Billy Doyle: Contributions On and Off the Field

When Dallas Giants manager Charlie Moran signed outfielder Billy Doyle of Portsmouth, Ohio, prior to the 1903 season, he thought he’d found a diamond in the rough. And when owner J.W. Gardner heard St. Louis Cardinals manager Patsy Donovan and baseball magnate Ted Sullivan sing Doyle’s praises after a pre-season matchup between the two teams, he likely saw dollar signs in expectation of quickly selling Billy Doyle’s rights to a big-league franchise. On the other hand, perhaps he didn’t realize that Donovan and Sullivan, both Irishmen, had a natural inclination to support their fellow countrymen, of which Doyle was one.

William Thomas Doyle was born November 3, 1881, to James and Emma Doyle. James, a native of Ireland, and Emma, whose parents had travelled from Ireland to the United States before her birth, raised eleven children in Portsmouth, Ohio, following their marriage in 1862 with James employed as a cooper. Located on the Ohio River, Portsmouth was the ideal city for a cooper as its growing industrial economy relied on shipping containers. Eventually, Portsmouth became established as one of the top shoemaking cities in the country, and the Doyles relied on the shoe industry for income. Every child of the family was either employed in a shoe factory or in the selling of footwear by 1900.

In 1900, Billy Doyle held his first job as a laborer in a shoe factory.  But three years earlier he had chosen what would become his true career when he joined the Portsmouth Victors baseball team. By 1902, Doyle had drawn the attention of several professional teams and was recruited to play in cities including Charleston, Knoxville, and Vicksburg. But Charlie Moran won out when he convinced the young ballplayer to make the move to the Texas League. He immediately made an impact in spring training.

Ted Sullivan, said to have invented the art of scouting ball players, told the Dallas Morning News, “There’s plenty of big league timber in (Dallas). And that fellow Doyle! Oh what would the game be without us Irish!” The same afternoon that Sullivan sang Doyle’s praises, so did Cardinals manager Patsy Donovan. He noted that Doyle had the reputation for smashing the ball whenever it approached home plate, and when he connected it meant either a hard put out for the defenders or Doyle standing safely on base. Although Dallas went on to win the Texas League crown in 1903, Billy Doyle contributed little to the cause, batting just .165 during a season when he was hampered by a nagging “charley horse” injury. A year later, Doyle better met expectations when he appeared in 102 games for the second place Giants, raising his batting average to .255, a respectable number for the dead ball era. But in 1905, he regressed. Despite playing full time in the Giants outfield, Doyle batted just .175. The big league clubs were no longer expressing interest in Doyle, and J.W. Gardner likely wondered just how long he should hold on to what was once his prized ballplayer. The answer arrived in 1906 when Doyle played with the Greenville Hunters. But just how far Gardner actually distanced himself from Billy is debatable.

When the Texas League owners sat down to choose the slate of 1906 teams, Dallas’ J.W. Gardner insisted that he be able to own two franchises, one in Dallas and another in Greenville. The other owners staunchly opposed Gardner’s proposal and rightly so. It was obvious to anyone that Greenville would essentially be a “farm club” to supply Dallas with talent in case of injuries and keep the Giants profitable. Gardner lost the vote on paper but not necessarily in reality. Most agreed that the Greenville “stock ownership” arrangement was financed by Gardner. And Billy Doyle’s signing with Greenville made the franchise’s very existence all the more suspicious, as did his sudden conversion from a fielder to a pitcher.

What Doyle lacked in the field and at bat, he made up for on the pitcher’s mound.  In fact, he pitched phenomenally for Greenville then for Waco after the Greenville franchise folded at mid-season. At season’s end, he had posted a 19-13 won-loss record, and teams like Little Rock and Milwaukee were calling for his services in 1907. Instead, Temple manager Ben Shelton, who accepted ownership of the club with the caveat that he received his choice of players from the other teams, selected Doyle to be the ace of his pitching staff. It was an unmitigated disaster.  While Temple didn’t field a particularly competitive offense in 1907, pitcher Roy McFarland posted a 21-15 record, while William Jarvis managed to win 15 games despite 19 losses. Billy Doyle, however, set a Texas League mark for futility. He won just 8 of 37 starts, and his 28 losses still ranks as the worst of any pitcher in league history 111 years later. At season’s end, Doyle returned to Ohio where he finished out his playing career in 1908 with a 7-11 pitching record and .176 batting average for his hometown franchise. While Doyle’s most notable contribution on the baseball field may be his 1907 Texas League debacle, he was far more successful off the field as a scout.

From 1910 through 1938, Doyle scouted for four major league clubs, most notably a 20-year stint with the Detroit Tigers. He’s credited with discovering dozens of players including Dickie Kerr, George Sisler, Hank Greenberg, Tommy Bridges, and the memorable yet still forgettable Boots Poffenberger.

The end for Billy Doyle came in 1939 when at age 57 he suffered a stroke and passed away in Washington, Pennsylvania. Despite a life that appeared destined for the shoe factories of Ohio 40 years earlier, Doyle went on to spend an entire lifetime in baseball. And in reality, it was not his on-field contribution or even his 28 loss season for which Billy is best remembered. Rather, it is the 50 plus significant major league players he discovered that remain his greatest legacy to the game.

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