One Hundred Years Ago, Chicago’s City Clerk
Was Future Baseball Hall Of Famer Cap Anson

by Howard Rosenberg, Author of the "Cap Anson" Baseball Historic Research Series

Baseball and city government are usually not thought of together, but Chicagoans could not help lumping the two a century ago. It was then that Chicago had a former baseball star as its city clerk, Adrian Constantine "Cap" Anson. Anson is best known for being the first batter in the sport’s history to reach 3,000 hits. He is also known for having been a racist during his major league career: He was opposed to playing in games in which the other team had one or more black players. Before an exhibition game in 1883 at Toledo, Ohio, he did relent after vowing not to play, but uttered, "We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the nigger in.’’ (That was reported by the Toledo Blade in its coverage of the game.)
 
A few blacks played major league baseball during Anson’s career, all between the late 1870s and 1884. Starting in 1887, although never at a major league baseball, the sport, through its minor leagues, adopted bans on blacks that effectively kept blacks from reaching the major leagues. As is much better known today, baseball’s "color line" was broken for good in 1947, when Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
 
The team Anson was most associated with was Chicago of the National League, which today is known as the Cubs. In Anson’s day, it was best known as the White Stockings and later the Colts. From 1876 to 1897, he mainly played first base for the team and was its player-manager when it won five pennants.
 
His candidacy for third-highest office in Chicago government stemmed from his involvement in activities of Chicago’s Democratic Party. After his major league career ended as a player in 1897 and as a manager in 1898, he opened a billiard hall in Chicago and participated in a bowling league. While baseball players are not thought of today as holding strong political views, Anson and other players of his day witnessed one of the most down-to-earth presidential elections in U.S. history: in 1896, when Republican William F. McKinley defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan, the big issue pitted the rich against the poor like few elections ever have. The top issue related to the value of the U.S. dollar, which, unlike today, was based on the value of gold. McKinley wanted gold to be used exclusively to guarantee the dollar’s value, while Bryan was for using both gold and silver. The argument against silver was that because of its unstable value in comparison to gold, it would promote inflation. That is because anyone who owed money (farmers were big debtors as the time) would get to pay their debts in cheaper dollars (which would make their original loans, in retrospect, less costly than they would be had the country been on just a gold standard). In 1900, the United States formally adopted a pure gold standard, which it got rid of for good in 1933. Anson was strongly for McKinley’s position in favor of using only gold as part of the standard.
 
Anson also had a strong political sense from growing up in a town in Marshalltown, Iowa, where he was born in 1852 and which his dad Henry had founded. Henry was quite a tactful businessman and unofficial politician in building up the town’s prestige, including in a political fight with a neighboring town for locating a county seat. In 1905, Henry died at age 78, which was then a ripe old age--eight months into Cap’s term as city clerk.
 
In Chicago, Cap’s first notable political position was being elected sergeant-at-arms of the newly created Chicago Democratic Club in 1903. While he had supported Republican McKinley for president, he supported the Democrats on issues at the city level. In the summer of 1903, he was marshal of Chicago’s Democratic parade and annual summer picnic. The featured guest was none other than William Jennings Bryan. Anson rode a horse at the front of the parade, as can be seen in the above picture.
 
During his playing career, Anson had been kidded about running for office. In 1888, when the Chicago team was struggling, a legendary Chicago newspaper writer named Eugene Field wrote the following quip: "Now that Baby Anson has quit playing ball, somebody should nominate him for Congress in the second district.’’ (Anson was sometimes called Baby because he liked to argue with the umpire.)
 
When he ran for city clerk in 1905, he added geographic balance to the Democratic slate, as no one else near the top of the party’s ticket was a resident of the South Side.
 
On Election Day, Democrats won all the key races in the city, and Edward Dunne was elected mayor. As city clerk, here are some of Anson’s more notable ups and downs. While he had his share of scandals, he was never indicted on charges of corruption, as is the case with the current city clerk of Chicago, James J. Laski.
 
Anson issued the first retail licenses for firework sales in the city’s history, in advance of the Fourth of July.
 
Also, he reported the mysterious disappearance of 200 dog licenses from his office, each of which was worth $2, or about $40 in today’s dollars. Later, he disclosed that he owed money to the city for licenses granted for him to have billiard and pool tables in his billiard hall, and said he would not pay until forced to. "‘This is no joke,’ he said. ‘As soon as I receive notice that, as city clerk, I owe this money, I, as city clerk, will get after the owner of the hall and make him pay.’’ The Chicago Tribune said, "The city clerk may be served with a notice today.’’
 
He declared that employees in his office could not attend baseball games during regular working hours. "Any attache of the city clerk’s department who forsakes his duties to witness the national pastime shall be fined,’’ he said. To make his point, he docked a city hall employee the equivalent today of $800 for having gone to games on the job.
 
Also, his deputy resigned just before a civil service commission hearing on charges that the deputy had altered city council records to help the Illinois Telephone and Telegraph Company. The Tribune roasted Anson for not firing him earlier.
 
On deadline, Mayor Dunne and Anson had to each sign their names on 2,000 municipal bonds. "It’s a lovely job,’’ Anson told a reporter while busy at the task. "Just as easy. I wish the other fellow [the Republican who ran against him for city clerk] had been elected, though. I wonder what the baseball score is. Are the White Sox winning? I’d like some nice corn beef and cabbage just now.’’

In 1906, he gave in after the city’s civil service commission blocked the payroll of his department after he refused to certify a new chief clerk of the city council. Anson had given the job to a personal friend on a 60-day basis, which was able to skirt regular hiring procedures.
 
That spring, three clerks in his office were accused of collecting pay for around 100 combined days not worked. To one of the three, a clerk who hands out dog licenses, Anson gave $50 and his train pass to use to travel to a resort at West Baden, Ind., on the presumption that they were doing work related to a city council meeting. An investigation by a city attorney found the charges credible that they had goofed off. Anson initially refused to approve the charges, after earlier filing such charges and withdrawing them. His alleged grounds for withdrawal was that "he might need the friends of the alleged delinquent clerks in getting the nomination for sheriff on the Democratic ticket’’ in the 1907 election. Someone asked Anson, "Was it political backing that caused withdrawal of the previous charges?’’ Anson replied, "I don’t know what you are talking about. I simply withdrew the charges.’’ When Anson upbraided one of the accused for being absent without leave, the employee told Anson "that he could get him more than 600 delegates at the fall convention,’’ a writer said.
 
A week later, Anson signed the charges after a city attorney said they would be brought regardless whether Anson signed them. Anson said, "I guess the boys [three clerks] had all the chance there was coming, and maybe a little more. I have been after them ever since I got into office. Every effort was made to bring them to time without causing them to lose their jobs. Why, I talked with them until I was black in the face.’’ The city’s civil service commission called on Anson to testify. "When Clerk Anson was called the commission learned how many words could be employed without answering a question or conveying any information,’’ the Tribune said. "His replies almost always bore such qualifications as ‘generally speaking,’ ‘I feel reasonably sure,’ ‘I think,’ [sic] ‘I am not sure about, but it was probably so.’ This caused a smile from the spectators, but the ‘captain’ did not get ‘rattled,’ and so no definite statement could be obtained from him.’’
 
The scandal pretty much sunk Anson’s future political career, with the Tribune writing the following in an editorial, when he was thinking of running for sheriff of Cook County: "When an elective official’s eagerness for some other elective office is of the sort that makes him a coward in his present office that cowardice is not a good qualification for another job. The stories which Capt. Anson told on the platform during his campaign a year ago seemed then to win him votes, but the people may not be so ‘easy’ a second time. They may turn the light on the captain’s record. While the captain is in his present office he should try to be a real city clerk.’’
 
That summer, he did run for the Democratic nomination for sheriff. In his final statement before the election, he said, "I have been before the public for the last twenty-five years and I will abide by the verdict.’’ He signed the note, "Their obedient servant, A. C. Anson.’’ Days later, he came in a distant fourth in the balloting. That would end his political career.
 
In April 1907, when the city elected a new mayor, Fred Busse, Anson swore him in.