Grave Story: Ed Williamson (1857-1894)

(Editor’s note: This article was co-written with Paul Proia of Mighty Casey Baseball. I’m grateful for his help, and if you enjoy early baseball history his website is a must-read.)

Ed Williamson is most famous for setting the major league single season home run record in 1884 when he hit 27 homers for the National League’s Chicago White Stockings. The record was a bit of a fluke – for that season the White Stockings declared new ground rules saying that balls hit over short fences on their grounds would now be homers instead of doubles. (The corner outfields were 180 feet and 196 feet from home plate to the outfield wall, and it was a shallow 300 feet to straightaway center field.)

As a player, however, Williamson was no fluke. For the better part of a decade many active players said Williamson was the best player they had ever seen. Not the greatest hitter, mind you. However, Williamson was as dynamic a fielder as the game had yet seen – extraordinary at both third base and shortstop, an able first baseman, a competent catcher, an emergency pitcher, and one who possessed perhaps the best arm of his generation.

And, for whatever reason, long after his career was over, he became famous as Ned Williamson, even though his name was Edward and baseball scribes of his day always called him Ed. Somewhere around 1887 or so, a handful of articles referred to him as Ned Williamson, and not for a long period of time, nor very often. None of the papers in the city in which he played called him Ned – it was always Ed. All the articles AFTER he was done playing and until he died called him Ed. He became Ned when his home run record was broken, 35 years after he was done playing.

Edward Nagle Williamson was born October 24, 1857 in Philadelphia – and that’s about all we really know about his youth. We know he had a family – it was reported that in May of 1881, his mother became ill and died. There were newspaper reports of a brother and a sister who died during his playing career as well. However, none of the relatives’ names were ever reported.

You can find an Ed Williamson in the 1870 US Census – but this Ed Williamson was not living at home. He was a resident at the Lincoln Institute, an orphanage of sorts on 11th Street in Philadelphia. After the Civil War, the orphanage expanded as battlefield casualties made orphans of many kids. The older ones (at least 10, but usually 12 or older) wound up at the Lincoln Institute where they would get three square meals, an education, and training in basic jobs. After the child earned a job or apprenticeship, the child would leave and begin his adult life. If we knew who the baseball player’s father was, we might be able to find out if he served in the Civil War and whether or not he was wounded or even killed. If his mom couldn’t take care of him, it would make sense that Ed Williamson may have been raised in an orphanage.

There’s a certain appeal to this theory. The player who became the new home run king, thirty-five years after Williamson set the home run record, was raised in an orphanage as well and was taught the game by the men and children in the parks and fields near his Baltimore home: Babe Ruth, who in 1919, clocked 29 homers to set the new mark. Without better documentation though, we can’t tell you much about Ed Williamson’s life between 1857 and 1875.

Still – there was a military parade ground not far from the orphanage and many amateur games were played there. In 1875, Benjamin Shibe organized a team of young amateurs that would win the city championship. Shibe’s Amateurs featured a strong-armed teen with a thick muscular build who pitched, caught, and played third base – Ed Williamson. Williamson initially joined the Burlingtons, until they abandoned the field, then Shibe’s club, and toward the end of the fall he played with the Braddocks, another fine amateur nine in the Philadelphia area.

In 1876, Williamson along with other Philadelphia players such as George Creamer and Charlie Bennett, signed to play second base for the Neshannocks of New Castle, PA. Almost immediately, Williamson was named captain of the team. For a team of players under the age of 21, the Neshannocks were a remarkable team, good enough to beat the Pittsburgh Alleghenys and Philadelphia’s National League squad in exhibitions. Toward the end of the season, Williamson, Bennett and Creamer spent a few weeks with the Aetnas of Detroit. Charlie Bennett was enticed to stay in Detroit, while Williamson and Creamer returned to the Pittsburgh area.

For 1877, Williamson joined the Alleghenys, was named captain, and played on a team that was very nearly major league quality. Their ace pitcher was future Hall of Famer, James “Pud” Galvin. In fact, every player on the Allegheny squad would play major league baseball. While with the Alleghenys, Williamson appeared in the first professional 19 inning game – a 3-2 loss to Memphis. Williamson gave catcher William Holbert a break that day – and caught every inning. The Alleghenys won the vast majority of their games, including posting a 13 – 6 record in what was the first minor league, the International League of 1877. Their season would end rather inauspiciously. Players were accused of throwing games – one news account said that players who did so were paid in full, while the honest players (like Ed Williamson) were left waiting for back pay. One Allegheny player, third baseman Al Nichols, left the team to play for Louisville in the National League and was one of the players kicked out of baseball for his part in the 1877 Louisville gambling scandal.

Williamson joined the major leagues in 1878, playing in Indianapolis as their third baseman. When that team folded at the end of the season, what was left of the Indianapolis squad was playing exhibitions in St. Louis. Adrian “Cap” Anson, who played against Williamson in exhibitions for three years prior to facing each other in the National League, convinced Albert Spalding to sign Williamson for the Chicago White Stockings. Joe Quest, Orator Schafer and Frank “Silver” Flint also moved from Indianapolis to Chicago. The White Stockings improved from 30-30 in 1878 to 46-33 in 1879.

Immediately, Williamson made an impact with Chicago. An able fielder, a swift and alert baserunner, and a strong thrower, Williamson also was an above average hitter. While Williamson hit but one home run, he had 20 doubles and thirteen triples, finished with a .294 batting average and was well above average in terms of both getting on base and power. In 1880, the White Stockings, already a good team, added even more young talent. Mike “King” Kelly joined the outfield, Tom Burns took over at shortstop, and Larry Corcoran became the new ace. Now Chicago was a great team, winning the National League pennant with a 67-17 record (and two ties). They would repeat as champions in 1881 and 1882.

The White Stockings moved to a new ballpark in 1883 called Lakefront Park – with the notoriously short dimensions listed earlier. Williamson quickly learned to take advantage of the short fences. In 1883, Williamson led the National League with 49 doubles – many of these clearing the fence for ground rule doubles. In 1884, Chicago decided to make these fly balls that left the yard home runs. A total 321 homers were hit in the National League in 1884. Chicago hit 142 and allowed 83 of them – more than 190 were hit at Lakefront Park. Williamson shattered the home run record of 14, set by Harry Stovey the previous season. In fact, four Chicago hitters cleared 20 in 1884 (Williamson had 27, Fred Pfeffer 25, Abner Dalrymple 22, and Cap Anson 21 with a league leading 102 RBI).

The White Stockings were forced to move in 1885, eventually settling into the New West Side Park. Williamson’s offense suffered from the change of venue – his batting average tailed off to .238 in 1886, and he hit just 3 home runs. However, he had other ways of contributing to the team. He led the National League with 75 bases on balls that year. In fact, it was the most walks that any National League player had drawn to date. So at the end of 1885, Ed Williamson was the NL single-season leader in doubles (49 from 1883), home runs (27 from 1884) and walks (75 from 1885).

In 1883, Fred Pfeffer had joined Chicago to play second base. Like Williamson and Burns, he was an agile and dependable fielder. The White Stocking infield, including Anson at first base, became known as the Stone Wall Infield – nothing could get past them. After 1885, though, Anson decided that Burns and Williamson should switch positions – moving the larger Williamson from third base to shortstop. The change, coupled with adding John Clarkson to the #1 pitching slot, put Chicago back on top of the National League, winning pennants in 1885 and 1886 – five titles in seven seasons.

In noting that Williamson was larger than Burns, it’s equally important to note Williamson was larger, too, than he used to be. Williamson was inclined to be corpulent. He’d spend off-seasons trying his darndest to remove excess flesh. Where once he was a lean 170 pounds, he now struggled to keep his weight under 200 pounds. After his poor 1886 campaign, he vowed to lose weight and come back a better player in 1887. And he did – batting 51 points better and increasing his stolen base count from 13 to 45. Always selective at the plate, he found his power again. Williamson remained a good hitter through the 1888 season.

How good a fielder was Williamson? He led National League third basemen in assists six years in seven and in fielding percentage five times in seven seasons. He was mobile and dependable, making plays in the field others couldn’t make. One player said that he once leaped into the air for an odd bound and, while still airborne, fired the ball home in one motion to get a runner trying to score. He was second to none in racing back into the outfield to snare soft liners and pop flies. He was seen as acrobatic as a shortstop – and his arm was as good as any. Anson and others always remarked that, because his arm was so good, Williamson would wait a little and then fire across the diamond to get the batter at first by a step. The throws were hard enough to knock Anson back as he caught the ball. Williamson had one other peculiar habit. Before a game would start, he would hide a pebble beneath third base for good luck.

How good was his arm? At the end of the 1888 season, Cincinnati held a contest to see who could throw a baseball the farthest. Williamson was used to throwing the ball from home plate over the centerfield fence at several parks. One time, he not only threw a ball over the right field wall from home plate, he rang a bell with his throw and walked away. The Cincinnati contest featured a few of the best arms in baseball. After several tossers took their turns, the leading throw was Mike Griffin’s heave of 372 feet. Williamson took his three tosses. The second was the longest – just an inch short of 400 feet (and eight inches away from John Hatfield’s documented record). He blew away his competition – earning $100 and a diamond locket. Asked about winning the contest, Williamson said he sent a telegraph to his wife, adding, “The little woman will be prouder than I am of my victory.”

The “little woman” was the former Nettle L. Tucker of Salem, Virginia. During the spring of 1881, mother and daughter spent a long vacation in New Orleans, where the White Stockings happened to be training. Nettie’s mother wasn’t fond of ballplayers, but Silver Flint’s wife mingled with Nettie in the hotel lobby and snuck Nettie off to see a baseball game. During an exciting moment, Williamson came to bat with runners on base, and Nettie reportedly told Mrs. Flint, “If he brings those men in I’ll throw him these flowers.” Sure enough, Williamson crushed a home run, and Nettie tossed him a bouquet of flowers, to which Ed responded by doffing his cap. Netting was immediately embarrassed, but that was all it took for Cupid to strike them both.

Back at the hotel, Nettie’s mother remained cool to the ballplayer interested in her daughter, then still just sixteen (he was 23). However, over time, she came to accept Williamson for what he was – good natured, charming and in love with Nettie. The following summer, Williamson quietly married Nettie during a trip to St. Louis. Nettie loved baseball, attended a number of games, and frequently traveled with Williamson on road trips.

The longest road trip the Williamsons ever took was after the 1888 season. Williamson, days after winning his long-distance throwing contest, took a train to the coast and they hopped on a boat to tour the world. Albert Spalding arranged a world tour for the Chicago White Stockings and an all-star team of other ballplayers, including John Montgomery Ward – ballplayer, lawyer, and union agent (and someone who also brought along his bride for the trip). The teams played exhibitions on three continents.

Disaster struck Williamson, however, when the teams played a game in Paris in early March. Williamson took off for second base and slid across a rock near the bag. He tore up his kneecap, requiring stitches – and the initial dressing got infected while crossing the channel to England. Williamson likely also tore ligaments in his knee and for weeks couldn’t put any weight on his leg. As such, he was forced to stay behind in London until he could travel – and then he couldn’t return to Chicago as he stayed in New York with various specialists trying to rehabilitate his knee. Making matters worse was the status of his contract. While Albert Spalding certainly spent some of his money to assist Williamson in getting home, Williamson spent a lot of his money, too. And – the status of his contract was in limbo. They agreed to terms on his 1889 contract, but because he wasn’t playing games for Chicago, Spalding never started paying a salary. Meanwhile, Williamson felt that, by taking a tour for Spalding, he was employed by the team and the team was obligated to deal with his injury. Not paying his salary was unfair given that Williamson had been injured playing for Spalding.

Williamson, by his own reckoning, spent more than $300 of his own money recuperating in London and later back in the U.S. He also got money from Spalding – with strings attached. Spalding told him that “I could draw on him for my necessary expanses, which of course, meant borrowed money,” Williamson wrote in a published letter in June. The spring and early summer of 1889 included stories – sometimes two on the same page on the same day – discussing Williamson’s disappointment in the way he was being treated by Spalding, or Williamson’s defending Spalding and Anson and trying to work himself back into shape to play.

Williamson had a legion of friends in baseball, and many of them came to his aid when his team’s owner would not. Tom Burns started a fundraising campaign among other ballclubs; Williamson initially refused the assistance but was persuaded to take the money. A couple of local Chicago teams, the Whitings and the Franklins, held a benefit game for him on July 13 and raised about $1,000. Spalding generously donated the use of his ballpark, and Williamson himself was one of the umpires.

Finally, in late July, Williamson was able to take the field, but he wasn’t nearly the player he had been the previous two seasons. He hit .237 in 47 games, with little extra-base power.

When players acted in unison to create their own league in 1890, Williamson joined those players rather than staying with Anson and the White Stockings. As a member of the Players’ League, Williamson’s batting average fell to .195. His weight ballooned, he slowed with the knee injury, and – adding salt to his wounded body – he injured his throwing arm early in 1890. Williamson told the correspondent of The Sporting Life, “…He was unable to keep his weight down, and each day found it increasing, even in the playing season. He made several herculean efforts to work it off, but his legs would not stand the strain. Whenever he would start to do hard work the muscles in the calves of his legs would contract and render his legs almost useless. Ed says that he would go on the field and find himself unable to do things which he knew he could do if right, and he sickened of the whole thing.” (“Chicago Gleanings,” The Sporting Life, March 7, 1891: 5.)

The Player’s League folded after the 1890 season, and Williamson’s playing career ended as well. In 13 years, he had a lifetime slash line of .255/.332/.384. He had 1,159 hits, including 228 doubles, 85 triples and 64 home runs. He drove in a total of 667 runs and scored 809 times. He also drew 506 walks. While stolen base totals are not available for the first eight years of his career, Williamson is credited with 88 steals, including 45 in 1887. Williamson also pitched in a total of 12 games with the White Stockings, ending up with a 1-1 record and 3.34 ERA in 35 innings. He had 2 saves in 1885, which ended up leading the NL – had anyone in 1885 known what a “save” was.

In the early months of 1891, the popular ballplayer became a popular saloon owner. With his partner Jimmy Wood, himself a fine former baseball player, the two purchased a location on Dearborn near Madison in Chicago. Known as “The Baseball Wigwam,” their location allowed sporting fans to enjoy a beverage and talk about baseball. Within months, Williamson’s weight ballooned to over 250 pounds and possibly as much as 280 by 1893. He even appeared in an exhibition game with a team of “fat” players – Chicago’s meatiest players against an equally large group of men from St. Louis.

This rapid change of weight didn’t help; an adult life spent in saloons didn’t either. He developed complications with his liver and fell dangerously ill rather quickly. As 1893 came to an end, friends and family feared for his life. In January 1894, his doctor ordered him to go to a health resort in Mountain Valley, Arkansas – a few miles outside of Hot Springs. After a couple of weeks, water treatments appeared to help Williamson recover, but any gains were temporary. Despite writing encouraging words to Jimmy Wood in late February, Nettie was near Williamson’s bedside when he quietly passed to the next league on March 4, 1894. Dropsy reportedly caused his death – as his liver failed him, his body retained water. Ed Williamson was just 36 years old.

Williamson’s body was returned to his adopted home of Chicago. The Elks Club managed his funeral and provided four of the six pallbearers. Former teammates Billy Sunday and Fred Pfeffer were the other two to help carry the casket. Sunday would tell stories about how he was sitting on the street having spent time drinking with Ed Williamson and other players, when he decided to give up drinking and live a more fulfilling and religious life. Leaving the Williamson home, the funeral procession was met by a volunteer band, and they all continued to Calvary Episcopal Church for the services. Nettie pinned violets to the lapel over Williamson’s chest; the flowers were his only dying request. It was the second time she had gifted him with flowers – the other being their first meeting at the ballpark in New Orleans. Obituaries mentioned no other next of kin.

The White Stockings organized a benefit game to raise money for Nettie, but she returned to St. Louis to live with her parents. Williamson was buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. His grave remained unmarked until 2021, with the Society for American Baseball Research’s 19th Century Grave Marker Project had a marker installed in honor of 19th Century’s home run king.

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