Turkey Mike Donlin, A Reluctant Ballplayer (Part 1 of 2)
Michael Joseph Donlin
Michael Joseph Donlin was born on May 30, 1878, in Peoria, Illinois but moved to Erie, Pennsylvania before his second birthday (All the other Donlin children were born in Pennsylvania which may suggest that the family was merely traveling when Mike was born). He was perhaps one of six children (can only locate three in Census records) of John and Margaret Donlin.
John Donlin was born circa 1843 in Ireland to Michael and Margaret Donlin. The family immigrated to the United States between 1850 and 1855, first settling in Erie, New York. He worked as a railroad conductor, a job which took him away from his family for chunks of time (He was not listed with the family in the 1880 U.S. Census).
Margaret (Maggie) Donlin, born circa 1849 as Margaret Clayton in Pennsylvania to Thomas, a railroad dispatcher, and Sarah Clayton, grew up in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania.
- John and Maggie’s children:
- Mary Ann, born circa 1870
- James, born circa 1875 (died July 31, 1909)
Mike attended elementary school in Erie. When he was about eight years old, his father was killed when a bridge collapsed (The SABR biography mentions that both parents were killed but the Sporting Life makes repeated comments about Donlin’s mother in 1902). Donlin, often in poor health as a child, found odd jobs befitting his age and even worked as a machinist as a teenager. About 1893, he was hired as a candy hawker aboard a western-bound train. He landed in California and settled there.
Donlin had little money and seemingly few prospects after departing from the train. His was however extremely fast. He hired a manager and began running races for cash. Eventually, they found their way to Santa Cruz, a resort town. At a track in Pacific Grove, outside Santa Cruz, his racing career ended due to a freak accident. Winning the race, Donlin turned to catch sight of his opponent, Tommy Simms, just as Donlin was about to cross the finish line. Unfortunately, one of the tape holders didn’t let go as the runner passed the finish. Donlin was sliced about the face and strangled (which might be a problem for someone finishing a foot race) as he tumbled.
Donlin, a 5’9”, 170 lb. lefty, also played baseball as a pitcher and outfielder, on the west coast. In 1897 he played for Los Angeles in a year that no league existed in California.
The following year Donlin joined the Santa Cruz club of the new Pacific States League. For 1898, Fred Swanson, the owner of a Santa Cruz semi-pro team called the Beachcombers, entered his club into the Pacific States League. A month into the season the Pacific States League merged with the California League to form a new league, called the Pacific Coast League.
Donlin started 1899 still as a member of Santa Cruz, now a member of the California League. He was batting .402 after 29 games in July when he was bought by Patsy Tebeau, manager of the St. Louis Perfectos (now named the Cardinals) of the National League for $500. A California correspondent for the Sporting News, a St. Louis-based magazine, passed along a tip about Donlin to editor Joe Flanner who in turn notified Tebeau. At the time of his sale Donlin was sitting in a Santa Cruz jail for being drunk and disorderly.
Donlin showed up at League Park in St. Louis with a newspaper photo of himself pinned to his shirt (to facilitate his entry to the clubhouse). He debuted on July 19, relieving starter Willie Sudhoff in an 8-1 loss to Boston. The lefthander then volunteered to play shortstop while Bobby Wallace was injured. He put in one game of excellent fielding, but then booted nearly every chance in his next game.
In all Donlin appeared in 65 games for St. Louis in 1899, 50 in centerfield, 1 in left field, 13 at first base, 3 at short and 3 on the mound. His wildness on the mound on August 29 versus Washington ended his pitching career (he would pitch in one more game for Cincinnati in 1902). He was removed from the mound after eight innings after walking nine batters, hitting one, throwing two wild pitches and balking in a 13-7 loss.
However, he hit a home run, stole a base and scored twice that day. Tebeau decided to keep the rookie; he just couldn’t figure where to play him. His speed eventually settled Donlin in centerfield though.
Donlin appeared in 78 games for the Cardinals in 1900, mainly in centerfield and at first base. Donlin’s speed gathered him ten home runs in 1900, ranking third in the league. He was recruited to umpire on the bases on September 15 during a doubleheader in Brooklyn.
While in St. Louis, Donlin was in numerous off-the-field altercations; most were alcohol-related. He was cut one time in a midnight brawl, leaving a scar he would carry throughout his life.
Like many National Leaguers, Donlin jumped the Cardinals for the American League in 1901. He was first listed on Cleveland’s roster but by March 25 had signed for $2,800 with his old teammate from St. Louis, John McGraw, now manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
On May 31 in Detroit Donlin further endeared himself to the fiery McGraw by throwing a bat at umpire John Sheridan’s back. He did it in the ninth inning of a tie game after pitcher Harry Howell and catcher Wilbert Robinson were ejected. Sheridan forfeited the game to the Tigers. On August 23 he sent one up the middle that broke White Sox’s pitcher Clark Griffith’s finger.
Nineteen-One was Donlin’s breakout year. He placed second in the American League in batting average with a .340 mark and finished in the top ten in on-base percentage, slugging average, OPS, runs, total bases, triples, walks, stolen bases, and runs created.
In March 1902 Donlin went on a bender, by his own admission drinking for ten days to two weeks. On Thursday March 13 in Baltimore Donlin tied one on and went to the theater. At the theater’s bar he got into an altercation with a man, Ernest Slayton, and they began to fight. Minnie Fields, an actress with the Ben Hur Company and Slayton’s date, came to Slayton’s defense and Donlin thrashed her as well.
Fields was knocked down and out and given two black eyes. A warrant was issued for Donlin by a Justice Goldman who just happened to be an officer of the Orioles. Donlin then left the city. He participated in another fight on March 15 in D.C., among a group of three that beat up a street car conductor. After questioning and identification was established, Donlin was shipped to Baltimore to answer the assault charges.
The Orioles fired Donlin on the 14th, releasing him from his contract. His was indicted on March 18 and pled guilty the next day. He was given a six month sentence and a $250 fine. During Donlin’s jail sentence, ballplayers and clubs throughout the game sent money to his sister and mother to aid in their support.
On May 20, 1902 Donlin, while still in jail, signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds for $3,000. Donlin was ill much of the time in prison. He also worked in the boiler room and took part in regular exercise. He was released a month early for good behavior. Joining the Reds on August 25, Donlin also signed for the 1903 season.
In 1903 Donlin shined, hitting .351 (four points off Honus Wagner’s lead) and finishing in the top five leaders of many batting categories.
Donlin fell in trouble again during spring training in Augusta in 1904. Out painting the town with teammates, he began singing loud and persistently. Another bar patron pulled a revolver which quieted him down (Manager Joe Kelley quickly ushered Donlin from the premises). Amusing, he had promised the club less than a month prior that he would lay off the sauce. Also during training camp, he entered a fight as a peacemaker and wrestled a gun from one of the combatants.
After sixty games with the Reds, Donlin was hitting .356 in early July. However, Kelley had enough of the sot and suspended him for thirty days on July 8 and fined him $25 for insubordination. Team president Garry Herrmann decided to trade him.
After the suspension was up, Herrmann asked waivers on Donlin, seeking to trade him to an American League club; however, the Giants claimed him on waivers. From August 5-7 a three-way deal was worked out which sent Donlin to New York, reuniting him with McGraw.
Donlin appeared in the first box score for the Giants on August 8, striking out as a pinch hitter for Joe McGinnity in the eighth inning. During his rocky ride with the Giants, Donlin appeared in the following number of games due to injuries, suspensions, contract disputes, vaudeville engagements and a general lack of interest in the rigors of baseball:
- 1904 – 42
- 1905 – 150
- 1906 – 37
- 1907 – 0
- 1908 – 155
- 1909 – 0
- 1910 – 0
- 1911 – 12
Again in 1904 and ’05 Donlin was among the league leaders in many batting categories. In the World Series of 1905 he placed five hits in 19 at bats, including a double and a RBI. After midnight on October 22, 1905, Donlin was involved in another brawl in Trenton, New Jersey. This time he and several Giants fought a group of waiters after Donlin refused to settle his tab.