Jack Dalton

This article was written by Andrew Sharp

Outfielder “Jack” Dalton had a short, but relatively successful, major-league career prior to World War I before becoming a lay preacher in his church in the 1930s and '40s. Then, inexplicably, he went missing on July 4, 1948, and was never heard from again.1

Dalton debuted with Brooklyn, then known as the Superbas, in 1910. In his second game, he singled four times off Christy Mathewson, and collected a fifth hit off a reliever. He also stole a base. He dropped off quickly, however, and the next season, he was back in the minors. He didn’t return to the majors until 1914, when he won a regular spot in the Brooklyn outfield and finished third in the NL in batting. He jumped to Buffalo of the Federal League in 1915 and hit .293 before spending a brief stint with the Detroit Tigers in 1916.

Tolbert Percy Dalton was born on July 3, 1885, in Henderson, Tennessee, the child of Tolbert Saunders Dalton and the former Margaret Ella Gooch. He was of Irish ancestry and the second oldest of six siblings, one of whom died in infancy. He had three sisters—Lena, the first born, Lura, and Lola—and a brother Pleasie. His father had fought for the Confederacy in several Civil War battles before attending a medical college to become a physician. The senior Dalton left the medicine to become an elder in the Primitive Baptist Church.2 The denomination employed few ordained ministers, relying instead on lay preachers. His son Percy — the name Dalton seemed to use most commonly outside of baseball — would follow in his father’s footsteps years later.

In a feature story in the July 1915 Baseball Magazine, J. C. Kofoed wrote that Dalton’s “boyhood was the usual open air existence ... that built up the muscles. ... He played ball at every opportunity ... as the best amateur in the county.” 3 Another article in March 1915 said that “Dalton learned to play ball in his home town, Henderson, Tenn.”4 Given that Kofoed assumed that Dalton’s first name was John, the writer’s generalizations are unlikely to have come for Dalton himself.

Also, Dalton probably didn’t spend much of his childhood in Henderson as his father’s ministry kept the family on the move. His brother Pleasie, whose name also appears in public documents as Pleasce or Plesse, is listed in U.S. Census records as having been born in 1888 in Illinois. The youngest sister, Lola, was born in Virginia in 1891. The family was living in rural Page County, VA, about 110 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., when the 1900 Census took place. In 1902, the Dalton family, including Percy and all his siblings, had moved about 30 miles to Front Royal, VA,5 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and was living there at the time of the 1910 U.S. Census.

Kofoed wrote that Dalton enrolled at the University of Virginia when he was 20 years old “after passing through grammar and high schools,”6 although no other confirmation has been found of Dalton’s pre-college education. The public school system was not well established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in rural Virginia. His father being in the Baptist ministry, Jack could well have been home-schooled.

Dalton threw and batted right-handed. Most sources list his adult height as 5-feet-8 and his weight as 145 pounds, although he appeared on some rosters as 5-feet-10. Scouting reports mentioned his solid base-running and fielding — he played center field regularly during his career — but questioned his arm strength.

A brief biography of Dalton in the August 1915 Baseball Magazine said he played on the University of Virginia’s baseball team from 1905-07.7 Evidence in his Hall of Fame clip file indicates “he played on the university team in 1904 and was the best batter on the nine.”8

In any case, it is likely that he played at least two seasons — 1906 and ’07 — for the Virginia varsity, and earned a considerable reputation. Both Kofoed and the author of the article in Dalton’s clip file mention a prodigious home run that Dalton hit against the University of North Carolina’s team. Dalton earned a varsity letter in baseball in 1907, university records show.9 Tom Brown, a 19th Century player who was Virginia’s coach that season, encouraged him to pursue a professional baseball career.10 In 1911, the Washington Times called Dalton “one of the best outfielders that ever wore (Virginia’s) orange and blue.”11

Dalton’s play attracted the attention of Doc White, the White Sox pitching star. (White was from Washington, D.C., and attended Georgetown University, a frequent opponent of UVA.) After graduating with a bachelor of law degree in June 1907, Dalton played for a Winchester, VA, semi-pro team until August 1, 1908, where he reportedly hit .454 in 53 games. Then he and White agreed that Dalton would join the White Sox, although not on the active roster, so he could watch and learn from Chicago manager Fielder Jones.12 During that season that White gave him the nickname “Jack,” a play on the villainous character in early 20th Century stage melodramas and, like the fictional character, Dalton had a deep, sonorous voice.13 (This, no doubt, would later contribute to his success as a preacher.)

Dalton apparently showed Jones he could hit, but the manager was unimpressed with other aspects of Dalton’s game, so the White Sox sent him to Des Moines of the Western League in 1909. He helped lead the Boosters to the pennant with a team-leading .308 average and six homers. The last one came in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and Des Moines trailing 3-0, in the season’s final game with first place on the line. Dalton himself described the grand-slam in a June 1914 article. He called it “the luckiest hit I ever made or probably will ever make. ... (I) hit it so hard my hands stung. Away it went to the flagpole in center field for a clean homer ... winning the game 4 to 3 and with it the pennant.”14

Dalton got another look with the White Sox early in 1910 but was shipped to Des Moines before the start of the season. After another 50 games and a .300 average with Des Moines, Dalton was traded to Brooklyn on the recommendation of Boosters manager George Davis in a deal worked out by scout Larry Sutton. Davis called Dalton “the best young player he has seen in years.” Brooklyn gave up a career minor league pitcher and $4,200 to Des Moines to complete the transaction. The Des Moines fans, in recognition of Dalton’s contributions, held a “Dalton Day” in his honor before the outfielder left for the majors.15

Now 24 years old, Dalton’s first official game with the Superbas came on June 20, 1910, against the Giants in Brooklyn. He led off and went 1-for-4 with a double, a run scored and a run batted in. Actually, he had made his debut two days earlier against the Cubs in a game in which a torrential downpour ended play (and washed out the records) in the third inning. Ring Lardner, writing in the Chicago Tribune, mentioned that the rookie Dalton was in the outfield. The soon-to-be famous author described the storm as an “infant cyclone” that routed the 20,000 fans attending the Sunday afternoon game in Brooklyn. “It was probably the worst rain that ever fell on a baseball crowd,” he wrote.16

On June 21, leading off again, he got four of the eight hits Mathewson allowed in beating the Giants. Dalton singled again in the ninth after Mathewson was gone. He also stole a base, but Brooklyn was shut out by New York. “While he knew about Matty and his famous fadeaway,” a New York Tribune reporter wrote of Dalton’s hits, “he lacked the experience of knowing what it meant to face the big pitcher, so that he stepped to the plate ... and slashed away with a daring born of ignorance.”17

Although he hit .319 in his first dozen games, Dalton soon slumped. He endured a 3-for-47 drought during a brutal July which dropped his average to .191. He recovered to hit .292 during August to mid-September, but injuries and illness took their toll. On August 5 against St. Louis, Dalton crashed into a fence chasing a foul fly. “The plucky young outfielder ran plumb into the fence so hard he broke a board with his foot and cut a gash in his head,” the Sporting News recounted. “He was knocked senseless and had to be carted off the field.” Still, he missed just three days. It wasn’t long, however, before he was out the lineup again, apparently due to illness, from August 22 to September 1.18 Injured again, he was removed from his last start of the season on September 15 before he came to bat. He made five pinch hit appearances during the remainder of his rookie season — another 23 games through October 12. He ended 1910 hitting .227.

In his article four seasons later, Dalton talked about being beaned during the 1910 season on July 14 by Frank Corridon of St. Louis. “It’s a wonder the blow was not fatal,” he wrote. “It caught me just above the left temple.” In August, an inside pitch in a game against the Cubs broke his left forefinger, an injury that still nagged him four years later, he wrote.19

Despite his uneven performance, it looked like he figured in Brooklyn’s plans for 1911. “Zack Wheat, ‘Pop’ Davidson and Jack Dalton (are) a trio that is just about as fast ... as any in the league,” the Sporting News reported in late August. “All are youngsters” and “will have the benefit of this year’s experience.”20 So it was a bit of a surprise when Dalton started the next season back in the minors. At Newark in the Eastern League, he hit .321. Still on option from Brooklyn, he was moved to Triple-A Toronto in the International league in 1912 and hit .293.

As 1911 drew to a close, Dalton’s alma mater was considering him to become the baseball coach. At least two Washington, D.C., newspapers reported him among three candidates, all former Virginia players.21 Whether Dalton declined so he could continue his professional career isn’t known, but the coach of the 1911 team returned for the 1912 season, according to university records.

On June 30, 1912, Dalton was supposed to be serving a three-day suspension for an altercation with the umpires when manager Joe Kelley, who had announced that he had imposed the suspension before the game, sent him up to pinch hit in a game at Baltimore. He delivered a game-winning single. Baltimore owner Jack Dunn argued that the Toronto should have to forfeit but he had to settle for an order from the league that the game be replayed.

After another season at Newark, now in the International League, Brooklyn had to bring Dalton back to the majors or lose him.22 But his .317 average in 1913 made it clear he was ready.

The 1914 season was Dalton’s finest in the major leagues. He started 112 of the 128 games in which he appeared for Brooklyn in 1914, playing centerfield in 108 of them, mostly between Wheat and Casey Stengel, He hit .319 and stole 19 bases. His 53 walks helped produce a .396 on-base percentage. In a strong outfield, his batting average topped Wheat’s by a fraction and Stengel by three points.

Organized baseball was in turmoil that season and the next as the upstart Federal League dangled lucrative contracts in front of many players. After talking to Dave Fultz, president of the fledgling Fraternity of Baseball Players, Dalton signed a contract to play for the new leagues’s Buffalo team for a reported $4,000 for the 1915 season. Coming off a strong season, his was one of the more prominent names among major leagues who jumped to the Federal League.

Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets insisted that he had paid $750 for an option on Dalton for 1915 and threatened him with legal action if jumped ship. As did his fellow owners, Ebbets also let it be known that Dalton would never play for Brooklyn again. Ultimately, Ebbets wasn’t able to keep him from jumping to Buffalo, where Dalton played the entire 1915 season and hit .293. Across the board, however, his numbers were not as strong as they had been in 1914. When the Federal League folded after the season, Dalton was sold to the Tigers. An earlier deal with Cincinnati fell through when neither side could agree on salary. His stay in Detroit was brief. After 11 at bats, he was sold in May to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. He hit .255 in 71 games, but with a distinct lack of power: just six doubles and a triple among his 63 hits. On August 13, the Seals released him.23

The following spring, Dalton signed on as player/manager of the Joplin Miners of the Class A Western League. (The team had been based in Wichita the previous season.) Still just 31, Dalton played 95 games in the outfield and hit .240. Seven of the eight players on the team who had as many as Dalton’s 342 at-bats hit better, but the team was playing .500 ball when owner John Savage fired him at end of July. The team’s owner explained Dalton’s release more in economic terms: “The results didn’t justify the expenditure,” Savage said.24

Dalton returned to his home in New Jersey and landed a job in 1918 with the personnel services department at the Thomas A. Edison, Inc., laboratories and manufacturing plant in West Orange. Dalton organized and managed the Edison Baseball League, which existed from 1918-1920, and most likely played for one or more of the teams. He served vice president in 1918 and president in 1919 of the Thomas A. Edison Association, an employee organization.25 He and his wife Ethel lived in West Orange, a Newark suburb, in September 1918, according to Dalton’s draft registration form.

During the severe economic decline that began in early 1920, Thomas Edison eliminated the personnel services department (and with it, the baseball teams) as he eventually laid off at least 7,000 of his 10,000 West Orange workers. Out of his job there, Dalton was still managing and playing for a semi-pro team in the Newark area in September 1920. By the next year, he apparently had moved to Baltimore, where his parents and sisters lived, and may have been employed as a salesman. If so, he must have had a flexible schedule because he continued to play for semi-pro teams in a Newark-based league. Given the distance between Baltimore and northern New Jersey, Dalton likely would have stayed in New Jersey at least part of the time for games that were scheduled a day or two apart. He began the year playing and managing a team in Morristown, NJ, before spending most of the season with a team in Plainfield. During a September 5, 1921, game there, he broke his right ankle sliding into second base and was hospitalized for at least four days. A benefit to help pay the medical bills of Dalton and another injured player was held on September 10. Dalton told the local newspaper that he had intended to return home to Baltimore after a September 13 game before beginning play for another team farther south. But the broken ankle likely ended Dalton’s playing days as no further references have been found that indicate he got back on the diamond.26

No record been found either to show how his marriage to Ethel M. Dalton ended or what happened to her. By 1930, according to the census, he was living in Elk Ridge, Maryland, in rural Howard County, with a new wife, Thelma Bradshaw Dalton. She had three children from a previous marriage who were living with them. Dalton listed his occupation on the census form as “representative” (a salesman) for a “saw maker.”

Dalton’s father, who died in 1931, had become a leading figure as a lay minister in Primitive Baptist Church. Before long, his son was on the same path. By September 1935, “Elder Percy Dalton” from Catonsville, Maryland, outside of Baltimore, was scheduled to preach at a Baptist Church in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, and at a church in a nearby town the next day, according to the local newspaper. The next year, he was preaching occasionally at the Columbia Primitive Baptist Church in Burtonsville, Maryland.27

Dalton’s answer to a question on the 1940 census shows that he was employed as the chief clerk in the finance department of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Like others who worked for the CCC, Dalton was hired by the Army as the nation entered World War II. In April 1942, Dalton, now 56 years old, reported himself on his draft registration card as a finance officer with the war department, III Corps Area, in Baltimore. On August 19, 1943, Dalton, an “administrative assistant,” accompanied two Army officers to represent the Third Service Command Army Emergency Relief Fund at a benefit stage show in Cumberland, Maryland.28

On June 11, 1944, Dalton was working as the assistant to the director of the Army personal affairs branch of the Third Service Command, helping GIs and their families obtain benefits. The office had opened in March, and he was quoted in a Baltimore Sun feature story about his role there.29 As the military demobilized following the war, the personal affairs offices, along with a myriad of other wartime bureaus, agencies, and offices were gradually shut down.

Dalton had been preaching frequently at his church in Burtonsville and others in his denomination since the 1930s, but in December 1946, he was formally asked if he would accept a regular assignment to preach on the first Sunday of every month, a role he assumed in 1947. He also continued to travel to other churches in the region to offer sermons, preside at funerals and baptize new members.

Later in 1947, he and Thelma moved to Emmitsburg in western Maryland to live with Thelma’s daughter and son-in-law. Dalton took over as editor of the weekly Emmitsburg Chronicle, which had suspended publication after the war began. Thelma’s daughter, Lois, served as his assistant editor.30 Meanwhile, he continued preaching.

A baptism on June 6, 1948, was the last time Dalton performed in a church service. He didn’t appear for a scheduled sermon on July 4, and it wasn’t until August 1 that two other church elders inquired about his whereabouts. Family members told them they didn’t know where he had gone. Strangely, no evidence has turned up that a missing persons report was ever filed.31

Despite the decades-long efforts of SABR’s biographical research committee, what happened to Dalton remained unknown until Pennsylvania made its pre-1961 death certificates available to the public. Even though Dalton had no known connections to Pennsylvania, SABR’s Al Quimby in 2012 obtained Dalton’s death certificate there: On February 17, 1950, Dalton had died in Pittsburgh’s Alleghany General Hospital of heart disease. The death certificate states that Dalton was unmarried and unemployed, and that his father’s name was unknown. The onset of the arteriosclerosis that led to his death was listed as “2 years, 1 week” — before he disappeared from Emmitsburg.

Dalton’s wife, Thelma, died in 1966 in a suburb of Philadelphia. Contacted by the late Bill Haber of SABR in 1978, neither Dalton’s sister Lola nor Thelma’s daughter-in-law could say whether Thelma had known what happened to her husband. A former member of Dalton’s Burtonsville church told SABR researchers that Dalton made off with the subscription money for the church’s newspaper. The former member, Ralph Harris, said he learned this from Dalton’s sisters.32 Although Harris did not know how much money was taken, it seems unlikely to have been a substantial amount.

Did Dalton know he was seriously ill? Is that why he left with no trace? Did he want to spare his wife the burden of medical bills? Why did she not report him missing? Tolbert Percy Dalton was buried on February 23, 1950, at what is now Hollywood Memorial Park in Pittsburgh. The answers to those questions may have been buried with him.

 

Acknowledgments

I gratefully acknowledge the work of SABR’s Biographical Research Committee. This biography would not be possible without the committee’s persistent efforts.

This biography was reviewed by Tom Schott and verified for accuracy by the SABR fact-checking team.

 

Notes

1 Emails, Allen Quimby & Richard Bozzone to author, July 20-21, 2017, in my possession. Thanks to Allen Quimby of SABR’s Biographical Research Committee, Tolbert’s death certificate was found in 2012 in Pennsylvania. He had died in Pittsburgh in 1950. Until then, Tolbert was one of a dozen or so 20th-Century major leaguers whose date and place of death had been unknown.

2 T. S. Dawson, http://www.primitivebaptist.info/mambo/pdfs/PREACHER_BIOGRAPHIES--D ; [Lola Dalton Carpenter], “Elder Tolbert Saunders Dawson, https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=88941521, both accessed June 30, 2017.

3 J. C. Kofoed, “A Rival to Cravath,” Baseball Magazine, July 1915: 73.

4 Clipping, “Jack Dalton Never Lingers Long With Any Ball Team,” n.p., c. March, 1915, HOF clip file.

5 ”Elder Tolbert Saunders Dawson,” see note 2.

6 Ibid.

7 “Who’s Who in the Federal League,” Baseball Magazine, August 1915: 87.

8 “Jack Dalton Never Lingers,” see note 4. To have played in the spring of 1904 likely would have meant Dalton enrolled in the fall of 1903 at age 18. If Kofoed was correct that Dalton enrolled at age 20, he would have begun in the fall term of 1905, so he would have had to enroll at age 19 in the fall of 1904 to have played on the baseball team in 1905.

9 Alphabetical historic list of University of Virginia lettermen in baseball, http://grfx.cstv.com/photos/schools/va/sports/m-basebl/auto_pdf/2016-17/misc_non_event/Letterwinners.pdfList of, accessed 30 June 2017.

10 “Lawyer Jack Dalton May Live in Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 6, 1910: 64. Although Dalton told the Eagle that he had been admitted to the bar in Virginia, the Virginia State Bar has no record of a Tolbert Percy Dalton in its archives, which date from the late 19th Century.

11 “Virginia Wants Dalton to Coach Ball Team,” Washington Times, December 12, 1911: 14; “Will Name Baseball Coach,” Washington Post, December 17, 1911: 3.

12 Email, Anthony P. de Bruyn to author, July 21, 2017, in my possession; “Lawyer Jack Dalton,” see note 10; “Sox Colts Welcome Owner by Getting Good Licking,” Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1909: 13. The university has no record of the years Dalton actually attended, although the bachelor of law degree he earned normally took four years of study. The three-year post-graduate juris doctorate program in the U.S. was established in 1906, but had not yet become commonplace.

13 “Tolbert P. Dalton, the Option King,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 2, 1914: 20. The nickname was occasionally cited as “Demon Jack,” a further play on the fictional villain, but that name did not seem to stick to a college-educated man from a religious family.

14 Kofoed, “A Rival to Cravath; Jack Dalton, “Home Run Won the Pennant,” Brooklyn Junior Eagle, June 14, 1914: 7.

15 “Des Moines Gets Three White Sox,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 1910: 10; “National League Notes, Sporting Life, June 25, 1910: 9; “Dalton Is a Comer,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle. June 19, 1910: 57; “Dalton Is Sold, To Leave Today,” Des Moines Register, July 15, 1910: 8. The amount of cash paid for Dalton was variously reported by Sutton himself and in other newspaper accounts in later years as anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000.

16 R. W. (Ring) Lardner, “Infant Cyclone Stops Cubs Game,” Chicago Tribune, June 19, 1915,: 23.

17 “What Was Said of Jack Dalton”, Des Moines Register, June 25, 1915: 37.

18 A. (Abe) Yager, “Angling For Brad” & “Jack Dalton is Now on the Sick List,”The Sporting News, August 11, September 1, 1910: 2. Quote from first article.

19 Dalton, “Home Run Won the Pennant.” See note 18.

20 Yager, “Building Up a Team,” The Sporting News, August 25, 1910: 2.

21 “Virginia Wants Dalton,” see note 11.

22 “Tolbert P. Dalton,” see note 16.

23 “Jack Dalton Jumps,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 7, 1915: 20; “Jack Dalton, Former Robin, Signs With Detroit Team,” Plainfield (N.J.) Courier-News, April 21, 1916: 13; “Baseball Gossip,” Pittsburgh Press. August 27, 1916: 22.

24 “Following the Ball” column, Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star, August 3, 1917: 9,

25 Email, Paul Israel to author, [date], in my possession. Israel is the director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick. No record has been found of Ethel’s maiden name or when she and Dalton wed, although an answer to a 1930 census question said he first married at age 21. That would have been 1906 or 1907, when he was still at the University of Virginia. (Such information from census data is often inaccurate, however.)

26 Randall E. Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park (Crown, New York, 2007): 272-73; “Jack Dalton Playing,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 30, 1920: 22. The Eagle reported that he was managing the “Newark All-Leaguers.” The Courier-News (see note 32) said he had managed and played for the “Newark Police” team in 1920.

27 . “Social notes,” McConnellsburg (Pa.) Fulton Democrat, September 12, 1935: 4; biographies of church elders (see note 2)

28 “Gala Premiere of Army Show Tonight,” Cumberland (Md.) Evening Times, August 19, 1943: 9.

29 “Army Branch Helps Solve GIs’ Problems,” Baltimore Sun, June 11, 1944: 22.

30 Society column, Frederick (Md.) News, Oct. 31, 1947: 8.The late SABR member Bill Haber found a “T.P. Dalton” listed in the Emmitsburg telephone book for 1947-48 and confirmed that the Daltons lived there with Thelma’s daughter, Lois Heller, in a 1978 telephone conversation with Dalton’s sister, Lola Carpenter.

31 David Sturm, “Death certificate sheds new light on ballplayer’s fate,” Baltimore Sun, March 21, 2012: T13.

32 Ibid.