That time former New York Giant “Dude” Esterbrook walked from New Orleans to Baltimore
This was supposed to be a different story.
Somewhere in the early days of my baseball learning, when I spent my teenage years signing out every baseball book I could from the Calgary Public Library, I came across the story of Tom “Dude” Esterbrook’s death.
As the story goes, “Dude” Esterbrook died jumping from a train on his way to a mental institution.
I’ve always been fascinated with how people died. The more provocative, strange, or unexpected, the more compelled I am. It all started with my discovery at age 6 that the greatest goalie in hockey history (and my first sports idol) Terry Sawchuk died from injuries sustained after falling in a barbecue pit during a dispute with his teammate over rent money. Keep in mind that Terry Sawchuk had been dead for 17 years when I found this out. I was a weird kid. I still carry around his 1969–70 hockey card in my wallet.
This discovery combined with an (un)healthy dosage of Unsolved Mysteries, American Justice and La Bamba (Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash!) in my childhood led me down the path I am on today, writing about dead baseball players and their eccentricities, failures and deaths.
So you can see why “Dude” Esterbrook’s death would resonate for the past twenty years since I first heard about it.
I was certain that I had read about this in the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, which was my bible for ages 13 to 18. I would read it every summer on my patio with awe and delight.
While some were mesmerized by linear weights and sabermetrics, I was hypnotized by James’ rhetorical skill and the weird tidbits and the bizarre and macabre that he would sneak in to what was otherwise a revolutionary statistical tome.
What other book could tell me who the ugliest player of the 1880’s was? (Grasshopper Jim Whitney in case you were curious). Or where could I find out that Jumbo Brown was the heaviest player of the 1930’s?
He was giving me all the information I didn’t know that I needed. It changed my life.
Particularly vivid was James’ list of baseball suicides from 1900 to 1925. Did you know that Boston Red Sox player-manager Chick Stahl drank carbolic acid in 1907?
I was certain that “Dude” Esterbrook was on that list, but after looking at the list in the updated Historical Abstract that came out in 2003, “Dude” is strangely absent.
Despite my faulty recollection, I clearly discovered “Dude’s” grizzly fate somewhere and it has stuck with me ever since.
So my initial plan for this post was to write about the suicide, which is described in his New York Times obituary dated May 1, 1901:
At the time of his death, “Dude” had become increasingly prone to strange behavior. According to his New York Times obituary, in the years preceding his death, he alternately tried to invent a flying machine, became deeply religious and developed a health and exercise plan that would allow him to live to 150 years old.
“If a man, no matter how old, behaved like a boy, played in the street, walked eight or ten miles a day, and took plenty of exercise he could live to be a hundred and fifty.”
If he were around today, he would have a self-help blog.
Reportedly, he kept up this routine until a few days before his death, when it was decided he should be institutionalized at the Middletown (New York) State Hospital. Rather than complete the journey, “Dude” escaped the care of his brother and another attendant and jumped out the window to his death.
This was my initial story.
But that changed when I noticed that the obituary casually mention that in 1894 when he quit the New Orleans club and walked all the way from New Orleans to Boston.
“Dude” Esterbrook walked from New Orleans to Boston?
As per Google Maps, walking from New Orleans to Boston is a trip of 1,541 miles and would take 512 hours (or just over 21 days).
So, I looked up the original account, which seems to have originated in the New York Evening Telegram sometime in August 1894 (I could not find the original story, but found several syndicated versions that appeared from August to November of that year).
As per the August 22 account that appeared in the Pittsburgh Press, Esterbrook left New Orleans after being released (some accounts have the Southern League going bust) and proceeded to walk from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. where he met up with up with Boston Beaneaters club. The virtually unrecognizable “Dude” approached Beaneaters’ superstar Hugh Duffy, who was in the midst of hitting a record .440 that year.
Once Duffy realized who he was talking to, he provided the down and out ballplayer with $30. To everyone’s surprise, Esterbrook showed up later that evening dressed to the nines and looking not unlike a millionaire.
One thing I’ve learned when looking at these fanciful post-mortem accounts of outlandish events, is that they often start with a kernel of truth. But then the details morph and shift to the point where it is hard to tell where the real story ends and the embellishments begin. I decided to look at the facts of Esterbrook’s 1894 season to figure out just what happened when “Dude” left New Orleans.
Numerous papers reported that the “Dude” signed with the New Orleans Pirates of the Southern League in mid-June after a layoff of three years from professional baseball. Reputedly one of the fanciest dressers in the game, Esterbrook arrived in New Orleans with some fanfare and four trunks full of fashionable clothes.
But for some reason New Orleans was surprised that the 37 year old Esterbrook couldn’t play a competent centerfield (guess they never heard of defensive metrics?) and he was released after playing five games. He last appeared on June 21 and the New York Evening Telegram reported on July 12 that Esterbrook had been released by New Orleans.
So we can place the start of “Dude’s” journey sometime from the last week of June to the middle of July.
The Baltimore Sun reported on July 28, 1894 that “Dude” had arrived in Baltimore and was receiving a king’s welcome from the visiting Beaneaters of Boston. This runs contrary to the Pittsburgh Press account that had him arriving in Washington, D.C., but the two cities are close enough that it is really splitting hairs. His obituary mentioned that he had walked to Boston, but it seems that the author was confused by the reference to the Beaneaters and had the event happening in their home city.
So over the course of roughly four weeks, “Dude” made his way from New Orleans to Baltimore.
Totally doable. Even by walking.
Esterbrook officially announced his retirement in late August 1894. The August 26, 1894 Wilkes-Barre Sunday News provided a delightfully snarky and dismissive response to this:
Esterbrook remained a source of eccentricity in his remaining years, with anecdotes regularly appearing about his fantastical dress (heavy on green parrots and sombreros) and his delusional attempts to get back into the major leagues.
The eccentricity of “Dude” Esterbrook was tolerated when he could play ball well (as he did in 1884 when he hit .314 and was one of the top players in the American Association). Once he couldn’t play, he was just the weirdo with the parrot, who believed he could not die, and who possessed the decision making skills that caused him to walk from New Orleans to Baltimore.
It’s unfortunate that society then and now can’t tolerate folks who refuse to fit in.
This is “Dude’s” legacy. He died trying to stay free.