“Will it play in Peoria?” is the time-honored question among show biz folk, the idea being that Peoria, a small midwestern city, is a bastion of mainstream America, the ultimate test market. If a show goes over there, it should go over anywhere.
So someone who was born in Peoria and died a character actor in Hollywood would appear to have fulfilled his destiny. Such was the case with Michael Joseph Donlin, who also enjoyed a reputation as one of the best hitters in Major League Baseball during the early years of the 20th century.
Unlike many star athletes who do cameos, often merely playing themselves, in movies and TV shows (and previously in vaudeville) in the offseason, Mike Donlin was the first baseball player to carve out a distinct, long-lived career as an actor. In show-biz terminology, Donlin’s career had “legs,” meaning duration. Since Donlin’s offensive skills also included base stealing, the term is particularly appropriate.
Though born in Peoria (on May 30, 1878), Donlin grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. A bridge collapse killed his mother when he was a baby and resulted in his placement in a foster home. We might indulge in some dime-store psychology here and assert that such a background was likely to mold a personality with a penchant for “acting out” in a bid to get attention. Indeed, the nickname Turkey (Highlonesome was another) was appended to him because of his turkey-like strut. It was so exaggerated that reportedly, “he could strut even while sitting down.” As a ballplayer, Donlin certainly did act out and he certainly did get attention, though not always to his benefit.
As a teenager, he made his way to California, where he honed his skills as a baseballist. Lack of control doomed his pitching career, but he proved adept at the bat. In 1899, he became a professional ballplayer with the Santa Cruz Sandcrabs of the short-lived California League. His .402 batting average during the early going attracted the attention of the St. Louis Perfectos (whose red-trimmed uniforms and red-striped stockings inspired a name change to Cardinals), who purchased his contract and brought him to the big leagues for the remainder of the season.
Making his major league debut on July 19, 1899, Donlin vindicated the Perfectos’ judgment by hitting .323 and placing second in the league in home runs even though he had played in only 66 games. Even more important, he made the acquaintance of John McGraw, who toiled for the Cardinals in 1900. McGraw went to Baltimore for the 1901 season; Donlin followed suit and hit .340 for the Orioles.
That proved to be one of those proverbial good-news/bad-news situations. The good news: Donlin had the second-best average in the AL; the bad news: He was 72 points behind league leader Nap Lajoie. That differential remains the largest gap between a league batting champion and a runner-up.
Even at this stage of his career, there were questions about Donlin’s behavior. Perhaps that knife scar on his face was indicative of things to come. On August 21, 1901, he incited a riot in a game against Detroit. He got away with that (though the Orioles forfeited the game), but the following year he was caught red-handed.
It was in the City by the Chesapeake Bay where Donlin’s most serious brush with the law occurred. On March 12, 1902, after a bout of heavy drinking, Donlin went to downtown Baltimore to see Mamie Fields in a stage production of Ben-Hur at the Academy of Music. The ushers threw him out.
The next day he waited outside the theater until the actress came out with another actress and Ernest B. Slayton, who lived at the same boarding house as Fields. When Donlin got familiar with Fields, Slayton told him to “pass on,” and Donlin slugged him. When Fields pleaded “Please don’t hit him,” Donlin cold-cocked her, then ran across Howard Street and hid out in the Diamond Café, something of a forerunner to a modern-day sports bar, which was owned by McGraw and Oriole captain Wilbert Robinson.
After sneaking out the restaurant’s back door and making his escape via train to Washington, Donlin was arrested after a row with a D.C. streetcar conductor. Extradited to Baltimore for trial in the Fields/Slayton assault (both victims showed up at the trial with shiners), Donlin was fined $250 and spent five months in the Baltimore County jail. For good measure, American League President Ban Johnson—true to his name—banned him from the league. Donlin’s defense—if you could call it that—was that he was so drunk he didn’t remember hitting the actress. In the courtroom, as on the ballfield, defense was the weak point of Donlin’s game.
Fortunately for Donlin, there was no commissioner of baseball or anyone else of sufficient authority to ban him from all of baseball, so the Senior Circuit was still available for employment purposes. After his release from jail on Aug. 20, 1902, he worked out with his former Oriole teammates (some of whom had helped him with his fine) and signed on with Cincinnati. Today, with heightened sensitivities concerning violence towards women, it is difficult to imagine a ballplayer finding new employment so readily.
For whatever reason—less media coverage, fewer female fans, no demands for “role model” behavior from ballplayers—Donlin simply picked up where he left off. With the Reds, he had time enough for 143 plate appearances and 41 hits. His .287 average was well below his standard but not bad for a player who had spent most of the season in the hoosegow. Donlin, apparently, was a natural, one of those players who could be awakened from a sound sleep at three a.m. in mid-December and get a base hit. Indeed, McGraw, in a 1908 interview with a Chicago sportswriter, assessed him as “one of the greatest natural batsmen of the business.”
While Donlin’s offensive skills assured him of a new home in the National League, his fondness for the bottle assured that he would wear out his welcome, as he did in 1903, when Cincinnati manager Joe Kelley suspended him a month for drunkenness.
McGraw had witnessed Donlin’s offensive skills first as a teammate and then from the opposing dugout and had something of a fetish about redeeming flawed-but-talented players. As manager of the New York Giants, McGraw brought Donlin to Gotham during the 1904 season.
Donlin was hitting .356 in 236 at-bats when he left Cincinnati and had hit .351 for the Reds the year before when he missed a month due to his suspension. McGraw expected an offensive whiz, and he was not disappointed when Donlin became a Giant. Though he hit only .280 the remainder of the 1904 season, he followed this up with .356 (with 216 hits and 124 runs scored) in 1905.
Even while Donlin’s career as a ballplayer was at its peak, his career as a jailbird wasn’t over. Before spring training in 1906, Donlin took a train to Troy, N.Y., to play in an indoor baseball match. His public drunkenness on the train resulted in a series of harassed passengers and one serious incident involving a waiter named George who refused to serve him any more liquor. Brandishing a weapon in the man’s face, Donlin introduced the waiter to “Mr. Gun” to persuade him to bring more booze.
This incident was good for a night in jail in Albany, but it appeared Donlin had learned little from his misadventures. He went on to Memphis, where the Giants were holding spring training, and was again suspended for drunkenness. Though Donlin managed to hit .314 in 1906, a broken leg limited him to 121 at-bats.
Donlin’s stature as a Giants star in Gotham paved the way to the good life in other arenas, and he readily found access to the company of actors and other celebrities. The night life, the downfall of more than a few professional athletes, held great appeal for Donlin. When the possibility of night baseball was first broached, Donlin’s initial response was, “Jesus! Think of taking a ballplayer’s nights away from him!”
Yet even as he was being weaned away from the bottle, the acting bug took hold of Donlin, and he periodically went on hiatus as a ballplayer during what should have been his prime years. In 1907, he left the team during spring training after a squabble concerning whether a no-drinking bonus was to be paid before or after the season. Having married vaudevillian Mabel Hite, he went to Chicago and assumed the role of assistant manager in a theater where she was appearing. This relationship turned out much better than his last attempt to gain the affections of an actress.
Even so, on Nov. 19, 1907, he was named team captain for the coming season. For a $500 bonus, he vowed to stay away from alcohol. Now his beverages of choice were “croton cocktails and cow juice.” According to an interview published in the New York World on July 12, 1908, he seemed to have sincerely repented:
Several of my public appearances I deeply regret, and I have tried to atone for my foolishness…My best friends will tell you I could get in trouble easier than the man who invented it. If there was a scrap at the Battery and I was in Harlem, it would be my misfortune to get to the scene of trouble just as the ‘pat’ wagon pulled up. But I don’t take any chances. I wouldn’t stop to listen to a street organ for fear I’d get in wrong.
His 1908 tour of duty with the Giants was arguably a charmed season; he even survived a July 17 automobile collision with the Mayor of Chicago on Michigan Avenue! Playing in every game, he finished up with 198 hits, a .334 average, and 106 RBI (second in the National League in each category), and fans voted him the Most Popular Giant. To be sure, it was a mere popularity contest, but his competition included Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Roger Bresnahan, and Rube Marquard—Hall of Famers all.
When the winner was announced at the Polo Grounds between games of a double-header with the Reds on Sept. 26, 1908, Donlin was cheered for ten minutes, right up to the beginning of the second game. But his fame spread far beyond the Hudson River. Two months earlier, baseball fans in Chicago had voted him the most popular major league player.
1908, however, was the year of the infamous Bonehead Merkle controversy, so no matter how productive a season Donlin enjoyed individually, it ended on a decidedly sour note, as the Giants lost the replay (and hence the National League pennant) of the Sept. 23 game that had been declared a tie.
Though 1908 wasn’t a pennant year for the Giants, it was a banner year for Donlin. Having earned $4,000 for his1908 labors, Donlin felt his demand of $8,000 for 1909 was reasonable. Giants owner John Brush felt otherwise. so Donlin walked away from the game again and joined his wife on the stage. At the midpoint of the 1909 season, Donlin offered to cut his salary demands in half and play the rest of the season for $4,000, but the Giants would not entertain that idea.
It may be difficult to imagine walking away from the game after an MVP-type season (though the award didn’t exist in 1908). Typically, such a response only occurs after a dire diagnosis (e.g., Kirby Puckett, Sandy Koufax). In Donlin’s case, perhaps the game came too easily to him and he took it for granted. After all, if that show biz thing didn’t work out, he could always fall back on baseball. Acting required more work on his part, so perhaps he respected it more. Then again, maybe it was all about money.
When the Donlins took to the stage, they signed a $20,000 contract for a ten-week run. That was a pretty good pay upgrade for a guy who, at the top of his profession, had just pulled down $4,000 after laboring for six months. Unlike most players, Donlin could afford to be cavalier about his baseball career. Given today’s baseball salaries, it is difficult to imagine a star player earning more money in another field.
Acting—and dancing!—in a baseball-themed sketch entitled, Stealing Home, Donlin garnered respectable reviews. According to Variety:
If you haven’t already attended The Big 42nd Street Ovation, by all means beg off from the office and do so without delay. Mike Donlin as a polite comedian is quite the most delightful vaudeville surprise you ever enjoyed, and if you miss him you do yourself an injustice.”
The act even received top billing over W.C. Fields, then known primarily as a juggler. While ballplayers, especially New York Giants, appearing as themselves (e.g., Mathewson, McGraw, and Marquard, who was also married to an actress) onstage was not new, Donlin’s portrayal of a character other than himself —admittedly, a ballplayer—was noteworthy.
In Donlin’s eyes, however, his labors at the ballpark were ideal preparation for a theatrical career: “You see, when a man’s been playing baseball out in front of 30,000 people, and a lot of them of the critical sort—and mighty free with their remarks at that—well, it gives him a little assurance, enough, anyway, to let him get by when he faces an ordinary audience in a theater.”
Donlin returned to the Giants in 1911 but for only 12 at-bats. He spent most of the season with the Boston Rustlers (one of the many nicknames the Boston National League franchise had in addition to Braves) and hit .315. After the 1912 season, which Donlin spent with Pittsburgh, where he batted .316, tragedy struck when his wife Mabel died of stomach cancer on Oct. 22. She was only 27 years old.
Her death broke up the act, the marriage, and, undoubtedly, Donlin himself. During Donlin’s outstanding 1908 season with the Giants, she had been a familiar face in the stands at the Polo Grounds, and sometimes other National League parks, when her acting schedule permitted. She was arguably more famous in New York than Donlin. Giant fans were known to holler, “Oh, you Mabel’s Mike!” whenever Donlin excelled on the playing field.
Indeed, she must have been something special, as Donlin once persuaded an umpire to throw him out of a lengthy game so he could keep a dinner date with her.
The death of his wife was a crippling blow, but when the Pirates waived him to the lowly Phillies, that was more than Donlin could take, and he refused to report. He eventually took the field in 1913, but it was a drop in class, as he played 36 games for the Jersey City Skeeters of the International League. In 1914, McGraw brought him back to the Giants, primarily as a pinch-hitter, but it was soon obvious that his skills were not what they had been, and he retired after the 1914 season at the age of 36.
A widower, his baseball career over, and with no financial cushion, Donlin was in the perfect position to renew his acquaintance with the bottle. Instead, Donlin literally got his act together and concentrated on show business, perhaps as a tribute to his late wife. In 1915, the year Birth of a Nation was released, he made his first film, Right off the Bat (the first feature film to deal with baseball), in which he played himself, as did McGraw. On the set, he met actress Rita Ross, whom he later married. Professionally, he teamed up with singer Marty McHale, another former ballplayer, for another vaudeville routine.
McHale, however, had a much less fulfilling career on the playing field, so giving up baseball was not a difficult decision to make. A mediocre seven-year pitching career, mostly with the Yankees and Red Sox, yielded a 12-30 record and an ERA of 3.57. The highwater mark of his moundsmanship was in 1914 when he was in the Yankees starting rotation and compiled a 7-16 record, albeit with an ERA of 2.97, and pitched 191 innings.
As for Donlin, his career stats are impressive, but not nearly as good as they could have been. From 1899-1908, he averaged .338, a figure bettered only by Wagner and Lajoie (both at .351) during that span. He was among the league leaders in hitting, home runs, and on-base percentage five times each. He scored 100 or more runs in three seasons (1901, 1903 and 1905).
His .333 lifetime average is gaudy but it is based on only 1286 hits over 12 seasons, playing for the Perfectos/Cardinals, Orioles, Reds, Giants, Rustlers and Pirates. He led the league twice in stolen bases (33 apiece for the 1901 Orioles and 1905 Giants) and amassed 213 for his career, including six seasons of 20 or more. His slugging percentage (.470) was higher than Lajoie, Wagner, Crawford, Wheat, or Baker.
Donlin’s fielding statistics are another matter, even when one allows for the more primitive gloves of his era. He amassed 176 errors, 135 as an outfielder, for a .924 percentage; 36 as a first baseman for a .963 percentage; and five as a shortstop for a .615 percentage (this would seem to indicate emergency deployment or a failed experiment, since Donlin was left-handed). Today he would probably be cast as a designated hitter.
His fielding deficiencies certainly did not dissuade producers from continuing to cast him as a ballplayer in such films as Hit and Run with Hoot Gibson (1924), Slide, Kelly Slide, in which he served as a technical adviser, while playing himself, as did Bob Meusel, Irish Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri (1927), Warming Up (1928), Hot Curves (1930), and Swell-Head (1935), which was released posthumously.
When not playing himself, Donlin had names that sounded appropriate for a ballplayer (Red McCarthy and Brick Baldwin), or had more generic roles, such as “The Veteran” or “The Scout.” By relocating to California, he was a long way from major league ball, but not so far away that he couldn’t scout for the Boston Braves during the 1917 season.
While baseball roles gained him access to the world of cinema, he was able enough to land other parts, as well, notably in an early sound film entitled The Sea Beast, a very loose adaptation of Moby Dick, with John Barrymore in the Ahab role and Donlin as the third mate Flask, and The General, Buster Keaton’s famed Civil War comedy released in 1926.
Undoubtedly, Keaton was aware of Donlin’s baseball career when he cast him as a sideburn-bedecked Union general. During his boyhood summers at Lake Muskegon, in Michigan, Keaton became a baseball enthusiast and it carried over to his film production units years later. Marion Mack, who played the ingenue in The General, recalled that, “Off screen, he always had his friends to play baseball with; why, sometimes they saw a place to play baseball, and everything would be delayed by a couple of hours.”
Obviously, Donlin’s skills—even though he had retired 12 years before—would have made him a handy fellow to have around during those games. But was that the decisive factor in his being cast in the movie? We’ll never know the answer to that question, but it is worth noting that in College, Keaton’s next film, he cast Wahoo Sam Crawford as a baseball coach and the Southern Cal baseball team as his charges, and in The Cameraman, which premiered in 1928, he utilized Yankee Stadium as a location.
With or without Keaton’s help, Donlin probably went as far as his talents could take him in show business. As any actor can attest, just earning a living is a major achievement, and by all accounts, Donlin did that, and when he wasn’t acting he produced movies. But today he is just a footnote in the history of the cinema. His forays into show business, as well as his holdouts, suspensions, and alcohol-related mishaps detracted from his prime playing years. Had he devoted more of his efforts to baseball, he might have been worthy of mention in the same breath as Lajoie, Cobb and Wagner.
In a 1932 film, Madison Square Garden, Donlin, playing a security guard at the famed Manhattan arena, was billed as “The Greatest Ballplayer of All Time.” That was obviously a stretch, but minus the twin distractions of booze and show biz, less elasticity would have been required.
Donlin died on Sept. 24, 1933 in Hollywood at age 55. He was buried in West Long Branch, N.J., a long way, geographically and culturally, from Hollywood. No doubt he had an interesting life, but minus alcohol and show biz, he might have been ended up in Cooperstown, which wouldn’t have meant anything to him at the time, since he died before the Hall of Fame was established.
When Donlin was 30 years old and should have had several good seasons left, his wife stated, “I want to make a real actor out of him.” And a real—meaning professional—actor he became. Even so, when The New York Times printed his obituary, they noted that, “He was never the actor he thought he was.” One might observe that such an affliction is common in Hollywood. An oft-told Hollywood tale concerns Randolph Scott, who was attempting to join a country club only to be told it did not admit actors. After he showed the members some of his films, they agreed he was no actor and thus worthy of admission.
But even if Donlin’s achievements as a thespian fell short of his exploits on the ballfields of America, that is understandable. To achieve star quality in any human endeavor is a status bestowed on a chosen few; to attempt to achieve it in two endeavors is to defy the odds as well as the gods.
References & Resources
“Baseball Babylon,” by Dan Gutman, Penguin (New York, 1992)
“Baseball’s Best 1000,” by Derek Gentile, Black Dog & Leventhal (New York, 2004)
“Baseball’s Greatest Games,” by Dan Gutman, Puffin (New York, 1994)
“Baseball: the Biographical Encyclopedia,” ed. By David Pietruzsa, Matthew Silverman, and Michael Gershman, Total Sports Publishing (Kingston, NY, 2000)
“Buster Keaton’s The General,” ed. by Richard J. Anobile, Universe Books (New York, 1975)
“Field of Screams: the Dark Underside of the National Pastime,” by Richard Scheinin, W.W.Norton & Co. (New York, 1994)
“Great Baseball Films: From Right off the Bat to a League of Their Own,” by Rob Edelman, Citadel Press (New York, 1994)
“The Case for Those Overlooked by the Baseball Hall of Fame, “ by Brent Kelley, McFarland & Co. (Jefferson, NC, 1992)
“John McGraw,” by Charles C. Alexander, Viking Press (New York, 1988)
“Keaton: the Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down,” by Tom Dardis, Penguin (New York, 1979)
“The New York Giants: an Informal History of a Great Baseball Club,” by Frank Graham, Southern Illinois Press (Carbondale-Edwardsville, 2002)
“The Old Ball Game,” by Frank Deford, Grove Press (New York, 2005)
“The Unforgettable Season,” by G.H. Fleming, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (New York, 1981)