Who was Harry Wolverton?
By Tamar Chalker
While I was poking around the interwebs looking for inspiration for an offseason post, I managed to stumble upon an interesting connection (at least to me) between the Yankees and my alma mater, Kenyon College. For those who don’t know, Kenyon is a small, liberal arts college in Amish country Ohio. It’s about two hours south of Cleveland and 45 minutes from Columbus. If you’ve ever known a person who went to Kenyon, you probably know how fanatical we can be about our alma mater. Seriously, I graduated almost 20 years ago and am struggling not to go on and on about how great it is.
Kenyon is primarily known for producing Paul Newman, Allison Janney, Bill Watterson (the creator of Calvin and Hobbes) and that guy from How I Met Your Mother, oh, and forgettable President Rutherford B. Hayes. It’s a Division III school, so for the most part Kenyon student-athletes’ playing careers end after college. The main exception is swimming, where Kenyon has dominated for decades and produced some Olympic athletes. So, I was surprised to find out that Kenyon actually had a baseball player who made it to the majors and even had a connection to the Yankees. Less surprising was that he played over 100 years ago.
Harry “Fightin’ Harry” Wolverton was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio to Amanda and John the Baptist Wolverton. Personally, I want to know if people actually called him John the Baptist on the daily. The young Wolverton caught the baseball bug early and spent a lot of his youth playing sandlot games. He went on to play football and baseball at Kenyon, where he starred in both and was often praised in the Kenyon Collegian, the paper I wrote for during my college days.
Unfortunately, Wolverton left Kenyon before graduating because college age kids have always done stupid things. In this case, Wolverton and some others decided that a particular freshman needed to leave. When the student wouldn’t go willingly, the others did the only logical thing – they built a small improvised bomb out of twine, piping, and gunpowder. The bomb worked – a little too well – and destroyed the target’s room and damaged the dormitory. Luckily, no one was injured. Wolverton knew he was facing expulsion, so he withdrew and decided it was time to start his professional baseball career.
After a summer playing for a semi-pro Paulding, Ohio team, Wolverton was signed by the Columbus Senators of the Western League. Wolverton preferred playing infield, but was signed as a pitcher. He struggled as a pitcher, eventually being relegated to a relief pitcher, but he hit .385. He made his major league debut a couple of years later on September 25, 1898 with the Chicago Orphans (Cubs). In 1899 he was named the starting third baseman and hit third in the lineup.
Wolverton’s career was marred with injuries, but he tended to put up good numbers when he was healthy. He played a total of nine seasons in the majors, with his final season coming with the New York Highlanders (Yankees) in 1912, after he had spent a few years managing in the minor leagues. This would be the only year he would manage a Major League team. He put himself into the games on occasion, making 56 appearances at bat and having a .300 average.
1912 was a pivotal year for the New York club, although it was not particularly successful. The Highlanders were supposed to change names to the Yankees, but Wolverton liked Highlanders better. It was also the year they first donned pinstripes, which Wolverton liked to pair with a sombrero. Unfortunately, despite Wolverton’s success as a manager in the minor leagues, New York had a dismal year, going 50-102 and finishing in last place. Always the optimist, Wolverton was poised to return the next season, promising they would win the pennant, but the front office had other ideas and so ended his short stint as a major league manager.
Wolverton returned to managing in the minor leagues, particularly in the Pacific Coast League. By 1931, however, Wolverton had left baseball behind and became an officer with the Oakland police department. During his baseball career, Wolverton was often injured, but was also the type of player to get back out on the field again as quickly as possible. This mentality may have lead to his ultimate demise, unfortunately.
On February 4, 1937, Wolverton was on patrol when he was the victim of a hit-and-run, leaving him with a head injury. Instead of calling it a night, Wolverton had his head bandaged and got back out on patrol. For the second time that night, Wolverton was hit by a car and died on the street at the age of 63.