Stories of the Midwest: Major League Baseball and Roseville, Illinois: Part I: The Life and Career of James Hiram West

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by Tom Best

Have you ever been so happy to be wrong?  A few weeks ago, this certainly happened to me. 

In the final days of adding some fascinating revelations to my book on Monmouth baseball, I knew I had written that while nearly local twenty ball players had played in the major leagues, no such ball player had also born in Warren County.  Within days, I learned that not only one, but two such men had been born in little Roseville.

Today, I want to start with part I of the life and career of overview of one of those ball players.

James Hiram West, this player, was born August 8, 1884 in Roseville, IL.  He lived until May 25, 1963; and initially, I knew little more than that he pitched briefly in the major leagues at some time in the early 20th century.  But with the handy tools of research available on baseball websites and Ancestry.com (thanks to Kris Brown’s expert help), I uncovered plenty of revealing information. 

Today, I will focus on his early life, family, and early career playing baseball.

First, who were his parents and siblings?   His father, George W. West, was born in 1856 in England.  He lived until 1931.  His mother, Emily A. Waldron West, was a little older than her husband, having been born in 1845 in New York.  She gave birth to James when she was about 39 years old.  At least she lived long enough to likely know that her son would reach the major leagues for the first time.  She passed away in 1907.

James, who went by the nickname “Hi,” had four half-brothers and sisters, which meant that his mother had been previously married; and as it turned out, was divorced from her first husband.  The half-siblings of James from that marriage were Joseph Richter, 1865-1948, William Lee Richter, 1867-1948, Albert Austin Richter, 1869-1943, and Nellie May Richter (Anderson), 1867-1943.

According to the 1900 census, they were still living in Roseville.  James, then15, was at home with his mother, and two of his half-brothers, Lee, then 32, and Albert 29.  With some more research, I discovered that his parents divorced sometime around 1895, with James, then about 9 years old.  His father, when he died in 1941, was living in Keokuk, Iowa.  He is also buried there.  The 1900 census is additionally instructive as it also lists is teenage James as being able to read and right, speak English, and having attended school over the last 9 years. 

Other than two of his half-brothers and sisters, the rest of the family remained in Illinois for at least most of their lives. 

Certainly, his mother, Emily stayed in the area.   We can read her obituary and further details of her life in May 9, 1907 Macomb newspaper.  That publication stated that she had died in the hospital of heart trouble.  Born in New York, when she was 8 years old, her family resettled near Roseville.  He first husband, whom she later divorced, was William Richter.  James was said to be back home for this sad event.  He then accompanied her remains back for burial in the Roseville Cemetery.  The article further indicates that James was then well-known locally as a major league pitcher with Cleveland of the American League, and that her other children from her first marriage were spread out across Illinois and various other states.  She had four living siblings then living in Nebraska, Kansas, and Illinois.  Only one of her two sisters were still in the area.  Mrs. Levi Pantey was still living in Roseville. 

But back now to the subject of baseball. Somewhere on the fields in or around Roseville, James learned to pick up a bat and ball and play a game that was still in a state of evolution.  By this time, gloves were first being used and catchers began wearing some crude protective equipment.  Furthermore, pitching no longer required that a ball be tossed underhand at a location of the batter’s choosing. By the time James was old enough to play as a teenager, the teams in this area were of the “town ball club” variety.  Many local towns had their own ball teams, but as they were not considered anything close to “minor league” caliber.

So where did I first find James playing more organized and challenging baseball?   He was at the Knox Academy in Galesburg from 1904 to 1905.  Coming here at age 20, this school was a “preparatory” program for those wishing to attend, most likely, Knox College, but who needed additional educational training before advancing to a more rigorous education.  This school was open to those students who had completed at least their 8th grade year and were at least 14 years old.  But the academy and Knox had something else that must have attracted James—they allowed academy boys to play on the Knox College baseball team.  The Knox team had been in existence since 1887.  From its inception into the early 1900s, the Knox Siwash baseball team was considered one of the better teams in the area.  Their reputation was so solid that in 1907 and 1908, the Chicago White Sox came to Galesburg and their Willard Field to play games.  In 1908, Knox barely fell 3-0.   

However, I should add that this early period of his baseball career was not without some controversy.  Folks in Monmouth had seen or heard of “Jimmie West” and wanted him to come to Monmouth College.  According to the Monmouth papers, West had first gone to Galesburg to open a lunch room in a downtown building in order to support himself.  Soon news spread that he was closing down the restaurant and was heading to play baseball at Knox.  In fact, the Monmouth press noted that he “should create something of a sensation” at Knox.”  But, then the story illustrated the local frustration at West for not choosing to play at Monmouth.  Apparently, his friends in the area came to his defense and said that he had been done an “injustice” with a further case of “sour grapes” when did not accept Monmouth’s offer to come there for a tuition grant, a nice incentive afforded less-wealthy students.   

James therefore joined the Knox team in 1905.  While the school did not play many games in this era, his skills instantly stood out.  Earning a coveted “Wearers of the “K” honor,” the 1906 year book noted that West was as of yet, one of the best baseball pitchers to have ever put on the Knox uniform.  Having won the vast majority of the games in which he pitched, it was printed: “Never has a Knox pitcher been called upon to do so much, and has done it as well. His remarkable showing against Iowa University, his third college game, in which he held that team to one hit, has never been equaled by a Knox man.” 

West, whose photograph from that season at Knox shows a decently-sized smiling young adult, was, however, not going to finish his 1905 season at Knox alone.  First, he joined up with a new Galesburg team that became part of what was called the “Illinois State League.”  This league featured other teams in Canton, Kewanee, and Quincy.  His Galesburg team played on the same Knox College Willard Field, and West was said to have pitched there for many of their games.   

Next, West was next called upon to come to Burlington, Iowa and pitch for their minor league club in the “D” level Iowa State League.  After a successful tryout in mid-July, West joined team and was ready to pitch against teams such as the Ottumwa Snappers, Ft. Dodge Gypsumites, and the Waterloo Microbes. Pitching for the last place Burlington Flint Hills, he still managed to get in 14 games of consequence and recorded seven wins and seven losses. 

But was that to be the end of his 1905 pitching season?  Hardly, when I get back together with you next Saturday morning, you will learn how this still relatively youthful athlete would jump that same season to not a higher minor league club, but to the major leagues themselves.  You see, in that same 1905 year, the Cleveland Naps of the American League came calling and bought out the contract of a young man from Roseville, Illinois.

Thank you for your interest.  More about James Hiram West next week. 

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