Bobby Lowe deserves to be remembered as one of the best infielders of the 19th century

Bobby Lowe on his Helmar Polar Night card #216.

The best second baseman to ever play for the Braves was Bobby Lowe, who was born a few months after The Great Emancipator was assassinated, which is why he was named Robert Lincoln Lowe, and why he earned a nickname that stuck with him his entire life: “Link.”

Lowe was a teenager working for a newspaper in New Castle, Pennsylvania when he was invited to play in a baseball game pitting the printers and doctors of that community against each other. Well, he wasn’t exactly invited, he begged his way onto the team, convincing a former professional ballplayer named Charley Powers to pick him for the printer team. Lowe was the best player on the field that day and Powers never forgot him. Bobby had to work to support his mother and siblings, so he couldn’t spend time on baseball, but a couple years later he was contacted by Powers, who was organizing a new professional team.

The friendship with Powers delivered Link Lowe from his squalid circumstances. The opportunity led to him traveling to Wisconsin to play for another team, where he won over fans with his defense and power hitting. He went on to play for the Milwaukee Creams for two seasons, where he took the field at famed Athletic Park located at 3000 N. 8th Street. A few years later, the Boston Beaneaters purchased Lowe from Milwaukee for $700 (about $2,700 in 2020 dollars). The transaction was later called “one of base ball’s biggest bargains.”

The Beaneaters were members of the National League, the top circuit in the game in the 19th century. In the 1890s, Boston scouted and signed many of the best players in the country. That decade, the team won five league titles, and they were led by their famous infield. Even as late as the 1940s, there were old-timers who insisted the Beaneaters infield of the late 19th century was the greatest in baseball history.

The great Boston infield started with Fred Tenney, the first baseman, a power hitter from Massachusetts who attended Brown University, making him one of the first educated men to enter professional baseball. The shortstop was Herman Long, a German-American from Chicago. Long was an apt name: the infielder had tremendously long arms and large hands. He was considered by some to be the best player in the game, and he ranked among the best shortstops of the 19th century. At third base was Jimmy Collins, a Catholic from Niagara Falls who was rescued from a job on the railroad by his fantastic ability to field baseballs. Collins was one of the first (maybe the first) third basemen to charge bunted balls and make plays on them. Lowe played second base, and was frequently the cleanup hitter. With the big four in their infield, the Beaneaters dominated the National League for a few years. In 1897-98, they won 69 percent of their games and captured the pennant both seasons.

Of the four great infielders who starred for Boston in the late 19th century, only Jimmy Collins is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But Long (especially) and Tenney wouldn’t be bad choices. After all these years, not even their great grandkids probably remember them.

Lowe was the first batter to hit four home runs in a major league baseball game. There should be a big fat asterisk next to that accomplishment, however.

The game in question was played on May 30, 1894, at a ballpark called Congress Street Grounds, located in the South Flats section of Boston, not far from where some revolutionary rascals dumped British tea into the harbor in 1773. The Beaneaters didn’t play regularly at Congress Street Grounds, their primary home was South End Grounds, located about three miles inland on Congress Street in the Carter Playground neighborhood. The Beaneaters played a few games at Congress Street Grounds most seasons, and when South End Grounds was being renovated after a fire. Congress Street was situated near the business district and it had access to better public transportation, so Boston would frequently play games there when they wanted to pad their attendance on special days.

There are, to my knowledge, no remaining architectural drawings of Congress Street Grounds, so we don’t know precisely the dimensions of the playing field. But based on other plots of land nearby, it’s been estimated that the foul poles were as close as 250 feet from home plate. May 30th was Decoration Day in 1890, a long abandoned holiday that was replaced by Memorial Day. On that afternoon, Lowe put on a show for the more than 8,000 fans crammed into the wooden ballpark to see Boston host the Reds. According to the Boston Daily Globe:

“Bobby Lowe broke all league records with four home runs in succession, and then tied the record for total bases by adding a single, making a total of 17 bases. The hitting of Lowe has never been surpassed in a game. His home runs were on line drives far over the fence, and would be good for four bases on an open prairie. The crowd cheered Bobby every time he came up, and when he responded with a home run even the visitors had to join in the good-natured smile.”

Well, I’m not sure if the Cincinnati team smiled when Bobby hit his third and fourth homers, but I wasn’t there. And while the Daily Globe claims each of his homers traveled “far over the fence,” it’s likely that Link simply had a wonderful supply of inside fastballs that day. That season the Beaneaters played fewer than 30 games at Congress Street, but Lowe hit eight of his 17 homers there. Ice Box Chamberlain, the well-named pitcher who surrendered all four home runs to Lowe, pitched just two games at Congress Street Grounds in 1894, and allowed six of his ten homers that season in those games.

At any rate, in the sense that Lowe is remembered at all, it’s for his record-setting slugging that one afternoon in a small ballpark on Boston Harbor. That’s unfortunate, because Lowe was a good ballplayer. In an era when errors were as common as the sun coming up, Lowe once went 34 games without a miscue. Story goes that he was never ejected from a game either. The Daily Globe wrote this rather eloquent appraisal of Link when he was at the height of his popularity:

“For a grand player, Lowe is seldom given the credit often dished out to his inferiors. His work does not appeal to the bleachers and grandstand like the less natural and clumsy player who is often seen floundering around like a fish out of water, while the crowd enjoy the effort and go home to tell what great playing they saw. ‘He is a hard worker,’ you will hear them say. Bobby Lowe is not only a hard worker but a conscientious player and an artist of the first magnitude.”

Back then, a 35-year old ballplayer was an old man, and Boston shuffled Lowe to the Cubs as the calendar flipped to the twentieth century. In the last years of his career, Lowe was witness to history, keeping second base warm in Chicago until young Johnny Evers arrived. Later, in Detroit, he was a veteran utility player sitting on the end of the bench when a teenage rube from Georgia named Ty Cobb made his way into the lineup for the Tigers. Link played his final game when he was 41 years old.

Lowe scouted or coached for dozens of teams after he finished playing. In 1932, when Lou Gehrig tied his record with four homers in a game, the 66-year old Lowe posed with the Yankee slugger wearing his old Beaneaters’ uniform. He died in Detroit at the age of 86 in 1951, having seen dozens of his contemporaries from the 19th century get elected to the Hall of Fame, but never having received as much as two percent support in any election.

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