Grave Story: Henry Diddlebock (1854-1900)

Here lies Henry Diddlebock, a long-time Philadelphia sportswriter and minor-league baseball executive. He also served as a manager for the St. Louis Browns, though the experiment of using a sportswriter as a manager lasted for all of 17 games in 1896.

Henry Harrison Diddlebock was born in Philadelphia on June 27, 1854. His parents, Henry and Matilda, were both Pennsylvania natives, and Henry Sr. worked as a salesman before entering into city politics. Henry Jr. was the oldest of four children. His younger brother George died in 1871 when he was 11 years old, but sisters Mary and Carrie both lived well into the 20th Century.

The younger Henry Diddlebock seems to have gotten into baseball at an early age, though his connection to the sort was primarily in off-the-field roles. As of 1876, he was a part of the American Club of Philadelphia, which was one of 74 teams in the National Amateur Base Ball Association. He was elected as treasurer of the association, and by June of that year, he had taken over the role of manager of the Philadelphia club as well. His profession of choice was as a reporter, and he was connected to many of the early Philadelphia papers. An 1879 article about him taking a managerial job in New Bedford, Mass., linked him to the Philadelphia Sunday Item, the Philadelphia Evening and Sunday Leader, and Afield and Afloat, where he served as the base ball editor. The majority of his journalism career appears to have been spent at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Diddlebock was in a unique position to manage the game from the inside and promote it from the outside, as newspapers apparently had a much more relaxed idea of what a conflict of interest was.

In his personal life, Diddlebock married Emma Elizabeth Rotherham around 1875, and they had two children, George (1876-1933) and Henry (1878-1945).

The impressive Diddlebock family monument at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Penn.

During his time in Philadelphia, Diddlebock promoted many sports, but baseball seemed to be his passion. He served as president of the Atlantic and State Leagues and helped to organize the Association of Base Ball Scorers, serving as its president. As both a writer and a baseball insider, he came to know all the game’s greats and boasted a network of personal connections that other journalists could only dream about

Diddlebock joined with the new Eastern League in 1884 as its secretary, and later as secretary/treasurer. The league formed as the Union League in late 1883 but hastily changed its name to avoid confusion with the ill-fated Union Association. Running a baseball league was a difficult task, as Diddlebock and the rest of the league’s directors had to deal with the sudden dissolution of some clubs (Baltimore Monumentals) while trying to gain teams in other metropolitan areas. Diddlebock sought the presidency of the League, and when he was denied, he refused to turn over the league’s financial information and was dismissed at the end of July, 1885.

The reporter went back to his day job, but his close ties to baseball inevitably pulled him back into the fray. Chris Von der Ahe, president of the St. Louis Browns of the American Association, needed some help in June of 1887 when his center fielder, Curt Welch, was fined $45 dollars by umpire Wes Curry “for various offenses.” The Browns happened to be in Philadelphia when the fines were announced, and Von der Ahe consulted with Diddlebock before drafting a letter of protest – they team had only been aware of a $10 fine, and that was all they were going to pay. Von der Ahe seems to have put his trust in Diddlebock, because the reporter began working as an unofficial East Coast scout for the Browns by the end of the year. He signed outfielder Tommy McCarthy in the fall of 1887, and McCarthy would have four excellent seasons for the Browns after spending the first four seasons of his career as a benchwarmer who couldn’t stick in the majors.

Over the next few years, Diddlebock had a hand in running several other leagues, from the Pennsylvania State League in 1891 to another State League in 1893. He advocated for a new league that would include teams in multiple states along the East Coast, but health problems kept him from spearheading that initiative. One common feature of his time as a league executive was that he constantly looked to expand baseball to more and more cities.

Henry Diddlebock as Browns manager, taken from an 1896 team photo. It’s one of the few available photographs of him.

In January of 1896, Browns President Von der Ahe announced that he had hired Diddlebock to serve as manager of his team for the coming season. “Diddlebock is one of the best posted baseball men in the country, and I am about satisfied that he would have more success with the Browns than any of the other men who are under consideration for the position of manager,” Von der Ahe told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in December of 1895 when it was rumored that the president had found his manager. “Diddlebock is willing to come here and if I decide to engage him, we will arrange terms in a hurry.”

“Mr. Von der Ahe and I have a perfect understanding, and I do not think there will be any insubordination in the team this year,” Diddlebock said upon his official hiring. “What we want is harmony, and that we will have at all cost.”

Diddlebock had a couple of disadvantages going into his new job. One, the St. Louis Browns had fallen on hard times and was coming off an eleventh-place finish in 1895. Two, the new manager may have spent most of his professional life around baseball, but he had never really been in baseball before. He was, for lack of a better term, in the big leagues, and he was unprepared for how cutthroat the big leagues could be.

Von der Ahe had a circle of people helping him run the team – while profiting from it nicely – and they feared that their payday would come to an end if the president was too influenced by the no-nonsense Diddlebock. They wanted the much easier-going infielder Arlie Latham to get the job, and they took every opportunity to smear Diddlebock. The St. Louis Star was said to be the leading voice against the manager, with the Post-Dispatch ardently defending him. The Sporting News, located in St. Louis, was consistent in the fact that the editors hated Von der Ahe and took whatever side put him in the worst light. While Diddlebock stressed harmony, the rookie manager was in the middle of a team with disorganization in the executive office, discontentment on the team, and some in the press out for his blood.

The Browns made their annual southern sojourn in the spring of the year to get in baseball shape and play exhibition games. It was initially reported that Diddlebock came back from the trip in default, but he actually made $960 in profit during the trip through Texas. Then it was reported that he had maligned Harry Oliver, Browns business manager, and the two had words. Diddlebock didn’t even know that Oliver was the business manager, and he tried to handle financial issues through Benjamin Muckenfuss, team secretary. When Muckenfuss wouldn’t send the manager money for railroad tickets and hotel bills, “Mr. Diddlebock grew impatient and used strong language,” reported the Post-Dispatch. “When informed by Mr. Von der Ahe when Mr. Oliver would attend to such matters he immediately made a suitable apology.”

The Diddlebock family monument, with Henry Diddlebock’s grave to the right of it.

The fact that the manager didn’t even know who was supposed to be sending him money is a good sign that the ballclub was in disarray.

So how did Diddlebock fare as a manager? One of his first moves was to pull third baseman Latham from the starting lineup and use rookie Bert Myers. It seems like a sound decision. Latham had been a good infielder for a long time, but he was 36 and played poorly in the spring. He was essentially done as a player, even if he didn’t believe it. Myers, on the other hand, was 22 years old and probably the better hitter, though his fielding was a weakness. Tommy Niland was also yanked from right field after a slow start and replaced with rookie Klondike Douglass. Douglass had a fine year, and Niland never played in the majors again. The Post-Dispatch, naturally, praised the moves and only questioned why they weren’t done sooner. “Manager Diddlebock shows excellent judgment in reorganizing the team.”

Another unnamed source responded to the rumor that Latham would become the next manager by saying, “I am not exaggerating when I say that half the team would ask for their releases if Latham were made captain.”

Diddlebock also laid down the law when necessary. He suspended catcher Ed McFarland when the catcher refused to go into a game. “Are you sick?” the manager asked. “No, but I am tired catching every game,” McFarland replied. “All right, you can take a rest without pay,” Diddlebock said, putting Douglass into the game as catcher. The role of catcher was a tough one in the 19th Century, and if McFarland was overused, you can put the blame on his rookie manager. McFarland got the majority of the starts, but backup catcher Morgan Murphy played regularly as well, so perhaps the manager learned his lesson.

A game on May 5 seems to show how badly the Browns were in disarray. They were beating the Philadelphia Phillies 5-3 going into the ninth inning, with starting pitcher Bill Kissinger pitching some fine ball. Then he weakened quickly in the ninth, and Diddlebock pulled him in favor of starting pitcher Bill Hart, making his only relief appearance of the year. Hart was even wilder, and when the inning had finally ended, the Phillies had scored 6 runs and would win the game 9-5. On the surface, that looks bad for Diddlebock, as he should have either stuck with Kissinger or given Hart more time to prepare himself. The Post-Dispatch, via an unnamed Brown, gave this behind-the-scenes story that put the blame on the benched Latham:

“While ‘Kiss’ was doing good work during the seventh inning Latham was on the bench urging Diddlebock to take him out. When the team came in from the field Latham went on the lines [to coach]. {Biff] Sheehan, [Red] Donahue and the other substitutes told Kissinger what Latham had been doing and it drove the boy wild. He went up in the air, became discouraged and lost out.”

The whole situation came to a head when Diddlebock failed to show for a game on May 7 and was immediately suspended by Von der Ahe. Instead of being at the game, the manager was lying in bed at his house on Finney Avenue, with multiple cuts and bruises on his face. There are two versions of what happened. Diddlebock’s version was of course covered by the Post-Dispatch, while the other ran in the Sporting News and elsewhere.

Diddlebock’s version: He was at the ballpark until 11:30 p.m. before meeting with some reporters. He then made the rounds around St. Louis, visiting a friend at a hotel and then stopping at a bowling alley. He took a cab and stopped in at a saloon at Finney and Vandeventer Avenues, for a glass of Apollinaris (mineral water). As he walked home, he passed about six men, one of whom shoved him from behind. Suddenly, Diddlebock found himself under attack. He heard someone say “Give him another for Willie Green,” which was the name of a sportswriter in St. Louis who Diddlebock had fired as the official scorer at Sportsman’s Park. After the beating, Diddlebock made his way to Finney Street, where he sat down on a chair. He had blood all over his hands from a bloody nose, and a police officer found him there and escorted him home. Diddlebock didn’t file a police report, as he couldn’t identify any of the assailants.He swore that he had only had three drinks all evening and was not intoxicated.

The other version: The manager had made a killing at the races held at Sportsman’s Park and was out late celebrating his success. A detective that had been hired by Von der Ahe to investigate the matter said that the manager and his party made the rounds at some of the more notorious areas of St. Louis. Diddlebock made his way home to Finney Street, where he sat down on a bench and fell asleep. In his intoxicated state, he fell off the bench and landed face-first on the sidewalk. At that point, a policeman found him and brought him home.

The Sporting News also reported, “Diddlebock has not been prudent in his private life since his arrival in St. Louis, and his enemies have kept Chris constantly informed about his nocturnal outings and their trimmings.”

The Browns board of directors met and made Diddlebock’s suspension permanent. He ended his managerial career with a 7-10 record. Following his dismissal, Latham was given the job as manager, but he and the team played so poorly that he was dismissed after three games. Von der Ahe himself guided the team to two more losses before handing the job of manager off to Roger Connor and then Tommy Dowd. Under five different managers, the Browns finished in eleventh place again with a 40-90-1 record.

Despite his short time with the team, Diddlebock was said to be very popular with the Browns players and some notable boosters in the city. However, one director (unnamed, as per Post-Dispatch usual) said that it was not the first time Diddlebock had acted in ways that were unbecoming as a manager. “A manager who carouses sets a poor example to his players,” the director said. “We know that Diddlebock was not as circumspect as he should be, and we are reluctantly compelled to let him go.”

Diddlebock was in a no-win situation. His team was bad, and the whole Browns organization was so riddled with grifters that any attempt to clean up the mess put a target on his back. The fact that Diddlebock apparently lived up to the stereotype of the hard-drinking sportswriter was the final nail in his coffin. As a result, we have a small sample size to determine Diddlebock’s effectiveness as a manager. But he made some good lineup decisions and had a poor team only 3 games under .500 at the time of his dismissal.  

“Just as predicted, Harry Diddlebock got the hooks from Von der Ahe,” wrote The Sporting News. “He suffered as have all others who have been associated in any capacity with the ignorant boor who is in the National League saddle in St. Louis. Chris expected him to make a winner of the “Midway Squad,” and when misfortunes came the Philadelphian was held responsible.”

Though his time in St. Louis was short, Diddlebock did help Von der Ahe with the matter of the magnate’s financial situation. Von der Ahe had a racetrack in St. Louis, and Diddlebock connected him with a couple of Philadelphians who managed the track and turned a large profit. Unfortunately, those connected to Von der Ahe advised that he should run the track by himself and keep all the profit instead of sharing it with the Philadelphians. Diddlebock and his friends resigned from the venture, and Von der Ahe continued his downward spiral that saw him lose the Browns for good.

Diddlebock returned to Philadelphia for the position as turf editor for the Inquirer – meaning he covered the horse racing business. His wife Emma died in 1898, and Diddlebock himself died on February 5, 1900, in Philadelphia. He had a severe cold which, combined with either erysipelas (a type of skin bacteria) or rheumatism (depending on the source), led to his death at the age of 46.

Diddlebock worked for the Inquirer right up to his death, and his obituary in the paper called him “the Nestor of the sporting writers of the city.” The obit noted that in terms of continuous service, he was possibly the most tenured sportswriter in the country.

“No sporting writer or commentator in the business had a greater or more varied knowledge of athletic events than he, and few wielded such a forceful trenchant pen. He personally knew all the men who made sporting history from the early ‘70s on, and this gave him an advantage which was enjoyed by but few of his colleagues.”

Henry Diddlebock is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Penn.

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