The 1908 National League pennant race between the Chicago Cubs, New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates went down to the end of the season and captivated a baseball-crazy nation. It is most famous for the “Bonehead Merkle” game of September 23 between the Cubs and Giants. That’s when the Giants’ Al Bridwell appeared to have won the game with a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds. Bridwell’s batted ball instead was turned into an inning-ending force play when young Fred Merkle, the runner on first base, failed to touch second. Umpire Hank O’Day made the controversial out call. The game was declared a tie and the Cubs would go on to win the pennant by one game.
“O’Day can lick Rigler”
O’Day also made another, lesser-known, controversial call in the October 4 game between the Cubs and Pirates in Pittsburgh’s Exposition Park. The bottom of the ninth began with the Cubs leading, 5-2, and their ace, Mordecai Brown on the mound to face the heart of the Pirates’ order. Honus Wagner led off with a single to center. Ed Abbaticchio followed by poking a long drive down the right-field line, an apparent home run. As described by the highly partisan Pittsburgh Daily Post, “Abbaticchio sent one into the hoi polloi and the Pirates began to carol joyously, but O’Day said foul. Wild war ensued, and appeal was made to [Cy] Rigler [the other umpire]. O’Day can lick Rigler, so he promptly said foul, too.”
Abbaticchio returned to the plate and promptly struck out looking at a “fast groover” from Brown. Alan Storke then forced Wagner out on a grounder to shortstop Joe Tinker. Owen Wilson hit another grounder to Tinker to force Storke for the final out. The Cubs won, eliminating the Pirates from the race.
Records from that era of baseball are sketchy, but Abbaticchio is widely believed to be the first Italian-American major-league ballplayer. He was born Edward James Abbaticchio on April 15, 1877 in Latrobe, a Westmoreland County town about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Westmoreland was of one of many western Pennsylvania counties that saw large populations of Italian immigrants who found work there.
Latrobe holds itself out as the birthplace of professional football. Its residents will proudly tell you, usually while poking you in the chest, that the Pro Football Hall of Fame belongs there, not in Canton, Ohio. For years, it was believed the first professional football player was John Brallier, a quarterback who was paid the whopping sum of $10 to play for the Latrobe YMCA on September 3, 1895. It was more recently discovered that the first paid football player actually appeared on Pittsburgh’s North Side three years earlier. Regardless, the Latrobe Athletic Association’s 1897 team is recognized as the first football team made up entirely of paid players. So there’s that.
“Again the hero”
Abbaticchio was a fullback, place kicker and punter for the Latrobe Athletic Association team from 1895-1900. He is believed to have invented the spiral punt, although this assertion is in dispute. What is more clear from the surprisingly detailed newspaper coverage of these local football games is the fact that Abbaticchio was a star on this team. The November 7, 1897 Daily Post described Abbaticchio’s prominent role in Latrobe’s 47-0 rout of the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, crediting Abbaticchio with two touchdowns, six “goals” and “interference” that allowed a teammate to score on a 60-yard touchdown run.
“Abbaticchio Again the Hero,” blared the headline of the November 18, 1900 Daily Post. Abbaticchio scored all of the game’s points on a touchdown, a field goal and a “goal” as Latrobe defeated rival Greensburg, 11-0, in “four inches of mud.” (A “goal” is what we today call a conversion. From 1883-1897, it counted for two points, a touchdown for four and a field goal for five.)
During his football career, Abbaticchio was also playing baseball for an amateur Greensburg team. This led to his signing a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he appeared in 28 games in 1897-98. After spending some time in the minors, in 1903 the Phillies sold Abbaticchio to the Boston Beaneaters, where he flourished. Beginning as a second baseman, he was moved to shortstop due to his superior range. (He was charged with 211 errors in his three years with Boston. It was an era when official scorers were tougher on fielders than they are today.) Abbaticchio was at his best in 1905, when he slashed .279/.326/.374 while leading the National League with 610 at-bats.
After that season, Abbaticchio would unexpectedly announce his retirement from baseball at age 28 to operate a hotel given to him by his father, a successful Italian immigrant who bought commercial properties and operated a chain of barber shops. It was never clear why Abbaticchio would want to leave the game in his prime. As the descendant of Italian immigrants myself, I can easily imagine he heard from his family that playing a game was a nonsensical way to make a living. Perhaps his father staked him in the hotel business as an inducement to leave baseball.
So it was just as big a surprise when the Pirates would leave the 1906 winter meetings having traded Ginger Beaumont, Patsy Flaherty and Claude Ritchey to the Beaneaters in exchange for Abbaticchio. Beaumont had led the league in hits three consecutive years from 1902-1904. Ritchey had been a solid performer as well. It seemed a lot to give up for a man who was out of major-league baseball for a year. However, as The Pittsburgh Press noted, “Abbaticchio played a number of games with the Latrobe team during the summer, and, besides, took excellent care of himself, in spite of the fact that he was conducting a hostelry where various liquids flowed freely.”
Abbaticchio became the Pirates’ regular second baseman in 1907, appearing in 147 games that year and 148 games the next. As a Pirate, he batted .253/.348/.318, with 4 HR, 159 RBIs, 59 SB and a 6.1 WAR. After the 1907 season, however, his status was in limbo. A Westmoreland County Licensing Court judge had refused to renew the liquor license for Abbaticchio’s hotel in March 1908, opposed to the idea of granting a license to an absentee owner. Abbaticchio left spring training to attend a hearing on this matter. There were rumors he would quit baseball rather than lose his liquor license. Instead, he decided to transfer the hotel back to his father, quit the hotel business and rejoin the Pirates.
Unfortunately, in 1909 Abbaticchio lost his starting second baseman’s job to Dots Miller. That Pirates team went on to win the World Series in seven games over Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers. Abbaticchio was seldom used that year, appearing in only 36 of his team’s 154 games. However, when Wagner sat out with injuries over the periods July 30-August 11 and September 30-October 5, Abbaticchio took his place at shortstop and in the cleanup spot of the batting order. Over those 18 games, for which his team went 12-6, Abbaticchio slashed .316/.473/.386. His hitting and slick fielding in Wagner’s place is often cited as a key reason for the Pirates winning the pennant over the Cubs.
Swan song (or should I say dove song?)
Alas, Abbaticchio got only one at-bat in that World Series, striking out. The Pirates sold him to the Boston Doves after three games in 1910. The Doves released him that same year and he was out of major-league baseball for good.
So what about that foul home run in 1908? For years afterward, a story circulated that the ball had hit a female fan in the head. The woman sued the Pirates. When she produced her ticket stub as evidence in court, it was revealed she was seated in fair territory. Further research, however, reveals this story has been largely discredited. Too bad. I thought it would make a good ending to this article.