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Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Slow Death of Phil Reccius From Baseball

A sad footnote in the annals of baseball history is the passing of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920 following being struck in the head with a pitch. Although he remains the only major leaguer to have died as a result of a play on the field, there are unfortunately other professional players who have suffered similar fates. This includes Phil Reccius, who succumbed in an insane asylum to his baseball injury in 1903—a full nine years after being struck by a ball during a game.

Born on June 7, 1862 in Louisville, Kentucky, Reccius entered the world during the infancy of baseball but he immediately became steeped in the game. He and his brothers Bill and John grew up playing ball and later played and managed professionally. They were also childhood friends with the likes of Pete Browning, who became one of the greatest baseball stars of the 19th century. Browning, who was illiterate, was said to have hidden his schoolbooks provided by his mother under the steps at the house of his friends, Phil and John Reccius, so they could then go out and play ball. He had the best baseball career of them all but suffered from alcoholism and was committed to an insane asylum himself in 1905, shortly before his untimely death at the age of 45.

Phil Reccius was a jack of all trades on the baseball diamond. He started his professional career in 1882 with the hometown Louisville Eclipse of the American Association. He played for them for the next seven years (he also played in 62 games for the Cleveland Blues in 1887 and one game for the Rochester Broncos in 1888), switching between the infield, outfield and pitching.

Playing for Louisville, Reccius was never a star, as that was covered by Browning, who was the most feared hitter in the world at the time. Even so, he contributed grit, good defense and a positive presence on their teams that were so popular that they inspired a business to start making Louisville Slugger baseball bats.

An April 21, 1886 article in the Courier Journal out of Louisville went out of its way to compliment what Reccius meant to the team, stating, “Phil Reccius ought to be complimented on his fine fielding in the three championship games which has been played. He leads the club in that respect, and has made more runs than any other player in the team. Phil takes desperate chances, and therefore makes an occasional error, but he cuts off many a base hit. He is fleet of foot, a sure stop, fine thrower, and besides covers a great space of territory. At the bat he is a good man.”

Judging by his stats he was more of a scrappy utility man than a star. In 261 major league games as a hitter, he produced a .231 batting average with four home runs and 99 RBIs. As a pitcher, he was 6-12 in 27 games with a 3.26 ERA. Of courses, not only were rules and equipment different, but record keeping was spotty, so this is more like an approximation than an exact record of his accomplishments.

In addition to his pitching, he was known as a patient hitter. An 1887 Sporting News article opined, "'Who is that ballet dancer?' asked one of the boys when Reccius waltzed up to the plate and waltzed away again as every ball was pitched. Phil Reccius is a great fellow to wait for his balls and he tried to tease a base out of every pitcher he faces.” 

Once his major league career concluded, Reccius continued playing in the expansive reaches of the minor leagues of the time. At various times he suited up for teams in locations like Terre Haute, Indiana; Memphis; Macon, Georgia and Spokane. He also was a well-respected manager, working in the same circuits as he did as a player.

It was reported in 1902 that Reccius, at the age of 40, had been committed to the insane asylum at Lakeland due to an injury he had received while playing with Spokane in a game against Seattle. He was struck by a batted ball while pitching. He somehow managed to scramble to the ball, got the man out and retired the side but lost consciousness upon returning to the dugout. The report explained that since that time he had been prone to sudden “mental attacks,” which culminated in his commitment. Even so, he managed to log time with four different minor league teams over four years after that incident before finishing his professional playing career in a stint with the Henderson squad of the Pennyrile League in 1896.

Some accounts place the date of his injury, speculated as a skull fracture, in 1890, while others pegged it as 1894. However, records show he was actually playing with the Rochester Broncos and Terre Haute in 1890. He did suit up for Spokane until two years later.

Late in 1902, the toll of the injury had clearly taken its toll on Reccius, as he was committed to the Kentucky Asylum for the Insane at Lakeland—the same institution his childhood friend Browning would end up in just a couple of years later. He was unmarried at the time, so it is unclear what he did to precipitate such steps, or if he simply didn’t have anyone able to care for him. Just months later, on February 15, 1903, his death was reported around the country. The Daily Tribune out of Terre Haute recalled his best game coming in 1890, as he took to the mound and defeated defending “world champion” Detroit 3-0.

A simple marker in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville is the final resting place of Reccius (along with that of his brothers John and Bill, and Pete Browning). His time in baseball is largely forgotten, which is all the more tragic given his untimely demise was a direct result of his efforts on the field.

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