The Post-Journal

Jack Harper of Jamestown Pitched to ‘Em All, From Nap LaJoie to Home Run Baker; Broke in Branch Rickey, Sr. as Catcher

One sunny afternoon 41 years ago, manager Joe Miller of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, part of the old 12-team National League, walked up to a lean right-hander warming up on the mound and remarked: “Jack, here is a new man. He is going to catch you this afternoon.”

The tall pitcher broke the rhythmic flow of his preliminary tossing, looked at the rather chunky, obviously nervous rookie up and down, grunted “howdy” and went on with his practice deliveries.

Baseball history records that the tall fellow pitched and the short one caught that day.

The pitcher was Jack Harper of Jamestown and the catcher was Branch Rickey, Sr., now owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers!

And so four decades and one year later this ‘corpulent’ typewriter termite found himself trudging up the snow rimmed walk of No. 4 Hall Avenue to punch the bell marked C.W. Harper.

“Yes sir, that’s how I met Branch Rickey, Sr., one of the biggest men in baseball now,” C.W. “Jack” Harper chuckled as he lowered his lanky frame into an easy chair - a frame as angular as it was nearly a half century ago when his whiplike right arm was the nemesis of baseball names that will never die - Honus Wagner, Frank Chance, Johnny Evers, Joe Tinker, Tim Jordan of Brooklyn, the guy who won the home run crown in 1906 with 12-circuit busts; Willie Keeler, Kid Elberfield, Hugh Jennings, Nap LaJoie, Bill Donovan and the like.

“I don’t recall Rickey ever becoming any great shakes as a grabber, but he was a clean-cut young fellow, smart as a whip…. Graduated from a law school at his home town, Youngstown, Ohio, as I recall it.”

Came From Franklin

Jack Harper was born in Franklin, Pa., and, to steal a term from his colorful description of those years before the turn of the century, “all I knew until I was 17 was oil.”

But he discovered baseball as a member of a little-known town team at Gibsonburg, Ohio, and went on to become a name to conjure with in the big show when the game was going through its “frontier” period.

And it takes a lot of digging, but down in the musty files you’ll find the name of Jack Harper listed with the first American League team to compete in the major leagues under the St. Louis banner. You’ll find, too, that Harper, as stubborn as he is genial, was the first player in history to ever share in his deal price.

That Gibsonburg incident was 51 years ago, more than a half century back in the vale of time and years.

Why, Jim Corbett was heavy-weight champ… The old state league was composed of Schenectady, Gloversville, Binghamton, Troy, Johnstown, Amsterdam, Albany and Elmira… Parson Davies was yelling for a match for his Joe Choynski with Steve O’Donnell for a $300 side bet… Grover Cleveland was president of the United States and Hornpipe won the Brooklyn Handicap.

And right here at home the Evening Journal blazoned forth with an ad which read: “Men grope but women see the light and use Lydia F. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound”… Billy Madden of Rochester and Jim Daly of Buffalo were a couple of the top pugs and a feature story in our paper was telling of Stonewall Jackson’s gallant charge into the flank of Hooker’s line at Chancellorsville 22 years before… A green, hungry youngster named Kid McCoy fought the veteran Dick O’Brien 25 rounds to a draw at Boston, Daniel Griswald was president of the Chautauqua County Bank of Jamestown and Clark Hardware advertised, “We’ll not crawfish. If you want to buy a ship’s anchor we’ll sell it to you.” And that was the year PN corsets came out with a new feature, cork protecting clasps… Jack Dempsey, the old nonpareil, was king of the middleweights and if you wanted to buy a lot you called on Lindsey & Lindsey at the corner of Third and Main.

Yep, that was a long time ago.

Oil Strike to Baseball

Anyway, they brought in a famed field called the Kirkwright strike at Gibsonburg in Sandusky County, 25 miles south of Toledo. Harper, feeling his career lay in the oil fields, packed up his meager belongings, bade goodbye to the folks and struck out for the little Ohio village.

“Men were paying five bucks to sleep on pool tables, steaks were two dollars and a cup of coffee was twenty five cents – it was a typical “Black Gold” boom town.” Harper grinned as he took a prolonged pull on a Christmas cigar and shifted his lean frame in the easy chair.

“They had a ball club at Gibsonburg… I started working out with them, found out I could throw hard with little effort and was immediately called a pitcher. We had a few fellows around who made the big show – Roger Bresnahan and his brother Jim, Irv Veek, Art Hoffmeister, to name a few.

“Well, I played a lot of ball through that part of the country during the next three years and finally landed in Montgomery, Ala., in the old Southern League. That was in 1898. The Spanish American war broke out that year and the baseball fans deserted our park to go down to the depot to watch the soldiers go through. Bob Quinn was our business manager and Pop Smith, who ran a plow shop in Columbus, owned the club. No money meant no paydays and as a result no team, so the Montgomery club folded.

Cleveland via Grand Rapids

“Fred Hartzell, the old mainstay of the Philadelphia A’s in the after years, was my roommate. We decided to try Grand Rapids for the rest of the season. I was sold to Cleveland in Sept., 1899 and beat Washington, 3-2, in my first start among the big boys.

“Just to show you the strides baseball has taken; the Cleveland support was so poor during those years the club never played at home. All of its games were scheduled on the road.

“In 1900 I was sent to the St. Louis Cards and a short time later I was talking to John McGraw and he said, ‘Jack, they are going to farm you to Ft. Wayne, but you’ll be back.’ I was, too. Pitched and won so many double-headers down there that the Cards called me up again in 1901 and I won ‘em 23 games while losing eight.”

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