Bill Abstein

This article was written by Bill Lamb

A lineup regular for the 1909 world champion Pittsburgh Pirates, long-forgotten first baseman Bill Abstein retains one unhappy distinction. Of all the unfortunates branded a World Series goat, Abstein is likely the only one who played for the winning side. That our subject played poorly in that year’s seven-game Series against the Detroit Tigers is inarguable. At bat, his nine strikeouts set a Series record for futility.1 In the field he led both clubs in errors committed. And on the basepaths, he made no fewer than three rally-stifling blunders. In the view of club brass, the Pittsburgh sporting press, and vocal Pirates fans, Abstein had been a positive menace to their championship aspirations. Were it not for his dismal play, some claimed, the Pirates would have been champs in five or six games, rather than being made to sweat out the Series finale.

No sooner had the victors tasted the proverbial champagne than reports were published that the Pirates intended to unload their first baseman.2 And shortly after the Series, the Pirates placed Abstein on waivers. Accompanying the waiver announcement and for weeks thereafter was a torrent of local criticism, much of which focused on Abstein’s alleged inability to think quickly when under the stress of fast-moving play, if not his general dimwittedness. A century later, a non-fan of sports reading vintage Pittsburgh baseball reportage might well gather the impression that Bonehead was Bill Abstein’s middle name.3 What such a reader would not find is any basis for the vitriolic quality of criticism of Abstein– apart from the fact that Bill had had a poor World Series. Other than that, he had been a solid, if low-profile, contributor to Pittsburgh success in 1909, a right-handed batter and thrower capably filling a first-base hole that the Pirates had endured since the departure of Kitty Bransfield several seasons earlier. Nor was Abstein a known drinker, womanizer, clubhouse lawyer, or other undesirable. Rather, he appears to have been a quiet, sober, hard-working player. But whatever the basis for his unkind treatment in Pittsburgh, Abstein’s career as a major-league ballplayer was effectively killed by it. The following year, a brief and dispirited stay with the St. Louis Browns brought his time in the bigs to a too-soon end.

William Henry Abstein was born in St. Louis on February 2, 1883. He was the fifth of six children born to German Lutheran immigrant Karl Charles Abstein (1847-1914) and his wife, Dorothea (nee Straub, 1849-1918), a St. Louis native.4 Bill attended Howard Elementary School through the eighth grade, and then followed his older brothers into the St. Louis workforce. The 1900 US Census lists 17-year-old Bill Abstein as a “house decorator.” His baseball career followed the normal course: sandlot ball as a boy, amateur clubs as a young teen, and semipro action thereafter. By August 1902, now 19-year-old Bill Abstein was manning second base for the Simpson Stars, a semipro nine from nearby Belleville, Illinois.5 The start of the following season found him playing for the East St. Louis Nationals, a member of the fast St. Louis Trolley League. For reasons unknown, Abstein resigned from that club, and soon thereafter joined the Belleville club in the unrecognized professional Missouri-Illinois League.6

In February 1904 Abstein entered the ranks of Organized Baseball, signing with the Houston Wanderers of the Class D South Texas League.7 He performed well, batting a robust .310, with 50 extra-base hits. At season’s end, the Houston Chronicle proclaimed: “Abstein was the premier second baseman and was so much superior in his play as to leave him standing alone.”8 The Dallas Morning News concurred, stating that Abstein “performed brilliantly in the South Texas League last season.”9 Abstein’s fine play did not go unnoticed in his hometown. At season’s end he was reportedly given a tryout by the St. Louis Browns. The Houston Chronicle informed readers that “Abstein will probably play with the Browns during the remainder of the season, taking the place of [Dick] Padden. If his development is as rapid in major league company as it was in Houston, he should have a place in faster company and eventually become one of the stars of the country.”10 But Abstein saw no game action with the Browns, and by November he had become the property of the Shreveport Pirates of the Class A Southern Association.11

By now, Abstein’s large size, at least 6-feet and 185 pounds and probably bigger,12 was being seen as a drawback for a second baseman. Much of his time at Shreveport was, therefore, spent at first or third base or in the outfield. A solid 1905 campaign led Sporting Life to observe that Shreveport has “a youngster named Abstein for a utility player, who is a comer. He is young and gawky, but fast as a deer and a natural hitter.”13 As the following season began in Shreveport, Sporting Life gave Bill another boost, declaring, “This boy Abstein is sure to star this year. He is fast and can hit some.”14 Abstein did not disappoint expectations, posting a .311 batting average, second highest in the hitting-challenged Southern Association of 1906. In late August, Abstein was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League, with delivery scheduled for the end of the Southern Association season.15

Abstein became available in mid-September but was not expected to see any regular-season action with the Pirates, struggling to stay in contention for the National League pennant. But dissension in Pirates ranks and tactless public comments by second baseman Claude Ritchey soon changed that. Ritchey became openly critical of Pittsburgh club owner Barney Dreyfuss and threatened to quit the club. An infuriated Dreyfuss was having none of it. He immediately summoned the press, declaring: “If Ritchey wants to quit he can do so. I won’t try to make a man play ball who doesn’t want to. … [Ritchey] has said nothing to me about quitting, however. Just the same, I am sending Abstein down to Boston, ready to jump into the game if any of those old players want to quit.”16

Bill Abstein made his major-league debut on September 25, 1906. Sent to the plate as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter against Philadelphia right-hander Tully Sparks, Abstein fouled out. With Ritchey now ensconced on the Pirates bench, Bill was in the lineup for the next day’s doubleheader. Although the Pirates prevailed in both games, Abstein was little help. He went hitless in seven at-bats, and made three errors at second base. He broke into the hit column the following game, going 2-for-4 against Phillies rookie John McCloskey in a 3-1 Pittsburgh loss. Thereafter, Abstein played without mishap in the Pirates outfield. In all, he appeared in eight late-season contests, batting .200 (4-for-20) with two runs scored, two stolen bases, and three RBIs. On defense, his shaky second-base play yielded a woeful .769 overall fielding average. Thus, it seemed clear that Abstein was not yet ready for major-league play as either a batter or glove man.

Although his future in baseball remained uncertain, Bill Abstein was headed for stardom in another sport: soccer. With its heavily ethnic-German populace, Bill’s hometown of St. Louis was a hotbed of European football, spawning an early professional league. Big, athletic, and blessed with good speed afoot, Abstein was a natural at the game, and was soon playing fullback and center-half for the St. Leo club, the most celebrated soccer team in the country. More than a century later, one soccer expert picked Abstein as a fullback for his pre-World War I all-star team, describing Bill as “a rock in the center of the defense for the great St. Leo’s dynasty in St. Louis.”17 Whether Abstein preferred soccer to baseball is unknown. But with professional soccer in its infancy in America, he obviously appreciated that he could not earn a living playing it. So for the next decade, Bill’s occupation was professional baseball player. Still, every winter he returned to St. Louis to take the pitch with St. Leo, often to the dismay of his baseball employers.

In March 1907 Abstein was sold to the Providence Grays of the Class A Eastern League, where he was converted into a full-time first baseman and named Grays field captain.18 Late in a solid season (.279, with 37 extra-base hits) for Providence, Bill’s rights were reacquired by Pittsburgh. But he was not recalled by the Pirates. That winter, Abstein returned to St. Louis and added indoor baseball to his winter regimen.19 Meanwhile, Providence manager Hugh Duffy, an admirer of Abstein, persuaded Pirates boss Dreyfuss to sell the big first sacker back to Providence, outright.20 Abstein got off to a fast start with Providence in 1908, and by midseason, the Pirates made Providence an offer for him. But with the Grays in serious contention for the Eastern League championship, skipper Duffy was not disposed to part with his slugging first baseman-captain.21 In the end, Pittsburgh fell a game short in the memorable 1908 National League pennant chase,22 a disappointment that club owner Dreyfuss, Pirates manager Fred Clarke, and much of the Pittsburgh faithful attributed to the club’s instability at the first-base position, a problem ever since reliable Kitty Bransfield had been jettisoned after the 1904 season.

Going into the 1909 campaign, the Pittsburgh Pirates looked strong, with the incomparable Honus Wagner at shortstop, future Hall of Famer Clarke in the outfield, and Deadball Era stalwarts like Tommy Leach, George Gibson, and Chief Wilson holding down regulars’ spots. And the staff of Vic Willis, Howie Camnitz, Nick Maddox, Babe Adams, Deacon Phillippe, Lefty Leifield, and Sam Leever was a near-embarrassment of pitching riches. But the first-base position remained a weak spot, with the previous season’s combo of Jim Kane and Harry Swacina deemed lacking by manager Clarke. The Pirates were therefore on the hunt for a replacement. Enter Bill Abstein, his reacquisition from Providence finalized during the offseason.23

Despite an early-May hospital stay occasioned by tonsillitis, the Pirates’ latest first-base candidate got off well. “Bill Abstein is holding down first sack … in splendid style. Abstein is also hitting the ball at a great clip,” reported the Trenton Evening Times,”24 while other newspapers observed that “Bill Abstein looks very good at first base” for Pittsburgh.25 Particularly endearing to club brass and fans alike was Abstein’s penchant for registering big hits against the defending world champion Chicago Cubs. He tailed off somewhat in the later going, but Abstein’s numbers at season’s close were more than respectable. His .260 batting average had driven in 70 runs, third highest on the team. He had also contributed 16 stolen bases and scored 51 runs. And while his 27 errors committed were on the high side, Abstein ranked in the upper half of most defensive statistics for NL first basemen. Perhaps more important, he had been a steady, reliable member of the Pirates’ everyday lineup, rarely missing a game after his early-season illness. With Wagner, Clarke, and the stellar pitching staff leading the way, the Pirates posted a superb 110-42 (.724) record, good for a 6½-game margin over the second-place Cubs in the final National League standings.

Going into the 1909 World Series against Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and the rest of the American League champion Detroit Tigers, Abstein appeared to give the Pirates the edge over Tigers journeyman Tom Jones at first base. The pre-Series player profiles published in the Syracuse Herald rated first baseman Abstein “one of best in the league … [and] the best first baseman Pittsburgh has had in years – perhaps ever.”26 Reading such a glowing notice, it would have been difficult to envision the calamity that awaited Bill Abstein.

Batting in the second inning of Game One, Abstein walked, becoming the first Pirate to reach base against Detroit ace George Mullin – until Mullin picked him off. This basepaths faux pas, as well as a late-game strikeout by Abstein, were lost in the celebration of a 4-1 Pittsburgh victory. But they augured much worse soon to come. The following day, Abstein managed his first Series hit, a single off Bill Donovan. Otherwise, he struck out three times and committed the first of his five Series errors in the field, as the Tigers evened the match with a 7-2 win. A 2-for-4 effort, with a RBI and a run scored, in an 8-6 Pittsburgh triumph in Game Three would be Abstein’s personal World Series highlight. He then went 0-for-7 and committed two more fielding miscues in Games Four and Five, split by the clubs.

With the Pirates holding a three-to-two Series lead going into Game Six, the stage was set for Bill Abstein’s rendezvous with infamy. With Detroit ahead 5-3 entering the ninth inning, pitcher Mullin suddenly weakened. Pirates second baseman Dots Miller led off with a single. Although fanned twice earlier by Mullin, Abstein also reached him for a hit, sending Miller to third. A surprise bunt single by Chief Wilson scored Miller, with Abstein taking third when Tigers first baseman Jones was leveled by Wilson and knocked near-senseless. The Pirates now trailed by only one run, with runners at the corners and no outs. The next batter, George Gibson, smashed a grounder, but directly at new first baseman Sam Crawford. Rather than remain at third as the situation (and perhaps the orders of manager Clarke, as well) dictated, Abstein set off for home, only to become an easy out at the plate. Abstein’s baserunning boner proved a rally-killer. Pinch-hitter Eddie Abbaticchio promptly struck out, with Wilson thrown out trying to steal third in the process. Final score: Detroit 5, Pittsburgh 4, necessitating a Game Seven.

Although others had contributed to the loss, the censure of club management, the Pittsburgh press, and Pirates fans rained down on Abstein. Even his teammates turned on him. After the game, snide comments by an inebriated Vic Willis loudly directed toward Abstein led to a hotel lobby fight between the two giants. The incident was quickly hushed up, but manager Clarke was well aware of it and furious with both players.27 Willis, drinking and mostly useless during the World Series, never pitched another game for Pittsburgh, while Clarke made public his intention to get rid of Abstein as well.28 In fact, Abstein was on the Pirates bench with backup Ham Hyatt at first base when the decisive Game Seven began. But the lineup shuffle precipitated by a first-inning injury to third baseman Bobby Byrne got Abstein into the fray. Given a last chance to redeem himself, Abstein failed, adding a World Series record-setting 9th strikeout to his résumé. He also committed another baserunning blunder, getting thrown out trying to get back to second base after an out had been made at the plate. With the Pirates comfortably ahead on their way to an 8-0 win, as many Pittsburgh fans were amused as appalled by Abstein’s latest misadventure on the basepaths. But the play cemented the perception of Bill Abstein as a bonehead.

Pittsburgh manager Fred Clarke was not among those amused.29 In fact, it appears that he had been dissatisfied for some months with Abstein’s play and had privately counseled club boss Dreyfuss to seek yet another first baseman for the Pirates.30 “Fred told me as early as June that we should get someone for Abstein’s place for 1910, as Bill mixed up the team’s plays too frequently,” Dreyfuss later claimed.31 Then reports circulated by anonymous Detroit players alleged that the Tigers had identified Abstein as a defensive liability and easily rattled during Game One. Thereafter, “[W]e simply made Abstein the object of our attack, and whenever we got a chance we went at him [while approaching first base] as if intent on murder,” said an unnamed Tiger.32 “That eventually made [Abstein] so nervous that he dropped many throws,” added another.33 Such digs at Abstein’s mettle only fueled more criticism in the Pittsburgh press, which had heretofore focused on Bill’s shortcomings at bat and on the basepaths. The sheer volume of local abuse and the fan alienation that it produced was later cited by manager Clarke as the reason for asking waivers on Abstein.34 But that does not explain the evident satisfaction taken by Pirates brass in the announcement that no other major-league club wanted Abstein; his takers were limited to minor-league outfits.35 However negligible the return, Pittsburgh was determined to rid itself its incumbent first baseman.

A quiet sort, Abstein did not respond to the public dissection of his failings as a ballplayer or to the aspersions cast upon his intelligence and character. But they eventually weighed on Barney Dreyfuss’s conscience. In early February 1910, Dreyfuss issued a formal statement: “I am satisfied that Abstein gave us his best efforts all the time he was with us and as an honest, conscientious and hard-working ball player he can get a recommendation from me any time he wants it.”36 When he finally addressed his situation, Abstein was gracious, particularly regarding manager Clarke. “I want to say that Fred Clarke is a grand ball player and a fine fellow in the bargain. I learned a lot playing for him,” said Bill.37 He also expressed great admiration for “my friend [Honus] Wagner.”38

The abuse, however, had taken its toll on Bill Abstein. Acquired by the St, Louis Browns via waiver sale,39 he flopped miserably in 1910. In 25 games for St. Louis, he hit an abysmal .149 (13-for-87), with only one run scored and three batted in. He also made 11 errors at first base. In early June Abstein was sold to the Jersey City Skeeters of the Eastern League.40 His major-league career was now over. In a gentle post-mortem, West Coast sportswriter C.W. Lanigan observed that “Abstein was killed for all time as a big leaguer by what came to pass when the Pirates and Tigers were battling last October. Bill is a splendid athlete and a fine fellow with it. He tried his best to make good for [Browns manager Jack] O’Connor. But they had his number.”41

Although still in his late 20s, Bill Abstein no longer had major-league prospects. Nevertheless, he soldiered on, posting batting averages in the .245 to .261 range with Deadball Era-decent power numbers in tours of duty with Jersey City (1910-1911), and thereafter with the Memphis Chickasaws of the Southern Association (1912-1913). In 1914 Abstein’s future brightened on two fronts. That April he married Helen Hunt, a 19-year-old St. Louis native with whom he would soon begin a family. Bill also turned in fine year in the Pacific Coast League, batting .308 with 51 extra-base hits for the Los Angeles Angels over a grueling 200-plus-game schedule. Poor play (.192 BA in 57 games) and an apparent falling out with Los Angeles manager Frank “Pop” Dillon42 garnered Abstein his release midway through the following season. Bill then extended the year with a one-month stay with the Seattle Giants in the far less competitive Class B Northwestern League.43 In 1916 he concluded his professional baseball career playing for the Wichita Witches of the Class A Western League, before drawing his release in July and heading home to St. Louis.44

In February 1917 it was reported that Abstein had been engaged to manage the Hartford Senators of the now Class B Eastern League.45 And soon he was scouring the Northwest for players. But later, Hartford club owner James H. Clarkin received word that a sojourn by Abstein to Idaho was not recruitment-related, but in furtherance of a mining venture with his brother.46 Whether true or not, Clarkin summarily dismissed Abstein,47severing his final connection to Organized Baseball.

For the remainder of his life, Bill Abstein worked for the Wagner Electric Company of St. Louis, eventually settling into the position of assembler and armature winder. In August 1923 the birth of son William George brought a third child into the Abstein household, already populated with daughters Adele (born 1915) and Lorraine (1922). By this time, Bill had receded into the anonymity of private life. But in May 1939, the name Abstein reappeared in newsprint, tragically, when 15-year-old Billy Abstein died from injuries suffered when his bicycle collided with a passing automobile. Soon thereafter, his father’s health began to fail. On April 8, 1940, William Henry Abstein died at home from what newspaper reports vaguely described as a “long” or “lingering” illness.48 He was 57. At the conclusion of funeral services, his remains were interred at New Bethlehem Cemetery in suburban Bellefontaine Neighbors, Missouri. Survivors included his wife, daughters, and younger sister, Amelia Abstein Greb.

 

Sources

Sources for the biographical detail provided herein include material in the Bill Abstein file maintained at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; Abstein family posts on Ancestry.com, and certain of the newspaper articles cited below. Stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.

 

Notes

1 In 1921 World Series, future Hall of Famer George Kelly of the New York Giants eclipsed the Abstein mark by fanning 10 times.

2 See, e.g., “Abstein Likely to be Released by Clarke,” New Orleans Item, October 19, 1909, and “Pittsburg Points,” Sporting Life, October 23, 1909.

3 For a healthy sample of Pittsburgh newspaper abuse of Abstein, see “Bill Abstein Denies He Is a Bonehead,” Baseball History Daily, February 20, 2013.

4 His siblings were Charles (born 1875), Henry (1878), Peter (1879), Justine (1881), and Amelia (1886).

5 As mentioned in the Belleville (Illinois) News Democrat, August 15, 1902.

6 As reported in the Belleville News Democrat, June 17 and 20, 1903.

7 As noted in Sporting Life, February 17, 1904. The South Texas League began the 1904 season as a Class D circuit. It was promoted to Class C status in June.

8Houston Chronicle, September 24, 1904.

9Dallas Morning News, November 28, 1904.

10Houston Chronicle, September 24, 1904.

11 As reported in the Houston Chronicle, November 29, 1904, and Sporting Life, December 10 and 31, 1904.

12 Baseball-Reference and other published authorities list Abstein as 6-feet and 185 pounds. But according to the player questionnaire completed for the Hall of Fame library by his daughter Lorraine Abstein Grau, Big Bill was 6-feet-2 and 185 to 190 pounds.

13Sporting Life, December 30, 1905.

14Sporting Life, April 27. 1906. The impression that Abstein was still very young was a result of Bill shaving two years off his age. At the time and for some years thereafter, baseball records listed the year of Abstein’s birth as 1885, rather than the true 1883.

15 As reported in the Dallas Morning News, August 27, 1906, and Sporting Life, September 8, 1906. The $2,000 purchase price was to be paid to Shreveport in installments: $1,000 immediately, the other $1,000 payable “before June 1907,” according to Sporting Life, September 15, 1906.

16 As widely reported in the national press. See, e.g., the Charleston News and Courier, Providence Journal, and Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 22, 1906. After the 1906 season was over, Dreyfuss traded malcontent Ritchey to Boston.

17 Roger Alloway at bigsoccer.com, posted October 6, 2013.

18 As per the Houston Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News, March 6, 1907, and Jersey Journal ((Jersey City),March 7, 1907.

19 According to the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Evening Times, November 30, 1907. The indoor baseball was in addition to playing winter soccer with the St. Leo club.

20 As reported in the Pawtucket (Rhode Island) Times, December 13, 1907, and Sporting Life, December 28, 1907.

21 As reported in the Jersey Journal, July 29, 1908.

22 At the end of the 1908 regular season, the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants were tied atop NL standings. Pittsburgh was one-half game back. The Cubs then took the crown in a one-game playoff. Providence, meanwhile, finished two games behind the Eastern League champion Baltimore Orioles.

23 As reported in the Daily (Springfield) Illinois State Journal, October 25, 1908, and Sporting Life, January 30, 1909.

24Trenton Evening Times, May 26, 1909.

25 See, e.g., the Ann Arbor (Michigan) News and Houston Chronicle, August 13, 1909.

26Syracuse Herald, October 9, 1909.

27 Newspaper accounts of the incident were not published until months after. Then the matter was cited as the reason for the Pirates’ offseason trade of 22-game winner Willis to St. Louis. See the Pawtucket Times, February 16, 1910, and Salt Lake Telegram, March 2, 1910.

28 See the Pawtucket Times, October 16, 1909. See also the Daily Illinois State Journal, January 9, 1910.

29 Clarke later maintained that “but for Bill getting mixed up on the paths, the Pirates would have scored 12 runs” rather than only eight in Game Seven, according to the Daily Illinois State Journal, January 9, 1910.

30 As subsequently reported in Sporting Life, January 10 and February 19, 1910.

31 As later reported in the Denver Post and Pawtucket Times, February 3, 1910, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 8, 1910.

32 As per the New Orleans Item, November 4, 1909.

33 As reported in the Salt Lake Telegram, October 23, 1909, and Seattle Times, October 27, 1909.

34 See the (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal, June 5, 1910.

35 As reported in the Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), December 25, 1909, Baltimore American, December 27, 1909, Washington Evening Star, December 29, 1909, and elsewhere.

36 As reported in the Denver Post and Pawtucket Times, February 3, 1910, and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 8, 1910. Dreyfuss also extended his “best wishes for success” to Abstein in his newly obtained berth with the St. Louis Browns.

37 As quoted in the Daily Illinois State Journal, February 13, 1910.

38Ibid.

39 It was first reported that St. Louis paid only the $1,500 waiver price to acquire the rights to Abstein from Pittsburgh. See, e.g., the Denver Post and Pawtucket Times, January 8, 1910, and Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, January 11, 1910. Later news reports maintained that obtaining Abstein had cost the Browns $3,000. See, e.g., the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald, March 27, 1910, and Gulfport (Mississippi) Daily Herald, March 28, 1910.

40 As reported in the Boston Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Washington Post, June 3, 1910.

41Seattle Times. June 12, 1910.

42 Angels manager Dillon was widely believed to be the leading candidate to fill a managerial vacancy with the San Francisco Seals for the 1915 season, with Angels playing captain Abstein figured to replace him at the Angels helm. But Dillon did not get the San Francisco post, and friction developed between him and Abstein when Dillon returned to manage Los Angeles in 1915.

43 Abstein’s release by Seattle was reported in the Seattle Times, July 6, 1915.

44 Wichita’s release of Abstein was noted in the official minor-league report published in Sporting Life, July 10, 1916. Baseball-Reference also lists Abstein as a member of the 1916 Colorado Springs Millionaires, but Abstein’s release predated the relocation of the Wichita franchise to Colorado Springs by some two months.

45 See, e.g., the Boston Herald, February 13, 1917, and Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, February 18, 1917.

46 As per Sporting Life, April 21, 1917. At the time, older brother Henry Abstein was something of a wheeler-dealer in Yellow Pine, Idaho.

47 As reported in the Springfield Republican, April 15, 1917, and Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Press, April 25, 1917.

48 Long illness: Sacramento Bee, April 9, 1940, and New York Times, April 10, 1940. Lingering illness: Charleston Evening Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Trenton Evening Times, April 10, 1940. The Missouri death certificate for Abstein lists the cause of death as paralysis of the esophagus, as a result of Raynaud’s disease.