Here lies Emil Gross, who performed one of the most incredible catching feats of the 19th Century. He caught every single game for the Providence Grays in 1880 – that would be 87 games in an era where catcher’s protective gear didn’t exist. Gross played for the Grays (1879-81), Philadelphia Quakers (1883) and Chicago Browns of the Union Association (1884).
Emil Gross was born in Chicago on March 4, 1858. His parents, Michael and Caroline, were French immigrants who were early Chicago pioneers. They lost their house, on South State Street, to the Chicago Fire of 1871. It was located roughly where the Harold Washington Public Library is today. Gross started playing professionally in 1877, catching for the St. Paul Red Caps of the independent League Alliance. He made it to Providence in August of 1879 and won the catching job from Lew Brown, hitting .348 in 30 games.
Gross held onto the starting job in 1880, catching all of the Gray’s games and leading the NL in games played with 87. As far as I can tell, that’s the only time that a player used exclusively as a catcher has led the league in games played. The effort must have taken a toll on him, as his average dropped to.259 and his OPS to .629, both of which were career lows. He also, as expected, led all NL catchers in passed balls with 73 and had 86 errors for an .866 fielding percentage behind the plate (league average was .894). At 6 feet tall and around 200 pounds, he was one of the bigger catchers in the league, but it must have taken every ounce of his durability to get through the season.
I asked @mask_and_mitten, an excellent Instagram account devoted to catchers, about the types of equipment that was available to Gross in 1880. As it turns out, there wasn’t a lot. Chest protectors were used as early as 1883, and shin guards around the late 1890s. Gross’ career pre-dates both those items. Masks were starting to come into vogue, but if Gross ever used one, likely it was just a fencing mask style with side pads in an oval shape and wrapped (not welded) wire. His best guess was that Gross got behind the plate with no protective equipment at all, aside from possibly a rubber mouth piece. He probably didn’t even wear a glove, as catchers then didn’t position themselves as close to the plate as they do now.
By 1881, Gross had worn out his welcome in Providence. He hit .271 but only appeared in 51 games due to injuries. Furthermore, he and pitcher Bobby Matthews were under fire for their heavy drinking, according to Matthews’ SABR bio. At the end of the season, Gross was part of a group of players that was blacklisted from the National League for “alleged general dissipation and insubordination.”
The ban lasted a season, and Gross was back catching for the Quakers in 1883. The extended rest probably did him some good, as he slashed .307/.342/.385. His 71 base hits included 25 doubles. Gross jumped to the short-lived Union Association in 1884 but didn’t make his season debut until June. He was fantastic while he was with the team, hitting .358 with a career high 4 homers. However, he was there for just over a month, playing his last game on July 14.
Gross has a lifetime .295 batting average, with 291 hits, 7 homers and 107 RBIs. His .859 fielding average as a catcher was… terrible, but his brief attempts to convert to an outfielder were even worse. In 106 innings as an outfielder, he had 9 putouts and 9 errors, for a .526 fielding percentage. Apparently fly balls were a known weakness for him, which is bad for a catcher but even worse for an outfielder. Gross played in a couple of independent leagues in 1885, but he was essentially done with baseball at the age of 26. Not that he NEEDED baseball, though.
Gross, unlike most of his contemporaries, was smart with his money. In 1884, he was said to own $50,000 in real estate in Chicago. He was also left $100,000 by his mother and was the executor of her $400,000 estate when she died in December 1884. He owned property on South State Street that he sold in 1909 to Milton Florsheim of Florsheim Shoe fame, netting him $102,000.
In addition to his Chicago residence, he had a plantation in Georgia where, in 1909, former big-leaguer Joe Quest went to die from consumption. The Georgia climate must have agreed with Quest, as he survived until 1924. Gross also had a home in Citronelle, Ala., where he spent time in his later years.
Gross never married, but he did have a nephew, Fred Busse, who was the mayor of Chicago from 1907-1911.Gross died unexpectedly on August 24, 1921, while on a trip to Eagle River, Wis. He was 63 years old. He is buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.
Gross was the subject of a couple baseball tall tales; I make no claims about their authenticity. On one occasion, Gross was tracking a pop fly when he realized the ball was headed straight for his face. He flopped backwards defensively, feet in the air, and the ball bounced off the bottom of his shoe and into his flailing hand for an out.
While with Providence, he was behind the plate when the runners on first and second attempted a double steal. He initially started to throw down to second but changed his mind and threw the ball back to the pitcher. The pitcher, though, was watching the runner steal third and never saw the ball coming. Gross’ throw bounced off the pitcher’s head and rolled back to home plate, where Gross recovered it and tagged out the lead runner who was trying to score. Just your typical 2-1-2 caught stealing.