Giving 'Em Fitz: A search for a ghost of summer

An intense-looking John Radcliff (seated, second from left) poses for a photo with his teammates on the 1872 Lord Baltimores, that citys first professional team. From the book, "Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years" by James H. Bready RADCLIFF
An intense-looking John Radcliff (seated, second from left) poses for a photo with his teammates on the 1872 Lord Baltimores, that citys first professional team. From the book, "Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years" by James H. Bready RADCLIFF
Posted: October 28, 2013

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," Leaves of Grass

Not long ago, amid the dirt and grass of Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, where Walt Whitman himself is interred, I went looking again for my great-grandfather.

There, under my boot-soles, I found him in Plot 115.

But the great poet was mistaken. The grave site yielded few answers.

John Radcliff is a ghost.

In the last 33 years, I've learned the obituary details of my great-grandfather's life. Its essence, however, remains a mystery.

I know he died at 63 in 1911, stricken as he sailed his yacht in the waters off Ocean City. I know he had three children and a lucrative poultry and produce business.

What initially intrigued me, a sportswriter, wasn't the pullets and papayas. It was the fact he was a baseball pioneer.

Unfortunately, I knew none of this when my grandfather, his only son, was alive. A sullen and taciturn man, he and I shared 16 years and very few words. And of those words, not one was about his famous father.

My grandmother was no help, either. She'd never met her father-in-law. Late in life, though, she mentioned in passing that he'd been on the Philadelphia A's and that he'd bequeathed to his son some kind of diamond memento from those baseball days.

I assumed she meant Connie Mack's A's. But I knew no Radcliff had ever played for them. The only person by that name I could find in the Baseball Encyclopedia was Rip Radcliff, a member of the White Sox in the 1930s.

My grandmother, never much of a sports fan, must have been mistaken.

Then one night in 1980, not long after starting at The Inquirer, I was browsing through a more up-to-date encyclopedia. It listed the players from the National Association, the nation's first professional league.

And there on Page 61, between Paddy Quinn and Al Reach, was John Radcliff.

He was a shortstop on the 1871 Philadelphia Athletics, champions in that inaugural year of professional baseball. He played four more seasons, here and in Baltimore.

It was a thrilling discovery, as if a film buff suddenly learned an ancestor had worked in Hollywood. I determined then to uncover a man I should have known much better.

If it was difficult to envision a relative with a yacht and, as the Page One obituary I located in an Ocean City newspaper noted, "much property here," it was harder still to believe that in a family tree teeming with sports fanatics, a real, live professional athlete had been forgotten.

I wanted John Radcliff to emerge a memorable figure, a local baseball hero. But the more I looked for the ballplayer, the more troubling the man and his relationship with his son became.

Was there something in his story that might explain why that son, my sphinxlike grandfather, had shut out me and the rest of the world?

Born in 1848 to a Philadelphia trunk maker, John Radcliff moved to Camden, where he became one of that city's top "baseballers."

His few surviving stats (a .282 lifetime average in 812 at-bats) were interesting but uninspiring. He played with some legends such as Lip Pike in Baltimore and Al Reach, the future sporting-goods mogul, in Philadelphia.

More revealing - and disturbing - were the images I found.

In formal etchings of the 1871 A's - in a hirsute era of sideburns, bushy mustaches, and wavy hair - he is well-shorn, oddly modern. Surrounded by mostly blank-faced teammates, he appears to be either unusually serious or very unhappy.

The photo of the Lord Baltimores from a year later is more disquieting. In it, the 29-year-old nicknamed "Handsome Johnny" - the athletic genes apparently weren't the only ones I missed out on - is seated with hands in his lap and his argyle-socked legs crossed at the ankles

While his teammates look relaxed, he is rigid, staring intently at something out of frame. Whatever it was, he is glowering menacingly at it.

His face and especially that glower recalled my grandfather, a sour and broken man by the time I knew him, one whose late-life routine involved crosswords, TV, a North Fifth Street taproom, and almost no personal interaction.

If the baseball images accurately reflected his father, then he'd surely inherited his personality. Perhaps the two clashed, like fathers and sons then and now. Maybe that's why my grandfather, educated at Friends Central, unexpectedly left home as a young man and rode the rails to California.

Conflict seemed possible. Because the more I learned about my great-grandfather, the less I liked him.

In William Ryczek's history of the National Association, Blackguards and Red Stockings, John Radcliff is mentioned prominently among the former.

At various points, he is described as "unreliable," "unrepentant," "illiterate," a player with a "tarnished reputation."

He was expelled from baseball after accusations that he gambled on some games, fixed others, and bribed an umpire. When an owner gave him money to help him pay a debt, he pocketed it.

No wonder he glowered.

The book also notes that after he led Baltimore to an important 1872 victory, the team's owner presented him a "diamond with a claimed value of $150."

Was that the diamond memento my grandmother mentioned? If so, where was it now? What had my grandfather done with it?

If he rejected this gift from his father, it wouldn't have been the first. When John Radcliff left two large Ocean City homes to his widow and children, my grandfather, for whatever reason, surrendered his share.

Eventually, and likely not by choice, John Radcliff transitioned away from baseball. Listed as a "professional ballplayer" in the 1873 Camden City directory, he's a "gentleman" in the next two annual editions. By 1876, and for the rest of his life, he's listed as a "produce dealer."

My grandfather, born in 1888, had by 1905, according to the directory, moved out of his father's house.

For me, after all these years of searching, John Radcliff's story, like so many baseball stories, is about a father and son.

The Ocean City newspaper didn't say whether my grandfather attended his father's 1911 funeral. It was a lavish goodbye. There were heaps of flowers and a mahogany casket. His fellow Ocean City Yacht Club members paraded past in full uniform.

And then the casket was closed and the body driven north to Harleigh Cemetery, where, just a short stroll from Walt Whitman's hillside crypt, John Radcliff was buried.

Years later, his wife and two daughters would join him there, all the Radcliffs reunited in the family plot.

All that is, but my grandfather, the only son. The prodigal.


Giving 'Em Fitz: John Radcliff's Career Statistics

Year   Team   League   G   AB   R   H   RBIs   BA   

1871   Philadelphia Athletics   National Assoc.   28   145   47   44   22   .303   

1872   Lord Baltimores   National Assoc.   56   297   70   86   44   .290   

1873   Lord Baltimores   National Assoc.   45   244   59   70   33   .287   

1874   Phila. White Stockings   National Assoc.   23   103   20   25   14   .243   

1875   Philadelphia Centennials   National Assoc.   5   23   2   4   0   .174   

Career totals      157   812   198   229   113   .282   


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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