No Gentleman of The Diamond: John “Snake” Deal

John Wesley “Snake” Deal, Mount Joy

Note: There have only been a handful of articles I’ve researched that have created major issues and John Wesley “Snake” Deal is one of those articles. Usually, I use the obituary as a starting point, but in this case I quickly discovered dates of importance in his obituary are wrong and I don’t have a reason why they are wrong. All baseball references and newspapers during his playing years agree on certain dates, but Deal’s obituary lists alternate dates, such as: Deal’s obituary states his single year in the Major Leagues was in 1912, but I can verify his appearance in the Major Leagues was in 1906. It also states his final year playing professional baseball was with the Ridgway team in 1918, whereas I can verify it was actually in 1916. I have not found a reason why many of the important dates in Deal’s obituary are off by a number of years, so I used the dates I could verify.

Also, many of Deal’s statistics – both in baseball and basketball – are incomplete, so his numbers are higher than recorded.

As many times as I had passed Mount Joy on my way to Lancaster, I had never ventured into the community. That was about to change as I turned off Route 283. I entered Mount Joy and took Fairview Road northwest out of town before turning onto Terrace Road. A short distance later, I turned onto the roadway entering Camp Hill Cemetery and made my way slowly up the hillside towards the crest of the cemetery. At the top of the hill, near the intersection with Bruce Avenue and just a couple paces off the roadway, stands a simple memorial to a talented, but controversial, athlete who made a professional career in both basketball and baseball.

John Wesley “Snake” Deal was born in Lancaster on January 21, 1879, one of six children of Charles and Clara Deal. It was while playing basketball he received the nickname “Snake” due to the way he wiggled down the court and his “shifty” way of playing basketball. The nickname would follow his career in both basketball and baseball.

Deal quickly became a star in the newly formed National Basketball League, but would have a rough start to that career as he injured his knee during the 1898 season after playing just seven games. His second season started with the Chester team before moving to the Camden, New Jersey team, where – much to the chagrin of his coaches and teammates – he changed the way basketball would be played. Deal did not hesitate to shoot the basketball while running and leaving the floor when he shot – something that would evolve into the jump shot.

In response to his different method of playing, the owner-coach of the Camden team sent Deal to the Pennsylvania Basketball Conference. There Deal played in twenty-one games, averaging twelve points per game. He returned to the Camden team for the 1901-1902 season, scoring 605 points and the following season had scored 730 points, helping Camden win the championship that season.

For the 1903-1904 season, Deal played for the Pittsfield / Chicopee / Springfield basketball teams. The season started normally, but then the owners decided they wanted to switch the home city where they played. The team Deal was on started the season in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, before switching playing locations with the Chicopee team – not only did the two teams switch playing locations, they also switched team standings. So Deal’s team moved from Pittsfield to Chicopee and took over Chicopee’s win/loss record while the Chicopee team moved to Pittsfield and took over their win/loss record.

At the start of the second half of the season, the Chicopee team – the team Deal was on – moved to Springfield, Massachusetts to replace the basketball team that had been located there. This time, when the team moved, they took their win/loss record with them to the new location.

The following year, Deal was cut from the team after he had a falling out with his teammates. Deal never had an impressive season after playing for the Springfield team, but he continued playing professional basketball, mostly with independent teams. By the end of his basketball career, Deal had played in 322 games and accumulated 3371 points.

At the same time he was playing professional basketball, Deal played professional baseball. He first appears in the 1901 statistics as a right-hander who played first base for the Chester ball team and later that season with the Reading team of the Pennsylvania State League.

He next appears in the roster of the 1902 Harrisburg Senators of the Tri-State League. There are no official statistics listed for Deal for the 1902 and 1903 seasons and little is mentioned of him in the newspapers.

However, the 1904 season found Deal at odds all season with the umpires, his team owners, and anybody who dared to disagree with him. At least twice before July 26, he had been ejected from games for arguing with the umpire. The July 26 game saw him once again ejected forcibly from the game after a fist fight with the umpire. According to The Daily News (Lebanon) Deal cursed and struck the umpire after he disagreed with the umpire’s call. The umpire returned Deal’s blows and two police officers grabbed Deal to remove him from the field. In the process of Deal’s fighting the police officers, those watching the game flooded the field and a massive brawl occurred. Deal fled from the mob and managed to escape without injury.

The Lebanon Daily News reported on October 1, 1904 that Deal was again escorted off the field by police after he got into a heated argument. This time, the umpire called Deal’s hit foul and the two got into a shouting match. The umpire ejected Deal, but Deal refused to leave the field. Police had to be called to escort him once again off the field.

And then Deal’s 1904 season went from bad to worse. The October 9 edition of The Gazette (York) records the October 8 game between York and Harrisburg. In the middle of the fifth inning, Deal resigned from the team after another heated argument with the umpire. This time, during the argument, Deal grabbed the umpire and attempted to strangle him. After being pulled off the umpire, Deal threw down his glove and stormed off, stating he would never play for Harrisburg again.

Despite his issues on the field, Deal appeared as a member of the 1905 Holyoke Paperweights of the Connecticut State League. The start of the 1906 season found Deal on the roster of the Lancaster Red Roses, where he played sixty-four games with the team.

On July 9, 1906, Snake Deal made his debut with the Cincinnati Reds. But Deal’s arrival in Cincinnati came with controversy. When Deal made his appearance with Cincinnati, the Holyoke club objected, stating Deal was still under contract with them to play professional baseball. The only evidence to Holyoke’s claims was a contract they provided, saying they had mailed a copy of it to Deal and were waiting for him to sign and return it to them. Deal claimed he never received the contract. Added to the controversy was Holyoke did not seem worried Deal had not signed and returned the contract until four days after Deal signed with Cincinnati. The National Baseball Commission declared Deal was a free agent at the time he signed, so he remained playing first base for Cincinnati.

Deal finished the 1906 season with Cincinnati. He played in sixty-five games with them and ended his career in the Major Leagues on October 7, 1906. Deal had forty-eight singles, four doubles, three triples and fifteen stolen bases.

In 1907, Deal was again with Lancaster, staying with them three seasons. In 1910, Deal was bounced between four different teams. His last team of 1910 was the Syracuse Stars of the New York State League, the league where he would stay with through the 1914 season.

And once more trouble and controversy followed him. His arrival in Syracuse was noted in the September 10, 1910 edition of The York Dispatch, where it is noted Deal took a swing at a sports writer who openly criticized him. Deal’s antics on the baseball diamond continued and most fans of the Syracuse team hated him and openly booed when Deal took the field. Deal’s playing was best described in the January 18, 1911 edition of the Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY). As a player, Deal had “demonstrated that while he is a first class ball player he is not a gentleman on the diamond.”

Deal left Syracuse during the 1912 season and played with the Wilkes-Barre Barons through the 1914 season. In 1915, he played for the Gettysburg Patriots before finishing his baseball career the following year as a member of the Ridgway, Pennsylvania team of the Interstate League. Overall, he played twelve seasons in the Minor Leagues. While Deal’s Minor League statistics are incomplete, it is known he had at least 1,003 hits, sixty-eight doubles, thirty-one triples, six homeruns, and twenty-eight stolen bases.

Note: While all baseball references only have statistics for his batting, Deal’s obituary states he had also dabbled in pitching, but I have not been able to local any official sources that support this claim. The Courier-Post (Camden, NJ) mentions at the time of Deal’s death he had once pitched for the Wilkes-Barre baseball club, but I have not found any other mention of him pitching.

After his baseball career ended, John “Snake” Deal settled in the Lancaster area and would become a part of the state capitol police force. When he arrived at work on May 9, 1944, Deal stated he wasn’t feeling good. A doctor was sent for, but by the time help arrived, Deal had died of a fatal heart attack. He was sixty-five at the time of his death and was survived by his wife, Maude.

I finished remembering the talented, but controversial player who made an impact on the history of both basketball and baseball before I left him resting atop the hillside overlooking the garden of stone.

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