Facts sure can ruin a good story.
The Internet regularly turns rumors, half-truths, and not-true-at-alls into “factishness” in a snap. One person sees something stupid online, believes it, and a thousand forwards later Jon Bon Jovi is dead and NASA is warning of a massive power failure due to solar flares. (He’s not and they didn’t. Stop sending me this crap.)
Which brings us to the “fact-ish” story of Lewis P. Dickerson, 19th-century baseball player. Known to baseball geeks as “Buttercup.”
I just wanted to write about a guy called “Buttercup.”
He was from Maryland, kicked around in baseball for a handful of seasons, led the National League in triples in 1879, and once went 6-for-6 in a game.
Which is all true. But, then this happened …
In 1979, Dickerson was inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame for this: “Lewis Pessano, better known as Buttercup Dickerson, was the first Italian American to play in the major leagues.”
And, that became Buttercup’s legacy. Except …
He wasn’t Lewis Pessano. And, he is probably not Italian American. I’m not sure why the Chicago-based Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame ever thought he was.
Dickerson was “better known” as Dickerson, because Dickerson was his name.
His middle name was Pessano, but he was always a Dickerson. And, so was his father.
In the book Sport and the Shaping of the Italian American Identity (2013), Gerald Gems says that the Anglicization of “Pessano’s” name was significant because it showed how athletes had to “obscure and cast doubt upon any Italian identity.”
The implication that “Lewis Pessano” was so traumatized by ethnic bigotry that he was forced to change his name to avoid the stigma of being a low-class Italian just isn’t true.
Take a look at these facts, culled from U.S. census and Maryland records.
Dickerson was born Lewis P. Dickerson in 1858 in Tyaskin, Maryland.
His father was William P. Dickerson, an illiterate oysterman. (The elder Dickerson is listed at one point as William Porter Dickerson and is always listed as being born in Maryland.) William can be traced back to the 1840s on Maryland records. Lewis’s mother is Mary P. (Larmore) Dickerson, also born in Maryland. Both parents are buried in St. Mary’s Episcopal Cemetery in Tyaskin.
In 2001, historian Charles Weaver spoke to one of Buttercup Dickerson’s granddaughters who told him that both William and Mary were of English (or, perhaps, Scottish) descent. The granddaughter also told Weaver that the middle name Pessano was given in gratitude to the attending physician at Lewis’ birth, a common tradition at the time. (This conversation is mentioned briefly in a footnote in Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball, by Lawrence Baldassaro, 2011.)
Buttercup Dickerson wasn’t the first Italian American baseball player, because he wasn’t Italian American.
But, he was a baseball player.
“L.P. Dickerson” joined the Cincinnati Reds as an outfielder in July 1878. He batted .309 in 29 games that season. In 1879, his 14 triples for Cinci over 81 games led the league.
(Dee Gordon’s 12 triples for the Dodgers over 162 games led the league in 2014, although comparing 1879 to 2014 isn’t quite fair since so many things were so very different then.)
And, he was Buttercup.
In 1879, the Cincinnati Daily Star reports in passing that Dickerson is now being called “Sweet Little Buttercup.”
(“Sweet Little Buttercup” was an amply-sized female character in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. It debuted in the United States in 1879 and was a pretty big deal.)
That’s it. That’s the first and last direct reference to Dickerson being called Buttercup that I can find.
News reports are spotty, but in most cases he’s called Lew, occasionally Lou, and most often, just Dickerson.
Never Pessano. And, never again Buttercup.
Dickerson kicks around from team to team – Binghamton, Cincinnati, Troy, Worcester, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Baltimore, Louisville, Buffalo, Norfolk, Chattanooga – playing mostly in the outfield and getting suspended at least a couple times for carousing and being a drunk.
There’s plenty of mentions of Dickerson’s drinking. And, to be singled out for being a “lush” at a time when hard-drinking and hard-living was the common ballplayer trait is pretty telling.
“[T]he immortal and ever thirsty Lew Dickerson” ~ Buffalo Courier 8/26/1884
“Lew Dickerson has been suspended from Chattanooga for lushing.” ~ The Sporting News 5/31/1886
“One day Ben told Billy Taylor then of the [Pittsburgh] Alleghenys that Lou Dickerson was sick. … Said Billy, ‘Has he got delirium tremens?’ ‘Oh no. He is never sober enough for that.’” ~ The Sporting News 10/4/1886
“Lew Dickerson still exists. It is a cold day when he gets left, as he knows the ingredient to keep him warm.” ~ National Police Gazette 5/7/1887
“I was hoping some great temperance agitator would bring Lew Dickerson along and show him up as a terrible example. I guess Lew is done for, but his many escapades in the past will live for some years to come.” The writer tells of a player named Brown’s efforts to reform Lew, who agrees to stop drinking. “‘When will the good work begin?’ [Brown asks.] ‘When the breweries stop running,’ was Dickerson’s reply and ever after that Mr. Brown had no earthly use for Dickerson.” ~ The Sporting Life, 11/1891
Buttercup wasn’t all that reliable either. He was playing for the St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association in 1884 when this happened …
“During the St. Louis Unions eastern trip, Lew Dickerson disappeared at Baltimore, and has not been heard from since. Meeting many old friends, he yielded to his inclination for strong drink and fell by the wayside.” ~ St. Louis Globe Democrat 7/25/1884
He reappears two days later. Playing for Baltimore.
“Dickerson played with the Baltimores yesterday at right field. He will be expelled by the Unions for drunkenness. Several days ago [St. Louis Team] President Lucas announced that he was only waiting to locate him before expelling him. He says there is now not a lusher on his nine and he will never have another.” ~ St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 7/27/1884
In April 1885, he signs with the Omaha Omahogs of the new Western League, pockets a $100 advance, and then quickly skips town to join the National League’s Buffalo Bison.
Dickerson’s recorded stats dwindle after 1885, but I’m pretty sure he played a good bit longer.
Through 1891, he is regularly listed as a “ballplayer” in the annual Baltimore City Directory.
By the mid-1890s, he is reported to be a “salesman” and, in 1896, a “huckster,” which made me smile until I realized that back then a huckster was simply a door-to-door or street salesman.
In 1898, he is again listed as “ballplayer.” So, he continued to make some living at baseball far longer than the records show.
There you have it.
Things are never quite as simple as they seem. And, often the real story isn’t nearly as nice as the one we’ve come to know.
Buttercup Dickerson was probably not the first Italian-American ballplayer. And, “Buttercup” was likely a fleeting nickname.
But, we do know this. Dickerson was a heavy drinker, broke contracts and jumped teams, and didn’t seem like a particularly nice fella. He had a couple awfully good seasons playing baseball, and plenty more mediocre ones.
He married, had a son, and died in 1920.
He was inducted into the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 as the first big leaguer to come from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Well, that much is true.
Postscript: Wait, don’t go yet … here’s a Buttercup song …
And, really, you thought I wouldn’t include a link to this?
(U.S. Census and Maryland records: Ancestry.com)