Pete Weckbecker: Ballplayer, Soldier, Inventor

Pete Weckbecker spent four seasons as a player-manager in the Texas League, but one day generated a controversy that haunted, if not destroyed, his baseball future.

Weckbecker was born in 1869 in Butler, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh. Peter was the fifth of six children of German immigrants George and Maggie Weckbecker, who arrived in the U.S. a decade before start of the Civil War. George worked as a molder, and most likely supported the Union war effort when hostilities broke out.

While early baseball had been popular in the northern states before the Civil War, when troops returned home, New York and Pennsylvania became the focus of the game’s growth.  Pete Weckbecker grew right along with baseball, and it’s safe to assume he played many games during his youth. In 1886, he signed his first professional contract as a catcher with the Mobile, Alabama, franchise of the Gulf League. A season later he moved northward, honing his catching skills in New Haven Connecticut, and Burlington, Iowa for three summers. Weckbecker had what he considered his best season in 1889 as a member of the Burlington Babies; however, statistics show he played in less than half the team’s games and batted a lowly .215. Considering the 1889 Babies sent 16 players to the major leagues, Weckbecker may have assumed his teammates’ talent to be contagious. On the other hand, a catcher’s game is not necessarily measured by offensive statistics, and at season’s end, Pete briefly appeared in the big leagues with the Indiana Hoosiers. A year later, he made his first legitimate big league appearance with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. Statistics suggest Weckbecker as the Colonels’ best defensive catcher, but his 5’-7” 150 pound frame did not translate to success at the major league level.

After his season in Louisville, Weckbecker returned to the Northeast and played with some of New York’s top minor league clubs. Following a hiatus in 1894, he moved to the South and became player, manager, and owner of the Texas-Southern League’s Shreveport Grays. Despite a highly successful season, Shreveport was dropped from the league when lowly San Antonio folded. Weckbecker moved on to Galveston, a team he remained with through 1896. It was with Galveston that Pete truly had his best professional season, batting .291 with 36 stolen bases for the second place team. By this point, Pete Weckbecker had established himself as a solid player-manager, and when Sherman and Denison joined forces to field a Texas League franchise in 1897, team leaders quickly signed him to lead their team for the a sum of $500.

In assembling his team, Pete Weckbecker scraped the bottom of the barrel, signing some of the best known scoundrels in Texas. Pearce Chiles, an outfielder known for cheating in the field and on the run from a rape charge, arrived as an outfielder, and future cheating umpire and bank robber Frank Quigg joined the pitching staff. Weckbecker’s ways of handling his roster and team did not sit well in the staunchly conservative city of Sherman. When he attempted to swindle Sherman representatives out of another $250 in salary, he likely damaged his name in professional baseball circles. When team officials didn’t pay him the money, Weckbecker ordered his players to rip the “S” from their jerseys, and the team played the next few games in Denison. On July 11, Denison folded while in second place in the league standings. Weckbecker played out the season with Fort Worth and Paris.

In 1898, Weckbecker had plans to manage the Burlington franchise he claimed to have played so splendidly for a decade earlier. He lobbied heavily for the job, reminding owners of his great success in Burlington. But word of his escapades in Sherman-Denison may have reached Iowa before his letter of application. Weckbecker had been so positive of securing the job he failed to line up another team, and in mid-May found himself jobless in Fort Smith, Arkansas. When President McKinley called for 25,000 Army volunteers to serve in the Spanish-American War, Weckbecker enlisted as a private with Company D of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Arkansas Infantry. He and 900 fellow Arkansas volunteers traveled to Camp Thomas in northwest Georgia expecting to be trained and shipped to Cuba. But Weckbecker’s unit never left the Camp. He received an honorable discharge after just five months of service and once again began lobbying to return to Burlington, this time with the credentials of a U.S. Army Corporal. Again, he had no luck and settled for a job as manager of the San Antonio Bronchos. Weckbecker took one more unsuccessful shot at the Burlington job in 1900 before accepting a position with the Virginia League’s Portsmouth Boers. It would be Pete Weckbecker’s last season in professional baseball, as an illness derived while in the hot, marshy area of north Georgia resulted in his requesting a soldier’s disability pension.

With a frustrating baseball career behind him, Weckbecker moved to Quincy, Florida, and worked as a machinist, a profession similar to that of his father. In 1903, he and local farmer Joseph Howard Sylvester received a patent for a new method for hanging tobacco. What became of the invention or Pete Weckbecker for the next 17 years is unclear. Some sources suggest Weckbecker married at one point but was soon widowed. His name does not show up in the census records in 1910, but in 1920 he is listed as Pete “Woodbecker,” and claims to be born in Maine. The reasons for the misleading information will never be known, but it is clear that Weckbecker’s health was deteriorating. By 1930, he was declared mentally incompetent and addicted to morphine. But both the addiction and mental deterioration may have been a result of cerebrospinal syphilis, a late-stage infection with no cure at the time. Coincidentally, in 1930, Weckbecker returned to the town where his baseball career ended and was admitted to the U.S. Veteran’s Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. He remained there for five years, finally succumbing to heart disease on May 16, 1935. He was buried with full military honors and now rests in Virginia’s Hampton National Cemetery.

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