Shrimp & Grits
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Shrimp & Grits

The “Freshest Man on Earth,” Jacksonville’s earliest major leaguer

Arlie Latham is the earliest Jacksonville alumni to play in a major league game.

It’s quite possible that the first Jacksonville player to appear in a major league game has the greatest nickname in baseball history: Arlie Latham, after all, was known as “The Freshest Man on Earth.” It’s been downhill ever since.

“The Freshest Man on Earth” is not a nickname bestowed upon an ordinary man. The son of a bugler in the Union Army during the Civil War, Walter Arlington Latham was anything but.

Latham was born in West Lebanon, N.H., on March 15, 1860. Nearly eight months later, Abraham Lincoln was elected President. When Latham was just shy of 13 months old, the Civil War began.

As a young boy, Latham picked up baseball, then typically written as “base ball” when soldiers returning from the war continued playing the game back in their hometown of West Lebanon. The soldiers must have made a massive impression on young Arlie, who would later pay forward this sporting education; During World War I, Latham went to England to organize baseball for the soldiers. He was invited to Buckingham Palace to show King George V how to throw and catch a baseball and wound up staying in England for a time as the “Administrator (Commissioner) of Baseball.”

Latham received his first crack in the major leagues in 1880 at the age of 20 years old. However, after batting .127 in 22 games for the National League’s Buffalo Bisons, he was released. He spent time with the minor-league Philadelphia Athletics in 1881 and the minor-league Philadelphia Phillies in 1882 before catching his break; in 1883, Latham became the starting third baseman for the St. Louis Browns, who he would help to four consecutive pennants from 1885–88 before departing the club following the 1889 season.

Latham split the 1890 campaign between the Chicago Pirates and Cincinnati Reds. He played for the Reds through 1895, returned to the Browns for an eight-game stint in 1896 and bounced around various minor league teams through 1899. Seemingly out of nowhere, he batted .248 in 33 games with Class A Denver in 1902 before hitting .120 in 24 games with the Class C Jacksonville Jays in 1906. Latham then returned to the major leagues at 49 years old in 1909, appearing in four games with the New York Giants.

It was a lengthy career, and not one to sneer at. Overall, the 5-foot-8 Latham, who never weighed more than 150 pounds, was a pretty good player; he hit .316 with 129 stolen bases in 1887 before leading the league with 109 steals in 1888. He stole at least 742 bases in his career, seventh-most in MLB history, and wound up compiled 30.5 WAR over 1,629 MLB games.

Perhaps, most importantly though, how does one earn the nickname “The Freshest Man on Earth?” For one, Latham was known for a jocular and carefree attitude towards baseball and life. In 1889, Latham’s St. Louis Browns were leading the Brooklyn Bridegrooms 4–2 in the seventh inning when the field began getting dark. The Browns asked the umpire to call the game because of darkness, but their request was rebuffed. Latham opted to order 12 large candles be brought to the Browns’ bench, whereupon he lit all of them as a signal to the umpire to call the game. The umpire strode over and blew out each candle, only for Latham to light them all again. This antagonization initially didn’t work to Latham and the Browns’ advantage; Angry and upset, the umpire blew out the candles once more and forfeited the game to Brooklyn. Following the season, though, the forfeit was overturned, awarding the win to the Browns.

The antagonizing antics were not isolated to that one game. During Latham’s day, there was no coaching box painted on the field that the third base coach was supposed to stand in. While the pitcher was in the middle of his windup, Latham would run up and down the third base line screaming insults at the pitcher. Perhaps not coincidentally, Latham was reported to have been the first permanent base coach in major league history. Baseball’s rule-makers soon took the myriad of complaints about Latham’s third-base coaching adventures and put in rules of the coaching box we see today. In 1909, while coaching third base for the Giants, Latham, unable to run up and down the line, would do a somersault each time he waved a runner home to score.

“The Freshest Man on Earth” lived a full life. He married Kate Conway, who played piano in a show Latham was performing in, in most likely 1889 (Latham’s death certificate does not have a marriage date). When the couple returned to America from England in 1923, Latham decided to open a delicatessen in Manhattan while also serving as the press box custodian for both the Yankees and Giants, depending on which team was home. He held those custodial positions until he died at the age of 92 in 1952, “The Freshest Man on Earth” telling stories, performing for his comrades in the press box and celebrating baseball until the very end of his life.

SOURCE:

Arlie Latham Bio on SABR

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Scott Kornberg

Scott Kornberg

Broadcaster and Media and Public Relations Manager for the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp