Grave Story: Ted Sullivan (1851?-1929)

Here lies Ted Sullivan, who played in 3 games for the 1884 Kansas City Cowboys of the Union Association, but that isn’t even the smallest fraction of the impact he had on the game of baseball. As a manager, umpire, scout, league founder and mentor, Sullivan was recognized as the “grand old man” of baseball and was active in the game right up to his final days. And if you call yourself a baseball fan, you can thank Ted Sullivan. He coined the phrase “fan,” or at least he said he did, as a shortening of the word “fanatic.”

Timothy Paul Sullivan was born in County Clare, Ireland in 1851, according to baseball stat websites. Retrosheet lists his birthday as March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day, of course. His gravestone has the birth date of March 11, 1848, which only adds to the mystery. He and his parents came to the United States around 1860 and settled in Milwaukee, Wis.

Sullivan’s baseball saga began there, playing for early Milwaukee teams. He then moved to Kansas, where he met a young Charlie Comiskey. The two began a lifelong friendship, and Sullivan helped mold Comiskey’s talent and propel him into a lifetime of baseball fame (and infamy).

“Why, Charles and I went to school together in Kansas and then later while I was in Dubuque, Ia., I helped “The old Roman” make himself into a cracking first baseman after he had lost his speed as a pitcher,” Sullivan would later recall. “I also organized the first minor league in that part of the country.”

In 1879, Sullivan managed the Dubuque Red Stockings, which was jammed with future major-league talent. Along with Comiskey, Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourne, Tom Loftus and brothers Bill and Jack Gleason were on the team.Sullivan then dropped out of baseball for a time. According to Edward Achorn’s book, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, he was running a profitable business selling newspapers and snacks on trains out of Dubuque when St. Louis Browns owner Chris Von der Ahe came calling.

(The book, incidentally, is a great narrative of Von der Ahe’s first few seasons as an owner. Achorn does an excellent job of bringing the long-gone 1880s to life again.)

Von der Ahe, a German immigrant turned brewer turned baseball owner, helped launch the American Association, a rival league to the NL. His Browns finished 37-43 in 1882, and Von der Ahe wanted Sullivan to change the team’s fortunes. They already knew each other, as Sullivan had recommended that the owner sign Comiskey the previous year. Sullivan loaded up the Browns with talent, acquiring the likes of Arlie Latham and Hugh Nicol. Blessed with two outstanding pitchers in Jumbo McGinnis and Tony Mullane, the Browns made an incredible turnaround. Von der Ahe even presented Sullivan with an engraved gold watch for his work. Unfortunately, Von der Ahe was known for interfering with his team, and that interference eventually caused Sullivan to quit. He hurled that pocketwatch back at Von der Ahe in September when he resigned, but Sullivan eventually got it back.

“He put the watch in his pocket and in two months afterward, at Sportsman Park, placed it back in my hand and told me not to be so high strung,” Sullivan wrote years later. He eventually served as a pallbearer for his former boss, so the hard feelings did dissipate in time.

Sullivan led the Browns to an 53-26 record, and even with Comiskey filling in as manager after he quit, the team finished in second place. Sullivan’s next chance to manage came in 1884 in St.Louis for the Maroons of the new Union Association. The UA was started by St.Louis businessman and Maroons owner Henry Lucas when he couldn’t get a team placed in the National League. The UA teams persuaded players from the AA and NL to break their contracts, and Lucas grabbed the best players he could find. As a result, the Maroons got off to a 35-4 record under Sullivan, outscoring opponents 376-133. Once again, though, Sullivan found himself on the outs with his team, when some of the best players, particularly star 2B Fred Dunlap, threatened to quit. Apparently, the veterans felt like Sullivan was favoring the rookies more.

Sullivan left St. Louis in a huff and made his way to Kansas City, where he became the manager of the UA’s Cowboys later that season. The Cowboys were the polar opposites of the Maroons. Not blessed with particularly talented players, the Cowboys were just 3-17 when Sullivan took over. He led them to a 13-46 record, including 8 wins in their last 15 games.This is also where he made his only appearances as a player, appearing in 2 games as an outfielder and 1 as a shortstop. His fielding wasn’t impressive (he had 7 chances as a shortstop and made 4 errors), but he did get 3 hits in 9 at-bats, along with 1 walk for a lifetime .333 batting average and .400 on-base percentage.

Sullivan’s last stop as an MLB manager was with the Washington Nationals in 1888. He took over as manager in June and guided the team to a 38-57 finish. That left his career managerial MLB totals at an even 132 wins and 132 losses over parts of 4 seasons.

He managed at least 15 minor-league teams in his lifetime, from 1879 until 1910. Occasionally he pressed himself into service as a pitcher or a hitter, but looking at the statistics that are available, it seems like he understood that his place was on the bench instead of in the field. He likely helped found more minor leagues than anyone else in baseball. Starting with the 4-team league in the Midwest (consisting of Dubuque, Rockford, Omaha and Davenport) in 1879, Sullivan helped organize the Southern, Texas, South Atlantic, Atlantic, Western and Southwestern Leagues. He owned the Waco franchise in the Texas League for a spell.

Sullivan stayed close to Comiskey as the latter became the owner of the Chicago White Sox. He helped set up the team’s Spring Training complex in Mineral Springs, Texas. Sullivan also discovered catcher Ray Schalk in the minor leagues and brought him to the Sox to launch his Hall of Fame career.

Sullivan organized a world’s tour with the New York Giants and White Sox, taking the game of baseball to Japan and elsewhere. He then returned the favor to his native Ireland and brought two Irish football teams (aka soccer) to tour the United States in 1926. He also was a public speaker and a first-class story-teller who frequently was invited to give talks about the game. One obituary noted that he wrote a play called “Old Virginia” and wrote many “negro stories” as well. The obit doesn’t go into any details about what those are exactly, but I think the reader can make a pretty educated guess about their general tone.

He did write a book in 1903 called Humorous Stories of the Ball Field that exists online as a partially transcribed work. You can search it out for yourself, but I’ll warn you that the racial epithets fly fast and furious. Yes, that word pops up, and a few of its equally nasty relatives besides. Occasionally, I come across these moments of casual racism from baseball’s past, and they’re always jarring. History books don’t really do justice in describing racial attitudes in the early 20th Century. Sometimes you have to be confronted with it in order to understand just how bad things were.

I’m mentioning this part of Sullivan’s past because I don’t want to whitewash history, but his views were probably no more or no less racist than 1903 society in general. That’s probably the saddest thing about it. Not the fact that Sullivan’s racism tarnishes his legacy, but the fact that his attitude was so common for the era. Anyway, we move on.

Ted Sullivan was invited to attend the Chicago White Sox Spring Training by his old friend Charles Comiskey in 1929. Normally, he said, his business in Washington D.C. kept him from attending, but he made an exception that year. While there, the old man—he refused to reveal his age to the reporter—was interviewed by UPI to give his opinions of the game. To his credit, he didn’t outright trash the modern game of baseball, as many old-timers are prone to doing. He did admit that something was amiss in the game, and while he couldn’t put his finger on it, he didn’t put the blame on the players.

“A few years back a fellow could enjoy a contest, but now it is different. I don’t know exactly what it is—maybe it’s because we have too many persons running the game that originally were not baseball men,” he said. “I don’t mean that the game is fading out, but I do mean that something should be done to bind the friendship of the sixteen big league managers instead of trying to make them all enemies.”

Sullivan predicted that a new league could spout up to rival the AL and NL. “There is plenty of room for the game to expand—if some of these so-called experts don’t spoil it by souring the entire country on our national pastime,” he said. Bear in mind, this was in April 1929, and his quote is still accurate almost 90 years later.

Sullivan returned to his Washington D.C. home following Spring Training, predicting a “hot fight” for the pennant. Sadly, he suffered a stroke on June 22 and died on July 5, 1929. He was 78 years old or possibly 81. He’s buried in Milwaukee’s Calvary Cemetery.

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