Grave Story: Harry Pulliam (1869-1909)

Here lies Harry Pulliam, who rose from a journalist to become the president of the National League from 1903-09. Sadly, the stress of the job and the conflict between his idealistic baseball beliefs and the realities of the game, led Pulliam to take his life.

(Editor’s note: This story covers a suicide and some rather graphic descriptions. If you don’t want to read that part of the story, then stop once you get to Pulliam’s picture below.)

Harry Clay Pulliam was born in Scottsville, Ky., on February 9, 1869. According to a SABR Baseball Research article written by Bob Bailey, Pulliam’s father moved the family to Louisville to get into the tobacco business. Harry attended the University of Virginia for law but got into journalism instead. He worked for several papers in California and ended up as the city editor for the Louisville Commercial. In addition to his love of baseball, Pulliam was known as a fashion plate, wearing the latest clothes and attention-attracting hats.

By 1890, Pulliam was established in Louisville and was considered one of the biggest baseball “cranks” (an early name for a fan) in the city. He met Zach Phelps, a local attorney and the president of the Louisville Colonels. He persuaded the 21-year-old Pulliam to become the club’s secretary, and that started him in his baseball career.

Louisville stayed in the American Association until that league folded after 1891, and then it moved to the National League. Unfortunately, it was typically a league doormat. Pulliam, while still working his job at the Commercial, was deeply involved with the team. Alternately called financial manager or business manager, Pulliam managed to make the Colonels a financial success despite their poor showing on the field — they finished 1895 in 12th place with a 35-96 record but still made money.

“Much of the credit for the Louisville club’s financial success belongs to Harry Pulliam, a bright young newspaper man of Louisville,” praised The Pittsburgh Press. “At the beginning of the season he was granted a six months’ leave of absence by the Louisville Commercial, of which he is city editor, to accept the position of financial secretary of the Louisville club. He had a hard row to hoe at the start, as the [C]olonels could not win games, but he made capital out of their misfortune by telling such thrilling hard luck stories that fans all over the country began to sympathize with the unfortunates, and before the season was half over the [C]olonels had good rooters in every town of the league circuit.”

To nobody’s surprise, Pulliam was retained as business manager for the following season, and by 1897 had been promoted to the role of team president. The 1897 Colonels weren’t great (52-78 record, good for 11th place), but the team did launch two Hall of Fame careers with the debuts of Rube Waddell and Honus Wagner. Waddell appeared in just two games, but Wagner, who was discovered playing for the Paterson Silk Weavers in New Jersey, hit .335 in 62 games for the Colonels. Pulliam signed him in Paterson and didn’t let him out of his sight until their train reached Louisville, for fear of some other team snatching Wagner away.

“Wagner hasn’t a weak point,” he bragged to the Chicago Tribune in July. “He’s a great hitter and a comer. We’ll take all four games when Chicago comes down in the next fortnight.” The Colonels and Cubs split the series, so Pulliam wasn’t too far off.

The National League in 1898 adopted a proposal put forward by Giants owner John T. Brush that would do away with “rowdyism” on the field. The measure would clean up the game and the foul language used by some of its players, to the point of a lifetime ban for extreme cases. Pulliam, who feared that one of the first targets of the measure would be his own Fred Clarke, initially opposed the measure but eventually relented. It would not be the first time that Brush and Pulliam would clash over league matters.

Pulliam won election to the Kentucky state legislature in 1898, while maintaining his role with the Colonels. His chief accomplishment there was to enact legislation that protected the Kentucky cardinal. Pulliam led Louisville until its demise at the end of 1899, when the NL contracted the Colonels out of existence. Colonals owner Barney Dreyfuss also had bought a controlling interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dreyfuss and Pulliam worked out a deal that send virtually all of Louisville’s best players, including Wagner and Clarke, to the Pirates for a handful of talent and cash. It was called syndicate baseball, and it was legal at the time. The deal set the Pirates up for a run of dominance in the NL, and Pulliam quickly joined the Pirates as secretary.

Pulliam was elected to be the National League President in December 1902, when he was just 31 years old. Actually, he was elected to the consolidated position of president, secretary and treasurer – one more instance where he took on multiple roles at once in his life. His chief task was to foster peace with the American League and its president, Ban Johnson. It didn’t take long, either, as a peace accord between the two leagues was signed on January 10, 1903. The NL and AL agreed to respect each other’s contracts with players, managers and umpires. It also banned the practice of syndicate baseball, which Pulliam had used to help turn the Pirates into a juggernaut.

Pulliam made his mistakes as president. Despite the ban on contract jumping, he permitted George Davis to play briefly for the New York Giants in 1903, after the future Hall of Famer jumped his contract with the Chicago White Sox. Davis was eventually returned to Chicago, but people complained that Pulliam was just following the orders of the Giants’ John Brush. In reality, Brush hated Pulliam and was constantly working to have him removed. Still, Pulliam kept the peace between the leagues, and the NL and AL enjoyed its first World Series between the Pirates and Boston Americans that fall. Boston won the Series 5 games to 3.

Chicago president James A. Hart in 1904 was among the first owners to speak out against Pulliam, because the president defended his umpires against critiques. “Pulliam has taken the stand that the umpires are greater than the moguls,” complained Hart, who was one of the moguls. “O’Day is a good man. So are Johnstone and Zimmer, if the players let them alone. Emslie, Moran and Carpenter are incompetent and should not be on the staff. No president of any corporation in existence is bigger than the directors or stockholders. I have gone into the fight after Pulliam, who went out of his way to humiliate me.” Nevertheless, Pulliam kept getting re-elected year after year to his position, so even if he had a couple of owners gunning for him, he had the majority on his side.

Pulliam started showing a bit of a temper in 1905. He suspended Giants manager John McGraw for 15 games and fined him $150 after Pirates owner Dreyfuss complained that McGraw verbally assaulted him with vulgar language. McGraw filed an injunction against Pulliam and the NL and won, keeping him on the playing field. Pulliam, in response, fired a shot at the Giants’ Brush, because McGraw’s vulgar behavior put him in violation of the Brush Amendment I mentioned a few paragraphs above.

“I deeply regret that Mr. Brush has seen fit to repudiate his own legislation and see relief in the courts against the operation of his own law,” Pulliam sniffed. Just a couple days later, he took a shot at his old boss Dreyfuss, when rumors surfaced that he would pull Pittsburgh out of the National League to join the AL. It was an unfounded rumor, but Pulliam declared in an open letter that if Dreyfuss wanted to jump to the American League, he ought to hurry. Dreyfuss did not respond to the letter and still backed Pulliam for re-election that winter.

You may have noticed that many of Pulliam’s conflicts were with the New York Giants. The team whose owner once implored the baseball to clean up its act continued to find new ways to cross the NL’s president. They even came up with a novel approach of banning an umpire from the premises on August 7, 1906. Giants employees kept ump Jim Johnstone from entering the park, and the remaining umpire, Bob Emslie, forfeited the game to Chicago, 9-0. In supporting his umpires, Pulliam tore into the Giants.

“It has been my ambition to one day own a National League franchise, but if blockheadism, jobbery and bulldozing tactics are to be used by the oldest professional baseball association in America I would not have the best National League franchise as a gift,” he said. Pulliam also threatened to resign — not the first or last time he made that threat — if the League’s Board of Directors didn’t support him.

Incidentally, Pulliam almost became the owner of the Boston franchise, but reportedly the asking price was more than he wanted to pay. So he remained NL president, despite growing opposition.

Sentiment against Pulliam and his unwavering support of his umpires came to a head with the Merkle Game, September 23, 1908, against the Cubs as both teams were fighting for the NL pennant. You can find recaps of that game pretty readily, but to make a very long story as short as possible, Giants rookie baserunner Fred Merkle neglected to touch second base on what he thought was a walkoff hit. In the confusion following what seemed to be a wild Giants win, Merkle was tagged with a ball that wasn’t even the one in play and called out, ending the game in a tie. Pulliam ultimately supported his umpire’ decision, even though there were several problems with it. The Cubs beat the Giants in the makeup game, winning the pennant by one game. The hatred McGraw and Brush felt for Pulliam undoubtedly reached all-new levels.

Pulliam was starting to show signs of ill health. He was granted an indefinite leave of absence by the NL owners during the winter 1909 meetings. Prior to the meeting, he got into a heated argument with Dreyfuss and Dodgers owner Charley Ebbets and threw them out of his office in New York. During the meeting in Chicago, he demanded that the names of people who allegedly attempted to bribe umpires in a Chicago-New York game from 1908 be made public. During a banquet given by the White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, Pulliam spoke out against Brush, Ebbets, Dreyfuss and other owners, claiming they were conspiring to unseat him. He followed that up with a written attack on baseball owners in general, stating there were many “cheap” men who cared more about lining their own pockets than advancing the sport (apparently, owners haven’t changed much in 100 years). After being granted his leave, Pulliam immediately boarded a train to St. Louis before the meeting had concluded. There was every expectation that his temporary leave would become permanent.

Nevertheless, Pulliam returned to his work after a few weeks off. But it seems like he had lost all joy for the job. “This job is a thankless one for the most part and the friction that one has to contend with is not worth the trouble,” he said.

(If you do not wish to read about his suicide, stop here scroll down to just past the picture of his gravestone.)

Source: The Boston Globe, July 29, 1909

On July 28, 1909, Harry Pulliam returned to his office at the New York Athletic Club. Around 9:30 that night, he shot himself in his right temple with his Iver Johnson 38-caliber pistol. The bullet blew out his right eye and exited through the left side of his head, but it did not kill him instantly. The telephone operator at the Athletic Club saw the light flash on his board from Pulliam’s office. He could not reach Pulliam by phone and sent a hotel employee to his room with a key to investigate. The employee found the partially dressed Pulliam lying on a divan, with the pistol on the floor by his hand. He had apparently knocked into the phone, which set off the light.

The club physician arrived and, judging that Pulliam was too injured to move and dying, summoned the coroner and the police. The detective promptly had Pulliam arrested for attempted suicide. Coroner Shrady made the following statement:

“I was notified by the New York Athletic Club between 9 and 10 o’clock that a man had shot himself. I got Detective Tobin of the East Fifty-first station. We went to the New York Athletic Club and were taken to the third floor to Mr. Pulliam’s room, and found him lying on a sofa. He had on only an undershirt, a pair of socks and garters. His body was entirely covered with blood. He was in a very pitiable condition. He was semi-conscious, but irrational. He could talk just a little. I asked him, “How were you shot?”

“What do you mean,” he answered. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“He could hear me talk, but he could not comprehend what I said. He lapsed into unconsciousness. His right eye was out and he was blind in his left eye. His right eye we picked up on the floor. The ball went entirely through the skull and fell on the floor. It cut the optic nerve and blinded him. Had it been a little further back it would have instantly killed him. It would have passed through his brain. As it is, there is no chance at all of recovery.”

Harry Pulliam died on July 29 shortly before 8:00am. He was 40 years old. By then, tributes from across the baseball world had poured in.

“In my long association with Mr. Pulliam I found him a thorough sportsman, honorable and genuine. In his untimely death the game sustains an irreparable loss,” said Ban Johnson, AL President.

“He was for the National League first, last and all the time, but above all, he was for clean, honest baseball. He believed that baseball was the American national game and that as that it should be sans peur sans reproche. He was the victim of his own sincerity,” said James Potter, former president of the Philadelphia ball club.

“Oh, it’s awful. It’s awful, but I expected it. Poor, old boy,” said Dreyfuss when notified of Pulliam’s death.

“I didn’t think a bullet in the head could hurt him,” said John McGraw, as quoted in the book Crazy ’08 by Cait Murphy.

This serves as a reminder that John McGraw was one of the game’s biggest assholes.

All National and American League baseball games were canceled on August 2, out of respect, for Harry Pulliam’s funeral. The NL really had no choice, as the league’s umpires all attended to support the man who supported them so strongly. About 1,200 people attended, including many baseball dignitaries and executives, and Pulliam’s casket was said to be buried in flowers, sent from all across the country. A.G. Spalding & Bro. sent a baseball made of white carnations, and the Cincinnati Reds send a wreath of American Beauty roses.

Pulliam is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Ky. The NL for years afterwards sent flowers to decorate his grave.

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