Deadball Era's Dr. Herbert E. Lehr: High Potential, Limited Innings

Dr. Lehr (right) pictured with Michigan baseball team captain Guy W. Lunn.Photo byHS4412, Sam Sturgis, Sam Sturgis photograph collection, Bentley Historical Librar

By Bill Pearch

As the junior partner of Romberger & Smith, Col. Frank L. Smith wore multiple hats. Following a stint in Chicago’s Rock Island Railroad Englewood office, Smith returned to his hometown of Dwight, Illinois, and entered into business with Charles L. Romberger. Together they founded one of the largest firms in Central Illinois. By day Smith was a banker and land dealer, but after hours, he fulfilled his lifelong passion and managed the firm’s semiprofessional baseball team named the Dwight R&S. While managing the local nine, Smith had a knack for securing elite homegrown talent and distinguished newcomers, including Dr. Herbert Lehr, who hailed from downstate Illinois.

In November 1900, 23-year-old Herbert Lehr purchased Dr. S.H. Potter’s dental practice and established an office in Dwight. The 1898 University of Michigan graduate placed ads in the Dwight Star & Herald guaranteeing “first-class work,” and “moderate charges.” How Smith and Lehr became acquainted is unclear, but the 6-foot-tall dentist’s athletic prowess meshed with Smith’s vision to elevate his baseball team’s profile.

As an undergrad, Lehr was a three-sport star earning the nickname, King Lehr. The Michigan Alumnus remembered the Marine, Illinois, native as “one of the University’s greatest athletes,” and “a remarkable specimen of physical manhood.” He earned varsity honors in baseball (pitcher), football (left guard), and track and field team (shot put). Of particular note, Lehr started at left tackle during the first football game played between Michigan and Ohio State on Saturday, October 16, 1897.

With his academic degree and athletic honors in hand, Lehr relocated from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Springfield, Illinois. As he commenced practicing dentistry in 1898, the Edwardsville Intelligencer noted that he occasionally pitched for the nearby Lincoln, Illinois town team.

Lehr garnered interest from professional leagues during the waning days of the 19th century. Manager Connie Mack of the Western League’s Milwaukee Brewers claimed the 190-pound hurler in late March and arranged an exhibition between Mack’s squad and the University of Michigan. The Brewers throttled the collegians, 15-0, on April 17. Lehr pitched into the fifth inning, but despite surrendering 11 runs, the Detroit Free Press noted that he “has plenty of speed and good curves” and “works the corners of the plate to excellent advantage.” Afterward, the St. Paul Globe added that he “pitches a fairly good game, but a few more seasons in minor leagues would be beneficial.”

Though Mack declined to sign Lehr, he continued pitching for his alma mater and continued to don his collegiate baseball and football uniforms into 1899, as he finished his doctorate degree. While traveling to Chicago for a June series, Lehr secured a trial with Tom Burns and Frank Selee, managers of the Chicago and Boston National League franchises respectively. Neither the Chicago Orphans nor Boston Beaneaters opted to sign him.

“He has some speed,” Burns said, “but speed alone is not sufficient to make a good pitcher.”

Undeterred, Lehr joined the Indiana-Illinois League’s franchise in Bloomington, Illinois. There he shared playing time with several future major leaguers, including Billy Kinloch, Tim O’Rourke, Bobby Rothermel, and Bob Wicker.

Despite The (Decatur, Illinois) Daily Review noting that Lehr “had excellent offers from various league teams,” he limited his athletic endeavors during 1900 to baseball and football club teams in Springfield, Illinois, to focus his energies on his dental practice.

Dr. Lehr married Springfield native Mabel Wellman on February 5, 1901. After their honeymoon, the newlyweds settled in Dwight where Lehr awaited Col. Smith’s first pitching assignment.

The Dwight R&S opened its 1901 campaign before a large crowd on June 27, against a squad from neighboring Odell, Illinois. Col. Smith tapped Lehr with pitching duties, and according to the Dwight Star & Herald, he “pitched slow, easy drop teasers.” Lehr earned the win as Dwight defeated Odell, 7-1, in a rain-shortened affair.

Rumors began circulating that Lehr would join the Three-I League’s Bloomington Blues. On August 11, he pitched the Blues to a 5-2 victory over the Davenport River Rats before a crowd of 1,200 fans. “He pitched winning ball,” Bloomington’s The Pantagraph noted, and “he had the sluggers from Iowa completely at his mercy.”

As Smith’s team gained notoriety, they faced superior competition. On August 14, Lehr and his Dwight teammates carried a 4-3 lead over the Chicago Unions into the top of the ninth. The former collegiate hurler surrendered three runs during the top of the ninth inning as the Unions edged the R&S, 6-4. “Several league teams would like to have Lehr pitch for them,” the local newspaper printed despite the late collapse, “and he only has to say the word to break into the big leagues.”

One thousand fans traveled to Dwight on August 27, 1901, to witness the most significant baseball game in local history. Col. Smith organized a contest against the traveling Nebraska Indians and granted Lehr pitching honors. The Dwight R&S plated four runs in the bottom of the first inning as Lehr was unhittable until the third. He struck out four and walked two before the floodgates opened. The game ended in 16-6 onslaught in favor of the barnstormers. Despite the final score, Lehr’s performance piqued the interest of Chicago’s semiprofessional circuit.

As Col. Smith gained control of Romberger’s portion of the firm in 1902, Smith rebranded the Dwight R&S after himself. Lehr also made new arrangements for the upcoming season. Along with pitching for the Frank L. Smiths, he frequently appeared with two Chicago-based semipro squads, the Spaldings and Marquettes.

Lehr’s career was skyrocketing until fortunes turned when he contracted a virulent form of tuberculosis in April 1903. In May he and his wife traveled through the pitcher’s childhood home to visit relatives before relocating to Colorado in hopes that a favorable climate would spark a recovery. After several months in the mountains, Lehr succumbed to his illness on July 30.

When Lehr passed, numerous obituaries remembered the 25-year-old pitcher as “exceptionally bright” and “of a genial, happy disposition.” Lehr rests in his family’s plot at Marine Cemetery, south of his childhood home. 

***Special thanks to Kim Drechsel, Dwight Historical Society volunteer and SABR Central Illinois member; and Tere Elizalde, Bentley Historical Library reference assistant for access to their respective archives.*** 

Bill Pearch, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, serves as newsletter editor for SABR’s Emil Rothe Chapter (Chicago). He has contributed to SABR’s publications about old Comiskey Park and the 1995 Atlanta Braves. He will have two game summaries in SABR’s upcoming publication, Ebbets Field: Great, Historic, and Memorable Games in Brooklyn’s Lost Ballpark. Follow him on Twitter: @billpearch.

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