January 22, 2004

Deadball Stars Of The National League. I am a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and a member of its Deadball Era Committee. A new book containing biographies of 136 stars (a list of players and writers) from the years 1901-19 has been published (this is an early version of the cover). In addition to the bios, this beautiful book features, for each of the 8 National League teams, the most common batting order for each season, an All-Era team, stats leaders and attendance figures. It also has some of the best baseball photos I've ever seen. (An American League book will follow.) ... I contributed the lineups for the 1918 season and wrote the following bio of Phillies outfielder John Titus:

John Titus was a strong-armed outfielder who recorded more than 20 assists for seven straight seasons, but he was better known for his mustache, quiet demeanor, selectivity at the plate, and the ubiquitous toothpick in his mouth. "Titus had one of the best batting eyes I ever saw," said Phillies teammate Pete Alexander. "He would take his position at the plate with the easiest and most confident air in the world. If the ball was an inch outside of the plate, he would watch it go by and never bat an eye lash. If it was an inch inside, he wouldn’t move. He would just draw in his stomach and let the ball pass. But if you put the ball over the plate, he would whale the cover off. It used to exasperate me merely to watch him. Many a time I’ve said to myself, If I were pitching, Old Man, I’d knock that toothpick out of your mouth and maybe then you’d move over."

John Franklin Titus was born to Theodore and Agnes (Uren) Titus on February 21, 1876, in St. Clair, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. His father was a native of Easton, Pennsylvania, and his mother was born in England. As a child John lost the tip of his right index finger in an accident. Before his career in professional baseball, he worked in the coal mines and served in the army during the Spanish-American War. At age 22 John joined Company K, 8th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Infantry. The company initially reported to Camp Hastings in Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania, then moved on to Georgia and Virginia. A typhoid outbreak during the summer of 1898 forced the soldiers back to their home state, and by that time most of the fighting was over.

After Company K disbanded, Titus returned home and joined a basketball team in St. Clair whose players all decided to grow mustaches. He ended up keeping his throughout most of his baseball career, at a time when very few players sported facial hair, becoming the last major league player with a mustache until Frenchy Bordagaray came along in 1934. Titus played semipro baseball in nearby Pottsville and signed with Concord, New Hampshire, of the New England League in 1903. His stay in the minors was brief. In early June the 5'9", 165 lb. outfielder was tearing up the league with a .407 batting average when the Phillies purchased his contract for $1,700. He was actually 27 years old at the time, but newspaper accounts listed him as 24.

Titus made his major league debut on June 8, 1903, and saved a baseball used in that game for the rest of his life—even though he went hitless in four at-bats as the Phillies lost to the Pirates, 2-0. But the following afternoon he knocked home a fourth-inning run that snapped the Pittsburgh pitching staff’s string of 56 consecutive scoreless innings. Titus went on to bat .286 in 72 games that season. "They changed his style when he joined the Phillies," wrote a Pottsville sportswriter decades later. "It was the fashion in those days to choke the bat and meet the ball with a short kick instead of the long, rhythmic swing which Jack had when he played in Pottsville. His swing here was comparable to that of Joe DiMaggio, except that Titus batted and threw left-handed."

The lifetime .282 hitter improved his batting average each of the next two seasons, putting together a career year in 1905. Titus finished in the NL's Top Five in slugging percentage (.436), total bases (239), doubles (36), RBI (89), and walks (69). Perhaps his best day as a Phillie occurred on May 25, 1907. Philadelphia trailed Brooklyn, 5-0, in the first game of a doubleheader when Titus blasted a two-run triple in the sixth inning and scored on a passed ball. Two innings later he again tripled home two runs, tying the game, 5-5, and scored the eventual winning run on an error. In the second game Titus doubled, tripled, drove in three runs and scored one himself as Philadelphia won, 7-4, sweeping the twin bill.

Though he remained a solid, dependable player, appearing in at least 143 games each year in his first seven seasons, "Silent John" garnered less attention than his more volatile and outspoken teammates. Kid Gleason once said, "He doesn't even make any noise when he spits," and it's believed that he was never thrown out of a single game in his entire career. New York Giants catcher Roger Bresnahan once tried to rattle Titus by snatching the toothpick out of his mouth and grinding it into the dirt behind home plate. John flushed with anger and spewed a loud string of obscenities. The display was so out of character for the taciturn Phillie that Bresnahan actually apologized.

Eventually NL pitchers detected a pattern with Titus and his ever-present toothpick. He kept the sliver of wood in the corner of his mouth until he got the green light to swing at a pitch; then he’d shift it to the center of his mouth. After one alert pitcher noticed the subtle giveaway, word got around the league. Titus adjusted his mannerisms rather than abandon the toothpick. In another of his peculiarities, John ran with an unusual closed gait, prompting his teammates to make a play on his last name and call him "Tight Ass."

The Phillies led the NL in late-May 1911 when Titus broke his leg sliding into home plate in a game against the Cardinals. By the time he returned to the lineup, the Phils had sunk to third and the once fleet outfielder had lost much of his speed—after stealing more than 20 bases in each of the previous three seasons, he totaled only 18 in the next three years combined. On July 1, 1912, Philadelphia traded Titus to the Boston Braves. He finished the season strong, batting .325 in 96 games for Boston. Late that season rookie Rabbit Maranville, on his first day with the Braves, was feeling intimidated until he spotted the 37-year-old Titus throwing batting practice. "I said to myself, 'What is this, an old man’s league, or is somebody kidding me?'" he wrote later. "After I saw him hit, I changed my mind as he was one of the best hitters in baseball." Titus began 1913 as the Braves starting right fielder but was relegated to the bench, even though he was leading the team with a .297 batting average. The Braves ended up selling him to Kansas City of the American Association after he suffered another broken leg in July.

By the 1914 season Silent John Titus was 38 years old, though the papers now said he was 31. In late April he suffered a fractured skull and remained unconscious for several hours after former teammate Bill Burns beaned him. Titus remained out of the lineup for two months. The following summer he was hitting .263 when Kansas City released him on July 22. He decided to retire. On September 15, 1915, Titus married Ethel Stone, his 17-year-old next-door neighbor in St. Clair. Little is known about his life after baseball. John Titus died at age 66 at his home in St. Clair on January 7, 1943. His wife and his brother, Harry, survived him. Local obituaries don't mention any children. Titus was buried with full military honors at a funeral attended by many local veterans of the Spanish-American War.

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