William H. Geer
died under name Bruce Barrington
- Bats Unknown, Throws Right
- Height 5' 6", Weight 160 lb.
- School Manhattan College
- Debut October 15, 1874
- Final Game May 10, 1885
- Born circa 1849 in New York, NY USA
- Died September 30, 1928 in Chicago, IL USA
'. . . never since the palmy days of Billy Geer has the shortstop's position in the (Syracuse) Star team been filled so creditably . . ." - from Sporting Life, July 25, 1888
According to traditional sources, Billy Geer would have debuted in the National Association at age 15, which would make him the youngest player to ever play major league baseball. There is significant doubt about his correct year of birth however, and it is much more likely that he was born in 1849 or 1850 (the 1860 census shows a 10-year-old William Geer living in New York City). The 15-year old George Harrison Geer born in New York in 1859, whose vital statistics had been attached to Geer's playing record, was a completely different person. The honor of being the youngest player ever was long thought to belong to Fred Chapman, who would have been 14 when he made his debut, but recent research has shown that this player was in fact Frank Chapman and of a normal age when he played his one game in the major leagues. If neither Chapman nor Geer were teenagers when they first played, then the youngest player would be Joe Nuxhall, already considered the youngest player in the modern era.
Geer went on to play in six different seasons, and has the distinction of playing in four different leagues - the National Association in 1874 and 1875, the National League in 1878 and 1880, the Union Association for 9 games in 1884, and the American Association in 1884 and 1885. He played for seven different ballclubs in those six years in those four different leagues.
Billy Geer was most likely playing shortstop for Manhattan College from 1867 to 1870. He broke into professional baseball with a good team in 1874, the New York Mutuals, which finished second. Geer got 2 hits in 8 at-bats, doing better than 22-year-old Orator Shaffer, who went only 1 for 5, but continued to have a successful major league career. He became an everyday player in 1875, hitting .244 on a team whose average was .219. It was a poor team, though - the New Haven Elm Citys won only 7 of their 47 games. Billy was second on the team in runs scored.
Playing for a losing team may have hurt Billy's career, because he didn't pop up in the majors until 1878; the lack of a New York-based team may also have been an issue. He played poorly for the Cincinnati Reds, hitting only .219 on a team that hit .276. He was apparently in 2 games with the Worcester Ruby Legs in 1880.
In 1884, Geer apparently came back for 9 games with the Philadelphia Keystones, and then became a regular for the 1884 Brooklyn Atlantics of the American Association, where he hit .210 for a team whose average was .225. In addition to playing shortstop for Brooklyn, he also pitched 5 innings, so it is a good guess that he had a strong arm. His range was excellent in 1884, although he made 81 errors in 107 games. In Cincinnati back in 1878 as a shortstop, he had made fewer errors per game but had less impressive range. He finished his career with the Louisville Colonels in 1885. In addition he was an umpire for a few games in the National Association in 1874 and 1875 and in the American Association in 1887.
Baseball historian Richard Malatzky was one of a number of researchers working on tracking down more information about Geer and his family (see here). Peter Morris of SABR also did extensive research (see the Peter Morris website). He lists him as probably born in 1849. The person uncovered through research in the Census records and who is most likely the real Billy Geer, is a most interesting one. His father, John Geer, was a wealthy jeweler in New York, who seemed to have had poor luck in his choice of wives: the 1860, 1870 and 1880 census all list a different wife. More strangely, he is given the last name Geer in 1860, but is listed under the close-sounding Egore ten years later, and Aiguier in 1880. It is not clear which was the family's true last name, but William did consistently play under the name Geer, although he may have used a different one in civilian life.
What is known of Billy Geer after his playing days is also quite interesting. An article in the Syracuse Herald in 1897 states that he arrived in Syracuse, NY in 1878 and impressed local high society with his refinement and good manners, managing to woo the hand of Emily Smith, the daughter of Jacob Smith, one of the city's most prominent businessmen. But nasty rumors soon began circulating about Geer and he had to leave town under a cloud of accusations of financial improprieties, after living with his father-in-law and working as a newsdealer according to the 1879 city directory. He and Emily were divorced in the early 1880s. In 1892, Geer was arrested in Minnesota for forging a check, bringing his playing career to an end. The trail went cold after that for a long time, but a complete picture of his later years was finally assembled in 2020.
Geer's arrest in Minnesota was not his first brush with the law. In 1875, while he was with New Haven, he and teammate Henry Luff were arrested for attempting to steal several coats while on a trip to Canada. There was also a stolen revolver involved - which was never found - and Geer was acquitted of the crime. In November 1887, he was accused of grand larceny, as he issued a check for $125 - a significant sum at the time - with no funds to back it. Accusations of his passing two other large unfunded checks, for $100 and $200, also came out at that time. He appeared in court in New York, NY, then was immediately re-arrested to face charges of fraud in Albany, NY. In 1892, as mentioned above, he was accused in St. Paul, MN of presenting two forged checks for large sums. He was using an alias at the time, "R. H. W. Dwight", which he claimed was his real name, but the prosecuting attorney identified him as Geer and stated his usual residence was in Glen Ridge, NJ. It was hard for him to deny the forgery charges, as the necessary materials were found in his possession, as well as a series of false wigs, mustaches and the like to disguise his appearance. He had become notorious in police circles by then, as he had apparently committed similar frauds across the country.
He was at it again in 1897, as he tried to obtain money under false pretenses from a bank in Bay City, MI, but was foiled by a suspicious clerk. In 1907, a story in the Boston Herald reported that he had defrauded around 50 businesses in the city using various aliases. He had just been arrested in Freeport, IL with some 22 false checks on his person and was sentenced to three years in jail. The article goes on to state that he had served time in Michigan from 1890 to 1896, in Richmond, VA in 1898, and then for three years in Salt Lake City, UT. He was arrested again in St. Paul in 1902, and the Boston police was now sending two detectives to Illinois to ensure he was brought back to the city to face additional charges at the end of his current sentence. The cities of Richmond and Salt Lake City were also lining up to get their shot at him, as he was wanted there for a number of fraudulent dealings as well.
His name popped up again in newspapers when in 1923, the Stamford Daily Advocate in Connecticut warned its readers that a "clever check forger" was active in the area under the name M. M. Seeder and was "flooding the country with worthless paper". The newspaper added that this was the man also known as William H. Geer, Robert S. Reed and R. R. Wade, names used in his previous bouts of forgeries. Two months after that article, he was arrested in Joplin, MO and sentenced to ten years in prison. Serving time under the name M. M. Adams, he was released under sick parole on June 21, 1928 as he was suffering from an incurable ailment. He was released into the care of a Mrs. S. B. Turner who ran a boarding house in Chicago, IL. It was not immediately clear under what name he lived there, but the Illinois death index lists the death a few months later of a Bruce Barrington, whose last address was at the boarding house, and who was listed as born in New York circa 1855. Further searches of newspapers around that name indicate that it was an alias used by a notorious forger in the first years of the century, whose modus operandi was a carbon copy of Geer's. Another alias used by Barrington was Alfred C. Bates, who is listed in the 1910 Census as being in jail in Joliet, IL under charges of "grubbing". This makes it fairly certain that the fog of aliases has been lifted and that the Barrington who died in Chicago in 1928 was in fact Geer.
- "Billy Geer", in Bill Carle, ed.: Biographical Research Committee Report, SABR, May/June, 2009, pp. 2-3.
- "Billy Geer Found", in Bill Carle, ed.: Biographical Research Committee Report, SABR, May/June, 2020, pp. 1-4.