Grave Story: Walter Kinzie (1857-1909)

Here lies Walt Kinzie, the grandson of one of Chicago’s early pioneers. He also was an infielder for the Detroit Wolverines (1882), Chicago White Stockings (1884) and St. Louis Browns (1884).

Before we talk about Walt, let’s dig into a bit of Chicago history, because the name “Kinzie” is as old as the city itself.

John Kinzie was born on December 23, 1763 in Quebec, Canada. He was a fur trader who moved to Chicago with his family in the early 1800s, making him one of the first permanent European (i.e. white) settlers in the settlement. He bought a house in 1804 that had been built a few decades earlier by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Haitian immigrant who was likely the true first citizen of Chicago. Kinzie bought the house from French trader Jean La Lime.

John Kinzie, his wife Eleanor and son John Jr. survived the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812, when a group of Potawatomi warriors fought and defeated U.S. troops who were stationed there. More than 50 soldiers and civilians, including women and children, were killed, with more taken prisoner. The Kinzies had left the area shortly before the battle, perhaps being warned of the fight. He was arrested by the British during the War of 1812 and charged with treason, but he escaped and eventually made his way back to Chicago after the War.

John Kinzie’s grave in Graceland Cemetery.

John Kinzie is also noteworthy because he killed the French trader La Lime in a duel on June 17, 1812. There are several potential reasons offered for the fight – bad business dealings, or the discovery that La Lime was informing authorities about corruption regarding the purchase of supplies for the fort. Either way, it’s generally considered Chicago’s first murder, though Kinzie was eventually acquitted due to self-defense.

From the reports I’ve read of his life, John Kinzie was described as aggressive, miserly and strongly anti-American – at least until the British arrested him. All in all, maybe not the nicest guy around. Kinzie suffered a stroke and died on June 6, 1828. He has been buried and re-buried a couple of different times, but his permanent resting place is in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. He is the oldest burial in the cemetery. Chicago’s Kinzie Street is named after this pioneer.

John Kinzie was married twice and had seven children. His youngest son, Robert Allen Kinzie, was a major in the U.S. Army, a fur trader and the owner of a Chicago water company, among other accomplishments. He and his wife, Gwinthlean Whistler Kinzie, had 16 children. One of those, Walter Henry Kinzie, was born in Burlington, Kan., on March 16, 1857.

According to census reports, Walt Kinzie was living with some of his siblings in Kansas, but by 1870, the 13-year-old was in Chicago with the rest of his family and attending school. Chicago had a team in the National Association, baseball’s first professional league that was founded in 1871. The Chicago Fire disrupted the team’s activities and knocked them out of professional baseball for a few years, but Chicago was an early hotbed of baseball love as the sport moved west from its origins on the East Coast.

As early as 1880, Walter Kinzie can be found on the roster for the Oakland Club, presumably in Chicago. He was the assistant captain, and his older brother Frank was also on the team. He was listed as a catcher for the Oaklands, “an amateur team of more than usual strength,” in 1882. Kinzie was also described as playing for an amateur team organized by baseball pioneer Al Spalding, but I can’t tell if that’s a reference to the Oaklands or an entirely different team. He was a third baseman on the Spalding team, and his performance interested the Detroit Wolverines of the National League, who were in desperate need of a shortstop.

Detroit was a .500 team, with a few notable early baseball stars – Charlie Bennett, George Wood, Ned Hanlon. The team had, though, a huge void at shortstop. Mike McGeary, a baseball vet from the early professional days, played 34 games there and hit a miserable .143. The team brought in a player named Tom Morrissey to fill the position, but he was cut after two games. That led them to Kinzie as the next man to take on the role. In 13 games, he hit .095 (5-for-53) with a triple and 2 RBIs. His .852 fielding percentage was pretty much league average, but he just couldn’t hit and was let go. He spent 1883 playing second base for Fort Wayne in the Northwestern League, but statistics are unavailable.

Kinzie was added to the Chicago White Stockings “auxiliary roster” – the reserves – in 1884. He was soon added to the regular roster of his adopted hometown team. The 1884 White Stockings were an aberration of pre-1900s baseball, because of their stadium. Lake Front Park had ridiculously small dimensions – 300 feet in center and less than 200 feet in the right and left field corners. In the original deadball era, four Chicago players hit over 20 home runs that season, and the team almost outhomered the rest of the NL combined.

For his part, Kinzie only hit two home runs as a White Stocking, but he made them count. “Kinzie made the longest hit ever made on the Chicago grounds, sending the ball over the extreme left field fence for a home run,” reported newspapers about the June 6 game against Cleveland. Kinzie’s blast was one of four homers hit by the White Stockings on the day in an 11-2 beatdown. His other home run came in Buffalo on May 28, with the wind blowing out.

So he did hit a couple of big home runs, but Kinzie didn’t hit much else. In 21 games, he had a .154 average, playing primarily at shortstop. He committed 13 errors in 17 games at short, which was bad even by 1884 standards. Cut loose by Chicago, he traveled north to play for an early incarnation of the Minneapolis Millers, then in the Northwest League. He batted .228 there, which was actually above average on the team.

The St. Louis Browns picked up a trio of players from the Millers in September – Kinzie, catcher Jim McCauley and pitcher Bob Caruthers. Caruthers launched a sensational career that would have ended up in Cooperstown had he not flamed out so suddenly. McCauley lasted just 2 at-bats with the Browns, and Kinzie played two games at second base and managed a single in 9 at-bats. While his baseball career continued, he never returned to the major leagues.

In 34 games across two seasons, Kinzie slashed .132/.132/.208. He hit 3 doubles, a triple and 2 homers in his 19 hits. He struck out 21 times in 144 at-bats and didn’t walk once. His career OPS+ is 4. I’m not an expert on the value of OPS+ as a measuring statistic, but I believe it means that having Kinzie in the lineup was better than using a mannequin – but not by much.

Walt Kinzie is buried next to these two badly worn graves. I believe they are for his children who died in infancy.

Kinzie continued to play ball throughout the 1880s, in places like Oshkosh and Kansas City. There aren’t always statistics available for 19th Century independent leagues, but from what is available, he did have some good moments. He batted. 332 for the Kansas City Cowboys of the Western League in 1887, with a homer and 16 stolen bases. Kinzie played and umpired in the Central Interstate League in 1889, but beyond that, he stayed in Chicago and played with teams called the Whitings, Harvards and Rivals through 1891. He moved back behind the plate as a catcher, and brother Frank was frequently his teammate.

Outside of baseball, Walter Kinzie married Fannie Kintz on January 23, 1885. I believe they had two children who died in infancy; their grave markers at Graceland are badly worn and barely legible. The Kinzie family was remembered for its contributions to Chicago’s early history, but Walter settled into relative anonymity. For the last 20 years of his life, he worked as the weighmaster for the Union Stockyards and Transit Co.

Walter Kinzie died on November 5, 1909, at his home at 529 West Garfield Blvd. in Chicago. He was 52 years old and had been at work in his office the night before his death. Heart failure was the given cause of death. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery, next to his grandfather.

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