Happy Birthday, Shadow Pyle!

“To see Pyle move around in the box,” said St. Louis’ Billy Gleason, “would remind you of a shadow dance.” – “‘Shadow’ Pyle,” Harrisburg Times, March 26, 1887: 1.

Slight of build, Harry Pyle got the nicknames “Shadow” and “Scissors” from his fellow baseball players.  Yet, despite a lifelong issue with asthma attacks, he was able to fashion a career that lasted almost a decade before his behavior and changing rules rendered his pitching ineffective.

Harry Thomas Pyle was born November 29, 1861 to Isaac Newton Pyle and Sarah (Stott) Pyle.  Isaac worked the foundries making nails while his English import wife took care of a regularly growing family.  Isaac may not have been home when his seventh and last child was born – he had enlisted in the Union Army and would serve with Company H of the 50th Pennsylvania Infantry.  In his three years with the Union Army, Isaac was once shipwrecked off the North Carolina coast, then fought in battles such as Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredricksburg, Vicksburg, Spottsylvania and the Battles of the Wilderness.

Time spent in battle wasn’t easy on Issac.  Within a few years of his return home he was arrested for assault and battery, then found to be insane.  In fact, even though he was arrested in January, 1869 and sentenced to two weeks in the county prison, Issac Pyle never returned home.  Doctors argued that, after five years, he should be “…removed to some insane hospital where he can be properly treated, and when there might be still some hope of having his reason restored.”  By 1880, he was moved – but to a poor house instead, where he lived until his death in 1891.

Living without a father – and when he did, a father who may have had with issues with PTSD – likely contributed to a life where Harry was unafraid of confrontation and difficult for authority figures.  The first time Harry appears in a newspaper article in his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania it is not for his pitching prowess.  Instead, it’s a story about how a boat captain had grown tired of the harrassment delivered by Harry and a group of his friends.  So, while the boys were swimming in the Christiana River, a verbal altercation led to the captain finding his shotgun.  One boy had more than a dozen grains of shot in his face, neck and chest.  Harry was lucky not to have been hit.

Harry could throw, though.  And, despite his lifelong issue with asthma (it was thought that the asthma would prevent him from finishing his first season alive), he was a competent pitcher and occasional outfielder as needed.  His first semi-professional team was the local Reading Actives where he was the ace pitcher on the 1882 team.  He was good enough to get a contract with the Wilmington Quicksteps, an Eastern League team.  Pyle’s 1883 season included an 11 – 16 record, a 2.63 ERA, and an excellent strikeout rate.  However, the team’s manager liked a late night game of cards and wasn’t the right person to manage an undersized rebellious kid with a huge chip on his shoulder.  By early August, Harry Pyle was blacklisted for drunkeness and insubordination (Pyle claimed he drank blackberry brandy to soothe an upset stomach and it had affected him).

Regardless, Pyle returned home and pitched for his local Reading nine.  The next year, Baltimore in the Union League took an interest in Pyle and worked to have Pyle removed from the blacklist.  When Harry became eligible, Baltimore sent Pyle $50 and a $1700 contract for the season.  Pyle ditched Lancaster, with whom he signed a contract – except he didn’t go to Baltimore.  Instead, he ditched both teams.  Eventually, Baltimore had Pyle arrested to collect their $50, and Pyle stayed in Lancaster to pitch.

While in Lancaster, Pennsylvania he married Anna E. Kenyon (or Bannen, depending on the source) and they quickly had a child, Harry Thomas Pyle, Jr.  If anyone thought that being married might settle down the mercurial Pyle, that person would have been mistaken.  In July, friends of Pyle were especially obnoxious and interfering with a game.  The next day, those same friends were met by members of the local police force, who sent the boys packing.  In September, Pyle was arrested for drunkeness and disorderly conduct at a Lancaster skating rink, which included Pyle’s assaulting an officer who was trying to escort Pyle from the rink.  A week later, he was involved in another incident where he was being arrested by one officer and a second officer ran across the street to help out.  The second officer was investigated for his “murderous assault” on Pyle when he struck Pyle’s head with a blackjack.

Despite that, Pyle got more chances to pitch.  Following a season with Lancaster where he pitched 39 times, completing all but one of his 36 starts, and winning 19 of 36 decisions, Harry Wright gave Pyle a chance to tryout with his Philadelphia Quakers.  Pyle was given the start on the last day of the 1884 National League season and became the answer to a triva question when Philadelphia lost to Ol’ Hoss Radbourn and Providence, 8 – 0.  With that win, Radbourn won his 60th decision of the season.  Pyle was nervous – he walked six, and had a wild pitch.  However, his team was disinterested and the collection of fans was “small and unenthusiastic.”

Pyle didn’t stick, but he did get other offers.  Richmond signed the 5 foot 8 inch, right handed twirler who barely weighed 130 pounds to a contract paying him $150 a month.  Within weeks of his contract signing, Anna filed a suit saying that she had been abandoned and a judge forced Pyle to send her five dollars each week for support.  In June, Anna filed for divorce “…on the ground that her husband has offered her such indignities as to make her condition intolerable and life burdensome, so much so that she was compelled to leave his house and home.”  In October, the divorce was finalized.

Despite those distractions, Pyle was a remarkably successful pitcher for a very good Richmond team.  He finished the 1885 season with a 35 – 15 record for the Virginias, striking out 240 batters in his 453.1 innings of work.  The Virginias might have won the Eastern League except that by September, the team was in financial trouble.  Bridgeport chose to forfeit a game to Richmond rather than collect half of the attendance money as it would be less than the $65 guarantee they would have expected to get.  Two days after the forfeit, the Virginias disbanded.  Pyle quickly signed with Newark, made four starts and finished his season.

Even with this success, Pyle still had moments where he let his temper get in the way.  In a game against Brooklyn, an umpire called a balk when Pyle ignored warnings about throwing with his arm above his shoulder.  (Motions were limited to side armed or underhanded throws at the time.)  Pyle took offense to the balk – and then did the same thing to the next six batters, letting those batters reach base and turning a 1 – 0 lead into a 12 – 1 loss.

And he continued to have issues with the law.  In December, Pyle met with Louis Koch, a policeman in Reading, to discuss their issues with each other.  Words became blows and Pyle pulled out a knife and stabbed Koch above his ear, digging the blade into Koch’s skull.  Less than two months later, Pyle (and his friend) was arrested again for disorderly conduct and a minor altercation with an officer.

For the first time in his professional career, Pyle actually stayed with his team for a second contract.  Newark was loaded with fine players and pitchers, including Phenomenal Smith.  Using essentially a three man rotation, Pyle finished 25 – 9 with a 1.15 ERA (less than 3.5 runs allowed per game) and 199Ks in 313 innings.

His second consecutive great season got the attention of major league teams again.  This time, Pyle signed a contract with the National League Champion Chicago White Stockings.

But the 1887 season would be different for all pitchers.  The pitcher’s mound was moved back to 55.5 feet, which messed with guys who threw heavy doses of breaking pitches as those pitchers had to relearn the arc required to throw strikes or avoid bats.  It took fewer balls to walk a batter, too.  Pyle would be greatly affected by these changes – he regularly bounced his curveball well in front of the plate or missed the plate by wide swaths.  Making just four early starts, Pyle won just once.  He frequently struggled in early innings until he found his target.  In his last start on May 13, 1887, he gave up 10 runs to Detroit in the first inning – the first three batters were walked, and then the hitting started.  Pyle left before the third out was counted – and soon after was sent to La Crosse, WI to find his control in the Northwestern League.  Pyle strugged to a 12 – 25 record, barely striking out more batters than he walked, and allowing some 506 hits in 328.1 innings.  A contract with Jersey City for 1888 ended with an August release.  With the exception of a single start with Wilmington in 1890 (a loss), Pyle’s professional career as a pitcher was over.

That’s not to say that Pyle’s baseball days were over.  He returned to Reading and pitched for the Actives semi-professional team, then lower level amateur games as late as 1894.  On rare occasions, Pyle was asked to umpire.  One time, Pyle was frustrated by the abuse that came with the job.  In 1892, Pyle returned the favor, abusing an umpire until he grew tired of the abuse and left the game in the seventh inning.  The last time Pyle worked the plate was in 1897 – and it ended the way you might have expected.  The regular umpire didn’t show but Pyle was in attendance and the teams asked if Pyle could cover for this game – or at least until another umpire might be able to arrive,  Three innings later, chaos began when the Paterson manager objected to every decision. Pyle responded with his fists.  Both managers got involved and even fans joined in the fray.  Removed when police finally ended the melee, Pyle went home and never got on a field again.

It’s hard to say what Pyle did when he wasn’t a ballplayer. He didn’t have an occupation listed in the 1900 US Census, nor was one listed in his obituary.  In 1900, he lived with his mother – but they were boarding with the child of one of his sisters.  In the early 1890s, Pyle was listed as a laborer in Reading city directories, but by the end of the decade those same directories listed him as a ball player.  The last year he was alive, Pyle was again listed as a laborer.  That year, in 1908, Pyle’s asthma got the best of him. He was found dead in his bed on December 26, 1908.  As with his birth, Harry Pyle entered and exited this world in Reading, Pennyslvania.

By that time, Anna Kenyon had long since remarried, and she and Harry, Jr. lived with her second husband in Chester, PA. Harry, Jr followed the paths of his father and grandfather.  He served in the US Army in an infantry regiment and while stationed in the Philippines he played on the Army baseball team.

Sources:

1860, 1880, 1900, 1910 US Censuses
PA Death Certificates
PA Marriage Licenses
PA Veteran Burial Card
Reading (PA) City Directories

FindAGrave.com (Isaac Pyle)
FindAGrave.com (Harry Thomas Pyle)

Baseball Reference
Retrosheet.org

Pennsylvania Civil War Site

“‘Shadow’ Pyle,” Harrisburg Times, March 26, 1887: 1.

“A Silly Shot,” Wilmington Daily Gazette, September 6, 1880: 1.

“The Actives’ Picnic this Afternoon,” Reading Times, July 29, 1882: 1.

“Two More Players Signed,” Wilmington Daily Gazette, November 20, 1882: 1.

“Notes for Base Ballists,” Wilmington Daily Republican, December 29, 1882: 1.

“Placing the Trouble,” Wilmington Morning News, August 9, 1883: 4.

“The American Association,” Louisville Courier-Journal, March 6, 1884: 6.

“Sporting Notes,” Fall River Daily Herald, March 11, 1884: 2.

“The Actives All Home Again,” Reading Times, May 9, 1884: 1.

“The Base Ball Case,” Lancaster New Era, May 14, 1884: 4.

“Won in Eleven Innings,” Reading Times, July 29, 1884: 1.

“The Suspense is Over,” Lancaster Intelligencer, October 8, 1884: 5.

“Painting it Red,” Lancaster New Era, September 24, 1884: 4.

Lancaster Intelligencer, October 1, 1884: 2.

“Providence Wins,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 16, 1884.

“Baseball Notes,” Norfolk Virginian, February 15, 1885: 1.

“Pitcher Pyle Arrested for Desertion,” Lancaster Intelligencer, March 12, 1885: 1.

Lancaster Daily Intellingencer, April 20, 1885: 2.

“Suit Against the Phenominal Pitcher,” Lancaster Examiner, April 22, 1885: 4.

“Pitcher Pyle’s Wife Wants a Divorce,” Lancaster Examiner, June 10, 1885: 2.

“General Information Condensed,” Lilitz Express, October 9, 1885: 1.

“The Diamond Field,” Richmond Dispatch, May 30, 1885: 1.

“Game Given the Virginias,” Richmond Dispatch, September 19, 1885: 1.

“Base-Ball Matters,”Richmond Dispatch, September 22, 1885: 1.

“Two of the New Men,” Darlington (WI) Republican, November 19, 1886: 4.

“Desperate Fight in a Saloon,” Pittston Evening Gazette, December 22, 1885: 1.

“In the Mayor’s Court,” Reading Times, February 15, 1886: 1.

“In Town,” Lancaster Daily Intelligencer, November 5, 1886: 1.

“Base-Ball Notes,” Reading Times, April 18, 1887: 1.

“Slugging By Sluggers,” Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1887: 3.

“Harry Pyle Goes to Jersey City,” Lancaster Examiner, February 22, 1888: 6.

“Open-Air Pastimes,” Reading Times, August 23, 1888: 1.

“Harry Pyle With the Wilmington Club,” Reading Times, May 10, 1890: 1.

“Let It End Here,” Reading Times, Augsut 10, 1892: 1.

“It Was Very Exciting,” Reading Times, June 22, 1897: 1.

“Lancaster Boy in Philippines,” Lancaster News-Journal, December 14, 1899: 4.

“Obituary: Harry T. Pyle,” Lancaster Daily Intelligencer, December 28, 1908: 4.

“Harry T. Pyle,” Reading Times, December 28, 1908: 8.

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