Jim Devlin and life after organized baseball

Long after Hal Chase left the majors, he could be found playing in outlaw leagues. The same could be said of several of the Black Sox banned following the 1919 World Series, including Shoeless Joe Jackson. Even Benny Kauff scouted for 22 years after he was banned for participating in a stolen car ring. It isn’t that surprising, really. What’s a person to do deprived of their livelihood? Long before Chase, Jackson and Kauff continued baseball careers in obscurity, Jim Devlin trod a similar path.

Devlin may rate as one of the sadder stories in baseball history. His 13.3 Wins Above Replacement in 1877 are the most of any player in his final season as he was the Louisville Grays’ only pitcher that year, racking up a staggering 559 innings. He went 35-25 with a 2.25 ERA and was rated by Bill James in his 2001 historical abstract as the best pitcher of 1877. Late in the season, Devlin and three other Grays were among the first players banned from baseball for throwing games. Suspicions rose after a seven-game losing streak where they muffed easy plays and were later seen with diamond stick pins. Banished from baseball, uneducated and semi-literate, Devlin and his family faced bleak prospects.

Devlin lived six more years, dying in 1883 of consumption exacerbated by alcoholism. Around September 1882, he got a job as a policeman in his hometown of Philadelphia. For most of his life after 1877, though, Devlin did two things: 1) Annually petition baseball to be reinstated, with the minor league National Association doing so in 1879; 2) Continue to play baseball, with Devlin being connected with at least nine teams after his ban from the majors. John Thorn wrote in Baseball in the Garden of Eden that Devlin may have played for still more teams under assumed names.

Devlin’s continued career after his ban offers a reminder of how disjointed 19th century baseball was and how little relation it bears to the current game or even the majors 50 years later. For instance, the SABR bio of Gene Paulette, the first player permanently barred by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, talks about how an industrial league couldn’t put him in uniform thereafter because no team would play it. While Chase played in the Pacific Coast League after he left the majors, he and some of the Black Sox later consigned themselves to the outlaw Frontier League in Arizona. Sal Maglie may have been last to play during a ban. Maglie’s SABR bio, which Jacob Pomrenke pointed out to me, talks of him barnstorming unsuccessfully and playing in a Canadian league after his five-year ban from the majors for jumping to the Mexican League in 1946.

Devlin needed no subterfuge after his ban. He pitched for at least three teams in 1878, including in a benefit game at Troy on October 9. Earlier, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported on March 8, 1878 that Devlin would be going on the variety stage and that a team named the Marions would be assembled around him in Philadelphia. Two months later, the Tribune noted Devlin pitching for a Philadelphia amateur team. Without clarifying if it was the Marions, the Tribune added that a Philadelphian was interested in launching a team for Albany with Devlin and Levi Meyerle. While that may have fallen through, Devlin found other baseball work in 1878, with the Tribune noting on November 17, 1878:

During the past summer he played with a Canuck club, and as a reward for his services was beaten out of the greater part of the salary promised him. During the season he became convinced that there was no chance for mercy at the hands of the League, and since then his efforts have been directed toward the International Association.

Meanwhile, Devlin was continuing to lobby for reinstatement. There’s a famous story about National League president William Hulbert tearfully giving Devlin $50 from his pocket at a private meeting and then telling him he could never let him back in the league because of his transgressions. The Chicago Daily Tribune noted July 6, 1879 upon Devlin’s reinstatement to the National Association:

But, even while seeking pardon for the past offenses and promising honesty for the future, Devlin was at his old tricks. When in Chicago last year he was actually given money by charitably-disposed persons who believed his story of poverty and sufferings, and in less than three hours this same money was used by him for the purpose of gambling.

Nevertheless, Devlin’s playing career continued. Thorn told me via email that Devlin signed with Forest City of Cleveland in August 1879. The following year, Devlin played for the San Francisco Athletics of the California League, a team that featured a few notable members including future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin. The San Francisco Chronicle even reported on July 26, 1880 that Devlin pitched a three-hitter against future 191-game winner Jim Whitney.

Devlin wasn’t done. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that Devlin might play in St. Louis in 1881. Thorn’s email also noted that Devlin played center field for Trenton in October 1881 and that he signed with Lone Star of New Orleans to play winter ball with in 1881 and 1882. I haven’t found any evidence Devlin played baseball beyond New Orleans, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there for someone willing to dig in deep with a newspaper archive. The man could seemingly not stop playing even in the most obscure and depressing of situations. With respect to Chase, Kauff and Shoeless Joe, I don’t know if there’s been anything like it in baseball since.

0 thoughts on “Jim Devlin and life after organized baseball”

  1. Graham- excellent piece and interesting to see how Devlin continued to play after his banishment. It’s worth noting that Dr Harold Seymour and Dorothy Mills were the first baseball researchers to document Devlin’s banishment and the circumstances of his attempts to return to the game. Fortunately for them they had the ability to research the incoming correspondence collection of Harry Wright at the New York Public Library. Wright’s letters and other related documents (thousands of them) were pasted in 4 thick scrapbook volumes with at least 6 or 7 actual letters penned by Devlin to Wright requesting reinstatement, financial help and work as a groundskeeper. All of those Devlin letters were stolen from the library but luckily the Seymour research papers at Cornell feature their handwritten research notes which include word for word passages from the stolen originals. Unfortunately, there were well over 1,000 other letters stolen that were not documented and researchers today, like yourself, have been deprived of this incredible research tool that was originally bequeathed to the National League by Harry Wright in his last will and testament.

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