Thursday, December 21, 2017

Do Base Ball Players Ever Go to Heaven?

 Readers of the August 28, 1873 edition of the Paterson Daily Guardian must have been a more than a little taken aback when they saw the headline "Is it possible for the member of a base ball nine to inherit the kingdom of heaven?"  The not entirely rhetorical question was raised in the wake of the Reverend S. Miller Hageman's appearance at the Auburn Street Congregational Church's weekly prayer meeting.  The 25 year old grandson of Samuel Miller, one of the founders of Princeton Theological Seminary, chose the occasion to respond to charges of conduct unbecoming a minister including "that he played base ball."  While Hageman said he would have stopped if told, "it was undignified or unbecoming to a minister of the Gospel" to play base ball, he made no apologies, claiming he done nothing on the ball field "of which he was ashamed."  The young pastor went on to defend himself against other charges including incurring debts he hadn't paid which turned out to be the real issue.  Hageman ended his response by announcing his resignation from the pulpit, but demanded a council of clergy investigate the charges so he could clear his name.

Parable of the 10 Virgins by William Blake 

Although the hearing before the clergy group focused on the debt issue, including bouncing checks at Paterson banks, base ball was still on the agenda.  Clearly not tired of the base ball theme, the Guardian headlined its account by proclaiming Hageman "put out at third base, and now in the field."  The paper claimed the discussion was so intense the body moved behind closed doors for "lively arguments" focused "on the ethics and morality of ball playing."  It's not clear how the Guardian knew what was going on in a closed session, but the paper reported the problem was not Hageman's ball playing, but the "odium brought upon the church by the report their pastor had swore a swear while playing ball."  The very idea!  Even if this vicious rumor was true, Hageman was not without his defenders, one of whom complained that those taking exception didn't explain "how a man was going to avoid swearing when his knuckle was knocked out of joint by a hot ball from the bat." It's a sentiment many vintage base ball players can identify with.  In the end, the council took no action which was probably fortunate for the young former pastor who skipped town, taking with him his library even though the books had been attached for payments of his debts.

Mike "King" Kelly

While it's doubtful most people in Paterson in 1873 found base ball morally objectionable, the game's popularity had clearly waned from where it stood in the years immediately after the Civil War.  In 1869, the Paterson Daily Press claimed all the focus on base ball was hurting business and whether for that or other reasons, the Olympic Club, the city's leading team stopped playing and organized play seems to have dropped off dramatically.  A year after the Hageman controversy, however, the Olympic Club was resurrected, sparking renewed interest in base ball that never abated.   From 1874 to 1876 four future major league players, Edward "The Only" Nolan, William "Blondie" Purcell, Jim McCormick and Hall of Famer, Mike "King" Kelly played for the Olympics, a first step on their way to fame and glory.  Not only were the four good ball players, they were more than a little rambunctious or in more genteel terms "colorful."  While Hageman was gone by then, had he been on the same nine with that group of ball players, church leaders would not have been pleased to see their pastor cavorting with them, especially if it extended to off the field activities.

Samuel Miller - Hageman's grandfather

There's no disputing Kelly was the best player of the four, but considering Nolan's nickname, there's room for debate about who was the most colorful.  But let's stick with Kelly, for those who need it, information about his career on and off the field can be found in Marty Appel's biography or more briefly at  Like the future Hall of Fame player, Rev. Hageman was no slacker when it came to being colorful. In fact, it could be argued he was the "King" Kelly of Brooklyn clergy where he spent the rest of his ministry after leaving Paterson.  Like Kelly, Hageman was very talented, so talented, he excelled not just at preaching where he could hold an audience's attention for inordinate amounts of time, but also as a poet and a musician.  While some of Hageman's literary work were more than a little out of the ordinary, his poem, "Liberty," written for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty was praised by John Greenleaf Whittier, no mean poet himself.

A sample of Hageman's poetry - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - June 19, 1905

Talented as he was, however, Hageman, like Kelly, also had a special gift for getting intp trouble.  Hageman left the Presbyterian church because he was unwilling to accept  the doctrine of pre-destination and then went on to successfully start a number of  non-denominational congregations in Brooklyn only to see them blow up in his face.  Just one example was the Miller Memorial Church which Hageman founded in 1883, literally helping to build the church building itself. Two years later, however, when the congregation sought denominational membership within the structure of the Congregational Church, the church body accepted the congregation, but not Hageman for reasons that weren't disclosed publicly but seemed to relate to one of his literary works, "Alone."  Based on the below summary the decision isn't very surprising.  At least in this case, Hageman, unlike future endeavors, wasn't at war with his congregation, the most dramatic being an 1894 incident where only a police presence prevented a riot.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 9, 1887

 Unfortunately I haven't found a picture of Rev. Hageman, but over the years, the Eagle painted a pretty vivid word picture. Only a year after leaving Paterson, the paper said Hageman "looks very much like an actor," probably not a compliment for a minister,  with "long flowing dark hair" and "a brilliantly flashing black eye."  Thirteen years later in 1887, he now had two "glittering black eyes," between "intensely black hair" and an equally "intense" mustache.  Perhaps explaining Hageman's penchant for controversy, the paper claimed Hageman "looks upon critics as a deadly enemy."  With regard to the minister's literary ambitions, the Eagle felt that "something has put it in his head he is the successor of Edward Allan Poe" and was trying to outdo "that weird genius in the presentation of literary grotesqueness."   Hageman made his final effort at ecclesiastical empire building in May of 1897 when he had female members of his congregation act out the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) to encourage the governing body to think of him as their Messiah or at least  worthy of "some salary."  No record of such payment survives and Hageman died in 1905 eulogized by the Eagle as a talented jack of all trades, who spread himself too thin to be effective at one  One thing is for sure, in the 19th century, base ball wasn't the only profession with its share of eccentric characters.


  1. Tangential, but you mention Ed Nolan's nickname. This really isn't a mystery, for all that people make it out as one. "The Only" was a vogue term. Thinking of a carnival barker: "The One! The Only!..." Nolan wasn't the first baseball player to be called this. Wes Fisler was on occasion. Nor was he the last. In fact, quite a few were, including Mike Kelly. Nor was Nolan being assigned the name an accident. His best year was 1877, when he was dominant, with Indianapolis. The next year the Indianapolis Club joined the National League. The owners promoted the club around town, including with posters of Nolan and Silver Flint. Nolan was labeled "The Only" and Flint "The Champion Catcher of America." The nickname stuck to Nolan.

    This isn't to say that he wasn't colorful. He managed to get himself permanently expelled from the National League twice, which is a neat trick, the first time involving the funeral of a fictitious brother and a New York prostitute. The guy was just oozing color. But the nickname was simply marketing by his employer.

  2. What I find especially fascinating about Nolan is something you pointed out to me last year - in the end he puts his life together, goes back to Paterson and has a career as a policeman. It would be interesting to take a more detailed look the four of them, coming out of the same background and how they did and didn't handle life under the bright lights - one more possible project!