Who Were the Fastest Pitchers?

Amos Rusie with Cincinnati, at the end of the line in 1901.

Amos Rusie with Cincinnati, at the end of the line in 1901.

I sort of fell into this subject on Facebook earlier today in response to a woodcut I posted of Amos Rusie’s drop ball. With his legendary fastball, I suggested, why would he ever need to throw a drop? Walter Johnson pitched almost his entire career throwing one pitch. When Walter Johnson came along in 1907, writers seeking to compliment the young fireballer called him “another Rusie.” As Mike Gershman wrote in Total Baseball, “Baseball paid Rusie the ultimate compliment in 1893 when it changed the rules because of him. The mound was moved back from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches, and several authorities claim the change was intended to make Rusie’s heat less intimidating. (Rusie’s first catcher, Dick Buckley, padded his glove with a thin sheet of lead to help absorb the impact of Rusie’s hummer.) The Indianan led the league in strikeouts five years out of six and won 30 games or more four years in a row.”

In 1892 the pitching distance was truly only five feet shorter than that of today, because before the introduction of the slab, from which the 60’6″ distance is taken, the pitcher threw from a box, the front of which was 50 feet from the plate but the back line was five and a half feet further, creating an effective distance of 55’6″. In that last year of the old distance, which had been in force since 1880, the Hoosier Thunderbolt may have been, from the batter’s perspective, the fastest pitcher ever.

The Rusie drop ball, depicted in 1900.

The Rusie drop ball, depicted in 1900.

Let’s try a math exercise: Rusie’s 95 mph–my approximation; his pitches were never clocked, but Connie Mack said he was as fast as Johnson or Bob Feller–speedball of 1892, thrown from 55’6″ (the back-foot distance) would have arrived at the plate in 0.400 seconds. A modern pitcher throwing 95 mph from 60’6″ would reach the plate at 0.434 seconds. A modern pitcher throwing at 100 mph would reach home plate at 0.413 seconds. If Rusie threw routinely at 95 mph (as opposed to a peak mark like Aroldis Chapman’s 105) he was, from a batter’s viewpoint, the fastest ever,  Q.E.D. (Yes, Chapman’s fastest-ever pitch arrived at the plate in 0.393 seconds, but that is a reliever’s apple to a starter’s orange.)

Jim Creighton, first to pitch with a planted back foot.

Jim Creighton of the famous Excelsior Club, first to pitch with a planted back foot.

To such musing my friend Rod Nelson replied, “how long for the fastest fast-pitch softball to reach the plate?” This interested me because in men’s fast-pitch leagues the pitching distance is 46 feet, only one foot longer than baseball’s original pitching distance, first specified in 1857. Let’s say, I replied, that a pitcher could maintain a 95-mph pace, as above. (Eddie Feigner’s peak of 104 is an anomaly, like Chapman’s 105 above.) That 95 mph windmill pitch would arrive at the plate in 0.330 seconds (though the ball is bigger and theoretically easier to hit). Imagine Jim Creighton Of the Brooklyn Excelsiors of 1860 pitching, with a straight arm and no windup–let’s say for argument–an 80 mph fastball at the 45 foot distance (which was really a 50 foot distance from the back foot, and is thus calculated). His ball would have arrived at the plate in 0.426 seconds–faster to the plate than the modern pitcher at 95 mph.

Interesting, no?

17 Comments

Very interesting, yes! This discourse really puts much about pitching speed in perspective. Although, the entertaining notion that Rusie was responsible for the modern pitching distance has grown into baseball lore in some quarters, I like to think that many of us shrink from that explanation. Yes, overhand pitching, a relatively short lived practice by 1892 may have been limiting offensive production, but I’m not even certain of the empirical data on that. Then, we are faced with the offensive production of 1893 which didn’t seem to be anywhere near as significant as the increase in offense from 1893 to 1894, when offense literally jumped off the chart. Of course, that begs a whole other question; what made offense so spectatular in 1894? I don’t think distance or pitching speed, because things toned down considerably in 1895 and beyond. That leaves us to consider the ball as defensive equipment (gloves) were only improving as were playing playing surfaces.

Your writing always inspires me. Your knowledge leaves me awestruck.

This is fascinating. Thank you, Mr. Thorn. I do wonder though if pitchers of earlier eras could really generate as much velocity as Chapman and Verlander. Given improvements in pitching mechanics (modest as they may be since Feller’s age) and increases in height/arm length (again small, but perhaps not inconsiderable since the age of Johnson and Mathewson) if those earlier measures overestimate pitching velocity? Or might there be a natural limit to how fast the human arm can move? I doubt the latter is the case. Humans keep getting faster and stronger. Wouldn’t it be surprising if their pitching velocity couldn’t increase as well?

I’ve long been bothered by the belief that pitchers like Rusie and Johnson had anywhere near the velocity of Feller or other modern pitchers. Considering that those old-timers played when one ball per game was often used, pitchers could doctor the ball in anyways they wanted, there were no batting helmets, and pretty much anything went as to how you played the game, it would seem that there would have been many deaths related to batters being hit in the head if they had anything close to modern speed. I doubt that batters back then had much better reflexes than modern players.
And I know that famous line that if Johnson didn’t have control, there would have been dead batters all over Idaho but it’s worth noting he was in the top 10 in both HBP and WP most seasons and led the league in both categories several times.

Steve, you’re right. See my reply to Chris.

Excellent points, Peter. That Rusie and Cy Young were responsible for the pitching distance shift is in the realm of fable, as the Players League of 1890 had a pitching distance of 51.5 feet, so the impetus for change was clearly in the air. At about this time Harry Wright suggested that the pitcher’s position should be at the midpoint between home and second, roughly 63’6″. In short, pitching always dominates hitting unless rulemakers intervene, periodically.

Stephen, thank you for the kind words. Chris, I share your views. Pitchers throw harder, have superior technique and training, and are superior physical specimens. I am certain that Rusie and Johnson could not generate the velocity of a Chapman or Verlander. But my point in this blog post was to reintroduce the element of distance to home plate as a way to focus on the batter’s reaction time. Creighton could not have been as fast as Rusie, let alone Chapman or Verlander, but from the 45-foot distance (effectively, from his back foot, about 50 feet) he must have been frightening. In sum, the oldtimers didn’t throw as hard, but the ball got there as fast.

Point taken. And the content of this post is going directly into my baseball history course. So thank you again. I just wanted to suggest that if we build a 95-mph pitch into the equation we end up with a significantly shorter delivery time than if we build an 80-85-mph pitch into it.

p.s. I spoke to a college softball hurler on Monday and she said that pitchers at her level generally top out at 62-64 mph, which makes me wonder about Creighton reaching 80mph.

Of course, and you’ll note that I have offered varying speeds as well as distances in my post. But the constant is a batter’s perception. For approximately half the distance between release and swing, the batter is unable to react. As to the p.s., you may choose your own speed for Creighton but a smaller ball will travel faster. (Feigner and modern fast-pitch softballers generate much of their speed from their motion.)

Exactly. Thank you.

Why are you measuring from where the pitcher’s back foot is planted, rather than a release point?

Jeff, release point will differ with pitchers’ styles, stature, and period restrictions on the delivery (underhand only, with a stuff wrist, till 1872; sidearm to 1878; from the shoulder in the early 1880s until finally in 1885 all restrictions were removed in both big leagues). A pitcher who is 6’4″, for example, will have a release point closer than that of a Bobby Shantz or a Jim Creighton. Trying to reduce the number of variables in the comparisons across eras, I have found it more reasonable to go with the back-foot distance: 60’6″; 55’6″; and 50 feet. If you wished to adjust ALL of these forward by 5 to 5-1/2 feet, the point I have made would be the same.

Thanks. That’s what I thought and it makes sense.

Typos galore in my post above, now corrected.

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Piling on: A Cleveland Plain Dealer writer in 1921 said Johnson was as fast as Rusie, who in a game vs. New Haven in 1891 had fanned 19 in the last eight innings after taking it easy in the first. John Lardner wrote in 1940, “Back in 1913 old-timers still insisted that Amos Rusie was faster than Johnson, and when a young man spoke highly of the smoke of [Nap] Rucker and Joe Wood, there was always someone on hand to remember that Rube Waddell was faster than that.” Bill Klem declared that Bob Feller was faster than Johnson. Johnson himself said: “He’s pretty fast. I don’t see how he throws so fast with that hitch. He don’t even straighten his arm out at the finish…. Me, I let her go from out and back, over the hip, sort of sidearm.”

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