Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Con Artist Harry Decker — Toronto's First Star Baseball Catcher

Toronto was celebrating. The 1887 baseball season was over, and the city had just won its first championship. The team was packed with beloved stars, like the ace of the pitching staff, Ned "Cannonball" Crane, who led Toronto to victory in 16 straight games to finish the year. The names of the players who'd pulled off the feat would be revered in the city for decades to come. But one of them wasn't quite what he seemed.

In the midst of all those beloved heroes was one notorious villain. The man who crouched behind the plate all season was more than just a baseball player. He was a con artist — and his life was about to take a terrible turn. His name would soon appear in the papers under much more dismal circumstances: as the subject of manhunts and of courtroom dramas, locked away in prison cells and in lunatic asylums, earning a reputation as "one of the most dangerous men in the country."

Toronto's star catcher was a criminal.

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Harry Decker grew up in Chicago. As a teenager he was already among the most promising young prospects in the city. A catcher with "a good, strong, accurate arm... solid batting and capable defensive work," he signed his first professional contract before he turned 20 and quickly broke into the Major Leagues with the Indianapolis Hoosiers. His future seemed incredibly bright.

But it didn't take long for the first signs of trouble to appear. Decker seemed determined to squander all that promise.

He didn't even finish his first season with Indianapolis. He quit halfway through a game, when a couple of players from a new, rival league showed up. "Oh Deck!" they called out to him, "Over here" — quite literally waving a wad of dollar bills in the air.

They say it only took three or four innings for Decker to make his move. In the sixth, he let the ball hit him in the finger so he could claim he was injured and pull himself from the game, never to return. He raced off to Kansas City to play for a new team in the new league — leaving a pile of debts and unpaid bills behind him.

It was a costly decision. The new league quickly failed and Decker was blacklisted from the Majors for a season. The season after that, he was back in trouble again: suspected of throwing a game for gamblers. The crime was never proven, but he committed three errors and let himself get thrown out at the plate during the supposedly fixed contest — enough to make people very suspicious.

And so, as the 1887 season approached, Decker found himself looking for a job.

He got three offers: the teams in Washington, Rochester and Toronto all wanted him. So he said yes to all three. And then tried to cash all three of their cheques.

His scam didn't work — thanks to a mistake that was either breathtakingly dumb or breathtakingly brazen. He tried to cash two of the cheques at the same time, with the same banker. The banker caught on quickly: he'd been on the Board of Directors for the Washington team.

Still, Decker wasn't ready to give up yet. Next, he tried to cash three more cheques from three other teams by pretending to be three different catchers. This time, his fraud was uncovered because he gave a fake address for one of his alter-egos. When the team showed up at that address, they found nothing there but a vacant lot... and Harry Decker pacing up and down the street, waiting for his cheque to arrive in the mail.

Even then, he didn't admit his wrong-doing. His first line of defence was simple: no one, he claimed, could possibly be that stupid. When that failed, he concocted a new fraud, claiming that there were two Harry Deckers who were both catchers in the Major Leagues. That one didn't work either.

Suddenly, teams were getting cold feet. His offers were quickly drying up.

And so that's how he ended up in Toronto.

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1887. Toronto was booming. New railroads were bringing new Canadians into the city every day. The population was skyrocketing. New businesses and entertainment ventures were being opened constantly. And now, for the first time ever, they included a professional baseball team.

The Toronto Baseball Club had played their very first season the year before, in the city's first baseball stadium, which stood overlooking the Don Valley at the corner of Queen & Broadview — right across the street from the spot where the Broadview Hotel now stands.

It was originally known as the Toronto Baseball Grounds, but it would soon be nicknamed Sunlight Park in honour of the nearby Sunlight Soap Works factory. Spectators could walk in off Queen Street or ride up in their carriages and park their horses on the grounds. Admission was a quarter — plus an extra dime or two to sit in the best seats in the house. The sheltered grandstand had enough room for more than two thousand people, and there was standing room for another ten thousand beyond that. A sellout at Sunlight Park meant that about 10% of the entire population of Toronto was at the ballgame that day.

Baseball was still brand new back then. So new, in fact, that some of the rules were still being developed. That year, a pitcher needed four strikes to get a batter out. He could throw five balls before giving up a walk, and he was allowed to hit the batter too. Umpires could ask players and fans for advice. Sacrifice flies didn't exist. And for the very first time, every home plate would be made of rubber instead of marble.

The Toronto team played in one of the minor leagues: the International League. But they were still stacked with star players and memorable characters. 

There was outfielder Mike Slattery, fast as anything. He stole 112 bases that year, setting the International League record, which still stands to this day. And as if that wasn't impressive enough, he and another one of his teammates — August Alberts — both had a batting average over .350.

The backup catcher was George Stallings. He would go down in history as a Major League manager — "The Miracle Man" who led the hapless 1914 Boston Braves from last place to a stunning World Series sweep — and is credited with being the first manager to successfully use a platoon.

The star of the team was Cannonball Crane, the ace of the Toronto pitching staff; one of the game's first big power pitchers. His fastball was the fastest in the game. And he combined that blistering speed with a "deceptive drop ball" that baffled opposing hitters. It was a deadly combination.

With Decker behind the plate catching him, Cannonball carved up opposing hitters. He would win 33 games for Toronto that year — more than any other pitcher has ever won on any Toronto team — with a 2.49 ERA. And he was one of the best hitters in the league that year, too, finishing with a .428 batting average — still considered to be the best batting average by a pitcher in professional baseball history.

Together, they battled for first place all through the summer, neck and neck with the teams from Newark and Jersey City. The decisive day came on a Saturday afternoon in September: a double-header against their rivals from Newark. Cannonball pitched both games and hit the walkoff home run to win the second, propelling Toronto into first place. They would never relinquish that lead: they won every single game for the rest of the year. 16 in a row.

Harry Decker had helped to bring our city its first baseball championship.

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He would play even better the following season, hitting .313 as the Toronto Baseball Club finished in second place. But even after he'd established himself as a star in Toronto, it was his life off the field that made Harry Decker truly remarkable.

For one thing, he was an inventor. He came out of his time in Toronto having produced a design for a new kind of padded catcher's mitt — the same basic idea that is still being used today. He enlisted a business partner and together they applied for a patent, working in the offseason to prepare for production. It would prove to be an incredibly lucrative idea, but Decker was never a patient man. He nearly lost the patent entirely when he didn't bother to pay the necessary fees. And in the end, he sold off his interest in the new glove for $50. The rights were bought by Al Spalding's company: the sporting goods king who founded the National League would go on to manufacture the glove for years to come.

And that may not have been Decker's only sucessful invention. That same winter, he might have invented a new kind of turnstile, which quickly became the standard in ballparks, fairgrounds and racetracks across the country. But the details aren't clear. The New York Sporting Times accused Decker of ripping off the design: they claimed he stole a turnstile from the Philadelphia Phillies' ballpark, filed off the name of the original inventor, replaced it with his own, and then tried to sell the turnstile back to the Phillies as a completely new design.

And whether or not that story was true, it certainly wasn't out of character. Harry Decker was a con artist with an impressively long rap sheet.

Over the years, he faced criminal charges over and over again. He was arrested for stealing from teammates. And from his roommate. He was arrested for stealing a suit of clothes, and for stealing a bicycle, and for stealing a horse. He forged a cheque to pay his tailor, another to pay his grocer, a third to pay for a fancy hat for his mistress, and many more beyond that. He forged the signatures of Al Spalding and of the owners of the Phillies. He got caught counterfeiting money — and then forged the signature of the U.S. Marshal who arrested him for it.

As one Pinkerton detective put it, "I know it is customary in some circles to always describe a criminal as 'one of the most dangerous men in the country.' But this trite phrase well applies to him." The Chicago Tribune complained, "Decker's hallucination is that he owns the City of Chicago. He was in the habit of entering saloons and ordering wine for everybody present and then walking out with the belief that the place belonged to him and he could give away his own wares if he saw fit."

He used so many fake names that eventually the police admitted they didn't even know what his real name was anymore. All they knew for sure was that he grew up in a respected, wealthy family... in Pittsburgh. Which wasn't true at all.

Decker gave many explanations for his litany of crimes. He blamed some of them on getting hit in the head by a baseball. Others on getting kicked in the head by a horse. Some, he blamed on the stress of having a wife and a young child. Some, on insanity — the courts institutionalized him twice, but both times the doctors at the asylum found nothing wrong with him and released him back onto the streets again.

Once, Decker convinced a judge to send him to a particular prison of his own choosing by claiming he was dying of tuberculosis — which he miraculously recovered from as soon as the decision was handed down. On another occasion, when arrested for forging yet another cheque, he evaded jail time entirely by pointing out that when he signed the person's name, he'd spelled it wrong — so he couldn't possibly be guilty; he hadn't actually signed their name at all. At one point, he even seems to have had an operation to remove a cyst from his forehead — so it would be harder for witnesses to identify him.

On the occasions when he wasn't able to talk his way out of trouble, his rich parents were usually there to bail him out or to hire the best lawyers to defend him.

But his personal life, as you might imagine, did suffer.

Decker was married young, during the year he was blacklisted from the Major Leagues: to Annie Burns, a fifteen year-old girl he'd gotten pregnant. He had never been faithful to her: as his baseball teams toured from city to city, he quickly gained a reputation as a serial womanizer. The Philadelphia Inquirer called him "The Don Juan of the Diamond." And their marriage suffered another crushing blow when their two year-old daughter — who by all accounts, Decker was truly devoted to — died at the end of his last season in Toronto. Things seem to have gotten even worse after that. 

In 1891, Decker tried to marry a second woman under a fake name. But his fraud was quickly uncovered and he was charged with bigamy. It wasn't the last time he'd be caught trying to do something similar. And on another occasion, he was charged with statutory rape, having seduced an underage girl.

"I think I am a most unfortunate man," he once complained. "It seems to me that if I merely look at a girl she fancies me so much that a breach of promise suit is the result."

Annie divorced him in 1896. 

His baseball career was even shorter than his marriage. He played only two and a half seasons after leaving Toronto. His talent was undeniable and he got another shot at the Majors, but his actual results were usually mediocre and his teams' patience with his criminal behaviour quickly ran out. He was released by the New Haven Nutmegs halfway through the 1891 season — after he was arrested for the second time in just a few months. "If Decker had pursued a different course," an old manager once lamented, "he would now be in demand by the best clubs in the country." Instead, he would never play professional baseball again.

He did turn up on a diamond at least once more, though. In 1915, Sporting Life magazine stumbled across an interesting photo. It had been sent to the manager of the Los Angeles Angels as a thank you: the Angels had sent free uniforms to the team of prisoners who played baseball at San Quentin Prison. The autographed photo showed the full roster of inmates, and there among them was the star of the team: a catcher who looked awfully familiar. He was older now, and calling himself Earl Henry Davenport, but the face was unmistakable: it was Harry Decker. His life of crime had caught up with him yet again. He's thought to have spent a total of twelve years in prison.

But after that, he disappears from history. After being released from prison in October of that year, Harry Decker essentially vanished. Historians from the Society for American Baseball Research have spent decades trying to track him down, searching for any mention of him in the years after his stay at San Quentin. But it's not an easy job: Decker is thought to have used anywhere between fifteen to twenty aliases during his life; it was once said he "changes his name each time he boards a train." 

And so, no one knows how Harry Decker spent his final days, when he died, or where he is buried. It seems as if the ultimate fate of the one most notorious ballplayers in the history of Toronto will forever remain a mystery.

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Peter Morris' book, "Catcher: The Evolution of an American Folk Hero" has an absolutely fantastic chapter about Harry Decker. You can find it on Google Books here. I first learned about him in a passing mention in the awesome book "Baseball's Back In Town: From the Don to the Blue Jays A History of Baseball in Toronto" by Louis Cauz. You can buy it here or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here.

I wrote more about Cannonball Crane here — and he gets a chapter in my Toronto Book of the Dead, too, which you can buy at your favourite Toronto bookseller (or from Amazon here). I also wrote about the 1887 championship team here.

"Bob Lemke's Blog" shares Decker's story here. He's also mentioned in "Big Sam Thompson: Baseball's Greatest Clutch Hitter" by Roy Kerr on Google Books here. And Sportsnet lists him as one of "The Greatest Mysteries in the History of Sport" here. Baseball History Daily has more about him here. And Goodwin & Co does here. His Baseball Reference stats page is here (though sadly, they don't have the numbers for that 1887 team). The Vintage Baseball Glove Forum has images of the glove he invented here.

 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My Favourite Memory of Roy Halladay

My favourite memory of Roy Halladay came on a night he lost an unimportant game in the middle of an unimportant season.

The Jays were playing the Red Sox, who would win the World Series that year, and Doc was coming off his worst start in years... but we weren’t worried. This was Roy Halladay. He never had two bad starts in a row. And to top it off: as we waited in line at the box office, a couple in Red Sox gear came up to us and randomly offered us their extra tickets. Two seats just a couple of rows behind the Jays dugout. The best I’ve ever had. For free. To see Doc.

This. Was. Exciting. We were going to get to watch the best pitcher of his generation ply his craft from just a few meters away.

But this was not Doc’s night.

He gave up a run in the first and then struggled even more mightily in the third, giving up six more runs — including a three-run homer to Mike Lowell. The unthinkable was happening. Two bad starts in a row. Something was very wrong.

But Doc kept battling, got out of the inning, and managed to make it through five before his night was over.

The next day, he was rushed to hospital… and straight into surgery. Turns out Roy Halladay’s appendix was ready to burst. He’d pitched five innings of major league baseball with an organ inside his body on the verge of exploding. And of course when the doctors told him he’d miss 4–6 weeks, he had his own ideas. He was back on the mound just three weeks later.

Put his name on the Level of Excellence, retire his number, and stick a statue outside the Dome. My god, he’ll be missed.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dream 24 "The Herd of Lambton Hall" (George Brown, 1880)

Seven weeks after being shot by a disgruntled Globe employee, George Brown dreamed that a herd of cows had come to speak with him on his deathbed. He could see them outside his window, dull bells clanking around their necks as they chewed cud and kicked up a musty cloud of dust. He could hear their hooves on the hardwood downstairs and as they clomped up to the second floor to squeeze into his room. It was tightly packed in there. The air was foul, green with the fumes of the manure that soaked into the rug, and buzzing with flies.

They had concerns, these cows. They pushed up to the side of his bed, all wet bovine noses and bad breath. One was there to talk about Bow Park. The financial situation at the farm had the beast worried. Another was upset about the poor Liberal showing in the last election. Some of them wanted jobs. One wanted money to make telephones with Alexander Graham Bell. More than a few had ideas about the newspaper’s redesign. They were all annoyed and short-tempered.

But George Brown was barely listening. His attention was fixed on the only cow in the room who hadn’t said a word. She was down closer to the foot of his bed, calmly licking at the wound in his thigh. When he tried to shake her off, he found his leg refused to move. So when she started to chew at it, there was nothing he could do — just lie there in pain and wait.

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George Brown was a Father of Confederation and the founder of the Globe newspaper. He was shot by a disgruntled newspaper employee in 1880 and, refusing to give up his demanding schedule, he died slowly of his wound. He lived in a house at the corner of Beverley and Baldwin Streets in Toronto called Lambton Hall (now a National Historic Site) and owned a farm called Bow Park just outside Brantford.

You can read more about the assassination of George Brown in Jamie Bradburn's post for Torontoist here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Launch Party! Come Celebrate The Toronto Book of the Dead!

After years of researching, writing, and editing, The Toronto Book of the Dead is officially being released this weekend! And you can already find it popping up on the shelves of bookstores across the city.

To celebrate, we're throwing a party on Friday night (Sept. 15). Come to the Spacing Store from 7:30–10:30 to hang out, have a few drinks, and chat about Toronto's morbid history. The event is being supported by the International Festival of Authors as part of their Toronto Lit Up book launch series, it's completely free, and the Spacing Store is a magical place filled with amazing Toronto memorabilia even on nights it doesn't have beer... so I hope to see you there!

The Toronto Book of the Dead is published by Dundurn Press. It explores the history of the city through the stories of some of its most fascinating and illuminating deaths: tales of war and plague, of duels and executions, of suicides and séances. It covers everything from ancient First Nations burial mounds to the grisly murder of Toronto’s first lighthouse keeper; from the rise and fall of the city’s greatest Victorian baseball star to the final days of the world’s most notorious anarchist. You can order it from Indigo here, Amazon here, or find it at your favourite local bookstore.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Tour of Toronto's Most, Uh, Complicated Statues


Most of Toronto's statues feature dead White dudes and were erected by other dead White dudes to celebrate figures whose histories are much more complicated — and often much less worthy of praise — than their positions atop a pedestal might suggest. So this week I grabbed my phone and headed down to Queen's Park to kick off a Twitter tour exploring some of the dark stories behind our city's monuments.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Bizarre History of "O Canada"

"O Canada" has a long and bizarre history. The song didn't become our national anthem until 1980, but it was written a hundred years earlier: the music was composed by an American Civil War veteran from Montreal with the awesome name of Calixa Lavallée. He didn't write the tune to be Canada's national anthem, he wrote it to be Quebec's. "O Canada" was composed in honour of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day: an ancient religious celebration that would eventually become Quebec's national holiday, deeply associated with the separatist movement.

We explore that strange story in the very first episode of the new web series I'm hosting: Canadiana. It takes us all the way from Montreal to Quebec City to Ottawa, from 1968 to 1646 to 1980, from Pierre Trudeau to the first French settlers to the FLQ. We visit riots, referendums and hockey arenas — all on the trail of the bizarre tale behind our national anthem

You can watch that first episode below. And it's just the beginning. In the months to come, Canadiana will be exploring many more extraordinary stories from the history of our country, including murders, massacres, rebellions, love triangles, secret laboratories, and more. You can watch a teaser for the series here.

To keep up-to-date with our hunt for the most incredible stories in Canadian history, you can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe on YouTube, or even support us on Patreon.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Imperial Airship Scheme — A Blimp Above 1930s Toronto


In 1928, Germany launched the world's greatest airship, the Graf Zeppelin. For the next decade, it would make hundreds of flights all over the world: from Germany to the United States, Brazil, Japan, even the north pole. With the Second World War only nine years away, it was enough to make the British very nervous.
Their answer was the Imperial Airship Scheme. It was a contest between a private military contractor and the British government to build the best blimp. The first to be finished was the "Capitalist ship", the R100. It was the fastest airship in the world, with a top speed of 130 km/h. And its first big test was a trip to Canada. For three days in the summer of 1930, it cruised across the Atlantic before finally reaching Quebec. A couple of weeks later, it was flying around the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto.

The whole trip was a rousing success. So much so, in fact, that once it returned home, the team working on the government-built "Socialist ship", the R101, decided to push ahead with their voyage to India, which they'd thought they might postpone due to safety concerns. Their blimp made it all the way from England to France before plummeting to the ground and bursting into flame. The disaster killed 48 people, more than the Hindenberg. The Imperial Airship Scheme was abandoned, the R100 was grounded and then sold for scrap.

The R100 in Bedfordshire, England, just before leaving for Canada

A version of this post was originally published on August 29, 2010. It has been updated to add more photos.