Happy Birthday, Ducky Hemp!

As you can imagine with a nickname like Ducky, Hemp was among the smallest and lightest men playing baseball in the 1880s.

“Ducky Hemp is a new face in the Syracuse team. He is about as large as a pound of soup after a hard day’s washing.”  

Ohio State Journal” Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 August 1890, Page 3.

Ducky Hemp was a St. Louis native who played in various leagues in the Midwest during the 1880s and 1890s.  Among his stops were playing for Dallas in the first season of the Texas League (Dallas won the pennant) and the 1889 season in Evansville where he led his team in hitting and the league in stolen bases.  These two seasons earned Hemp a tryout with the Pittsburgh entry in the Players League for 1890, and given that his manager would be Guy Hecker, who managed Hemp in Evansville, he had someone who knew what kind of player he could be.

William Henry Hemp was the oldest of five children born to Louis and Mary Hemp.  Louis was a stove dealer and in his teens, William helped out as a clerk in Louis’ store.  Louis was a Maryland or Virginia native (choose a census to believe), though his parents were born in Germany.  Mary was born in Missouri, born to a Virginian father and a Kentucky mother.

“Ducky Hemp, the new man from the disbanded Wichita club, is a good all around player. He did some good work in the field yesterday as well as at bat.”

“Won in the Tenth Inning”, Nebraska State Journal, 09 September 1887, Page 2.

Learning the game on the sandlots and semi-pro leagues of St. Louis, Hemp was an active and very fast outfielder who occasionally would be a backup pitcher or an infielder (he even caught).  Many articles make note of Hemp’s ability to gracefully and quickly run down even the deepest fly balls.  He had his nickname by 1886, when he was a utility player for Alton, IL.  They also talk about Ducky’s gift of gab – Hemp never ducked anyone and was frequently thrown out of games for jawing with umpires.  He had a remarkable sense of humor, too – after Ace Stewart once tagged him out with a particularly rough swipe, Hemp arose and said that he would find an ax, chop Ace down to his size, and then give him the licking he deserved.

Hemp got a chance to start for Pittsburgh in 1890 after another outfielder had a spell of drinking.  However, Hecker signed Paul Hines to play the outfield and Hemp was out of a job.  At that point, Hines started making all kinds of insults about Hines until he was finally released.

Hemp Is Missed

“‘I am going away to-night; you can talk about me,’ is the remark Ducky Hemp made to the newspaper men the night he left. Well, as Duck is gone it is the proper time to tell of his amusing size-up of Paul Hines. The veteran took Hemp’s place in the outfield and the little fielder thought he ought to be there. So, Duck took a dislike to Hines and whenever the gang was seated in a crowd Duck would yell out loud enough for all but Paul to hear, ‘Die Paul, die, and leave a good man live.’ One afternoon Hemp made every man on the field howl with laughter by yelling, ‘Fall down, Paul, break a leg, and give me your job.’ Hemp was a great favorite among the kidding gang because he could always give and take.”

The Sporting Life, 21 June 1890, Page 12. (Segment within “Pittsburg Pencillings”…)

For a guy playing in small leagues in the early 1890s, he was the subject of a couple of good stories.  One day during the 1890 season, Ducky was forced into catching when Tom Dolan needed a day off in Lincoln, Nebraska. Hemp already was nursing a broken finger of his own – so he wore a small black glove over his hand, and then the catcher’s mitten over that.

“When he came up behind the bat, he caught a foul tip on his broken finger, and in his pain and excitement, shook his hand forcibly causing the mitten to fall off. When [a young lady in Topeka sitting nearby] saw the black glove still on his hand, she exclaimed, loud enough to be heard all over the grounds, “Oh, he’s got a false hand!” It was sometime before the players were through asking Hemp about his false hand.

“She was a bright girl and they were at the season’s last game of base ball. She had won his enthusiastic heart by understanding the game right off, and he loved her even more than if she had been only his sister.

“‘It reminds me of the household,’ he said, “the plate, the batter, the fouls, and the fields, etc.’

“‘And it reminds me of marriage,” she added. “First, the diamond, where they are engaged, then the struggles and the hits, then the men going out, and finally the difficulty they have in getting home!’

“And he sat and thought and thought.”

“When Lincoln Lost the Pennant”, Nebraska State Journal, 13 October 1890, Page 1.

Sometimes his sense of humor didn’t work with his teammates.  At Pittsburgh, he got along with Guy Hecker, but not everyone. One story noted that Fred Dunlop tried to tell Hemp how to back up throws from the catcher behind second base.  “Well, if you did not pass so many thrown balls,” Hemp countered, “there would not be the same necessity for the middle fielder playing in so close.” Dunlap didn’t appreciate Hemp’s comment, but Hemp was able to run away and hide among his friends on the team.

In the end, his career at the highest levels failed because he failed to hit – but at the lower levels he continued to play.  There are notes about his playing on very good semi-pro baseball teams in his late forties in his hometown of St. Louis (and still jawing with umpires).  Hemp would take over his father’s tin can manufacturing company and ran that – marrying Catherine (Kitty) Mahoney (one article suggested the twenty something ballplayer eloped with his high school aged wife – she was eight or nine years younger than he was) and raising three kids along the way – until his death in 1923.

William H. Hemp, who played with the Pittsburgh, Evansville, and Syracuse baseball teams in former years, died at his home here after a lingering illness. He was an intimate friend of Arlie Latham, famous baseball player, and was a member of Missouri and Illinois Rod and Gun clubs.

William Hemp played with the pennant winning Dallas “Hams” in 1888, the first year of organized professional baseball in Texas.

“Ball Player Dies”, Port Arthur (TX) News, 08 March 1923, Page 6.

Sources:

1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 US Censuses

“A Poor Game but Another Scalp”, Alton Evening Telegraph, 09 August 1886, Page 3.

Wichita Daily Eagle, 25 August 1887, Page 4.

“Won in the Tenth Inning”, Nebraska State Journal, 09 September 1887, Page 2.

“Diamond Dust”, Fort Worth Daily Gazette, 22 April 1888, Page 8.

“An Alleged Ball Game”, Davenport Morning Star, 28 August 1889, Page 3.

The Colts Did Well”, The Pittsburgh Dispatch, 04 April 1890, Page 6.

“About the Diamond”, Pittsburg Press, 11 May 1890, Page 6.

“General Sporting Notes”, Pittsburg Press, 05 June 1890, Page 5.

The Sporting Life, 21 June 1890, Page 12. (Segment within “Pittsburg Pencillings”…)

“Ohio State Journal”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 August 1890, Page 3.

“The Sporting World”, Nebraska State Journal, 08 September 1890, Page 2.

“When Lincoln Lost the Pennant”, Nebraska State Journal, 13 October 1890, Page 1.

“Got Us”, Fort Wayne Journal Gazette 11 July 1891, Page 1.

“Played Good Ball”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 02 April 1893, Page 22.

“Gossip of the Players”, Indianapolis News, 13 July 1896, Page 6.

“Ducky Hemp as Utility Man”, Chicago Tribune, 02 July 1907, Page 6.

“Moberly Forfeits to Ben Millers, 9 to 0”, St. Louis Star and Times, 12 June 1911, Page 8.

“Ball Player Dies”, Port Arthur (TX) News, 08 March 1923, Page 6.

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