A few years ago, baseball fans were amazed by the story of Jim Morris, a thirty-something father of three who arrived at a tryout camp with a baby carriage, lit up the radar gun and subsequently made his major league debut at age 35. The story was so quirkily implausible that a book deal and Hollywood movie inevitably followed.
There was a time, however, when access to the major leagues was not as restricted as it is today. In the nineteenth century, many clubs were struggling to balance their budgets and could not afford to spend money on player development, so a player who showed promise often received a tryout during a major league game. As a result, when a man named John Greenig pitched a single National League game on May 9, 1888, nobody paid much attention. It was only recent research by SABR member Richard Malatzky that revealed Greenig's extraordinary distinction: he was a Civil War veteran!
The idea of a Civil War veteran making his major league debut more than twenty-three years after the end of the conflict seems so preposterous that it seems as though it must be a mistake. Yet the evidence is clear and incontrovertible.
When Greenig pitched his one major league game, he was identified by Sporting Life as John A. Greening of Philadelphia. His name in fact was Greenig, and he was already well known on the local amateur scene. He had also had a couple of prior trials with professional clubs. In 1886, he had brief stints with Oswego of the International League and Charleston of the Southern League.
The following year he got a rude awakening to the realities of such tryouts when Indianapolis of the National League let him pitch in an exhibition game and then released him without paying him. Greenig responded by suing the club for a week's pay and won his case. (Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 1887; Sporting News, June 4 and August 27, 1887) Greenig also pitched a couple of games for Danbury in the Eastern League.
In 1888, he was given another chance to make the major leagues by a struggling Washington club. Washington was off to a 2-10 start, and the team was in the midst of a road trip where it played so poorly that the Washington Post quipped, "a pitcher and catcher and Mr. Hoy constitute the Washington Baseball Club. The other six men who accompany them are put in the field for the purpose of making errors." (Washington Post, May 11, 1888)
On May 9 John Greenig took the pitcher's box in Chicago against Cap Anson's mighty White Stockings. The Chicago batters pounded his curve balls and scored nine runs in the first two innings. Greenig settled down after that and pitched a complete game, but after the 13-2 loss he was released. (Washington Post, May 10, 1888; Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1888)
Two weeks later Greenig signed with Galveston of the Texas League, but was released after two shaky outings. He returned to Philadelphia and pitched briefly for the amateur Kensington club. That seems to have ended his ball-playing career. (Galveston Daily News, May 20, June 1 and 7, 1888; Philadelphia Press, February 3, 1889)
This was a most unremarkable playing career, but when Malatzky began to delve into Greenig's background a remarkable story began to emerge. Examination of the censuses and city directories found only one adult John Greenig living in Philadelphia during this period. He seemed surprisingly old for the ballplayer, but a note in Sporting Life in 1885 provided explicit proof: "Greening and Hammitt have not yet signed, open for engagement as a battery, can be engaged by addressing John Greening, 703 Belgrade St., Philadelphia." (Sporting Life, January 14, 1885)
Such ads were one of many ways of compensating for the absence of systematic player development methods, and this advertisement ended up revealing much more about its author. The Greenig family had long lived at this address and proved easy to trace.
The ballplayer's parents, John and Anna Greenig, were natives of Germany who had settled in Philadelphia by the mid-1840s. The elder John Greenig found work as a grocer and soon prospered. By 1850 he and Anna had three sons, Daniel, Theodore and two-year-old John, and five more children would follow.
The success of the elder John Greenig enabled his children to pursue a variety of career paths - one studied law while another taught music. The younger John, however, seems to have had a hard time finding a suitable profession. On the 1870 census, he is listed as having "no occupation," and in 1880 he is working in a wool mill. In later years, he worked as a produce dealer and a huckster (salesman), but never stuck to anything for long. In 1910, he reported that he was living on his "own income," which may have been a euphemism for being out of work again.
His personal life also seems to have remained similarly unsettled. He moved around often and as late as 1900 was listed as unmarried. On the 1910 census he was described as a widower, as was a woman named Alverda Greenig. Yet when John Greenig died three years later, on July 28, 1913, she filed for a Civil War pension. Even more puzzling, there was an "Alverta Greenick" on the 1880 census who appears to be the same person, yet the two were never listed together on the census. So it seems most likely that an early marriage was succeeded by a long separation.
The fact that Alverda Greenig filed for a Civil War pension was another surprising development, but once again there was clear and compelling evidence that this man who had pitched in the major leagues in 1888 was indeed a Civil War veteran. The pension record did indeed match the service record of a John A. Greenig, who had enlisted in the Indiana 132nd Infantry, Company K, in May of 1864. Additional confirmation was found on the 1890 Veteran's census, where John and his brother Daniel are listed on adjoining lines, with John being reported as having served in the Indiana 132nd Infantry, Company K, from May 15 through September 7, 1864. John Greenig had also applied for a disability pension in 1890 - just two years after playing in the major leagues.
The pension record contained a couple of additional surprises. Greenig was credited with having also served in the 11th U.S. Infantry (Company E) and the 24th U.S. Infantry (Company B), although neither of these tenures has been confirmed. In addition, he was listed as having the alias of John Hammitt. The name is significant, as Hammitt was the name of the batterymate mentioned in Greenig's 1885 advertisement in Sporting Life. So, while this is again speculation, the Hammitt referred to in the ad may in fact have been one of John Greenig's brothers.
Nowadays, a story with as much human interest as Greenig's would be splashed across the nation's sport sections and featured on SportsCenter. But in 1888 nobody paid much attention. Meanwhile Greenig had every reason to keep quiet about his background, since his age would have deterred ballclubs from giving him another chance.
The result is that many unanswered questions surround John Greenig. What caused him to enlist in Indiana rather than his native state and what is the story behind the alias "Hammitt"? What were the details of his Civil War service and how did the experience affect his life? When did he get married? Why did he apparently come to baseball so late in life?
We will never know the answers to most of those questions, but what we do know about John Greenig is remarkable enough. True he didn't have a long or noteworthy Civil War service record, but he did spend three months serving his country as an underage volunteer. It is equally true that he didn't have much success in the major leagues, but he did earn his place in the various baseball encyclopedias.
And the word "earn" is especially apt in his case. His itinerant professional record - a game or two apiece in five different leagues - strongly suggests that his pitching skill did not warrant a major league career and probably didn't even merit a spot on a minor league roster. Yet he clearly had enough ability to convince managers to give him a trial. More notably, from the fact that he received these five brief trials during regular season games, it seems safe to assume that he made many unsuccessful efforts to gain a place on a professional team.
This brings us to the last and most fascinating question about John Greenig: what motivated him, at an age when most men have long since abandoned any aspiration of a professional baseball career, in this quixotic pursuit? We can only speculate about that, but we are on firmer ground in asserting that he earned his place in the baseball encyclopedias - and the distinction of being the last Civil War veteran to reach the major leagues. He earned the spot not because of his God-given ability but because of his stubborn determination.
Contemporary newspapers and sporting publications, as noted
Censuses and city directories
Research by Richard Malatzky, Reed Howard, and the author.