Editor’s Note: This story was written by L-V Editor Josh Walzak and was last published in the Leader-Vindicator in September of 2003 after originally running in the paper in the late 1990s.
NEW BETHLEHEM — Back in the days when “America’s Pastime” truly described the game of baseball, and every small town had its own team to cheer for, young boys across the country dreamed of sharing the diamond with the likes of Christy Mathewson, Wee Willie Keeler, Nap Lajoie and the great Honus Wagner.
It was in these days of the spitball and the deadball that a young man from New Bethlehem made his dreams come true and not only had the chance to play alongside some of the greatest players ever to pick up a bat and a ball, but he rose through the ranks of professional sports and established himself as a true baseball star and even experienced the newly created World Series.
But, as it happens too often with fame, the star dims and eventually falls; sending the one-time celebrity from the heights of popularity to virtual anonymity.
Such was the story of Ossee Freeman Schreckengost. A coal-miner turned ball player who made it big crouching behind home plate.
The baseball historical website www.baseball-reference.com lists his last name’s spelling as “Schrecongost” without the K and with an E.
REDBANK ROOTS — For every fall, there is a rise, and that journey started in Fairmount City for Schreckengost. He was born on April 11, 1875; the son of “Big” Norman and Patty Schreckengost.
What remains of Ossee’s story is not much larger than the small stone which marks his grave in Kittanning. But like the game itself, history has been preserved.
A story in a 1953 edition of The Leader-Vindicator stated that Ossee’s father got his nickname “Big” Norman because he was bigger than another Norman who lived in the neighborhood.
The Schreckengost family lived in Fairmount City and Ossee attended school there until he was 10 years old and they moved down the road to New Bethlehem where they resided in an apartment along Broad Street above where Davidson’s TV is now.
Like many young men of his generation, Ossee grew up fast and went to work in a local coal mine. And at the age of 18, he began his baseball career by playing on the championship New Bethlehem baseball team.
“No other local team has earned the respect that the great baseball team of 1893 and 1894 built up with the aid of its great battery of Ossee Schreckengost and John Johnson,” a caption of an old newspaper photo of the team read.
Apparently the team and Ossee’s play attracted the attention of those at higher levels of baseball, and at the age of 20, Ossee left town to begin the trek that would eventually and forever pair him up with arguably the top left-handed pitcher of all time.
MINOR LEAGUE MOMENTS — In 1895, Ossee moved to Williamsport to play semi-professional baseball. The team was sponsored by the Domestic Sewing Machine Co. and served as the first of many stepping stones for the young New Bethlehem man. While little is known of the team and Ossee’s play, a small personal item in the New Bethlehem Vindicator reported that “Big” Norman visited his son while he was at Williamsport.
The following season Ossee moved on and up to the New England League where he played for Augusta, Maine. He stuck with that team into the 1897 season when the team played in the Maine State League.
Sometime during the 1897 season, Ossee changed teams to the Fall River Club of the New England League, and it was with this club that Ossee first got his taste of the big leagues when he was called up for one game with the struggling Louisville Colonels squad of the National League. He recorded three at-bats, but failed to register a hit.
In 1898, Ossee bounced between Cedar Rapids and Youngstown of the Inter-State League but notched 10 more games of major league experience as he played with the National League Cleveland Spiders. He fared well, going 11 for 35 with five extra-base hits and 10 RBIs. He would only top his season batting average of .314 one other time in his career.
During some point in his early career, Ossee changed — or was forced to change — his last name from Schreckengost to Schreck. It seems that the full name was just too long to fit into newspaper box scores of the day.
At the turn of the century, Ossee Schreck could officially call himself a big leaguer.
THE BIGS — In 1899, Ossee left the world of minor league baseball and enjoyed a complete season between St. Louis and Cleveland, both of the National League. He batted .290 with 124 hits in 114 games. While he spent the majority of his time as a catcher, he played 43 games at first base and several others at second base, shortstop and in the outfield.
While there is no record of Ossee’s time in Buffalo in 1900, he started the 1901 season with Boston of the American League where he worked at the receiving end of another Boston newcomer, Cy Young. Young recorded 33 wins that season to lead the league while Ossee batted .304 and led the league with three pinch hits.
While some may argue that the 1901 season was Ossee’s finest, the next year forever changed the course of his life.
CONNIE MACK AND THE RUBE — In October of 1901 Ossee was traded from Boston to the Cleveland Spiders of the American League for an unknown amount of money.
Nineteen-hundred and two started off calmly enough for Ossee in Cleveland where he was hitting .338 in 18 games. But the trade winds came calling again and Ossee found himself on Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.
It was at this point in his life that Ossee began to be known as much for his off-the-field antics as he was for his play between the white lines.
When he arrived in Philadelphia, Ossee met another Athletics newcomer named George Edward “Rube” Waddell. As battery mates, Waddell’s and Schreckengost’s lives became intertwined and seemed to parallel each other from their births to their early deaths.
Waddell, born in Bradford in 1876, got his first taste of the major leagues with Louisville in 1897, just as Ossee had. Both players bounced around for several years — Waddell played for Pittsburgh and Chicago — before joining the Athletics in 1902. Other similarities would surface as the players aged.
Because Waddell was one of the top players of the day and he constantly found himself in the limelight, Ossee also began to be scrutinized.
Although the Philadelphia Athletics no longer exist, the team’s history has been kept alive by the Athletics Historical Society and its vice president Max Silberman.
Silberman describes Wad-dell as “wacky” and “eccentric” but those adjectives may not even do the great pitcher justice.
“Waddell’s favorite activities were wrestling alligators, drinking alcoholic beverages, pretending to be a mannequin in store windows and fishing and playing with children,” Silberman says. “If a fire engine, parade or circus happened to go by Columbia Park, Waddell would most likely pick up and leave.”
Several famous stories about Waddell and Ossee remain a part of sports history.
“One famous Schreck story recounted by manager Connie Mack himself was that Ossee ordered a steak in Cleveland that was very tough,” Silberman recounted.
A newspaper clipping from 1929 finishes the tale:
“Schreck tried to cut it but couldn’t get a knife through it. ‘Take this away,’ he told the waiter, ‘and bring me a steak I can eat.’
“The steak was removed, the old runaround given, and it was brought right back again. Once more Schreck ordered it to be changed. Again it was returned.
“’Say,’ Schreck said to the waiter, ‘can you get me a hammer and some nails?’ The waiter smiled — those ball-players were always asking for the funniest things. He returned with the implements.
“Ossee picked up his steak and trundled the load downstairs. Then he calmly nailed the steak to the wall of the lobby.”
“Ossee’s outrageous behavior made him unwelcome at several hotels and restaurants patronized by the team,” Silberman noted.
In another legendary tale, it is said that Waddell, who was the roommate of Ossee, refused to sign his contract with the Athletics unless Mack would guarantee that he would force Ossee to stop eating animal crackers in bed.
“In those days, roommates shared a double-bed and Schreck’s crumbs or noise annoyed Waddell,” Silberman explained. “An alternate version of this apocryphal tale was that Waddell ate the crackers and Schreck complained to Connie Mack. In any event, Mr. Mack had his hands full with these two talented but simple-minded roommates.”
Although the off-the-field stories drew the public’s attention, the play of Ossee, Waddell and the Athletics team drew larger headlines.
CHAMPIONSHIP YEARS — Ossee tasted glory for the first time in 1902 as the Philadelphia Athletics captured the American League pennant with a record of 83-52. The catcher batted .324 that year.
Although the Pittsburgh Pirates won the National League crown that year, the World Series was still one year away from creation.
The Athletics posted an-other winning season in 1903 but were kept from repeating as league champions by the fine play of Cy Young’s Boston team. Ossee’s batting average dipped to .255 that year but he was quickly gaining respect for his catching abilities.
Silberman noted that Ossee could catch with only one hand and that he was “very helpful to [Athletics pitchers] Chief Bender, Eddie Plank and Waddell.” All three are now in the Hall of Fame.
Ossee’s catching style was even noted in a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” newspaper cartoon. The story, accompanied by a sketch of Ossee behind the plate, said that “Ossee Schreckengost, catcher for Connie Mack’s Athletics, caught Rube Waddell The Great Speed King with one hand!”
The local ballplayer’s fame is even more highlighted in the 1949 Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra film, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in which Ossee is mentioned along with other great players from the turn-of-the-century.
The 1904 season saw the Athletics fall to fifth place in the league but still finished the year with a winning record. Ossee led the league with 589 putouts but batted a dismal .186.
But if 1904 was a disappointing season for such a talented team, 1905 surely made up for it.
The Athletics won the American League pennant with a 92-56 record and earned a berth in the second ever World Series.
On their way to the championship season, Ossee raised his batting average to .272 and led the league in putouts, double plays, total fielding chances per game and fielding average.
The Athletics met the New York Giants in the World Series. New York’s ace pitcher Christy Mathewson started three of the five games played and dominated the Athletics as the Giants went on to win four games to one. Ossee made nine plate appearances during the series and recorded two hits and scored two runs. Waddell sat out the entire series due to injury; however, many today believe gamblers’ may have been involved.
Despite the disappointing end to the season, Ossee set a record during the regular season that still stands to this day. On July 4, 1905, Ossee caught 29 consecutive innings in a doubleheader.
The following two seasons were again winning years for the Athletics; however, they did not manage to bring home the league crown.
In 1906 Philadelphia finished in fourth place as Ossee hit .284 and again led the league in put outs. The Athletics finished only a game and a half out of first place in 1907 as the Detroit Tigers won a berth in the World Series. The local native, in his last full season with Philadelphia, batted .272.
The beginning of the end came during the 1908 season for Ossee. The Athletics were in the midst of a sub-par season and, after batting .222 in 71 games, the catcher was dealt to the Chicago White Sox for cash. He finished his season batting .188 in six games for his new team. It would be his last year in Major League Baseball.
Ironically, before the start of the 1908 season, the Athletics sent Waddell to the St. Louis Browns for cash. He pitched three years in St. Louis and left the game in 1910.
Whether or not the two players remained friends after their playing days together had ended is not known; however, to this day one can’t be mentioned without the other.
THE FALL — The exploits that made him famous may also have cost Ossee several more years behind the plate.
An article in a 1906 newspaper recounts Ossee’s “Fall from Grace” in the eyes of manager Connie Mack. It says that in September of that year, Mack sent Ossee home from a road trip to St. Louis because the catcher had remained out all night without the manager’s knowledge or consent. The article states that Mack “made no bones of saying that Schreck had misconducted himself frequently during the second half of that season.” Ossee was suspended for the rest of the season.
“The big catcher claims that he was unjustly treated,” the article said. “But Manager Mack would hardly have dropped so valuable a player as his star catcher without provocation. Schreck’s conduct has been a matter of private comment for many weeks.”
Another article also spoke of Ossee’s great play on the field and his indiscretions away from the game.
“A man of Connie Mack’s placid temperament deserves a halo in addition to honors as a great manager when one remembers how he handled such babies as Ossee Schreck and Rube Waddell,” the story stated. “Schreck was a peach, one of the best receivers that ever stood behind a plate, but even Mack balked at the antics of the pair.”
The story tells of Mack’s insistence that Ossee go on the wagon and drink milkshakes instead of alcohol. Ossee had little problem with the request, drinking 15 or 20 shakes each day. It was later discovered that the catcher’s milkshakes had a special ingredient: sherry.
Needless to say, Ossee’s problems were so great that Mack was willing to lose him as a player.
After finishing his major league career in Chicago, Ossee played minor league baseball in Columbus and Louisville until he was released in 1910. He then managed the Ohio State League Club but returned to play first base in 1911 with an inde-pendent team in Ford City.
On July 9, 1914, at the age of 39, Ossee died at the North-western General Hospital in Philadelphia. His obituary states that the catcher died “from a complication of diseases.”
“He had been ill for a long time but did not enter the hospital until yesterday morning,” the article noted. His death certificate lists the cause of death as “heart disease and Cont. Brights Disease.”
The article states that Ossee had collapsed in a cafe.
Ossee and Waddell were connected in death as well as in life. Waddell died of tuberculosis in San Antonio, Texas, a little more than three months before Ossee.
The catcher’s obituary notes that “grief over the death of the brilliant but eccentric Waddell probably had much to do with hastening the end of the former great catcher. Schreck told friends at the time of Waddell’s death that he didn’t care to live.”
Ossee is quoted as saying, “The Rube is gone and I am all in. I might as well join him.”
The night before he died, Ossee regained consciousness at the hospital and “chatted” with the attending physicians. He declared that the Athletics would win the American League Pennant and that his only regret was that he and Waddell “were out of the fight.”
FINAL RESTING PLACE — On a hill overlooking Kittanning, Ossee rests in Section D of the town’s cemetery.
The man who was once known across the baseball world, is remembered with a small marble marker that simple reads “Osee F. 1875 — 1914.”
He was buried next to a “Annie I. 1877 — 1905”, possibly his sister, and his parents, whose names do not match with newspaper re-cords. The tombstone shows that “Naaman F. 1851 — 1905” and “Sarah C. 1853 — 1927” were buried next to Ossee.
While few may remember the life of Ossee Freeman Schreckengost, some will never forget.
“Ossee Schreckengost? Of course I know old Schreck,” Silberman said when asked by this reporter. “He was a great ballplayer and a real nut.”