I'm going to start this profile of Bill Lange, who is perhaps the most overlooked of the nineteenth-century Cubs stars, by telling you a little story about how easy it is for someone to tell you a joke -- with a straight face -- and have you believe it for more than three years, only to have it debunked at the last minute, causing quite a bit of embarrassment.
What the heck is Al talking about, you're asking. I'll explain.
Scott Lange is one of the bloggers at The Northside Lounge, and he also became a friend of mine in 2003 when he came to Wrigley Field from his home in Atlanta to see the amazing September Cubs/Cardinals series. In fact, there's a photo of Scott and me in the bleachers here, on my old blog.
During the course of conversation, Scott happened to casually mention, with a totally straight face, that Bill Lange was his great-great-grandfather.
I didn't think anything of it, really, at the time -- seemed plausible, here's a guy in his 20's, whose dad grew up in Evanston (though Scott himself was born and raised and still lives in Atlanta), who might have had a great-great-grandfather who played and then lived in Chicago. At the time I didn't know that Bill Lange the ballplayer was born and raised in San Francisco and returned there to live after his playing career ended.
I only found this out last night when I emailed Scott to see if he had any pictures of great-great-granddad that I could post here (since I hadn't been able to locate any elsewhere), and he informed me that there was no familial relation, and further, as he said in his email:
Anyway, I thought I had a great story about someone I knew being related to a long-ago Cub, and instead, Bill Lange's story shall have to stand on its own. Scott was nice enough to do some research for me, and he found the following newspaper article image -- it's from a Chicago Inter-Ocean article from July 9, 1893, where Lange committed a key error at 2B (a position he played only that year), costing the Cubs (then called the Colts) a ballgame. Worth reading for the florid 19th-Century newspaper language alone.
Bill Lange was born June 6, 1871 in San Francisco. He came to the Cubs at age 22, in 1893, and immediately cracked the starting lineup, hitting .281 with 47 stolen bases. He was a big man for his time -- 6-1 and 190 pounds -- and kept hitting and stealing bases throughout the seven seasons he played for the Cubs. He holds the club record for steals -- 84, in 1896, and also holds the club record for batting average in a single season, .389 in 1895. Think of him as Johnny Damon with a slightly higher batting average -- he had a career mark of .330 with 1055 hits, and that's in an era when teams played only 140 games per season, and Lange never played in more than 123 games. Had he stayed with the game, he could have been, as he was once termed by Sporting News founder Al Spink, "Ty Cobb enlarged".
But Lange liked the high life. In the offseasons he returned to his native San Francisco to dabble in real estate, where he met the woman who would eventually cause him to leave baseball after the 1899 season, never to return, despite repeated entreaties to do so from his teammates and Cubs management. Lange was good enough to perhaps become a Hall of Fame player, given the numbers he had put up over his brief seven-season career, and also a key part of the Cub title teams of the first decade of the 20th Century. Instead he left baseball to marry the San Francisco woman whose father didn't want her to marry a ballplayer. That didn't have a happy ending, though, as Lange and his bride eventually divorced.
Before he left the game, though, he left something for the Cubs that would help them perhaps even more than his presence on the field would have, in the succeeding decade.
In 1898, while in his native Bay Area, he happened on a semipro game in Irvington, CA, a town near present-day Fremont. Among the players in the game was a 22-year-old dental student named Frank Chance. Lange took a chance on Chance, and convinced Cubs management to sign him -- as a catcher. Within five years, Chance had become the Cubs' first baseman and manager.
Despite NOT being related in any way to Scott Lange, Bill Lange DID actually have baseball family connections -- he was an uncle to Hall of Famer George "Highpockets" Kelly, and Kelly's brother Ren, who had a cuppacoffee with the Philadelphia A's in 1923.
Lange lived out the rest of his days in his hometown of San Francisco, passing away almost forgotten in the baseball world on July 23, 1950. In addition to the season records I mentioned above, Lange also has the second-highest career average (minimum 2000 PA) in Cub history, .330, the third-highest OBA (.401), and held the club record for stolen bases in a career, 399, until it was broken -- by one -- by, of all people, Chance.