The First Relief Pitchers

When I wrote The Relief Pitcher, published in 1979 with the now quaint subtitle “Baseball’s New Hero,” the save had been an official statistic for ten years, and no reliever had yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame. In that year’s balloting Hoyt Wilhelm received 38.9 percent of the required 75; by 1985 he was in. But proximity is not causality; it is unlikely my book influenced that happy outcome, as my royalty statements will attest. However, when I noticed this forlorn work on my shelf this week, the thought struck me that, 33 years later, some of it might still be worth your attention. So, as I wrote in 1979 (with a handful of updates to fact or repairs of prose infelicity):

While the future of the relief pitcher is assuredly “ahead of him,” in that immortal baseball tautology, his past lies farther behind him than one might imagine. It goes back beyond Page and Konstanty, beyond Murphy and Marberry, beyond even Otis Crandall, often identified as the game’s first reliever. In fact, the story of relief pitching begins with the man to whom so much of Major League Baseball traces its roots, Harry Wright.

“The Father of the Game,” as Wright was called during his lifetime, was personally involved in the early development of our national pastime, from cricket’s “poor relation” to the amateur game of gentlemen, to the early professionals, to the big leagues. Harry’s father was a professional cricket player in England, where Harry was born in 1835. He came to New York in infancy, and as a young athlete he followed in his father’s path, becoming the star cricketer of the St. George club. In 1858 he joined the fabled New York Knickerbockers, baseball’s pioneer team, but cricket continued to be his favored game. Harry’s brother George, twelve years his junior and native-born, also played cricket—as early as 1859—and started his illustrious baseball career with the New York Gothams in 1864.

In the summer of 1865, the Union Cricket Club of Cincinnati hired Harry Wright as a player-coach. Following his experience in New York, Wright affiliated himself next with the new local baseball club, which guaranteed his salary at the same level as the cricket club had provided. In 1867, the touring Washington Nationals, ostensibly an amateur nine comprised of government employees, defeated Cincinnati’s Red Stockings by the score of 53–10 (Washington’s shortstop was Harry’s brother George). This massacre so wounded the Queen City’s civic pride that the baseball club’s directors instructed Harry to put together the best team money could buy (George Steinbrenner didn’t invent the practice). Harry Wright disbursed $9,300 in salaries in 1869 and formed baseball’s first avowedly professional team.

The 1869 Red Stockings immediately demonstrated the worth of that investment. Touring the country from Maine to California, the Reds played 66 games without defeat, 59 of them against first-class opposition. The team’s shortstop and star (.629 batting average!) was Harry’s brother George. Harry himself was the manager, center fielder, reporter—and relief pitcher, or “change pitcher,” as the fireman was called back then.

The rules of the day stated that a player could not be replaced “unless for reason of illness or injury,” or if the opposing team consented. If the starting pitcher was taking a pasting, he could not look to the bullpen for relief; there was no bullpen. He had to exchange positions with a fielder, who had warmed up before the game in preparation for just such an eventuality. A change pitcher was customarily a strong-armed outfielder who could whip the ball in as fast or faster than the starter, but this was not always the case—Harry Wright, for example, was not possessed of an outstanding arm.

Yet “change pitcher” was a particularly apt term for him because, in his amateur days in New York, he was the first to throw the change of pace, or “dew drop,” as it was known then. Wright noticed that even the fastest pitchers, like Jim Creighton of the Brooklyn Excelsiors, would sometimes get shelled in the later innings as the batsmen were able to time the uninterrupted suc­cession of fastballs. (Although the pitching rules of the day required a straight-armed, underhand delivery—like that of a cricket bowler, which Wright on occasion had been—men like Creighton were able to generate considerable speed by adding an illegal, though scarcely perceptible, wrist snap to the release.)

On June 14, 1870, in the most publicized game to that time, the Reds finally met defeat as the Brooklyn Atlantics scored three runs in the bottom of the eleventh inning to win 8–7. Their invincibility punctured, the Reds went on to lose a few more games after that; as their 1870 tour progressed, they played to more and more empty seats. In the off-season the club directors publicly decried the “enormous” payroll and announced that an 1871 tour would be impossible. This stance was only intended to drive down the players’ salary demands, but instead it drove the players out of Cincinnati to other cities where the fever for professional base­ball had taken hold. Five Reds starters went to Washington, while the Wright brothers, first baseman Charlie Gould, and right fielder Cal McVey went to Boston.

In their first year with Harry Wright at the helm, the Boston Red Stockings finished third in the pennant race of the newly formed National Association. Al Spalding, whom Wright spirited from the Forest Citys of Rockford, Illinois, was the team’s starter in each game that year, and only twice was he dispatched to center field to trade places with Harry Wright. In 1872, the first of four straight Boston championships, Wright again relieved Spalding twice. In 1873, Wright, now thirty-eight years old, tried his hand at pitching for the last time, making three appearances.

In three years, seven relief performances—that’s two weeks’ work for the fireman of today, but more appearances than any other rescue man of his day. The substitution rule that prevailed in Wright’s day inhibited the use of relievers and shaped attitudes toward the relief pitcher to such an extent that even after free sub­stitution was permitted in 1891, managers were still loath to pull a starter.

The year of Wright’s final turn in the box also marked the debut of an individual who, under Wright’s guidance, would later become major-league baseball’s first bona fide relief pitcher. His name was Jack Manning.

A native of Braintree, Massachusetts, Manning had attracted Wright’s attention while playing with the Boston Juniors, an ama­teur nine that served as an informal farm club for the Red Stock­ings. Boston first-baseman Gould, who had come over from Cin­cinnati in 1871, retired to go into the sporting goods business. The nineteen-year-old Manning was elevated from the Juniors to re­place him (salary: $800 a year). However, he hit only .260 and was compelled to share the position with another first-year Red Stocking, Orator Jim O’Rourke. At the end of the season, Manning called it quits.

Wright convinced him to return by promising him playing time with the Lord Baltimores, to whom he “lent” Manning for one season only, as he had lent Cal McVey to them the previous sea­son. This seeming generosity was negated as Wright then raided Baltimore of its best hitter, George Hall—Harry Wright exacted stiff payment for his loans. Thus weakened on balance, Baltimore won only nine of its 47 games and dropped out of the National Association before the end of the year. Manning, however, got plenty of action at three infield positions—though not first base, which was now reoccupied by Charlie Gould—and as a pitcher.

Wright could not have asked for a finer finishing school for his raw recruit. He knew his own pitching days were over, and that he needed a change pitcher he could rely on. In 1874, while Manning was learning his trade with Baltimore, Al Spalding pitched every inning of every game Boston played, going 52–18. Wright felt Spalding would need some help in 1875, and he was counting on the strong-armed Manning.

On Boston’s opening day of 1875, Manning was the right fielder, as he was through most of the season; he also took to the box 17 times, most of these as a starter. With Boston roaring to the flag with a 71–8 record, 15 games in front, Wright saw little need for relief.

Eighteen seventy-six was another matter. The National Asso­ciation disbanded in a shambles, with only seven of its 13 teams able to complete the 1875 schedule. From its ashes emerged the eight-team National League. Harry Wright’s Boston team lost its battery of Al Spalding and Deacon White, plus its league-leading hitter, Ross Barnes, and Cal McVey to Chicago, which swept to the pennant while Boston fell to fourth. While Spalding was toying with the league’s batsmen, Wright scrambled to assem­ble a pitching staff from an unlikely bunch of candidates. Joe Borden, alias Joe Josephs, threw the first two no-hitters on record, yet before the season was over he was made the stadium groundskeeper. Foghorn Bradley lasted through season’s end, but was not invited back for 1877. Brief trials were allotted to former N.A. star Dick McBride (0–4 in four starts) and the inappropriately named Tricky Nichols, who in 1875 had logged a record of 4–28. Clearly, this was a crew in need of relief.

And Manning supplied it. Fourteen times he trudged in from the outfield as the “saver,” as the press dubbed him; on one occa­sion he alternated every two innings with starter Joe Borden. (On June 17, 1876, Boston’s Borden and Cincinnati’s Cherokee Fisher became the National League’s first relief pitchers. Borden replaced starter Jack Manning after two frames of a 12–8 loss to St. Louis. Borden moved from right field to the box, trading positions with Manning. Fisher replaced Reds’ starter Amos Booth, also in the third inning and also in a losing cause, against Philadelphia. Booth replaced Fisher at shortstop.) If this total sounds puny, note that Boston played only 70 games; relieving in one fifth of a team’s games in the post-1900 era would mean 31 or 32 games, a total not attained by any reliever until 1913. Man­ning posted four relief wins and five saves (applying today’s standards to yesterday’s box scores). In 40 innings of relief, Man­ning compiled an earned-run average of 0.68 and did not suffer a loss. His five saves were not surpassed for 29 years, and his relief-point total held as the unofficial record until 1908.

Manning’s accomplishments are remarkable because, achieved in the pre-relief era, they stood for more than a  decade after the restrictive substitution rule was abolished. As another measure of Manning’s accomplishment, consider that the saves total for the entire National League in 1878 was one.

Manning also started 20 games in 1876, compiling an over­all record of 18–5 with an ERA of 2.14. It was a magnificent year, yet by August a Beantown newspaper, commenting on Wright’s continuing search for pitching help, observed that Manning “was still around with Boston but no longer considered a potential pitcher.” In 1877, he wasn’t even around with Boston. Despite being in the second year of a three-year contract, Manning was once again lent out to a franchise in trouble—the Cincinnati Reds, who under the leadership of (yes, again) Charlie Gould had fin­ished dead last in 1876 with a record of 9–56.

Manning was the opening-day shortstop of the Porkopolitans, as they were named by the press and their few admirers. By season’s end, he had played five positions, including ten games in the box. He notched only one save for the last-place Reds, and was smacked around resoundingly, allowing 83 hits in only 44 innings of work. Whatever magic Harry Wright had worked on Manning in 1876 was lost forever. As Lindy McDaniel was to say a century later, a fireman cannot be successful without “a man­ager who understands relief pitching.”

As his contract stipulated, Manning returned to Boston in 1878 and opened the season in right field. He later was given a start and won it, and he relieved twice. His ERA of 14.29 told Manning his pitching days were over, but he did continue in the big leagues as an outfielder through 1886, with three minor-league sabbaticals along the way. He reunited with Harry Wright at Phila­delphia in 1884.

Wright and Manning combined to give relief pitchers a place in baseball strategy long before they had their own place in the ball park. The bullpen is a development of the early 1900s. (Prior to 1891, as noted, a reliever came in from a position on the field.) The term bull­pen is persistently and mistakenly said to derive from the Bull Durham tobacco signs (“Hit this sign and win $50”) that adorned outfield fences in the days before World War I. Relief pitchers would warm up beneath these signs and behind the section of the outfield roped off for standing-room-only overflow patrons—thus, goes the argument, the name bullpen. If the sign had promoted Camel cigarettes or Murads or Lady Fatimas, would the term bull­pen still have been used?

Yes. As baseball historian Lee Allen pointed out, the Bull Durham sign was not in evidence at major-league parks until 1909, while the term bullpen, signifying the foul areas in back of first and third bases, was in use as early as 1877. On May 4 of that year, the Cincinnati Enquirer frowned on the practice some clubs fol­lowed of admitting latecomers to the park for less than the league’s standard admission of fifty cents—“for ten cents or three for a quar­ter, herding them in like bulls within a rope area in foul territory, adjoining the outfield.” This simile no doubt has its basis in two earlier usages of the word bullpen—as a prison enclosure, primarily an open-air improvised demarcation; and as a “schoolboys’ ball game, played by two groups, one group outlining the sides of a square enclosure, called the bullpen, within which are the opposing players” (The Oxford English Dictionary). The ball game, popular on the Ohio–Indiana–Kentucky frontier of the 1850s, is first men­tioned in print in Edward Eggleston’s homespun classic The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871): “He could not throw well enough to make his mark in that famous Western game of bull-pen.” Both senses of the word—the prison enclosure and the ball game—imply enforced occupancy in the bullpen, which reflects the status of the substitute pitcher in the pre-relief era.

[Part Two tomorrow.]

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