I’ll do a lot to get a baseball fix in the off-season, apparently.
Including crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey to track down the grave of a man who appears in a legendary trading-card set — even though he only played 60 games in the major leagues.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a boring professional baseball career. Even those who aren’t stars end up in interesting places and cross paths with noteworthy people, as long as they’re good enough to keep playing for a while.
Thomas Jefferson Raub, a catcher by trade, was good enough to play for quite a while — though exactly how long seems to be open to debate.
Raub first shows up in organized baseball records in 1894, as a 23-year-old, playing for Kelly’s Killers — a Pennsylvania team built around the celebrity of King Kelly, the dissolute former major-league star of the late 19th century.
Kelly’s Killers shared a league with teams like the Shenandoah Huns and the Altoona Mad Turtles; and if I didn’t know Baseball Reference to be a trustworthy site, I’d think the entire league was a joke.
(Though, actually, some minor-league team nowadays could probably move a lot of merch with a Mad Turtle mascot. They were ahead of their time in Altoona.)
Anyway, Raub then vanishes from the record for five full years. I assume he was playing ball during the missing years in some under-the-radar backwoods league.
He reappears in the official record in 1900, when he played the first of three seasons for Montreal of the Eastern League.
And then, after those seasons in Montreal, something remarkable and unlikely happened: Tommy Raub, an ancient rookie at age 32, made the major leagues for the first time, with the Chicago Cubs.
Not having ready access to the Chicago daily papers of 1903, I am powerless to explain how Raub achieved the company of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. Maybe he had an especially good spring training, or maybe the Cubs didn’t know how old he really was.
The rookie from Raubsville (yes, Tommy Raub came from Raubsville, Northampton County, Pa.) played 36 games at catcher, first base, third base and the outfield, hitting .226.
He appears to have spent the entire season in The Show. Or, at least, there is no record of him playing for another team in 1903, and the Cubs’ roster shows no additional backup catchers getting any significant time.
Nowadays, rookie catchers in their early 30s become cult heroes and get book deals. Alas, big-league baseball was a different animal in 1903; and if anyone in the bleachers at West Side Park carried signs for Tommy Raub, their effort is lost to history.
(Just for historical context, 1903 was the year of the first World Series; the American League was only two years old at the time. And major-league baseball teams still played in rickety wooden stadiums: Raub didn’t get to play in Ebbets Field, Shibe Park or Forbes Field because they didn’t exist yet.)
After the season, Chicago sold him back to Toronto in the Eastern League, where he put in parts of another three years — until he got another big-league call, this one even more unlikely than the first.
The 35-year-old Raub played 24 early-season games with the 1906 St. Louis Cardinals, catching exclusively, and hitting a surprising .282.
But with the Cardinals stuck in sixth place, the team apparently decided to look elsewhere for bench players. Raub played his last big-league game on June 22, 1906, in a 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh, retreating for the rest of the year to the familiar haven of Montreal.
Raub continued to play at various levels of the minor leagues through 1912, when he hit .309 at age 41. I suppose he figured it was worth hanging around, since the big leagues could come calling at any time.
Tommy Raub was 78 when he died Feb. 15, 1949, in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, more or less directly across the Delaware River from Raubsville.
His lasting big-league claim to fame was discovered almost 40 years after his death, when a copy of a 112-card baseball card set produced in 1904 by the Allegheny Card Co. surfaced.
The company, based in Pittsburgh, apparently produced a single prototype set of cards but never put it into full production.
The single set that was sold at auction in the late 1980s — which has since been broken up into individual cards — is still the only one known to exist. Two years ago, a group of six 1904 Allegheny cards sold for almost $5,000.
Tommy Raub, of course, was gone from the Cubs by 1904. But he was one of the 112 players pictured in the 1904 Allegheny set anyway. And in 2004, exactly a century after its production, the only known Tommy Raub baseball card sold for almost $700 — not Honus Wagner territory, sure, but pretty good for a 32-year-old rookie.
Only 118 days until Opening Day and a new set of stories.