Grave Story: Patsy Tebeau (1864-1918)

Here lies Patsy Tebeau, one of the most vicious men to ever play the game of baseball. He was also a brilliant tactician, but if there was ever a notion that 19th-Century baseball was a game of gentlemen, Tebeau spiked that notion, spat on it and sent it running home. He played for the Chicago White Stockings (1887), Cleveland Spiders (1889, 1891-98), Cleveland Infants of the Players League (1890) and St. Louis Perfectos/Cardinals (1899-1900). From 1890 onward, he also served as a player manager wherever he went.

Disclaimer: The stories I’m going to relate here may or may not be entirely true. I note this because Patsy Tebeau is one of those legendary colorful characters that is at the center of a wealth of stories. Whether things actually happened this way or not is hard to tell, so I’m presenting what I’ve found, and you can judge for yourself.

Oliver Wendell Tebeau was born on December 5, 1864 in St. Louis, Mo. According to one story about his life, he was a part of the “Goose Hill Gang” in his youth, along with future big-leaguer “Rowdy” Jack O’Connor. They were either a baseball team that frequently got into fights or a gang that occasionally played baseball – I lean toward the latter. Either way, he grew up tough, and he carried that characteristic over to the baseball field. It must be said that, though he was aggressive on the field, he was said to be kind-hearted off it.

The first references to Patsy Tebeau in St. Louis newspapers aren’t found in the sports sections; they’re in the crime beat. On September 26, 1883, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported the activities of a drunken gang of young men at Union Market. When they started destroying property at a stall, an Officer P. Sullivan was summoned. The gang attacked him, “and Oliver Tebeau flung a brick at him, just missing the base of his brain.” He was arrested in short order and fined a total of $15 plus costs, for disturbing the peace and interfering with a police officer.

In May 1884, an Officer Schmidt tried to tell a group of rowdies to quiet down on a Saturday night on Broadway Street. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch relates the story: “He gave his official order for silence, not before, however, one of the crowd had abused him by calling him names. This individual, he says, was Patsy Tebeau. When he attempted to put young Tebeau under arrest he resisted.” Tebeau’s buddies surrounded the officer and began pelting him with rocks. Schmidt, fearing his life was in danger, drew his revolver and attempted to shoot the fleeing Tebeau. “Had Tebeau not slipped and fell simultaneous with the discharge of the revolver, there might probably have been a case for the Coroner, as there seems to be little doubt that the officer shot to kill.”

At the rate he was going, it seems that baseball saved Patsy Tebeau’s life. Had he stayed in St. Louis with his gang, he would have most likely ended up in prison or dead at an early age.

By 1885, Tebeau and his brother, future big-leaguer and minor-league baseball magnate George, were successful amateur ballplayers. He entered professional baseball in 1886, when he was 21 years old, and joined the St. Joseph Reds of the Western League. He didn’t necessarily calm down, though. In 1887, while playing for Denver, he was fined $10 for “making insulting gestures at the umpire.” He also picked up a $25 fine for trading punches with Lincoln’s Tom Dolan. The Nebraska State Journal referred to Tebeau as a “little ruffian” and said, “If he could be given [a fine] every day he might be kept in something like decent condition.”

Patsy Tebeau while with the Chicago White Stockings in 1887. I guess this would be his rookie card.

While he was the bane of umpires in the Western League, he treated opposing pitchers even worse. In 94 games with Denver, Tebeau hit a blistering .424 with 5 home runs and 32 doubles. He was a third baseman at the onset of his playing career, before a weak arm led him to move to first and second base. In 1887 though, the Cubs needed a third baseman and acquired Tebeau from Denver for $1,000. He might not have been ready for the majors at that time, because he batted .162 in 20 games and fielded poorly at third base. Tebeau spent all of 1888 playing in the minors and got a second chance in 1889 with the Cleveland Spiders of the National League.

In his first full season, Tebeau slashed .282/.332/.390 while playing in an NL-leading 136 games. He hit 8 home runs and drove in 76 runs, and he stole 26 bases as well. He was fined at least once, having to pay up $10 after punching Philadelphia catcher Jack Clements in the neck. His rough-and-tumble antics ended up winning over the Cleveland faithful, though. Spiders fans appreciated his fighting spirit and win-at-all-costs mentality. In one instance, he attempted to use the hidden ball trick on Chicago’s George Van Haltren, pretending to throw the ball from third base to the pitcher while sticking the ball in his hip pocket. He would have had Van Haltren dead to rights as he wandered off the base, but the ball got stuck in Tebeau’s pocket. Van Haltren eventually became aware of Tebeau struggling with his pants and hustled back to third base before the ball was freed. Spiders manager Tom Loftus promised to enlarge the pants pockets after the game.

Tebeau jumped to the short-lived Player’s League in 1890, joining a Cleveland Infants team that also featured Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty and should-be HOFer Pete Browning. The team failed to reach a .500 record under player-manager Henry Larkin, so Tebeau was named captain for the final 51 games. He was 21-30 as a manager and hit .298 as the starting third baseman. He missed several games after being struck in the head by a pitched ball while playing in Boston. He was taken to a hospital and was unconscious for several days. When he awoke, he saw a fruit basket sent by legendary Boston player Mike “King” Kelly. Years later, Tebeau would still get emotional when he spoke about the surprise gift. The Infants folded along with the rest of the Player’s League after the 1890 season, and Tebeau returned to the Spiders.

Cleveland got off to a 34-34 start under manager Bob Leadley. He resigned from his position, and the Spiders ownership handed the managerial reins over to Tebeau. It was a role he would keep for pretty much the rest of his baseball career. He was 31-40 as a manager, which was the only year he had a sub-.500 record in Cleveland. As a player, he suffered a leg injury in late April and was limited to 61 games and a .261 average.

Source: The Independent, August 19, 1896.

For the rest of his playing career, Tebeau was a pretty decent player and occasionally a great one. He hit .329 in 1893 with 102 RBIs and 32 doubles. He had an OPS+ on the season of 112, which was the only time in the NL that he topped 100. His true value came as a manager. He played to win at all odds, the rule book or tradition be damned. The Spiders took on his personality. Baseball historian Lee Allen wrote in his book The National League Story that “Patsy Tebeau was the prototype of all hooligans and his players cheerfully followed his horrid example.”

Tebeau and the Spiders were a consistent above-.500 team, with stars like Jesse Burkett, Ed McKean and Cupid Childs. Tebeau’s old Goose Hill Gang member O’Connor was a catcher and outfielder. The pitching staff was anchored by Cy Young. They played for the Temple Cup in 1895 and 1896 against the Baltimore Orioles, led by John McGraw – possibly the only team that could compete with the Spiders in terms of ruthlessness. The Spiders won the Cup in 1895 and lost in 1896. Cleveland also lost a championship series against Boston in 1892, which was played under weird split-season rules.

Tebeau was a shrewd manager, and his strategies helped give the Spiders an edge over the competition. At the time, visiting teams were given the choice of getting first or last bats. Tebeau realized that there was an advantage in getting the last bats, so he regularly chose it when the Spiders were on the road. He also demanded it when they were at home, too. Any visiting team that came to town were given the ultimatum of, “You fellows go to bat first, or we don’t play.” Eventually the NL adopted the rule of giving last bats to the home team.

Tebeau exploited weaknesses on teams wherever he could find them. He led the Spiders to an 8-5 win over Washington in 1895 by rattling pitcher Otis Stocksdale. After Stocksdale handled Cleveland in their first meeting, Tebeau had his entire team bunt to lead off the game. Stocksdale got out of the first inning unscathed – thanks to a fluke double play – but he lost his control and gave up 6 runs in the second inning.

Tebeau found other, simpler ways of gaining advantages – he and the Spiders regularly spiked the bejeezus out of their foes. Opposing fielders might not be so quick to tag a sliding baserunner if there was a possibility that they’d get skewered by the sharp metal spikes on the runner’s shoes. Umpires might not make a call against Cleveland if they knew the resulting argument would result in Tebeau or some other player stomping on their shoes. According to one article, the Pittsburgh Pirates once came away from a series against Cleveland missing so much skin that team owner William Chase Temple devised a plan for the next time Cleveland came to town. He had his players sit around the groundskeeper’s house, each with a file in their hand. When the Spiders came to the park, the very first thing they saw was the entire Pirates team, filing their spikes to a razor-sharp point. Tebeau walked over to get a closer look, came back and told his team, “Don’t try any spiking today, boys. Their spikes are sharper than ours. We’d get the worst of it.”

The approach didn’t win Tebeau and the Spiders many fans outside of Cleveland. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported a confrontation between Tebeau and Cincy pitcher Frank Foreman that contained a bleep-filled exchange and almost devolved into a full-scale riot. “[Tebeau] wouldn’t think of meeting Foreman off the field and calling him what he did in the game yesterday. If the league doesn’t soon do something to protect players from such low-lived attacks as Patsy Tebeau made the players will take the law into their own hands. The fear of being blackballed is all that has allowed Tebeau to go as far as he has with a sound head,” the paper wrote.

The National League tried in vain to reign him in. Tebeau was fined a whopping $200 in 1896 for disorderly conduct on the ballfield, stemming from a series of incidents. He and the Spiders were arrested in Louisville after a fracas with the umpires, and Tebeau was fined by the justice of the peace. He threatened umpire Tom Lynch after a questionable call in another game, which led to the umpire walking off the field. O’Connor joked years later that it was the first time a player ejected an umpire. Tebeau was put on indefinite suspension until he paid the fine. He sued the National League and kept playing and managing, since the Spiders were fighting to get back to the Temple Cup. After the season, he and O’Connor assaulted a Cleveland reporter, Elmer Pasco, after Pasco wrote about an altercation between Tebeau and Cleveland outfielder Jimmy McAleer. Pasco refused to press charges against either man.

The National League set a rule in the 1897 winter meetings stating that a player could be suspended for life for rowdyism. Tebeau quipped that the penalty wasn’t severe enough and that the baseball magnates should have added at least 10 years to it. “It makes no difference to our team, for our men are always perfect gentlemen, and as mild as kittens in the game,” he added.

Tebeau’s last season in Cleveland was 1898. The team went 81-68-7, finishing in fifth place for the second straight season. Tebeau hit .258 with only 16 extra-base hits in his 123 safeties, and he was ejected four times during the season. There were rumors late in the season that the team would be transferred to St. Louis. Tebeau sounded eager to go back to his hometown. He did indeed end up in St. Louis, but it wasn’t as simple as a franchise move. Frank and Stanley Robison, owners of the Spiders, bought the St. Louis Browns franchise from financially struggling owner Chris Von der Ahe. They kept the Spiders in Cleveland but transferred Tebeau and all their good players to St. Louis. The Spiders, playing with the leftovers of two teams, went 20-134 in 1899 and were mercifully contracted out of existence. The St. Louis Browns, renamed the Perfectos, went 84-67 and finished 5th in the league. Tebeau, now 34 years old, limited himself to 77 games and batted just .246. He blamed the disappointing finish on the declining performances of some of the team’s veteran players, and he didn’t exclude himself from that performance. Aside from one 0-for-4 game in 1900, Tebeau was done as a player.

The 1900 season got off to an even worse start. Tebeau led the team to a 42-50 record before announcing his retirement from the game in late August. Some modern articles have suggested that Tebeau was upset that the Cardinals had added infielder John McGraw, an old foe of Tebeau’s from the days where his Spiders and McGraw’s Orioles fought over the Temple Cup. It was expected that McGraw would get the manager’s job after Tebeau left, but he declined. Frank Robison promoted the team’s business manager, Louis Heilbroner, to the role of manager, and he guided the team to a slightly under .500 finish in his only managerial experience.

Counting his 1 game in 1900, Tebeau played for parts of 13 seasons in the major leagues. He had a .279/.332/.364 slash line, with 1,290 hits that included 196 doubles, 57 triples and 27 home runs. He stole 164 bases, drove in 735 runs and scored 671 times. As a manager, he had a 726-583 record for a .555 winning percentage. According to the baseball stat sites, he was ejected a total of 17 times.

Tebeau later said that his decision to quit was simply because he was tired of the business. “I was harassed to death during the last two years of my connection with the business,” he said while convalescing in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1901. “I could not make my team win, and there is nothing so disgusting to a manager as to have under his control a lot of ballplayer who cannot win. I have shaken the dust of baseball from my feet forever and do not think I could be induced to return to it.”

Tebeau did return to manage a team in Louisville for the outlaw American Association in 1902. After that, he left baseball for good and focused more on business interests in St. Louis. He and former teammate Bill “Scrappy” Joyce opened a saloon there. The partnership dissolved in 1903 when the two had a disagreement that may or may not have ended with Joyce smashing a liquor bottle on Tebeau’s head. But the saloon, with Tebeau as proprietor, prospered.

Patsy Tebeau’s grave is located feet away from Ed and Frank Delahanty in Cleveland’s Calvary Cemetery.

According to various newspaper reports, Tebeau’s last days were marked by loneliness and poor health. He had complained of nervousness and heart troubles, and he had recently visited the French Lick Springs in Indiana. His wife, Kate, was an invalid and living in her hometown of Cleveland, along with their children. He was living in a hotel in St. Louis so that he could take care of his business interests, but he had been pushed to the breaking point. A letter found on the bar after his death ended with the words “I am a very unhappy and miserable man.”

Sometime between the evening of May 14 and the morning of May 15, 1918*, Patsy Tebeau sat down at a table in his bar, with a revolver tied to his wrist with a blue cord. He shot himself once in the temple, killing himself instantly. He was 53 years old. He was found by his employees the next day. Along with a suicide note, he left a note giving instructions for his burial and for his estate to be turned over to his daughter Ruth.

Syndicated columnist Louis Dougher, writing about Tebeau’s death in 1918, listed how the game had changed from Tebeau’s heyday. “Umpires are now allowed to live. Tebeau used to spike them whenever he had a chance. Only one major league park has an open bar inside its enclosure. Tebeau’s day saw players in uniform hoisting a “hod o’ suds” between innings. Few star players now hit the high spots off the field. Woman can now attend games without having their ears offended by rough talk, both on and off the field.”

Patsy Tebeau is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland. He is either located in or immediately next to the Delahanty family plot, as he’s located mere feet from Ed and Frank Delahanty.

 “I’ll admit that perhaps my demeanor on the field is against me, but I always try to win, and am ever working for the best interests of the Cleveland Club.”

Patsy Tebeau, 1893

* Baseball Reference and all the other baseball stat sites lists the date of Tebeau’s death as May 16. I disagree with it, primarily because the first reports of his death that I found come from newspapers published on May 15. The initial reports included belief from the police that he shot himself the night before, which would be the 14th. Whether it was before or after midnight that the shot was fired, Patsy Tebeau did not die on May 16.

There are more Tebeau stories available! Read about how he beat up an umbrella and pounded Cy Young into a good mood. Find out where “Patsy” came from in the first place!

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