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The Curious Case of Tommy Barlow
By David Arcidiacono

Born in 1852, Thomas H. Barlow grew up in Brooklyn, New York, playing ball every afternoon as most young lads in the baseball-crazed city did. Tommy, as he was affectionately called, became so skilled at the game that by the age of twenty he was a promising young catcher for the Brooklyn Atlantics in the National Association, the country's first professional baseball league. He handled the deliveries of teenage hurler Jim Britt, who, at the tender age of sixteen, had also begun his professional career with the Atlantics in 1872. After two seasons as batterymates, both Barlow and Britt departed the pathetic Atlantics, who had won barely a quarter of their games during that time. Britt never played major league ball again, while Barlow signed with Connecticut's newest entry in the National Association, the Hartford Dark Blues.

In young Barlow, the Dark Blues knew they were getting a hitter noted more for his short hits than long ones. Tommy was one of the first practitioners of the bunt, executing his strategic hit with a bat turned from no more than twenty-four inches of wood. He had so thoroughly mastered the maneuver that critics who thought the innovation unworthy of a professional player dubbed it "Barlow's dodo."1 Defense was the primary reason the Dark Blues signed Barlow, as they planned to move him out from behind the plate to anchor their infield at the shortstop position, where they believed his quickness and agility would truly shine.

But it is not for his slick fielding or clever handling of the bat for which Barlow is remembered, if he is remembered at all. Instead, it is for the sad manner in which his career, indeed his life, came to an end. Countless ballplayers have been forced from the game they loved due to the evils of the bottle, but Barlow may have been the first to lose his career to drugs.

Tommy Barlow's story of how he became a morphine addict is so compelling that Ken Burns's highly acclaimed documentary Baseball included a dramatic reading of the following letter from Barlow, which appeared in the September 16, 1877, edition of the Boston Times.


It was on the 10th of August, 1874, that there was a match game of baseball in Chicago between the White Stockings of that city and the Hartfords of Hartford, now of Brooklyn. I was catcher for the Hartfords, and Fisher was pitching. He is a lightning pitcher, and very few could catch for him. On that occasion he delivered as wicked a ball as ever left his hands, and it went through my grasp like an express train, striking me with full force in the side. I fell insensible to the ground, but was quickly picked up, placed in a carriage, and driven to my hotel. The doctor who attended me gave a hypodermic injection of morphine, but I had rather died behind the bat then [sic] have had that first dose. My injury was only temporary, but from taking prescriptions of morphine during my illness, the habit grew on me, and I am now powerless in its grasp. My morphine pleasure has cost me eight dollars a day, at least. I was once catcher for the Mutuals, also for the Atlantics, but no one would think it to look at me now.2


Addiction to morphine, first isolated from opium in 1803 by the German pharmacist F. W. A. Sert¸rner, who named it after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, was not uncommon in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It's been estimated that the addiction level in the United States at that time was a startling 2 to 5 percent of the adult population. By the mid-1850s, morphine had gained popularity with doctors who considered its pain-relieving benefits nothing short of remarkable. The Civil War provided ample opportunity to put morphine's anesthetizing qualities to use. Unfortunately, the addictive characteristics of the drug went largely unnoticed until after the war, when an estimated three hundred thousand soldiers returned home from the front lines with the "army disease," morphine addiction.3

Apart from Civil War veterans, most addicts, surprisingly, were ladies of the middle and upper classes. These women were frequent customers of what is now called the "patent medicine" industry. Spurred by itinerant salesmen crisscrossing the countryside hawking colorfully named elixirs such as Hunt's Lightning Oil, Wintersmith's Chill Tonic, Gooch's Mexican Syrup, and Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, these potions were marketed as cures for virtually any ailment including children's teething pains, coughing fits, dysentery, and "women's trouble." What the hucksters failed to divulge to their naive customers was that many of these concoctions contained huge quantities of morphine. It was largely the sale of these patent medicines that led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, whose charter was to approve all foods and drugs meant for human consumption. Once tested, patent medicines were quickly banned.4

So it would appear from his story that Tommy Barlow was another victim of accidental morphine addiction, his resulting from treatment for a baseball injury. As a detailed, first-person account from an eyewitness to the events, the letter Barlow penned to the Boston Times would presumably be a highly reliable source. In writing the history of the Hartford Dark Blues, I envisioned a poignant story being woven from Barlow's moving account supported by details from the pages of Hartford's three daily newspapers. Surely the hometown press would have provided extensive coverage of an injury so dramatic as Barlow described.

Much to my chagrin, however, further research failed to corroborate any of the particulars that Barlow described, quickly transforming his tale from a fundamental element of Hartford's baseball past to a troubling historical mystery. What really ended Barlow's career? Was it the supposed injury and resulting morphine addiction, or was it Barlow's "indiscretions," as the Hartford Post reported at the end of the season?5 Let's scrutinize Barlow's statement, point by point.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2004 issue.



DAVID ARCIDIACONO has researched Connecticut nineteenth-century baseball for over ten years. "The Curious Case of Tommy Barlow" is a revised excerpt from his latest book, Grace, Grit and Growling—The Hartford Dark Blues Base Ball Club, 1874–1877.

© 2004 David Arcidiacono


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