Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Con Artist Harry Decker — Toronto's First Star Baseball Catcher

Toronto was celebrating. The 1887 baseball season was over, and the city had just won its first championship. The team was packed with beloved stars, like the ace of the pitching staff, Ned "Cannonball" Crane, who led Toronto to victory in 16 straight games to finish the year. The names of the players who'd pulled off the feat would be revered in the city for decades to come. But one of them wasn't quite what he seemed.

In the midst of all those beloved heroes was one notorious villain. The man who crouched behind the plate all season was more than just a baseball player. He was a con artist — and his life was about to take a terrible turn. His name would soon appear in the papers under much more dismal circumstances: as the subject of manhunts and of courtroom dramas, locked away in prison cells and in lunatic asylums, earning a reputation as "one of the most dangerous men in the country."

Toronto's star catcher was a criminal.

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Harry Decker grew up in Chicago. As a teenager he was already among the most promising young prospects in the city. A catcher with "a good, strong, accurate arm... solid batting and capable defensive work," he signed his first professional contract before he turned 20 and quickly broke into the Major Leagues with the Indianapolis Hoosiers. His future seemed incredibly bright.

But it didn't take long for the first signs of trouble to appear. Decker seemed determined to squander all that promise.

He didn't even finish his first season with Indianapolis. He quit halfway through a game, when a couple of players from a new, rival league showed up. "Oh Deck!" they called out to him, "Over here" — quite literally waving a wad of dollar bills in the air.

They say it only took three or four innings for Decker to make his move. In the sixth, he let the ball hit him in the finger so he could claim he was injured and pull himself from the game, never to return. He raced off to Kansas City to play for a new team in the new league — leaving a pile of debts and unpaid bills behind him.

It was a costly decision. The new league quickly failed and Decker was blacklisted from the Majors for a season. The season after that, he was back in trouble again: suspected of throwing a game for gamblers. The crime was never proven, but he committed three errors and let himself get thrown out at the plate during the supposedly fixed contest — enough to make people very suspicious.

And so, as the 1887 season approached, Decker found himself looking for a job.

He got three offers: the teams in Washington, Rochester and Toronto all wanted him. So he said yes to all three. And then tried to cash all three of their cheques.

His scam didn't work — thanks to a mistake that was either breathtakingly dumb or breathtakingly brazen. He tried to cash two of the cheques at the same time, with the same banker. The banker caught on quickly: he'd been on the Board of Directors for the Washington team.

Still, Decker wasn't ready to give up yet. Next, he tried to cash three more cheques from three other teams by pretending to be three different catchers. This time, his fraud was uncovered because he gave a fake address for one of his alter-egos. When the team showed up at that address, they found nothing there but a vacant lot... and Harry Decker pacing up and down the street, waiting for his cheque to arrive in the mail.

Even then, he didn't admit his wrong-doing. His first line of defence was simple: no one, he claimed, could possibly be that stupid. When that failed, he concocted a new fraud, claiming that there were two Harry Deckers who were both catchers in the Major Leagues. That one didn't work either.

Suddenly, teams were getting cold feet. His offers were quickly drying up.

And so that's how he ended up in Toronto.

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1887. Toronto was booming. New railroads were bringing new Canadians into the city every day. The population was skyrocketing. New businesses and entertainment ventures were being opened constantly. And now, for the first time ever, they included a professional baseball team.

The Toronto Baseball Club had played their very first season the year before, in the city's first baseball stadium, which stood overlooking the Don Valley at the corner of Queen & Broadview — right across the street from the spot where the Broadview Hotel now stands.

It was originally known as the Toronto Baseball Grounds, but it would soon be nicknamed Sunlight Park in honour of the nearby Sunlight Soap Works factory. Spectators could walk in off Queen Street or ride up in their carriages and park their horses on the grounds. Admission was a quarter — plus an extra dime or two to sit in the best seats in the house. The sheltered grandstand had enough room for more than two thousand people, and there was standing room for another ten thousand beyond that. A sellout at Sunlight Park meant that about 10% of the entire population of Toronto was at the ballgame that day.

Baseball was still brand new back then. So new, in fact, that some of the rules were still being developed. That year, a pitcher needed four strikes to get a batter out. He could throw five balls before giving up a walk, and he was allowed to hit the batter too. Umpires could ask players and fans for advice. Sacrifice flies didn't exist. And for the very first time, every home plate would be made of rubber instead of marble.

The Toronto team played in one of the minor leagues: the International League. But they were still stacked with star players and memorable characters. 

There was outfielder Mike Slattery, fast as anything. He stole 112 bases that year, setting the International League record, which still stands to this day. And as if that wasn't impressive enough, he and another one of his teammates — August Alberts — both had a batting average over .350.

The backup catcher was George Stallings. He would go down in history as a Major League manager — "The Miracle Man" who led the hapless 1914 Boston Braves from last place to a stunning World Series sweep — and is credited with being the first manager to successfully use a platoon.

The star of the team was Cannonball Crane, the ace of the Toronto pitching staff; one of the game's first big power pitchers. His fastball was the fastest in the game. And he combined that blistering speed with a "deceptive drop ball" that baffled opposing hitters. It was a deadly combination.

With Decker behind the plate catching him, Cannonball carved up opposing hitters. He would win 33 games for Toronto that year — more than any other pitcher has ever won on any Toronto team — with a 2.49 ERA. And he was one of the best hitters in the league that year, too, finishing with a .428 batting average — still considered to be the best batting average by a pitcher in professional baseball history.

Together, they battled for first place all through the summer, neck and neck with the teams from Newark and Jersey City. The decisive day came on a Saturday afternoon in September: a double-header against their rivals from Newark. Cannonball pitched both games and hit the walkoff home run to win the second, propelling Toronto into first place. They would never relinquish that lead: they won every single game for the rest of the year. 16 in a row.

Harry Decker had helped to bring our city its first baseball championship.

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He would play even better the following season, hitting .313 as the Toronto Baseball Club finished in second place. But even after he'd established himself as a star in Toronto, it was his life off the field that made Harry Decker truly remarkable.

For one thing, he was an inventor. He came out of his time in Toronto having produced a design for a new kind of padded catcher's mitt — the same basic idea that is still being used today. He enlisted a business partner and together they applied for a patent, working in the offseason to prepare for production. It would prove to be an incredibly lucrative idea, but Decker was never a patient man. He nearly lost the patent entirely when he didn't bother to pay the necessary fees. And in the end, he sold off his interest in the new glove for $50. The rights were bought by Al Spalding's company: the sporting goods king who founded the National League would go on to manufacture the glove for years to come.

And that may not have been Decker's only sucessful invention. That same winter, he might have invented a new kind of turnstile, which quickly became the standard in ballparks, fairgrounds and racetracks across the country. But the details aren't clear. The New York Sporting Times accused Decker of ripping off the design: they claimed he stole a turnstile from the Philadelphia Phillies' ballpark, filed off the name of the original inventor, replaced it with his own, and then tried to sell the turnstile back to the Phillies as a completely new design.

And whether or not that story was true, it certainly wasn't out of character. Harry Decker was a con artist with an impressively long rap sheet.

Over the years, he faced criminal charges over and over again. He was arrested for stealing from teammates. And from his roommate. He was arrested for stealing a suit of clothes, and for stealing a bicycle, and for stealing a horse. He forged a cheque to pay his tailor, another to pay his grocer, a third to pay for a fancy hat for his mistress, and many more beyond that. He forged the signatures of Al Spalding and of the owners of the Phillies. He got caught counterfeiting money — and then forged the signature of the U.S. Marshal who arrested him for it.

As one Pinkerton detective put it, "I know it is customary in some circles to always describe a criminal as 'one of the most dangerous men in the country.' But this trite phrase well applies to him." The Chicago Tribune complained, "Decker's hallucination is that he owns the City of Chicago. He was in the habit of entering saloons and ordering wine for everybody present and then walking out with the belief that the place belonged to him and he could give away his own wares if he saw fit."

He used so many fake names that eventually the police admitted they didn't even know what his real name was anymore. All they knew for sure was that he grew up in a respected, wealthy family... in Pittsburgh. Which wasn't true at all.

Decker gave many explanations for his litany of crimes. He blamed some of them on getting hit in the head by a baseball. Others on getting kicked in the head by a horse. Some, he blamed on the stress of having a wife and a young child. Some, on insanity — the courts institutionalized him twice, but both times the doctors at the asylum found nothing wrong with him and released him back onto the streets again.

Once, Decker convinced a judge to send him to a particular prison of his own choosing by claiming he was dying of tuberculosis — which he miraculously recovered from as soon as the decision was handed down. On another occasion, when arrested for forging yet another cheque, he evaded jail time entirely by pointing out that when he signed the person's name, he'd spelled it wrong — so he couldn't possibly be guilty; he hadn't actually signed their name at all. At one point, he even seems to have had an operation to remove a cyst from his forehead — so it would be harder for witnesses to identify him.

On the occasions when he wasn't able to talk his way out of trouble, his rich parents were usually there to bail him out or to hire the best lawyers to defend him.

But his personal life, as you might imagine, did suffer.

Decker was married young, during the year he was blacklisted from the Major Leagues: to Annie Burns, a fifteen year-old girl he'd gotten pregnant. He had never been faithful to her: as his baseball teams toured from city to city, he quickly gained a reputation as a serial womanizer. The Philadelphia Inquirer called him "The Don Juan of the Diamond." And their marriage suffered another crushing blow when their two year-old daughter — who by all accounts, Decker was truly devoted to — died at the end of his last season in Toronto. Things seem to have gotten even worse after that. 

In 1891, Decker tried to marry a second woman under a fake name. But his fraud was quickly uncovered and he was charged with bigamy. It wasn't the last time he'd be caught trying to do something similar. And on another occasion, he was charged with statutory rape, having seduced an underage girl.

"I think I am a most unfortunate man," he once complained. "It seems to me that if I merely look at a girl she fancies me so much that a breach of promise suit is the result."

Annie divorced him in 1896. 

His baseball career was even shorter than his marriage. He played only two and a half seasons after leaving Toronto. His talent was undeniable and he got another shot at the Majors, but his actual results were usually mediocre and his teams' patience with his criminal behaviour quickly ran out. He was released by the New Haven Nutmegs halfway through the 1891 season — after he was arrested for the second time in just a few months. "If Decker had pursued a different course," an old manager once lamented, "he would now be in demand by the best clubs in the country." Instead, he would never play professional baseball again.

He did turn up on a diamond at least once more, though. In 1915, Sporting Life magazine stumbled across an interesting photo. It had been sent to the manager of the Los Angeles Angels as a thank you: the Angels had sent free uniforms to the team of prisoners who played baseball at San Quentin Prison. The autographed photo showed the full roster of inmates, and there among them was the star of the team: a catcher who looked awfully familiar. He was older now, and calling himself Earl Henry Davenport, but the face was unmistakable: it was Harry Decker. His life of crime had caught up with him yet again. He's thought to have spent a total of twelve years in prison.

But after that, he disappears from history. After being released from prison in October of that year, Harry Decker essentially vanished. Historians from the Society for American Baseball Research have spent decades trying to track him down, searching for any mention of him in the years after his stay at San Quentin. But it's not an easy job: Decker is thought to have used anywhere between fifteen to twenty aliases during his life; it was once said he "changes his name each time he boards a train." 

And so, no one knows how Harry Decker spent his final days, when he died, or where he is buried. It seems as if the ultimate fate of the one most notorious ballplayers in the history of Toronto will forever remain a mystery.

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Peter Morris' book, "Catcher: The Evolution of an American Folk Hero" has an absolutely fantastic chapter about Harry Decker. You can find it on Google Books here. I first learned about him in a passing mention in the awesome book "Baseball's Back In Town: From the Don to the Blue Jays A History of Baseball in Toronto" by Louis Cauz. You can buy it here or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here.

I wrote more about Cannonball Crane here — and he gets a chapter in my Toronto Book of the Dead, too, which you can buy at your favourite Toronto bookseller (or from Amazon here). I also wrote about the 1887 championship team here.

"Bob Lemke's Blog" shares Decker's story here. He's also mentioned in "Big Sam Thompson: Baseball's Greatest Clutch Hitter" by Roy Kerr on Google Books here. And Sportsnet lists him as one of "The Greatest Mysteries in the History of Sport" here. Baseball History Daily has more about him here. And Goodwin & Co does here. His Baseball Reference stats page is here (though sadly, they don't have the numbers for that 1887 team). The Vintage Baseball Glove Forum has images of the glove he invented here.

 

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