Elmer Countryman: A Texas League Tragedy

As a researcher of obscure Texas League characters, I wish I could write of a great debate about the true identity of “Countryman,” as he is listed in the 1896 Texas League record books. Some sources suggest he was Ellis Countryman, a pitcher from the Eastern Iowa League a year earlier. In Marshall D. Wright’s comprehensive “The Texas League in Baseball: 1888-1958,” however, he is noted as Elmer Countryman. Both Ellis and Elmer came from the same area of the country, and both were born around 1870, so a case of mistaken identity is entirely understandable. Unfortunately, no debate exists, as neither Ellis nor Elmer played more than a handful of games professionally. But, since I my interest rests in the Texas League, I will trust my Texas League resources. Besides, the sad saga of Elmer is far more interesting than that of Ellis, who spent most of his life as a police officer. In fact, Elmer could have been the perfect inspiration for Edwin Arlington Robinson’s tragic character of poetry, Richard Cory.

___________________________________________________________________________________

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:

Elmer J. Countryman was born in Ogle County, Illinois, about fifty miles due west of Chicago. Unlike many of his day, Countryman received an education, having attended and graduated public schools in nearby Rochelle, a community of about 1,800 residents at the junction of the Chicago & Northwestern and Chicago & Iowa Railroads. As a junction city, Rochelle offered ample opportunities for an aspiring young businessman. Elmer Countryman seemed a perfect fit for the city’s future.

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

After finishing his education, Elmer took a job as cashier of the Rochelle National Bank, where he remained for three years. By 1893, his experience managing money led him to relocate to Dixon, Illinois, where he entered business with his uncle, Isaac Countryman. Isaac had grown a small mercantile business into a 5,000 square foot department store with twelve full-time employees. Elmer spent three years helping his uncle build the business into the most prominent in Dixon. At the same time, he quickly became an influential citizen. In 1896, however, Isaac left the business, and Elmer somehow temporarily found himself in North Texas.


And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;

The circumstances of Elmer’s arrival in Texas are unclear, as are those surrounding his brief professional baseball career. The sport was popular in the Iowa-Illinois-Indiana area; in fact, the Three-I League formed in 1901 and dominated minor league baseball in the area for the next six decades. Assumedly, Countryman had taken up the sport as a hobby, and when his uncle left the department store, he saw an opportunity to take a shot at playing professionally.

In 1896, the Sherman Students baseball club represented the city’s second season in the Texas Leauge. Under the management of Frank Ryan, Countryman served as the team’s primary pitcher and played alongside A.C. Jantzen, George Nie, Billy Oswald, and future famed artist William Van Dresser. The Students got off to a poor start, and a tornado striking Sherman the afternoon of May 16 sealed the team’s fate. With local residents far more interested in rebuilding their town than watching baseball, the Students relocated to Paris, due east along the Texas and Pacific Railroad. While some players abandoned the team for other Texas League cities, Countryman loyally made the move to Paris.

 

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

 

In Paris, Elmer Countryman probably found a community very similar to Dixon. The city plaza bustled with activity, with businesses lining the streets and cotton traders crowding the plaza area. Countryman likely felt he fit in a lot better with the Paris business community than he did a professional baseball team. But, he was well-liked by his teammates, with intelligence higher than the average ball player.  Later, Countryman would be described as a man with a “total absence of anything sinister or anything to conceal, ready to meet his obligations with… conscious, personal ability… and a habitual regard for what is best in the exercise of human activities.” In short, Elmer Countryman was known for everything the average ball player of the late 19th century lacked. His business success probably didn’t hurt his image, as ballplayers made little money.

On the season, Elmer started fourteen games as a pitcher, posting a 5-9 won-loss record for a team finishing in seventh place.  Although he was limited to less than fifty plate appearances, he led the team in batting average at .340, adding three doubles, two triples, and a home run. But, at some point during the season, the business world beckoned.  Countryman left Texas and returned to Dixon, his professional baseball career ending shortly after it began.


And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace;

 

Back in Illinois, Elmer took over his uncle’s business, continuing to operate under the name I.B. Countryman Company until 1910. Upon reorganizing as the E.J. Countryman Company, Elmer became president and rapidly expanded the mercantile operation. His two-story department store employed up to twenty-two residents and expanded to an astounding 15,000 square feet. Elmer became one of the most admired businessmen in all of Lee County. He and his wife, Alice, frequented Dixon social engagements, often hosting events in their “abode of a warm-hearted hospitality.”

 

In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

 

Aside from owning a tremendously successful business, Elmer also became involved in civic matters. He held membership in both the Masonic and Elks Lodges, spent four years as a member of the Board of Education, and helped bring a new high school to the community. Finally, he chartered the Union State Bank and served on its board of directors.  Local citizens described Elmer Countryman as “a square man,” one who held the public’s confidence with dignity, frankness, and cordiality.

 

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

 


                Seemingly, Elmer Countryman was the man everyone in Dixon wanted to be; rich, respected, educated, well-known, and extremely successful. Yet, shortly before 1920, Elmer made one of the few poor business decisions of his life when he and his partner invested $100,000 in a bull named Ragapple Thorndyke. The bull had a reputation of siring calves which grew into sources of the finest milk and cream found in the Midwest. Yet, soon after the purchase, the partners discovered Ragapple Thorndyke to be a fraud. A laborer of the bull’s former owner confessed  he had poured cream into fresh milk extracted from the bull’s offspring. In reality, when tested legitimately, the milk held no more quality than any other milk from the dairy farms of the region. Some of the calves Ragapple sired turned out to be “squibs,” a term normally used to describe failed explosives. In other words, Ragapple Thorndyke fathered “duds” in the dairy world.

The results of the failed investment sent Countryman’s partner into bankruptcy. Soon after, Union State Bank suddenly closed, its clients left penniless at the hands of a failed financial institution.  Countryman blamed the closure on a single stock transaction which left his bank nearly $300,000 in debt.  Investigators, on the other hand, discovered otherwise. As it turned out, when Elmer Countryman felt pressure, his personality, respect for human dignity, and warm-hearted hospitality failed even faster than his bank.  Authorities charged him with thirteen counts of larceny, embezzlement, and forgery. Elmer suddenly faced a lengthy prison sentence.

Much like today when beloved celebrities like Bill Cosby, Mark McGwire, and Jarred the Subway Guy betray their status, Elmer Countryman’s sudden downfall shocked all of Dixon.  On January 13, 1921, a sheriff led Countryman into the Lee County Courthouse for a plea hearing. When entering the courtroom, Elmer stopped to use the washroom behind the gallery, likely experiencing his last moments of freedom. With the sheriff standing guard outside the door, a sudden “pop” echoed through the building. The sheriff and judge rushed into the washroom where they found Elmer J. Countryman resting on the floor, a revolver in his hand and a bullet through his brain. He is buried in Lee County’s Lindenwood Cemetery with no sign of his brief baseball career or successful business ventures to be found.

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

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