The Downfall of Henry Kessler

Henry KesslerHis nickname, hung on him by a Cincinnati Enquirer scribe, is “Lucky” – however, by the time Henry Kessler’s career was at its peak he was far from lucky.  The teams on which he played were never first division, with one team finishing 2 – 42.  He was unlucky with women – his three documented relationships all ended in turmoil.  At some point, his luck ran out when his decisions backfired.  Then his heart gave out.

John and Margaret Kessler came to the United States as Manifest Destiny gripped the nation.  The Prussian immigrants brought along a daughter, Theressa, and added a son in Brooklyn.  Baseball sites list the birthdate of Henry Kessler as July 27, 1851 but the handful of documents available to researchers suggests that his actual birth year was 1847 or 1848.

Kessler’s baseball exploits begin in an area where baseball was thriving.  Among the best teams in the country was the Atlantics of Brooklyn, with plenty of very good teams playing in New York City and across the river in New Jersey.  By 1870, Henry is listed as the third baseman for the Silver Stars of New York, an improving team.  One reason the Silver Stars improve is the play of Henry Kessler, a compentent hitter, a good enough catcher, and a good enough athlete to play any position asked.

His hometown Atlantics took note – needing a first baseman for a game in 1873, Kessler is tabbed to play.  He makes 17 putouts in an 11-inning game on August 4 and remains with the squad through the end of the season without making another appearance.  In 1874, the versatile Kessler is a utility player for the Atlantics.  About half of his games are at catcher, but the rest are scattered across the field.  By the end of the season, the New York Clipper noted that Kessler had earned more playing time.  “Kessler, by his fielding, base running and batting, showed himself to be too good a man to be out of the nine.”  He might have had more playing time, but he was injured behind the plate and missed out on about four weeks of games and exhibitions.  Still, in his fourteen games he tallied a .304 average and threw in a double among his seventeen hits.

The 1873 and 1874 Brooklyn Atlantics were poor but competitive.  In 1875, player-manager Bob Ferguson was gone, Dickey Pearce was deemed too old and Tommy Bond was dispatched elsewhere.  Kessler earned his first regular status on a team destined to be among the worst squads the National Association ever saw.  Kessler finished second on the team in batting (.248, with only one walk and little power – but still the second best OBP on the team) and led the Atlantics in runs scored.  However, Atlantic opponents scored 438 runs to the 132 runs scored by Brooklyn – the Atlantics won but two of 44 decisions.

When the National League formed in 1876, Kessler was signed to play shortstop and third base (among other positions as needed) for Cincinnati.  Kessler’s season, and that of the Red Stockings, got off to a bad start.

“Anson opened the third inning with a hard hit to Kessler, which so rattled that player that he overthrew to Gould and let the runner around to third. McVey followed with a driver also to Kessler, and Anson let out for home. Kessler got the ball well enough, but threw slow and badly to home plate, letting Anson score, while McVey took first. It having been settled that Kessler was a “berry,” Hines followed his two predecessors by hitting right at the unfortunate short stop. The victim got one hand on the ball, but it went through his hands as if he were made of paper, and McVey took third, whence he came in on Spalding’s long fly to Jones, which was well taken. Thus, two runs were scored without a clean hit.

“Sporting News,” Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1876: 8.

Cincinnati finished 9 – 56, Kessler finished as perhaps the third or fourth best hitter on the team and had enough good moments to earn the nickname “Lucky.”  On August 25th, he kept Louisville from scoring the lead run when he made a fine running catch on a fly to right-center field and then turned to fire to first base to complete a double play.  He made another circus catch in the 11th, then his long drive to left plated two runs to give Cincinnati a 3 – 1 win over Louisville.

The Reds started slowly again in 1877; Kessler played well enough in the field but having only two hits in twenty at bats sealed his fate.  When Reds ownership chose to turn over the team in mid-June, Kessler was released.

Kessler returned home and played amateur and semi-professional ball with a team of former Atlantic ballplayers through 1881, but in 1882 he followed the call of Horace Greeley and headed west.  Kessler landed on the Leadville Blues, a Colorado based team that traveled about the United States playing in exhibitions against local professional and amateur nines.  He may have gotten involved in some mining investments, too.  After two seasons, the Leadville’s finances got the blues and the team disbanded in Pennsylvania.  Fortunately, oil country was a burgeoning baseball area and Kessler was invited to play with a semi-professional team in Franklin, PA.

In leaving behind his life in Brooklyn, Kessler also left behind a wife, Louisa, who successfully filed for divorce in 1885, getting full custody of their child.  A family friend chased down Kessler in Franklin, visited with Henry in the United States Hotel there, and returned to Brooklyn to tell Louisa that Henry was living with another woman as his wife.

The second wife would also leave him, but not before Henry was sent somewhere else.  Weeks after Kessler acknowledged he was not returning home at the bar in the United States Hotel, Kessler fell helpless to a growing problem with alcohol and was caught trying to set fire to that same hotel.  Found guilty of arson, Kessler was sentenced to three and a half years hard labor at a Venango County penitentiary.  (It’s his prison record that tells us that Kessler was a shade over 5′ 6″ and 139 pounds, far shorter and slightly lighter than his Baseball-Reference listed data.) 

Not having learned his lesson, within months of returning home he was caught trying to steal from the cash register at the bar of the American House.  Kessler spent another six months in prison.

The kind people of Franklin helped him get his life started again, but bad decisions continued to plague Kessler.  Lizzie Bowersock Saltsgiver ditched her husband and child at about the time Kessler got out of prison for the second time.  She hooked up with Kessler and they lived together for at least a year before Kessler left her.  This turned out to be the right move – in 1892, Lizzie was arrested and sent to prison for stealing a horse and buggy.

Kessler played baseball into the 1890s, but a decade of drinking caught up with him.  In 1899, Kessler started having issues with his heart, resulting in his being moved to a poor farm in Sugarcreek, PA in mid December.  He’d spend just a few weeks there; Kessler’s heart failed him in the early hours of January 8, 1900 and he passed to the next league.  A few friends pitched in to have his body interred in the Venango Farm Cemetery in Sugarcreek the next day, saving it from being dissected by nearby medical students.

Sources:

Baseball-Reference.com
FindAGrave.com

1880 US Census
PA Prison Workhouse Records
NY Death Certificate (Theressa Kessler Clay)

“Warren vs. Silver Star,” New York Clipper, November 19, 1870: 2.

“Mutual vs. Silver Stars,” New York Clipper, June 3, 1871: 2.

“Base Ball,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 1872: 2.

“Atlantic vs. Mutual,” New York Clipper, July 25, 1874: 2.

“Atlantic vs. Boston,” New York Clipper October 31, 1874: 2.

“Sporting News,” Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1876: 8.

“A Firebug Divorced,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 10, 1885: 4.

“The League,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 27, 1876: 6.

“Louisville Loses,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 26, 1876: 8.

“Base-Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 19, 1877: 2.

“An Atlantic Nine,” New York Clipper, April 12, 1879: 3.

“Again Victorious,” Kansas City Times, September 3, 1882: 3.

“Of Local Interest,” Conneautville Courier, February 6, 1885: 5

“Professional Ball Player in Trouble,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 23, 1889: 5.

“The Story of Lizzie Saltsgiver,” Butler Citizen, May 6, 1892: 2.

“Death of Henry Kessler,” Frankin Evening News, January 8, 1900: 4.

“Old Ball Player Dead,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, January 10, 1900: 6.

(Image Source) “Kessler’s Death,” Seymour (IN) Daily Democrat, February 15, 1900: 7.

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