Win Mercer, 1890s’ heartthrob, two-way star of the N.L. Senators

George Barclay “Win” Mercer was a 20-game winner in back-to-back seasons for woeful Washington teams in the 1890s’ National League. He batted .305 as a frequently used position player in a five-year stretch from 1897 to 1901.

By all accounts, the popular Mercer was a handsome ladies man and a big-time gambler. His nickname, reflecting his early success, was shortened from “Winner” to “Win” in the majors. His ejection on a day women were admitted free led to an on-the-field riot in which his female fans attacked the umpire.

Not long after he was named to manage the Detroit Tigers following the 1902 season, the 28-year-old Mercer committed suicide in a San Francisco hotel room for reasons that have never been conclusively explained.

Mercer, a right-hander who batted left, was the N.L. Senators top pitcher from 1894 through 1897. He won 17 games as a rookie in 1894 for team that won only 45. In 1896, he won 25 of the team’s 58 victories. The next year, he won 21 games and reduced his ERA nearly a run-per-game to 3.18. He led the league with 47 game starts and three shutouts. Mercer also hit .317 in 151 plate appearances.

The infamous “ladies day riot” happened on September 13, 1897. The Senators often started Mercer in weekday home games at Boundary Field, hoping to attract more female fans. For this game against Cincinnati, it was announced in advance that women would be admitted free.

In the top of the fifth inning, Mercer got into a heated argument with home-plate umpire Bill Carpenter over a pitch called a ball. After ejecting the popular pitcher, Carpenter was screamed at for the rest of the game by the thousands of female spectators. When the game ended and Cincinnati won, many of the women rushed onto the field and went after Carpenter, tearing at his clothing. Police had to be called to restore order.

The umpire eventually managed to get to the clubhouse without serious injury, but the ballpark suffered considerable damage. No other such ladies days were scheduled in Washington for years, even after the A.L. Senators arrived.    

After four seasons of at least 313 innings, Mercer pitched less in 1898, but still won 12 games on a team that lost 101. He threw 233 innings in 33 games. He played more in the field, appearing in 23 games at shortstop, 19 in the outfield, five at third and one at second, all while hitting a career-best .321 with a .369 on-base percentage. Take that, Shohei Ohtani.

Mercer was in the lineup for 62 games at third base in 1899 and hit .299 overall in 108 games and 417 plate appearances. Although he was just 7-14 pitching for an 11th-place team that won 54 games, he completed all 21 of his starts.

When the National League dropped Washington and three other teams for 1900, Mercer ended up with the New York Giants, a last-place team that season. Despite that, Mercer was 13-17 in 242 innings with a 3.86 ERA. He played the field in 43 other games — 19 of them at third, 14 in the outfield, seven at shortstop and two at second – and hit .294 in 279 plate appearances. In his career he played every position but catcher.

Clark Griffith’s appeals to N.L. players to jump to the new American League worked on Mercer, who returned to the new Washington franchise for 1901. He was 9-13, completing 19 of 22 starts. He started 16 games in the outfield, six at first base, and hit an even in .300 in 171 plate appearances.

After that first season, the Senators sent him to Detroit, where his pitching career was rejuvenated. Although the Tigers were 52-83 and finished seventh, Mercer led the team with 15 wins and innings pitched (281) and had a 3.04 ERA with four shutouts. After the season, he was named Detroit’s manager for 1903.

The popular Mercer was co-organizer of a team of all-stars from both leagues for a barnstorming tour starting in Chicago and ending on the West Coast that winter. Evidently, much gambling at race tracks and other venues took place, with Mercer a big participant. Mercer apparently lost several thousand dollars, not just his own money, but possibly payments he had promised his all-star teammates, according to some accounts.

On January 12, 1903, using the gas heating tube in his room at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel, Mercer asphyxiated himself. One note he left read: “A word to friends: beware of women and a game of chance.”

For more about Mercer, read William Akin’s BioProject essay at SABR.org:  https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/Win-Mercer/

 and William Ryczek’s 2015 article on the suicide at   http://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/strange-suicide-win-mercer

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