Grave Story: Ed McKean (1864-1919)

Here lies Ed McKean, a hard-hitting shortstop from the 19th Century who played on some tough Cleveland teams. He played for the Cleveland Blues of the American Association (1887-88), Cleveland Spiders (1889-98) and St. Louis Perfectos (1899).

Edwin John McKean was born in Grafton, Ohio, on June 6, 1864. He started playing pro ball with a team from Youngstown, Ohio, in the Iron and Oil Association in 1884, though I couldn’t find him in a box score there. He does show up as a second baseman for the Nashville Americans of the Southern League in 1885, if ever so briefly. Baseball Reference lists his time there as just 6 games, and he batted .185.

He wasn’t just a baseball player. McKean was considered one of the finest wrestlers in professional baseball, along with Kid Baldwin. He came by it honestly, having been trained in Greco-Roman wrestling at an early age. He competed in and won several amateur tournaments in Ohio in his youth. In an exhibition match in 1893, he defeated Charles Uhl, a Southern champion, in 10 minutes. The second match lasted an hour and a half before it was declared a draw.

McKean started 1886 with Providence and ended it with the Rochester Maroons of the International League. The 22-year-old shortstop found his groove with the team and hit .305 in 76 games. That was the second-best batting average on the team among all the regulars, behind Doc Kennedy’s .341 mark. McKean also stole a team-high 29 bases. The team expected him to be back in 1887, but things got complicated.

As early as December 1886, McKean began negotiating with the Cleveland Blues of the American Association for their inaugural 1888 season. By January, Rochester believed that McKean had signed a contract to return. Cleveland believed that Rochester’s deal was invalid since McKean signed before the start of the contract-signing period. McKean believed that his contract with Rochester had a stipulation that he would be released if he could sign with Cleveland. He complicated matters by intimating that he would honor his Cleveland deal in one letter to Sporting Life and then backtracking in another one. Matters escalated to the point that Cleveland had McKean put on the American Association’s blacklist for failing to honor his contract, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote an editorial that said in part, “The trouble seems to be that the young man has no mind of his own. He wants to play here, but, under the influence of the Rochester people and with their promises in his ears, he is afraid to act.”

Source: Weir Weekly Tribune, December 31, 1897.

McKean ended up with the Blues, though he might have regretted his decision when the team lost 93 games and finished dead last. The Blues were pretty awful across the board, but McKean’s offensive performance was a bright spot. He hit .286 with 54 RBIs and stole 76 bases. His fielding was also offensive, however. He committed 99 errors at shortstop for an .847 fielding percentage. Admittedly, the league fielding percentage at short was .858, but his abilities at the position were still a work in progress. While never considered an elite fielder, he’d eventually become a pretty good-fielding shortstop — at least by 1890s standards.

McKean upped his home run total to 6 in 1888, and he drove in 68 runs. He stole 52 bases and scored 94 runs. He switched teams at the end of the season, though seemingly without any of the drama of his previous move. He signed on to play for the Cleveland Spiders of the National League, and he would remain with the team for most of the rest of his career. He was approached to join the Player’s League, or Brotherhood, in 1890, but he turned down the offer, despite rumors to the contrary. Once again, McKean seems to have said one thing to one newspaper reporter and then denied those first comments to another newspaper, adding to the confusion about his status.

For the first couple of years, the Spiders were a second-division team, despite having good talent. Rookie pitcher Denton “Cy” Young joined the squad in 1890, but the position players who made up the heart of the great Spiders teams would be added over time. McKean, though, was a mainstay, hardly ever taking days off and playing remarkably consistent ball. From 1889 through 1898, he averaged 132 games a year and led the NL in games played twice (141 in 1891 and 133 in 1896). He hit 56 home runs in that span, in an era when home runs were a relative rarity. While his speed gradually declined over the decade, he still averaged 19 stolen bases. He hit over .300 five times and never hit below .262.

McKean also brought a hard-edge attitude to the team, which would become a virtue once the cutthroat Patsy Tebeau took over as manager. It wasn’t appreciated at first, though. In 1889, while playing under manager Tom Loftus, McKean was suspended at least once for unspecified reasons. He was also taken to task by the Chicago Tribune for a series of “dirty” plays against the White Stockings on August 2. McKean hit a pop foul that catcher Duke Farrell scrambled to catch. Farrell then tried to fling the ball to third base to double up the Spiders baserunner, but McKean, still standing by home plate, swung his bat and swatted the ball out of play. The shortstop also tried to stand in the way of baserunner Cap Anson, who was attempting to score the tying run in the ninth inning. Anson successfully appealed to the umpire and then scored on the way to a White Stockings comeback win.

“Such tricks may do in the [American] Association but will certainly not be tolerated in the National League,” sniffed the Tribune sportswriter.

The Spiders really didn’t become a force until Tebeau was named player-manager midway through the 1891 season. Tebeau and McKean were joined by the likes of Cupid Childs, Jimmy McAleer and Jesse Burkett. The group of players, known for swift thinking, sharp spikes and a casual disregard for civilized behavior on the field, became one of the most hated/feared teams in baseball.

McKean may have had something to do with Tebeau getting the job in the first place. Or at least, he had a hand in running one of the team’s former managers out of town, if Tebeau is to be believed. The story goes: Gus Schmelz was the Spiders skipper for part of 1890, and he tried to keep a close eye on his players’ after-hours habits. McKean, the team’s captain, didn’t care for the watchfulness and arranged for his teammates to take over a hotel bar. There, they drank, sang, staggered and fought for hours, until McKean collapsed on the floor. At that point, Schmelz burst in and threatened to fine each player $50 and McKean $100.

“McKean jumped up and assailed Schmelz with parts of speech that are not used in high society and the players gave Gus the laugh,” Tebeau related. “They had been drinking sarsaparilla out of whisky bottles. Old Schmelz quit playing detector on the players.”

Schmelz didn’t forgive McKean for the slight, and it came to where either the captain or the manager had to go. Schmelz was the one who got the boot after less than a year on the job.

McKean had somewhat of a down year in 1892 (.262 average, but with 93 RBIs). The Spiders, though, won 93 games and advanced to the “World Series” against the Boston Beaneaters of the American Association. It was an exhibition series and not an actual World Series. Boston won 5 out of 6 games with one tie, but McKean had an excellent postseason, with a .440 batting average and 11 runs driven in. Unfortunately, aside from Burkett and Childs, the rest of the Spiders struggled at the bat.

Starting in 1893, McKean hit over .300 for four years in a row. Along with a .310 average, he whacked 29 doubles and 24 triples in 1893, to go with 133 RBIs. The following season, McKean slashed .357/.412/.509 with 8 homers and 128 RBIs. He also stole 33 bases and had a career-high 198 hits.

McKean was known for his durability as much as for his ability. He and Tebeau seemed to have similar personalities, but they were not without their differences. On one occasion where McKean asked out of a game because he was sick, Tebeau required a note from his doctor. McKean was offended enough that he demanded to play for a different team.

“I suppose Tebeau may have been right, but when a man has played nearly 1,500 games and missed but 20 I think his word should be enough,” he protested. The trade never materialized. Though teams frequently asked for McKean’s services, Cleveland was loathe to part with their keystone player.

Source: The Times, February 4, 1913.

The Spiders core team started aging out of competitiveness in the late 1890s. McKean’s average dropped to .273 in 1897 and .285 in ’98, though he did hit a career-high 9 home runs that year.

McKean eventually departed from the Spiders, but it was under special circumstances. He, along with Tebeau and virtually all the Spiders’ best players, were sent to the St. Louis Perfectos in March 1899. It was part of baseball’s syndicate era, when one ownership group could own multiple teams in the league. Inevitably, the owners would stock one of their teams with all the best players in an attempt to game the system. The owners of the Spiders and Perfectos (soon to be renamed the Cardinals) put all the best players on St. Louis, leaving Cleveland to a historically awful 20-134 record in 1899.

The Perfectos, though, didn’t dominate the National League, as many of the newly acquired Spiders didn’t perform to their usual standards. McKean, for example, hit .260 and drove 40 runs. His defense at shortstop slipped noticeably, and he was moved around to second and first base as well. By May, he was hearing boos from the St. Louis fans. The big, scrappy shortstop was surprisingly sensitive at being verbally abused by the fans and ripped in the St. Louis newspapers. In early August, he asked for and received his release.

In 13 seasons in the majors, McKean slashed .302/.365/.417 with 2,084 hits. He hit 272 doubles, 158 triples and 67 home runs, with 1,124 RBIs and 1,227 runs scored. He stole 324 bases and was worth 38.7 Wins Above Replacement in his career. According to Baseball Reference, the batters most similar to McKean include multiple Hall of Famers, including Arky Vaughan, King Kelly and Jimmy Collins. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS rankings lists McKean as the 50th greatest shortstop in baseball history.

McKean was 35 years old when he was cut loose from the Perfectos. He didn’t return to baseball right away, as he ran a cigar store and later a bar in Cleveland. He also worked as a wrestling referee, though a good number of his decisions were questionable at best.

Baseball still called to him, and he trained in earnest to get back down to his playing weight of 180 pounds. McKean let it be known that he was available to sign with any ballclub, but none of the major-league clubs came calling. So, McKean returned to Rochester, where his career began almost 15 years prior. He agreed to serve as player-manager for the Bronchos of the Eastern League in 1902 and was confident that he could still hit as well as ever. He wasn’t mistaken either. Though stats are scarce, McKean hit .314 in 78 games. The job of managing was a tough one, as several of Rochester’s best players from 1901 had left the team. Midway through the season, he quit and returned to Cleveland.

After a couple years of refereeing, umpiring and playing amateur baseball in Cleveland, McKean headed out West to play and manage the Colorado Springs Millionaires of the Western League in 1905. It was a short and unsuccessful effort, as the combination of age and rust limited his effectiveness. He left that team and signed with the Springfield (Ill.) Babes of the Central League. He performed better there, with a .274 batting average and 7 home runs. McKean stayed active in the Central League for most of the next three seasons, playing with several teams in that league and in a few other leagues as well. He never stayed with one team for very long, and the available stats show that attempts to relive his past glories didn’t work as planned. He finally retired from the game in 1908, when he was 44 years old and had been released by a club in Fort Wayne, Ind.

McKean settled back in Cleveland, where he ran a liquor store and occasionally managed local ballclubs. He sometimes made the newspapers, telling stories about his old teammates or having stories told about him. His tale of Patsy Tebeau beating Cy Young out of a bad mood can be found here.

One of the things mentioned about McKean was his generosity. Cleveland columnist Elmer Bates recalled an occasion where McKean and umpire Tim Hurst got into multiple disputes over calls during a game. The ballplayer ended up with a $50 fine for calling Hurst “a blind, blundering fool,” among other terms of endearment. Later, Bates was eating supper at a restaurant when he heard two men arguing about who would pick up the dinner tab for the other. It was Hurst and McKean.

“If there is a special heaven somewhere for good fellows — men whose hearts are as big as their bodies — Eddie McKean will have the finest mansion here,” remarked Bob Emslie, a long-time ballplayer and umpire. “The trouble with McKean was that he was too kind, too generous. Had be been like the players of today he would have saved enough money from his salary the ten or twelve years he was in Cleveland to have been above want all the rest of his life.”

Bates also recalled a time when an old man came up to a couple Spider players and explained that he played ball with Al Spalding in the old days. He was looking for help, and McKean handed him a $2 bill.

“How do you know the fellow ain’t a fraud?” Cupid Childs asked.

“I don’t,” McKean replied. “But when I get to be his age and am hungry, I don’t want to be asked for affidavits that I once played ball before I get help.”

Ed McKean died on August 16, 1919 in Cleveland. He was 55 years old; I was unable to find a cause of death. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland.

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