The First Relief Pitchers, Part Two

[For Part One, see: http://goo.gl/W3Zwx.%5D From 1876 through 1904, starters com­pleted over 90 percent of their games and saves were registered in only 1.3 percent of all games played. Relief pitchers were used so seldom that in 1902 the Reach Guide, in a statistical review of the past season, offered a category Pitching Knock-Outs of 1901, and identified three Milwaukee Brewers who set the pace with six dis­missals from the box.

But the figures for the years preceding 1891 are even more astounding by the standards of today, when starters finish not one game in twenty. From 1885 to 1888, big-league starters completed 97.8 percent of all games, and the number of saves totaled by the two major leagues in that period is 48, or 14 less than the record set by Francisco Rodriguez in 2008. In eight different years, the league leader(s) in saves had a total of one; three times an entire league produced one save.

In the days before free substitution, two names besides Man­ning’s stick out: John Montgomery Ward and Tony Mullane. Ward was a superb athlete who, in his 17-year career, played numerous games at every position except catcher and first base. In separate seasons, he batted .369, stole 111 bases, won 47 games, and pitched a perfect game. Added to those accomplishments, which earned him a plaque in Cooperstown, he twice led the NL in saves and three times in relief wins, and in 1879–80 he allowed only four earned runs in 65 innings of relief duty.

Tony Mullane was a formidable hurler indeed, and the most prolific reliever of his day. In 13 years in the big leagues, he won 285 games, copping 30 or more in five straight seasons. He topped his circuit in relief wins three times and in saves five, in the process becoming the first man to appear in 50 relief games over his career. His five saves in 1889 equaled Jack Manning’s mark. Like Ward, Mullane was an excellent athlete, playing every position except catcher.

Mullane was nicknamed “Count” and “The Apollo of the Box” because of his dandified appearance and legion of female admirers. Management noticed that an extraordinary number of women were in attendance on the days Mullane was scheduled to pitch, and in response created the venerable institution of Ladies’ Day.

Born in Cork, Ireland, the Count was long thought to be the only ambidextrous pitcher in baseball history (research revealed that Icebox Chamberlain also pitched with both hands in the same game, as Greg A. Harris did in 1986). In 1881, as a rookie with the Detroit Wolverines in the National League, the Count entered a pregame field meet. Although he won the throwing contest with a heave of 416 feet, 7 inches, he was left with a limp, useless right arm. Not wanting to miss a turn in the box, Mullane switched to the port side for the remainder of the season. He hurled without particular distinction, but he did complete every game he started as a lefty. His right arm recovered for the 1882 campaign, but he continued to offer left-handed serves to some lefty batters in succeeding years. No manager had to play the percentages with Tony. Also, his ambidexterity gave him a devastating pick-off move (most of his career took place before pitchers used a fielder’s glove).

The change pitcher was legislated into limbo in 1891, when rulesmakers formalized the practice of free substitution that had been creeping into the game by gentlemen’s agreement for at least two years. It was not until 1892, however, that someone realized that the new policy permitted the use of pinch hitters, whose employment meant work for relief pitchers.

The year 1891 was highlighted by the relief performances of three outstanding pitchers: Bill Hutchison, Kid Nichols, and Clark Griffith. “Wild Bill” Hutchison (sometimes spelled “Hutchinson”) was not a rip-snortin’ hell raiser out of the West but a graduate of the Norwich Free Academy and Yale University, Class of 1880. Pitching for Cap Anson’s Chicagoans, the 5-feet-9 right-hander appeared in relief eight times, and eight times he got the job done. He won seven, a new high, and saved one to go with a 36–19 log as a starter.

Wild Bill led the White Stockings to a second-place finish be­hind Boston, which was paced by the sensational 21-year-old Kid Nichols. Besides winning 30 games for the first of what proved to be seven straight years, the 145-pound Nichols had the most saves in the NL, a feat he repeated three more times. The Hall of Famer used one pitch, the fastball, and one motion, straight overhand, to win 360 games. (In 1884, the rulesmakers had finally abandoned the stricture against over-the-waist throwing, which had not been enforced for some time.) The keys to Nichols’s success were two: He was the first to throw a fastball that jumped, and he changed speeds constantly, without altering his delivery.

Making his big-league debut in 1891, Clark Griffith also notched seven wins in relief. He led in relief wins two more times, the last in 1905, when he was manager of the American League entry in New York, the Highlanders. As managers, Griffith and his crosstown nemesis, John McGraw, were the two men who would lift relief pitching to a prominence in baseball strategy.

Griffith was called “The Old Fox” before his thirtieth birthday; the sobriquet was a tribute to his cunning on the mound. As Cy Young said of him in later years, Griffith “was what I call a dinky-dinky pitcher. He didn’t have anything, but he had a lot of nothing, if you know what I mean.” That “nothing” produced a record of 242–131. Griffith relied on a fast-revolving sinker or “slip pitch,” as it would be called today, learned from Hoss Radbourn; a screw­ball, which Griffith said he invented; the “quick pitch,” another of his innovations; “shadowing” the ball, or hiding it in the plane of his body until the last instant, as Luis Tiant did in the 1970s; and cutting the ball with his spikes to provide greater friction and thus a more explosive drop to his sinker. (Oddly, when trick deliveries such as the spitball, emery ball, shine ball, and so forth were banned in 1920, Griffith was at the head of the legislative crusade.)

At the turn of the century, two all-time great hurlers reowned for their endurance as starters put their talents to relief work as well. Iron Man Joe McGinnity led both leagues in games pitched seven times in eight years (1900–07, excluding 1902). He came by his nickname because he had been a foundry worker, though it came to express perfectly his indomitability on the mound. Stocky Joe led his league in relief wins four times and saves three times. His most outstanding year was 1904, when in seven relief appearances he saved five and won two, while amassing an overall record of 35–8.

McGinnity was an underhand pitcher, or submariner, whose knuckles would almost scrape the ground as he delivered his spe­cialty, the raise curve. As he once said, the raise curve or upshoot “is the heritage of the old days of pitching—when no curves were known—combined with the outcurve of the present day.” He cred­ited invention of the pitch to Billy Rhines of Cincinnati, but others have cited Bobby Mathews, who starred in the National Association. McGinnity’s raise ball created an optical illusion, he ex­plained; the batter “finds it almost out of the question to estimate its speed, and generally hits under it, lifting the ball into the air for an easy out.” Most firemen have been sinkerballers whose aim was to get a ground ball, but there have been several other submariners who pitched well in relief, most notably Dan Quisenberry.

Denton True “Cy” Young earned his nickname as a youngster for his cyclonic speed. As Honus Wagner said of him, “Johnson and Rusie were one as fast as the other, but Young was faster than both of them.” He also had two great curveballs, Wagner added, one of the wide-breaking sort and the other the late-breaking “nickel curve,” today known as the slider. But Young’s greatest asset over the long haul—22 years, 511 victories—may have been his control, for he allowed less than 1.5 walks per nine innings.

Like McGinnity, Young never suffered from a sore arm and needed only a dozen pitches to get warm, for a start or for a turn out of the pen. He won seven games in relief in 1895, leading the NL and falling one short of the record set by his teammate Nig Cuppy two years earlier. He also led in saves in 1896, and in 1905 repeated as the relief-win champ. But it was a relief win in 1904 that stood at the center of one of the greatest pitching feats of all time.

On April 25 of that year, in Philadelphia, the 37-year-old Young and his Red Sox lost to Rube Waddell of the A’s, 2–0; he permitted no hits in the last three innings after a leadoff double in the sixth. On April 30, Young relieved starter George Winter in the third, with none out and two on; he hurled seven hitless re­lief innings for the 4–1 win. On May 5, in a rematch with Waddell, the Cyclone threw a perfect game, bringing his hitless streak to 18 innings. Finally, on May 11, he breezed through the first six inn­ings against Detroit before allowing a hit after one man had gone down in the seventh. He had pitched 25-1/3 consecutive innings without allowing a hit, a record that still stands, more than a century later.

1 Comment

The only “switch pitcher” I know of today is Pat Venditte, who is currently a Yankees farm hand playing in AA Trenton. He throws well with both arms, and wears a custom made glove with 2 thumbs so he can change arms in the middle of an inning. His debut went well until he faced a switch hitter, and a Mexican standoff developed until both sides appealed to the umpires for a ruling. It was decided that the batter must choose first, and the pitcher would then make his adjustments. This forced minor league baseball to adopt a rule change colloquially called the “Pat Venditte Rule”.

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