Grave Story: Bug Holliday (1867-1910)

Here lies Bug Holliday, who had a short but impactful career as one of the hardest hitters of the late 19th Century. He was fondly remembered for his animated personality as much as his batting prowess. Holliday played for the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the American Association (1889) and the Cincinnati Reds of the National League (1890-98).

James Wear Holliday was born in St. Louis on February 8, 1867. His father, John James Holliday, is listed in the 1880 census as an “R.E. Agent” – Railway Express Agent, presumably. John died in 1886, leaving his wife Lucretia and four surviving sons. James Holliday grew up playing baseball on the St. Louis sandlots with the likes of Jack O’Connor and George and Patsy Tebeau, and that inadvertently led to his major-league debut at the age of 18. In 1885, the Chicago White Stockings of the National League played the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in what served as a proto-World Series. The exhibition series between the two teams ended in a draw, as both teams won three games, lost three and tied once. The October 17 game in St. Louis featured young Holliday in right field for Chicago, as manager Cap Anson decided to rest John Clarkson in favor of the local boy. He was hitless at bat and committed one error in two chances. The game itself went to the Browns 3-2 after Anson unknowingly agreed to let a St. Louis resident named William Medart serve as umpire. Medart was a big Browns fan and proceeded to call every close play in St. Louis’ favor, to the point that even the home crowd booed him.

If you want to call the exhibition games between the NL and AA champions a postseason, this could very well mean that Holliday was the first ballplayer to ever appear in the postseason before he appeared in a regular-season game.

Holliday signed on with a team in St. Joseph, Mo., in 1885. He was a pitcher, and statistics for his time in the Western League are unavailable on Baseball Reference. The one game recap I could find stated that Jimmy Holliday “pitched recklessly during the first inning, but showed many good points, and at once won the audience.” In that game, between the St. Joseph Westerns and the Kansas City Unions on April 11, 1886, Holliday tired himself out by the fifth inning, gave up a wealth of unearned runs in the sixth inning and was relieved in the seventh.

Here is an early example of baseball card retouching. Holiday originally posed for this card while as a member of the Des Moines Prohibitionists. Old Judge recycled the photo when Holliday came to Cincinnati and attempted to remove the “DM” from his uniform. You can still make out the area on his chest where the retouching was done. Source: New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When Topeka of the Western League signed Holliday for the 1887 season, they used him as a center fielder, with a couple of games played at third base and pitcher. The results were spectacular. As a full-time hitter, Holliday slammed 16 home runs and hit .427. Ordinarily, that would stand out, but Topeka had six regulars hit over .400, with Jimmy Macullar topping everyone with a .464 mark. Holliday’s 16 homers tied Jake Beckley for the most in the League, and there was a battle to see who could sign him for the following season. Holliday finished the ’87 season playing a few games for a team in Des Moines, and he signed with them for the following year, receiving a $500 advance bonus. Then he apparently agreed to a contract with the St. Louis Browns. Why he signed with two teams is not expressly mentioned, but Holliday quickly had second thoughts and expressed a desire to stay in Des Moines in 1888. Browns owner Chris Von der Ahe threatened to blacklist Holliday if he didn’t join St. Louis, but Des Moines manager Charlie Morton wrote Holliday and told him he had nothing to fear. “He may try his usual game of bluff, but he can’t do anything, as Des Moines is the only club that can black-list you, her claim being prior to all others. You need fear nothing from us, as we are all your friends.”

In the end, it was decided that Des Moines held the first claim to Holliday, and that a review of Western Union telegram dispatches couldn’t locate a contract sent to Von der Ahe. It was around this time that the newspapers began referring to him more and more frequently as “Bug” Holliday. According to a later report, a Des Moines newspaperman wrote that “Holliday rolled around in the dust like a bug” in the outfield, and the nickname stuck. I can’t help but wonder if the nickname was given in part because Holliday was – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – a pest.

Apparently, Holliday was a showman on the field – the type of player who was beloved by his hometown fans and hated by everyone else. He kicked his heels, showboated in the outfield and ran his mouth. The Des Moines baseball correspondent of the Sporting News wrote Holliday’s antics off as “simply the result of an extra allowance of life and vigor.” Others didn’t see it that way.

“It is a fact which can not be disputed that ‘Bug’ is the most persistent grand stand monkey in the broad base ball section,” sniffed The Omaha Daily Bee. “He never makes a movement in the diamond or outside it without making a special effort to attract general attention… Sensible people who love good solid ball playing; who delight in seeing an honest player try and get there in manly fashion, never smile at this “Bug’s” actions, but usually give vent to their feelings in expressions of disgust.” The writer then alleged that Holliday’s antics were so amateurish that Cap Anson refused to sign him to the White Stockings in 1886.

Holliday was a showman in a baseball world dominated by “play the ball the right way” characters. The Bee regularly trashed Holliday, calling him a monkey and delighting in every one of his failures. The thing was, Holliday didn’t fail that often – He batted .309 for Des Moines in 1888, slugged .471 and stole 65 bases. When Kansas City of the Western Association played an exhibition series against the Cleveland Blues of the American Association, Holliday stepped in as umpire and was a “howling success,” as per the Kansas City Star. The young ump resisted any attempts by Cleveland ballplayers to “bulldoze” or bully him.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings of the American Association paid $3,500 for Des Moines to release Holliday, and he entered into the major leagues in 1889. He was ready for it too; he tied Philadelphia’s Harry Stovey for the league lead in home runs with 19. Holliday slashed .321/.372/.497 – finishing fifth in batting and second in slugging – and was third in the AA in hits (181), second in total bases (280) and fifth in RBIs (104). He also stole 46 bases and had 29 outfield assists. As long-time Reds slugger John Reilly started to wind down his impressive career, Holliday seemed poised to fill his shoes as the power threat of the ballclub.

Source: New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Holliday’s success in 1889 made him a free agent target over the offseason. The Reds, which relocated to the National League for the 1890 season, made a hard press to sign him, but Holliday seemed infatuated with staying with the “brotherhood” (i.e., the American Association) and almost took an offer from the Brooklyn franchise before deciding to remain in Cincinnati. The Reds brought in veteran Arlie Latham to play the infield and serve as team captain in mid-season, and what a combination they must have made. Latham, nicknamed “The Freshest Man on Earth,” was one of the few players who could be more of a pest than Holliday. Some reports noted that Holliday quieted down after Latham’s arrival, but they chalked it up more to Holliday’s weaker performance more than Latham’s louder mouth. Holliday went through a power shortage, as he hit .270 with just 4 home runs, but he also socked 14 triples and stole a career-high 50 bases.

Holliday regained his batting stroke in 1891 with a .319 batting average, 9 home runs and 84 RBIs, though he was limited to 111 games by a hand injury. He also kept the crowds entertained with a little hop-step after every fly ball he caught. It was an improvement from his rookie season, when he used to chase slowly after a fly ball in order to make a more impressive-looking, running catch. But after Billy Hamilton showed him up by scoring from second on a fly ball Holliday made needlessly difficult, he reined in the theatrics somewhat.

Holliday was back to good health and good humor in 1892, and he got into a career-high 152 games. He won his second home run title with 13 long balls, and he slashed .294/.356/.450 for an .806 OPS and 144 OPS+. He drove in 91 runs and scored 114 times while hitting a career-best 16 triples. On August 22, he beat Washington 6-5, driving in all six runs by himself, thanks to an inside-the-park solo homer, a 2-run single, a 2-run inside-the-park homer and a game-winning single in the 12th inning. Toward the end of the season, Holliday beat the Louisville with a go-ahead home run and a throw from center field that nailed Fred Pfeffer as he was trying to score the tying run. The outfielder also made his National League pitching debut, though that wasn’t nearly as successful as his hitting. After starter Billy Rhines had been abused by the Philadelphia Phillies for five innings, “’Bug’ Holliday strutted in from right field, pulled up his trousers and braced himself to send in curves that would break the backs of Harry Wright’s Phillies,” reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. However, the Phillies, led by Ed Delahanty, knocked poor Holliday around with 13 hits and 5 earned runs in 4 innings pitched.

Little injuries again took their toll on Holliday, as he played 120 or so games in each of the next two seasons. He also suffered several hits to his financial security. The National League, flexing its muscles with the death of the American Association, started cracking down on salaries. Holliday, who made $3,300 in 1892, signed a contract for $1,800 in 1893 – the maximum allowed an outfielder. He also entered into partnership for a saloon in Cincinnati. Holliday, who married Ida May Banner in 1888, had a father-in-law who owned a distillery. Even with that kind of help, Holliday sold off his share of the business to his partner about 6 months later, having taken a serious beating in the wallet.

Source: Ancestry

Still, Holliday continued to hit. He batted .310 in 1893, and when the Reds moved into a new stadium for the 1894 season, Holliday’s offense exploded. The new park had a short left field, and the outfielder too full advantage of it with a .376/.424/.528 slash line, with 13 home runs and 123 RBIs. The Reds finished in tenth place in ’94, as the new park was murder on their pitching staff, but Holliday thrived in his new home.

At this point in his career, Holliday was 27 years old and had played six outstanding seasons for the Reds, becoming one of the most popular players on the team. Sure, he was a hot dog who occasionally dropped a fly ball in the outfield while trying to make an easy catch look difficult. But over those six seasons, Holliday averaged a .315/.378/.460 slash line, with 23 doubles, 11 triples and 10 homers. He also scored an average of 104 runs a season while driving in 94. If he would have put together another seven seasons like that or more, and he ends up in the same grouping as Jimmy Ryan or George Van Haltren, 19th Century outfielders who merit some consideration for Hall of Fame induction.

As it happens, though, Holliday’s career would last just four more seasons, and he would play 152 total games in those four years. He started 1895 with a serious case of appendicitis, and he was out of the lineup for several months. He recovered to play in 32 games, starting at the end of June, but he had no stamina. He hit .299 before suffering another hand injury that left him unable to play again. While Holliday was on the mend, Reds manager Buck Ewing brought in an outfielder named Dusty Miller, and he blossomed into a true talent, hitting .335 with 10 homers and 112 RBIs in 1895. The Reds had found a capable replacement for Holliday, and the former star found himself on the bench, when he was healthy enough to play. When he wasn’t, he served as an umpire for local games in Cincinnati and acted as an occasional scout for Ewing.

Holliday hit a solid .321 in 1896, but it was in 29 games – he didn’t even get 100 at-bats. He made it into 61 games in 1897, his age 30 season, and hit .313 with his first two home runs since his bout with appendicitis. He also stepped behind the plate to umpire a game between Cincinnati and Cleveland when none of the official umpires showed up. By most accounts (Cleveland manager Patsy Tebeau thought he was tipping off his pitches to the Reds, but Tebeau always had a reason to complain), Holliday did an excellent job – better than the regular umpires. “Bug Holliday is an honest, upright player, who would not stoop to anything mean or disreputable,” stated The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Of course, the reason Holliday was available to umpire that day was that he had taken a baseball off his right hand, once again rendering him unable to play. He tried one last season in 1898 and reported in the spring that he was finally over the weakness that had plagued him. “I believe that my sickness of several years ago has just left me. I feel much stronger than I have for the past two seasons, and if I am given a chance I will prove that I am as good as I ever was,” he declared in May of 1898. Unfortunately, Holliday would never be given that chance. He hit .236 in 30 games, far and away the worst performance of his career, with just 3 extra-base hits among his 25 hits. Cincinnati released him at the end of July, and finding no better offers with any other team, he ended his career.

Holliday played for a total of 10 seasons, with a .312/.377/.449 slash line. He had 1,141 hits, including 162 doubles, 72 triples and 65 home runs. He drove in 621 runs and scored 735 times, stealing a total of 252 bases. His fielding percentage in the outfield is .934, which is about 20 points higher than other outfielders of his day. He has a career OPS+ of 126 and was worth 18.1 wins above replacement, per Baseball Reference.

Source: Wilkes Barre Times Leader, January 16, 1909.

Holliday immediately took a job as a sheetwriter in a Cincinnati pool hall — in other words he recorded odds for horse races and other sporting events and cashed winning tickets. He then went to work as a cashier for Eddie Austin, one of the leading bookmakers of the day, and found himself working at a race track in Fort Erie, Canada. That was probably a bad career decision, because he loved the ponies almost as much as he loved playing ball. A friend once asked him if he could ever stop betting on horses, and he’s said to have replied, “Yes, I think I could. If someone would take me to a room at the top of a castle, lock the door and throw away the key.” Unsurprisingly, Holliday gambled away whatever money he earned.

Holliday remarried in 1900 to a May C. Rich, a schoolteacher in Cincinnati. He got back into baseball in 1903 when he was hired as an umpire for the National League. It might seem odd that someone whose post-baseball career involved gambling would become an umpire, but it was a different time. Holliday’s stint as an ump didn’t last the season. His work was universally panned, and Holliday himself walked away with a newfound respect for the profession.

“As a player, I thought some of the ordeals I went through with were tough, but as an umpire I have found that they were comparatively mild. As an umpire I have stood for more than I ever dreamed that I would, and as an umpire I have come to the realization of conditions in baseball that I had no idea existed.” Holliday talked about being verbally savaged by Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss and Chicago shortstop Joe Tinker, and NL president Harry Pulliam didn’t give him the support that Holliday thought he deserved.

“It takes two years of ball playing or one month of umpiring to make a man crazy,” he later said. “I’ve done both, so don’t blame me.”

Holliday spent part of 1904 umpiring in the American Association but had to resign in late July because of health problems. It was initially reported that the heat had overcome him, but health problems stayed with him for the rest of his life. By 1907, the 40-year-old Holliday was in such pain that he was confined to a chair. His ex-teammates, including Reilly, Jim Keenan, Jake Stenzel and others, arranged a charity game to help him out. The players raised about $800 for Holliday.

The money didn’t last long. Holliday suffered from locomotor ataxia, a condition where the patient becomes unable to control their muscles, particularly in their legs. A year after the fundraiser, he underwent several surgeries, including one to amputate one of his legs. His remaining leg became infected with gangrene, and he died on February 15, 1910, a week after celebrating his 43rd birthday. He is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

Bug Holliday’s grave in Spring Grove Cemetery.

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