Grave Story: Gerald Shea (1881-1964)

Here lies Gerry Shea, an amateur St. Louis catcher who played two games with the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of the 1905 season. Supposedly, he was pulled from the stands to play when the Cardinals didn’t have any healthy catchers available. It’s a great story… if it’s true.

Gerald Joseph Shea was born on October 26, 1881, in Omaha, Neb. Well, maybe he was born there, but probably not. Baseball Reference states Nebraska, his World War II draft card says Minonk, Ill., and a family history on Ancestry says he’s from Missouri. He’s also listed as Illinois-born in multiple census reports, so most evidence indicates that he’s an Illinoisan.

Shea’s parents, who were Irish immigrants, got married in Minonk, lived for a time in Omaha and settled down in St. Louis, which could account for some of that confusion. Gerald was the second-oldest of seven children. By 1900, The Sheas and their six surviving children were living in the 17th Ward in St. Louis. Shea, who was 19, worked as a trimmer for a clothier – a trade he would practice for most of his non-baseball life.

Shea seems to have been a good athlete in his youth. His obituary notes that he was a soccer player, and a 1901 article in the St. Louis Republic includes a Gerald Shea in a list of well-known football players who were taking part in a series of games. A 1902 article reports that “the Kerns, with the McDonough brothers and Gerald Shea, had an easy time winning out over Jarrett’s youngsters. With these players regularly in line, the team that beats the Kerns will win the pennant.” Kern was a local football team, though Shea would also join a Kern baseball team that played in a Missouri-Illinois league in 1903 as a left fielder. That league became known as the Trolley League and lasted into the late 1930s at least.

Source: The St. Louis Republic, January 4, 1903.

Shea was known as a “sturdy” half back, according to the Republic. “His blocking is perfect and his passing is flawless. He feeds his forward well, and is hard enough to stop any man in St. Louis,” the paper reported.

Two things to note here. One, football is sometimes referred to as “socker” or “soccer football,” so when you think of Shea as a football player, don’t think of the National Football League. It was a much different era with much different rules; based on the newspaper reports, I can’t honestly tell if they’re describing a sport closer to modern football or soccer, or even two completely different sports.

The Kerns were one of the better teams at the start of the Trolley League. One 1904 box score shows a 10-4 drubbing of a team called the Leacocks. Shea had the catching duties in that game and acquitted himself very well, with 7 putouts, 4 assists 1 error and 2 passed balls. By 1904 standards, that’s a good game behind the plate.

During this time, Shea also attended Creighton University. Where he found the time to get an education in Nebraska while he’s playing so many sports in St. Louis is beyond me, but the university says he attended there from 1900 to 1905. That makes him Creighton’s first ever alum to play pro baseball.

In 1905 Shea started the year as the catcher for the Ben Millers, hitting .413. He caught for them until late May, when he was offered a good position with a team in Chicago. “The Millers will find it a hard matter to replace him, and Shea’s many friends with him success in his new home,” reported the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

The team that signed Shea was the Decatur Commodores of the Three-I League. He stayed with the team for about two months, returning to St. Louis at the end of August due to sickness. There are no available statistics for his time in Decatur, but the team wanted him back in 1906, so he must have done well.

All of this brings us to the 1905 St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards were a 6th-place team, finishing the season with a 58-96 record. It was a veteran team, particularly at the catching position. The top catcher was Mike Grady, who was 35 years old. Other players who saw time behind the plate were Jack Warner (32), Tom Leahy (36) and Dave Zearfoss (37). The team staggered to the end of the season with a doubleheader on September 29 against the Giants, a single game on the 30th, and then doubleheaders on October 1, 3, 7 and 8. That would be enough to exhaust any team, and it could explain why Cardinals management grabbed an extra catcher to help carry the load.

Shea made his major-league debut in the first game of the October 1 doubleheader against the Brooklyn Superbas. The Cardinals won 2-1, and Shea went 1-for-3 with a single off Jack Doscher. In the field, he committed an error and allowed a passed ball, but he also had 6 putouts, 3 assists and took part in a 4-2-3 double play.

“Gerald Shea, one of St. Louis’ semiprofessional catchers, did the backstopping in the first game for the Cardinals, and he did not by any means make a bad impression,” reported the St. Louis papers the next day. “Shea has had no minor league experience [not exactly true, since he was with Decatur earlier in the year] and as might be expected he was a bit rough in his work at times, but he also did some good work in spots.”

Two days later, Shea caught the first game of another doubleheader with Brooklyn. Again, he had a single in three at-bats and was flawless with 2 chances in the field. The Cardinals then departed St. Louis to play doubleheaders in Cincinnati and Chicago to close out the season. Shea remained in St. Louis, it seems, and his major-league career ended there.

Shea’s lifetime stats are 2 hits in 6 at-bats. As a catcher, he had a .917 fielding percentage, with 1 error in 12 chances. He allowed 3 stolen bases and threw out 3 other baserunners. The speedy Superbas had a plan to test the young catcher’s arm, and he was up to the task.

No mention was made, in any newspaper I found, that Shea was recruited out of the stands to play. That story came from his obituary, decades later. “Mr. Shea was attending the Cardinal game during a period when the Redbirds were short of catchers. When the remaining backstop was injured, Shea was called to duty,” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1964. That’s not entirely true, as Leahy caught the second games of those Brooklyn doubleheaders, and he and Grady caught the remaining games. But you would think that some sportswriter somewhere would have made news of the fact that the Cardinals found a temporary catcher from among the fans. Not even the Sporting News, which was published in St. Louis, mentioned it. The more plausible story is that Grady was banged up, and the Cards quickly signed a semipro catcher to help finish out the homestand.

Gerald Shea in 1932. Source: Ancestry

Not that I’m discounting Shea’s story, but it wouldn’t be the first baseball obituary that stretched the truth a little, and it definitely wouldn’t be the last. You can still find that in 2019.

Shea turned down a contract offer from the Commodores and stayed closer to home. He became a catcher in the Trolley League for a new team in Gillespie, Ill. As of July 1, 1906, he was hitting .431, with 7 doubles and 8 triples in 9 games. He continued to be a multi-sport athlete for St. Louis teams for several more years, playing and managing into the 1910s. He came back to play in old-timers’ soccer games as late as 1929.

A note on Ancestry states that Shea suffered bad losses in the 1929 stock market crash, but he remained gainfully employed in the clothing industry, working as a cutter or a factory foreman. His World War II draft card states he worked at Losse Tailoring Co. on Sixth Street in St. Louis. He was 60 at the time. His wife, Lillie, passed away on January 9, 1964. He followed her about four months later, dying on May 3 in Berkeley, Mo., at the age of 82. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.

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