The Serviceable Bill Kemmer

 

When William Edward Kemmerer left his home state of Pennsylvania in 1893, the 19-year-old ballplayer headed west to Kansas where a career in professional baseball awaited.  At the time, it’s unlikely he was sure he would earn a spot on a Western Association club’s roster. The idea that he would go onto a 17-year career and play for 25 teams probably never entered his mind. Although Bill is remembered as a journeyman rather than a star, what he did one April day in 1918 is a record standing the test of time.

Bill did get his chance on his first trip west, playing in a handful of games for Lawrence and Topeka. It would be 1895 until he returned to professional baseball, though, when he arrived in the Texas League and spent 43 games at third base for the Shreveport Grays. His .406 batting average and eight home runs caught the attention of the National League’s Louisville Colonels, and they called him up. Just 21 years old, he couldn’t match his success in the minors. After just 11 games, Bill concluded his major league career with a .184 batting average. But as far as professional baseball was concerned, Bill Kemmerer had barely started.

Although Kemmerer played only partial seasons in 1896 and 1897 with Galveston and Sherman-Denison, he posted a hefty batting average. Houston was quick to sign him prior to the 1898 season and slotted him as their everyday first baseman. By this point, Bill had shortened his last name to “Kemmer” and arrived in Houston set on continuing his rapid rise within the ranks of Texas League infielders. And he did just as he expected, batting .366 through the early portion of the season before the Spanish-American War brought most baseball to a sudden stop. Still, it was on April 18 that Bill Kemmer had the biggest day of his career, one the visiting Fort Worth Panthers would never forget.

Heavy rains had hit the coastal area in the days leading up to the game, and when the teams took the field, conditions were barely playable. The Galveston Daily News described the field as wet and muddy, pointing out that shortly into the game the two teams’ uniforms had become barely discernible. Regardless, the mud or difficult footing had little impact on Bill Kemmer play.

Batting cleanup, Kemmer opened up his day in the first inning with a three-run homer. When Fort Worth responded with four runs of its own, the fans knew they teams were in for a high-scoring affair.  Kemmer had added a single with his fourth RBI in the third inning. When he came to the plate in the fifth, once again two men were on base. Kemmer responded as he had in his first at-bat, blasting his second three-run home run of the game. The Buffaloes added two runs in both the sixth and seventh innings, with Bill singling to drive in two more RBIs, giving him nine on the afternoon. Finally Kemmer came to bat in the ninth inning and finished the game as he started it with another three-run blast. Houston took the victory, 16-10.

Less than three weeks later, the Texas League season came to an end after just 35 games.  Galveston claimed the pennant with a 19-16 record, with Houston finishing in second place two games behind. But any thoughts of baseball quickly fell by the wayside as the country went to war. As such, the events of 1898 have never received much recognition in the history books.

But in the game against Fort Worth on April 18, Bill Kemmer did what no Texas League player had done before, batting in twelve runs, nine of them with home runs. His five hits on the afternoon led the Buffaloes, and he was equally effective in the field. Bill never duplicated his day again; in fact, he hit only one other home run on the season.

A year later, Kemmer returned to the Texas League with Galveston and batted an impressive .331. After 1899, he left Texas and headed back east for two seasons before bouncing around the country for the next decade, including two stints in the Texas League. His batting average and offensive output steadily declined with each year, and he finally called it quits after eleven games with Oklahoma City in 1910. After seventeen seasons, he returned home to Pennsylvania where he went to work in a paper mill. He died in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 1945.

In the 118 seasons since Bill Kemmer batted in twelve runs in a single game for the Houston Buffaloes, no other player has matched the feat. A hundred years after Kemmer’s big day at the plate, Tyrone Horne of the Arkansas Travelers batted in ten runs in even more dramatic fashion. Horne achieved the only “Home Run Cycle” in professional baseball history against San Antonio, hitting four home runs, including a solo shot, a two run and three run homer, and a grand slam. Horne’s achievement is recognized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Kemmer, however, is merely a footnote in the Texas League history books.

Bill Kemmer never played outstanding baseball for an extended period; in fact, he never stayed with the same team for more than one season, opting to try his hand in different cities, different leagues, and different areas of the country. But for one game in April, 1898, Bill Kemmer stood on top of the baseball world. Today, he still holds the Texas League record for most runs batted in in a single game.

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