Grave Story: Tom Nagle (1865-1946)

Here lies Tom Nagle, one of the first catchers to use a padded glove. He also played the outfield for the Chicago Colts (aka Cubs) in 1890-91.

Nagle was born in Milwaukee, Wis. on October 30, 1865. He got his baseball start in 1885 in Wausau, playing for a local team for $100 a month. He bounced around in Wisconsin, moving from a Milwaukee team to join the Eau Clare Lumberman of the Northwestern League in 1886. The following season,he played on two other teams in that league, the LaCrosse Freezers and Oshkosh. The Oshkosh club won the pennant under the guidance of manager Frank Selee and promptly moved to Omaha, Neb. and the Western Association. Nagle stayed in Omaha for two seasons and batted .248 in 1888 and .298 in 1889. He also hit 4 homers that season, stole 14 bases and apparently was a pretty valuable catcher.

“Everybody is happy to see Tom Nagle back in his old position,” reported the Omaha Daily Bee on August 11, 1889. “Without Nagle the team loses confidence, and fail to put up their customary game.” Almost every player for Omaha that year made it to the majors, most notably future Hall-of-Famer Kid Nichols, who went 39-8 as a 19-year-old prospect. At the close of the season, Nagle was sold to Chicago for $8,500 and received a $500 bonus from his new team.

Soutce: The Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1890

Nagle backed up starting catcher Malachi Kittridge and appeared in 38 games in 1890. Though primarily a catcher, Nagle also played 6 games in right field. Overall, he put together a strong campaign, batting .271 with 11 RBIs, 21 runs scored and 4 stolen bases. He only hit one home run, but it happened to be off the legendary Cy Young.

The Colts, under the leadership of player/manager Cap Anson, finished 2nd in the NL with an 83-63 record. Anson was the only Colt to top the .300 mark in batting average. Kittridge struggled to hit over .200, but he was a slightly better fielder than Nagle and threw out base-stealers at a higher percentage. 

Nagle returned to the Colts in 1891, but it was reported that his throwing arm was in bad shape. He played in 8 just games, had a woeful .120 batting average and once again was a below-average catcher. One game on April 29 raised the ire of Anson, as Nagle and pitcher Ad Gumbert watched a pop fly fall between them for a hit, allowing the Cincinnati Reds to score the go-ahead runs.

“Perhaps these youths are unacquainted with that infallible law of gravitation which gave rise to the quaint old nursery rhyme that, ‘What goes up must come down either on heads or on the ground,’” mused the Chicago Tribune. “At any rate they stood and watched the ball rise with all the seeming joy of a jealous small boy who sees his more fortunate neighbor’s toy balloon escape. Even the stentorian tones of Uncle Adrian [Anson] could not arouse them from their fascinated pose,and the ball fell safe.”

In Nagle’s last game on May 27, 1891, he went 0-for-3 against the New York Giants, had two errors and a passed ball, and allowed the Giants to steal five bases. The Colts released him mere days later. For his MLB career, Nagle slashed .249/.294/.308 with the Colts, with 42 hits in 46 games, including 5 doubles, 1 triple, 1 homer and 12 RBIs.

In 1892, Nagle played with the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Western League but batted only .174. After a year away from the game, he came back for one last season, playing for Dubuque in 1895. In 35 games, he put up a tremendous .326 batting average but never made his way back into pro ball after that.

Nagle holds some distinction for being one of the first players to use a catcher’s mitt. In baseball’s early days, catchers caught the ball bare-handed or with a fingerless glove. That later evolved to a padded glove with fingers that still didn’t really lessen the blow of catching. Nagle’s fingers were said to be gnarled later in life as a result of a lack of protective equipment, for instance. The first proper mitt was designed by Joe Gunson, a catcher who took a glove, sewed the fingers together, added sheepskin and wrapped the whole thing in wire and castoff belts for extra support. Gunson caught for Kansas City when it was facing Omaha in 1888. Nagle saw the glove and, since Gunson had a day off, borrowed it. That made him, at least according to Gunson, the first player outside of the inventor to use a catcher’s mitt. Gunson would later get into a lawsuit feud with teammate Ed Kennedy, a pitcher who saw Gunson’s mitt and patented his own version. Gunson’s glove that Nagle used was donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s been ages since I was there, so I don’t know if it’s on display or not, but if it is, then Tom Nagle can lay claim to being in Cooperstown.

Nagle’s last baseball job was in 1900, when he coached the Minneapolis Millers of the American League, which was one season away from becoming a major league. The team, managed by his old Colts teammate Walt Wilmot, finished in 8th place with a 53-86 record. After that, he went to work for the railroad. Nagle was a clerk at a railroad office in 1910, a traveling inspector for the railroad in 1920 and a freight agent in 1930, according to census reports. He married on December 15, 1902 and had two daughters.

Tom Nagle died on March 9, 1946 at the age of 80. At some point in time before his death, he had his left leg amputated due to diabetes. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Milwaukee.

One newspaper, The Dispatch of Moline, Ill., apparently decided that Nagle’s death merited an additional quote. So, their write-up of Nagle’s death ends with this line: “[Cap] Anson said recently of Nagle: ‘He was the greatest player I ever saw and he could play any position well.’”

A couple problems with that. First, Anson would never have said that a guy he managed for 46 games and released was the best player he ever saw. Second, by the time that Nagle passed away, Anson had been dead for 24 years. If he’d said anything recently, it would have been through a medium, not a reporter in Moline.

The quote actually did involve Nagle and Anson, but the other way around. Nagle once called Anson the greatest player he ever saw, which makes much more sense. Always double check your facts, reporters!

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