Grave Story: Sam Shaw (1863-1947)

Here lies Sam Shaw, who had a brief and tumultuous pitching career in the 19th Century. His grave was lost for years, as a snafu somewhere along the line had him placed in the wrong cemetery. While his grave is unmarked, at least we know where he is now. Shaw played for the Baltimore Orioles (1888) and Chicago Colts (1893).

There are a couple of problems that frequently come up when searching for graves, particularly with 19th-Century ballplayers. First and foremost is the unmarked grave. Some hard-living players died as paupers, and others had no surviving family to handle their affairs. Second is cemetery paperwork. Sometimes old records are very orderly, and other times, not so much. It depends on the cemetery and their record-keeping system, For example, if you can figure out exactly where Ned Williamson is buried in Section 6 of Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery, you’re doing better than anyone who works there.

Samuel Elmer Shaw was born in Baltimore on May 7, 1863. He got his professional baseball start pitching for the Orioles of the American Association in 1888, as an experiment of manager Billy Barnie. In what must have been an exhibition game on April 2 (the season officially began a couple weeks later), Shaw was outpitched by Philadelphia ace Charlie Ferguson but looked good in a 4-1 loss. He allowed 8 singles and walked one, and all the runs scored off him were unearned.

“Shaw gives promise of being a valuable man to the club. Though small [Baseball Reference lists him at 5’5”, 140 pounds], he is wiry and strong, and in his movements quick enough to keep both batters and base-runners guessing,” reported the Baltimore Sun.

Shaw was infrequently used, with the Orioles relying on other, younger starting pitchers. Shaw, at 25, was a couple years older than starters Bert Cunningham, Matt Kilroy and Phenomenal Smith. In 6 starts, he went 2-4 with a 3.40 ERA, striking out 22 while walking 15 and allowing 2 home runs. He completed all 6 games. The Orioles were just not a good team, with a 57-80 record, so his losing record isn’t representative of his abilities. Still, he was released by Baltimore on August 1 and finished up the season pitching for the Worcester Grays of the New England League. He won his only start for them.

Shaw pitched in independent leagues for the next few years, for a variety of teams. He won 12 games for Newark in 1889 but was released when the team cut payroll. He was signed by a team in Burlington, Ill., though other teams were interested in him. In 1890, he won 11 games for Baltimore (still the Orioles, but now a minor-league team in the Atlantic Association) and Terre Haute. He was supposed to have pitched for a team in Wilmington, Del., after his release from Baltimore. Wilmington and Terre Haute both agreed to his rather extravagant demands — “I would play with [Wilmington] if I was not required to pitch more than two games a week and given no Sunday work,” he wrote — but he preferred the Indiana club and insisted Wilmington had no claims on him. He pitched Terre Haute into first place in the Central Interstate League until the team disbanded, and he finished the year playing for the Oakland Colonels.

Shaw opened a grocery in Baltimore in 1891 and was rumored to be considering retirement, but he signed with the Rochester Hop Bitters of the Eastern Association. He pitched in 4 games and went 2-2 with a 1.06 ERA (he gave up 15 runs in those 4 games, but only 4 were earned). He left Rochester and returned to his Terre Haute team but was suspended on June 26, for reasons I couldn’t determine.

I can’t find a trace of him playing in 1892, but in 1893, Shaw appeared in Augusta and won 10 games for a team called the Electricians. Cap Anson, manager of the Chicago Colts (Cubs), signed him, and he “proved to be an enigma to the Washington Batsmen) on June 13, beating the Senators 10-6. He walked 8 and hit 2 batters, so “enigma” may be a little charitable. His second performance against New York didn’t go as well. Those were the only two games he pitched in the National League, and by the end of July, he was released by the Colts and back in Baltimore, running his grocery. His record for Chicago was 1-0 with a 5.63 ERA, and he walked 13 batters in 16 innings and hit 9 more. His career major-league numbers are a 3-4 record in 8 games (7 complete games), 28 walks, 23 strikeouts and 13 hit batsmen.

He didn’t really retire from baseball, though. He pitched until 1896, spending brief times with Nashville, Lynchburg (as a player/manager), Toronto and Lancaster. All total, he accumulated a 29-34 record with independent teams, and those are just the ones listed on Baseball Reference. That’s not a comprehensive tally of his work, as he played for other teams that aren’t listed there.

If you’re looking for a clue as to why Shaw played so briefly for so many teams, there is this anecdote from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about his stay with Augusta in 1893. “It was Sammie who threw a ball into the grandstand in New Orleans, hitting a man, who at once chased the pitcher off the ground with a dagger.”

His career seems to have ended with a suspension from Lancaster in May 1896. “Shaw was engaged at a good salary, but he has only done a trifling amount of work,” wrote The Philadelphia Inquirer. “He has not pitched a full game this season and has continually complained of a sore arm. This excuse, after the first week of bench warming, was looked upon with suspicion, and as Shaw didn’t seem to care whether he got his arm into shape or not, the management decided to suspend him and send him to Baltimore to nurse his arm at some one else’s expense besides the club’s.”

Sam Shaw. Not a team player, it seems.

Shaw died on February 13, 1947, at his home in Upper Darby, Pa., from nephritis. He was 83. His death certificate had him listed as a retired grocer. It also lists him as being buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Where’s the mystery? Somewhere during the proceeding 70 years, his burial information was switched to Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. The sites that list burials like FindaGrave, Baseball Reference and Retrosheet all had him in the wrong place. There is no Samuel Elmer Shaw in Laurel Hill’s records, so it could be assumed his Laurel Hill burial information was lost.

Sam Shaw’s gravesite is in between these two markers at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

I had been planning a trip to Philadelphia, and at the last minute, I called the Laurel Hill office to see if they had any additional information on Shaw. The woman who took my call mentioned that it wasn’t uncommon that people listed online at Laurel Hill are actually at WEST Laurel Hill, and vice versa. Sure enough, her search turned up three possibilities at West Laurel Hill. One Samuel Shaw died in 1948 and another in 1949, but a Samuel E. Shaw was buried on Feb. 17, 1947, just four days after the pitcher died. Unless that was a bad year for Sam Shaws in Philadelphia, odds are good that the Sam Shaw of interest to us was in Section Radnor, Lot 295, Grave 2 of West Laurel Hill. As further proof, Sam Shaw the ballplayer was married to Susan, and there is a Susan Shaw buried in the same plot.

Unfortunately, the grave where Shaw and five others lie, including Susan, is unmarked. The Mees family on the right of the photo is Lot 294, and the Chambers family on the left is Lot 296. That puts Sam Shaw square in the middle of the photo. Hopefully, he and his family will get their marker someday.

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