The Short Life & Tragic Death of Walter “Mother” Watson

I wish I had a photo of Walter “Mother” Watson of the Cincinnati Red Stockings to show you, it being “Mother’s Day” weekend and all.

I know he was a pitcher. A three-game cup-of-coffee guy. But, righty? Lefty? No clue.

Over two games, just 14 innings, in May of 1887, the Red Stockings put Mother Watson on the mound.

Watson gave up 18 runs in those two games though, to his credit, only 9 of them were earned.

He played just one more game for the Reds, when they stuck him out in left field.

He got one hit – a single – over eight at-bats in those three games, and had three fielding chances, two of which ended in errors.

His big league career lasted barely a week – starting on May 19 and ending May 27.

He came up through Zanesville, Ohio with a minor league team called the Kickapoos (that was renamed the Tom, Dick, and Harry team after a local tobacco) and he ended up back there after his week with the Reds was done. (The Zanesville paper insisted that Watson’s rough start in Cincinnati was due to a sore arm that had plagued him all spring.)

Things might not have worked out with the Reds, but he was a hero in Zanesville for pitching their minor league team to one victory (or maybe even two) over the big league champion St. Louis Browns in 1886.

One fan remembered Watson for his deliberate pitching and his slow breaking curve.

He plays in Zanesville for another season or so and then shows up a couple times umpiring some local games, and then he just disappears.

He reappears in the local news in 1898, when he is shot and killed in an Election Day saloon brawl in a little town in Ohio (either Middleport or Pomeroy, depending on whose account you read). Watson was 33.

Zanesville Times-Recorder, 11/14/1898

So you see, elections were contentious and crazy back then, too.

I snooped around and couldn’t find anything more on Mother Watson’s death except to say that there were plenty of barroom brawls and shootings in Ohio in November 1898, and one of them killed Mother Watson.

So, why was Walter Watson called “Mother”?

In a 1987 story about player nicknames, The New York Times posited that he was a “virtuous” man.

But, “Mother Watson” was also a character in Horatio Alger’s hugely popular Ragged Dick books from back in that era. Alger’s Mother Watson was a ruthless, evil, hard-drinking woman who steals from Ragged Dick and eventually winds up in jail.

Who’s to know?

(We know. Of course we do. He’s named for Ragged Dick’s Mother Watson. You know it. I know it. We just don’t want to think – on Mother’s Day – that someone nicknamed Mother was named for a ruthless, evil, hard-drinking woman who winds up in jail.)

Watson’s life is a bit of a mystery, except for his odd nickname, those three crummy games for the Reds, that one win over the Browns (or maybe two), and his untimely death in a saloon fight. I can find him on the 1880 census, when he’s just 15 and still living with his parents, but nothing official after that.

My mom loved a good mystery and always had one – or sometimes two – mystery books underway by her bedside. She was a regular at the library and was such a voracious reader that the town librarian came to her funeral.

She would be a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to unwind the mystery of Walter “Mother” Watson for you.

Not even a photo.

Hang on a sec … I found a photo!

Here he is in a team photo from the 1888 Zanesville Tom, Dick, and Harry team that ran in the Zanesville paper.

He’s that fella there in the back.

(Yup. That’s what I’ve got. Look, it’s the only photo I could find of Mother Watson and maybe you’re unimpressed, but my mom would have appreciated my effort.)

That 1888 team was lousy and folded when the season ended. The grandstand was taken down and the lumber used to build new homes.

Mother Watson’s win over the Browns and his slow breaking curveball would pop up from time to time in reminiscences by old timers who would write up their memories for the local paper. But, by the 1940s, those memories, like Watson and the Zanesville grandstand, disappeared, too.

But, it’s good to remember Mother Watson on Mother’s Day because … well, because someone nicknamed him “Mother.”

And, it’s good to remember your mother on Mother’s Day, too.

Because mothers should never be forgotten.

6 thoughts on “The Short Life & Tragic Death of Walter “Mother” Watson

  1. Absolutely wonderful! I, for one, am very impressed with the terrific job you’ve done of unravelling the Mother Watson story (or to put it in Nancy Drew-form: “The Mystery of Mother Watson.”) And what a great find that photo is! You’ve done the man a great service, fleshing out his tale and giving it to the world.
    Also, I love the words about your mother and the lovely photo at the end of your post. Your mother sounds (and looks) like a wonderful woman.

    • Thanks, Kate! I tried to find out more about the saloon brawl … and if anyone ever took the fall for murdering him, but, apparently, saloon brawls and shootings were so commonplace in Ohio in 1898 they get brief mentions but that’s all. The only details the local papers care to share is if the shooting was at a “saloon” or a “colored saloon.”

      I’m making a leap, I know, deciding he was named for Mother Watson of the Ragged Dick books, but how could he not be?

      Looking forward to your next discoveries and posts from Toronto … my eyes light up whenever I see a
      “new post” from you pop up in my in-box!

      • Good grief, Ohio must’ve been wild as hell – I guess they weren’t experiencing the “Gay Nineties” there.
        I’m with you on the Ragged Dick explanation – somehow that “virtuous” theory sounds like a stretch.
        Thank you so much! You’ve actually described just how I feel when I see a new post of yours. Each one is like getting a gift!

  2. Wonderful story about Mother Watson. Kickapoo – I can tell you there is a tiny town in Illinois by this name and is attributed to the Kickapoo Indians that were in the area. There is also a Joy Juice by this name. It was some kind of pop ( or alcoholic beverage) and is a standard phrase used in that area.
    I love these stories that you are finding and I send a special Happy Mother’s Day wish to you – you momma some lovely 4 legged types!

    • Yes, the Kickapoo are a Midwestern tribe — that originated (but eventually left) the northwest part of Ohio (they’re more known for their connections to Iowa, Indiana, Kansas etc.) Funny thing — while they were from the NW part of Ohio, Zanesville is in the central/south-east part of the state, so they must of just picked up the name on the fly.

      They didn’t stay the Zanesville Kickapoos for long, because they eventually became the Tom, Dick, & Harry team which makes me laugh every time I write it down! :) Tom, Dick & Harry was a brand of tobacco made in Zanesville and the company bought the team their uniforms… hence the name.

      And, Happy Mother’s Day to you, Sharon!

      • I decided that ‘new’ team name was decided with a brew of some type! Agree that the Kickspoo must have traveled all over the Midwest.
        Thank you!

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