Happy Birthday, Oscar Purner!

Oscar Purner’s major league baseball career lasted just one day.  He pitched the last two innings of a game for Washington on 2 September 1895, a loss to Louisville in the first game of a double header.  According to a box score, he allowed three runs on four hits, in part due to giving up a homer, and walked three batters.

Oscar E. Purner was born to John and Sophia Purner on 9 December 1872 in Washington DC.  His father was a gardener from Bavaria and his mother was also from Germany.  Oscar was the last of six kids, the six varying in ages from 29 to 7 in the 1880 census.  As a young adult, he was a clerk or a huckster – someone who peddled small goods door-to-door or at a corner cart.  At some point he started playing semi-professional baseball locally.  A record exists of his pitching for the Mile Limits Blue Stockings not long after his one-game tryout with the Senators.

Purner’s baseball life was generally uninteresting, but his real life has a few interesting nuggets.  He was walking the streets with a friend, John Voulke, when Voulke bumped into Samuel Williams rather abruptly and got into a fight with Williams.  Williams stabbed Voulke in the midsection, but didn’t kill him.  Purner helped get his friend to a hospital and was able to help arrest and identify Williams.

At some point, Purner joined the local fire department and also joined the Sons of Jonadab, Spartan Council No. 5,  a secret temperance society where he eventually became an officer.  He also changed careers several times, becoming a butcher at the end of the 1890s before deciding to join the US Army during the Spanish American War.  Purner served through at least three enlistments, his last tour ended in Fort Sam Houston in Texas where he was a member of the U.S. Cavalry until about 1912.

By then Purner was living near San Antonio when he got involved in an entanglement with a woman that turned ugly.  He left Texas for Arizona where he took a job as a smelter man for the Copper Queen company outside of Bisbee.  He also changed his name to George Berner.

It was there where Purner/Berner fell ill in 1915 and after a short illness, he passed away on December 4, 1915. When friends went through his few belongings, they found a few military items.

The Bisbee Daily Review reported: “Berner passed away following a brief illness, and among his effects were discovered credentials showing that he had served in the army.  News of his death spreading, Colonel Krigbaum, machine gun company, twenty-second infantry, called at the undertaking establishment and identified the dead man, not as Berner as he had been known here, but as Oscar E. Purner, who, he said, had formerly been a business man in San Antonio, Tex., later serving in the Third U. S. Cavalry.  Purner had left San Antonio, he said, and changed his name to Berner when he became involved in trouble over a woman in San Antonio.”

The local undertaker reached out to the sheriff in San Antonio, who saw a picture of the deceased and confirmed that he believed he was Oscar Purner and gave him the name of his sister who was still living in Washington D.C.

Mary Purner Baker received a letter and photo, confirmed that the body was that of her brother, and then asked that Purner’s body be preserved because apparently she had taken out a rather large insurance policy on Oscar upon his joining the military back in 1900.

When things were close to resolution, the Bisbee Daily Review noted this: “Berner, or Purner, was known as a man of rather taciturn disposition and was never heard to talk much about himself or his past.  But for the visit of Corporal Krigbaum and the startling information he gave concerning the dead man, it is quite probable that the corpse would now be interred and the sister have kept paying the life insurance premiums indefinitely, not knowing that her brother had passed away.”


“Election of Officers”, Evening Star (Washington D.C.), 02 January 1894, Page 8.

Woolley, John G. and Johnson, William E. “Temperance Progress of the Century”, Linscott Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1905, Page 114.

“Game Stopped by Rain”, Evening Star, 06 May 1896, Page 10.

“Rain Stopped the Game”, Washington Times, 06 May 1896, Page 3.

“Alleged Murderous Blow”, Evening Star (Washington D.C.), 20 March 1899, Page 10.

“Fire Chief Belt Shakes The Tree”, Washington Times, 23 June 1904, Page 10.

“Mystery Surrounds Identity of Former Douglas Soldier”, Bisbee Daily Review, 18 December 1915, Page 4.

Bisbee Daily Review, 22 January 1916, Page 6.

“Locates Man’s Sister”, San Antonio Light, 9 December 1915, Page 7.

1880, 1900 US Census

1891, 1892, 1895, 1900 Washington DC City Directories

1900, 1908, 1911 US Army Registration Forms

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