His name is largely forgotten now, but in his time he was
termed the premier hurler in the land, the starting moundsman
in the first Big League baseball game ever, a pioneer umpire,
Pittsburgh's first Major League manager, and time-after-time
present at the creation of big league after big league.
Meet "Uncle Al" Pratt.
Al Pratt? Yes, Al Pratt.
Let us first return to Al Pratt's most historic moment. The scene
is a ballpark known as the "Old Duchess" at Fort Wayne,
Indiana. The date: May 4, 1871. Under threatening skies and
before just 200 paying customers, baseball history is unfolding
as we witness the very first contest of the National Association,
baseball's initial pro circuit.
Pitching for the Forest City Club of Cleveland is the
aforementioned Albert George Pratt, a 22-year old veteran of
the Civil War's One Hundred and Ninety-third Pennsylvania
Regiment (he had served in the Union infantry as a mere 15-
year old). He was a mainstay of the professional clubs of the
pre-Cincinnati Red Stockings era, the "acknowledged greatest
pitcher of his day."
His first experience in the pitcher's box had been back in 1867
when he performed with Pittsburgh's Enterprise and Alleghany
clubs, independent teams that existed in a twilight world
between professionalism and gentlemanly amateurism In 1868
he graduated to the post of playing manager (at the tender age
of 20!) of the Portsmouth, Ohio club. The following season he
shifted over to the famed Forest Cities of Cleveland.
Now, back to the action of that historic day. At 5'7" and 140
pounds, Pratt, in a white flannel uniform and blue stockings, is
hardly an overwhelming figure as he faces the Fort Wayne
batters. Still he stands a full inch and a half taller than his
Kekionga opponent, righthander Bobby Mathews.
Yet Pratt and Mathews match curves so effectively, so skillfully,
that the game's score (2-0 with Mathews triumphing) was the
lowest scoring contest for the next four years of the Association.
"Sure, I remember that game—," boasted Pratt decades later,
"look at that score and see if my catcher, Jim White, didn't
make an error that let in the first run. Jimmy Foran opened the
inning with a three-bagger and White had a passed ball on the
next hitter and gave them a run."
Careers were short in those days (the great Albert Spalding
was washed up at age 26), and Pratt was no different. He went
10-18 in 1871 (the whole team was only 10-19) and just 3-9 in
1872. That ended his major-league career.
Al returned to the non-league nines, pitching for Pittsburg's
Xantha club ("In those days," recalled one old fan in 1890, "he
was quite good looking, and how the girls did admire him") and
for the Nationals of Cincinnati. But soon even the option of
pitching for these lower-level clubs was closed to him, as his
Aside from some National League umpiring in 1879-1880, Al
turned to the bar for a career. Not, the legal profession, but
bartending (One contemporary account delicately termed his
establishment "a baseball emporium, the headquarters of the
fraternity in the city"). And fate brought Al and some visitors
from Cincinnati together on the evening of October 10, 1881.
By then the National League was firmly in business. But a
number of bustling cities were not represented in its lists—
Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Louisville, and
Cincinnati among the most prominent.
To bring major league ball to these towns (which all still had
viable independent pro teams), Horace B. Phillips, manager of
the "Philadelphias" club, had summoned his fellow
independents to Pittsburgh. Prior to the session, however,
Phillips was canned as "Philadelphias" pilot (Player troubles:
the more things change the more they stay the same), took a
job as a hotel clerk, and promptly forgot about the whole
In one sense, it didn't matter anyway. Few were interested
enough in the postcards Phillips had mailed out to come to
Smoke City. In fact, only three Cincinnatians arrived for the
confab: brewer Justus Thorner, and newsmen OLiver Hazard
Perry Caylor Dand Frank Wright. As luck would have it, the
beer they cried into was poured by Al Pratt, who suggested that
all was not lost. First, he put them in contact with a local iron
manufacturer and "crank" Denny Harmer McKnight. McKnight
had formerly been associated with the now-defunct
"Alleghanies" and was more than willing to start the club up
again. Secondly, it was suggested that messages be
dispatched to all the non-attendees, indicating that the meeting
had been a smashing success and coyly suggesting that
everyone had been present but them.
This rather crude ruse worked. On November 2 everyone did
show up. The "American Association" was established as a
rival major league, and Al Pratt, who had in the interim had
helped resurrect the Alleghanies (a direct antecedent of today's
Pirates), was suitably rewarded with the job of club manager.
On one level, Pittsburgh's first major league campaign was
distinctly mediocre. The team finished with an even .500 mark,
39 and 39, although the squad featured such standouts as
outfielders Ed Swartwood (A.A. leader in doubles and slugging
percentage) and Tom "Brick" Mansell (leader in triples) and
pitcher Denny Driscoll (leader in ERA).
Despite the standings, it was hardly an uneventful year. The
Alleghanies appropriately enough played at Exposition Park, a
field near the Alleghany River at the "Point." Actually, it was
located too near the river. In May, floods inundated the park. On
July 17, a cyclone ripped apart its director's stand and
backstop, causing "hundreds of dollars" worth of damage.
Oscar Wilde, touring the States, even took in a game versus
Cleveland in late May. "He admired the game very much, but
the uniforms [the Alleghanies wore clay colored breeches and
purple and black shirts and caps] were not to his aesthetic
taste," noted one reporter.
Center fielder John J. Leary was suspended for cursing both
Pratt and the Board of Directors while "indisposed" (from "too
much rock and rye"). Pitcher Morris Critchly was suspended on
May 18 for "bad conduct", i.e. gambling and dishonest conduct.
Pratt himself sued a Pittsburgh newspaper for libel when they
dared to print rumors that he had purchased pools (a 19th
century form of gambling) on games.
The Alleghanies had been a financial success in 1882 and
vowed to be an artistic one in 1883. Yet, the latter year's edition
was far less talented. With the club mired in seventh place, 60
irate stockholders convened to explain why. They were out for
blood, and they got it. "Manager Pratt," noted Sporting Life
"was given the bounce. Charges were made that he failed to
keep proper control of the team, not only permitting them to get
drunk, but being, it is said, drunk himself in Johnstown recently.
Poor Al had not a friend in the meeting, the vote for his
dismissal being unanimous. Strange to say the players were all
for him, and presented a written petition against his removal."
Pratt was not to be at liberty for long. Almost immediately
Denny McKnight (now Association President) offered him the
post of Association umpire, compensation being $140 a month
and $3 per diem for expenses.
The experience made Pratt's disastrous year-and-a-half as
Alleghanies' pilot seem quite tranquil. When he officiated in
Cincinnati, the abuse was torrential. O. P. Caylor, despite being
a correspondent for the Cincinnati Inquirer, would sit on the
Reds bench and heap abuse on rival players—and on umpires.
Worse, he spewed invective from his columns, charging Pratt
with "bare faced robbery" and even reporting that Pratt's
allegedly woeful officiating was "part of a scheme of the
Alleghanies" to throw the pennant to the St. Louis Browns.
At a Saturday game featuring the Eclipse club of Louisville at
the Queen City, things threatened to get completely out of hand.
The "hoodlum element on the ground" was unmerciful towards
Pratt and Al threatened a forfeit to Louisville "if the disorder
were not suppressed."
"The Cincinnati management," observed Sporting Life, "who
had the game in hand, saw the danger and at once summoned
the entire police form to preserve order. This was effectuated."
And none too soon for our hero. He immediately wired the
Association Secretary, tendering his resignation. It was not
accepted (the Association could not find a substitute for Pratt)
and he was ordered to St. Louis. While the Mound City's press
and public was easier on Pratt, but the Reds were there and
were in no mellower mood than when at home—particularly as
the Browns won. Cincinnati outfielder Charley Jones and third
baseman Hick Carpenter were particularly offensive. "Their
incredible effrontery and disgraceful conduct caused one
businessman to say he would never attend another game in
which Jones played;" read one account, "that if the
management countenanced such behaviour it was not entitled
to his patronage. The shameless audacity of these players
caused hissed and hoots by the large crowd."
This time "Uncle Al" resigned for real.
But he was not to be discouraged for long, and the following
season, he popped up as one of the organizers of yet another
major circuit, the Union Association, bankrolled by the scion of
a wealthy St. Louis family, 26-year old Henry V. Lucas. As early
as August 1883, Pratt was putting together plans for such a
loop, tentatively christened "The American League of
Professional Base Ball Clubs." By September of that year, the
league was termed the "Union Association of Professional
Base Ball Clubs," and Pratt was named to its Board of
He even signed four players from the Columbus (Ohio)
American Association Colts for the U. A.'s projected Pittsburgh
entry. The city, however, fielded no Union nine, and in any
case the venture folded within the space of a single year. One
would think that Al would be blacklisted from Organized
Baseball for his role in this revolt. Hardly. He secured a post
with Albert Spalding's local sporting goods outlet—a job he
held for a full half-century—and soon he was back umpiring (!)
for the Association in 1886 and for the National League in 1887.
When the next challenge to big league hegemony occurred in
1890, "Uncle Al" Pratt was there again. This time on the other
side of the barricades.
The Players' National League was a full-blown labor revolution.
Most of the National League's finest stars deserted and literally
formed their own rival circuit. When the Players' League
invaded Pittsburgh, the Alleghanies (now in the National
League and dubbed the "Innocents") were in disarray. To
counter this threat, the franchise turned to Pratt, admitting him
as a "stockholder and director" of the club. "A better acquisition
than this would be hard to find," noted one weekly, "and . . . a
new way of things will be inaugurated once Mr. Pratt takes hold."
Pratt, however, could do little to reverse the team's fortunes. It
lost a then-record 113 games (and was awarded a "Booby
Pennant", festooned with 113 stars by the National League),
and Pratt vanished from the scene.
The face of baseball was changing in the 1890's. The Players'
revolt came and went in that single season. Then the American
Association disappeared, leaving the National League with a
12-club monopoly. In October 1894 Pratt drifted off to yet
another quixotic adventure in an attempt to revive his old
creation, the American Association. Pratt along with fellow
Pittsburghers manager Al Buckenberger and Al DeRoy (the
"Three Als") arrived in New York pledging to found a new
circuit. Others such as Francis Richter, editor of Sporting Life
and second baseman Fred Pfeffer joined in the cabal but it
quickly collapsed when the National League brought pressure
That was end of "Uncle Al" Pratt's involvement in major league
history, but he was still a popular old-timer. An 83-year old Pratt
was even featured in the 1932 Spalding Guide. When the
Pirates celebrated the Centenary of the National League in
1936, "Uncle Al" was there to play a prominent part in the
Al Pratt died on November 21, 1937. A relic of an earlier age,
he was buried—as he wished—resplendent in his Grand Army
of the Republic uniform.