The surprising answer to the trivia question, “Who was the last player to legally use the spitball in a professional game?” is this man – a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and quite possibly the greatest pitcher in Texas League history, James “Snipe” Conley.
James Michael Patrick Conley arrived on April 25, 1892 in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania, the son of Rose and Michael Conley. Michael worked as a switch man for the local railroad, while his wife was a homemaker for a bustling Irish family. James was the second child and first son, following Katherine (Katie), who was three years older, and then followed by Thomas (1894), Margaret (1898), and Rose – a love child who arrived in 1907. Not necessarily well off, James Conley left school one year into high school to help the family, working for the railroad, a shoe factory, and a car shop.
Pennsylvania was baseball country – teams were scattered in towns all over the state – and the mobile and gifted thrower was easily able to find games. He joined a company team and became their regular pitcher and eventually earned a job with the Bloomer Girl’s traveling baseball team. A Shenandoah newspaper remembered Conley playing for the Shenandoah Daisies in 1911 and 1912 and another source suggested that he played for the York White Roses in the Tri State League in 1912. Frank Menke wrote that he pitched for Pottsville, PA and received a tryout with Connie Mack in 1913. In 1914, signed with the Baltimore Terrapins in the Federal League and learned the ropes as a swingman for manager Otto Knabe.
It was in that first spring training that Conley got the nickname that would stay with him forever:
When Conley joined the Terrapins last spring in the training camp the players took him “snipe hunting.” The trick is old and hoary, but Conley didn’t know anything about it. The gang took Conley ten miles into the country in an automobile. Then they stationed him in a lonely valley with a lantern and a bag.
“Hold the bag until we go out and round up some snipe,” they told Conley. “When we find some we’ll chase them right to you. Catch them in the bag.”
The other players disappeared into the darkness, went up the road, got into the automobile and sped back to the hotel arriving there at midnight.
“Where have you been?” asked Manager Otto Knabe.
“We took Conley snipe hunting.”
Knabe ordered his players to go back and get Conley. They refused. Then Knabe hired a machine and after a two hour search found Conley walking up a lonely road carrying his lantern. It was then close to 4 a. m. Conley had tired of waiting for the snipes to run into his bag and was starting back for the hotel afoot – a ten mile jaunt.
— Menke, Frank G. “Great Jokesters Are Big League Players”, The Kane Republican, 12 April 1915, Page 7.
Snipe Conley had a fine first season for the Terrapins. Appearing in 35 games, making eleven starts, Conley made progress throughout the season. He lost two starts in late May and early June, but pitched his way out of the bullpen to earn a month in the rotation in July and August. On July 24, he threw a five-hit shutout to beat St. Louis. He threw a second shutout at Indianapolis in the second game of a doubleheader on August 8, then won three days later, though he needed relief help to finish the game. When the season was over, Conley finished with a 4 – 6 record, four complete games, and a growing reputation.
The following spring, Conley was expected to be a star. One writer called him the kid with the “Million Dollar Arm” and the best looking kid to appear on the baseball horizon since Pete Alexander. In addition to decent speed, he threw a fine assortment of curves – with the help of a spitball taught to him by one-time Orioles pitcher John Picus.
Unfortunately, dreams of being the next Alexander ended after Conley slipped on the icy grounds before the season started – landing directly on his throwing shoulder. He could hardly lift his arm and had to learn to pitch side armed. It took a month to get his ERA under 10.00, and he frequently worked out of the bullpen in June and July hoping to get on track. It never really happened, though – he would win his last decision, a complete game win at Kansas City, but he lost his other decision. In 24 games, he finished with a 4.29 ERA and soon was released. The Federal League was nearly dead – Conley was free to figure out how to rebuild his career.
Conley took an offer to leave the northeast and move to Dallas where he signed with the Giants (they would have several nicknames during the next decade) in the Texas League. At first, still only able to throw side armed, Conley still managed to win 15 games. In 1917, Conley’s arm was fully healthy and his spitball – which broke in different directions based on whether he threw over the top or off to the side – was unhittable.
After losing the opener, Conley started winning everywhere he went. On June 10, Conley won his fourteenth straight game beating Shreveport, 7 – 3. This set the Texas League record, breaking a mark set by former St. Louis Brown, now Houston hurler, Dode Criss. News of the record breaking win started regular visits from National and American League scouts who wanted to see what had happened to the one time Terrapin.
Conley kept winning though. His seventeenth straight win was a no-hitter over Fort Worth, a perennial title winner. The lone base runner walked and was caught stealing. For his part, Conley fanned nine Panthers. Dallas got an offer to sell Conley to the Phillies, but turned it down hoping to win the pennant. On Snipe Conley Day in Waco, Conley tied Rube Marquard’s professional record of 19 consecutive victories by taking the opener, 5 – 4, in ten innings.
Now, a poem about Conley hit the wire services.
A promising busher named Conley,
Has won 19 games in a row.
Which means that some major league magnate
will buy him for oodles of dough.
In Texas they say he’s a wonder,
They never get through boosting “Snipe;”
But won’t it be tough on the magnate
Who buys “Snipe” before he is ripe?
The streak ended there, but the interest in Conley didn’t. Dallas won the Texas League crown, and Conley set a league record with 27 wins – a record that would be equaled once but never beaten. He led the league in winning percentage, threw over 300 innings in his 50 appearances, and had an ERA of 1.92. He led the league with 171 strikeouts and walked just 87 batters.
Conley was also a crack fielder, and batted .309 – the only batter to clear .300 for Dallas. And they were shots – he had sixteen extra base hits out of his 39 clean hits.
Cincinnati won the bidding war – they got Conley’s rights but Conley, who had made a fair salary in the Federal League initially held out for more money. When the Reds visited Texas on the way to spring training, Christy Mathewson convinced Conley to leave his small farm and pitch for the Reds.
His days with the Reds were not very successful – though in his last outing, he entered the game in the eighth inning and pitched out of a bases loaded jam without allowing a run and earned the win in relief when the Reds pounded out a ninth inning win. Cincinnati wanted to farm Conley out to Toronto or Milwaukee but Conley convinced him to let him return to his adopted Dallas home.
Over the next several seasons, Conley became perhaps the most famous baseball player in Texas. In 1919, he won both ends of a doubleheader over Waco, taking both games by a 3 – 0 score. But his most famous moment during his prime seasons occurred during a game against Wichita Falls. Tired of missing the big bending spitball, someone dipped a baseball or two in creosote so that when Snipe licked the ball, whatever was on it might keep Conley from licking it again. Conley got blisters on his lip and his tongue swelled and in the fourth inning, he had to leave the game.
“That is the dirtiest deal I have ever been the victim of in my ten years of professional baseball experience,” Conley said. “There is one sportsman on the Wichita Falls club, but I won’t mention his name. He came to me after the game and said: ‘Conley, I don’t want you to think I am mixed up in this thing.'”
Manager Jim Galloway filed a protest with the league, who inspected the balls and concluded that creosote was, indeed, on the baseballs though it couldn’t specifically say who had done it. Walter Salm, manager of Wichita Falls, claimed it was rubbing off bats, but the lack of a clear denial left the league to declare the game forfeited to Dallas.
Conley loved teaching, too. In the off-seasons he began serving as a pitching instructor for Southern Methodist University.
By 1925, Conley was no longer the best pitcher on the staff – but he was the longest tenured player and had a great reputation with the owners and fans. He was put in charge of Dallas in mid season and nearly took the Texas League crown. In 1926, now no longer a player manager, he guided Dallas to its first title since his 27 win season in 1917. Such heady days were few. Injuries and his own sickness, causing him to miss nearly two weeks of action, contributed to a slow start – and despite being just a few weeks into the season, Conley was fired.
Not sure what to do, Conley actually game back and pitched for the 1927 Dallas Steers – the very team that fired him. The next season, he tried his hand managing in Jackson, Mississippi but that didn’t work out. In July of 1928, he signed to manage and pitch in Midland, Texas.
The right offer came, however, a year later. He moved to western Texas and took a job with the Big Lake Oil Company. Working the fields during the day, at night he was a sports director and manager. Bill Parker wrote:
“Conley is athletic director for a Texon oil firm. His semi-pro baseball team is one of the best. It is composed of former major and minor league stars who had rather have substantial year-round jobs than play baseball for a living.
“Snipe also manages the firm’s volleyball, soccer, and soft ball teams and promotes the firm’s weekly boxing and wrestling matches. He has a son in junior high school. Conley, bronzed by the West Texas wind and sun, doesn’t look a day older than when he was winning 19 consecutive games – a feat that still stands as a Texas League record…”
Over the next decade, the Texon Oilers baseball team would win the Permian Basin League nine times in ten years. Occasionally, he would come out and pitch – like this game in Abilene:
“Creaking old Snipe Conley, one of the pitching masters of the Texas League while with Dallas, slid off his managerial bench at Texon the other day and strode to the mound.
“His Texon Oilers were in trouble in the Abilene game. Runners stood at second and third, one man was out. The Sniper fogged one down the middle and an Abilenian, with evil intent, bunted to the old man.
“But Snipe rushed over, caught the bunt in mid-air, scurried back to third for an unassisted double play. The game ended – and Snipe went back into retirement.”
— McKnight, Felix R. “Tech Mentor Sounds Alarm”, Amarillo Daily News, 23 August 1940, Page 10.
Conley pitched a lot – batting practice, occasional games, and a handful of old-timers games where he showed he still had steam on the fastball and movement in his spitter. He still felt bitter that his career was ended before he was ready to say it was over. Asked if he still wanted to play, Conley responded, “Do I have a yearning to return to professional ball? My answer is that I have made four different applications for the job at Dallas.”
Eventually, George Schepps, president of Dallas, gave him that chance. After a tryout, Schepps realized he might actually be more than just a stunt. “… (H)e is in condition to pitch right now,” Schepps said. “Say, in 1939 I used him in an old-timers game and the opposing players begged me to take him out because he was throwing too hard.”
In 1941 – now 49 years old – weighing the same as he did in 1927 though with a bit more gray in the hair, Snipe Conley took the hill against the San Antonio Missions. He was classified as a rookie because he hadn’t pitched in the Texas League (or at A level minor league ball) in more than two seasons. More importantly, though, he was STILL grandfathered as able to throw his spitball as he was on the Texas League spitball list in 1925 when the pitch was outlawed in the league for all new pitchers. That makes Conley the last player to legally throw a spitball in a professional game.
The Ada Evening News Reported:
“Baseball’s oldest rookie finished with his arm limp but it failed to dim the luster of the most unusual comeback in Texas League history.
“When Conley pitched for Dallas last night the batters were fellows who were going to grammar school when he set the present league record of 19 straight victories.
“But Snipe was just as crafty, just as speedy and just as effective – that is, for eight innings. In the ninth, he faltered. The San Antonio Missions combed his offerings for five hits and five runs. He managed to finish with an 11 – 6 victory but the end didn’t come any too soon.
“‘I just gave out,’ he explained as he sat in the dugout while his mates rubbed his arm with arnica. ‘But a couple more nights like this and I’ll be ready to go nine innings. You know, it’s been 13 years since I pitched the route.’
“Three thousand fans turned out to see Conley in his comeback. There would have been more but too many figured that while Snipe still had the heart the arm and legs wouldn’t last… Conley was a little crestfallen over the finish but the fans were not. If pitching nine innings doesn’t sap the aging right arm autographing likely will.”
He made a second appearance – topping another ancient spitballer, Oscar Tuero, who was making a comeback. Tuero lasted two thirds of an inning – Conley pitched into the fifth but ran out of gas. Dallas won, 10 – 4, but Conley knew he wasn’t going to be able to pitch regularly at that level – he didn’t have the legs or the accuracy anymore.
As he aged, Conley never stopped defending the spitball that made him famous. He claimed that the shine ball and emery ball were undependable and wild, but the spitball was easily controlled. A sidearm delivery meant the ball would break like a curve, and an overhand version dropped like a sinker. As for control – he regularly led his league in the fewest walks per nine innings pitched.
His wife of more than 25 years, Rosebud Stuart Conley, passed away on 7 April 1942. Their son, John Quinn “Snipe” Conley, Jr.,. pitched in the low minors after graduating from Texas A&M. Like his dad, he was an outfielder, infielder, and pitcher. He just didn’t have the skills the original Snipe Conley had.
Conley remarried – he and Mary Lee Reese stayed on a farm near Texon until his retirement and would pitch in old-timer games into his 60s. Briefly living in Arizona after his retirement in 1957, the Conleys soon returned to Texas where they lived their remaining days in Robert Lee. In the 1970s, Conley was regularly included but overlooked in voting for the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, but he was finally inducted at the end of 1973. Finally, Snipe put the glove away for the last time and passed to the next league on 5 January 1978.
Baseball Reference – Snipe Conley
http://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.cgi?id=conley003jam (retrieved 19 May 2016)
Retrosheet – Snipe Conley
Handbook of Texas Online, Jane Spraggins Wilson, “Conley, James Michael Patrick [Snipe],” accessed May 19, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcoxn.
Schuylkill County Baseball History
1900 Census Data
1910 Census Data
1920 Census Data
1930 Census Data
1940 Census Data
World War 1 Draft Registration Form
World War 2 Draft Registration Form
Goss, Ralston. “Hoosiers Triumph With Moseley On Mount”, Indianapolis Star, 29 July 1914, Page 4.
Menke, Frank G. “Great Jokesters Are Big League Players”, The Kane Republican, 12 April 1915, Page 7.
Menke, Frank G. “Menke Visits Baltimore Feds”, The Kingston Daily Freeman, 20 Mar 1915, Page 8.
Guy, Richard. “Local Boys Are Headed For Dallas”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1 Feb 1916, Page 10.
“Conley Sets Mark”, Washington Times, 11 June 1917, Page 7.
“Big League Scouts Are Looking Conley Over”, The Salina Daily Union, 20 June 1917, Page 4.
“Conley In Spotlight”, Washington Times, 25 June 1917, Page 10.
“Snipe Conley Makes Nineteen Straight Wins”, Washington Times, 9 July 1917, Page 10.
Pittsburgh Press, 11 July 1917, Page 28.
“Young Texas Leaguer Equals Marquard’s 19-Game Record — Now After World Title”, The Evening News (Harrisburg, Pa), 11 July 1917, Page 5.
“Conley, New Redleg, Was Sensation This Year in Texas League”, Cincinnati Enquirer, 21 September 1917, Page 7.
“Cressona Will Use Star Hurler Against Locals”, Reading Times, 13 October 1917, Page 13.
“Heard Here And There In the World of Sports”, Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 10 March 1918, Page 8.
“Prefers Baseball to Farm”, El Paso Herald, 19 April 1918, Page 10.
“Sport Salad By Gene”, Waco News-Tribune, 15 March 1919, Page 7.
Ryder, Jack. “Conley Fails To Get Revenge.”, Cincinnati Enquirer, 7 April 1919, Page 10.
Mount Carmel Item, 15 November 1919, Page 2
“Protest Game and Claim That Ball Was Doctored”, Wichita Daily Times (Wichita Falls, TX), 13 August 1922, Page 1.
Larkin, Paul W. “Spudders Come From Behind and Vanquish Peacocks in Fourth”, Wichita Daily Times, 13 August 1922, Page 8.
Harbert, Bryant. “Sportitorials”, Corsicana Daily Sun, 19 August 1922.
“John Snipe Conley Base Ball Pitcher Spent Friday Here”, The Courier-Gazette (McKinney, TX), 29 September 1923, Page 5.
“One National and One Texas League Player To Aid in Coaching Ponies”, Corsicana Daily Sun, 18 Feb 1924, Page 9.
“Conley’s Homer Wins”, Waco News-Tribune, 21 May 1925, Page 9.
“New Leadership Wins for Steers”, El Paso Herald, 19 June 1925, Page 10
“Victory Over Fort Worth Gives Texas Metropolis First Flag in Ten Years”, The (Bryan) Eagle, 9 September 1926.
“Conley, Dallas Boss, Outdazzles Dazzy”, The (Zanesville) Times Recorder, 17 September 1926, Page 15.
“Snipe Conley Retired As Manager of Steers”, Galveston Daily News, 6 July 1927, Page 6.
“Conley Released”, Louisville Courier-Journal, 3 July 1928, Page 11.
Moore, Paul. “Sport Notes”, Corsicana Daily Sun, 20 July 1928, Page 10.
Parker, Bill. “Sports Horn”, Denton Record-Chronicle, 30 December 1933, Page 5.
“About Snipe Conley”, Abilene Morning Reporter, 26 August 1934, Page 30.
“Champ Series Slated”, Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, TX), 30 August 1939, Page 7.
“Veteran Snipe Conley Yearns For Another Go In Organized Baseball”, San Antonio Express, 16 February 1940, Page 12.
Ratliff, Harold V. “‘Snipe’ Conley Preparing Oilers for Another Season”, Valley Morning Star (Harlington, TX), 16 February 1940, Page 12.
McKnight, Felix R. “Tech Mentor Sounds Alarm”, Amarillo Daily News, 23 August 1940, Page 10.
“Snipe Conley, Finished Once, Pitches Again”, Ada Evening News, 26 June 1941, Page 6.
Ratliff, Harold V. “Snipe Conley, Now 49, In Comeback With Rebs”, San Antonio Light, 11 June 1941, Page 13.
Ratliff, Harold V. “Snipe Conley To Make Second Start Dallas Rebs Sunday”, Corsicana Daily Sun, 24 July 1941, Page 8.
Ratliff, Harold V. “Comeback Trail Hard; Failed Last Night By Technicality”, Corsicana Daily Sun, 28 July 1941, Page 7.
“Death Claims Wife of ‘Snipe Conley'”, Lubbock Morning Avalanche, 8 April 1942, Page 7.
Moore, Paul. “Sport Notes”, Corsicana Daily Sun, 27 November 1946, Page 7.
“Conley Can Still Pitch a Baseball”, Abilene Reporter-News, 5 October 1949, Page 7.
Gammon, Spec. “Now-Defunct Oilers Captured 2 Titles During 8-Year Tenure”, Odessa American, 21 April 1955, Page 18.
“Texas League Great Retires From Business”, Nashville Tennessean, 5 Feb 1957, Page 15.
“Snipe Conley Down to Hurl”, San Antonio Light, 31 July 1958, Page 17.
Duncan, Arnott. “Babe Ruth Banter – Pro and Con”, Arizona Republic, 17 September 1961, Page 40.
“New Members Join Hall of Fame”, The Odessa American, 1 January 1974, Page 19.
“60 Years Ago – 1917”, Shenandoah Evening Herald, 20 July 1977, Page 4.
“James Patrick (Snipe) Conley”, The Sporting News, 28 January 1978, Page 40.
Fascinating story Paul! Thank you!