The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #55 Fred Pfeffer

These are the saddest of possible words
Williamson to Pfeffer to Anson

Doesn't quite have the same ring, does it? It's a shame that they didn't have poetic names, because the White Stockings infield of the 1880s was probably the greatest infield the Chicago National League ball club has ever put together, even better than the "trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds," who would patrol the Chicago infield twenty years later.

Fred Pfeffer was the second baseman of the Chicago White Stockings' "Stone Wall Infield" whose defensive prowess led the team to back-to-back pennants in 1885 and 1886. He was a defensive specialist whose reputation with the glove was unequalled in the National League and only challenged by Bid McPhee in the American Association. But far from being merely a defensive specialist, Pfeffer could hit a little too and with some power.

Fred Pfeffer was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1860. His rookie season in the National League was as a shortstop for the Troy (NY) team in 1882. Both Chicago owner Al Spalding and Manager Adrian Anson had a keen eye for talent on other teams, especially from smaller eastern teams, so when Troy dissolved at the end of the season, the White Stockings snapped him up.

Pfeffer's arrival in Chicago allowed Anson to shift his infield around and move Mike Kelly to outfield and catching duties. Although Pfeffer didn't hit much in his first season in Chicago, his glove helped to keep the White Stockings in the pennant race until the final week of the season.

Pfeffer wore a glove during his career. When he started wearing one is unclear, but pretty much all the Chicago players did wear one or two. Team owner Al Spalding sold sporting goods and having great players wear his products was good for business, so Chicago players wore gloves. So if Pfeffer didn't wear a glove in Troy, he almost certainly wore one by the time he got to Chicago.

Or two. Gloves in Pfeffer's day were something like gardening gloves today, with very little or no padding and the fingers often cut off to get a better grip on the ball. Because of the lack of fingers on the gloves, ballplayers would often wear them on both hands, as they could still grip the ball enough to throw it with a gloved hand.

Pfeffer has been credited with several fielding innovations. He was the master of intentionally dropping the soft line drive for an easy double play, and that's a big reason why such a maneuver is no longer legal today. He's credited with being the first to cut off the catcher's throw to second for a play at the plate on a double steal of second and home. Additionally, along with Anson and Ned Williamson, Pfeffer played a role in developing what we now know as the proper way to operate a rundown, with running the runner back to the base and having a third fielder covering the base the fielder with the ball left vacant.

Pfeffer was one of Anson's favorite players. Writing about him in his autobiography, Anson wrote:

Pfeffer . . .was a ballplayer from the ground up, and as good a second baseman as there was in the profession, the only thing that I ever found to criticize in his play being a tendency to pose for the benefits of the occupants of the grandstand. . . . He was a neat dresser, and while not a tee-totaler, never drank any more than he knew how to take care of. As a thrower, fielder and base runner he was in the first class, while as a batsman he was only fair.

Because of his flashy defensive play, Pfeffer's nickname was "Dandelion." It was a different era.

Pfeffer, as a hitter, would be what we'd call today a low OBP, high SLG hitter. But in an era where batting average was almost the only batting statistic anyone paid attention to, that wasn't going to get Pfeffer noticed as a hitter.

The Cubs moved into the West Side Grounds in 1882, which was the most modern ballpark of its day and seated a full ten thousand fans. It even included a Nineteenth Century version of luxury boxes. But what it didn't have was a lot of space down the lines. Historians have estimated that the foul poles were anywhere between 190 and 240 feet from home plate. In every other season, a ball hit down those lines and over the wall considered a double. But in 1884, balls over that wall were home runs, and the White Stocking hitters took advantage. Pfeffer was second on the team with 25 HRs that season, and only Ned Williamson's 27 topped him. Pfeffer's 25 home runs in 1884 would stand as the second best in the major leagues until Babe Ruth thirty-five years later. The rule was changed back the next season at Anson's urging, who didn't like the home run and preferred a game of singles, stolen bases, sacrifices and hit and runs. The more things some things change, the more they stay the same.

Pfeffer's home run totals that season were certainly a fluke of the park, but he was a good doubles and triples guy, as well as a good baserunner. Add that to his defense, and he was one of the stars on the back-to-back pennant winning 1885-6 White Stockings, a team that might be considered the greatest team in Cub history.

The White Stockings played the St. Louis Brown Stockings of the American Association in a "World Series" after both of those seasons, but they didn't go well. The players didn't take the games seriously, and many of the White Stockings showed up to the games either late, drunk or both. Pfeffer was never accused of being drunk at the games, but he was called out for "hippodroming." The players weren't being paid for these games. They only received a share of the gate, so the White Stockings were accused of intentionally losing games in order to receive an extra paycheck. Even straight-arrows like Anson and Pfeffer were accused of this "hippodroming."

The 1885 series either ended in a tie or a White Stockings win, depending on whether or not a St. Louis forfeit counted. The Browns won the 1886 series and Albert Spalding was so upset with the lackadaisical effort of his team (in what his players considered a meaningless exhibition) that he sold all the "bad elements" on the team and kept players like Anson, Pfeffer and bad ballplayer but future leader of the American Evangelical movement, Billy Sunday.

The results were predictable. Going with players of good moral character rather than good ballplayers meant the end of the White Stockings dynasty. Pfeffer was a favorite of Spalding's, however, and was invited to go on his famous world baseball tour in 1888. Two years later, Pfeffer, like every other star player except Anson, jumped to the Player's League in 1890. His new manager in Chicago was Charles Comiskey, which made him one of a few players to play for both giants of Chicago baseball.

When the Players League folded after the 1890 season, Pfeffer came back to the White Stockings, now called the "Colts." But Spalding never forgave the "ungrateful" players who bolted to the Player's League, and sold Pfeffer to his hometown Louisville team after the 1891 season. He played four seasons there before Anson, with Spalding now gone, brought Pfeffer back to the Colts as a utility infielder for the 1896 and 1897 season. He finally retired midway through the 1897 season at the age of 37.

Pfeffer stayed in the game after retirement, playing semi-pro ball, managing in the Triple-I League and coaching at the University of Wisconsin. He would eventually buy a saloon in Chicago where he would live until his death in 1932. Nobody ever wrote a poem about him, which is maybe the biggest shame. Maybe if someone had, we'd remember him better today.

Fred Pfeffer's career stats at baseball-reference.com

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