His life sounded like the plot of a dime novel from the turn of the 20th Century.
He was born in a log cabin in Iowa in 1852, and grew up in a little farm settlement called Marshalltown. At 19 he set out for the big city to earn his fortune. He worked hard at his profession, got rich, became a leading citizen of Chicago, and one of the most famous men in the country.
His name was Adrian Constantine Anson. He was a baseball player.
Professional baseball was a risky career choice when Anson started playing. The pay was low and the top league was loosely organized, with a haphazard schedule. Anson spent one year with Rockford, then four more in Philadelphia.
When the National League was founded in 1876, the game stabilized. Anson already had a reputation as a hard-hitting first baseman. The Chicago team wanted him, and they got him.
Anson was a big man for his time, about 6’1″ and 210 pounds, when most players were four inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter. He became the sport’s #1 star. There was no All-Star game or MVP award yet, or Anson would have claimed each honor several times.
He took over as Chicago’s captain-manager in 1879, and afterward became known as Cap Anson. During his watch, the team won five National League pennants. Anson was the first player to collect 3,000 hits, and one of the first elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.
He had one negative legacy. Anson refused to play against African Americans. He was probably no more unconsciously racist than most white Americans of his time, but he was also baseball’s leading player. His example prompted the sport to adopt an informal “color line” which lasted until 1945.
Anson retired from active play in 1897. The next year he opened a combination billiard hall and bowling alley in the Loop known as Anson’s Emporium. It was the largest business of its kind in Chicago. The Emporium became a local hangout for the sporting crowd and a major tourist attraction.
Fresh from his bowling triumph, Anson entered politics. In 1905 he was elected Chicago city clerk as a Democrat. But within a few years, everything came crashing down.
Anson had traded on his fame to become city clerk. That proved to be his limit. In 1906 he ran for Cook County sheriff and lost in the primary. The next year he was defeated in his re-election bid as clerk. His Emporium went bankrupt in 1909. As a businessman and as a politician, Cap Anson was one helluva baseball player.
He was broke. He sold his house, moving into a small apartment at 320 East 30th Street. Years went by, and now people were calling him Pop Anson. “He was an oddly anachronistic figure, like a rugged fragment from an ancient mountain,” one journalist wrote. “Not forgotten, but not really part of the world around him any more.”
Today he might support himself autographing baseballs or working as a casino greeter. In Anson’s time, his best option was the vaudeville stage. His friends Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan helped Anson put together a monologue, and for several years he toured with two of his daughters.
Cap Anson died in 1922. He was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery. The graveyard later became the final resting place of Jesse Owens, Harold Washington, and other prominent African Americans. But if Anson had any objection to this form of integration, he has not been heard from.