Of all the cemeteries I’ve ever been in, Altoona’s Fairview Cemetery was the one that definitely needed some help. From the moment I passed through the gates on Willow Avenue, I was shocked by the condition of the cemetery grounds. The hillside was marred by sunken graves, toppled stones, fallen tree branches and tall grasses – the once proud cemetery looked defeated.
Despite appearances, the cemetery grounds were busy with people making laps on the broken pavement of the cemetery’s roadways. I acknowledged a number of walkers as I carefully drove to the memorial for the Civil War Veterans that stood guard at the top of the cemetery. Parking in the shadow of the monument, Zech, Jen and I stepped out into the cool autumn air.
The leaves crunched under foot as we spread out to search the grounds for the two baseball players who rest near the Civil War Monument. Sitting in the shadow of the memorial, just a couple steps off the roadway on the northeastern side of the Soldier’s Circle, is the resting place of the man we sought. The stone gives no clue that the Altoona native who rests here made an appearance in the Major Leagues.
“Do you really believe that he was the worst shortstop ever?” Zech asked as we paused at his grave. I gave my brother a curious look, surprised he was aware of this debate. “I did an internet search and it seems many believe he was possibly the worst shortstop, if not player, in the history of the game.”
John Peter “Johnny” Gochnaur was born September 12, 1875 in Altoona, one of eleven children to William H. and Mary Ann Gochnaur. Driven by the love of the game, the right-hander grew up playing in the sandlots of Altoona.
Gochnaur’s professional career began in 1896, when he signed on with the Portsmouth Browns as a second baseman. Through 1899, he bounced from team to team and league to league, playing in various positions for the Roanoke Magicians, the Hagerstown Lions, the Brockton Shoemakers and the Paterson Giants.
In 1900, Gochnaur joined the Dayton Veterans and was placed as shortstop, the position he would play for the rest of his career. The following year, he would begin the season with the Dayton Old Soldiers, but as the end of the 1901 season closed, he would make his appearance in the Majors as a member of the Brooklyn Superbas of the National League. In three games, he made twelve plate appearances, with three hits, a walk, and a stolen base.
At the end of the season, Gochnaur would become a member of the Cleveland Broncos. He played in 127 games in 1901 with 85 hits, 16 doubles, 4 triples and 7 stolen bases. Despite having a fielding percentage of .933, Gochnaur had 48 errors that season.
Gochnaur remained with the Broncos for the 1903 season and appeared in 134 games that year. His batting statistics were almost the same that year – 81 hits, 16 doubles, 4 triples, and 10 stolen bases. Gochnaur’s fielding percentage dropped to .869 with 98 errors committed. The number of errors was enough for the team to let him go at the end of the season.
His statistics in his short time in the Major Leagues are terrible. He had no homeruns and committed an amazing 146 errors. But what is also not shown due to incomplete statistics is whether Gochnaur’s career in the Minors and Independent Leagues was as error-ridden, or if it was just a failure at the Major League level.
However, there is a reason that possibly explains the number of errors once he arrived in the Major Leagues. In the August 5, 1902 game against the Washington Senators, Gochnaur broke a finger during the third inning. Rather than leaving the game, he remained at shortstop and eventually batted in the winning run in the tenth inning.
At the end of the 1903 season, Gochnaur was ordered by the Cleveland Broncos to go to San Francisco. Gochnaur refused to go and was placed on baseball’s blacklist. His response was to return to Altoona and play for the Mountaineers of the Tri-State League in 1904. By the end of August, his name had been removed from the blacklist and he reported to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific League.
Gochanur played 86 games for San Francisco in 1904. He remained with them until the 1906 season, when he joined the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific League. He finished his professional career in the Western League in 1907 with the Des Moines Champs.
While he gave up playing baseball, Gochnaur did not give up the sport. For eight years he was a well-liked umpire in the Tri-State League, leaving it to umpire in other leagues in 1913. Gochnaur umpired in the Middle Atlantic League, the New York-Pennsylvania League, and the International League. In addition to professional baseball, he umpired games in the Central, Three I, and Kitty circuits, and called all of the home games at Penn State. In addition to umpiring, Gochnaur would work as an Altoona Police Department officer, Pennsylvania Railroad policeman, and bartender.
Gochnaur was just fifty-four when he came down with a cold. Friends discovered him at his home and rushed him to the Altoona Hospital, but it was too late. Less than eight hours after being admitted to the hospital, Gochnaur died in the early morning hours of September 27, 1929 of pneumonia. Note: Many places state Gochnaur was fifty-three when he passed. He had turned fifty-four only fifteen days before his death.
“So do you think he was the worst player?” Zech asked as we finished paying our respects. “He had ninety-eight errors in 1903 alone, making him the last player to have more than ninety errors in one season. His three seasons ended with a batting average of .187 and he had no homeruns.”
“First, he did not have the worst batting average over a career. Bill Bergen ended his career with a .170, so there is a batting average that is worse than Gochnaur. However, Bergen had over three thousand at-bats, whereas Gochnaur had just over nine hundred.
“I can’t really justify the number of errors. Personally, I would like to think the errors stemmed from the broken finger in the 1902 season. However, the available stats from his time in Dayton during their 1901 season shows he had sixty-eight errors.” I paused to look out across Altoona’s cityscape from atop the hill. “Maybe the fault for Gochnaur’s poor performance lies somewhere else. We look back at his stats and say they are terrible, but why not question: Why didn’t the coaches pull him if he was playing so poorly?“
“You have a point,” Zech agreed. “I would have sent him elsewhere after the 1902 season.”
“I would have also,” I replied. “But at least he followed his dreams and played professional baseball.”
“And it gives people something to debate when it comes to the history of the game.” I could only agree with his statement.
We silently stood as we finished remembering the life and times of John Gochnaur. The cool breeze crossed the garden of stone as we left Gochnaur resting atop the hill overlooking his hometown as we went in search of James Ritz, another baseball player whose grave was nearby.
Note: More about James Ritz can be found here: The Brief Career of James Ritz.