Updated: Jan 9
Kirke was in the lineup for Babe Ruth's first win and Cy Young's last
If they ever build a Delaware County Sports Hall of Fame, Jay Kirke will most certainly be enshrined there. After cutting his teeth playing on his hometown Mountain Athletic Club in the early 1900's, Kirke amassed a .315 career average and 3,511 hits over a 23-year run in the minor and major leagues.
Judson Fabian Kirke was born June 16, 1888 in Allaben, NY (present day Town of Shandaken) and grew up in Griffin Corners. He was just seven years young when Julius Fleischmann built his field of dreams on Wagner Avenue. Kirke likely found his sweet stroke on the M.A.C. Grounds while playing for the Fleischmanns private ballclub as a teenager. While doing research for the M.A.C. Grounds listing on the State and National Historic Registry in 2020, it occurred to me that Kirke is possibly shown here in his M.A.C. pea coat made of the finest broadcloth and pearl buttons in a team photo on display at the Fleischmanns Museum of Memories. If this is in fact the young slugger Kirke, the photo would be from sometime between 1903 and 1906.
In my research on the Club, I had never heard of Kirke until I spoke with Flesichmanns resident, Terry Pultz, son of the late Charley Pultz who everyone used to call "Junior." Junior was, like myself, a baseball junkie. Terry shared with me that his Dad was the brains behind the modest baseball display at the Fleischmanns Museum of Memories that has kept the story of the M.A.C. going all these years. Terry also relayed to me that we have Junior and Terry's Uncle to thank for erecting the lights at the ballfield in Fleischmanns Park back in the 1960's when his Uncle worked for the telephone company. Those lights - taken out in the cleanup after Hurricane Irene - enabled me and many other vintage ball players from the Roxbury Nine and Bovina Dairymen to play a 24 hour marathon of consecutive baseball in May of 2011 that raised over $7,000 for the accessible playground that exists there today. How Kirke's name never came up before now is puzzling, but I guess it explains why, as the Babe points out in that famous dream sequence from The Sandlot: "heroes get remembered, but legends never die."
Kirke came up as a shortstop with a big bat and a rifle arm, perhaps spending time with the M.A.C. while in his teens and toward the tail end of the team's hey-day in Fleischmanns. From here, he stepped up to Class C level playing for Kingston and Poughkeepsie in the Hudson River League. He signed with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics Class B minor-league club in 1907 and was farmed out to Wilmington, Delaware where he hit .220 in 23 games. The following three seasons he bounced around the Class B New York State League playing primarily second base for the Binghamton Bingos, Elmira Colonels and Wilkes-Barre Barons ultimately signing with the Detroit Tigers' farm team, the Scranton Miners in 1910.
Kirke clubbed 182 hits for the Miners, including two doubles and a home run off of Grover Cleveland Alexander (HOF, 1938) in Syracuse, and finished third in the New York State League with a .336 average. He was called up to Detroit where he made his major-league debut playing second base for the Tigers on September 28, 1910. But major-league skippers, especially back then, don't often pull their punches; Tigers' skipper Hughie Jennings (HOF, 1945) said, “As soon as the boy gets some brains, he will make good, for he certainly knows how to hit the ball,” but he “may never be a finished fielder as he hasn’t a very good pair of hands.” Kirke played in eight games with the Club that Fall but was sold off to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association the following Spring.
Despite only a .923 fielding percentage in 1911 - the lowest of all second basemen in the Southern Association - Kirke was again among the league leaders with a .308 batting average and the Pelicans won the league pennant. This captured him another call up spot to the bigs, this time with the Boston Rustlers of the National League where he hit .360 over 20 games in September of 1911. In the most notable of those games, Kirke doubled and scored the only run in a 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates behind shut-out pitching and the 511th and final victory of Cy Young (HOF, 1937) - the winningest pitcher in baseball history. He stayed in Beantown for the 1912 campaign with the Boston Braves where he hit .320 and was moved to left field where he had 22 assists in 72 games but continued to struggle...his fielding percentage a paltry .903. A tobacco card was produced in 1912 displaying a young Kirke with bat in hand and stating on the cardback, his batting 1911 average "was nearly thirty points higher than that of (Honus) Wagner, the real batting leader."
The following Spring, Kirke was picked up on waivers by the Cleveland Naps (Indians) of the American League where he was assigned to the Toledo Mud Hens, once again dominating minor-league pitching enough to get a call up to the majors in early July of 1914 where he did well. On July 11, 1914 in front of 11,087 fans at Fenway Park, Kirke got two hits off of the new Red Sox hurler, Babe Ruth (HOF, 1936) who was making his major-league debut that afternoon. But Kirke's fielding woes continued and his throwing error led to a go-ahead run in the seventh, giving the Sox a 4-3 win and the first major league victory for the Babe.
Other notable Hall of Fame pitchers were faced and bested by Kirke. In 1915, during the last of a three-game set with the Washington Senators, he went 3 for 4 off Walter Johnson (HOF, 1936). Kirke's final major-league appearance came with the New York Giants in 1918, but he went on to be a perennial star of the American Association. In 1921 with the Louisville Colonels, he had a breakout season hitting .382 and setting league records with 282 hits and 422 total bases. The Colonels won the Little World Series over the Baltimore Orioles and Kirke hit .369 in the series belting a Game Six home run off future Hall-of-Famer, Lefty Grove (HOF, 1947).
Kirke would continue playing semi-professionally, breaking bones and losing teeth, but still managing to slug the ball during seasons with the Indianapolis Indians, Minneapolis Millers, and Decatur Commodores - where his son, Judson Jr, was a batboy.
Following his retirement at the end of the 1927 season at age 39, Kirke returned to Margaretville, NY where he managed and played first base on a team with his son Judson Jr. According to my interviews with Terry Pultz about Kirke and other good ballplayers from the area, Terry recalled his father telling the story of Jay Kirke's bat flying through the air and killing Terry's second cousin, 23 year-old Chester "Chessie" Krom who was lying in the grass watching the game. On June 26, 1931, the Catskill Mountain News reported that the fatality occurred in Shandaken on June 7th, but did not specify who's bat it was that struck Chessie in the head. From the many reports of how hard Kirke could hit a ball coupled with his inability to lay off pitches well out of the strike zone, it's not too far-fetched to think a bat would find flight from time to time in the presence of Kirke at the plate.
Of all the things I learned about from reading Stephen V. Rice's SABR biography on Jay Kirke, the most decorated ballist from the Catskills, it was some of his quotes I found to be most amusing. Sounds to me like a man who cut his teeth in the Catskills...
A reporter once questioned: "Jay, what's your strategy at the plate?"