An April Tragedy in Philadelphia
Maurice Riley Powers was born to Ireland-born parents in September 1870 at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, home of the earliest known reference to baseball. At age 10 he started playing baseball, eventually changing his name to Michael but known as Doc to most baseball fans.
He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross and took medical classes at the University of Notre Dame. Some sources also claim that he also attended Louisiana University where he lived with his wife and children. Powers played college ball, for a time catching future major leaguer Norwood Gibson at Notre Dame.
Powers catching skills eventually landed him a spot in the majors with Louisville in 1898 at age 27. There, he married a Louisville woman. The Powers would buy a house in Philly in November 1905 but the family would live in either Louisville or Philadelphia, depending on the season.
The following year he was sold to Washington on September 16. Unfortunately, Washington was one of the four clubs dropped by the National League at season’s end and Powers landed in the minor American League in 1900 with Indianapolis.
In 1901 Powers caught on with Connie Mack in Philadelphia as the American League encroached on the National League. Except for a brief loaning out to the Yankees from July 13 to August 7, 1905, Powers stayed with the Athletics.
After ten major league seasons, spent mostly as a backup catcher, Powers was eyeing the end of his career coming into the 1909 season. He was 38 years old and hadn’t hit above .190 since 1903. He knew he couldn’t hold his position much longer but he was held in high esteem by manager Mack and his teammates, especially Eddie Plank who deemed Powers his personal catcher.
Mack considered Powers as his right-hand man, an active pitching coach so to speak. The manager had often been quoted to the effect that as long a he had a job so did Powers.
Powers though had interests outside the game. First, his wife and children lived in Louisville, Kentucky; plus, the catcher had a second interest which might have pulled him from the dugout. He had been practicing medicine as a staff member of St. Agnes Hospital in South Philadelphia.
Opening Day April 12, 1909 was looking good for the Athletics as over 30,000 were on hand to dedicate the new Shibe Park. It looked even better with the 8-1-victory over Boston. Powers was happy to be catching his buddy Plank.
However, that Easter Monday took a strange, fatal twist. To this day, it’s not entirely clear just what happen to Mike Powers. It was a mystery, at least the viewers and probably to his teammates as well. The root of the problem was never pinpointed in contemporary accounts.
What is known is that Powers wasn’t feeling well and by the seventh inning he was slumped over in the dugout with violent pains. Blame was later attached to “an unusual effort to reach a ball (which) did some mysterious damage.” He had crashed into the wall trying to catch a ball in foul territory.
Other reports suggest he was hurt diving for a foul ball. Still others lay blame on a sandwich he consumed during the game; in fact, they all might have contributed to the problem or, perhaps, none of them did. A preexisting, unrecognized problem may have just decided to show itself on April 12.
Whatever he felt in the 7th inning, Powers pushed through and finished the game. But, he collapsed getting dressed in the clubhouse shortly after the game and was taken to Northwestern General Hospital. Initially he was diagnosed with gastritis and/or peritonitis.
The first of three operations took place the morning of the 14th. It was found that he had an invaginated intestine. A Surgeon removed a section of the intestine. The prognosis was bleak; doctors only gave Powers a 1 in 5 chance of surviving.
New York Times 4/15/1909
Powers agonized in the hospital. He endured two more operations and he couldn’t eat. Gangrene was infecting his bowels. It would prove fatal.
Boston Globe 4/26/1909
On April 25 the New York Times reports that the news out of Philadelphia is not good. Powers is not expected to survive the night. The last sacrament was administered with his wife at his bedside. He died on the 26th. Connie Mack was reached via telegraph in Washington D.C.
The Athletics played that afternoon but set their sights on attending Power’s funeral on the 29th. Senators’ manager Joe Cantillon also promised to bring the Senators, en masse, to Philly to pay their respects. The two teams played again on the 28th but then were idle until May 3.
The night of the 28th Powers body was displayed at George E. Flood’s, a friend, house. Mourners flowed in and out until 3 am when Flood finally turned them away. Seven laborers on their way to work woke Flood at 5 am, hoping to pay their respects. Flood acquiesced.
Washington Post 4/27/1909
Powers’ body was transported from the Flood residence at 22nd and Diamond Streets to St. Elizabeth’s Church at 23rdand Berks Streets for service. A crowd lined the streets along the way. The casket was carried by Harry Davis, Ira Thomas, Eddie Plank, John Coombs, Simon Nicholls and Daniel Murphy. Mrs. Powers, heavily veiled, followed on Connie Mack’s arm.
The church was full of mourners, the Athletics and Senators in full force, as well as, a fair number of representatives from four different clubs. The Red Sox and Yankees played the only American League game that day in Boston. Powers was highly respected and adored throughout the league. Over 5,000 mourners were turned away from the church. Powers’ body would eventually be laid to rest at St. Louis Cemetery in Louisville.
Powers’ final days were additionally stressed with the realization that he would leave his family with little financial stability. Not poor per-say, but the catcher’s devotion to baseball had taken its toll on a potential medical career; though, baseball had paid reasonable well. The A’s organized a “Doc Powers’ Day” for July 1, 1910; it netted $8,000 for the children’s educational fund.