After being released by the Cleveland Spiders, Jake Virtue was looking forward to a new season and a new team. He had just signed a contract to play for the Louisville Colonels in 1895, the holidays were over, and he was readying for a trip south for spring training.
And then, though having just turned 30 years old, Jake Virtue’s career was over.
Virtue was born in Philadelphia on 2 March, 1865 and learned to play baseball in the open areas of the city. Having completed school, he started playing amateur baseball – first with the Somersets of Philadelphia, and then for teams around the state. He would play for Ironsides, Lancaster, Oswego, Altoona, and Canton. In Altoona, he played for a championship team that included future major leaguer Lave Cross.
In 1889, he was signed to play with Detroit in the International League where he dazzled on the field with his aggressive fielding, strong throwing arm, daring base running, and solid hitting – he was the only Wolverine regular to clear .300. As with Altoona, Detroit made a run at the league crown and Virtue made a local name for himself by playing through a broken finger to help clinch the flag. Playing through pain, “the broken digit mended itself right on the diamond” (“Necrology”, The Sporting News) – and it would remain crooked for the rest of Virtue’s life.
Virtue remained in Detroit in 1890, but the International League died and with a bunch of players jumping to the Player’s League, Virtue took a job playing first base with the Cleveland Spiders. This was a good young team, featuring a rookie pitcher named Cy Young that would help the Spiders be competitive for the first half of the 1890s. Virtue cleared .300 for the Spiders in his 62 games, adding 49 walks to just 15 strikeouts. Staying in Cleveland for 1891, he continued to grow – though his batting average fell with the influx of talent returning to the National League, he still hit .261, walked 75 times, drove in 72 runs, hit 14 triples, and fielded admirably.
Before he even landed in Cleveland, people were singing the praises of his skills and efforts. “He will jump higher for a high ball, reach further for a wide ball, and cleanly pick up more ground thrown balls than any man who ever stood at first base in Recreation park,” wrote the sporting editor of the Detroit Free Press. “Being a swift runner, which is not characteristic of first basemen, he will cover more ground in quest of foul flies than any other first basemen, some of his feats in this respect being truly remarkable.”
In Cleveland, they talked about his having the strongest throwing arm of all first basemen. And, with his fleetness afoot, he was extraordinarily valuable as he could play nearly every position on the field.
Toward the end of the 1892 season, a Boston batter hit a pop foul between home plate and first base. A player on the Boston bench called out to both the catcher and the first baseman to make the play – leading to a serious collision. Virtue was injured and much of the recklessness with which he played soon disappeared. He must have taken the change personally, because over time he was called out for not having the nerve many other players displayed on the field. His manager, Patsy Tebeau, once discussed this with Elmer Bates at Sporting Life. “Virtue is a valuable player and is hitting the ball hard. I only wish he thought as well of himself as I do of him,” Tebeau explained. “Timid players handicap themselves.”
Timid play – despite being able to back up anybody and still hitting fairly well- finally caught up with Jake Virtue. When the mound was moved back to 60′ 6″, a lot of hitters saw their batting averages jump. Virtue’s did not – he fell from .282 (but with 84 walks) to .265. He remained rather difficult to strike out – he fanned just 14 times in 378 at bats in 1893. In 1894, he was reduced to a limited utility role and played in just 29 games. The Spiders secretly relieved him of his duties, but didn’t announce this until after the season was over.
In December, 1894, Virtue signed with Louisville – and things were looking up. Writers in Louisville hailed the signing. J. J. Saunders wrote this in The Sporting Life:
“The signing of Jake Virtue was hailed with delight and more space given for that event by newspaper boys than any for a long time. There is believed to be several years of good ball playing in him yet, and if his batting is up to his Cleveland standard he will be a big improvement over anything we have had on the initial bag since the days of Harry Taylor.”
However, as March got started, a severe case of rheumatism possibly coupled with a minor stroke left Virtue nearly paralyzed on his right side. He didn’t travel with the team to spring training, and in six weeks, despite getting some of his basic physical ability back, he was summarily released by the Colonels. Two years later, he was hit with a second stroke that again left him paralyzed on the same right side of his body.
At that point, Virtue and his family were in difficult straits. His wife reached out to catcher Chief Zimmer, who helped raise funds from former Spider teammates, and benefit games were played on his behalf. He was frequently unable to work, and even though he would have some semblance of physical ability, chronic rheumatism affected his ability to hold jobs.
As an aside, Jack O’Connor, a former teammate, later told a story about Virtue having cursed himself. O’Connor’s story hit the wires; here’s how it read in the Burlington Evening Gazette:
“While at Hot Springs, John Sheridan saw one of the St. Louis players become highly incensed over the loss of a ball which, he alleged, had been stolen from him. ‘I hope,’ he said, ‘that the arm of the man who stole that ball may fall paralized [sic] by his side.’ ‘Don’t say that, pal,’ prayed Jack O’Connor, in most earnest words. ‘Such talk is liable to bring ill-fortune to you. I once heard Jake Virtue make the same prayer, and within six months he was stricken with paralysis, from which he never recovered. Virtue could not find his sweater one day and became very angry. “May — paralyze the man who stole my sweater!” said Virtue. After awhile he found his sweater where he had put it away. We paid no more attention to it, until one day we read in the newspapers that Jake had been stricken with paralysis. His prayer was granted.'”
Virtue was cursed for sure. In 1899, he was well enough to ride a train to see the unveiling of a Hartranft statue. On the way back, his train was in a serious wreck near Exeter, PA. that killed 25 people. Virtue survived, but just barely. According to a story in Sporting Life, “When the crash came he was sitting in the first section of the fourth car with a friend. Jake escaped with his life, but sustained many bruises and lacerations. His face was cut almost beyond recognition and his scalp was torn, a large piece being entirely sliced off the back of his head. He is now at the Charity Hospital in Norristown.”
Virtue healed and for a short while, Connie Mack and Ben Shibe gave him a job managing the press box for Athletics games after the turn of the century. Even this didn’t last long – eventually Virtue would remain effectively paralyzed for the rest of his days. He died on 3 February 1943 while living with his son, William, in Camden, NJ.
Nemec, David (Editor), Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Bison Books, 2011, Pages 334-335.
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