The Deacons

Jacob Ruppert was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame the other day. He was the owner of the New York Yankees who brought Babe Ruth to the team (Ruth called him “Colonel”), built Yankee Stadium, and established the Yankee dynasty. A worthy choice, and you can read a good article about it here. My favorite thing about Ruppert, though, is the name of the man he bought the team with: Tillinghast l’Hommedieu Huston.

I used to write quite a bit about baseball history, so I’m always interested when the Hall reaches back and chooses someone it missed in the past. This year, the special committee also chose a 19th-Century player I’m especially fond of. Deacon White was the first batter in the first game ever played by a professional league, and got professional league baseball’s first hit. He was a great hitter, and was generally considered the greatest of the bare-handed catchers, before the mitt came in. In a crude, rough, profane profession, White was, by all accounts, a clean living character, and got his nickname because he was an actual deacon in his church. None of this has anything to do with why I like him.

Here’s what I love: as major stars, he and a teammate once refused to report to a new team when their old one sold their contracts. After a big kerfuffle, they got half the purchase price—an unheard-of concession at the time. Questioned by the press afterward, the Deacon pithily expressed a deathless principle, “No man is going to sell my carcass unless I get half.”

My Uncle Bob was called “Deacon” as a boy, because he was once forced to stand up in church and give some sort of talk or reading. A less deacony person you would have been hard put to find. But he, like Deacon White was a terrific ballplayer. I was into my 30s before I stopped running into local characters who, when they found out who I was, would say, “your Uncle Bob made the greatest catch I’ve ever seen.” Always the same catch from the same game, sometime in the late 1930s. I’d always call and tell him. He loved it.

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