Jack Lapp

This article was written by Phil Williams

Catcher Jack Lapp came to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1908 as a late-season gamble recruited from outlaw baseball. He stuck with the team and become part of the “pennant trust” that captured four American League flags from 1910 through 1914.1 Lapp never quite eclipsed Ira Thomas, then Wally Schang, to emerge as the team’s first-string catcher. But Lapp was one of the better hitting backstops of his era, ably served as Jack Coombs’s personal catcher, and was thoroughly loyal and professional in his role.

He was born John Walker Lapp on September 10, 1884, in Frazer, Pennsylvania, on the western outskirts of Philadelphia’s Main Line. His parents, William and Sue, were of Pennsylvania stock. Daughter Mabel joined the family in 1887. The elder Lapp worked as a foreman for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Lapp broke into semipro ball in 1905 with nearby Berwyn of the Main Line League. Portsmouth of the Class C Virginia League signed him in early 1907, but released him before the season was under way. The youngster returned home, joining the Chester (Pennsylvania) squad of the outlaw Atlantic League. Syracuse of the Class B New York League then signed him, but Lapp left the team after a brief stay, reportedly suffering from typhoid fever. Within weeks he was playing Atlantic League ball again in Pennsylvania, first with Allentown, then with Pottsville. Syracuse suspended him.

In 1908 Lapp remained in the Atlantic League, this time with the Hazleton (Pennsylvania) team. Positive reports of “his work both behind the plate and at the bat” appeared in the Philadelphia press.2 After the Hazelton season concluded in early September, Athletics scout Sam Kennedy signed Lapp.3

The Athletics had fallen out of the 1908 American League race by this point, and Connie Mack was particularly anxious to shore up the team’s catching. One long-term backstop, the erratic Ossee Schrecongost, was being unloaded. Another, Doc Powers, was almost 38 years old. Lapp was thus thrown into action, making his major-league debut in the second game of a double-header at Washington on September 11. He earned praise for being “unusually quick on his feet around the plate and on the bases” as Jack Coombs shut out the Senators 7-0.4 The next day, Lapp battled Biff Schlitzer’s spitballs, threw poorly to the bases, and Philadelphia lost 5-4.5

For the next several weeks, Lapp struggled with the major-league learning curve, leaving the impression “he could stand another period in a fast minor league.”6 That off-season, Lapp married Philadelphia native Mamie Shoemaker. Mack purchased Ira Thomas from the Tigers.

After Bert Blue’s wonky shoulder didn’t mend, and Ben Egan washed back to the minors, Lapp earned the third-string catching role in 1909’s spring training. After catching Eddie Plank in the season opener, Powers took suddenly ill and died two weeks later. Mack purchased veteran Paddy Livingston. With seasoned catchers and the Athletics in a pennant race, Mack sat Lapp on the bench, then turned him over to Newark of the Class A Eastern League.

In late July, foul tips put Livingston and Thomas out of commission. Mack called Newark manager Harry Wolverton, who agreed to return Lapp to Philadelphia. Lapp performed well in several games before Livingston, and then Thomas, returned to action. For almost two months, Lapp looked on as the Athletics dueled with the Tigers for the pennant.

Thomas suffered a broken finger on September 17 and, at the very onset of a September 25 doubleheader against the visiting Naps, Livingston broke one of his. Lapp caught Chief Bender and Cy Morgan, as Philadelphia won both games.7 The day ended with the Athletics 2.5 games behind the Tigers, with nine games remaining for both teams.

Detroit won three of their next five games, Philadelphia lost four of their next six, and the Tigers captured the flag on September 30. Lapp performed credibly, but the senior catchers were missed. Even more damaging, however, was the season-ending spiking shortstop Jack Barry suffered from Ty Cobb on September 20. The Sporting News noted, “The Athletics could have kept up the fight and probably won out with young Lapp doing the backstopping if the infield had not been broken up by the injury to Barry.”8

In 1910, Lapp again emerged from spring training as the third-string catcher. Not until May 16, when the Mackmen had raced out to a 15-4 record, did Lapp start. Thomas broke a thumb on May 31, and Livingston was hobbled with a leg injury. Once again the apprentice moved into an everyday role.

Lapp was a slight 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, and there was concern whether he could “stand the strain of many games in succession.”9 Mack therefore purchased Pat Donahue from the Red Sox, who started a dozen games that summer, to supplement Lapp. But as the Athletics coasted to their first pennant since 1905, Lapp caught 63 games, the most of any of the team’s catchers.

He was the most agile of Philadelphia’s backstops, and led all American League catchers with a range factor per game of 7.13 in 1910. Lapp “has no superior on fouls” noted one onlooker.10 Another observer suggested he “can outthrow either” Thomas or Livingston.11 The latter argument is not supported by caught stealing percentages; in 1910, Lapp caught 45% of would-be thieves, Thomas 47%, and Livingston 50%. But Lapp’s percentage was likely influenced by early poor performances, when the young catcher struggled with signals and strategy. Such a “frightful day” occurred at Detroit on June 3, where “Plank and Lapp managed to get mixed up on about two of every three signals” in a three-run first inning, leading to a 6-1 loss, in which the Tigers stole seven bases.12

Mack encouraged pitcher-catcher alignments, and a memorable one formed between Lapp and Coombs over the 1910 season. Coombs valued Lapp’s comparatively smaller frame: “I don’t look at the batter when I’m pitching. I gauge my chucks by Lapp’s left shoulder.” Thomas was several inches taller and when Coombs looked “at his shoulder to gauge my throw the ball is sky high.”13

Lapp likewise found alternatives challenging. Bender’s deceptive motion occasionally left him off-balance: “I have often signaled to him for a fast one, watched him wind up, and think perhaps a curve was coming.” Plank was exceedingly measured, recalled by Lapp as “the most careful pitcher who lived.” Moreover, Plank’s pitches would drop “about two inches lower than I estimated it would fall.” But he adjusted relatively easily to Coombs’s fastballs (“like catching a brick”) and curves.14 In 1910, Lapp started in 26 of Coombs’s 38 starts (68%). In 1911, Lapp started 34 of Coombs’s 40 starts (85%); in 1912, he started 28 of the pitcher’s 32 starts (88%).15

The Athletics faced the Cubs in the 1910 World Series. Thomas played well in catching Bender in a Game One victory. Mack stayed with the veteran to catch Coombs in Games Two and Three, both Philadelphia wins. After the Cubs won Game Four, Lapp finally appeared in Game Five to catch Coombs. Colby Jack pitched his best game in the Series, walking one batter after issuing 13 passes in his previous two games, and dousing Chicago efforts with rising fastballs.16 Lapp threw out two of three Chicago base stealers, and contributed an RBI single in the fifth inning. The Athletics triumphed 7-2 to earn their first world championship.

Philadelphia claimed another pennant in 1911. Thomas and Livingston avoided any serious injuries, and Lapp was primarily Coombs’s battery mate. After achieving a .234 BA, .310 OBP, and .286 SLG over 71 games in 1910, Lapp’s offensive production exploded to a .353 BA, .435 OBP, and .467 SLG in 68 games across 1911. Coombs was a fine hitting pitcher, and had a .319 BA in 1911. When the pair worked together, the Athletics sported arguably the most powerful offensive lineup of the Deadball Era.17

Lapp threw right, and batted left. Mack platooned his catchers according to his staff, not the opponent’s. Lapp was, however, a handy pinch-hitting option when Philadelphia faced a right-hander. He stood towards the front of the batter’s box, with his front (right) foot lifting slightly off the ground as he strode into an offering. “He hits viciously” noted an observer, and Mack wished he might “snap his bat at the ball instead of swinging so widely.”18 Lapp was considered by one observer to be “the fastest catcher in the American circuit” but had occasional bouts of inattentiveness on the basepaths.19 He almost always batted eighth in the lineup, as did all of Mack’s catchers in this era.

After shutting down Chicago’s running game in 1910, the Athletics faced an even greater challenge with the Giants in the 1911 World Series. John McGraw’s youthful squad had stolen a post-1900 record 347 bases, fully twice the 173 pilfered by the Cubs the season before. Mack’s pitchers were the first line of defense, and New York sportswriter W. J. McBeth admitted that “Bender, Plank, and Coombs are the trickiest pitchers in the business in keeping runners glued to the sacks.”20 Also, Mack’s catchers prided themselves on breaking down their opponents’ tendencies on the bases.21 The Giants, Livingston sneered midway through the Series, were child’s play: “All they know is to make fake starts. They don’t know how to get a lead on our pitchers. [Josh] Devore is about as fast a man as Cobb, but he lacks ten or 12 feet of getting Ty’s lead. And you always know which one of their starts is not a fake. They are too easy!”22

The teams split the first two games, Thomas catching both for Philadelphia, allowing only one stolen base. Coombs and Lapp appeared in Game Three. Lapp, attacking at the plate, did not draw a single ball from Christy Mathewson, and went 1-for-4.23 Behind the plate he was “fleet as a hare” on foul balls, and threw out the first three Giants tempting his arm.24 The tense affair came down to the bottom of the 11th inning, the Giants trailing 3-2, and Beals Becker on first base with two outs. Becker broke on the second pitch to Devore “but Lapp’s perfect peg to” Eddie Collins put Philadelphia ahead in the Series.25

After days of rain, Bender bested Mathewson in Game Four, and Coombs and Lapp returned for Game Five at the Polo Grounds. The catcher again went 1-for-4 at the plate, and threw out two of four base stealers. Ahead 3-0, Coombs injured his groin in the sixth inning. As the pitcher struggled, the Giants tied the game. Finally, Plank went in to pitch in the bottom of the 10th inning.

With one out, Fred Snodgrass was on first, and Larry Doyle on third. Fred Merkle flied to Danny Murphy, who spun and “pegged accurately to Lapp, the ball landing in Jack’s hands on a line” as Doyle slid home.26 Home plate umpire Bill Klem didn’t see Doyle actually touch home plate, stating immediately after the game that, “he went across with one leg back of the plate and the other over it about eight inches or a foot.” Then, as joyous Giants fans swarmed the field, “I stood at the plate for several seconds, waiting to see if the Athletic players would appeal.”27

Klem thought Lapp missed the play. Mack disagreed: “Lapp looked around at the bench to see if I had noticed. I could see him from the corner of my eyes. I did not give him a tumble and he rushed off the field with the rest.” Mack himself, from the bench, could not be certain whether or not Doyle had touched the plate. Moreover, the legacy of the 1908 Merkle incident shot through his thinking. Wishing no part of “a riot” and victory earned on “a cheap technicality,” Mack instead relied on his faith that his team would still close out the Series.28 The next day, with Bender and Thomas again battery mates, the Athletics routed the Giants 13-2.

Lapp didn’t bark at umpires.29 He never complained about his standing in Philadelphia’s catching order, nor became embroiled in team politics. He was a light drinker, an avid golfer, and enjoyed off-season hunting vacations with his teammates.30 His most defining characteristic was his premature baldness. “Johnny Lapp, who owns the closest haircut in the American,” a correspondent quipped in August 1912, “is catching great ball for the champs; in fact, he is now the Athletic Club’s most dependable catcher.”31

But by that point in the 1912 season, perhaps in a championship hangover, Philadelphia had fallen out of the race, and would eventually finish in third place. Thomas battled health issues. Mack had sold Livingston, and brought back Ben Egan, who couldn’t hit major-league pitching. Lapp’s playing time thus increased to 91 games, in which he achieved a .292 BA, .337 OBP, and .399 SLG. He threw out 47% of would-be base stealers, and committed a career-high 20 errors.

In a 1913 spring training game, a pitched ball hit Lapp in the throat. Fighting through swelling and a lost voice, he played on. Thomas was transitioning to a coaching role. Heralded prospect Wally Schang stayed on the bench. By the end of May, however, Lapp was batting .197 and lingering effects of the throat injury required periodic hospital treatments.32

Coombs had been lost to injury at the beginning of the 1913 campaign, and when Schang moved into the catching rotation mid-season, a realignment of battery mates took place. Schang caught Bender and Bullet Joe Bush. Lapp caught Boardwalk Brown and Byron Houck. Either backstop might catch Plank and Bob Shawkey.

When the season finished, with the Athletics returning to pennant form, Lapp had posted a disappointing .227 BA, .336 OBP, and .290 SLG in 82 games. Schang had impressed onlookers as at least Lapp’s equal defensively, and fared considerably better than the veteran at the plate. “He is young,” a Philadelphia scribe wrote of Schang as another World Series date with the Giants approached, “but Mack will have to use him because of his batting and run-getting ability.”33

Schang caught Bender in Game One, and Philadelphia emerged with a 6-4 victory. Lapp caught Plank in Game Two. The game was scoreless when Amos Strunk led off the bottom of the ninth with a single. Jack Barry, batting seventh, came to the plate. Lapp, Mack recalled, “jumped up from the bench, grabbed a bat and exclaimed to me: ‘Now put your man down to second and I will win the game for you!’”34 Barry bunted, second baseman Doyle grabbed the ball, and threw wildly to first. Strunk and Barry now stood on second and third with no outs. Lapp and Plank were the next two batters. Mack, feeling both had fared increasingly well against Mathewson that day, let both bat. Two feeble grounders to first, and two successful outs at the plate, resulted. Eddie Murphy then ended the inning by tapping the ball to the pitcher.35 The Giants scored three runs in the top of the tenth, the Athletics went in order in the bottom of the inning, and the Series was even.

With Bush, Bender, and Plank pitching, Philadelphia rebounded to win the next three games. Schang caught each effectively, slugged New York pitching, and emerged as a national star. A few trade rumors involving Lapp surfaced that off-season.36 But the next catcher (Wickey McAvoy) in the Philadelphia pipeline was still green. Mack likely valued Lapp’s veteran presence for 1914, and hoped he might return to better form.

But Lapp battled injuries, and his offensive production remained stalled: a .231 BA, .338 OBP, and .286 SLG in 69 games. His caught stealing efficiency, meanwhile, fell from 46% in 1913, to 41% in 1914. After the Athletics won another pennant, and faced the Boston Braves in the World Series, Lapp was Schang’s backup. In Game One, after Boston drove Bender from the box, Lapp went in to catch Weldon Wyckoff for several innings. That was the only Series action he saw, as the Braves swept the Athletics.

The Athletics entered the 1915 season without Bender, Plank, Collins, or Home Run Baker. Through early June, Schang and McAvoy handled most of the catching, while Lapp filled in as best he could at first base. By then, the team had already tumbled into the cellar, and Mack placed Lapp back behind the plate.

The Athletics finished with a 43-109 record. Yet, as Mack biographer Norman Macht notes, “Lapp had never stopped hustling throughout the dismal 1915 season.”37 Across a career-high 112 games (including another career-high 89 games with the catcher’s mitt), Lapp rebounded to post a .272 BA, .340 OBP, and .375 SLG. His caught stealing fell to 33%. But contemporary accounts abound of missed tags at third base, overly deliberate wind-ups, and crossed signals on pitchouts.38 There was also the sheer volume of new arms Lapp had to catch. Philadelphia used 27 pitchers, a number not matched for 30 years.39 On September 3, trailing 9-0 to the visiting Red Sox, Walter Ancker made his major-league debut when he came in to pitch in the fifth inning. The megaphone announcer asked Lapp who the new pitcher was. Lapp couldn’t recall. The announcer’s assistant scampered out to the pitcher to ask him his name.40

During the off-season, Mack offered Lapp to any club who would assume his $3000 salary. The White Sox, desiring a veteran back-up to Ray Schalk, accepted the gift. Lapp battled various health problems that season, and in only 40 games his production amounted to a .208 BA, .266 OBP, and .228 SLG.

Chicago released him to Columbus of the Class AA American Association in February 1917. Due to stomach illness, he did not report, and his baseball career came to an end.

Lapp turned to sales, then bought a truck and made his living as an independent operator.

On February 6, 1920, Jack Lapp died of pneumonia after battling influenza for several weeks. It was commonly reported that the throat injury he sustained in 1913 led to health issues from which he never quite recovered.41 He was buried in Philadelphia’s Mount Peace Cemetery. His wife Mamie survived him. The couple had no children.

Philadelphia sportswriter James Isaminger eulogized Lapp in The Sporting News: “It is not stereotyped post-death flattery to say that he was always a loyal, hard-working player who did his best for his team…and there wasn’t a cleaner, finer character on the squad.”42

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Lapp’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the following sites:

ancestry.com

baseball-reference.com

chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers/

fultonhistory.com/fulton.html

genealogybank.com

newspapers.com

retrosheet.org

sabr.org/bioproject

 

Notes

1 Reflecting the economic concerns of a generation, Connie Mack’s Athletics and John McGraw’s Giants were often so labelled in the sports pages. See as examples “M’Graw and Mack in Pennant Trust,” The (Baltimore) Sun, September 28, 1913, 4; “Tie is Broken in Races for Flag,” Washington Times, September 22, 1913, 10.

2 Philadelphia Inquirer, May 17, 1908, 13.

3 “Athletics Pick Up Recruits,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Tribune, September 4, 1908, 10; “Sport Gossip,” Utica (New York) Herald-Dispatch, September 10, 1910, 9.

4 “Comment on the Games,” (Washington, DC) Evening Star, September 12, 1908, 8.

5 Thomas S. Rice, “Baserunning Wins for Washington,” Washington Times, September 13, 1908, 13-14.

6 Francis C. Richter, “Quakers Quit,” Sporting Life, October 17, 1908, 16.

7 For contemporary accounts of this stretch of games, see Horace Fogel, “Stopped Detroit,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1909, 1; “Athletics Capture Two From the Naps,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 26, 1909, 8.

8 Horace Fogel, “Had Tough Breaks,” The Sporting News, October 7, 1909, 1.

9 William G. Weart, “Fans Less Chirpy,” The Sporting News, June 9, 1910, 1.

10 Francis C. Richter, “Quakers Quips,” Sporting Life, August 6, 1910, 16.

11 Hugh S. Fullerton, “Kling Will Stop Athletics,” Chicago Examiner, September 25, 1910, 30.

12 “First One to Tigers,” Washington Post, June 4, 1910, 8.

13 Cincinnati Enquirer, August 31, 1911, 8.

14 “Jack Coombs Led All in Endurance Powers,” The Sporting News, October 17, 1918, 5.

15 These statistics per Retrosheet.org, and The Sporting News box scores.

16 For an account of Game Five, see “Jack Coombs is the Star Twirler,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 24, 1910, 11.

17 From 1900 to 1919, only the Pirates’ .3979 slugging percentage in 1912 topped the Athletics’ .3978 mark in 1911.

18 Sporting Life, February 24, 1912, 1; Francis C. Richter, “Quakers Quips,” Sporting Life, August 12, 1911, 3.

19 “New York Scores the First Tally,” (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer, October 18, 1911, 8.

20 W.J. McBeth, “Athletics to Win It Straight,” The Sporting News, October 12, 1911, 3.

21 Norman Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 529.

22 “Gossip of the Third Game,” The Sporting News, October 26, 1911, 2.

23 Joe S. Jackson, “Seats Not All Taken,” Washington Post, October 18, 1911, 8; “Play By Play Briefly Told of Great Game,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 18, 1911, 11.

24 “Athletics Defeat Giants in Eleven Innings—3-2,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 18, 1911, 10.

25 “Play By Play Briefly Told of Great Game,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 18, 1911, 11.

26 “10 Innings of Thrills Told Play By Play,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1911, 11.

27 “Doyle Fails to Tag Plate in Tenth, Umpire Asserts,” Washington Post, October 26, 1911, 8.

28 Macht, Mack and the Early Years, 539.

29 Cleveland Gazette, July 26, 1913, 4. Also, Lapp was never ejected from a game in his career.

30 Washington Herald, December 7, 1913, 23; “From Diamond to Golf Links,” Sporting Life, July 22, 1916, 15; Willam G. Weart, “Quakertown Likes Moran as Manager,” The Sporting News, October 29, 1914, 1.

31 “Quakers Quips,” Sporting Life, August 3, 1912, 5.

32 Contemporary source for Lapp’s batting average: Chicago Daily Tribune, June 1, 1913, 4. For lingering effects of his injury, see “American League News In Nut-Shells,” Sporting Life, June 14, 1913, 20.

33 James C. Isaminger, “Has Won Short-Handed Before,” The Sporting News, October 3, 1913, 3.

34 “Why Connie Didn’t Use Pinch Hitters,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 26, 1913, 12.

35 “Matty Pitched But 104 Balls in Beating Macks,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1913, 11.

36 “Chance Looking For Coach of Pitchers,” The (New York) Sun, October 31, 1913, 11.

37 Norman Macht, Connie Mack: The Turbulent & Triumphant Years, 1915-1931 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2012), 63.

38 “Lee Fohl, of the McGraw Type, Holds Whip Over Clevelanders,” (Philadelphia) Evening Public Ledger, June 10, 1915, 12; “Carpenter and Dewhurst Lose, But They Do Real ‘Come Back,’” (Philadelphia) Evening Public Ledger, June 22, 1915, 22

39 Macht, Mack: The Turbulent & Triumphant Years, 48.

40 “Notes of the Game,” Boston Herald, September 4, 1915, 4.

41 “Jack Lapp Dies; Pneumonia Victim,” (Philadelphia) Evening Public Ledger, February 7, 1920, 1; “Jack Lapp Dies; Pneumonia Victim,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 9, 1920, 13; James C. Isaminger, “Quakers Send Big Party to Meetings,” The Sporting News, February 12, 1920, 1.

42 Isaminger, “Quakers”.