Grave Story: Fred Waterman (1845-1899)

Here lies Fred Waterman, the third baseman on the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first openly professional team. He also had a productive career in baseball before and after the Red Stockings. Sadly, he died in poverty and largely forgotten in the city where he helped make baseball history. Waterman played in the National Association for the Washington Olympics (1871-72), Washington Blue Legs (1873) and Chicago White Stockings (1875).

Frederick A. Waterman was born in New York City in 1845. We don’t have an exact date. A listing on Ancestry puts his birthday in December of 1845, but I don’t know that the date is corroborated by any official documents. I think it’s more likely that he was born in July or August. The 1850 Federal Census, which was conducted in his neighborhood on August 23, listed Fred Waterman as 5 years old. The 1860 Census, taken on June 11, lists him as 14 years old. Assuming that the ages on the census forms are accurate, Waterman was born somewhere between June 12 and August 23, 1845.

Fred Waterman’s grave in Wesleyan Cemetery in Cincinnati. The grave market was added in 2017, thanks to the Cincinnati Reds.

The 1860 Federal Census documents show William and Jane Waterman living in New York City, where William worked as a foreman. This would have been an exciting time for a teenage boy to live in New York City, if for no other reason than base ball (it was two words back then) teams were organizing, and the sport was starting to gain a following. According to Waterman’s SABR biography, he started playing ball with the amateur New York Empires in 1864.  I found several box scores from 1865 of the Empires playing well-known New York teams like the Atlantics and Mutuals. Waterman, at 20 years old, was the Empire third baseman. The team itself didn’t seem that good – they lost a game to the Philadelphia Keystones 45-15 in 6 innings – but Waterman was one of the team’s stars. He scored 4 runs in a 37-33 win over the Enterprise team on August 16, 1865. “His fielding, fly-catching, batting, were all first-class, and deserve mention as in distinction from the general poor play around him,” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

In 1866 Waterman joined the Mutuals as their third baseman. He played with enough distinction to be named to an early All-Star team. The New York Clipper noted that a team of Hoboken, N.J., residents challenged an all-New York team to a game. I’m not sure if the Clipper picked an actual team or just made a “dream team” to take on the New Jerseyites, but Waterman was one of the Mutuals named to the New York team. He had to move to left field in 1867 when an illness left him unable to handle the rigors of third base, but he didn’t miss more than a handful of games.

Waterman was supposed to have joined the Union Club of Morrisania in 1868, and the team was understandably glad to have him. “But ball players,” wrote the Clipper, “like the game itself, are ‘mighty oncartin,’ and just as friends of the champions were congratulating themselves on their luck in getting Waterman, the latter was seized with the “Western fever” and took a trip to Cincinnati for the benefit of his health.” Translation: A Cincinnati ballclub outbid the Unions for his services. That brought Waterman to Cincinnati, where a juggernaut of a team was in the process of being assembled.

Harry Wright, a big name in the New York baseball world, traveled out West (which Cincinnati was in the 1860s) and started to assemble a team that could rival the East Coast powerhouses. By 1868, he had signed Waterman, Charlie Gould and Asa Brainard, to name a few. That team finished its year with a 36-7 record. He signed a few other stars in 1869, including Andy Leonard, Cal McVey and his own younger brother, George Wright, to create the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball club.

The 1868 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Waterman is seated in the front row, on the left side of the lounge.

That last sentence isn’t 100 percent true, because almost as soon as baseball was created, there were people looking to profit off of it, and signing the best players to contracts was a good way to do that. Typically, money exchanged hands under the table, but the Red Stockings salaries were public knowledge. Professional or not, the Red Stockings earned their place in history by taking on all comers in 1869 and beating every single one of them – a 57-0 season.

The Wright Brothers, Harry and George, are both in the Baseball Hall of Fame and are the most prominent players on the team. However, Waterman was no slouch. In 1868, he won a gold medal issued by Frank Queen of the Clipper as the third baseman with the best average. He was one of the highest-paid players on the team; his $1,000 salary was behind only the Wrights and pitcher Asa Brainard. He’s one of the easiest players to identify on any Red Stockings team photo or sketch. With the drooping moustache and a receding hairline, he looks more like a middle-aged insurance salesman than a ballplayer. While Waterman in fact worked at an insurance firm as his “day job,” he was just 23 years old. He was nicknamed “Innocent Fred” because he looked so harmless. He did not live up to the nickname, as we’ll see.

The Red Stockings destroyed their Midwest competition before taking on the tough New York clubs. Waterman socked two home runs in an 86-8 beatdown of the Fort Wayne Kekiongas on May 10. They squeaked by the New York Mutuals, Waterman’s old team, by a score of 4-2 on June 15. Waterman led off the scoring with an infield hit and scored on a Dave Allison hit. He also engineered a clever double play when the Mutuals had runners on first and second base with no outs. Dave Eggler hit a pop fly that Waterman caught and then dropped. He immediately picked it up and threw to shortstop George Wright, who covering third base, for one force, and Wright threw to second baseman Charlie Sweasy for another out. The infield fly rule had not been invented yet, and the Red Stockings took full advantage.

Waterman opened a cigar business, “Waterman & Co.,” by Seventh and Vine in Cincinnati after the 1869 tour had concluded. Within a few months of its opening, it was the scene of an attempted homicide and an attempted suicide. R.H. Leonard was shot twice in the thigh after escorting a woman, Mary Cummings to a theater in November. Leonard was attacked by the woman’s lover, Horace Phillips, and outside the cigar store, and a distraught Cummings hid inside the store. Less than a month later, a young man entered the store and asked for a $5 loan. When he was refused, he swallowed a dose of laudanum. Waterman saw that it wasn’t a lethal dose, so he just let the man sleep it off in a back room for a few hours.

A newspaper ad for Fred Waterman’s cigar store in Cincinnati.

Waterman was back with the Red Stockings in 1870, and the team’s winning streak grew to 81 games before they finally lost 8-7 to the Brooklyn Atlantics on June 14, 1870. The team was disbanded at the end of the season with a record of 67-6. Years later, journalist O.P. Caylor alleged that one of those losses occurred when the visiting Chicago White Stockings, eager to beat the mighty Reds, arranged to have Waterman get so drunk before the game that his play practically handed Chicago the win.

Before long, the National Association came into existence, bringing together nine professional ballclubs into one league. The Wrights joined the Boston Red Stockings and took McVey and Gould – the players who could behave themselves. The rest of the Cincinnati team, Waterman included, joined the Washington Olympics for the NA’s inaugural season.

“Fred is a good, honest player, and we believe he always does the best he can in every game,” reported the Cincinnati Chronicle, somewhat over-optimistically.

Ag the age of 26, Waterman was one of the veterans of the NA. In 32 games (which was the length of the Olympics’ season), he hit .316 and slugged .411. His 50 hits were eighth-best in the NA, and he hit 7 doubles and 4 triples while driving in 17 runs. He spent most of his time at third base, except for a few games at catcher when starter Doug Allison broke his thumb. Waterman’s fielding at third base was dreadful – 50 errors in 28 games and a .695 fielding percentage. Waterman was acknowledged as being a fine fielder but was prone to getting flustered and committing errors when things started going badly. Bear in mind though, this is a different era, with no gloves and one ball that was used the entire game. The best fielding third baseman in the league, Ezra Sutton of Cleveland, had a .795 fielding percentage.

The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Waterman is front row, second from the left.

Waterman’s fielding problems could have had another cause. Nick Young, who later became the National League president, was the manager of the Olympics at the time and related this story years after the fact. Washington was scheduled to face Boston on July 4, 1871. The evening before the game, Olympic second baseman Sweasy said he found someone who’d bet $150 in favor of Boston. Sweasey, Young and another man put in $50 each to match the bet. “Next day Fred Waterman was so full [i.e. drunk] that he couldn’t see the grandstand from first base,” Young recalled. “The Olympics were beaten and our $50 apiece gone into the stranger’s pockets.”

The Olympics went 15-15 in their first year, but they made it just 9 games into the 1872 season before folding. Waterman batted .378 in those 9 games, scoring 13 times. He reappeared in the National Association in 1873 with the Washington Blue Legs. He wasn’t a regular player, appearing in 15 of the team’s 39 games. Frequently he acted as an umpire and was said to be impartial and fair. When he did play, he was moved all over the field, appearing at third base, shortstop and the outfield. He batted .350 and knocked in 12 runs, so he was still effective.

The Blue Legs ceased operations after one season. Instead of signing with another team, Waterman headed back to Cincinnati. He played for a local team called the Actives and also worked as an umpire in town.

Waterman’s last hurrah as a professional ballplayer came in 1875 with the Chicago White Stockings. He spent much of the summer playing on an amateur team called the Blues before joining Chicago around September 10. The Cincinnati Enquirer thought it a bad idea, predicting that “the Chicago papers will have his scalp in two games.” The Chicago Tribune objected to the warning on obvious grounds, stating, “Waterman hasn’t any scalp to speak of. It would be like scalping a white bean.”

He played in 5 games and managed 6 singles in 20 at-bats. However, he was dreadful at third base, committing errors on nearly half of his chances. The Tribune wrote, “Waterman has now had four games on the Chicago grounds, and it is fair to say to him, in view of his record at third base, that he ought to improve in his fielding or else take the onerous position of right-fielder.”

Waterman was 30 and reportedly getting too bulky to play ball. The National Association collapsed and gave rise to the National League in 1876, but Waterman was not a part of it. The closest he got to pro baseball was to join with a few of his teammates from the ’69 Red Stockings in a reunion game in June of 1876. They took on the “New Reds,” made up of members of the Cincinnati and Boston clubs.

Despite his part in launching professional baseball, Waterman’s career amounts to 61 games over the course of four seasons. He slashed .333/.357/.429, with 101 hits that included 8 doubles and 6 triples. He drove in 38 runs and scored 81 times. His fielding was below average, even by 1870s standards, with a .707 fielding percentage at third base. His .867 fielding mark at catcher was actually higher than league average, but then again, he also had 35 passed balls in 8 games behind the plate.

Even in the 1870s, the significance of the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 was appreciated, and for that, Fred Waterman achieved a bit of baseball immortality. Waterman the man, though, largely fell into anonymity. When he did get in the news, it was seldom for anything good. In April of 1878, he was cleaning a revolver when it accidentally went off, shooting him in the shoulder. By 1879, it was reported that he and Gould “are now engaged in mercantile pursuits” in Cincinnati. That endeavor lasted about a year, and then they both joined the Cincinnati Police Department, Gould as a clerk and Waterman as a patrolman. In 1881 Waterman was fired from the police force. The dismissal does not appear to have been because of anything he did, as Cincinnati Mayor Means was looking to trim the force to 300 or so.

Waterman and his wife, Ida, divorced in 1884. Ida, who kept the last name of Waterman, became a Broadway actress and appeared in a number of motion pictures in the 1910s and ‘20s. She co-starred with the likes of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Gloria Swanson. Ida died on May 22, 1941 at the age of 89. Check out her IMDB page.

Fred, on the other hand, moved from job to job for several years. Harry Wright reported to the Sporting News in 1886 that Waterman had a saloon in Cincinnati. One can only imagine how well that turned out. By 1889 he was a private watchman. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, “The love of drink has ruined this once ambitious fellow and he is now a mere frequenter of saloons. He can be found almost anytime hanging around the neighborhood of Fifth and John Streets, Cincinnati.”

By 1895, Waterman had become a bartender at a saloon on Fifth Street. The following year it was reported that the Harry Wright Veteran Association was looking to host a benefit game for Waterman. The exact reason for the benefit game was not given in the news item, but one could guess it was a combination of poor health and poverty. He was an early example of why former pro ballplayers needed a pension plan.

Fred Waterman died on December 16, 1899 in Cincinnati’s City Hospital from an operation. The official cause of death was listed as “tuberculosis pyo-pneumothorax.” He was 54 years old. Waterman had no relatives to claim his body, and his remains would have been buried anonymously in some potter’s field if not for the intervention of some area residents who remembered his playing accomplishments. He was buried in Wesleyan Cemetery in Cincinnati, in an unmarked grave. That was remedied in 2017, when a grave market was installed, thanks to the Cincinnati Reds. Here is a YouTube link to the dedication of the market:

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