Ben’s Baseball Alphabet: Jesse James

On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant, thus ending the U.S. Civil War. Even though the war was over many Confederate soldiers wanted to continue fighting. But they didn’t do it on battlefields against an army, instead, they chose to rob banks, stagecoaches, and trains. The most famous of these Confederate holdouts was Jesse James. Jesse and his brother Frank robbed their first bank in 1869 and continued their murderous banditry through the 1870s. As is to be expected it didn’t end too well for Jesse and he was shot dead on April 3, 1882. Following Jesse’s death, Frank turned himself in but was acquitted of all charges and lived another 30 years before passing away in 1915.

Jesse James

So what do the James brothers have to do with baseball anyway? Baseball developed into the national pastime just after and in the decades that followed the Civil War. It was at this time that Jesse and Frank James grew in notoriety as they captivated the country with their self-appointed Robin Hood antics. Naturally, popular culture would mix with other popular cultures. And in the case of baseball and the country’s most famous bank robbers, they were no exception to this rule.

Shameless Self Promotion

It is not surprising that ballplayers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would make reference to the most famous bank robbers in U.S. history. Because, like everyone else in the country, ballplayers were fascinated by Jesse and Frank James. This obsession with the James brothers was in part due to the brother’s own invention. Jesse loved the attention that they received in the press after their first robbery.  He enjoyed it so much in fact that he made sure his future endeavors would garner as much attention as possible.  He even went as far as to leave press releases at the scenes of his crimes. Because of this shameless self-promotion and the false idea that the James brothers were Robin Hood-like figures (there is no proof that they ever gave any of their plunder to the poor) their legend is still a part of popular American culture.

It was at the height of the James brother’s popularity that they made their way into the baseball dictionaries.

A Natural Mistrust

Ballplayers have a natural mistrust of umpires, just like most U.S citizens have a distrust of authority figures. This dubitation toward authority comes in part from the former relationship between the American colonies and Britain. Prior to the formation of the United States, the American colonies were a part of the British Empire. Everything was hunky dory for quite some time until the colonies started being unfairly taxed. This led to the colonists wanting representation in the British Government. The British said “no” and the colonists said “fine, we’ll leave then”. What ensued was a seven-year-long war called the Revolutionary War. The war led to American independence and in the process, the colonists, a.k.a. Americans, developed a strong dislike for authority.

Baseball as you may or may not know is a near-perfect reflection of the country at large. And that dislike for authority carried over and in baseball, there is no bigger on-field authority than umpires. So, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries ballplayers referred to umpires as Jesse James because, just like the King of England had done with the colonies, the umpires “robbed” from them.  And in some cases, especially when there were just two umpires per game, players referred to them as “Jesse” and “Frank”, or just “the James Brothers”.



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