Tuesday, June 16, 2015

June 16, 1887: Curt Welch Nearly Causes a Riot in Baltimore

     On June 16, 1887, just one week after punching Athletics pitcher Gus Weyhing in Philadelphia, the saga of Curt Welch continued, as the embattled center fielder caused a near riot in Baltimore during the ninth inning of what turned out to be an 8-8 tie. The play that caused the pandemonium came when Welch took out the Orioles second baseman Bill Greenwood in an aggressive attempt to steal second base in the ninth. A group of Orioles players became enraged, and the fans became enraged as well. An arrest would follow, and the next day Welch stood before a judge hoping to clear his name.

     The Baltimore American  proclaimed that Welch had ran at least five feet outside of the baseline to take out Greenwood, then once he did the damage he was looking to do Welch tagged up, as Greenwood rolled around on the ground in pain. The crowd of an estimated 9,000 became enraged by the actions of Welch, who not only took out their player, but was also awarded the base by umpire Jack McQuaid. The crowd was already incensed by calls that they considered favorable to the Browns from earlier in the contest, and because of that a lead was stolen from their club. They were also angry over the way Welch had taken at bats in the contest, as it was said he had tried to be purposefully hit by a pitch by diving over home plate as one crossed the dish, so once he barreled into Greenwood the proverbial pot came to a boil.

     The Baltimore nine gathered around the umpire and argued that Welch should be called out on the play. The aforementioned Baltimore American said the players made the most "frantic of gestures" toward McQuaid, yet he would not overturn the call. The crowd began to shout "kill him!" and "hit him in the head" before trying to make their way onto the field. Luckily, there were plenty of police officers on hand to quell the stirring violence. After gaining control over the crowd, the police had to turn their attention to the players who were "likewise becoming pugilistic." Charlie Comiskey and Oyster Burns were forcibly separated by officers as they were set to go toe-to-toe in battle.

     As the dust settled the Mayor of Baltimore's secretary ordered that Welch be arrested for assault, which led officers to grabbing him up and escorting across the field amidst a rain of jeers from the crowd. The tense situation was not helped by Welch's apparent resistance to being placed under arrest. Immediately thereafter it was determined by all parties involved that the game should be called, however, this thing was far from over.

     The Browns gathered their equipment, then were escorted to waiting carriages to take them to their hotels. They had a problem though: a large crowd gathered around the carriages. It soon became apparent that Welch, Comiskey and the the umpire Jack McQuaid could not safely be escorted from the premises. The only St. Louis player treated well was Dave Foutz, who was a native of the Baltimore area. Foutz returned to the clubhouse where he made it be known that the situation was volatile to say the least, therefore, those in charge began to come up with a Plan B on how to get the players out of there. The problem with that was there was only so many exits to the park, so the fans made their way to those exits in anticipation of the men trying to vacate.

     Meanwhile, several fans, which included one Colonel Wm. H. Love gathered around the police insisting that they would go swear in court that they saw Welch clearly assault Greenwood. Welch was worried about his own safety while being asked about the play. He denied that he meant to take out the second baseman, as he was just playing the game of base ball. On the other hand, Greenwood, who was struck by a severe headache while being questioned, did insist he thought it was on purpose, but he too thought it was a base ball play, and Welch did not strike him illegally. All of the baseball men involved tried desperately to keep Welch being arrested. However, they could not stop the officers from doing what was seen as their duty.

     Once Welch was finally whisked away in a carriage, he along with Comiskey, Greenwood were taken to a courthouse in Waverly. Some 50 young boys followed the carriage on a dead run to the courthouse, where they were met by an estimated 200 people who were ready to jeer Welch as he made his way to face a judge. The initial hearing ended with Welch being released on $200 bail, then he and Comiskey were taken to their hotel by police officers. All along the way they passed angry fans who irately let them know exactly what they thought.

     The owner of the Browns,  Chris Von der Ahe blamed the Orioles squad and their fans who lacked a knowledge of the game of base ball, saying "Out of ten thousand people to go to a ball game, there is not 500 who understand its rules." He also blamed McQuaid for losing control of the situation. The play in question was a play that "happened every day in a good game of ball" according to Von der Ahe. Earlier in that same contest Baltimore's first baseman Tommy Tucker scored a run, taking out St. Louis' catcher Doc Bushong in the process. Von der Ahe looked at that play just like he looked at the ninth inning play that was blown well out of proportion. One of the reasons it may have been blown out of proportion was the incident in Philly, which came one week before. Welch already had a reputation as a rough and aggressive player and that news in Philadelphia was read about by every fan in Baltimore with St. Louis due to make a visit.

     Welch's reputation had preceded him. With that said, the courts were not concerned with what had happened in Philadelphia. Their concern was about this one incident. The hearing was held at 2 p.m. the next day. Colonel Love was a featured witness. The Colonel insisted he had witnessed an assault. Other witnesses included the Mayor's secretary, and a man named John Boyce. Welch was joined by Von der Ahe, and Harry R. Von der Horst who had assumed responsibility for the posted bail money from the day before.The prosecuting attorney, Frank X. Ward had come prepared to have Welch punished for assault. However, once the witnesses began to testify Von der Ahe asked them pointed questions about the rules that they did not know the answers to. Then when Greenwood was called on he said in a straightforward fashion that plays of that nature happen in base ball, and he did not believe he had been assaulted. Despite the efforts of prosecutor Ward to implicate Welch for taking out the second baseman on purpose Greenwood stood by what he said, which led the judge to reducing the charge to disorderly conduct before handing down a $1 fine, that had an additional $3.50 tacked on for court costs. Von der Ahe paid the fine, then looked to put the fiasco behind him, as his championship squad had to get back to the business at hand: defending the American Association's Title.

     If you had a chance to read about the game in Philadelphia that had Curt Welch running in from center to punch Gus Weyhing, who was on the way to second base with a double, you will remembered that Welch was considered one of the greats of his time. He had scored the game winning run in Game 6 of the 1886 World Series with a steal of home that brought the franchise its first true title. The play was coined the "$15,000 slide", as each member of the St. Louis squad was awarded a healthy bonus for winning the series.

     The club won the American Association. pennant for four consecutive seasons beginning in 1885. Welch was a part of the first three pennant winning squads. The Browns parted ways with Welch after the club took the American Association pennant during that 1887 season. They had failed to win the World Series that season, in fact out of the four pennants, 1886 ended up being the only World Series title, while one of the four ended up being a disputed tie. With that said the early version of the team that was destined to become the Cardinals was a powerhouse franchise during that moment in time and despite Von der Ahe's decision to sell off some of his stars after the 1887 season they were dominant in 1888, which ended with them winning their last pennant in the 19th century.

     When he played in St. Louis, it was said that Welch kept beer behind the scoreboard at the ballpark, so he could toss one back while manning his post in the outfield. With that said, his defense was stellar. It was said he could cover so much ground that he could catch a ball that was hit within two city blocks from where he was stationed. His hearing was so fine tuned that some said he could hear grass grow, so he knew right where the ball was going as soon as he heard the crack of the bat. Welch himself claimed he could hear a fish breathe. His play made him a legend among fans and peers alike. He spent three seasons in the City of Brotherly Love after being sold to the Philadelphia Athletics following that 1887 season.

     Welch spent time with the Orioles, Reds, and the Louisville Colonels before his career came to an abrupt end in the Spring of 1893. It seems that his battle with the bottle was won by the bottle, and less than ten years after he caused a near riot in Baltimore, Curt Welch passed away from what was deemed as "consumption." He was just 34 years of age at the time. Had he been able to tame that personal demon his tale may be far greater than it is, however, that never came to be. With that said, the man was a pioneer in the sport and he thrilled the fans on many days while that that game of base ball was quickly becoming  the national pastime.


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