Donlin further endeared himself to the fiery McGraw by throwing a bat at umpire John Sheridan’s back. He did it in the ninth inning of a tie game after pitcher Harry Howell and catcher Wilbert Robinson were ejected. Sheridan forfeited the game to the Tigers. On August 23 he sent one up the middle that broke White Sox’s pitcher Clark Griffith’s finger.

    Nineteen-One was Donlin’s breakout year. He placed second in the American League in batting average with a .340 mark and finished in the top ten in on-base percentage, slugging average, OPS, runs, total bases, triples, walks, stolen bases, and runs created.

    In March 1902 Donlin went on a bender, by his own admission drinking for ten days to two weeks. On Thursday March 13 in Baltimore Donlin tied one on and went to the theater. At the theater’s bar he got into an altercation with a man, Ernest Slayton, and they began to fight. Minnie Fields, an actress with the Ben Hur Company and Slayton’s date, came to Slayton’s defense and Donlin thrashed her as well.

    Fields was knocked down and out and given two black eyes. A warrant was issued for Donlin by a Justice Goldman who just happened to be an officer of the Orioles. Donlin then left the city. He participated in another fight on March 15 in D.C., among a group of three that beat up a street car conductor. After questioning and identification was established, Donlin was shipped to Baltimore to answer the assault charges.

    The Orioles fired Donlin on the 14th, releasing him from his contract. His was indicted on March 18 and pled guilty the next day. He was given a six month sentence and a $250 fine. During Donlin’s jail sentence, ballplayers and clubs throughout the game sent money to his sister and mother to aid in their support.

    CINCINNATI

    On May 20, 1902 Donlin, while still in jail, signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds for $3,000. Donlin was ill much of the time in prison. He also worked in the boiler room and took part in regular exercise. He was released a month early for good behavior. Joining the Reds on August 25, Donlin also signed for the 1903 season.

    In 1903 Donlin shined, hitting .351 (four points off Honus Wagner’s lead) and finishing in the top five leaders of many batting categories.

    Donlin fell in trouble again during spring training in Augusta in 1904. Out painting the town with teammates, he began singing loud and persistently. Another bar patron pulled a revolver which quieted him down (Manager Joe Kelley quickly ushered Donlin from the premises). Amusing, he had promised the club less than a month prior that he would lay off the sauce. Also during training camp, he entered a fight as a peacemaker and wrestled a gun from one of the combatants.

    After sixty games with the Reds, Donlin was hitting .356 in early July. However, Kelley had enough of the sot and suspended him for thirty days on July 8 and fined him $25 for insubordination. Team president Garry Herrmann decided to trade him.

    GIANTS

    After the suspension was up, Herrmann asked waivers on Donlin, seeking to trade him to an American League club; however, the Giants claimed him on waivers. From August 5-7 a three-way deal was worked out which sent Donlin to New York, reuniting him with McGraw.

    Donlin appeared in the first box score for the Giants on August 8, striking out as a pinch hitter for Joe McGinnity in the eighth inning. During his rocky ride with the Giants, Donlin appeared in the following number of games due to injuries, suspensions, contract disputes, vaudeville engagements and a general lack of interest in the rigors of baseball:
    1904 – 42
    1905 – 150
    1906 – 37
    1907 – 0
    1908 – 155
    1909 – 0
    1910 – 0
    1911 – 12

    Again in 1904 and ’05 Donlin was among the league leaders in many batting categories. In the World Series of 1905 he placed five hits in 19 at bats, including a double and a RBI. After midnight on October 22, 1905, Donlin was involved in another brawl in Trenton, New Jersey. This time he and several Giants fought a group of waiters after Donlin refused to settle his tab.

    1906

    In Albany on February 8, 1906 Donlin and two other ballplayers were arrested for being drunk and disorderly and beating up a train conductor. On the train a bunch of ballplayers started through ball around and smacking them with suitcases. When the conductor tried to quell the riot, Donlin slugged him in the face. He then drew a pistol on a porter. Other passengers disarmed him though. A New York congressman arranged for a quick bail so the players could play indoor baseball game and attend a banquet that night.

    On March 14 in Memphis John McGraw suspended Donlin for violations of training methods – a.k.a. boozing. Donlin apologized and was reinstated on the 16th.

    Donlin married 21-year-old Broadway musical and comedy actress Mabel Hite (daughter of Elsie Hite born in February 1864 in Michigan) during spring training on April 11 in New York City. Hite and Donlin met each other at a dinner party only a few months before they married.

    Hite was born in Kentucky in May 1884 and began acting at age 11 and professionally soon thereafter. She was married before at age 18 to the son of a New York millionaire who became enamored with her during a performance, following her from show to show until she agreed to marry him. When the millionaire’s father found out, he bought his son out of the marriage.

    Donlin broke his ankle sliding into second base in the seventh inning on May 15 in Cincinnati. He didn’t return to the lineup until August 10, though he was used mainly as a pinch hitter for the rest of the season.

    1907

    Donlin held out in 1907. He wanted the same salary as the previous season, $3,300, plus a $600 bonus for abstaining from alcohol. Giants owner John Brush decided the figure was too high coming off a season in which he could barely walk after the ankle injury. As a bargaining ploy, Donlin claimed to own a part of the St. Joseph team of the Western League. The implication being that he had other places to go.

    In late March manager McGraw caved (without Brush’s permission) and agreed to give Donlin the extra $600. Donlin reported to camp in New Orleans on March 26. However, he jumped the club in Louisville on April 3 not to return. His wife was pressuring him to leave baseball and join her; he did, signing a contract to appear on stage at the Whitney Opera House in Chicago. Hite made herself clear, “I’ll guarantee that he will remain here. I’ve got something to say and am glad Mike quit the game for good. He can find more pleasant employment in the theatrical business.”

    Whether Donlin was in baseball, at home or working in the theater, there was one constant, alcohol. He was arrested again on August 23. He fell asleep in a cab and couldn’t be revived. A policeman finally woke him at which time Donlin started to fight the officer. He was bailed out by ex-big leaguer Jimmy Callahan.

    Donlin showed up to watch his ex-teammates at the Polo Grounds on August 26, leading to a great deal of speculation as to his intentions. Hite had sent her husband out of town to dry out. She was fed up with all his drinking at this point and publicly threatened that a divorce was eminent if he didn’t change his ways. As she notes, “I can't stand it any longer. Now you don't think it's such a dreadful thing for a woman's husband to get drunk and in the newspapers, do you? But it means so much when you love a man and he'd promised not to do it. And every time it happens it's so much worse and it worries me so I can't sleep and I have to go out before that audience and act like a fool and make them laugh, and sing my songs and dance, and my heart is breaking…he's good to me, except when he forgets himself."

    Donlin didn’t sign at that time but he did after McGraw traveled to Champaign, Illinois to ink a deal at the end of November. Part of the lure, McGraw named Donlin captain for the 1908 season at a salary of $5,000.

    1908

    Donlin reported to camp in 1908 lighter and in better shape than the previous few season. First though, he had to pay a $100 fine imposed by the National Commission for playing ball with an outlaw team – Callahan’s Chicago-based Logan Squares.

    He had another stellar season; once again he finished among the leader in the significant batting categories. Some sportswriters even mentioned the lefthander as one of the best players in the game – in Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner’s company.

    The season was not without controversy though as Donlin went into the stand and fought a heckler. In all he was ejected from 23 games in his career.

    1909

    On October 26, 1908 Stealing Home, Donlin and Hite’s one-act play, opened at the Hammerstein Theater in New York City. The duo would perform the skit on and off for the next three years before packed houses from coast to coast. Donlin was now making so much money ($1,000 to $2,000 a week, depending on venue) that baseball became a distant memory.

    In January 1909 Donlin signed a theatre deal that would begin around opening day; therefore, he announced his retirement from baseball. His agent, M.S. Bentham, announced that he would soon book Donlin and Hite for the entire summer. Dolin did say that he wanted $8,000 for 1909; a figure he probably knew would be rejected.

    The Giants had enough of their “flaky” centerfielder. McGraw traded him to the Phillies on July 24 for Sherry Magee. Philadelphia had plans to make him their manager. The club even requested the resignation of current field manager Billy Murray. Of course, the deal was called off a week later as Donlin refused to report.

    McGraw then decided to let other clubs deal with Donlin. If they could convince him to report he would work out a trade. Brooklyn also wanted him as manager and tried to woe him. The Highlanders also sought his services. However, it was all to no avail. Donlin wouldn’t play again until 1911.

    Donlin was arrested again in September for fighting with an attorney in New York.

    1910

    In mid-February Donlin agreed to terms with Brush for the 1910 season; however, the centerfielder was at the time unsure what his exact plans for the year would be. He would let Brush know by March 10. Donlin wired Brush on March 19 stating that he would be unavailable to play baseball in 1910.

    1911

    Hite and Donlin’s show was petering out by 1911 and Hite’s career was fizzing as well. Thus, Donlin decided to play in 1911. In January Boston Braves manager Fred Tenney began seeking the centerfielder.

    Donlin applied to the National Commission for reinstatement which was granted in June. Hite is adamant to the press that Donlin will not play ball unless it is for the Cubs, as her home is in Chicago. On June 7 he reported to McGraw and was in uniform practicing with the Giants, as baseball rules insisted that the player must report to his assigned team prior to being dealt.

    The Reds, Cardinals and Phillies also make offers for Donlin. He rejoined the Giants’ lineup on June 28. After appearing in twelve games for the Giants, he is sold to the Boston Braves on August 1. Donlin battled umpires all year and was ejected four times in a mere 68 games.

    In the fall Hite was diagnosed with cancer of the intestines. Her career was over as would be her life a year later. The Giants had a change of heart in November and sought to repurchase Donlin from the Braves. That December, he played with the Giants in Cuba.

    1912

    On February 17, 1912 Donlin was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Vin Campbell. The trade involved two disgruntled players. Donlin had been unhappy in Boston, disappointed that he wasn’t named manager.

    Hite was operated on in June but given little hope for recovery. She died on October 22 at age 28 at her mother’s home in Chicago.

    1913

    In December the Pirates asked waivers on Donlin, selected by the Phillies on December 24. He supposedly came to terms with Phillies manager Charlie Dooin in January for $3,500; however, a month later Donlin announced his retirement once again. He was headed back to the stage. Actually, he never left the stage, taking engagements whenever he could.

    On August 14 the Phillies released Donlin outright. He then joined Jersey City of the International League for 36 games. McGraw took Donlin on his world tour at the end of the 1913 season. He hit so well that the Giants decided to sign him for 1914.

    1914

    Donlin spent the entire season with the Giants (last game October 1), being used scantily as a pinch hitter. After only 31 at bats in 35 games, Donlin was released by the Giants at the end of the year. His active baseball career is now over.

    Donlin had a stellar baseball career - on the field at least. He played in parts of twelve season in a 15-year stretch; however, he really only appeared in about seven full seasons. His overall numbers rank him very high, favorable to the top players in the game during the Deadball Era. He was one of the best curveball hitters of his time plus he hit with power to all fields. The only knocks on him (besides his drunkenness, combativeness and lack of focus) are the facts that he rarely walked and was not known for his fielding. Donlin was a flashy dresser, partier and a playboy. He used those skills to parlay a second career, one in which he may have felt better suited his skills and temperament.

    BASEBALL CONTINUED

    Donlin wanted to manage a baseball team. He wanted to do it for years. He would oversee the B-teams during spring training for McGraw and he also ran an exhibition club known as the Mike Donlin All-Stars.

    After being released by the Giants in late 1914, he offered his services as player to the St. Louis club of the Federal League, hoping to also secure a managerial post. St. Louis wasn’t interested though.

    In 1916 Donlin managed a semi-pro outfit in New Jersey. He spent the following winter in Havana running baseball clinics and promoting boxing tournaments. He returned to New York as an agent for boxing promoters in Cuba.

    Donlin started 1917 managing (and playing in 16 games) the Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association at a salary of $3,000. He quit on May 28 due to an illness in the family. Others reports suggest that he was fired which is more in line with the fact that he brought suit against the club for $1,600 he felt he was still owed.

    In May 1918 he was hired as a baseball coach by the War Department. He was appointed to teach the sport to servicemen in France. On July 22, 1918 Donlin umpired in an American League game. At game time in New York in a game involving the Yankees and Browns, umpires Billy Evans and George Hildebrand were no where to be found. Donlin was pulled from the spectators and given the duties on the bases (Browns’ trainer Bits Bierhalter, a former American Association umpire, manned the clicker).

    In 1921 he played in one game at first base for Kalamazoo (Michigan) of the Central League.

    In May 1922 Donlin was hired by the Boston Red Sox as a scout to cover California and other western leagues.

    ETC.

    On October 20, 1914 Donlin married 26-year-old Vaudeville actress Marguerite “Rita” E. Ross (born in West Long Branch, New Jersey on November 28, 1887) in Asbury, New Jersey. She worked for the popular Ross & Fenton musical comedy troupe. Ross had also been previously married, at age 17. The couple had no children. She was the niece of Charles J. Ross, head of Ross & Fenton.

    In 1915 Donlin kicked off his movie career with Right Off the Bat, a silent, semi-autobiographical piece about his youth. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0005967/

    Donlin dove head first into movies, aided by his friend and film legend John Barrymore. He acted, consulted (in baseball flicks) and was assistant director in numerous films:
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0232592/

    Despite the Hollywood work, Donlin was always scraping for cash to maintain his and Rita’s lifestyle. In 1927 he was diagnosed with “athlete’s heart.” Fellow actors threw a benefit to raise money so he could undergo an operation at the Mayo Clinic. After that, he was forced into semi-retirement.

    Donlin died of a heart attack in his sleep in the early morning of September 24, 1933 at his home on Hollywood. He was 55 years old. He was cremated and interred at Glenwood Cemetery in West Long Branch, New Jersey (Plot: Cremated, Section 8, Lot 10-A (Fenton Plot), Rita family plot. Rita Donlin died on December 13, 1979 in Los Angeles.
    Last edited by Brian McKenna; 06-10-2008, 07:13 AM.

  • #2
    The old baseball superstition about seeing some empty barrels was started because Donlin had seen some driving by one day while in a slump. Donlin proceeded to hit well, and attributed it to the barrels. I believe manager McGraw set it up so he would continute to see the empty barrel truck, and Donlin had a fine season. I believe that was 1908. I'll have to go home anc check the book I read that in, Frank Graham's Baseball Wit and Wisdom.
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