Grave Story: Cliff Carroll (1859-1923)


Here lies Cliff Carroll, a speedy outfielder from the 19th Century. He was also the victim of one of the greatest wardrobe malfunctions in baseball history. Carroll played for the Providence Grays (1882-85), Washington Nationals (1886-87), Pittsburgh Alleghenys (1888), Chicago Colts (1890-91). St. Louis Browns (1892) and Boston Beaneaters (1893).

Samuel Clifford Carroll was born in Clay Grove, Iowa, on October 18, 1859. He grew up in Bloomington, Ill., where his father John was a grocer and mother Elmiria kept house. Bloomington is also the town where Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn grew up. Though Radbourn was four years older than Carroll, they ended up starting their baseball careers on the same Bloomington ballfields.

Cliff Carroll’s grave at Lincoln Memorial Park in Portland, Ore.

Baseball in Bloomington seemed to be very much a family affair. Box scores of the Bloomingtons, an amateur team, from the 1870s show two Carrolls and anywhere from one to three Radbourns playing at any given time. Cliff and John both played, with the younger Carroll playing outfield, catcher and first base. Carroll and Radbourn joined the Peoria Red Stockings in 1878. Radbourn moved to a team in Dubuque in 1879, and Carroll decided to try his luck out West. He ended up as a first baseman with the San Francisco Athletics of the California League in 1880… at least for a little while. He played pretty well during his time there but was kicked out of the league in June for being overdrawn on his salary.

Carroll returned to Bloomington, and if he was chastened from his experience of being kicked out of a baseball league, he didn’t show it. It was reported that he, as a prank, took a hose attached to a hydrant by the city’s Union depot and doused an unsuspecting bystander. Unfortunately for him, the victim was in poor health, and his condition was said to be aggravated by getting knocked down and soaked with the cold water. The Pantagraph, Bloomington’s newspaper, received a letter about the incident. “There are divers other statements in the letter but not pertinent to the case, but decidedly uncomplimentary to Mr. Carroll,” the paper noted in 1881. Carroll would try that exact same stunt a few years later, and it ended even worse, as we’ll see.

The exact sequence of events that brought Cliff Carroll to the Providence Grays are a little hazy. One obituary states that Carroll was working in a silver mine in Nevada when he got a letter from Providence manager Harry Wright, making him an offer too good to refuse. But that obit has several errors in the timeline, so it may not be reliable. An 1884 report said that Carroll played two years in California and then was a catcher for a team in Austin, Nev., in 1881. One has to wonder if Charley Radbourn had anything to do with it. Radbourn was in his second year as a Grays pitcher and had quickly become the team’s ace. If the Grays, who were battling the Chicago White Stockings for the league championship, needed an outfielder, Radbourn could have recommended his old friend to Wright.

Carroll made his debut in professional ball in August of 1882. He only played in 10 games that year, as the Grays finished in second place with a 52-32 record. He had a .122 average with 5 hits in 41 at-bats. He does appear to have been shortchanged by baseball history, as all the stat sites list him as having 5 singles. However, he doubled against Boston on October 4, 1882, one of only 3 hits by Providence in a 2-0 win. So his hitting was poor, but not that poor. His fielding, on the other hand, was perfect. He didn’t commit an error in the outfield in 10 games and managed two double plays. One of those came in his debut, as he made a difficult catch against Cleveland and threw to first base before baserunner Jim McCormick could get back in time.

“The new man, Carroll, was put into the right field and made a most credible showing,” reported the Press of Providence. Carroll singled in his first ever at-bat and struck out the next two times, but “[h]e will no doubt do better at the bat when his nervousness and uneasiness wears off.” The Press also noted that he had just come from an 8-day train trip to join the team.

Carroll and Radbourn signed with Providence for 1883 almost as soon as the ’82 season had ended. Carroll established himself as the team’s regular left fielder in ’83, though a badly sprained ankle limited him to play in 58 of the game’s 98 games. He slashed .265/.277/.353 with 12 doubles and 20 RBIs.

At the end of the season, Carroll and Radbourn joined other ballplayers on a traveling exhibition series of games in the Southern U.S. The tour was organized by St. Louis Browns manager Ted Sullivan, who helped spread baseball in the U.S. as much as anyone else in the early game. They were joined by other notable players of the time, like Charlie Comiskey (Sullivan’s protégé), Jack Rowe, Jack and Bill Gleason, and Stump Weidman. Carroll later reported that the tour didn’t make any money, but everyone enjoyed the trip. However, he added, “There is no interest in base ball in any Southern city except New Orleans. The people do not appear to take to it.”

For the next two years, Carroll became one of the team’s most reliable players. He also participated in a couple of pranks, one of which worked out well in his favor, and the other not so much.

The following two stories are related by author Edward Achorn in his book Fifty-Nine in ’84. Before one game in 1884, Grays manager Wright noticed that a large number of African-American men were filling the stands – it was noticeable because the 50-cent admission was high enough that to limit the crowds to an overwhelmingly white audience. Wright found out that Carroll and a White Stockings player had snuck in a bunch of waiters from the fancy Narragansett hotel in exchange for free food. The plan worked out well for everyone involved. Wright didn’t mind, the waiters watched a free ballgame, and the ballplayers ate like kings for the rest of the season.

The prank that backfired in the worst way possible was another “blast an unsuspecting victim with a fire hose” gag. This time, it was a man named Jimmy Murphy, a Providence resident who had been begging everyone on the team for a tryout. A group of players, including Radbourn, relented on June 27, 1883, and invited him onto the field. As he started to warm up, Carroll snuck up from behind and hosed him down with cold water. Murphy left the field but returned after the game, with a pistol. He spotted Carroll leaving the park and fired a shot at him. It missed and instead grazed rookie infielder Joe Mulvey in the shoulder. Murphy was arrested and swore revenge on Carroll. Fortunately for him and any teammates standing near him, revenge was never exacted.

Carroll played in a team-high 113 games in 1884 and hit .261, with 3 home runs and 54 RBIs. He scored 90 runs, second on the team to veteran Paul Hines’ 94 runs. It was the pitching that catapulted Providence to first place, led by Radbourn’s 60 wins and 1.38 ERA. There was also the work of Charlie Sweeney, who went 17-8 for the team before he stormed off to the Union Association, leaving Radbourn to act as a one-man pitching staff for most of the year. The Grays went 84-28 and had a team ERA of 1.61.

Providence played the American Association’s New York Metropolitans in an early version of the World Series. The Grays won all three games, with Radbourn allowing a total of 3 runs over 22 innings. Carroll managed 1 hit in 10 at-bats, with an RBI.

The 1885 season was a sharp drop for everyone involved. Radbourn won “only” 28 games, the Grays finished 4 games under .500, and Carrol’s batting average dipped to .232. The Providence team folded after that season, and Carroll was one of four ex-Grays assigned to the new Washington Nationals. He joined outfielder Paul Hines, catcher Barney Gilligan and pitcher Dupee Shaw. Carroll didn’t want to go to Washington but wasn’t allowed to sign with his preferred team of Pittsburgh – it was Washington or no team at all, said NL president Nick Young. Carroll ended up with one of the best batting averages of any Nats regular – but it was just .229. The team was horrible, winning 28 games while losing 92. Carroll did rack up 31 stolen bases in the first year of his career that it was an actual statistic.

Carroll improved somewhat by batting .248 with a career-high 40 stolen bases in 1887, but his time in Washington was running out. He got into a dispute with the team’s management over a $100 fine that was promised to be returned if he signed with the club for 1887. He had to go to the National League officials before he got his money back. He had also gotten into the saloon business, and it was alleged that the business was hurting his game – either by being his own best customer or by working late too often.

Carroll offered his services to the Pittsburgh Allegheneys in May of 1888, but the team’s management was a little hesitant to sign him because of his work habits, or lack thereof. The team ended up signing Carroll as a catcher, but he went hitless in 5 games and was released after a month or so. He finished the ’88 campaign with the Buffalo Bisons of the International Association.

Carroll was married in the spring of 1889 to Addie West of Bloomington and retired from the game to work as a farmer. Had his career ended there, he would have had a rather underwhelming .240/.287/.310 slash line over a 7-year career. He turned 30 that year, so there was little reason to suspect that he would improve at all.

Carroll had pretty much dropped out of sight before being re-discovered by his old friend Radbourn, who’d signed a contract to play in the Player’s League in 1890. He sent a telegram to PL officials, letting teams know that Carroll was in good shape and looking to get back into baseball. Multiple clubs expressed interest. Ultimately, Carroll decided to stay in the National League and sign with the Chicago White Stockings.

Chicago manager Cap Anson summed up Carroll’s career pretty succinctly when he announced the signing: “I always liked his ball playing. If I didn’t think well of him I wouldn’t have signed him. The only thing that was ever against him was his habits. He played great ball for the Providence team. When he went to Washington, he opened a saloon there. He has now had a year of farming, is married, and apparently steadied down and looks strong and bright. I think he will play just as soon ball as he ever did.”

Actually, he played even better than he ever had. If there had been such a thing as the Comeback Player of the Year Award, Carroll would have won it easily in 1890. He hit a career-best .285 in 136 games, with 166 hits that included 16 doubles, 6 triples and 7 home runs. He stole 34 bases and scored 134 runs, second in the NL to the 148 runs by Brooklyn’s Hub Collins. He led the NL with 582 at-bats. He followed that up with an equally good season in 1891. He knocked in 80 runs and matched his career high of 7 long balls, He set a new best with 20 doubles, too. His fielding wasn’t as sharp as it used to be, and his batting average fell to .256. He did add a new weapon to his arsenal – being hit by pitches 15 times in 1891. “Cliff is too old and tough to feel anything short of a rifle ball,” the papers cracked.

A sketch of Cliff Carroll from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 20, 1892.

Carroll continued his rejuvenated career by signing with Chris Von der Ahe’s St. Louis Browns for 1892. He hit a respectable .273/.363/.376 for the Browns, but his time with the team came to an abrupt end in one of the strangest ways possible. On August 17, 1892, Carroll was manning right field when Brooklyn’s Darby O’Brien smacked a single to him. The ball somehow slipped through Carroll’s hands, hit him in the chest and lodged in the shirt pocket of his uniform. The harder Carroll tried the dislodge the ball, the harder the crowd laughed. He finally freed the ball and threw it into the infield, but O’Brien had scampered to third base on an inside-the-shirt triple.

The sad part to the story is that Von der Ahe was infuriated by the play, even though it was the most accidental circumstance possible. He had Carroll yanked from the game and fined him $50 for indifferent play. Carroll refused to play and was then suspended by the Browns. Von der Ahe, realizing the relationship was not salvageable, traded Carroll to the Boston Beaneaters for second baseman Joe Quinn in early 1893.

After that infamous game, Von der Ahe had the pockets removed from the Browns’ uniforms entirely to keep it from ever happening again. And that is why, to this day, baseball uniforms don’t come with shirt pockets!

Carroll’s late-career renaissance came to an end in Boston in 1893. Bothered by a bad leg, the “old war horse” as he was called hit .224 with very little power and poor play in the outfield, though he walked an impressive 88 times and stole 29 bases. He was released after the season. Carroll did leave baseball a champion, though. Boston went 86-43 to finish first in the National League.

In 11 seasons, Carroll slashed .251/.320/.329, with 995 hits in 991 games. He had 125 doubles, 47 triples and 31 home runs, while picking up 423 RBIs and scoring 729 runs. His stolen base record is incomplete, but from 1886 to 1893 he stole 197 bases.

Carroll spent one last season in pro ball, as he joined the Detroit Creams of the Western League in 1894. He hit over .300 in 52 games, but by July he had left baseball for good.

After he left baseball, he kept pretty quiet. He moved to Hoopeston, Ill., to take up farming. One day, the town’s baseball team found themselves a man short. Carroll, who had been out of the game a while and had graying hair, said, “I used to play and will help you out.” The fans razzed him because of his age, and I’ll let the witness, identified as J.N.A. in the Chicago Tribune, take up the story from here:

“His first time up he drew a pass, second time flied to center field. In the eighth, with the score close, Cliff came up. Two balls and Cliff said to the pitcher, “Son, put the next one over.” The pitcher, who had a world of speed, replied, “If I did, you couldn’t hit it.” The next was over. Cliff landed at third and two scored ahead of him, winning the game. Cliff’s services were in demand after that, but he never had much time to play.”

By 1910, he and his family (wife Addie and 20-year-old daughter Bernice) had moved to Albany, Ore., where he worked as a fruit farmer. He stayed in Oregon the rest of his life, seemingly pretty content to live in anonymity. When he passed away, the Pacific Northwest was fairly shocked that a player of his caliber was practically a neighbor. The papers lauded him as having the speed and hitting ability of Ty Cobb, which was awfully generous of them.

Cliff Carroll died on June 12, 1923 in Portland, Ore., from heart disease. He was 63 years old and left behind a 280-acre farm and a large collection of baseball memorabilia that he had accumulated from his playing days. One of his prized possessions was a golden winged foot inlaid with many diamonds, which was given to him by admirers in recognition of his speed. His obituary noted his collection included “many rare jewels, pins, medals and charms, fashioned to represent bats, baseballs and other familiar objects used in the game.”

He is buried in Lincoln Memorial Park in Portland.

Follow me on Twitter: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Instagram: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Facebook: ripbaseball

Support RIP Baseball

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s