Grave Story: Charlie Buffinton (1861-1907)

(Editor’s note: I want to thank my Instagram friend Cadavra Scientist for sending me these pics. Follow their work at www.instagram.com/cadavrascientist.)

Here lies Charlie Buffinton, one of the greatest pitchers of 19th Century baseball and, you could argue, one of the best pitchers not currently a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Buffinton pitched, and spent time as an outfielder and first baseman, for the Boston Red Stockings/Beaneaters (1882-86), Philadelphia Quakers (1887-89), Philadelphia Athletics of the Players League (1890), Boston Reds of the American Association (1891) and Baltimore Orioles (1892).

Charles Buffinton was born in Fall River, Mass. on June 14, 1861.He originally signed to play pro ball with Philadelphia in 1882, but he was never placed on the active roster and was released after two months. He then joined his hometown team, the Boston Red Stockings (who are today’s Atlanta Barves). He made his debut on May 17, 1882 against Worcester and shut them out 4-0. Buffinton was praised for his control and a delivery that puzzled the opposing batters. Still, he was used more in the field than on the mound that year. He pitched 5 games and had a 2-3 record and 4.07 ERA, and he also played 10 games in the outfield and first base. He hit .260 and drove in 4 runs. It would be like that for most of his career. The substitution rules back then were a little odd, so on Buffinton’s days off on the mound, he would usually be in the field somewhere in case the starter needed to get yanked.

Source: The Boston Globe, December 20, 1903.

Buffinton was one of the first players to re-sign for the 1883 season, and that’s where his pitching really superseded his position playing. The 1883 Beaneaters were in last place as of July 4. Second baseman Jack Burdock was relieved of his managerial duties, which were handed to teammate and first baseman John Morrill. He put his trust in his 2-man starting rotation of Buffinton and Jim Whitney, and the team went 33-11 under his charge to claim the National League championship.

“Whitney had tremendous speed, while Buffinton had mastered a drop ball that fell into the hands of his catcher like a snowflake,” journalist and former ballplayer Tim Murnane would write years later in The Boston Globe. A drop ball is, I believe, a reference to a 12-6 curveball that starts out high and then drops straight down. It enabled him to rack up some good strikeout numbers in his career even though he wasn’t known for his speed.

Buffinton won 25 games for Boston that season, with a 3.03 ERA. He completed 34 games and fanned 188 batters in 333 innings. He also played 51 games in the outfield, primarily in right, and hit .238 with a home run and 26 RBIs.

His best year — one of the best years any pitcher has ever had, in fact — came in 1884. He started an incredible 67 games and completed 63 of them, throwing 587 innings. He won 48 games and lost 16, striking out 417 batters along the way. Incredibly, he didn’t lead the NL in either wins or strikeouts, because 1884 was the year that Old Hoss Radbourn had his remarkable season of 60 wins and 441 strikeouts. Buffinton’s ERA of 2.15 was good for 7th in the league.

If you look back in the early days of professional baseball, you’ll sometimes see years like that. Pitchers were basically thought of as disposable commodities, and they were sent out to be as effective as possible before their arms fell off. There are a fair number of pitchers who had three, maybe four phenomenal seasons and then are out of baseball by the time they’re 30. Sure enough, Buffinton was a sub-.500 pitcher in 1885 and 1886, his last seasons in Boston. He struggled badly in ’86 in particular, as his ERA soared to 4.59 in 18 games. Even though he completed 16 of his 17 starts, he was not the same pitcher and spent most of his time in the field. When he wasn’t battling a sore arm, he was dealing with a slight case of malaria. Gotta love life in the 19th Century.

Boston sold him and his fellow Fall River-ite catcher Tom Gunning to Philadelphia in April 1887. Buffinton didn’t want to go to the Quakers, and some friends advised him to fight the move, though players had no bargaining chips when it came to contracts back then. Philadelphia manager Harry Wright convinced him to sign, and Buffinton found himself back with his original team – even if he’d never actually played for them. With starters Dan Casey and Charlie Ferguson sharing the workload, Buffinton wasn’t forced into a workhorse role and won 21 games. He won 28 games for the Quakers in 1888 and 1889 and surely would have done well for them in 1890 as well. However, he and a fledgling player’s union called the Brotherhood decided to stand up for their rights and form a brand-new league.

The Player’s League existed in 1890 as a rival to both the National League and the American Association. Buffinton and Quaker teammate Bill Hallman, an infielder, broke their contracts with the NL team to join the Philadelphia Athletics of the PL. The season had barely begun when A’s manager Jim Fogarty either quit or was fired, depending on who was telling the story. Either way, Buffinton was put in charge of the team and guided them to a 61-54 record. The A’s finished 68-63 overall to finish 5th in the PL, and Buffinton had a 19-15 record.

The PL disbanded after the season, and Buffinton went back to Boston for 1891 – the Reds, not the Beaneaters. The Reds were the American Association team in town, and the 30-year-old hurler had his last great season with them, leading the AA with a .763 winning percentage for his 29-9 record. He had a 2.55 ERA and struck out 158 batters, but he also walked 120, His control was starting to abandon him, perhaps due to the wear and tear on his arm.

The Reds finished first in the AA, but they were the last AA champion, as the league folded after the season. For the second time in his career, Buffinton found himself unemployed when his league collapsed, so he went to the Baltimore Orioles for one last hurrah. The Orioles had some incredible championship teams in the 1890s, but 1892 was not one of them. They finished in 12th place in the NL with a 46-101 record. Buffinton won 4 games and lost 8 with a career-worst 4.92 ERA. He was released on July 1, allegedly after refusing a pay cut. No team was willing to take a chance on him (when asked, the St. Louis Browns management called him an “exploded star”), so he went back home to Massachusetts.

In his 11-year career, Buffinton finished with a 233-152 record and a 2.96 ERA. He had an incredible 351 complete games and 30 shutouts. He pitched in 3404 innings and struck out 1700 batters while walking 856. He won 20 games 7 times and threw more than 300 innings in a season 7 times. At the plate, he was a career .245 hitter, with 543 hits and 255 RBIs. He managed 7 home runs, including two off a couple of Hall of Famers, John Clarkson and Old Hoss Radbourn.

After his release from the Orioles, it was reported that Buffinton started pitching for amateur teams in Massachusetts under the assumed name of “Brown.” His business prospects outweighed his baseball prospects, and he retired from the diamond in favor of a coal business in his hometown of Fall River. He settled down to the life of a businessman and prominent citizen, occasionally traveling to Boston to catch a ballgame or renew old friendships with his fellow players.

In 1907, former player and renowned journalist Tim Murnane started making plans for a reunion of old-time baseball players. Veterans like Harry Stovey, John Ward, Joe Start and Buffinton had planned to attend. Even old pioneer Dickey Pearce, then 70 years old and living in Cape Cod, was going to show up. News about the plans were published in July. Hopefully the event took place soon after and Buffinton had a grand time, because he didn’t have long to live.

Buffinton, now working as a bookkeeper (presumably at the coal yard), had been bothered by pains in his right side for years, and he had made plans for an operation. He went to the hospital on Saturday, September 21 for the surgery on the following day. The Wilkes-Barre Times reported that he was feeling better and was in the process of deciding whether or not to go through with the surgery. He then collapsed in pain, fell unconscious and died on September 23, 1907. He was 46 years old. The official cause of death was heart disease of coronary arteries and tricuspid valve. A gallstone was also listed as a contributing factor.

“’Charlie’ Buffinton had a host of friends, his genial disposition and self-sacrificing nature endearing him to all who were favored with his friendship,” the paper reported. “His friends were in all walks of life, from the humblest coal heaver to the most prominent business man, and on all sides to-day are heard expressions of the most heartfelt sorrow.”

“The players always had an easy time in the field when Buff was pitching, as the ball was always easy to handle,” recalled his former manager, John Morrill to The Boston Globe.

Charlie Buffinton left behind a wife and three children. He is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Fall River, Mass.

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