A flamboyant playboy and partygoer who dressed impeccably and always had a quip and a handshake for everyone he met, Mike Donlin was “one of the most picturesque, most written-about, most likeable athletes that ever cut his mark on the big circuit.”
“Turkey” Mike Donlin was born in Peoria, IL in 1878. According to Betzold’s bio: “When he was eight his parents, railroad conductor John Donlin and his wife, Maggie, were killed in a bridge collapse. Forced to hustle for a living, young Mike worked as a machinist and was often in poor health, with a concave chest due to consumption. At age 15 he got a job as a candy seller on a California-bound train. Mike stayed in California, where he ran foot races and played baseball, and the sun helped him grow stronger.”
Donlin was nicknamed “Turkey” as a reference to his red neck and distinctive strut. Though he hated the nickname, the publicity-minded Donlin must have been pleased that fans imitated his walk affectionately.
As a ballplayer, Donlin was an excellent hitter, with a career .333 batting average over 4282 plate appearances. But, despite his baseball skill, he was equally adept at promoting his personality. In 1905 he married actress and comedienne Mabel Hite, to great public fanfare.
Donlin and Hite were a popular couple, and they parlayed that popularity into a stage career together. From Sabr.org:
On October 26, 1908, Hite and Donlin’s one-act play, Stealing Home, opened at the Hammerstein Theater in New York. Though the play was acclaimed, reviews for the ballplayer-turned-actor were mixed. Variety raved: “Mike Donlin as a polite comedian is quite the most delightful vaudeville surprise you ever enjoyed.” But another critic wrote, “Hite was so good she could carry him.” For the next three winters the pair performed Stealing Home in front of sold-out houses from Boston to San Francisco. Donlin vowed never to return to baseball because he was making more money in show business.”
Donlin skipped the 1909 and 1910 seasons (his age 31 and 32 years), but returned to the field in 1911. The last few years of his career were not as happy as the first, however, as in October 1912 he suffered the indignity of being released from the Pittsburgh Pirates the same month his wife died of cancer. He sat out the 1913 baseball season, and made a brief comeback in 1914 before calling it quits on his athletic career.
In his post-baseball career, Donlin set out for Hollywood, where close friend John Barrymore helped him establish a long, but mostly-undistinguished career in film. His few notable roles included Union General in Buster Keaton’s masterpiece “The General,” and Himself in “Slide, Kelly, Slide.”
On the tabletop, Donlin is represented in numerous card sets. The APBA Blog has made a recent Thanksgiving tradition of featuring Turkey Mike Donlin cards around this time each year. Though there is only one super-advanced Strat-O-Matic card of Donlin in print (1911), his 1905 New York Giants card (basic only – seen below) is included in the 42 Old-Timer’s Teams set.