CHICAGO – As the 1903 season wore on, Roger Bresnahan began to regularly take on centerfield duties for the New York Giants. He replaced George Van Haltren, an aging St. Louisan who had been playing professional baseball for seventeen years.
The son of Catholic immigrant parents from Holland and Ireland, young George took up baseball as a schoolboy in Missouri. Though starting as a catcher in 1885, he was summarily converted to pitcher with a semipro ballclub in the Bay Area after hurling a 16-strikeout performance in an emergency appearance.
In the early months of 1887, he began to draw attention from the National League. First, Pittsburgh acquired his rights, only to be ignored by Van Haltren when his mother became seriously ill. George stayed home to be close to her, and played with the San Francisco Haverly of the California League instead. The Alleghenys transferred him – along with $2,000 – to the White Stockings in exchange for star pitcher Jim McCormick, who had never been loved by Chicago manager Cap Anson. It was only after threats of being blacklisted by the club’s owner A.G. Spalding, and maybe more importantly the death of his mother, that Van Haltren reported to the club in June of 1887.
As a rookie, George debuted against Boston later that month, only to walk 16 Boston batters on his way to a 17-11 loss. He settled down considerably by the end of the year, logging an 11-7 record, with 18 complete games. He also ended up playing 25 games in the White Stockings outfield, hitting a dismal .203. The following year saw more action from him in the pitcher’s box, going 13-13 in almost 246 innings for the second place ball club. But more and more, he was used in the Chicago outfield, where in 57 games he batted a much-improved .283 with 27 extra-base hits.
In 1889, he was converted to a full-time leftfielder, where he would flourish. Van Haltren batted .322 with 126 runs scored and 81 runs batted in. His 175 hits – good for fifth place in the National League – included 39 extra-base hits, and his 82 walks elevated his on-base percentage to .416.
Lured to the Players League in 1890, he signed with the Brooklyn Ward’s Wonders. The manager, John Montgomery Ward, returned Val Haltren to the pitcher’s box. Though going a decent 15-10 in 223 innings, he was granted 72 appearances in both right field and the infield, good enough to get him to the plate some 420 times that season. His .335 confirmed that the hitting he had done the year prior had not been a fluke. The local newspapers began calling the young star ‘Rip.’
At the end of the 1890 season, with the Players League folding, Van Haltren jumped to the Baltimore Orioles of the rival American Association. Not long for this world, the teams of that league scrounged for talent, with most clubs improvising with the players they had. The left-handed Van Haltren would be placed at shortstop for 59 games. His bat never faltered, hitting .318 and being in the top-ten for hits, home runs, runs scored, slugging percentage, on base percentage, and total bases. He also managed to swipe 75 bases.
Again being left behind by a folding league, Baltimore was awarded a franchise by the ever-expanding National League. The new club owner, Harry von der Horst, hired George as a new player-manager. After a dismal 1-10 record, he was replaced by John Waltz, and then Ned Hanlon. During all of the commotion, Van Haltren remained an Oriole. Though by then, Baltimore fans and teammates felt George’s fiery edge as a player had vanished, especially as lost games by dropping lazy fly balls. It wasn’t long before Hanlon shipped Van Haltren back to Pittsburgh for $2,000 and future Hall of Famer Joe Kelley. George had no better luck with the Alleghenys, dipping his average to below .300 for the first time as an everyday player.
But by next year, things had changed for the better. Major pitching rules had been set in the offseason – the elimination of the pitcher’s box and the elongation of the pitching distance to 60 feet and six inches, where it stands today. Van Haltren bounced back with a .338 average and a .422 on-base percentage – scoring 129 runs in only 124 games. And after that season in 1893, he was purchased by the New York Giants for $2,500.
An immediate boon to Van Haltren was reconnection to New York player-manager John Montgomery Ward, his former Players League mentor. Except this time, Rip’s abilities would not be dissipated via pitching assignments. Ward made him the Giants regular center fielder and leadoff man. Van Haltren responded by batting .331, with 109 runs scored and a career-high 105 RBIs. His new club, moreover, had considerable other on-field talent, with future Hall of Fame members at Ward, George Davis, and on the mound with fireballer Amos Rusie. The New York lineup also featured hard-hitting right fielder Mike Tiernan, a solid backstop in Duke Farrell, ‘Dirty’ Jack Doyle at first base, and a standout second starter in right-hander Jouett Meekin. By season’s end this collection of players was responsible for a sterling 88-44 record. Though the mark was good only for second place, the Giants’ showing placed them in the 1894 Temple Cup with Ned Hanlon’s Orioles. Being the first time that George Van Haltren saw postseason championship play, he made the most of his opportunity, batting .500 as the Giants swept the Orioles in four one-sided games to take the championship. In a late-season poll conducted by the New York Mercury, George was a landslide choice as the favorite player of New York and Brooklyn baseball fans. A silver-played commemorative bat was subsequently presented to him to memorialize the honor.
Van Haltren maintained a high caliber of play for the next seven seasons, posting batting averages ranging from .301 to .351, while averaging 116 runs scored and 39 stolen bases during that span. He was the National League leader in triples one of those years and stolen bases in another. As a matter of fact, he found himself in the top five of every major offensive category. On defense, he even led the league in outfield assists in 1897, 1900, and 1901. Regrettably for the aging veteran, this great run occurred during the darkest period in New York Giants history: the reign of Andrew Freedman as majority owner and club president. Under his wing, the former Temple Cup champs were not pennant contenders, save for one lone year – one in which Freedman’s meddling with the team was minimal. More often than not, the Giants were destabilized by mercurial managerial changes, clubhouse dissension and the absence of staff ace Rusie due to disputes with the club boss. It would only get worse in 1902.
At 37 years old, Van Haltren got off to a slow start that season, with his batting average hovering in the .250 figure in the early going. Then calamity struck. An aborted slide into second base during a May 22 game in Pittsburgh resulted in a severely broken right ankle. He was finished for the season.
Though returning for the 1903 campaign he clearly was not the player he had been before. As the season wore on, a young Roger Bresnahan began to assume Van Haltren’s duties in center field. A .257 batting average in part-time duty precipitated George’s release by the Giants and brought his long career to an end.
In the end, Van Haltren had been baseball’s premier leadoff man of that era. Batting with keen strike-zone awareness, he topped the .300 mark in 13 of his 14 seasons as a regular. He also stole 583 bases and scored more than 100 runs a dozen times during his prime. His speed made him a wonderful defensive outfielder, with an arm strengthened from being a converted pitcher. Even those stats were impressive at 40-31 in 689 innings tossed.
To this day, the Baseball Hall of Fame has yet to open its doors for George.