Ewing, William ("Buck")

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EWING, William ("Buck")

(b. 17 October 1859 in Hoagland, Ohio; d. 20 October 1906 in Cincinnati, Ohio), baseball catcher whose potent bat and unsurpassed fielding earned him a reputation as one of the finest all-around players of the nineteenth century.

William Ewing was born the second of five children of Samuel and Martha Ewing in Hoagland, Ohio, a small community on the outskirts of Cincinnati. When William was still in his infancy, the family established residence in Cincinnati's East End, the railroad depot to a city known for its bustling hog market. But during William's childhood, Cincinnati may have been most famous for its baseball team. In 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings toured the country as the first openly professional team in history, and their success ushered in the game's professional era. Samuel Ewing supported his family as a teamster, but two of his sons would ultimately choose baseball as their profession. William's younger brother, John, would pitch in the major leagues for four seasons, once winning an ERA title, and William would become arguably the greatest all-around player of his generation, and unquestionably its greatest catcher.

In 1878 William supplemented his $10 per week job as a teamster for a distillery company by catching for the Mohawk Browns, one of Cincinnati's numerous sandlot teams. After playing two seasons with the Browns, and part of one season with the minor league Rochester Hop Bitters, Ewing joined the Troy Haymakers of the National League near the end of the 1880 season. Ewing batted just .178, but his catching abilities so impressed the club that in the offseason the youngster was signed to a $1,000 contract.

The confidence Troy displayed in Ewing would be vindicated in the years to come, as "Buck" (a childhood nickname that was picked up by reporters early in his career) all but revolutionized the catcher position. In an era when catchers wore little protective equipment, and consequently had to play well behind the batter to avoid injury, Ewing was one of the first to don a padded glove and crouch directly behind home plate. He was renowned for his rocket throwing arm, and often threw out baserunners directly from the crouching position.

Ewing played in an era when bunting and base stealing were the order of the day, so it is likely that he could have crafted a notable career on the merits of his defense alone. Nonetheless, when the Troy club disbanded following the 1882 season and Ewing's contract was awarded to the New York Giants, his offensive skills started to blossom. In 1883, he batted .303 and led the league with 10 home runs. Over the course of the next several seasons, Ewing displayed a degree of offensive consistency rarely seen from a catcher—from 1885 to 1893, he batted over .300 every season. Indeed, his offense was considered so integral to the New York attack that when not catching, Ewing played at third, short, or in the outfield. His versatility extended to the basepaths as well. From 1886 (the first season stolen base records were kept) until the end of his career, Ewing swiped 354 bases—the most ever recorded by a catcher. This inspired performance helped form the nucleus of a Giants team that included six future Hall-of-Famers in Ewing, John Ward, Mickey Welch, Tim Keefe, Roger Connor, and Jim O'Rourke.

Despite that impressive array of talent, New York often finished below expectations. When the Giants could do no better than fourth place in 1887, Ewing was installed as the team's captain—a position similar to the modern-day manager. Under his tutelage, the team catapulted to the top of the standings, winning back-to-back pennants in 1888 and 1889. In contrast to some of the more hardline managers of his time, Ewing's leadership style was marked by a jocular affability. As one writer later remarked, "If [Ewing] wanted to reprove a player … he voiced his remarks good-naturedly and never left a sting behind."

If Ewing's easygoing style brought him the respect of his fellow players, then his foray into the ill-fated Players League in 1890 damaged much of that reputation. Designed to rid the game of inequities such as the reserve clause, which bound a player to his team for the duration of his career, the Players League attracted hundreds of players for its inaugural 1890 season, including Ewing, who managed and played for the PL's New York entry. But Ewing had his doubts about the profitability of the new league, and when the venture began to hemorrhage money, he secretly met with National League officials to talk consolidation. Many players felt that Ewing's actions compromised the bargaining power of the fledgling circuit, and when the PL collapsed a few months after season's end, Ewing was branded in some quarters as the "cunning traitor" of the thwarted revolution.

After the PL's demise, Ewing returned to the National League, where he played for New York for two more seasons before being traded to Cleveland. Though Ewing continued to contribute with his bat (in 1893, he batted in a career-best 122 runs), injuries limited his playing time and effectively ended his days as a catcher. In 1895 he returned to Cincinnati, where he managed and played out the remainder of his career for the hometown Reds. In five seasons at the Cincinnati helm, Ewing piloted the Reds to a winning record every year, though his teams never finished higher than third place. In 1900 he accepted a job managing for the New York Giants, but when the team won just 21 of its first 62 games, Ewing resigned.

He moved back to Cincinnati, where he lived with his wife, Anna Lawson McCaig, whom he married in 1889, and their two children. Though he lived comfortably, thanks to some wise investments in the real estate market, Ewing's health soon began to fail. After a prolonged illness, he died on 20 October 1906, a victim of Bright's disease. He is buried in Cincinnati's Mt. Washington Cemetery.

At first glance, Ewing's lifetime statistics indicate a good, but not necessarily extraordinary, career. In 1,315 games, Ewing posted a .307 batting average, collected 1,655 hits, and scored 1,129 runs—numbers not good enough to rank in the top 100 all-time players. But Ewing's true value cannot be accurately judged without considering that for most of his career, he played catcher, the most physically demanding position on the field, and played it in an era before modern protective equipment was available. Not only did he field this crucial position with remarkable skill, he also made an asset out of himself as a batter, baserunner, and team leader. To many of those who saw him play, Ewing was the nonpareil all-around ballplayer of his day, or as Francis Richter, the esteemed editor of the Reach Guide, wrote in 1919, "the greatest player of all time from the standpoint of supreme excellence in all departments … a player without a weakness of any kind, physical, mental, or temperamental."

There is no full-length biography of Ewing. A good amount of information on him is available in clipping files maintained by the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library and by the Sporting News. For a close look at Ewing's role in the demise of the Players League, see Bryan Di Salvatore, A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward (1999). The definitive source for all baseball statistics is John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman, eds., Total Baseball, 7th ed. (2001).

David Jones