Tom Barlow: Baseball's Unfortunate First Drug Casualty

Cliff Eastham@RedsToTheBoneSenior Writer IISeptember 19, 2009

In today’s technology-fueled society, if a professional athlete is caught up in a scandal, or meets an untimely demise, we are made aware of it instantly (or so it seems). Obviously that has not always been the case.

Former baseball player and MVP winner Ken Caminiti died of an apparent drug overdose in 2004 and it was big news. Unfortunately, every instance in which a celebrity does something untoward, it makes national news, sometimes for days or weeks.

Very little is known about Tom Barlow. If you have even heard of him at all, it is probably related to the fact that he is commonly attributed to as the inventor of the “bunt.”

So little is known of him in fact that I cannot ascertain what his middle name was. The initial “H” is the only mention I can find for a middle name. The actual date of his birth is seemingly unknown, and he is only to be known as born in New York in 1852.

Being raised in Brooklyn, Tommy did not have the most affluent lifestyle. He, as so many other children like him, honed his skills as a baseball player on the streets and vacant lots.

In 1872, Tommy began his professional career in the National Association, the first American professional baseball league. He was with the Brooklyn Atlantics.

Barlow was a catcher and shortstop for the fledgling team. After playing just two seasons with the Atlantics, he had his fill of losing and signed with the newly formed Hartford Dark Blues.

Barlow was not known for his power, but his ability to get on base with line drives and grounders. The “bunt” as it has become to be known, was employed first by young Barlow. It had no fan appeal whatsoever and was referred to as “Barlow’s dodo.”

Tommy was known primarily for his defensive prowess and the team had plans of moving him to shortstop so he could anchor their infield and display his superior ability.

Young Barlow never received the opportunity to excel at shortstop. His career was destined to end before he had a chance to really prove himself.

Baseball history is splattered with players who have had their careers ended abruptly due to the use and misuse of alcohol. Barlow, however is the first known career to be ended due to drugs.

His story is even capsulised in Ken Burns documentary “Baseball.” Barlow tells of his life-ending spiral at the hands of the dangerous drug, morphine in this letter which is read in the documentary:

“It was on the 10th of August, 1874, that there was a match game of baseball in Chicago between the White Stockings of that city and the Hartfords of Hartford, now of Brooklyn.

I was catcher for the Hartfords, and Fisher was pitching. He is a lightning pitcher, and very few could catch for him. On that occasion he delivered as wicked a ball as ever left his hands, and it went through my grasp like an express train, striking me with full force in the side.

I fell insensible to the ground, but was quickly picked up, placed in a carriage, and driven to my hotel. The doctor who attended me gave a hypodermic injection of morphine, but I had rather died behind the bat then [sic] have had that first dose.

My injury was only temporary, but from taking prescriptions of morphine during my illness, the habit grew on me, and I am now powerless in its grasp. My morphine pleasure has cost me eight dollars a day, at least.

I was once catcher for the Mutuals, also for the Atlantics, but no one would think it to look at me now.”

 

That letter also appeared in the Boston Times on Sept. 16, 1877.

What a sad story of a promising career, and life, ended prematurely by a drug which was introduced to him legally.

The “Fisher” to whom Barlow was referring was Cherokee Fisher, a hard throwing right hander who was better known for his drinking than his ball playing.

Although Barlow was listed on the roster as a shortstop, he was the only one who could catch Fisher effectively.

What a shame, for a man to play his last game at age 22. Any person with a milligram of compassion would be compelled to lament with me about a deed so tragic.

Was Tommy Barlow a great player? No. He hadn’t even hit his prime yet at that tender age. We will never know how good he could have become, thanks to the drug named for the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus.

Morphine was and still is one of the most addictive of all medications. Once a person uses Morphine to combat pain for an extended period of time, it becomes addictive. Over time, it requires a higher dosage in order to achieve the same euphoric feeling.

Instead of viewing Tom Barlow as a great pioneer of baseball and one of the founding fathers, we do not know when he was born, what he did after baseball, or where or when he died.

Sources:  Wikipedia

               Baseball-Reference

               "The Curious Case of Tommy Barlow" by David Arcidiacono


Cliff Eastham is a BR Featured Columnist for the Cincinnati Reds.

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