State v. Pearce 'What's the Use' Chiles, Part II
See Part I.
Turn-of-the century baseball had plenty of room for guys like Pearce Chiles, though. Baseball of the gay nineties vintage was about as nasty as baseball could get, as the unfailing Bill James describes: "Players spiked one another. A first baseman would grab the belt of the baserunner to hold him back a half-second after the ball was hit. Players tripped one another as they rounded the bases. Fights broke out more days than not. Players shoved umpires, spat on them, and punched them. Fans hurled insults and beer bottles at the players of opposing teams." The most successful managers were the ones that could train their players in the cleverest, dirtiest and most brutal ways to win.
Although 7 out of 9 players on the diamond might have felt like calling him a jackass on a good day, Chiles’ lawlessness on the field was considered leadership in those days. Thus, Chiles served a stint as the player-manager of the Lancaster Maroons in the Atlantic League – a money-losing team, but a winner with a record of 82-50 – before going to New Orleans for the Winter.
So it was that the Philadelphia Phillies probably thought they had someone who was future coaching material coming when Pearce "What’s the Use" Chiles joined the Phillies’ camp in Charlotte, North Carolina as a 33-year old rookie during the Spring of 1899.
He played for the "Yannigans," the alternate squad that faced the Phillies' starting line-up in practice games, but batted well and meshed well with the regulars. At their North State Street lodgings, Chiles and starting first baseman Duff Cooley were acknowledged as the best billiards players in camp. Meanwhile, Cooley rounded up a singing "Quintette" consisting of himself, third baseman Billy Lauder, pitcher Red Donahue, and shortstops Monte Cross and Dave Fultz, performing old-time classics such as "The Bridge the Heart Burned Down" and "You’ll Get All That’s Coming to You." The Quintette began to steal so much attention among the local women that reserve catcher Morgan Murphy conspired to start his own musical group; and in typical wise-ass fashion Chiles joined, along with outfielders Delahanty and Flick, to form a quartet better focused on clowning than harmonizing. By the time the club returned to Philadelphia for the start of the season, they had stolen the hearts of their Charlotte hosts.
Chiles made his debut on April 18, 1899, pinch-hitting for pitcher Chick Fraser in the 9th; although he doubled and scored, the Phillies went down against the Senators, 6-4. The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to him as "the bright particular star of the matinee." But on a club that included future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie at second base, future Hall of Famers Ed Delahanty and Elmer Flick in left and rightfield, and base-on-balls king Roy Thomas in center, there wasn't much playing time available for the new fellow. The papers would often refer to Chiles as a baserunning coach rather than as a player. Still, as a late-inning sub (often for Flick), Chiles managed to bat .320 and knocked in 76 RBIs in 354 plate appearances. That year, the Phillies finished 3rd behind Brooklyn and the Braves, but had a superlative record of 94-58, and Chiles' place on the club in 1900 (see photo above, with Chiles standing at the far left) seemed secure.
The authorities are silent as to Chiles' activities during the Winter, but one can assume that he was probably up to no good. The following Spring, Chiles was collecting splinters again until a team bust-up availed him of some starts. Nap Lajoie and Elmer Flick, it seems, were always in each other's way a bit – during the previous Spring, Flick had blown up at Lajoie over some on-field slight. On May 30, their tensions erupted when Flick picked up Lajoie's bat in the clubhouse and announced that he would be using it that day. Lajoie begged to differ, upon which Flick dared Lajoie to stop him. In the ensuing exchange of punches, Lajoie knocked Flick silly a few times, while Flick gave Lajoie a black eye and a cut on the face. The piece de resistance was when one of Lajoie's blows missed Flick and hit a locker behind him, resulting in Lajoie breaking his thumb. Flick threw a tantrum on the way out, vowing never to play with the Phillies again. With Flick out of the lineup for awhile, Chiles got the chance to fill in for him for a couple of days at rightfield. By June 4, however, Flick was back in the lineup, and Chiles was back on the bench.
Perhaps it was a combination of boredom and Chiles' natural instinct for larceny that sent Chiles out with Morgan Murphy to devise a crafty, totally illegal plan to steal the opposing catcher's signals, a technique that came to light one September afternoon against Cincinnati. It went as follows: Murphy, sitting behind the centerfield wall with a spyglass, would see the signals that the opposing catcher would make to the pitcher regarding whether the next pitch would be a fastball or a curve, and would relay the contents of the signal to Chiles via an electrical signal – over a wire that extended from Murphy's location to the third base coaching box, where, barely exposed, it would give Chiles a little shock. Chiles would then give a prearranged hand signal to the batter. Observers had remarked that Chiles had a strange leg twitch when he coached, so all was explained when Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran stopped the game and found the buzzer device under Chiles' foot with the assistance of the umpire and the police.
On the following day, Chiles got his wise-ass revenge: he switched to first base and started his leg twitching again; but this time, when the Reds stopped the game and dug out the coach’s box, they found nothing. The incident, though, would be the beginning of the end of signal stealing for the present, as league officials went on a witch hunt for variations on Chiles’ theme perpetrated by other clubs.
That year, the Phillies finished in 3rd place again, but with the considerably less heroic record of 75-63. In October, Chiles' name appeared on the Phillies' official reserve list -- which suggests that, despite the fact that Chiles only hit .216 in 111 at-bats in 1900, the Phillies thought they had room for the 35-year old scoundrel on the 1901 squad.
See Part III.