Thursday, September 6, 2012

Latrobe's Ed "Batty" Abbaticchio

Edward James Abbaticchio was born on April 15th, 1877, in Latrobe, one of eight children. But his story started in ol' Napoli, where his parents Archangelo and Mary Abbaticchio had emigrated from Italy. Though he and Mary couldn't speak English when they came down the gangplank, Archangelo started a barber shop, expanding it into a chain. He put that income into a hotel, and eventually owned some three dozen apartment houses and some mining property.

So Ed wasn't a street urchin that learned sports the coal miner way. In fact, he earned a degree from St. Vincents and got a Masters in Accounting from St. Mary’s College (now known as Belmont Abbey College), pretty heady stuff for the son of immigrants in the late 1800s.

But Batty chose a common enough route to Americanization and acceptance by playing ball with the other guys. At age 18, the 5’11” 170 pounder joined the Latrobe Volunteer Fireman football team, recognized in some quarters as the first pro football club. During the fall from 1895-1900 he played fullback and kicked for Latrobe for $50 per game.

Abby used his brains then, too. Pioneer coach Fielding Yost, who was at Ohio Wesleyan at the time, said Batty invented the spiral punt, spinning a ball downfield further than the old rugby kicks.

Ed also dabbled in baseball, playing semi-pro for Greensburg in 1897 when he was 20. An infielder by trade, Abby was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies, making his major league debut at second base on September 4th. His season ended two days later when he broke his right hand sliding into Chief Zimmer at home plate. And you thought football was tough? But that does give Abbaticchio solid ground to be considered the first athlete to play pro football and baseball.

He was invited to spring training, rejoining the club in 1898 for another 25 games, mostly at third base. He quickly was given a handful of nicknames to help the Italian-challenged fans get by all the vowels, like “At Bat,” “Abby” and “Batty.” But with a .228 BA, he wasn't given another chance to dance with the Phils.

In 1899, he jumped to the Western League, also known as the "Beer and Whiskey" League, and played second base for Minneapolis Millers. The next season, Abby started with Minneapolis again, but then transferred to Connie Mack’s club in Milwaukee, the Brewers (everything old is new again, right?) It wasn't much of a step down. The Western League regularly raided the NL for players and eventually morphed into the American League.

At the end of the year, an old Phillies teammate, Newt Fisher, became one of the founders of the Southern Association. Fisher was the manager and catcher for Nashville, and remembered his old bud Abbaticchio, who he brought in to play middle infield.

Abbey batted .363 in 1901 and .352 the following season for Nashville. He led the league with 127 runs scored in 1901, and a year later was the SA leader with 18 triples and 61 stolen bases. And talk about a good run: he met his future wife there, Annie Connor. In early 1902 he settled in, coaching the Nashville University nine in between games.

The NL Beaneaters bought Abbey from Nashville, and he was a three year regular in Boston, first at 2B and the final two seasons as a SS (where he handled over 1,800 chances and also committed 153 errors). His average improved every season, from .227 to .254 to .279, and he swiped 77 bags to go along with some great defense.

But after the 1905 season, just when he looked like he might on the way to stardom, Abby announced his retirement. He was trying to buy his dad's Latrobe hotel, but the LCB wanted him to dedicate his time exclusively to managing the business, which meant no more baseball. So he sat out 1906. Several teams had expressed interest in him, and the New York Giants spent the summer unsuccessfully camped out in Latrobe trying to talk him back into the game.

Abbaticchio had a brainstorm; he asked Boston to trade him to Pittsburgh, where he could keep an eye on his shop and maybe make the LCB happy, too. So they did. The Beaneaters sent him to the Steel City on December 11, 1906 for CF Ginger Beaumont, IF Claude Ritchey and P/OF Patsy Flaherty. The Pirates then signed Abbey for $5,000 a year, more than his double play partner Honus Wagner was making.

With The Flying Dutchman on the roster, Batty went back to second base for the Pirates. In 1907, he hit .262 with a .357 OBP and his 82 RBI ranked second in the NL to go along with 35 swiped sacks.

At spring training in Arizona in 1908, Batty found out that the LCB didn't renew his license; they were irked that he was playing ball instead greeting guests. He flew home immediately to deal with the state bureaucrats. At first, there was some feeling that he would retire. But Abby had a Plan B up his sleeve; he transferred the license to his dad's name, and everyone was happy.

1908 was a solid season for Abby as he hit .250 with 61 RBI. It was also an exciting year for Pirate baseball, battling the Cubs and Giants in a year-long battle royale for the pennant. Abbitachio's most controversial moment game during its biggest game.

On the last day of the season, the Bucs were a 1/2 game ahead and a win against Chicago at the West side grounds would pretty much guarantee them a hard fought title. But in front of 34,000, pitcher Vic Willis didn't have a great day, and Pittsburgh was down 5-2 in the ninth.

Honus Wagner led off with a single, and Abbitacchio followed with a screamer up the line. The Pirates thought it was a homer to keep their pulse beating; the ump called it a loud foul. After a dirt kicking argument, play resumed, Abby K'ed on the next pitch, and that was the season.

He finally made the series in 1909, but his best days were behind him; Abby was a bench player whose only Series at-bat ended up in a strike 'em out, throw 'em out DP. That's pretty much how the season went; he played 36 games, starting fewer than two dozen, and hit just .230

Abby didn't sign another contract until the end of February. On June 30th, 1910, the anniversary of Forbes Field's debut, the team raised the 1909 pennant. They kept Abbaticchio around for that, then sold him the next day to Boston (now the Doves). He retired after the season.

That gave the businessman in him a chance to go gung-ho. He bought the Kurtz Hotel and Cafe near the main entrance of Forbes Field, and ran it until 1914. He took care of his other interests full-time until 1932, when he retired from everything and moved to Fort Lauderdale. He died there in 1957, and was buried at home in St. Mary's cemetery in Latrobe.

Ed Abbaticchio played ball for 13-year period, with nine years and 855 games in the NL, 3+ seasons with Pittsburgh. He was part of 247 double plays and handled 4,556 chances in the field as an NL'er. He led the Southern Association in hitting twice, the NL in at-bats in 1905 with 610 and was second in RBI with 82 in 1907. Abby stole 20+ bases five times, and 30+ twice. His career BA in the NL was .254.

His close friend both on and off the field, Carnegie's Honus Wagner, is the biggest name that came from the area during baseball's early era. But Ed Abbaticchio left a pretty big footprint, too. He helped legitimize the sport as a college grad and businessman, and had a hand in easing the way for other Italian descent ballplayers that followed him a couple of decades later. Not too bad for an accountant from Latrobe, hey?

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