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Chasing McRemer


There are 44 players in the history of baseball, by my count, for whom we have only a last name. Unknown Gilroy, Unknown O’Rourke, Unknown Long. Each of these men snuck his way into a boxscore — just one, usually — and then vanished into the mists of time, thereby enacting a most human of tragedies: to scale the Olympian heights, only to be struck down while etching one’s name in eternal stone.

As a baseball researcher and a gentleman of refined sensibilities, I find my very eyeballs to be offended by these fragmentary appellations, these amputated handles, these steaming craters on the otherwise manicured landscape of our historical record. For some, of course, there is no hope: Unknown Smith, barring the discovery of new and direct testimony from 1884, will remain just that. But there are others, more conspicuously named, who tempt us into pursuit. Were we to establish the identity of just one of these, we would we bestowing a tremendous gift: that of restoring a star, as it were, to the firmament.

Speaking of 1884, that year spanned the entire tumultuous existence of the Union Association, a league of questionable majority that contributed more than its share of Unknowns to the record. There was a Washington Nationals team in that league — not to be confused with the contemporaneous Washington Nationals of the American Association, or the Washington Nationals who appeared in the National League later that decade, or the earlier Washington Nationals of the National Association, or for that matter the Washington Senators, also known as the Nationals, who competed in both the American Association and the National League during the nineties. All of these clubs were bad, but the UA’s Nationals were arguably the worst, finishing seventh in an inferior league behind such teams as the Pittsburgh Stogies and the Chicago Monumentals. The Nats’ main claim to fame was their late-season signing of Hugh “One Arm” Daily, who was on his way to racking up a ridiculous 483 strikeouts. But the greater part of their roster was comprised by a revolving door of stand-in players of varying anonymity, including an Unknown Carroll, an Unknown Franklin, and an Unknown Larkin (unknown even after appearing in 17 games!).

And then there was Unknown McRemer. It’s a name that stands out, because it’s an unusual name, and in fact, as far as previous inquirers have been able to determine, it’s not even a real name. Google “McRemer” and you will find a handful of references to our Mr. Unknown, and virtually nothing else. Unknown McRemer appeared in one game, went 0 for 3 at the plate, and successfully caught a couple of fly balls in right field. The legitimacy of his entire career thus hinges on a single boxscore — which opens up his already dubious surname to even further doubt. SABR scholars have even floated the suggestion that “McRemer” was simply a mangled transcription of “Reeder,” “McKee,” or “Creegan,” all of whom also appeared for Washington that season. I find that unlikely, but being unable to get my hands on the original boxscore, I can’t fully judge the plausibility of an error like this.

According to SABR, a search of census records failed to turn up any match for Mr. McRemer, supporting the notion that he did not exist. Thus, there can be few if any major-league ballplayers whose claims to legitimacy are more tenuous. Though his name will stay on the books, his personhood has been reduced into a technical oblivion. My heart sighs for this man.

But soft! What light from yonder Web search breaks? Though there is no McRemer in the census, there is one in the Massachusetts birth registry — and, lo, he seems to be of just the right age, and the right milieu, for our purposes. I speak of one John McRemer, born on October 3, 1850, to laborer James McRemer and his wife Ellen, Irish immigrants living on Bedford Street in Boston. Can this be our Unknown? Can we begin to fancifully fill in the great lacuna that is his life?

First we must permit ourselves to dismiss a few other suspects: Mat McRumer, for instance, an African-American man born in Georgia in 1864; H.J. McRenner, a native of Crawford Township, PA, born in 1862; Mathias Cremer, born in 1857 and documented in Franklin, TX as of 1880; any undocumented children of Joseph C. McRemer, who married in West Virginia in 1843; and so on. The evidence will likely never be strong enough to categorically uphold Boston John’s candidacy, or to toss out those of his challengers. But shouldn’t the chance to dignify a forgotten soul, to retroactively exalt one of the faceless millions, outweigh any small and indeterminable risk of error? Shall we give McRemer a name? Who’s with me?