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
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
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
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 arm deadened.
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
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 scheme.
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
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
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 Directors.
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
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 to bear.
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 procedings.
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