Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chicken Wolf: Wait for it...

1889 was a promising year that turned wretched for many people. A naval battle between Germany and the U.S. was won by a cyclone. Vincent Van Gogh painted "Starry Night," but no one cared much. Henrietta Hitler gave birth to a poorly mustached baby named Adolf. The state of Montana was added to the union and, within minutes, residents formed at least 43 militias.

And in Louisville, the Colonels of baseball's American Association played one of the worst seasons in baseball, finishing with 27 wins and 111 losses. Responsible for approximately half of those outcomes was one of four player-managers, William "Chicken" Wolf1. Chicken played right field and was, however, one of the few bright spots as a player that season, batting .291/.333/.377.

Wolf, the youngest of seven children born to German immigrants, had grown up in Louisville and earned a roster spot with the hometown club in 1882. He mostly played the outfield and was an above-average hitter his entire career. In 1890, Chicken led a resurgent Colonels club to the American Association title by hitting .363/.421/.479.

William Wolf went by several nom de plumes2, including "Jimmie," though he earned the nickname Chicken because of his severe, irrational fear of poultry.

Like a typical baseballist of the era, Wolf managed his fear through doctor recommendations. As such, he was frequently heard to utter phrases interpreted as descriptions of hallucinations. Chicken never described any pink elephants, but teammate Skyrocket Smith wrote in his memoirs that Wolf often conversed with a flying canine in the dugout.

Wolf played in the last World Series between the National League and the American Association in his monstrous season of 1890. In the series, Chicken employed his then-famous tactic of hitting the baseball where opposing players weren't3, batting .389 and driving in 8 runs. Like all great postseason series, the 1890 classic ended in a tie. Wolf was unable to enjoy his postseason fruits of victory, which were, in fact, not fruit but rather whole chickens.

Wolf's career essentially ended with the collapse of the American Association after the 1891 season. He attempted to play for the St. Louis Browns of the national league in 1892, but he only played 3 games before being sent to the gulags.

On Easter Sunday in 1903, Wolf finally conquered his fear of poultry by vanquishing an entire 34-lb. turkey in one sitting. Unfortunately, the bird had been improperly cooked and Wolf contracted salmonella poisoning, thereby justifying his lifelong fear of delicious, delicious poultry. The turkey was his undoing, as he died in May of that year at the age of 41.

The coroner delighted in the ironic humor of the situation while writing Wolf's death certificate:

"Cause of death: Foul fowl."

Read Chicken Wolf's actual story here.

1 You can listen to a biographical account of Wolf's life here. You can also go here to learn the intricacies of the bass guitar and how it relates to 19th Century baseball. The host alleges it is "a lot of fun."

2 Nom de Plume is, of course, Swahili for "opening of Purgatory."

3 This philosophy was summed up best by baseball Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler when he said, "Strike the ball into the location that opposing baseballists do not occupy."

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