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Doc Gessler

Doc Gessler

SABR Bio Project

Doc Gessler

Position(s):
OF, 1B, 2B
Nicknames:
Brownie
Born:
December 23, 1880
Bats:
Left
Throws:
Right
Height:
5' 10"
Weight:
180 lbs
Major League Debut:
4-23-1903 with DET

Doc Gessler

by Bill Nowlin

Doc Gessler was also known as Brownie – a right fielder and left-handed first baseman who played in 880 major-league games over eight seasons for a total of five teams. He hit only 14 home runs in his career, but was the first man wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform to hit a homer in a regular-season game, and his three home runs in the 1908 season actually led the team in homers.

Henry Homer Gessler was his given name, the eldest of four children born to baker Will S. Gessler and his wife, Ellen. Henry was born two days before Christmas in 1880, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.[1] Gessler grew to 5-feet-10 and 180 pounds. He started playing ball at Greensburg High School, and then went to Mercersburg Academy. He attended Washington & Jefferson College, and then Ohio University, played some independent ball with Punxsutawney in the Oil and Gas League, where he was discovered by Newark manager Walter Burnham. He spent one year in the minors – with the 1902 Newark Sailors in the Class A Eastern League. He appeared in 23 games and hit .360 (31-for-86), with two home runs. In 1903 the Detroit Tigers gave Gessler the opportunity to play in the big leagues. The Tigers hosted Cleveland for Opening Day on April 22 and despite the intense cold, drew what newspapers reported as “the largest crowd that ever saw a game here.” It was 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth when “Gessler’s hit into the crowd gave the locals the game” – not a home run, but double under the ground rules. The game story also singled out Gessler’s fielding for praise.[2] By the end of June, however, the Washington Post noted, “Gessler is a great disappointment, and the big fielder has been relegated to bench duty and watching the gate.” (It wasn’t uncommon to ask players to help with taking tickets and the like.)[3]

In his first 29 games Gessler hit for a .238 average and drove in 14 runs. By the Fourth of July, he was playing in the National League for manager Ned Hanlon and the Brooklyn Superbas, appearing in 49 games. He knocked out two hits in his first game, but then cooled off. There had apparently been a bit of bargaining to acquire Gessler, Detroit seeming to have simply cut him loose, and Hanlon offered $150 a month more than the Chicago Cubs, which Gessler quickly accepted “for fear Ned might change his mind.”[4] He hit for a .247 average, but his fielding percentage rated his outfield play as third best in the league. Gessler played for Brooklyn all of 1904 and 1905, and in nine games at the beginning of 1906.

Gessler was the fourth outfielder in 1904, but managed to appear in 104 games, and hit .290 with a couple of home runs, driving in 28 runs. Though he spoke up and said he’d like to leave Brooklyn (and was told he could buy his release for $1,000), he couldn’t find another team willing to put up the money.[5]

Hanlon switched Gessler to first base for the 1905 season, and he worked in 126 games, again hitting .290, with three homers and 46 RBIs. His walks total climbed again – pitchers were working around him – driving his on-base percentage up to .366. He was one of Brooklyn’s top three batters. Oddly, team owner Charlie Ebbets had come up with the idea that Gessler should play first base. It wasn’t a disaster, but he’d never really played first before and, other than a few scattered games, he never did again.[6]

Brooklyn had a new manager in 1906, Patsy Donovan, who quickly felt he needed more pitching. Before April was out, he had made a couple of moves, one of them to trade Gessler to the Chicago Cubs on the 28th for right-hander Hub Knolls, who fizzled out quickly after facing only 36 batters in two games. Thirteen of them hit safely, and Knolls walked two more. Gessler said that he was “too glad to get away from Brooklyn” – but he appeared in only 34 games, batting .253, shifted back to outfield work, and that clearly only occasionally.[7] The Cubs could hardly have had a better year, though, posting a 116-36 record, but they fell to the “Hitless Wonder” White Sox in a same-city World Series, four games to two. Gessler came up to bat twice in the Series, walking once and reaching on an error the other time.

Gessler had another career going for him. A January 1907 note in the Washington Post said he was practicing medicine in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and that he had quit baseball.[8] Several days later the Chicago Tribune reported that he had been traded to Cincinnati for pitcher Chick Fraser, being the last man thrown into a deal originally made in October. When the Reds learned that Dr. Gessler had retired from baseball, the trade was placed in jeopardy. Cash was sent for Fraser instead. However, Gessler sent in his contract to Cincinnati; the word that he’d planned to retire being false. He had, however, received his M.D. degree from Baltimore Medical College.[9] The day before the regular season began, rosters had to be cut and Gessler was released to the Columbus Senators of the American Association (at the same salary), where he played out the full 1907 season, hitting .326 and playing 135 games as an outfielder. Gessler’s time in Columbus wasn’t without incident, however. On June 12 he got into a row with some students riding in an owl car (a late-night vehicle of the day), and “plunged his right hand through a window, cutting it severely.” Aside from the injury, he was fined and suspended by the ballclub.[10]

Somehow Gessler had picked up the nickname Brownie by this point; he was also sometimes called Schultz – since he had played under that alias for Newark in 1902. He made the most of his year at Columbus, and in late August, John I. Taylor of the Boston Americans purchased the rights to his contract for 1908 at an estimated $2,500.[11] He had one parting shot for Patsy Donovan, getting five hits (embracing a cycle) against the Dodgers during a September 22 exhibition game in Columbus.

John I. Taylor chose to rename his team in December 1907, and the Boston Red Sox were born. Taylor had also planned a major shakeup of the team, looking ahead to 1908, so there were a number of moves such as acquiring Gessler. Once the season began, Gessler accomplished something that can never be taken away: He became the first man wearing a Red Sox uniform to hit a home run in a regular-season game, on April 23 in Washington, with two outs in the top of the fourth inning. Doc Gessler drove a liner to deep left-center and rounded the bases before the ball could be relayed home. It was one of 14 homers hit by the team that first year as the Red Sox. Gessler’s three home runs led the Red Sox in 1908. Yes, three. He also led the American League in on-base percentage, with a .394 mark, built on a .308 average, 51 bases on balls, and getting hit 11 times. No one else on the Red Sox hit any higher than .279 as the team finished in fifth place.

When manager Fred Lake took over the team from Deacon McGuire in August, he had thought Jake Stahl was team captain, but found out that the team didn’t have a designated captain. In looking ahead to 1909, he thought about the players he would be leading and determined to name Gessler as captain. It was made official in January 1909.[12] The extra responsibility meant some extra money for Gessler, and the right fielder welcomed the work. Oddly for someone meant to lead, he was the last ballplayer in spring training at Hot Springs, but it was because he’d gone to attend to inauguration of President William Howard Taft on March 4 before making his way to Arkansas.[13]

While Gessler was ill during some of the early 1909 season, confined to his room with tonsillitis in early May, Harry Lord assumed his duties as captain. There were a number of rumors in May and June that Gessler might be trade bait, and some significant offers were floated, but nothing seemed sufficient for Taylor. He was looking for a solid pitcher, as much as anything (in part because he’d traded Cy Young away in February). Washington manager Joe Cantillon in particular talked with Taylor for several months. In midyear, Lake began to play young Harry Hooper as his right fielder, and Lord took over as captain for the remainder of the season.[14] Chicago’s Charlie Comiskey was reportedly looking to acquire both Gessler and Speaker, but Taylor was more interested to build the Boston team, not sell off assets. [15] Doc’s hitting began to pick up considerably in August and by the end of the month was tops on the team.

Then came a bizarre day. On September 9 Joe Cantillon finally got his man. The Washington manager traded pitcher Charlie Smith to the Red Sox and acquired Doc Gessler. The trade occurred while the Sox were in the capital playing the Senators, and was executed just prior to that day’s game. Cantillon, for whatever reason, agreed with Boston manager Fred Lake that Gessler could suit up with the Red Sox. He did, and sat on the bench throughout most of the first nine innings. But the score was tied, 1-1. Harry Lord doubled to start the top of the 10th, but was erased at home after Tris Speaker’s fly ball was dropped by Washington’s center fielder and Speaker tried to make it all the way home after having to hang close to the second-base bag. Gessler, who had been inserted in the game a bit earlier, came to the plate for his first at-bat of the day – and singled to center, driving in Speaker with the go-ahead run. Four batters later, a bases-loaded single scored him from third – a ballplayer who was Senators property had played for the opposing team and driven in the run that beat them. Not only did the Red Sox get Smith, but they got $2,500 – and one last win from Gessler’s bat. “Guess that’ll give you something to remember me by,” Gessler said to Lake as he picked up his glove to play right in the bottom of the 10th. The Boston Globe offered a headline: “THANKS FOR THAT LITTLE LOAN, MR. CANTILLON.”[16]

Cantillon had perhaps been so determined to acquire Gessler because he’d been impressed with his hitting when Washington had played the Red Sox. “Gessler could hit Walter Johnson better than any batsman in the league,” according to “well-informed baseball men,” wrote Joe Jackson in the January 15, 1911, Washington Post. At one point Gessler had reportedly won three games for Boston out of four played against Washington. [17]

Doc played out the rest of his big-league career – through 1911 – with Washington. He hit only .241 in the remaining 17 games of 1909 but hit .259 in 1910 and word was that he had to take a cut in pay for 1911. The good doctor had his eye on other business opportunities, too, and spent the winter of 1910-11 prospecting, and then drilling, for oil in southern Illinois. He planned, once again, to turn up late for spring training, as he wanted to be on hand when the anticipated gusher came in.[18]

Gessler rebounded in 1911, batting .282 with an impressive .406 on-base percentage, thanks in large part to a career-high 74 walks. He was also the first to hit a home run over the fence at the new Griffith Stadium, an August 9 drive over the Washington Post sign in right field, a ball that broke a 4-4 tie and gave the Senators the win.

In 1912 Gessler’s contract was sold for cash to Kansas City on February 14. The sale reunited Gessler with manager Charlie Carr, currently of Kansas City; Carr had been captain of the 1903 Tigers, with which Doc had broken into major-league ball.[19] Instead of accepting the assignment, Gessler refused to return to the minor leagues and chose to retire, making it official in June. He was busy with supplementary medical studies at Johns Hopkins University in 1912 and throughout 1913. A note in the Los Angeles Times in early 1913 said, “Gessler could ‘hit ‘em out,’ but that was just about all. Baseball was more or less of a joke to him. He failed to keep himself in condition.”[20] Newsmen often noted how much weight he put on during the offseasons.

Gessler himself said, “I’ve played my last game. … I have a degree in medicine, you know, but I find I am too rusty to practice after my long connection with baseball. Therefore I am taking a special course at Johns Hopkins. When I have completed that, I shall go to Germany with a friend of mine and study 18 months. I figure that will prepare me to begin practicing on my return to this country.”[21]

There was one last hurrah. Gessler did put in some time with Kansas City, appearing in 35 games in 1913. He hit .262 in 112 at-bats. He’d gotten married that June, to a “Miss Leopold,” the daughter of a prominent Baltimore banker.[22]

In 1914 Gessler was appointed manager of the Federal League team in Pittsburgh. While Gessler was in Georgia during the springtime trying to round up players to put forth a strong club, George Stallings of the Boston Braves obtained an injunction to prevent him from interfering with contracts between the Braves and their players. Gessler’s attempt to evade detection by registering at the hotel under the name E.V. Empfield of Philadelphia failed to deceive baseball people who’d seen him play often enough. The injunction prevented him from adding Hub Perdue to the Pittsburgh Federals’ roster.[23] Gessler managed the team for about two months, though things got off to a rocky start when ownership didn’t supply the funding for some of the players they’d asked him to acquire.[24]

One report said that vision problems prevented Gessler from playing – as had been intended – so Rebel Oakes became the player/manager of the team, which took the name Pittsburgh Rebels. Another report said it was because the team “was so poorly handled by Manager Gessler that he had to be relieved by outfielder Oakes.”[25] His obituary a decade later in his hometown Indiana Evening Gazette was even more specific: “He had completely lost the sight of one eye, but very few knew of this affliction.”[26]

Doctor Gessler spent the next decade practicing medicine in Indiana, Pennsylvania, though he became quite ill in 1924 and finally expired at 9:30 on Christmas morning at his home. He was only 44 years and 2 days old.

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed his player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.


[1] Indiana (Pennsylvania) Evening Gazette, December 26, 1924.
[2] Washington Post, April 23, 1903.
[3] Washington Post, June 28, 1903.
[4] Washington Post, July 12, 1903.
[5] Sporting Life, January 14 and February 25, 1905.
[6] Sporting Life, September 29, 1906.
[7] Gessler’s remark is found in Sporting Life, May 19, 1906.
[8] Washington Post, January 9, 1907.
[9] Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1907.
[10] Sporting Life, June 22, 1907.
[11] Washington Post, August 30, 1907.
[12]  Boston Globe, January 19, 1909.
[13]  Washington Post, March 7, 1909.
[14] See the Boston Globe, July 26, 1909, which said some of Gessler’s work had seemed “indifferent.”
[15]  Sporting Life, July 3, 1909.
[16]  Boston Globe, September 10, 1909.
[17] Sporting Life, September 19, 1908, in an article with the subhead GESSLER, THE HOLY TERROR.
[18]  Washington Post, February 18, 1911.
[19]  Washington Post, February 15, 1912.
[20]  Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1913.
[21] Unattributed April 18, 1912, news clipping in Gessler’s Hall of Fame player file.
[22]  Sporting Life, April 19, 1913.
[23]  Boston Globe, March 21, 1914.
[24]  Sporting Life, May 9, 1914.
[25]  Sporting Life, October 24, 1914.
[26]  Indiana Evening Gazette, December 26, 1924.

This biography can also be found on SABR Bio project

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