Big Bill Lange--The career of one of baseball's all-time greats had roots in Port Townsend in 1891

Tom Camfield
Posted 6/7/12

One of life's little coincidences struck me the other day in the form of a letter to the sports editor of The Seattle Times. It urged patience with this season's Seattle Mariners baseball team, …

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Big Bill Lange--The career of one of baseball's all-time greats had roots in Port Townsend in 1891


One of life's little coincidences struck me the other day in the form of a letter to the sports editor of The Seattle Times. It urged patience with this season's Seattle Mariners baseball team, pretty much my own attitude toward fair-weather fans. The letter was signed Bill Lange.

That rang a bell with me and made me wonder if the writer had ancestral roots in Port Townsend, where the name Bill Lange once was synonymous with baseball. William Alexander ("Big Bill") Lange starred from 1891 onward and was Port Townsend's all-time greatest baseball player (brief as the town claimed him as a resident)--playing as a catcher, pitcher and outfielder before winding up with the major league Chicago Nationals (Cubs) by 1893.

It is not known exactly when Lange began his playing days. He was listed in the local press as Willie Lange, one of several "old Port Townsend favorites" playing on Santa Rosa, California's state-championship team in January 1891. A native of San Francisco, he was 19 at the time. Hard to say how he became an "old Port Townsend favorite." Perhaps he had played briefly in his teens with the Colts team that had been organized about 1889 (possibly earlier) and was managed by his brother Charlie, who owned the Ideal Saloon on Taylor St. In any case, he returned to Port Townsend to play for that team early in 1891.

Lange did not make the Hall of Fame only because he did not play the 10 big-league years required for eligibility. His big-league career was only 7 years long. He retirined in 1900 because of a woman who refused to marry him unless he quit baseball. He married her in San Francisco prior to the 1900 season and went to work for her father, selling insurance.

Accolades from major baseball figures over the years were numerous and praised Lange as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Cap Anson, his manager at Chicago through 1898 said, "he was in a class by himself as an outfielder. He was a better outfielder than (Ty) Cobb or (Tris) Speaker and a phenomenal thrower, and one year he stole 106 bases." When Lange died in 1950 at 79, Clark Griffith, president of the Washington Senators, said, "I played with Bill Lange on the Chicago National League club for some eight years. I have seen all of the other great outfielders--Speaker, Cobb, DiMaggio--in action, and I consider Bill Lange the equal of, if not better than, all outfielders of all time. There wasn't anything he couldn't do.

After playing semi-pro as a catcher in Port Townsend, he soon moved on to Seattle as a pitcher, then to the Oakland Colonels. He broke in at Chicago in 1893 and during his first year played every position except first base, right field and pitcher--until being settled in center field, where he would remain. His best year at Chicago was 1895, when he hit .389. He led the league in hitting four years beween 1893 and 1898.

Two years into his marriage, the New York Giants tried to lure Lange out of his premature retirement. He said he would not play for less than $10,000, which would have been the most ever paid a professional player. A year earlier, Boston had offered him $6,000 a season, but he demanded $8,000, which was too much for them. One can only speculate on Lange's probable greatness if he had not chosen love over career in 1900. It's difficult to visualize a modern sports prima donna tossing aside a career such as Lange's at the behest of a woman.

The 1891 season was a particularly good one for Port Townsend's Colts, who had lop-sided victories over the Bay Cities team of Bellingham, Seattle Maroons (34-3) and others from Tacoma and Victoria--and the Mikados, an all-Japanese team from Seattle. The Leader reported of a late-season 18-8 home victory over the Turfs: "A pleasing incident of the game was the interest manifested by the local fans in the contest. For the first time in many years, money was thrown onto the ground in applaud for brilliant individual play."

The Colts faded into history after manager Charlie Lange stepped away, but he later returned and resurrected local baseball by forming the Port Townsend Cubs about 1907. I'm old enough to have personally known well a couple of old-timers who played on that team--Frank "Rah Rah" Revello and John Siebenbaum. The latter as a young teen played hookey from high school classes on occasion to play with this town team. About the mid-1950s a town team was formed and managed by local insurance broker Joe Welch for a time. But that sort of team drew no fan support by that later point in history. No one to "throw money onto the ground"--and Joe paid for balls and other equipment largely out of his own pocket. However, I reported on the team for the Leader.

More detail on both Bill Lange, his brother Charlie (also famous for his trained trout in Haller Fountain) and other early athletes is in my first volume of Port Townsend history, which is still "in print" as they say.

I returned to the subject of Big Bill Lange (and other early sports) in my second volume of history after having found a legendary account of Big Bill's exploits in a 1927 Leader. The person recalling Lange's exploits was the dean of Northwest sports writers, Portus Baxter, who at one time had played against him locally. He noted that "Bill ripped things wide open in the National League. His fielding, base running and batting became the talk of the baseball world."

Baxter compared Lange to the immortal Ty Cobb as a daring base runner and related what baseball's legendary big league hall-of-fame manager Connie Mack (50 seasons at Philadelphia) described as "the most daring and remarkable play ever witnessed on the baseball field." Chicago was playing at Pittsburgh, Baxter recalled, and Lange had reached first base. The opposing pitcher attempted to pick him off and "threw the ball a trifle wide. The ball rolled a few feet from the base. Not one player in a hundred would have dared take his foot off the base. Not so with Bill. He dashed for second, and the first baseman grabbed the ball and tried to head Bill off at the middle station. The ball struck the second baseman's hand and rolled toward shortstop. Lange never paused a fraction of a second at second, but kept right on for third, turned the bag and dashed for home. In the meantime the shortstop had hustled for the ball, grabbed it and fired to Denny Lyons at third.

"Lyons turned to put the ball on Lange and then had the surprise of his life. Not only was Lange missing at third, there he was hustling along close to home plate. Lyons made a perfect throw home, but big Bill was across the plate, scoring the run and winning the game for Chicago." Since then a lot of detailed material has been posted to the Internet.

I know of only a couple of Port Townsendites who made it to the big leagues, but only momentarily, in subsequent years. Tom Baker, a pitcher, played in several minor leagues before being called up to the majors twice, the only meaningful time in 1964. I recall seeing him on TV pitching for Hawaii in the old Pacific Coast League and know he pitched for a time for a minor league team in Rochester, N. Y.. He also hit so well that he was used as a pinch hitter on non-pitching days. Unfortunately, Tom's friendship with John Barleycorn immediately did in both of his big-league opportunities.

Art McLarney, well known to local old-timers, won All-American honors in 1932 at Washington State College at shortstop (and also was a varsity basketball player). He "had a cup of coffee" with manager John McGraw of the New York Giants, but that was it. Art later coached basketball at the University of Washington during the 1940s.

P.S.--The Port Townsend Athletic Association also fielded a team in the 1890s, sort of between the hey-days of the Colts and the Cubs. The most interesting item I found with regard to this team was in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on July 19, 1894, and read:

"The team which will represent Port Townsend here will be one of the strongest combinations to play at Madison Park this season. The Seattle Athletic Club beat them last month only after a hard fight, the score standing 6 to 5. Their pitcher, Wood, is a full-blooded Indian, who stands close on to seven feet in height. He has tremendous speed, and in the Port Townsend game the Seattle batsmen did not hit him hard. A short time before the game he had rowed eighteen miles to be there for the match and so was not at his best. Since then he has had considerable experience, which will be of great benefit to him, as this is his first season of pitching."

This is one of those individuals of area history I always yearned to know more about--but never will.

Charlie Lange's Colts team was preceded locally by the Quicksteps, pictured on the cover page of my blogs.