To borrow a lyric, “His momma named him Pearce, but folks just called him ‘No Use.’ Something always told them, his momma got it wrong.”
Pearce Nugent Chiles was born in Henry County, Missouri in 1867. When he was eight years old, his father passed away, leaving the youngster with his mother, three sisters, and a $325 inheritance. Other than the fact he still lived in Henry County in 1880 and attended school, little is known of his childhood. It would be another thirteen years before his name turned up in public documents again, after his professional baseball debut in Lawrence, Kansas. Over the years, Chiles played for ten known teams in eleven seasons, including two with the Philadelphia Phillies. “Known” is a key word, as it seems Pearce disappeared from public view by 1903. But, many believe Pearce lurked in baseball circles in the Pacific Northwest for several more years under an assumed name.
Chiles played three of his first four seasons as an infielder and outfielder with Lawrence, Topeka, and St. Joseph of the Western Association and Little Rock of the Arkansas State League. He never achieved star status, his recorded .262 minor league batting average hardly making a blip on the record books, even in the Deadball era. Likewise, his 32 errors in 118 games did not endear him to Philadelphia fans but, then again, Pearce Chiles didn’t spend much time trying to endear himself to anyone.
Baseball lore claims Chiles earned the name “No Use” from his penchant for shouting to a baserunner, “It’s no use!” whenever a batted ball came in his direction. But, a closer look at Pearce’s life, on and off-the-field, suggests he just as likely earned his nickname by being a good-for-nothing, useless, scoundrel.
The first time Pearce Chiles’ name appears in the crime blotter is in 1895, when he fled Missouri to Phoenix to play winter ball. It seems he had a little more incentive to leave his native state than improving his baseball skills. Authorities chased Chiles with a warrant on charges of rape or as the newspapers referred to it, “illicit relations with a 16 year-old.” Soon, they tracked him to Arizona, but Chiles was as slick as he was useless. He escaped Phoenix only days before local officials received word the wanted ballplayer was in town and headed for Texas.
Chiles spent 1895 bouncing between Galveston and Shreveport of the Texas Southern League, apparently skipping one town for the other throughout the season to keep the law off his trail. After spending 1896 in the Northeast, Chiles returned to Texas to play with Pete Weckbecker’s Sherman-Denison Tigers of the Texas League. Weckbecker, in dire need of an outfielder, signed Chiles despite knowing he had hired a wanted man, and the manager remained anxious until he arrived. Fortunately for Chiles, Denison remained a lawless town in 1897, and
before season’s end, he’d been named manager of the Tigers following Weckbecker’s feud with management. But, a wanted man had to remain on the run, and in 1898, Chiles headed to Pennsylvania and the Lancaster Maroons.
Although Pearce Chiles managed to avoid the picturesque, medieval Lancaster County Prison and its public hanging ground, he couldn’t avoid attracting the attention of Philadelphia Phillies scouts just seventy miles to the east. In 1899, Chiles began his two-season major league career during which he played 118 games with a .294 batting average. But, Chiles play in Philadelphia isn’t what brought him his greatest fame.
“No Use” Chiles had long been skirting the law as a swindler and, in fact, managed to become a skilled con artist. When he put his efforts to work on a major league baseball field in 1901, he crossed the line. When preparing for a series in Cincinnati, Chiles and an acquaintance developed an elaborate, high-tech scheme to steal the Reds catcher’s signals. Throughout the game, spectators noticed Chiles seemed a bit uncomfortable in the third base coach’s box, his leg apparently jerking uncontrollably on occasion. Little did they know, in the early morning, Chiles had quietly strung an electrical wire from the center field bleachers to third base. At game time, his partner in crime took his seat in the center field bleachers with binoculars, one end of the bare wire, and a battery. When he recognized a signal, he’d send an electrical charge to Chiles, who had secretly tucked his end of the bare wire in his sock. The Reds eventually caught onto the ever-twitching Chiles’ scheme and what had to have been one of the strangest yet most ingenious cheating efforts in baseball history. Chiles remained in trouble off the field as well, constantly being arrested for one offense or the other, and the Phillies disposed of him after the 1900 season.
While he appeared to be out of baseball, Chiles didn’t stay out of the newspapers or, for that matter, prison. In 1901, he returned to Texas and running con games when his luck eventually ran out on a train near El Paso. Chiles and an accomplice swindled an unsuspecting passenger out of $95, but neither could escape the train. Arrested on arrival in El Paso, “No Use” bided his time in the local jail, but when his accomplice agreed to a plea deal, even Pearce realized he had little chance of escaping the charge. He pled guilty, expecting the same slap on the wrist most troublemakers received from the courts. But, Chiles’ reputation preceded him, and $95 was no small sum of money in 1901. The judge sentenced him to 24 months at Huntsville Prison Farm. For the first time in his life, Chiles appeared to have lost, but he didn’t give up so easily.
With eight months remaining on his sentence, Pearce escaped the bars of Huntsville as slick as he stole signals in Cincinnati. He soon turned up in Natchez, Mississippi, again choosing a rather lawless town to continue his baseball career. A year later, Chiles reportedly signed with Portland of the Pacific Coast League, about as far from Texas as he could get. Before he
managed to play a game, he once again found himself in trouble, charged with assaulting a young lady. At that point, he seemingly disappeared from sight and remained lost for over a century. The Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) kept Chiles on its “Most Wanted” list until just last year, when SABR member Peter Morris reportedly tracked Chiles back to Missouri living under the aliases Nugent, N.B., and Newton Barron Chiles. If Morris is correct, Chiles soon turned up in California as a self-employed salesman of “woolen goods.” N.B. Chiles appears in the California death records in 1933, and the evidence certainly points to N.B., in fact, being the notorious Pearce “No Use” Chiles. Still, some believe Chiles never actually left the sport but simply continued his career under some assumed name.
Whether “No Use” Chiles stayed in baseball, became a salesman, or left the country will likely never be known for sure. We could dig deeper into his life and maybe arrive at a definitive conclusion. But Peter Morris’ discovery appears legitimate, and even if contradicting evidence turned up, all we’d do is put a man who has been out of baseball for over a century and dead for at least 80 years back on the “Most Wanted” list. So really, what’s the use?