There they were, “Murderer's Row” — Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Meusel, Combs and the other Yankee players — standing near home plate, “doing some of the worst singing ever seen outside a grammar school,” a New York sportswriter reported.
They were serenading a native of Carthage on his 70th birthday at Yankee Stadium.
It was Joe Hornung Day, June 12, 1927. And Michael Joseph Hornung, renowned as one of the top three defensive outfielders in 19th-century professional baseball — “Nobody could throw as I could, nobody then and nobody since,” he boasted — hadn't even played for the Yankees. Col. Jacob Ruppert, owner of the Yankees, arranged the Sunday birthday bash to help the old ballplayer's friends and family make the day more special.
Hornung, who “looks no more than 50,” the sports report continued, was presented “a nice check, the gift of baseball men of all ranks and leagues.”
Baseball had been his life, from the time he was a boy in Utica right up to the days when, too old to run the bases, he wore the uniform of a security guard at the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, his last major league team.
“In his day,” the Utica Observer-Dispatch said in a January 1924 story, Hornung was “just as much a baseball hero as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth or Tris Speaker is today.” He was the “King of Left Fielders,” the newspaper said.
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“To Utica From Carthage” was the subhead in the Utica paper's story about Hornung's life in baseball. Carthage was his birthplace, but only the first 11 months of his life were spent there.
Joe Hornung — he dropped his first name — was one of seven children of John J. and Catherine Hornung, natives of Bavaria. The couple married in 1844 in Germany, then moved that year to the United States, settling in Utica. They remained there until 1857, when John Hornung, a cabinetmaker, took a factory job in Carthage.
There, on June 12, the future baseball player was born. In May 1858, John Hornung gave up on Carthage and moved his family back to Utica.
When Joe Hornung was 8, according to the Observer-Dispatch story, he was on his way to a popular swimming spot on the Mohawk River when he stopped to watch an amateur game involving the Utica Baseball Club. A ball was hit a long distance, landing in the water.
In late 1800s baseball, there were rarely replacement balls. With a lost ball, the game would have been over. Hornung saved the game, jumping fully clothed into the river and retrieving the ball.
The Utica team gratefully made Hornung their mascot and included him in their practice sessions. He progressed so well that when he was about 14, he was invited to join a team, the Alerts, made up of factory workers' sons. The right-hander began as a pitcher, and, the article says, did so well that he was rewarded with a $10 bill, a good chunk of cash in those days. He later played for the Central City Athletics and the West Utica Blue Stockings.
Accompanied by a friend, Hornung traveled north of the border in 1876 to join the London, Ontario, Tecumsehs, a talented team in the International Association. The club won its league championship that year and again in 1877, when 5-foot 8-inch tall Hornung was presented the Clipper Prize for excelling as a left fielder.
Back home in Utica, he married Margaret Kelly on Oct. 23, 1877, at St. John's Catholic Church. The newlywed found himself to be without a team since the Tecumsehs had folded, despite their abilities on the field. He signed up in the spring of 1878 with the Buffalo Bisons, another affiliate in the International Association. Again, he was on a championship team.
Buffalo entered the National League in 1879, and Hornung was among players who were retained. On May 1, he played in his first game at the highest level of professional baseball as it existed at that time — what would eventually become Major League Baseball.
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In his day, fielders did not wear gloves.
“Those were the only gloves I ever used and they were good enough for this chicken,” Joe Hornung told a New York Journal writer in 1911, displaying his big, sinewy and strong hands with their long fingers.
“And now they smother their hands with pillows,” he continued. “Who could muff a ball with those big cushions?”
But his hands took some beatings. A recently published book, “Fifty-nine in '84” by Edward Achorn, recalls a Hornung catch for the final out of a game. A batter “blasted a long, hard line drive that smacked the bare hand of Boston left fielder Joe Hornung so hard that the outfielder ‘was groaning lustily' as he trotted to the dressing room.”
Hornung is honored by the Society for American Baseball Research as one of the top outfielders in his era: “In the outfield there was no surer fielder than Joe Hornung.”
Press reports cited his speed, his daring efforts in chasing down balls in all directions, and his superb throwing as the attributes that made him a star for 12 major league seasons. He set a record of 62 outfield assists in one season and led National League outfielders in fielding percentage in 1881, 1882, 1883 and 1886, fielding as high as .948 — excellent in the no-glove era.
He was no slouch at the plate and on the bases, either. In 1883, Hornung, who batted right-handed, led the league in runs scored. He was often among league leaders in triples, and he hit 31 home runs in 12 major league seasons, drove in 564 runs, and carried a .257 batting average while baseball was in a “dead ball” era.
Years later, he didn't want to hear about his dead ball days.
“They call this lively,” he said in a 1913 report. “If it is, then a croquet ball is made of rubber. You should of seen our baseball in '83. It was so lively that it often hopped a 15-foot fence on the first bound.”
Maintaining a weight around 164 pounds, he was also credited with 159 stolen bases during his big league career.
Buffalo traded him for the 1881 season to the Boston Beaneaters, a National League team that in later years would be called the Braves. He played in Boston for eight seasons, making 1882 through 1884 his most productive years. In that three-season span, Hornung had a batting average of .281, with 66 doubles, 34 triples and 16 homers among his 380 hits. He led the league in runs scored in 1883.
The Boston fans initially dubbed him “Tecumseh Hornung,” but after hearing his strange shouts of “ubbo ubbo” whenever he got a hit or made a good fielding play, they nicknamed him Ubbo-ubbo Hornung.
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Joe and Margaret Hornung began their family just before the move to Boston. Their first-born, Harry, arrived in October 1880. After celebrating Boston's league championship in 1884, the couple closed out the year with another celebration, the birth of a daughter, Gertrude.
The following year was not good. He appeared in only 25 games, having been incapacitated by what he referred to as rheumatism. Additionally, his family was plagued by illness.
He returned to the Boston lineup in 1886, promising a comeback season. His production was marginal, but improved slightly in 1887. His numbers declined again in 1888, and at season's end, Boston was ready for a change.
A trade was arranged with the Chicago White Stockings — Joe Hornung in exchange for a player and $5,000 in cash. The star outfielder rebelled. He refused to report to Chicago unless he was issued a share of the $5,000 included in the deal.
Boston's management responded by releasing him and blocked him from joining any other club in the league. Joe Hornung was effectively forced out of the National League.
The Baltimore Orioles of the American Association, an upstart major league, had no problem signing him for the 1889 season. Despite a dismal batting average of .229, he had his best year driving in runs, with 78.
One day during that season, while he was playing his familiar outfield position in Cincinnati against the Red Stockings, sad news was run out to him, according to a newspaper clipping in one of his personal scrapbooks, preserved at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. His third child, 19-month-old Josephine, had died of measles in Jersey City.
By year's end, Margaret and Joe Hornung had a new daughter, Lillian, born in Maryland, but Joe's stay in Baltimore was over. Ahead of him was his final year as a major leaguer, back in the National League with the New York Giants.
The 1890 season began favorably as he approached his 33rd birthday. “Joe Hornung has played in 18 of the last 19 games without an error,” the New York Evening Telegram observed on May 19. Another press clipping a month later reported “he's batting better than for years, and he is running bases like an ambitious colt.”
The item added, “His old propensity to growl at umpires crops out every now and then. This is a weakness he should get rid of.”
He stole 39 bases that year and drove home 65 runners, but his average was an unimpressive .238. On Oct. 3, 1890, he played his last major league game. At the end of the season, the Giants cut him loose.
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Hornung tried to hang on, returning to Buffalo to play minor league ball. While there, his son Harry was team mascot. He was with a team in Providence, R.I., when his last child, Joseph Jr., was born in June 1893.
In 1894, he was playing at Worcester, Mass.
“If Joe's left leg was in any kind of shape he would not have muffed that fly yesterday,” an undated sports clip about a Worcester game said. “He received a kick from a horse a few weeks ago, and (he) wrenched his leg in starting for first in Tuesday's game. He didn't play ball very well, but he kept the crowd in good humor by his conversation.”
His final season was 1895, when he appeared in 92 games with a team in Atlanta, Ga. His career was ended when in an attempt to steal second base, he broke several bones in an ankle.
He was finished as a ballplayer, but he was not finished with baseball. The man who formerly growled at umpires joined their ranks.
New York City resident Joe Hornung was back in Utica in 1896, calling balls and strikes. At the end of his Oneida County assignment, the Utica Daily Press caught up to a humorous incident involving the old hometown boy.
The July 9 story reported he was at the train station waiting to depart when he bumped into an old friend. Hornung “did not hear, or heed, the call ‘all aboard' (and) turned to see the express fast leaving him. ... The old baseball favorite ran after the train ... the steps of the cars had been pulled up but this did not deter him ... some young fellow in the yard hollored for him to slide; he jumped instead. Over the steps as into the vestibule of the forward ... of the rear car, he leaped and ducked his head out long enough to pronounce himself safe. It was a pretty close shave.”
His calls on the diamond were not winning new fans, as evidenced by an Aug. 10, 1896, article in the Syracuse Evening Herald.
“This from a Buffalo exchange indicates that Joe Hornung is in trouble: ‘There is no doubt that Joe Hornung, the pseudo umpire, is a robber from Piratesville, but at the same time he must be a brave man. Any person who has nerve enough to stand up in front of 4,000 crazy fans, all rooting for their home club to win, and deliberately and with intent steal the game from that same club and give it to their opponents must be either a man without fear or a fit candidate for the insane asylum. In all probability the latter would be more suitable to the stunted form of Joseph Hornung, once a good ball player, but today a rotten umpire.'”
His umpiring career, which saw him working in the National Eastern and Western Association, the Connecticut League and college games, extended into the 1902 season.
Census records in 1900 for New York City list Hornung's occupation as machinist. An undated news clipping in one of his scrapbooks shows his creative side. For a social club where he was a member, he invented for competition a cheesebox toboggan which was called “Flying Dutchman.”
The New York Giants brought him back to the Polo Grounds in June 1915, hiring him as a security officer and assigning him to the centerfield bleachers. He remained a presence at the Polo Grounds in 1917, but this time as an employee of a city bank. His job was escorting game receipts to the bank.
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Late 19th-century Carthage residents may have been aware of the professional ballplayer's link to their community. A wrapup of Carthage news in The Watertown Herald on April 21, 1888, included the note “Joe Hornung, the great baseballist, was a former Carthage boy.”
Hornung died Oct. 30, 1931, at the age of 74, at the New York City home of his daughter, Gertrude Maynes. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn.
Assistance in compiling information for this story was provided by Watertown Daily Times librarian Lisa Carr; the library staff at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown; the public libraries of Brooklyn, Queens and Utica, with material at the latter found by Robert Lalli; St. John's Roman Catholic Church, Utica, and Scott D. Shampine, using Ancestry.com. Information was also gleaned from Baseball Reference.com., Fultonhistory.com, and the Society for American Baseball Research.