Samuel B. Sager may just be the most tantalizing man to have played in the first major-league season of 1871. He left a vivid enough impression to be pegged with two nicknames and to figure prominently in Cap Anson’s memoirs. Yet even the most basic biographical information has eluded generations of researchers, until a group of SABR researchers made considerable progress toward identifying him, including determining conclusively the dates and places of his birth and death.
Sager has long been listed in the encyclopedias as being born in 1847 in Marshalltown, Iowa. As with everything about this enigmatic ballplayer, what seems like a valuable clue ends up turning into a dead end. Marshalltown was founded (as Marshall) in 1851 by Cap Anson’s father Henry, with Cap himself the first white child born there, in 1852. So obviously something is wrong.
But where did the erroneous birth information come from? Cap Anson, a recurring figure in this saga, turns out to be the source. In his autobiography, Anson tells how he returned home to Marshalltown from Notre Dame, found that the town had lost the state championship to Des Moines, and organized a team to regain it. Included on that squad were shortstop Pete Hoskins and outfielder Sam Sager. Anson then relates how the Forest Citys of Rockford visited Marshalltown and were impressed by the quality of the team’s play, with the result that Anson, Sager, and Hoskins were signed to play for Rockford in 1871. The upshot, Anson concludes, was that, “All that winter Sager and I practiced as best we could in the loft of my father’s barn.”1
Anson’s account certainly makes it sound as though Sager was a native of Marshalltown, but efforts to find him there proved fruitless. There was nobody there named Sager, nor was there anyone named Samuel with a similar surname, either in the 1870 census or in other town records. Nobody with a name resembling Sager played for the Marshalltown Base Ball Club in 1870 in any of the club’s games against local rivals, including a grudge match with Des Moines on August 11. It was not until Marshalltown hosted the Forest Citys on September 22, 1870, that Sager made his first recorded appearance for Marshalltown.
Researchers looked further afield, but there were only a few Sager families in all of Iowa, and none of them had a son by any name who was of the right age to be the ballplayer. The most plausible conclusion was that Sager was a ringer from somewhere else but that Anson didn’t want to acknowledge this. Another possibility considered was that Sager was a pseudonym for a player (from Marshalltown or elsewhere) who wished to conceal that he was playing professionally. But in an interview Anson gave in 1897, he described Sager as someone who had been visiting Marshalltown and played on his team.2 This seemed to confirm the suspicion that Sager was an out-of-town ringer who would be most difficult to ever pin down.
The next step was to examine coverage of Samuel Sager’s playing career for clues. Alas, this too proved frustrating and tantalizing. There was no mention of him at all in Marshall Wright’s The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870, the best reference source on ballplayers of that era. Sager’s career with Rockford lasted for only a month in 1871: four games at shortstop and four games in the outfield. During that time one of his nicknames made its first appearance – one game account referred to him as “the ‘Pony’ as Sager is called” and another just called him “the ‘Pony.’ ”3 In addition, Sager’s dapper, mustachioed portrait is included in the well-known team photo collage of the 1871 Rockford Forest Citys, despite his short tenure with the ballclub, giving us a face to go with the scant encyclopedia entry. Sadly, none of the accounts found so far give us any idea whether Sager batted or threw right-handed or left-handed. Also, there were no useful clues about his identity, save for a line in a preseason article about the club in the Chicago Tribune of March 24, 1871. The list of players in the article includes “Samuel B. Sayre (sic) of Philadelphia, first base or left field.” The last name variant aside, the Philadelphia connection seemed worth exploring.
Sager resumed his career in 1872 as the shortstop of several Chicago amateur clubs. In May a published roster of the Liberty Club included “Sager, of the Forest City nine of last year.”4 That club soon collapsed, but in July Sager attended a meeting for “reorganizing the Active Base Ball Club from the remnants of defunct amateur nines.”5 At least one box score shows Sager playing shortstop for the Actives, but that club also seems to have been short-lived, as by September he was playing for another Chicago club called the Aetnas.6 There ended his known ballplaying career, or so it seemed.
The ballplayer’s sojourn in Chicago corresponded to two Chicago city directory listings for a man named Samuel B. Sager – an 1872 appearance as a clerk for F.B.J. Read at 861 State Street and an 1873 listing as a clerk at 330 W. Lake. But his name disappeared after that, so another dead end had been reached.
With little else to go on, the next step was to investigate every Samuel B. Sager of appropriate age with ties to the Midwest and try to find something that linked one of them to baseball or to Rockford or to Marshalltown. There were a limited number of such men, and several seemed promising. A Samuel Butler Sager who died in Ogden, Illinois, in October of 1922 was of a plausible age, but nothing else about him seemed to fit. It was the same story with a woodworker named Samuel B. Sager who was born in Ohio and died in Louisville on November 15, 1933. There was another Ohio-born Samuel Sager of appropriate age in Fairfield, Illinois, on the 1900 census, but his death information could not be determined and his middle initial was not listed. Meanwhile an “S. Sager, physician” who once appeared in the Rockford city directory turned out to be a typographical error – the man was actually named Rockwood Sager.
With all leads exhausted, there was little else to do but wait and hope that a new note would turn up and provide a lead. Considering that Sager had a very brief playing career that by all indications seems to have ended in 1872, this likelihood seemed remote. But Samuel B. Sager was no ordinary player. The result was that new leads turned up on a regular basis, only to prove to be maddening near-misses instead of the long-awaited breakthrough.
In 1880 the New York Clipper included an odd message stating that a man named Samuel Sager had died in Philadelphia and wondering whether the man in question was the former ballplayer.7 Naturally, this was investigated, and it turned out to be a bookkeeper named Samuel Spencer Sager. While his age was in the appropriate range, nothing else seemed to fit.
Another promising lead was a note in the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune that referred to the Rockford player as “Samuel B. Sayre of Philadelphia.” This was obviously the man we knew as Sager whose name had been given as Sayre in the past. If his name had been misspelled it would explain why he had been so hard to pin down. But no legitimate candidate under the name of Sayre, or other variants, could be identified. Worse, the Advertiser and Tribune article referred to teammate William Lennon as “John Lennon of the Marylands of Baltimore.” While this was an amusing mistake that inspired many Beatles-related jokes among the researchers who were pursuing Sager, it made it hard to put much faith in the source.
As elusive as Samuel Sager was, he clearly made a strong impression on Anson, and this contributed to an interesting twist in Anson’s life story.
Charles Hoyt, a playwright who managed the Madison Square Theater in New York, had written and produced a number of successful stage comedies in the 1880s and 1890s.8 He was also a baseball fan, going back to his boyhood in Charlestown, New Hampshire. Hoyt had put Mike “King” Kelly on the stage in 1888 and wanted to do the same with Anson. It turned out that the two men had a common acquaintance: none other than Sager! Back in New Hampshire, Hoyt knew Sager as a catcher for the Claremont, New Hampshire, team in the late 1870s.9 This connection may have been a factor in getting the two men to work together on the production of Anson’s first significant stage venture: the disastrous 1895 play The Runaway Colt, written and produced by Hoyt and starring Anson as himself. Interestingly, one of the characters is a clubhouse attendant named Poney Sager who delivers a monologue about “how he did more for baseball than any man on Earth. He put Anson in the business.”10
Does Hoyt’s character bear any resemblance to Sager as a person? We might never know, but it is as intriguing as his 1871 photograph. The young ballplayers poked fun at the old ballplayer, but treated him respectfully. As Travis Stern notes in his analysis of the script, “Hoyt shows that baseball is something that has both a history and a future and should be therefore respected by having the old-timer Sager talk to the players in the clubhouse.”11 As interesting as this portrayal might be, it seemed at first to be of no help in the search for the mysterious ballplayer.
And so the hunt for Samuel Sager languished until 2009, when the extraordinary “shoeboxes” of baseball notes compiled by Tom Shea and maintained by Dick Thompson were donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Among their riches was a scribbled note citing the Rockford Republic of July 29, 1922, as the source of a profile of Sager. When the article in question was tracked down it proved to be part of a series about the Forest Citys that provided several valuable clues. One piece said, “ ‘Cricket’ S.B. Sager of Marshalltown. Played with the Holmesburg Club of Philadelphia. Age 24, weight 140.” A follow-up reported, “Cricket Sager left the team at Boston early in June following a minor injury in a game. Sager was the fastest man on the bases that the Forest Citys had that year, George Bird being second, but Sager was too light to line out the kind of hits expected in those days. In nine games on the trip he hit safely twenty-six times, and only once for more than a single base.”12
These clues – particularly the reference to the Holmesburg Club – finally made it possible to zero in on this enigmatic ballplayer. One of the many possibilities that had been considered along the way was a Samuel Sager who hailed from Holmesburg, a village on the outskirts of Philadelphia that was incorporated into the city in 1854. This man was the son of Samuel Rogers Sager, who was described in an 1893 book as having been the longtime village blacksmith of Holmesburg.13 He had initially not been considered a strong candidate to be the ballplayer because he had no obvious ties to the Midwest and because he was listed as Samuel Sager with no middle initial in early censuses. But the discovery that the ballplayer had played in Holmesburg pointed directly to this man, and more digging revealed that his middle initial was indeed B., and that two of his sisters were buried in Holmesburg. Making this man a still better fit was the fact that his whole family moved to Charlestown, New Hampshire, in the late 1860s, which would explain why Sager “left the team” when the Forest Citys arrived in Boston.
Reconstruction of his life via the censuses, city directories, and other genealogical sources filled in the picture of the life of the prime candidate:
1850 census, Lower Dublin Twp., Philadelphia Pa
Samuel R. Sager, 45, b. Pa, blacksmith
Jane, 35, b. NH
Agnes, 17, b. Pa
Elisabeth, 14, b. Pa
Margaret, 12, b. Pa
Samuel, 3, b. Pa [the man believed to be the ballplayer]
Lucy, 1, b. Pa
Holmesburg was part of Lower Dublin Township, so the location was a perfect fit. Our suspect’s father, Samuel Rogers Sager, married Jane Bowman on October 7, 1847, after the death of his first wife, the former Agnes F. McClellan. The date of the second marriage makes it unlikely that Jane Bowman was Samuel B. Sager’s mother. So a plausible scenario is that the younger Samuel’s mother was Agnes and that she died giving birth to him.
1860 census, Philadelphia, 10th Precinct, Post Office: Frankford
Samuel R. Sager, 55, b. Pa, blacksmith
Jane, 40, b. NH
Samuel, 13, b. Pa
Lucy, 11, b. Pa
Emma, 9, b. Pa
Alice, 5, b. Pa
Frankford was the main thoroughfare of Holmesburg. Sam’s sister Lucy died on February 17, 1864, and was buried in the Episcopal Church Cemetery in Holmesburg. A few years later the family moved to Jane Bowman’s hometown of Charlestown, New Hampshire:
1870 census, Charlestown, NH
Samuel R., 65, b. Pa, blacksmith
Jane, 48, b. NH
Samuel, 22, b. Pa, painter
Margaret, 17, b. Pa
Alice, 14, b. Pa
The family was enumerated on June 9, 1870, so the fact that the younger Samuel appears in New Hampshire does not preclude his making his way to Iowa by that September. By the 1880 census, Samuel R. Sager had died and the family had dispersed:
1880 census, Rockingham, Windham County, Vt.
Jane Sager, 60, widowed, b. NH, parents born Massachusetts
Emma, 25, b. Pa, parents born Pa. and NH
1880 census, 109 Green St., Boston
Ellen F. Dudley, 38, divorced, b. Mass, parents b. NH, running lodging house
Frances, 13, daughter, parents b. Maine and Mass.
Ida F., 7, daughter, parents b. Maine and Mass.
Lodgers include Samuel Sagar, 29, b. Penn., spring bed maker
Ellen Dudley, who was the ex-wife of Harvey Dudley, would eventually marry Samuel Sager, and her daughter Ida will turn out to be relevant in identifying Sager’s place and date of death.
City directory listings place Samuel B. Sager in Boston in 1886 and 1890, and in Somerville in 1891 and 1892. He then becomes very difficult to trace for several years. The 1900 city directory for Malden, Massachusetts, has a listing for a Samuel B. Sager, wood worker, at 213 Cross, but this man is not listed on the 1900 census. He reappears, however, in the 1910 census and was now married to his former landlady in Somerville:
1910 census, 3 Wright Avenue, Somerville, Mass.
Samuel B. Sager, b. 1848 Pa., parents born Pa. and NH, repair shop machinist, first marriage, married 45 years
wife Ellen F., b. 1847 Mass, parents born Mass., first marriage, married 45 years, mother of 3 children, 2 living
daughter Frances Emery, 37, b. Mass, widowed, mother of 2 children, 1 living
As often happened on censuses, quite a bit of the information is incorrect. Most obviously, the statement that this was Ellen Sager’s first marriage and had lasted 45 years is untrue – she and her first husband were listed together as early as the 1860 census and she did not marry Samuel Sager until after 1880. Also untrue is the description of Frances Emery as a widow – her husband, Vermont-born lawyer Wilson S. Emery, had remarried by the time of the 1910 census and their only surviving child was living with him and his second wife. There is no way to know who spoke to the census-taker or whether the mistakes were the result of deceit or miscommunication.
The Sagers moved on to Wakefield, Massachusetts, and that town’s 1917 city directory has a listing for Samuel B. Sager, inspector, with wife Ellen F., at 11½ High G. They also appear in the 1920 census as living at 18 High St. rear, Wakefield, Mass. The 1921 Wakefield city directory has a listing that matches the 1917 one except that the address is now 11 Pitman Ave. G.
And there the trail appeared to end – there are no more city directory or census listings and a careful search of Massachusetts death records turned up no death record for either Samuel or Ellen Sager. Just as the New Hampshire connection led to solid documentation of Sager’s birth in one direction, however, it now pointed to the end of the journey. Checking the records for the area around where the Sagers had lived in the 1860s and 1870s, it turns out that Samuel B. Sager died on October 15, 1928, in Newport, New Hampshire, and that Ellen had died there on November 20, 1926. They are buried in Croydon Flat Cemetery, in Croydon, New Hampshire. This is near the site of the former Bald Pate Inn of Newport, owned and operated by Ellen’s daughter Ida, with her husband John Lovering, beginning in 1925.
Thus by whatever name – “Pony,” “Cricket,” or just plain Sam – Sager has been as intriguing to baseball researchers as he was to a prominent playwright more than 12 decades ago. Perhaps further discoveries will enrich the tale.
July 20, 2013
The main sources of this profile are the notes and city directory and census listings dug up over the years by many of SABR’s best biographical researchers, including Richard Malatzky, Bob Richardson, Joe Simenic, Jeff Sackmann, Cappy Gagnon, Bill Carle, and Wayne McElreavy. Of special value were the clues in Tom Shea’s famous collection of “shoebox” notes, which were maintained for many years by the late Dick Thompson and have now been donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Other sources are cited in the notes.
1 Adrian C. Anson, A Ball Player’s Career (Mattituck, New York: Amereon House, 2001), 41-44.
2 Daily Iowa Capital, Des Moines, January 9, 1897.
3 Chicago Tribune, May 7 and May 23, 1871.
4 Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1872.
5 Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1872.
6 Brooklyn Eagle, August 16, 1872; New York Clipper, September 14, 1872.
7 New York Clipper, April 24, 1880.
8 Robert H. Schaefer, “Anson on Broadway,” The National Pastime 25, May 2005, 74-81.
9 Howard W. Rosenberg, Cap Anson 2: The Theatrical and Kingly Mike Kelly: U.S. Team Sport’s First Media Sensation and Baseball's Original Casey at the Bat (Arlington, Virginia: Tile Books, 2004), 58.
10 Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1895.
11 Travis Stern, From The Ball Fields To Broadway: Performative Identities Of Professional Baseball Players On The Nineteenth And Twentieth Century American Stage. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2011.
12 Rockford Republic, August 16, 1922, 10, and August 19, 1922, 1.
13 Samuel Fitch Hotchkin, The Bristol Pike (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1893), 154.