By JOE MCFARLAND
Billy Hulen’s baseball career was nothing to write home about, even if we could figure out where home really was for Hulen.
In 88 games with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1896, he hit .265 with 23 stolen bases. He didn’t return to the Major Leagues until three years later, when he played 19 games for the Washington Senators and hit just .147. He was a rarity though, setting the record for most games played by a left-handed shortstop. The problem was that he made 66 errors in his 107 career games. Hulen moved on to play baseball in Colorado Springs, Seattle, Sacramento and Everett.
This story may sound familiar in terms of low-calibre baseball players, but it ends like no other.
It begins in February of 1906, with Hulen’s disappearance.
ALBERTA’S FIRST BASEBALL LEAGUE
Just one year after the District of Alberta, a part of the North-West Territories, was enlarged and given provincial status, baseball minds gathered in the province to create a new league in October 1906.
Alexander Cameron Rutherford was the premier. Hotel rooms could be had for a dollar a day, while farm land was going for 10 bucks an acre. The Canadian prairies were just being developed. And with work being established, play needed a home, too.
Baseball found its home in the province’s early days with the Western Canadian League. The Edmonton Grays, Calgary Bronchos, Lethbridge Miners and Medicine Hat Hatters would begin play in the spring of 1907 and wrap up on Labour Day. Each team’s salary cap was $1,200 a month.
Teams went about recruiting and putting the best team forward for their communities and eventually, the baseball began.
It was a race to the finish line and on Sept. 2, 1907, the Hatters were crowned champions, having won 18 of their last 19 games.
“Manager (Jack) Benny and his bunch of champion ball tossers returned from Lethbridge on Tuesday morning, the Coal Barons having thrown up the sponge and defaulted the two remaining games after being beaten by 15 to 5 on Monday afternoon,” proclaimed the Medicine Hat News.
The Hatters finished with a 56-32 record, winning the pennant over Edmonton (50-35), despite not finishing the final three games of the season, as the results of those last games would have made no difference.
Just a year after being incorporated as a city, Medicine Hat had another reason to celebrate.
“On Tuesday evening a torchlight procession was held in honour of the pennant winners, and on Wednesday afternoon, a benefit game was pulled off,” the News reported. “The crowd was a big one, ladies especially being well-represented.”
The accolades fell upon Benny, who was also the team’s catcher.
“So here is to Benny, the conqueror as hard a bit of baseball pluck and nerve as ever stepped upon a baseball diamond,” the report said of Benny, calling him a “nervous little man with as much energy as gunpowder and with all its nerve.”
“You are a game player and if any man earned his salary you are the man.”
During the season, the Hatters were guided by a couple of strong young pitchers. One was George Hollis, who put up a 21-9 record. The other was Ralph Works, a 19-year-old fireballer, who went 26-11. He was also their best hitter, batting .341. Works would go on to play five seasons in the Major Leagues as a pitcher with the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds. He even appeared in two games during the 1909 World Series, allowing two runs and four hits in two innings of relief.
Following the benefit game, the players took part in some competitions to show off to the Medicine Hat faithful. Works won the long-throw event, Hollis took home the fastest run between first and third base, while second baseman James McClain ran the whole diamond the fastest.
But little did many know, a secret life had been unfolding off the field for one of the Hatters’ top players.
“Kid” Hulen had been working on a mining claim near Eureka, California, when he disappeared during a trip to Seattle. His luggage was traced back to Denver, but that’s where the trail went cold.
Hulen’s wife, Blanche, wrote her local Oregon newspaper to say she hadn’t heard from him and that she was fearful that he had met with foul play, as it wasn’t like him to just up and leave. Family and friends started to worry as well. “Nothing is being left undone to locate the missing ball player,” read one newspaper article.
“No reason whatever can be assigned for his long silence, save foul play,” proclaimed the Oakland Tribune on April 5, 1906.
Hulen was gone without a trace, until an ominous story appeared in the Woodland Daily Democrat in California in February of 1907.
“Billy Hulen, the popular ballplayer, so well known to local fans, appears to be in the land of the living,” the paper stated. The article alluded to Hulen being the player-manager of a Vancouver team in the Northwestern League.
Hulen’s wife began divorce proceedings a month later, citing desertion. She was granted that divorce in August.
As it turned out, Hulen’s business dealings were noted to be quite shady. When he went missing, an April 8, 1906 Colorado Springs Gazette article pointed towards that.
“Hulen is well-known in the Springs – and a number of business men here know him to their sorrow,” the article stated. “It is alleged that when Hulen placed Colorado Springs on the Western League map, he collected thousands of dollars from the Chamber of Commerce, Merchants Association and local business men for the purpose of supporting the team.”
Excitement was abound in the community, as Hulen promised a high-performing club. But he brought in “scrub players and even played local school boys in the outfield.”
“When the season was over, Hulen left town with a neat bank account, selling the franchise to Tom Burns.”
And it wasn’t the first time he had vanished, either. Hulen played ball in Everett in 1905, but he “didn’t wait to say goodbye” ahead of a roadtrip with the team, according to one newspaper report.
Hulen was on the lam again and in a world before worldwide communications, television or social media, it was easy for him to be a ghost. He assumed a new identity: Billy Hamilton.
But that wouldn’t last long.
“It was learned yesterday that Billy Hulen, who disappeared from this vicinity over a year ago, is now playing ball in the Canadian League under the name of Hamilton,” said one article about Hulen playing in Medicine Hat.
It’s not entirely clear when the people of Medicine Hat knew about his true identity. But word did spread south of the 49th parallel during the summer.
The Spokane Press got ahold of the story in August, five days after the divorce was granted and just two weeks before the Hatters won their pennant.
“Billy Hulen, the fast little ball player who mysteriously vanished from Everett two years ago after domestic troubles of more or less publicity, has been discovered,” the article began. “He is playing short for the Medicine Hat team clear across the Canadian line and a long way from his homestead down in Ashland, Oregon.”
He hit .319 in 87 games with the Hatters in 1907, the second-best average on the championship club.
THERE AND BACK AGAIN
Hulen spent the 1908 season with the Spokane Indians before coming back to Medicine Hat in 1909 to be a player-coach. Playing under his real name again, he was struck in the eye by a foul ball off his own bat, forcing him to retire from playing. It was reported in the Salt Lake Herald that the incident burst open his eye. He stayed on as manager until until July 1910.
In 1913, Hulen brought a team to Regina, but resigned quickly as Red Sox manager after not meeting his own self-aggrandized expectations.
“Last year the Regina press made a great flourish of trumpets over the team which Billy Hulen had lined up and it proved to be a false alarm,” read a March 1914 article in the Medicine Hat News, showing once again that he was a salesman with all sizzle and no steak.
Hulen disappeared from the spotlight after that, doing some coaching back home in California. He died in Santa Rosa in 1947.
Even 110 years after he helped the Medicine Hat Hatters win the very first Western Canadian League pennant, and 70 years after his death, so many questions linger about the transient infielder. Was he running from his wife? What about those angry businessmen? And who in Medicine Hat knew about Billy Hamilton’s true identity?