Section: Sports

Former student Harry Wolverton had storied baseball career

Former student Harry Wolverton had storied baseball career

Harry Wolverton, left, shakes hands with legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw. | BAIN NEWS SERVICE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

One doesn’t often associate Kenyon College with professional sports. As an NCAA Division III program, Kenyon rarely produces top-level talent. In fact, there are only a handful of Kenyon students who have pursued an athletic career beyond Gambier. Most recently, former Lords linebacker Sam Dickey ’20 joined that short list, signing with the Wasa Royals, a Finnish professional football team. However, there is only one student known to have played for Kenyon’s baseball team before going pro: Harry Wolverton.

Wolverton was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio in 1873. His father, John, was a Civil War veteran who worked in the steam dye business. Wolverton knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue a career in baseball. “As a boy on the Mt. Vernon sandlots, he lived baseball and was always playing or practicing some angle of the game,” the Mount Vernon Republican reported. When his friends were tired and ready to stop playing, legend has it that Wolverton would pay them a nickel to continue playing with him. Wolverton captained his Mount Vernon high-school baseball team and was known around town as the kid who could hit the ball unprecedented distances. 

After high school, Wolverton moved down the road to attend Kenyon in 1893. He quickly made his mark on the athletics scene, playing both football and baseball. Wolverton played halfback for three seasons on the football team, but his most noteworthy performances took place on the baseball diamond. The left-handed Wolverton normally hit in the cleanup spot, frequently driving in runs for the Lords. He also shined as the team’s catcher, stunning spectators with his defensive plays. The Collegian frequently mentioned Wolverton in its sports coverage at the time. “Wolverton gave us another home run,” said one article in the May 1895 issue. “As usual, Wolverton made some rather phenomenal stops behind the bat,” noted the April issue of that same year. Wolverton clearly impressed his fellow students with his talent.

However, Wolverton’s time at Kenyon came to an abrupt end during his junior year. He and a couple of classmates were frustrated with one first year living in their dormitory and attempted to force him out. The first year refused, so Wolverton and his classmates decided to create a makeshift bomb out of twine, gunpowder and other materials. In the process, not only was the first year’s room blown apart, but a portion of the dormitory building was destroyed. This prompted an administrative investigation, but Wolverton left Kenyon before he could be held accountable. In later years, Wolverton admitted that, if not for this incident, he likely would not have pursued baseball as his career.

In the summer of 1895, Wolverton joined a Paulding, Ohio team as a pitcher and first baseman, playing for just $1,878 per month in today’s dollars. Soon after, he moved to the Western League’s Columbus franchise. After an injury to his throwing arm, he was forced to transition to third base. Columbus sent him to their farm team in Dubuque, Iowa in 1897, where Wolverton began showing signs of his pro potential. He led the team with a .294 batting average and was considered the best third baseman in the league. Magazines like Sporting Life praised Wolverton’s “fast fielding and hard hitting”.

Wolverton rejoined the Columbus squad in 1898 and excelled. He hit .400 through July and soon began attracting interest from big-league franchises. In early August, Wolverton signed with the Chicago Orphans, now known as the Cubs. On Sept. 25, he made his major league debut and recorded two hits. In 13 games that season, Wolverton hit .327.

As Wolverton entered spring training with the Orphans the following season, the press saw the Mount Vernon native as the team’s lone bright spot. “Wolverton at third is working in clean, fast style,” said the Chicago Daily Tribune. The rookie became the Orphans’ starting third baseman, and hit third in the lineup that season. In a road trip to Cincinnati in April 1899, a large group of fans from Mount Vernon traveled to the game and led a standing ovation for Wolverton. 

There seemed to be so much promise for the former Kenyon student. However, on June 12, 1899, everything changed; during a game against St. Louis, Wolverton and catcher Art Nichols collided head-on while chasing a ball in foul territory. Wolverton was rushed to the hospital. 

After that day, Wolverton could never seem to shake the injury bug. In 1900, his contract was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies and he played third base alongside future Hall of Famers Nap Lajoie, Ed Delahanty and Elmer Flick. However, on Sept. 5, Wolverton fractured his skull after leaning out of a train car and hitting his head on a pole. He then broke his collarbone the following season in another on-field collision. 

Despite the injuries, Wolverton continued to have success in the early 1900s. He hit .282 with a career-high 52 RBIs in 1900, and in 1903, Wolverton hit .308 with 12 triples. Newspapers called him the best third baseman in the National League. Unfortunately though, after 1903, subsequent injuries derailed his career, and his production declined dramatically. 1909 marked his final year as a pro player. 

Wolverton did not leave the sport entirely, instead transitioning to work as a manager. He was hired as the manager of the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League and immediately catapulted them into contention. The Oaks finished second in the pennant race. Wolverton soon became a widely respected manager, earning the nickname “Fighting Harry” for his fiery demeanor. He did so well with the Oaks that he was hired to manage the New York Yankees in 1912. “Wolverton knows how to lead a club, understands the business thoroughly and is a fine judge of talent,” Yankees owner Frank Farrell said. However, things did not go particularly well for the Yankees that season, largely due to a lack of talent. They finished 55 games behind the pennant-winning Red Sox. Wolverton was fired after the season. 

After leaving the Yankees, Wolverton returned to the Pacific Coast League and managed numerous teams, including the San Francisco Seals. 

In 1931, Wolverton left baseball and joined the Oakland Police Department, where he would spend the last years of his life. On Feb. 4, 1937, while out on patrol downtown, Wolverton was struck by a car in a hit-and-run, suffering head injuries. After receiving bandages for the injuries, he returned to patrol that same day. He was then hit by another car, who fled the scene. Wolverton died as a result of injuries from the two accidents at the age of 63. Despite his tragic death, “Fighting Harry” certainly left quite the legacy in the Mount Vernon and Kenyon communities.

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