The issue (although it shouldn't be an issue) of openly gay professional athletes has surfaced again with the announcement by University of Missouri All-American football star Michael Sam that he is gay. As has been widely reported, including in the New York Times by John Branch, Sam is expected to be selected by an NFL team in the early rounds of this summer's draft, and so would be the first professional football player to publicly state that he is a homosexual.
Stories such as these make me think of Harry Pulliam, President of the National Baseball League from December, 1902, until July, 1909. In truth, I think of Pulliam most days because I have been researching his life for several years.
Why? Because he was president of the league in 1908 when Fred Merkle failed to touch second base on a force play, igniting one of the most bizarre controversies in baseball history. The play resulted in the Cubs avoiding a loss and going on to win the last World Series they've ever won. You can read about it in this excerpt from my book Waiting for the Cubs.
One of the first biographies I read about Pulliam is posted on the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) site, written by Bill Lamberty. I found Lamberty's very first lines of particular interest.
Described as "an idealist, a dreamer, and a lover of solitude and nature," Harry Pulliam was an eccentric dresser (one reporter wrote that "all the colors of the rainbow were utilized by him in the color scheme of his fancy waistcoats")
These quotes were taken from Pulliam's obituaries. They seemed to be saying that he didn't really belong in a game played by rough characters like John McGraw (foul-mouthed and brawling manager of the New York Giants, whose "rabbit's foot" was a short length of a rope used in a lynching), Frank Chance (manager of the Cubs who would just as soon fight his players as try to inspire them with mere words), and Three-Finger Brown.
In 1908 Pulliam was 39 years old, handsome, famous, and available. However, in another bit of nuanced writing from the era, his "name has never been associated with any woman."
The question of the Merkle game, plus accusations of gambling and game fixing by players and managers, a ticket scalping scandal involving Cubs owner Charles Murphy, plus an attempt by the Giants to bribe the umpires of the October 8, 1908, playoff game that would decide the pennant, were all issues Pulliam wanted to address during the winter meetings of 1909, held in Chicago at the Auditorium Annex Hotel (now the Congress at Congress and Michigan). The team owners did not want them discussed. Several owners were relentless in their pressure, especially Murphy and Giants owner John T. Brush. Even old friends had been alienated. The strain on Pulliam's health became obvious, as seen in this image of Pulliam (at left) during a National Commission Meeting in January of 1909.
While doing my research at the Chicago History Museum, I came across this headline in the February 19, 1909, Chicago American, written as part of the paper's coverage of the 1909 National League winter meetings:
PULLIAM SAYS HE IS TO BE MARRIED SOON
According to the story, Pulliam suddenly announced that he would be leaving the meetings to travel to St. Louis to marry a "popular St. Louis young woman." The bride's name was not mentioned.
The team owners decided to kidnap him to prevent him from leaving Chicago.
The February 19, 1909, edition of the Chicago Tribune describes how Boston Doves (later the Braves) owner George Dovey disguised himself as a cab driver and took Pulliam in the wrong direction from the hotel, instead of taking him to the Dearborn Street Station to catch his train to St. Louis.
Pulliam recognized Dovey, according to the Tribune's story, and bolted from the cab (probably a horse-drawn carriage as seen across the street from the automobile above), leaving his hat, coat, and luggage behind. He then ran through the cold February night to the station and just made his train. He was met in St. Louis by the proprietor of the Planters Hotel who, on instructions from the team owners, put him up in a room but kept him out of touch with the press or the public. He sent Pulliam to Cincinnati soon thereafter. There was no further mention of a fiance or any plans for a wedding. He was then granted a leave of absence and spent some time in a hospital.
If this story had been in just one newspaper I would have discounted it as a fantastic fiction penned during an era of sometimes very lurid yellow journalism. However, I found references to the incident in two other papers, one of them a direct competitor of the Tribune.
Pulliam returned to work the following summer. On July 28, 1909, however, he left his New York office early and returned home where he shot himself in the head.
The story reminded me of the life and death of composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who was known to be a homosexual. To disguise this he quite suddenly married at the age of 37. The marriage was a disaster. The composer experienced profound depression and suffered an emotional breakdown very similar to Pulliam's.
Although the cause of Tchaikovsky's death in 1893 was officially declared to be cholera, there are many theories that it was a suicide forced upon him by former colleagues, and perhaps the Tsar himself, because of his sexual orientation. The truth will never be known.
My point is that Pulliam's story, as it slowly unfolded for me, sounded very similar to Tchaikovsky's. If Pulliam was indeed gay, as several baseball historians have suggested, during the months when he was most in conflict with the team owners, the threat of "outing" him could have meant not just scandal but imprisonment because sodomy was a felony in every state. The theory goes that the owners knew he was gay but did not acknowledge it or make an issue of it because most of them liked him, and he did a good job.
The situation changed in 1908.
Pulliam's accomplishments include: creating perhaps the first baseball Hall of Fame in the NL's New York headquarters; spearheading the agreement between the NL and the foundling AL that made the World Series possible (Brush and McGraw were dead set against this, to point of refusing to play in the 1904 Series. They changed their minds later when they realized how much money was to be made.); supporting and easing the way for the founding of the Baseball Writers' Association of America; and, through his tireless insistence on playing by the rules, pulling the game, kicking and screaming, into the modern era.
Note: For a more detailed account of Harry Pulliam's death, I urge you to order a copy of Mysteries from Baseball's Past: Investigations of Nine Unsettled Questions, a collection of essays edited by baseball scholars Angelo J. Louisa and David Cicotello. I collaborated with Dr. Louisa on a chapter that covers the many unanswered questions surrounding the tragedy. For instance, I'm not entirely sure it was a suicide, although it's difficult to find any other description of his death that does not maintain that Pulliam shot himself. You'll enjoy the other eight chapters, too!
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