I was looking at Charlie Duffee's stats the other day and was thinking to myself that he looked like a pretty decent player. He finished third in home runs in the AA in 1889 and fourth in 1891. In each of the first four years of his career he finished with over twenty stolen bases with a high of 41 in 1891. The guy had a nice combination of power and speed.
The thing that had me scratching my head was that he only played four full seasons in the major leagues. After breaking in with the Browns in 1889 and having two okay seasons, Duffee was sold to the Columbus Solons in Febuary of 1891. In 1892, he was with the Washington Senators of the NL. Duffee had a perfectly average year for the Senators (with an OPS+ of 100) and was released at the end of the year. Except for four games with the Cincinnati Reds in 1893, where he was reunited with Comiskey, Duffee's career was finished.
I was puzzled. Duffee wasn't a great player (despite the "Home Run" moniker) but he was a league average hitter with pop who could steal bases. I couldn't tell you how good an outfielder he was but Duffee was a good enough athlete to be able to play the infield. Over the course of his short career, Duffee played games at every infield position except catcher. Worse players than Duffee have had much longer careers. So what happened?
It took me awhile to find the very obvious answer. I did a Google search on Duffee and didn't find much but eventually I did find an explanation for Duffee's short career. The search brought up a link to The Deadball Era and as soon as I saw that I smacked myself in the head and cursed my limited intelligence.
The reason Home Run Duffee's career ended in 1893 was because he got tuberculosis. According to The Deadball Era, Duffee died of consumption in 1894. His page at Baseball Reference lists his date of death as December 24, 1894. Duffee was 27 years old when he played his last game and was only 28 when he died. A legitimate major league player, Duffee's career was cut short just as he was entering his athletic prime.
While I haven't been able to find out much about Duffee, there are a few references to him out there. David Nemec, in The Beer & Whiskey League, writes that the 1889 AA season "was an extraordinarily fertile one for frosh players, as almost every Association team received a significant contribution from at least one yearling." He goes on to mention Duffee as one of the rookies with the Browns that year. Harold Seymour, in Baseball: The Early Years, while writing about the "interesting" behavior of Brooklyn fans, said that "(after) one fracas with them, in which the team's safety was endangered, a St. Louis player, Home Run Duffee, a native of Mobile, declared he would rather hoe cotton down in Alabama for ten dollars a month than 'run the gauntlet' of Brooklyn fans..."
One interesting note that I was able to find about Duffee was that he took part in the first major league game ever played in Minnesota. On October 2, 1891, Duffee and the Columbus Salons took on the Milwaukee Brewers in Minneapolis. Stew Thornley wrote that "Milwaukee transferred its final series of the season, against Columbus, to Athletic Park in Minneapolis because, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, 'Having lost all prestige in their own towns the two teams sought to run up to Minneapolis and replenish their exchequers.'" Milwaukee defeated Columbus 5-0 and Minnesota wouldn't see major league baseball again until 1961.