|The Performance and Personality of Perry Werden|
By Raymond J. Nemec
For many years I have been intrigued by the performance and personality of Perry Werden, one of the colorful major and minor league stars of the latter part of the 19th century. Of course, he has been almost forgotten by the modem generation, because little has been known about major league baseball in the 1890's, and much less about minor league ball of that period.
There were three statistics about Werden which were particularly tantalizing to me. First, he had a 12 and I won-lost pitching record in the majors-all for St. Louis of the Union Association in 1884. Then his name pops up again for St. Louis of the National League in 1893 when he was credited with hitting the outlandish total of 33 triples, the OB. record of that period; and finally we note that he hit 45 home runs for Minneapolis in the Westem League in 1895, and that, too, was the O.B. record for many years. If he didn't do anything else in his career, that would be enough to make him a prime subject for further research. Who was Perry Werden?
Werden was born in St. Louis in mid-summer 1865, the year the Civil War ended. He was named Percival Wherrit, hence the name Perry. One of his first jobs as a youngster was on a "pie wagon" delivering pastries in a St. Louis neighborhood. This pie company had a baseball team, which was of some interest to the strapping youngster. He became known as "Peach Pie Perry" because of his association with the pie company and probably also because of his appetite. This nickname stayed with him for many years.
It was while making deliveries of pies, as the story goes, that Perry stopped to watch a semipro game. One player got hurt, and Perry left the wagon and got into the contest. He hit two home runs and won the game for his team. However, in the last inning, one of the players threw the ball wildly and it struck Perry's horse. The nag ran away, smashed the wagon against a pole and spilled the pies all over the street. The crowd enjoyed the post-game snack. Perry decided to save the boss the trouble of firing him officially by not going back to the bakery.
But Perry did make a hit with the manager of the winning team, the Libertys, and he accepted a salary to play with them. That was in 1882, and he pitched and played first base for them through 1883. It wasn't long before Chris Von der Ahe of the St. Louis American Association (major league) team made an offer to Perry, but terms were not agreed upon and he instead signed with the Union Association entry in that city in 1884. St. Louis completely outclassed the rest of the league with a 94-19 record. Perry, who was only 19, couldn't help but benefit from such support and rang up a 12-1 record. However, primarily because the race was so one-sided, the fans throughout the circuit lost interest and the ill-fated third major league folded.
Werden then moved on to Lincoln and later Topeka in the Western League, Des Moines in the Northwestern League, Troy in the International Association, and Memphis and New Orleans in the Southern League. He pitched, played first base and the outfield. He was big and powerful for a player of his era, 6 foot 2 inches and weighing 210 pounds, and he hit the long ball, but this was not reflected in home runs. The game was different and the parks were different. In 1888 while with New Orleans he led the league with five home runs. He also led with 65 stolen bases, a category probably better described for that period as "advanced bases." He led the International League with a .394 bat mark in 1889.
Peach-Pie Perry played with Toledo in the A.A. (major league) in 1890. He topped the circuit with 20 triples. The next year with Baltimore he had 18, an appropriate reflection of the longball hitter of that period. The next year he moved on to St. Louis in the National League, and in 1893 he led in triples with 29 (some sources still say it was 33). How many home runs did he hit that season? Only one! It was the park and the league. The entire St. Louis club hit only 10.
The situation was completely reversed in 1894 at Minneapolis in the Western League, where Werden was to play for several years, and also where he was to make his home. The Millers' home grounds at Athletic Park were enclosed (somewhat unusual for that period) and the right and left field fences were probably no more than 250 feet away. That was the dead ball era, but it was made to order for a big guy like Werden. He hit 42 home runs that year, far more than the 31 hit by Buck Freeman at Haverhill in the New England League that same season. It was an O.B. record, but no one paid attention to those things in those days. He batted .417.
The next year at Minneapolis he averaged two hits a game and topped the league with a .428 average. He hit 45 home runs, 7 triples, and 39 doubles, and must have knocked in 200 runs. Although full averages were not published at the time, he gained some notoriety for his power displays. In one game on July 23, he hit four home runs and a single in five trips. The Millers hit a total of 219 homers that season, a team record that stood for many years. Even regular pitcher Chick Fraser hit 15 himself.
Some revisions were made to Athletic Park the next season. According to the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, these restrictions "cut off the infinite space into which Werden's home run drives used to bore long holes." Erecting a barrier to keep the balls on the field cut down Perry's home run total, but he still collected a lot of extra-base hits-42 doubles, 18 triples, and 18 homers. He batted .377. He went up to the National League in 1897 and batted .302 for Louisville. But he couldn't agree to terms in 1898 and returned to the Flour City.
The Millers were looking for another pennant with the return of their hero. However, on the day before the season began in Kansas City, Werden broke a leg in a field mishap. His knee cap was shattered and he was out the entire season. They thought his playing career was finished, but he came back in 1899.
But the Millers now played -in Nicollet Park and it was no home run paradise. Perry hit only four out of the park. He continued to bat clean-up and hit .346, but he was not in the best shape and was injured several times. He had put on some weight with the years (he was 35) and weighed about 230. Instead of "Peach Pie Perry" teammates and fans were calling him "Moose" more frequently. He was benched in the latter part of the 1899 season, but his appearance at the plate still struck terror in the hearts of opposing hurlers.
A Morning Tribune description of the August 19, 1899 game might illustrate this point as well as illustrate the type of sports writing of the period. The Millers were fighting for the Western League pennant and were tied 3-3 with Grand Rapids in the last of the ninth. Hurling for the Michigan club was Rube Waddell, the swift southpaw who was to finish the season with a 26-8 record. Werden had just returned to the lineup after being on the bench for two weeks. Waddell had fanned him the last time up, and here it was the last of the ninth.
"Dropping his cudgel in the mud (it had been raining), Perry took an extra hitch in his girdle, and then stooping down in a deliberate manner he soiled his sun-burnt hands in the wet real estate. By this time the fans had thrown away their popcorn, had stopped talking and had almost stopped breathing.
Waddell had been standing with the ball in his hand waiting for the outfielders to take their positions. And now as Captain Tebeau announced "all set," he wrapped his fingers around the little leather preparing to lace in a choice fast one.
The choice one was the last ball Waddell pitched yesterday afternoon, for as the ball started to cross the plate, there came a terrific crash, and through the noise-shattering atmosphere, Werden could be seen sauntering for the first sack. "Why don't he run," howled one fan, as he looked at the slowly traveling first sackman, and a delighted rooter who had seen the brutally pounded ball disappear over the right-field fence, sarcastically answered that that was the way Werden always ran the bases. It was a great finish to a great game."
Although he continued to play for 7 more years, so much for the performance of Perry Werden. What about his personality? From "Peach Pie to Moose," Werden was one of the most colorful players of his day. Large and imposing, he was friendly, boisterous, always in the center of the action. A sportswriter for the Morning Tribune called him a "Big Buffoon," and didn't seem to mean it in an uncomplimentary way. He could take a joke as well as dish it out. On a Labor Day doubleheader in 1894, he put on a tremendous show at the plate culminating in a grand slam homer late in the second game. The fans cheered and the game was interrupted at home plate as Perry was presented with a gold watch. Imagine his consternation when he realized the watch they were presenting to him was his own, one he had received from the Toledo fans in 1889. One of his teammates, for a lark, had taken the watch from Perry's street clothes and passed it to a park official who presented it in a straight-faced manner.
Werden had some Babe Ruth qualities, and not just as a power hitter. Playing for Des Moines in 1901, he was performing in a park that had batting restrictions. He hit one ball over the leftfield fence and got a ground-rule double, he hit another over the rightfield fence and was again stopped at second base. Finally, late in the game, he hit one way over the centerfield fence, which was the only way you could get a roundtripper. Trotting around the bases with a smile as big as "a watermelon slice," he shouted "Let's see what you can do with that one."
He had some run-ins with umpires in that rough-and-tumble era. Spiked at first base on a fielding play, he "lost his cool" when the ump didn't hold the runner responsible. It took half the Minneapolis team to hold the Moose down. Another incident was covered in one line of print: "Werden was replaced in the lineup today for making faces at the law." On June 26, 1901 Des Moines won from Kansas City by forfeit. What was the story? In the first inning a Kansas City player got a safe hit. Werden took the ball at first base and when the umpire's head was turned, pushed the runner off first and tagged him. The umpire focused just in time to see the tag and called the runner out. He refused to reconsider and the Kansas City manager called his players off the grounds. The ump forfeited the game to Des Moines. The action by Werden would be atrocious by today's standards, but was not unusual in those days when there was only one official handling the game.
Ironically, Werden later became an umpire himself. He played and managed in the Cotton States League until he was 42. He left in 1907 to umpire in the American Association. Later he became chief of umpires in the Northern League, and in the early l920s filled the same position in the Dakota League. Big in stature and personality he got the job done and was generally well liked by players and fans.
In between umpiring tours, Moose owned and operated an independent baseball team called Werden's All Stars. This was in the period 1909 to 1919. He sometimes played with this team, but it was more for show because he was around 50. Playing one game against the Negro Giants of Chicago, Werden was fanned three times by Rube Foster, the famous black pitcher. After the game a friend asked Perry if Foster had much stuff on the ball. "Oh no," replied Perry. "He hasn't got a thing. I just thought he was shooting at me with a rifle when I was up there."
He was a real showman, collecting a crowd whenever he played, managed, officiated, or just attended a game. He did a lot for baseball in what we would describe as Middle America and he was still well remembered when he died on January 9, 1934, at the age of 68. He breathed his last in Minneapolis, the site of his greating hitting exploits.