For those unaware, I really like baseball, its history, and its statistics. I adore Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstracts and pretty much anything Joe Posnanski (even the unbaseball, like columns about iPads or his daughter watching football). And so I bum around on billjamesonline, and a few days back a reader’s question directed at James caught my eye. The reader was watching a 1985 Mickey Mantle interview with David Letterman in which the Mick commented that he was only the third man to hit a homerun over the right field roof at Forbes Field—and said Babe Ruth and Buttermilk Meeks were the others. Letterman didn’t know who Meeks was, nor did the reader, nor did Bill James, so as other readers piped up with brief bits I went digging in digitized newspapers available on Newspapers.com (free 7-day trial subscription!), Ancestry.com (library edition!), and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America.
Buttermilk Meek(s) [spelled both ways, as you can see in the image captions below, though most census records and his tombstone spell it Meek; his first name appears as Harry, Herremen, Herriman, Harreman, Herre, and sometimes John or Dad as I bounce across different papers, census rolls, WWI draft records, obituaries, and the like] pops up all over The Birmingham Age-Herald and Atlanta Georgian and Atlanta Journal, starting in 1906 (the year he moved from Toronto of the Eastern League to Birmingham’s Barons) until 1913, and then occasionally in other papers in the 1920s in stories about old-timers and comparisons with Babe Ruth and other stars. Lots of the game reports suggest a good-hitting, poor-fielding 1b/c. Also a bunch of stories about bowling.
First, let’s take a look at the man himself:
The folks at Stats Crew have a pretty good summary of the outline of his career which lines up with the basic timeline and geography I found described in newspapers.
Regarding the name. A 1913 Atlanta Georgian article about new training methods adopted from football explained “The Southern league has had many near-athletes who ruined their chances with too much provender…’Buttermilk’ Meek, a former star, became famous for his habit of filling himself so full of the usually harmless beverage that he could barely navigate. And he drank himself out of Class A ball–on buttermilk. He must have weighed 275 when he retired.” Another article joked the Atlanta fans liked him, but mourned the rising price of buttermilk and beefsteak when he came to town. One of my favorite comments calls him “king of the dairy.” The New York Tribune in 1921 went further: “‘Buttermilk’ Meeks, first baseman with Birmingham many years ago, knows how ‘Babe’ Ruth feels about this flesh proposition. ‘Buttermilk’ could bat over .400. He was a great hitter, who might have starred in the major leagues. But in addition to batting over .400, he also weighed over 400. ‘Buttermilk’ spent two years trying to reduce, but finally surrendered and retired from baseball.” This Babe Ruth comp must have been a thing, since the Washington Postchimed in in 1921, “Ruth Must Fight Fat…Babe out to take an object lesson from ‘Buttermilk Bill’ Meeks’ fate. If there ever has been a hitter who was better than Ruth, it was Meeks. Perhaps he didn’t hit quite as hard, but he hit better, because he hit any kind of pitching and often hit the ball across fences. Mordecai Brown told me once that Meeks hit his fast curve ball as if it was a straight one. But Meeks stayed down in the Southern climate and fatted himself out of the game. He just got fatter and fatter until the pitchers shot the ball under his overhang, where he couldn’t hit them.” There are other similar stories–including a list of “the greatest sluggers the circuit has ever known; Joe Jackson, Tris Speaker, Lord Kirby, Buttermilk Meeks, Carlton Molesworth and Baby Doll Jacobson”–but we get the point.
I’ve had no luck finding a Forbes Field mention, much less a homerun there (I can’t even put Meeks in Pennsylvania), but I’ve got two homerun stories from the Southern Association. In 1908 the Age-Herald re-ran a Mobile Herald story titled “The Gladsome Story of The Swat of Henry Meek.” Against the Sea Gulls, “He gathered a bat some 40 inches long and strode plateward, determined to hit that ball safe or die trying,” and with the bases loaded “The ball soared high over the fence and outside the lot.” And a 1951 letter to the Birmingham News (attributed to a reverend, so we know it’s true) recalls “Birmingham was playing Atlanta and a fan, wearing a brown derby, was sitting on the top of the fence just below the right field bleachers. He was rooting for Atlanta and making a lot of noise. As Buttermilk came to bat in the fifth inning, a fan sitting in one of the so-called box seats called to him and told him if he would knock the Atlanta rooter off the fence he would give him $10. The first ball thrown Buttermilk he sent down the foul line and the next one, believe it or not, he shot like a rifle ball straight at the fan. In order not to be hit he fell off the fence backward, and just in time to be saved from being killed by the ball. Buttermilk got his $10.”
I think where we’ve landed on the Forbes Field story is that it’s unlikely. The park in Birmingham (owned by a steel baron and with a slag pile beyond the outfield fence) was supposedly modeled on Forbes, and there are clear steel connections with Pittsburgh, and I can promise you that Meek played against the Pittsburgh Pirates while he was with Chattanooga, on 12 and 13 April 1913 (he went hitless in two games in Chattanooga), and there were a bunch of stories comparing him to the Babe. All the pieces of a story about a Forbes Field home run are there, except clear evidence that Meek ever played there and performed the actual feat.
Unfortunately this picked up at the end of the first week of the semester, and I have other work to do, but we’ll see if I come back to him (still a story to chase, and he has no SABR bio yet!) or if there are other players I can try to chase down.
It seems like he was part ballplayer, part bowler, part legend, and part warning story—and a man with a good nickname.