The sporting career of Walter “Mother” Watson

When writing these articles, I typically have a topic or a person in mind, and then when I begin to write it, typically history takes me elsewhere. I have been compiling information on Marcus Bosworth for some time now, but I still don’t feel that I have enough information on him to do a full article justice. In my search for more information on Bosworth, I came across a great deal of information on Randall Stivers, a prominent Meigs County citizen and pioneer. The connection of both Bosworth and Stivers is to Pomeroy Masonic Lodge. After talking to Don Stivers, who is one of Meigs County’s prominent Freemasons about Randall Stivers, our conversations eventually turned to Walter “Mother” Watson, a baseball player from Middleport. Watson only pitched a total of 14 innings for the Cincinnati Reds, and he is known as one of baseballs’ most obscure players.

Walter Watson was born in Middleport on January 27, 1865 and is the youngest of 11 children born to Elisha Watson, a riverboat engineer, and Martha Jane (Cotsman) Watson. Elisha Watson apparently had a decent income from working on the river; his fortune allowed several of his and Martha Jane’s children to obtain an education beyond 8th grade, which was uncommon in the late 19th century. The 1880 census shows Walter as a 15 year old boy living at home with his parents in Middleport. According to the March 21, 1888 edition of Sporting Life, “[N]othing is known of his early life except that when it came time for Walter to enter the workforce, he did not follow his father and older brothers onto the river. Rather, his first known employer was a nail manufacturing plant.” A February 9,1887 edition of Sporting Life states, “[As a teenager, Watson] developed a local reputation as a pitcher, a positional choice perhaps dictated by the fact that he was ‘not strong in base running or batting.'” Another source says Watson, at 5’9″ and 145 pounds, threw a “baffling assortment of breaking pitches and [had] cool-headedness in tight spots,” rather than throwing hard.

In 1886 Watson pitched a 17strikeout-no hitter for the Zanesville Kickapoos against the Columbus Browns. The Zanesville Signal originally called to Watson as “Sissy Watson,” but eventually referred to him as “Mother Watson,” who also became known as “The Zanesville Phenomenon.” Several theories come in to play as to where he got the nickname Mother. One is that ‘mother’ was a nickname given to those who didn’t indulge in smoking, drinking, gambling, swearing or fighting. Several reports on Watson’s character speak of him as a temperate young man who avoided ungentlemanly conduct. Ironically, he would eventually be shot in a saloon and die from it.

Another theory as to where the ‘mother’ nickname came from is players saying Watson needed his mother with him at all times. Regardless, the name arose while playing baseball and not in Middleport. Friends in Meigs County often referred to him as “Wal [wall] Watson the ballplayer.” Maternal nicknames weren’t uncommon in baseball though; the Cincinnati Reds had a catcher named Phil Powers who earned the nickname Grandmother.

After picking up 52 wins out of 58 starts against semi-professional clubs, Watson went on to pitch in two exhibition games against the American Association championship team, The St. Louis Browns, where Watson only gave up 4 runs in each game. After these games, Mother Watson went on to sign contracts with the AA Cincinnati Reds (AA meaning American Association) and The Syracuse (New York) Stars of the minor International League. Signing two contracts eventually lead to a dispute and Cincinnati won Watson’s contract.

While well known in Zanesville, “Mother” Watson had to be auditioned to the Reds after signing in 1886. That year, the Reds finished with a record of 65-73 and were ranked 5th in the American Association standings. His audition received somewhat mixed reviews from various Cincinnati press. According to the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, “He is beyond a doubt a good pitcher, but it remains to be seen how….I’m afraid he won’t last long.” The Cincinnati Enquirer reported, “The people in Zanesville are wondering what Cincinnatians think of ‘Mother’ Watson’s personal appearance. He is not a dude [the term dude in the 1880s is someone who dressed in an extremely fashionable manner, AKA a dandy] but he can twirl a ball to perfection.” Nonetheless, Watson must have impressed Reds’ management with his audition. Walter L. “Mother” Watson made the roster for the Cincinnati Reds for the 1887 season.

On May 19, 1887, pitcher Tony Mullane threw a “hissy fit,” and refused to accept the ball to pitch for the Reds against the Brooklyn Grays. After Mullane was “suspended on the spot” and already 25 games into the season, “Mother” Watson took the mound as an emergency replacement for the Reds. He lasted 5 innings for the Reds before his arm gave out and he was relieved with “Pop” Corkhill. As he exited his first game, Cincinnati led with a score of 9-6. The Cincinnati Post said, “Watson gave up six runs on six base hits, walked four, struck out none, and threw three wild pitches.” Watson’s relief pitcher blew the lead, but eventually Cincinnati rallied to win the game with a score of 14-10. Watson did not get credited for the victory.

His second and final appearance with the Reds took place 8 days later as the starting pitcher. “[T]he Zanesville phenom Watson pitched a fair game [against the Philadelphia Athletics] but was miserably supported by [catcher Kid] Baldwin.” The Reds lost 9-5, as Watson gave up 16 base hits. The next day, the Reds announced they had signed right-hander Bill Widmer. Watson was released shortly thereafter. Watson left the major leagues with a record of 0-1 with a 5.79 ERA (earned run average) in 14 innings pitched. 22 base hits, 6 walks and 1 strikeout. It is assumed that for the rest of 1887, “Mother” Watson returned to Middleport. In January of 1888, Watson returned to the Zanesville Kickapoos, now in the Tri-State League. This would be his last year in organized baseball, so it would’ve been very likely that he wore something like these sliding safety shorts for baseball to ensure he had the best game of his life before hanging up his gloves. His final record for the Zanesville Kickapoos that year was 12-13.

After his year with Zanesville, he returned to Middleport and took on a private life and lived the remainder of his years with his parents and various siblings in Middleport, never marrying. He did become a member of the Middleport Volunteer Fire Department and pitched for various independent teams in the area, predominantly the “Mason Citys” team.

Election Day, November 7, 1898, “Mother” Watson finds himself in Gardner’s saloon in Pomeroy after the polls closed. He encountered Louis Schreiner, a 32 year old Middleport post office clerk, and the two men began arguing about politics. Apparently a few days before this, the two had engaged in a “slight altercation.” Around 1 a.m., a gunfight broke out between the two and Schreiner fired three shots at Watson, with Watson returning two rounds at Schreiner and missing. Watson tried to make his escape after being shot mid-torso but ended up collapsing on the saloon floor. Watson was taken home to Middleport and given little chance of recovery.

10 days later, 33 year old Walter “Mother” Watson died from gunshot wounds through the liver and kidney. Schreiner eventually fled to Columbus, Kansas, according to the 1900 census. The Middleport Republican Herald described Watson as someone with “a kind disposition and [he] numbered his friends by the score.” Funeral services were conducted by Rev. Brainard of the Middleport Christian Church and Rev. Williams of the Methodist-Episcopal Church. Watson is buried at Middleport Hill Cemetery.

As the old Ohio flows…