Bill-Lange

Bill Lange: How Good Was He?

Bill Lange

“In the face of all the praise lavished on the Georgian (Ty Cobb), I cannot see where Bill Lange was his inferior!” – Bill Phelan of Baseball Magazine, 1915.

When asked about center fielder Bill Lange, A. H. Spink, founder of The Sporting News, responded, “Lange was Ty Cobb enlarged, fully great in speed, batting skill and baserunning.” Others agreed, only giving the nod to Buck Ewing as the greatest 19th century player because of his expertise at catcher. While Lange was widely acknowledged to be the best all-around athlete of the American 19th century, he was not, in the strictest sense, a “5-tool player”. His power-hitting, while adequate, fell a little short. This, in spite of his home run crown in 1897, did not place him in the power-hitting discussions with Sam Thompson or Roger Connor. It would be fair to say that Lange was a generational athlete who happened to be a star baseball player.
 

Great Athlete With Movie Star Looks

Lange’s father was of Norwegian Catholic stock. He was a career military man, and found himself stationed at the Presidio, the military installation at the northern tip of San Francisco. Lange was born in San Francisco on June 6th, 1871. He was well-educated and also played sandlot baseball. Lange grew to nearly 6′ 2″ and approximately 200 pounds. He was, as they said of multi-talented people in those days, “a man of many parts”. He was very bright, a gifted athlete, possessed a winning personality and was blessed with matinee-idol good looks. He was also the “best dancer” in San Francisco. It seems that virtually everything “came easy” to Bill Lange.

At some point, at age 18, Lange decided to play baseball full-time, and played semi-pro ball in the Port Townsend, Washington, area. Eventually, he played minor league ball with the Oakland Colonels of the California League, which led to his signing, at age 21, with the National League’s Chicago Colts (formerly the Chicago White Stockings).
 

Baserunning Brilliance

From 1893 until his retirement 7 years later in 1899 at age 28 (!) he played mostly center field and became the centerpiece of the Chicago franchise. Lange batted a comfortable .330 for his career, and was an electrifying base runner. Fans flocked to see the handsome heart throb steal bases–he was an instant star. The legendary Connie Mack proclaimed, “Lange was the greatest (base runner) I ever saw–(both) with strategy and speed.” Remember, these comments were uttered by one of the best talent scouts in the history of the game–a man who had seen Billy Hamilton and Ty Cobb perform.

1896 Chicago Colts

In 1914, the Boston Globe’s Tim Murnane quoted future Hall of Famer Cap Anson as saying, “Lange was better in the outfield than (Ty) Cobb, and I would pick him over (Shoeless Joe) Jackson and (Tris) Speaker, too.” Murnane went on to name Cobb, Lange and Jackson as his all-time outfield.

Hal Chase, a superb player in his day, swore that Lange’s defense was as good as Tris Speaker’s, and strongly believed that Lange was better than Ty Cobb “on the bases”. And yet, the speculation persists that Lange could have have been even greater than the record–had he devoted himself to baseball. He was frequently absent from the line-up due to “injuries”, said to happen anytime he wanted to go to the racetrack. For example, during Spring Training in 1897, one of Lange’s “sudden injuries” allowed him time off in order to see the heavyweight boxing match between Bob Fitzsimmons and Gentleman Jim Corbett. Lange had an abnormal dislike of practice and it is indeed amazing that his high productivity on the baseball field was achieved with so little preparation time. Some say that Lange was such a gifted athlete that he never felt compelled to stay focused on improving his baseball performance. The statistician Bill James believes that Lange was probably America’s greatest natural athlete of the 19th century.

Bill Lange had a baseball nickname–“Little Eva”–and its source has always been highly speculative. The generally prevailing theory is that the name, evoking a Harriet Beecher Stowe character of unquestioned high moral integrity and ingenuous honesty, was bestowed upon Lange due to his reputation as an unmatched ladies man–as a sort of tongue-in-cheek joke. There are many other theories, none of which have any more credibility than the one described above.

In 1899, Lange was engaged to be married to the beautiful, and wealthy, Grace Giselman. However, his future father-in-law, put his foot down on his daughter marrying a “baseball player”. So, Lange, who was already making a good living in insurance and real estate, promptly retired from pro baseball… at age 28! He married Grace and steadily increased his financial holdings. Alas, the marriage didn’t last as planned, but Lange always did well in business pursuits. Ultimately, on his third try at marriage, Lange succeeded, marrying Sara Griffith with whom he had a child. The marriage was a happy one lasting until her passing in 1948.
 

Lange’s Legacy

Bill Lange, Retired

A. H. Spink, founder of The Sporting News said, “Lange was Ty Cobb enlarged, fully great in speed, batting skill and baserunning.”

At the time of Lange’s retirement, he had already led the National League once in home runs, once in stolen bases, and had 400 career steals. He had batted over .300 for 6 seasons, and stolen over 40 bases for each of 6 years. He had over 50 steals in each of 4 seasons (including 84 steals in 1896, still a Chicago Cubs record), and scored 100+ runs for 3 different campaigns. In 1895, he batted .389, still the highest single season batting average in Cubs franchise history. During that year, he finished second to only Billy Hamilton for the National League Stolen Base crown. In 1896, Lange stole 5 bases in a single game against Louisville

Along the way, Lange had discovered future Hall of Famer Frank Chance, and had introduced his nephew, George “Highpockets” Kelly, to Major League baseball. Kelly would later also be inducted into Cooperstown. Lange was also tapped to help introduce professional baseball to Europe following World War I. Sadly, Lange concluded that Europeans were not able to grasp baseball’s nuances, and predicted that the sport would not be successful on that continent. In 1912, Chicago fans bought a new Chalmers automobile and presented it to Lange, in appreciation for his contribution to the franchise. Lange passed away peacefully at age 79 on July 23rd, 1950.

It is important to note peer accounts of Lange’s baseball exploits. The incomparable Honus Wagner pronounced Lange as the best baserunner in the game. In 1909, former star outfielder (and, baserunner extraordinaire) Billy Sunday stated that baseball’s all-time outfield should be Ty Cobb, Ed Delahanty and Bill Lange. Jake Stenzel, another great outfielder in his own right, emphatically pointed out that among 19th century ballplayers, “Lange (was) the greatest”. In 1914, the Boston Globe’s Tim Murnane quoted future Hall of Famer Cap Anson as saying, “Lange was better in the outfield than (Ty) Cobb, and I would pick him over (Shoeless Joe) Jackson and (Tris) Speaker, too.” Murnane went on to name Cobb, Lange and Jackson as his All-Time outfield.

Bill Phelan of Baseball Magazine, in 1915, wrote, “In the face of all the praise lavished on the Georgian (Ty Cobb), I cannot see where Bill Lange was his inferior!” Clark Griffith, the Hall of Famer, once remarked, Bill Lange was “the equal of Cobb, Speaker and DiMaggio, if not better.”

Bill Lange, a star personality in any era. How good was he?
 

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  • Frank Ceresi

    Great article.