NOTE: I will be resuming the “MY PROCESS” series in a week or so. I needed to take some time to go through all the research and develop an outline of the final story of Irish Jack LeRoy/Jake Levy. When the series resumes, you will be able to see how I finish the story as well as how I make the booklets. Until then, please enjoy this story about one of the more interesting ballplayers I’ve come across…
I FOUND EDDIE SABRIE the same way I find many of the characters I write about: completely by chance. In Eddie’s case, I was reading through the postings at Net54, a message board that specializes in pre-war baseball cards. One of the members posted a photograph of an item he recently picked up, a composite photograph of the Culebra baseball team, champions of the 1907 Isthmian League. Isthmian League? Well, of course, I just had to know what that was, and not only did I do that, but I inadvertently unearthed a pretty interesting fellow who used his baseball talent to not only play professional ball but see a bit of the world as well.
EDWIN LONG SABRIE was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1882, the youngest of John and Reymonds two sons. The family lived in Louisville’s 12th Ward, and by the time Edwin, now called Eddie, was 18, he was an apprentice railroad machinist. While playing ball around Louisville he became friends with a pitcher named Billy Bryan. In 1901 Bryan turned pro, playing for the Birmingham Barons and Selma Christians of the Southern Association. In 1903 Bryan was slinging for the Vicksburg Hill Billies when he recommended his old pal from Louisville, Eddie Sabrie.
Sabrie arrived in Vicksburg on April 10, 1903, an occasion marked by a celebration in Yoste’s Jewelry Story, the local hangout for baseball fans. Unfortunately, Eddie showed up with what the newspapers called a “stomach injury,” and it wasn’t until April 20 that he was able to play. He acquitted himself well in his first game, going 3 for 3 with a run scored and being hit by pitches twice in the 14-9 loss to Little Rock. Almost immediately Sabrie made an impression with his smart play at first base and within a week he was the Hill Billies’ captain. Standing six feet tall and universally described as “handsome” throughout his career, Sabrie became the object of a secret admirer in Vicksburg, reportedly receiving a mysterious bouquet of flowers every morning.
It appears that Eddie was a scrappy first baseman, not adverse to taking chances that might result in an error. He was also thrown out of four games in August, twice for arguing with the ump and twice for fighting with opposing players. One of those scraps resulted in a blow to Eddie’s nose, an injury that the Vicksburg papers covered daily until it was clear “his manly beauty will not be permanently marred.”
Fellow Kentuckian and future Pittsburgh Pirates ace Howie Camnitz also made his professional debut with Vicksburg that summer, and his impressive record of 26-7 in 32 games earned him a direct promotion to Pittsburgh the next spring. Eddie signed a Vicksburg contract for 1904 and headed home to Louisville. Apparently Sabrie thoroughly enjoyed life in the Mississippi town because he wrote several letters to the local newspapers to say how homesick he was.
Interestingly in one letter, Sabrie talks of his going “up town recently and had two bats made for me” – what are the odds he was talking about the Hillerich & Bradsby factory, makers of the Louisville Slugger? It seems reasonable that Sabrie would turn to the iconic bat maker for his new lumber, especially knowing that he used a specially made and unique bat for the majority of his career. Called his “Black Betsy” long before anyone ever heard of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Eddie’s trademark club of choice was a hefty 52 ounce behemoth supposedly crafted from discarded wagon tongues – the sturdy shaft which the horses are attached to and connects to the wagon’s front wheels.
Using his new sticks, Sabrie improved his batting to .259 in 1904, but it was his fielding that got people talking. In 115 games he led the Cotton States League with a .992 fielding average, committing just 12 errors all season. In August it was reported that the Pittsburgh Pirates were offering between $1000 to $6000 for Sabrie’s services. The sale didn’t pan out, but the first baseman was now regarded as one of the more promising prospects in the minors. His contract was purchased by Columbia of the South Atlantic League and Eddie hit .241 for the Gamecocks in 1905.
WHEN THE SEASON ENDED, Eddie cast his eyes south, to Mexico. At this time, the Yucatan province was a hive of massive industrial mining operations. With thousands of miners and engineers working in remote areas with no recreation to speak of, something was needed as a wholesome distraction during down times. In the city of Merida, a boomtown of some 80,000, local promotors imported enough minor league ballplayers to form two teams. The first, made up of Texas-sourced players, was called the Texanos, and the other, which Sabrie played for, was called the Pirates. The two team league played fourteen games, with the Pirates coming out on top with 8 wins. According to a 1906 newspaper interview with Eddie, the tour was a financial failure for the promotors due to the locals believing that the games were fixed. Elaborate preparation for a visit to Merida by Mexican dictator Porifirio Diaz robbed whatever fan base was left to attend the games. Fortunately for the ballplayers, their contracts called for a flat salary regardless of attendance.
According to Sabrie, the ballplayers were disappointed that they were not able to meet any of the local girls, but Eddie spent his alone time learning the rudimentary Spanish. He returned to the States after three months in Mexico, but it wouldn’t be the last time he would use baseball as a way to see exotic lands.
Before the ’06 season started, Sabrie found himself in a contractual fight between Columbia and Savannah of the South Atlantic League. Sabrie claimed that his 1905 contract with Columbia stated that he was a free agent at the conclusion of the season. Columbia’s management, no doubt trying to cash in on their first baseman’s growing reputation, claimed he was under their reserve. The matter went to the league president, who ruled in favor of Sabrie. Eddie then signed with Savannah for $200 a month, not a bad paycheck when you consider that up in Detroit, Ty Cobb was pulling in $250 a month in his rookie year with the Tigers.
1906 would prove to be Eddie’s breakout year. Besides becoming known as the best first baseman to ever play in the South Atlantic League, Sabrie now owned the hottest bat in the South Atlantic League, hitting .290 in 113 games to win the batting championship. In September it was reported that Pirates owner Barney Dreyfus wanted Sabrie to come to Pittsburgh for a tryout, but before that was arranged his contract was purchased by the Des Moines Demons of the Western League. The Demons owner, Joe Cantillion, was also manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, which meant if he performed well, there was a clear path to move up. Eddie duplicated his Savannah stats, hitting .291 in 19 games for Des Moines. Cantillion never got the chance to promote Sabrie to Milwaukee because the Philadelphia Athletics drafted the hotshot first baseman in January 1907.
In 1907 Philadelphia Athletics owner and manager Connie Mack was beginning to re-tool his aging ballclub. College phenom Eddie Collins was the team’s new second baseman and he would need a young buck to replace the team’s 35 year-old first baseman Harry Davis. With an eye to the future, Mack optioned Sabrie to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League for one more year of seasoning. Eddie responded by hitting .270 and expanding on his already-growing reputation as the best first baseman outside the major leagues. The season wasn’t without its wrinkles, however, as Sabrie apparently did not get along with manager Charley Frank. He left the team in August, saying only that he was returning to Louisville to clear up an estate left by a deceased aunt. His departure led to sharp criticism in the sports pages of Charley Frank while Eddie risked being branded an outlaw by the league. Sabrie wisely thought better of being blacklisted from organized baseball and returned to New Orleans.
WITH HIS FUTURE looking brighter than ever, Eddie decided to head south again for some winter baseball. Instead of returning to familiar Ol’ Mexico, or the popular Cuban Winter League, Sabrie assembled a team of southern-based minor leaguers to play in Panama.
This was a very interesting time and place, as the construction of the Panama Canal was the largest engineering project ever attempted up to that point. How Sabrie got the nod to put a team together is not known, but one may surmise that he may have become acquainted with one of the many engineers employed in Merida, and who was now working on the Panama Canal. The reasons for importing baseball players to a tropical construction zone was the same as in Mexico – to provide wholesome entertainment alternative for the thousands of workers with money in their pockets. Unlike the two-team league in Mexico, Sabrie’s team was one of six clubs that made up the Isthmian League. Five, including Sabrie’s Culebra team, represented different work camps, while the sixth was comprised of U.S. Marines who were stationed in Panama to protect them. The Isthmian League played 22 games, and as would be expected from an entirely transient work force, there were a few shake-ups: the Marines pulled out and another team folded. Despite the loss of two clubs, the season was deemed exciting and ended in a tie between Empire and Culebra. To decide the championship a 3-game series was played, and Culebra took the first two to win the 1907 Isthmian League pennant.
Unfortunately for Eddie, the first baseman injured his ankle in Panama. The injury followed him into the spring, and in March the Pelicans had Doc Payne, the Cleveland Indians team doctor, take a look at their star. While his teammates stood around and listened, Doc Payne instructed Sabrie on what kind of new medical devices he should use on his ankle. As Payne went on about the use of a vibrator and something called an inspirator, third baseman Lave Cross spoke up:
“How about using a separator on Eddie?”
“Sure, that’s right, too. I guess I’ll get it and use it on him.” Payne replied.
Sabrie anxiously asked, “What’s a separator?”
Lave and Payne, who’d heard it all before, grinned.
“A separator,” replied Lave, is something Doc Payne uses to separate his patients from their money.”
Clubhouse humor aside, 1908 didn’t turnout like everyone expected. Eddie’s ankle gave him problems throughout the summer and eventually New Orleans traded him to Augusta Tourists of the Southern League. Sabrie bristled at the demotion and refused to report. He successfully appealed to the National Commission, baseball’s ruling body, and stayed put in the South Atlantic League, finishing the season with the Mobile Sea Gulls. The final line on 1908 was a disappointing .249 average in 137 games.
Sabrie’s ankle woes appears to have gone by spring training the next year, as he was one of the “prominent ballplayers” who competed in a 10-mile marathon contest at Hot Springs, Arkansas on February 13. In the field Eddie was his usual flawless self, but his batting never came around and in early August he was released by Mobile. Nashville picked him up off waivers and he finished the 1909 season in a Volunteers uniform. His stat line on the season was a career-low .190 in 131 games. Yet despite his poor showing, Eddie was still one of the most popular players in the Southern League, demonstrated by his successful vaudeville act that toured the league cities that winter. Partnered up with Nashville teammate Harry Bay, Sabrie sang such hits as “The Ladder of Love” in his “rich baritone” while Bray accompanied him on the French horn and piano.
THOUGH HE EXPECTED to be back with Nashville in 1910, the team decided to cut ties with him in order to abide by the Southern League’s new salary cap. When Buffalo Bison’s first baseman Doc Johnston played hard ball in his off-season salary negotiations, the club put in the call for Eddie Sabrie. The 28-year-old turned in a solid season, batting .268 in 118 games. However, an end of the season article mentions that “Sabrie, when he really wants to, can put up a classy game around the initial cushion. He finished well among the top-notchers with the willow, but was unable to deliver the bingle when it was necessary.” When Buffalo made an off-season managerial switch, Sabrie was put on the trading block.
For his part, Eddie wished to return to a southern team, but ended up with the Topeka Jayhawks of the Western League. He signed for $400 a month, a hefty salary by Western League standards, but seeing as Eddie was the best fielding first baseman in the minors, Topeka thought him worth it.
But the Eddie Sabrie who showed up in the spring of 1911 wasn’t the same player as he had been the season before. Newspapers were vague about what was wrong, but an ad that ran in the Buffalo Courier a year later in 1912 gives up the probable answer. Acting as a spokesperson for “Dr. Sullivan’s Sure Solvent,” Sabrie claims it took just three bottles of the concoction to “knock malaria and rheumatism out of me that I had been suffering with for three years.” But in this pre-Dr. Sullivan Sure Solvent period, these ailments kept him idling on the bench more often than not, and he was described as being “nearly a physical wreck.”
When he did get into a game, it was as a second baseman, the only time in his whole career that he would be plugged into that position. His fielding at this unfamiliar plot of the infield wasn’t close to the work he had performed at first base, and at the end of May his fielding percentage was at the .750 level.
By June the Jayhawks were in 7th place and management decided a shakeup was needed. Galveston and Oklahoma City of the Texas League both clamored for Sabrie, but when Eddie proved difficult in negotiations, Topeka threw up their hands and gave him an outright release. That suited Eddie just fine as he headed right back to the South Atlantic League and signed on with the Charleston Sea Gulls.
BACK HOME in the south, Eddie got into 68 games for the Gulls, hitting .268. In one of those games, Eddie entered into South Atlantic League lore when an umpire took exception to his “Black Betsy.” The ump snatched it out of Sabrie’s hands and measured it right there on the field, ruling it “way over regulation size.” With his trademark club declared illegal, Sabrie grabbed a small fungo bat from the dugout and contemptuously returned to the plate. To everyone’s surprise, Eddie rapped a single over the shortstop’s head.
The Charleston Sea Gulls folded after the 1911 season and Eddie was out of work. He sought out a new job by placing an ad in the Sporting News that read: