Me and Jerome

dewitt2Minor league baseball research is a challenging obsession. In most cases, I search for information about ballplayers having accomplished little in the sport and hailing from rural areas. Career statistics are readily available, but the lives of the players before and after their careers are buried in genealogical and census records often unseen for a century. Finding the information needed to form a profile is complicated, often coming in bits and pieces. After putting the puzzle together, the fact that I have brought a long forgotten and long-dead ball player to life is as burdensome as it is exhilarating. Accepting the possibility I know more about a single individual than anyone alive is humbling, regardless of their fame or legacy. My research creates a bond, almost a friendship, with those I study. Such is the case with my most challenging personality to date, Charles Jerome DeWitt.

I first met Jerome in 2007 while researching Paris’ history in the Texas League, but he kept his story a secret. For several years I believed Jerome to be his father, Charles Burr DeWitt. While researching for my book “Baseball on the Prairie,” though, Jerome’s blurry life slowly came into focus. Now I sense Jerome looking over my shoulder whenever I search for insignificant facts about a long-dead ball player’s life.

An Ohio native born to C.B. and Elizabeth Foley DeWitt in 1880, by his late teens, Jerome and his family lived in Texarkana where his father opened The Oyster Bay Restaurant. The little family history available suggests Jerome enjoyed the spoiled life of an only child. He seemed to be the center of his parents universe, working at the restaurant but allowed to forego his responsibilities to pursue his passion—amateur baseball. The DeWitt’s were undoubtedly the 19th century version of today’s helicopter parents—“buckboard wagon” parents, if you will.

It remains unknown how Jerome performed as a waiter or bus boy, but on the ball field he excelled as a first baseman and with a high batting average. When the Texas League’s cellar-dwelling Sherman-Denison Students relocated to Texarkana eleven games into the 1902 season, manager Cy Mulkey heard of the young infielder, and quickly signed him to a contract. Jerome made his professional debut with the Texarkana Casketmakers, whose ballpark lay in the shadow of the Texarkana Casket Company. The nickname became an omen, for both the team and Jerome DeWitt.

With Jerome now a professional baseball player, his father developed an interest in the game. He offered to be Cy Mulkey’s business partner, putting up cash for a stake in the team. Mulkey, a Grayson County native with shallow pockets, welcomed the support. The DeWitt men both held positions with the Casketmakers, one on the field and one behind the scenes. The fact his father partially owned his team seemed to give Jerome a sense of entitlement. Soon, he would press the issue with his manager, and together they left an indelible mark in baseball history.

In mid-June, 1902, the Casketmakers traveled to Corsicana to face longtime Texas Leaguer Mike O’Connor’s Oil Citys in a three-game series. Corsicana, in the midst of one of the finest seasons any professional baseball team has ever played, met the Texarkana in the middle of a 27-game winning streak, ultimately ending in a 57-9 first-half record. The Casketmakers unexpectedly put up a fight on Friday and Saturday, narrowly dropping both games. Texarkana awaited Sunday’s finale and a chance to break Corsicana’s streak. But, like many Texas cities, Corsicana had outlawed Sunday baseball, and though often overlooked, on this particular Sunday, the city chose to enforce the prohibition. Oil Citys’ owner Doak Roberts scrambled for an alternate game site, quickly making arrangements to play in Ennis, a few miles north of Corsicana.

Jerome DeWitt disappointed his manager when he missed the morning train to Ennis and appeared just minutes before game-time.   Mulkey’s put his disappointment aside, though and became enraged when Jerome announced, “Daddy says I’m pitching today.” No record exists of Jerome Dewitt having ever pitched, much less against one of the most formidable teams in baseball history. But, Cy Mulkey was no fool. His partner’s financial support kept his team afloat, and he begrudgingly sent Jerome to the pitcher’s plate.

The June 15, 1902, events on the Ennis ball field are still debated. Immediate newspaper accounts of the game provided few details, and the initial box score appeared flawed. Even early Texas League historians claimed C.B. DeWitt, not Jerome, actually pitched for the Casketmakers. Others declared the Ennis ballpark as abnormally small, the right field fence a scant fifty feet behind first base. A visit to the site and a review of an early Ennis map suggests otherwise. While details remain in question, the game itself is entrenched in Texas League lore.

When his business partner’s son, Jerome DeWitt, informed Cy Mulkey “Daddy says I’m pitching today,” it took all of Cy’s energy to keep from exploding in a fit of rage. C.B. DeWitt knew nothing of baseball, but he had pockets a lot deeper than Mulkey’s. If Mulkey expected his Texarkana Casketmakers to survive the season, he had to keep DeWitt on board. If it took putting a novice on the mound against of the most powerful lineups a minor league team ever fielded, well, that was just a bitter pill Mulkey had to swallow.

Only a few pitches into the contest, Cy Mulkey realized his first baseman was no pitcher. After one inning, the Oil Citys led 6-0, stretching the lead to 17-1 at the end of three. A Texarkana bench player suggested Cy Mulkey pull Jerome from the game, but Cy refused to disappoint his partner. “Daddy said he’s gonna pitch, and he’s sure pitching, ain’t he?” he famously chuckled. Jerome continued pitching all afternoon in a performance seen neither before nor since. Corsicana won the game obscenely, 51-3. Jerome surrendered 53 hits, 27 for extra bases, and 21 home runs. Corsicana’s Jay Clarke hit eight home runs in eight at bats, accounting for 64 total bases and 16 RBIs. Cy Mulkey was right. Indeed, Jerome pitched.

The cocky Jerome undoubtedly argued the box score didn’t reflect his true performance. After all, his infielders committed 5 errors, and Corsicana only earned 26 of its 51 runs. Corsicana batters undoubtedly crowded the plate, evident by the three batters Jerome beaned with his wild pitches. Plus, Jerome must have pitched well in the clutch, Corsicana actually leaving 15 players on base. Regardless, at the end of the day, several professional baseball records, including the sport’s most lopsided loss (and win), had been set. Many remain on the books over 110 years later. Perhaps the most impressive statistic, though, is the full nine innings being played in just two hours and ten minutes. Jerome pitched, and he wasted little time doing it.

The humiliation at the hands of old friend Mike O’Connor’s squad was too much to for Cy Mulkey to bear. When back in Texarkana, Mulkey sold his share of the franchise to C.B. DeWitt, announcing his retirement from baseball. The Casketmakers limped onward, eventually dropping out of the league on July 7 with a 19-46 record. Despite his .340 batting average, no team dared sign Jerome DeWitt, and he returned to work at his father’s restaurant, his baseball career over after just 28 games. Notably, Jerome did pitch again before his team folded, allowing just one hit in two innings. As the DeWitt’s left the sport for good, Cy Mulkey’s retirement lasted all of three days before he signed a contract with Dallas.

Unfortunately, tragedy followed Jerome home from Corsicana. By late fall, with a chronic cough and fever, doctors diagnosed him with consumption, or tuberculosis. A leading cause of death in the early 20th century, many believed the waters of Mineral Wells, west of Fort Worth, held healing power over the disease. Jerome’s parents wasted little time closing their restaurant and moving to the growing town where Jerome underwent treatment for the next two years. Ultimately, he was as little match for the consumption as he was for Corsicana’s batters, and he died on September 6, 1904.

After Jerome’s death, his parents remained in Mineral Wells, opening a hotel, aptly named The Hotel Jerome. C.B. DeWitt became a civic leader, most notably coordinating the city’s annual circus and carnival. Later, he dabbled in other tourism businesses, operating a mineral water well and a crystal mine. The DeWitt’s lived in Mineral Wells until their deaths in the mid-1930s, and both are buried alongside Jerome in Elmwood Cemetery.

Although Jerome’s untimely death was tragic, it likely saved him from countless questions about the fateful Sunday in Ennis. In fact, his early death seemingly resulted in his life being lost to history, his on-field performances credited to his father in almost every account of the 1902 Texas League season. But, as a baseball researcher who realized something was amiss, a couple of years ago, after hours of scouring online records, I tracked down Jerome. Undoubtedly, he tuned into my efforts and decided it was time he revealed himself after a century of anonymity. As the facts fell into place, I pieced together an image of Jerome obsessively filling my nightly dreams.

I continue to pursue the addiction of researching the genealogy of mostly insignificant and forgotten baseball players from the turn of the 20th century. Sometimes, when I encounter a particularly elusive personality and threaten to give up, I feel a light jab in the side and realize Jerome is telling me to press on. After all, he led me to his story, uncovering a humiliation no other ballplayer has faced. Jerome seems to have joined me on a mission to find the bits and pieces of forgotten lives buried in dusty archives across Texas. It’s a lonely hobby, and I’m glad to have the company. I guess I’ll continue my work as a joint effort—Me and Jerome.


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