Foreword: My post of May 1, 2018, featured three “whiskey men” based on a baseball theme. Those were fans, liquor purveyors who were avid followers of baseball, sometimes using the sport as a theme in their merchandising. Presented here are three short vignettes of men who, by contrast, actively participated in baseball, playing, managing, organizing. Two have written their names in the annals of the game.
One of them was Charles E. Coon, identified as “Uncle Charlie,” even on his gravestone. Shown left, Coon traced an amazing career trajectory that included service in the Nation's Capital as Acting Secretary of the Treasury Department to becoming a Washington State storekeeper selling liquor. His story was unlocked by the miniature whiskey jug shown below, one with which he gifted the drinking public of Port Townsend.
Born in 1842 in Friendship, Allegany County, New York, Coon was the son of Arthur A. and Emile Evarts Coon, The family was of modest means and the youth was educated in local public schools. Almost immediately after the outbreak of the Civil War, at the age of 18 he enlisted in the 23rd New York Volunteer Infantry and saw considerable hot fighting with the regiment as part of the First Corps, Army of the Potomac.
Discharged from the Army in 1864, Coon obtained employment in the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. and rose rapidly through the ranks to eventually being named “ad interim” Secretary of the Treasury, serving until a new secretary was appointed. He continued to serve as assistant secretary for another year and then retired at only 46 years old and returned to New York City.
Throughout his life Charlie was a fanatic about baseball. Before enlisting in the Civil War, he had been a member of one of the earliest premier teams, the Eckford Club of Brooklyn. Moving to the District of Columbia after the war, he became an enthusiastic booster and for a time manager of the Washington Nationals. The team was among America’s elite baseball organizations, traveling — and winning — throughout the Northeast, Central Atlantic and Midwest. For his efforts at promoting the sport Coon merited an item in the 2014 book, “Baseball Pioneers: 1850-1870.”
A lifelong bachelor,Coon in 1895 entrained to visit relatives in the State of Washington. He was impressed and decided to move to there, he said, “because of opportunities for development.” He chose Port Townsend, a town on the Olympic Peninsula looking out over Puget Sound. In 1897 Coon became a permanent resident and purchased the Port Townsend Mercantile Company, a ships’ supply house and wholesale and retail grocery. His major profit center was selling liquor to the town’s many saloons and to the public.
Six years after arriving he was elected the town’s mayor and the following year, 1902, elected again, this time receiving all the votes cast. After an amazing career, in which baseball played an important role, “Uncle Charlie” died in August of 1920, much mourned by family and townspeople alike, and was buried in the local cemetery.
Whether it was operating drinking establishments, organizing baseball teams, or building volunteer fire departments, John C. Keenan, Irish immigrant and former Texas Ranger, found opportunities for wealth and renown in Sacramento, California, and 600 miles north in Victoria, British Columbia. During his short lifespan Keenan, shown here, seemingly hit home runs wherever he was at bat.
An Irish immigrant, Keenan landed in the U.S. about 1848 and joined the Texas Rangers. then, drawn by the 1849 Gold Rush, he went to California, stopping in Sacramento. The energetic Keenan hit town like a tornado. After a large fire destroyed many of the town’s saloons, the Irishman sensed opportunity. He raced to a nearby settlement where he purchased a wooden building on the Sacramento River and had it floated to town. The saloon was a success.
Keenan pressed ahead and opened a larger saloon he called “The Fashion.” The new drink emporium was graced with an iron facade that set it apart on Sacramento’s J Street. Made in the Eureka Foundry the signature design featured faux Greek Corinthian pillars. The building is shown here as it looked in the 1960s before being torn down.
Despite his seemingly frenetic life Keenen like many Irishmen was keen on sports with an emphasis on bringing the newly created game of baseball to the West Coast. Growing up in Ireland, he had been exposed to cricket at an early age and apparently excelled at it. As a result the transition to baseball seemingly came easily to him and Keenan was able to help fledgling players develop their baseball skills.
In 1862 Keenan arranged for a group of cricketeers from British Columbia to come to Sacramento. In advance he had organized a cricket and baseball club under the aegis of the Fashion Saloon. The Fashion Base Ball Club and the Victoria Cricketeers met for a series of matches at a racetrack in which Keenan had a financial interest. The Victoria squad won all the cricket matches while Sacramento boys prevailed at “base ball.” A local news story commented: The play on both side is represented as very good.” The box score shows Keenan was the pitcher for the Fashion Club’s 42 to 23 baseball win. Later making Victoria, Canada, his home, Keenan is credited with introducing the sport to the Canadian West, with Victoria baseball teams he sponsored and coached playing each other and cricketeers.
Keenan subsequently sold his Victoria properties and returned to California, settling in San Francisco. There he opened a saloon at the corner of Merchant and Montgomery Streets. It had been in operation only a short time when coming home in May 1869, he was felled by a heart attack or stroke on the stairway leading to his apartment. An organizer of the Sacramento fire department, Keenan was buried in the Exempt Fireman’s Plot in the Old Sacramento Cemetery.
Francis X. “Big Jeff” Pfeffer, shown left, was a Major League baseball player who could both hit and pitch — once twirling a “no hit” game for a team that became the Boston Braves. After his temper as a minor league manager had him barred from organized baseball, Pfeffer turned to operating a Providence, Rhode Island, hotel, bar, and liquor store.
Dropped from his high school team for playing summer semi-pro ball, Pfeffer turned professional, accepting an offer from the Chicago Cubs. Along the way, he picked up the nickname “Big Jeff,” a moniker of murky origins, used by the press but not by Pfeffer. After a so-so season in Chicago, the fireballing right-hander in late 1905 was traded to Boston, a frequent cellar-dwelling club then called the “Beaneaters.”
Although the Beaneaters were traditionally bad, Pfeffer was a star. One local sportswriter commented: “Pfeffer [was], by all odds, the steadiest and most serviceable of Boston’s pitchers.” He also played 14 games in the outfield, posting a competent fielding average (.955) but hitting only .196, with one home run and 11 RBI’s for the season. The next year, however, Pfeffer started the season with a bang. On May 8 using, one writer said, “…a world of steam and puzzling curves,” he threw a 6-0 no hitter at the Cincinnati Reds. The following month, however, he tore a tendon in his pitching arm. After spending weeks recovering, his pitching prowess largely had vanished.
Subsequently Pfeffer continued to be associated with baseball as a hitter and sometimes manager for a series of minor league teams in and around New England. In April 1914, he was hired as the player-manager of the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Tigers of the Class C Colonial League. As reported in the Providence Daily Journal: “Pfeffer opines he is not through with baseball itself and he will play somewhere on the team, likely first….” Known for his temper, Pfeffer’s days in organized baseball came to an end that year when during a game in Pawtucket he had an on-field fistfight with the vice president of the Colonial League and was summarily fired.
Faced with familial responsibilities, in 1913 Pfeffer moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to manage a hotel and liquor store. The hostelry was known as the West Side Hotel and Pfeffer called his liquor establishment the “West Side Family Wine Store.” His proprietary brand was “West Side Club Whiskey.” After his wife’s death in 1947, Pfeffer moved to Champaign, Illinois, to be close to family. He died there at the age of 72 in December 1854.
Note: Longer vignettes on each of these whiskey men can be found on this website: “Uncle Charlie” Coon, April 30, 2020; John Keenan, September 6, 2020, and Frank “Big Jeff” Pfeffer, January 21, 2020.