Retro: When a 12-year-old marbles champion brought Baltimore fame

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Former marbles champion Frank McQuade Jr., left, shakes hands with opponent William "Red" Stoddard  of Philadelphia.

He was a freckle-faced kid from Hamilton with a keen eye, a calloused thumb and the poise to perform under pressure. His name was Frank McQuade Jr., and, in May of 1922, he brought Baltimore a national championship.

Marbles was McQuade’s game; at home, he’d knuckle down and practice 10 hours a day, honing his craft and earning a rep as the best “hoodler” (marble player) around.


“Dead shot Frankie” proved it on May 13, winning Baltimore’s first city-wide championship. One week later, in Philadelphia, McQuade — a student at Clifton Park Junior High — captured the first national tournament for the sport before a crowd that stood 10 deep in City Hall Plaza surrounding the young competitors.

When McQuade won, “3,000 men, women and children made a lunge to get hold of him,” The Sun reported. “Cordons of police were all that prevented them grabbing him, hoisting him on their shoulders and parading him triumphantly through the streets.”


Cameras flashed; reporters strained for interviews. News of McQuade’s victory appeared in The New York Times. It was a heady debut for the National Marbles Tournament, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on June 19 in Wildwood, New Jersey.

A century ago, marbles was a popular pastime and a cheap diversion for youngsters who, armed with their favorite aggies, could sharpen their skills anywhere they could chalk out a circle. The rules were simple: from beyond a ring measuring 15 feet in diameter, contestants took turns with their shooter marbles, trying to knock from the circle the 10 common clay marbles clustered in the center. Contestants either shot from the hip or with their knuckles to the ground. Six knockouts scored a win.

With his trusty moon agate, McQuade won the Baltimore event at City Hall Plaza. Two days later, at a roast beef luncheon in his honor at the Emerson Hotel, he received a gold watch and a silver loving cup presented by then-Maryland Gov. Albert Ritchie.

“I know that when you grow up, we will expect you to do still bigger things than win a [marbles] contest,” Ritchie said.

Then it was on to Philadelphia, where McQuade took on the champions of that city, New York and Newark, New Jersery, in a round-robin match billed as the first national contest. In the finals, he edged the local favorite, William “Red” Stoddard, and wowed the crowd by knocking out two marbles with a single shot.

Stoddard’s camp struggled to explain his defeat.

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“Some blamed it on the extra portion of strawberry shortcake Red ate before the match,” the Sun surmised.

Back home, the festivities resumed. Invited to Annapolis, McQuade was proclaimed governor of Maryland for 30 minutes, during which he sat at Ritchie’s desk and gave a speech.


“It is fine to think that you are going to be governor, even if it is only for a short while,” he said. “I feel I have been honored a whole lot, and I am proud. Now, I guess, all the fellows will call me ‘governor.’ ”

In 1923, McQuade reached the city finals again but failed to repeat, losing to Francis “Battling” Mylin, 14, of Sparrows Point, dubbed “The Deadwood Dick of the blast furnace belt of Baltimore” by the media.

But McQuade didn’t fade. At Calvert Hall, the lanky Irishman starred in football, basketball and lacrosse. He later became a pro wrestler, of all things, competing under the name “Buddy” McQuade before becoming a referee for the spirited bouts held at the Coliseum on Monroe Street.

McQuade then entered politics and became head of the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and chief administrator of the city’s election board. So, Ritchie’s earlier prediction for the marbles champion rang true.

McQuade died on Christmas Day 1978, at age 68. In his send-off, the Sun headlined his success at marbles. Winning the nationals, McQuade long said, was “the biggest thrill I ever had in sports.”