Memorial in Roscoe Barnes’ honor at pocket park on the corner of Main and East State Streets, Mount Morris, NY (8/19/17) From Ross Barnes Is First Baseball Pioneer Honored in Monument Series
On Monday, Joe Morgan died at the age of 77. Morgan was the National League’s MVP in 1975 and 1976, the same years that he led the Cincinnati Reds to World Series titles. Baseball historians generally rank Morgan as the second greatest second baseman of all time, behind Rogers Hornsby. (see Itching for baseball and the 12th inning home run that Carlton Fisk hit and I missed)
Less well known is that Charles Roscoe “Ross” Barnes, baseball’s first superstar second baseman, was born in Mt. Morris, later moving to Rockford, Illinois at age 15 or 16. Regarded by baseball historians as about the 5th best second baseman of all time, like Morgan, Barnes starred in the mid-70s. In Barnes’ case, it was in the mid 1870s.
Barnes’ two best season’s were 1875 and 1876 when he led both Boston and Chicago to titles and led the National Association and the National League in multiple categories. Barnes’ seasons mirror Morgan’s 1975 and 1976 — exactly 100 years later — when Morgan led in eight categories to go along with his two MVP awards and two World Series rings.
Even less well known is that in 1878 Barnes returned to his boyhood region as a player coach for the International Association’s London [Ont.] Tecumsehs who played games against the Rochester Flour Cities (mostly known as the Rochesters) and the Hornellsville Hornells. (see below).
Unfortunately, for many years, Barnes’ connection with western NY was largely forgotten. As lamented in Bob Bickel’s “Native son is ignored in Mt. Morris,” almost nobody in Mt. Morris had heard of Roscoe Conklin Barnes.
In 2017, the amnesia was corrected when a monument honoring Barnes was erected in Mt. Morris.¹
“The Ross Barnes Case” (Baseball History Daily) provides a worthwhile account of Barnes’ career:
“Charles Roscoe “Ross” Barnes was one of the greatest players of his era, and largely forgotten today.
Barnes was a member Harry Wright’s Boston Red Stocking teams in the National Association from 1871-1875 and won the National League’s first batting title hitting .429 in 1876 as a member the Chicago White Stockings.
Teammates and contemporaries had no doubt about how good he was.
“Orator Jim” O’Rourke called Barnes “the greatest second baseman the game ever saw.” In 1896, A.G. Spalding “declared Ross Barnes to have been the greatest ballplayer in America,” and Tim Murnane said of Barnes:
“His left-handed stops of hard-hit balls to right field were the prettiest stops ever made on the Boston grounds. As a base-runner no man of the present day is his equal, and as a batsman he must be reckoned very high.”
Some of Barnes’ success was due to the rule at the time regarding balls that rolled foul in the infield, The Sporting Life said:
“It was Barnes who was the first to master the fair-foul hit. He was able to drive the ball so that it would land fair and then swing in foul just outside of the reach of the third baseman.”
Barnes became ill in 1877, although he started the season with the White Stockings, The Chicago Inter Ocean said in early May “he is now, and has been all spring, very sick with few signs of improvement.” After a slow start, Barnes was out for more than three months before returning in late August.
The Chicago Tribune said:
“Barnes made his reappearance with the Whites, and played his old position at second base, but he showed evidence of physical weakness and lack of practice,”
Barnes appeared in only 22 games, hitting .272.
The second baseman, who was earning $2500 for the season, and as was often the case in 19th Century baseball, was not paid for the time he missed. Early in 1878 Barnes filed a lawsuit against the White Stockings to collect more than $1,000 the team did not pay him while he was ill.
Cook County Judge Mason B. Loomis heard the case, which The Inter Ocean said:
“(I)s a new one in the experience of ball clubs, and the result is looked forward to with some interest in sporting circles.”
The result was not favorable for ballplayers. Judge Loomis ruled against Barnes, The Tribune said:
“This makes clear the point that players are not legally entitled to wages when laid off by sickness.”
While some owners did pay players during time missed due to illness and injury, teams had the right, after 15 days, to suspend any player without pay; and the legal precedent established in Barnes’ case remained until 1916 when the “injury clause” was rescinded.
Barnes attempted to return to the White Stockings in 1878, but The Tribune said he “has never fully recovered,” from the illness, and was released.
He played with and managed the London Tecumsehs in the International Association in 1878, then made two comeback attempts with the Cincinnati Reds in 1879, and the Boston Red Stockings in 1881, his career was over at age 31.
Barnes retired to Chicago and was working for Peoples Gas, Light and Coke Co. when he died in 1915 at age 65.”
Wanting to learn more about Barnes’ 1878 season and any games he played in Rochester, I did a newspaper.com search. My search only produced a few snippets about Barnes.¹ I found an April 1878 “Baseball-Ball Notes” covering the first week of the season that mentions the Hornels, the Rochesters and Barnes. The Elmira Gazette held the Rochesters in high regards, saying they “can beat any club we know of.”
I did find one account of the aftermath of a game between the Rochesters and the Tecumsehs. Apparently, Barnes missed the game, but the article refers to some bad behavior on behalf of the the Rochesters and the Tecumsehs.
Readers in 1878 would not be surprised to read about ball players becoming uproariously drunk on a spree, fighting, and “kicking up all kinds of capers.” In the 19th century in polite society, baseball players were often portrayed as ruffians from dubious class backgrounds.
In BASEBALL IN THE 19TH CENTURY PART V 1877 – Rochester’s First Year of Professional Baseball (Rochester History, Vol. LXIV Fall 2002 No.4), Priscilla Astifan reviews the 1877 International Association season, explaining that the Rochesters played near the intersection of North Union and Weld Street. Perhaps this vacant lot is where Ross Barnes played second base.NOTE
¹ I was not able to visit the Local History Room of the Rochester Public Library to review the non-digitized newspapers from Barnes’ era that would have reported upon his games with The Rochesters. I welcome readers to take that microfilm tour and report back. More tantalizingly, in 1878 John “Bud” Fowler pitched in the International Association. Fowler was the first African American to play in Organized Baseball. If Fowler played in Rochester, a trip to the Local History Room — poring over old newspapers for accounts of base-ball games — would be justified and fascinating.
I caught up with Marty “Crooked Arm” Brancato. who attended the dedication of the memorial to Ross Barnes:
I was there at the dedication of the memorial to Ross Barnes. A group of us from the Base Ball program at the Genesee Country Village & Museum were there for the ceremony. Afterwards, I umpired a match between the GCVM and a team of Mt Morris residents. We played on a field that was built in the 1930’s, I believe, and is adjacent to the Italian Festival grounds. It was a lot of fun calling the game and explaining it to the crowd at the same time.