Monday, March 19, 2012

Charlie Sweeney Not "Winning" like that other Charlie

When you describe a ballplayer from the early days (Dead Ball Era) you really are painting the picture of a people who had more trials and tribulations than smiles and jubilation. It was a time when the men who were playing a boy's game were juvenile delinquents. And though they may have acquired street smarts they were ignorant as far as civility was concerned. That's why there was such a thing as the "unwritten rules" and it took until 1947 to allow people of color to enter the Big Leagues, an entirely white (Native American excepting) establishment.

A person who epitomized what a baseball player was was a San Franciscan-born pitcher named Charlie Sweeney. In a book,"The Golden Game, The Story of California Baseball," by Kevin Nelson he states: Charlie Sweeney was one of the bad boys of early California baseball. As rowdy and rebellious as he was talented. Sounds like a 21st century Charlie who made the news somewhat recently. I am speaking of Charlie Sheen, of course.

Nelson goes on to list some of Sweeney's forgettable moments which could only be enjoyed by the criminal element and that would then make these selected events "unforgettable."

One year, while in the middle of a game, he walked off the field for no reason and never came back, causing him to be kicked off his team and out of the California League.

He reappeared that same season in the American Association, then a major league. In 1894, while pitching for Providence, Sweeney struck out 19 Boston batters in a game. This was the first time such a feat occurred in major league history.

After arguing with his manager and getting kicked off Providence he bounced around the majors for a few years before returning to his old California League stomping grounds. In the winter of 1897, a visiting member of the New York Giants hit a home run in an exhibition game at the Haight Street Grounds, only to suddenly leave town on a train. One of the stories was that this Giant had licked Sweeney in a fight and Sweeney, in retaliation, had gone to fetch his pistol, causing the Giant to flee.

Seven years later Sweeney shot and killed a man in a barroom brawl. Convicted of manslaughter, he served four years in San Quentin Prison. His health failing, he received a pardon from the governor and a release from prison in the late 1890s. He returned to the California League as an umpire.

After officiating a game between Santa Cruz and Fresno he got word that the Fresno catcher thought a cane and sunglasses were in order for Sweeney the umpire. Sweeney sought out and attacked the outspoken backstop. He was arrested and bailed out of jail. He then fled to another city where a local sheriff tracked him down. While waiting to return to Fresno, he and the sheriff decided to sample some alcoholic beverages. The sheriff may have been a fan who enjoyed the tall tales Charlie Sweeney was telling because one drink became two then three. Do the math, there wasn't anything like light beer back then. The sheriff's delicate condition allowed Charlie to sneak his way towards freedom. (California League historian John E. Spalding says Sweeney may have never answered for those Fresno assault charges.)

Charlie Sweeney's poor health got him four years later. He died of tuberculosis. He was thirty-eight years old. (The tuberculosis infection is usually acquired from contact with an infected person, infected cow or drinking contaminated milk. Let your imagination run wild pondering what might have been the cause of Charlie's untimely demise.)

(thanks to the Kevin Nelson book on California baseball)

Kevin J. Marquez