The Only Nolan

Ed "The Only" Nolan

Ed “The Only” Nolan

Who was Edward Sylvester Nolan? Look at his stats page at and one is hardly impressed: a lifetime pitching record of 23-52 in five seasons in the big leagues, spanning eight years with five clubs, and an ERA well below league average. His rookie year with Indianapolis in 1878, at the age 20, was notable principally for two separate suspensions—the first when he was accused of game-fixing (he was cleared); the second for lying about a sick brother so he could get time off to visit a prostitute. Nolan’s 13 wins were hardly enough to keep the new Indianapolis franchise afloat in the National League beyond its first season.

So why did fans sing his praises for generations to come, and award him the nickname “The Only”? And what the heck did it mean, anyhow? Nolan is one of my favorites; let me tell you why.

Nolan was born in Canada in 1857, but grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, where he played cricket and baseball. At the age of 16 he began to play baseball for the Paterson Keystones, along with Jim McCormick and King Kelly. He moved on to the Columbus Buckeyes in mid-1875, and starred for them in 1876. When Nolan signed with Indianapolis for 1877, McCormick replaced him as pitcher for the Buckeyes, with Kelly following on a few weeks later, as his catcher.

As to the sobriquet “The Only,” many have had theories. Wikipedia offers this:

Francis "The Only" Leon

Francis “The Only” Leon

A range of possible origins of the nickname “The Only” have been claimed over the years; one states that the reason for the name derives from the fact that no other Nolans, either first or last name had played or was playing in the majors at that time, therefore he was the only Nolan. The other is slightly more elaborate. In the period following the Civil War, a wildly successful minstrel performer of the day, named Francis Leon, rose to prominence performing a burlesque act while simultaneously in both blackface and drag. His popularity prompted many imitators. In response, Leon began billing himself and his act as “The Only Leon.” The theory follows then that Ed Nolan somehow reminded an observer of Leon, thus sparking the similar nickname.

The first explanation is patently absurd, the other is surprisingly near the truth. It appears that The Only Leon went so far as to copyright/trademark his nickname. But Nolan did not remind anyone of Leon. The nickname was common in circus and theatrical settings, as in the manner of “The One, The Only” Madame Fifi, for example.

The Bullpen section of offers this: “‘The Only’ was a common term during Nolan’s time, applied to anyone who excelled at something, although it must be noted that ‘The Only’ Nolan compiled a lifetime record of 23 wins and 52 losses.” But to look only at his MLB-recognized record misses the whole point.

Robert Smith, who really knew his baseball oldtimers, almost certainly got his info about Nolan from sportswriter Guy McI. Smith, who was born in Indianapolis in 1870 but lived in Danville, IL until his death in 1950. In 1952, Smith published Heroes of Baseball, which may have been the book that the two Smiths had planned to publish together before the elder one died in 1950. In that book there is a chapter on Nolan–right after the one on King Kelly, another “husky kid from Paterson,” as was Nolan. In February 1877 Nolan, fresh off a dazzling season with Columbus, accepted an offer of $2500 from club owner W.B. Pettit to pitch for Indianapolis. Now to quote Smith directly:

Columbus Buckeyes, 1876; Nolan stands second from right

Columbus Buckeyes, 1876; Nolan stands second from right; credit, Tracy Martin

… Eddie went south in February, on what was probably the first spring training jaunt any organized club ever took [this is not so–jt]. The Indianapolis club, starting in New Orleans, won eleven straight games down south, six of them shutouts, and Eddie Nolan pitched them all. After that he became not Edward J. Nolan [the record books, in which his date and place of birth are in some disarray, have him as Edward S. Nolan] but simply “The Only Nolan,” and that was the name for the rest of his career.

Friend Richard Hershberger notes: “On March 15, 1877 in New Orleans against the Robert E. Lee Club, he pitched a six-inning game in which no batter managed even a foul ball”; calling Sidd Finch! We have no encyclopedic record for Nolan’s heroics with Indianapolis of the 1877 League Alliance at but Smith offers some astonishing marks that would tend to support the nickname:

In 1877 Nolan won more games by shutouts than most top-flight pitchers, in a single season nowadays, win by hook and crook. He pitched seventy-six complete games, won sixty-four, and tied eight. And he set the record that still stands: thirty shut outs in one season. In thirty-three games, just to rest up, he played right field.

One of the thirty shutouts was a no-hit no run job against Columbus. And two of them came on the same day, April 26, 1877, when he blanked Syracuse in both ends of a doubleheader, the first pitcher ever to accomplish such a feat.

No pitcher has ever equaled The Only’s earned run average which he set that year. He pitched to 3589 batters, and allowed 632 hits and 87 walks, with only 38 of the 131 runs against him being earned. For 76 games then, his earned run average was just 0.50.

Nor has anyone ever equaled his seasonal pitching percentage of .941 [64-4, with 8 ties].

These stats of Smith’s are pretty detailed, and yet we have nothing to speak of at, which leases its minor-league data from SABR.

Indianapolis 1877

Indianapolis 1877

Ed Nolan was, in sum, the ultimate phenom, the Sidd Finch of his day. No man at any level of professional baseball, before or since, has won 64 games. It was during this year that he won the name “The Only,” which was also applied to his batterymate, Silver Flint, later famous with Anson’s White Stockings. In the major leagues, Hoss Radbourn won 59 for Providence in 1884; John Clarkson and Guy Hecker also topped 50 wins. In the National Association, Al Spalding went 54-5 in 1875 and 52-16 the year before. Harry McCormick was 59-39-2 for Syracuse, also in the League Alliance of 1877.

Maybe now is a good time to tell what the League Alliance was, before we talk a bit more about Nolan. The League Alliance was not a minor league at all but, like the International Association, an alternative league of somewhat loosely organized professional clubs. The National League contained only eight clubs in 1876 and six the year after, but the League Alliance contained thirteen clubs and the International Association another sixteen. The survival of the National League was by no means assured. The six NL clubs in 1877 suffered 73 defeats to nonleague clubs—especially the clubs from Syracuse, Lowell, Indianapolis, and Allegheny. Henry Chadwick, in the De Witt Guide, described these four clubs as being, with the six of the NL, the “ten most prominent” of the country.

1877 scorecard, St. Paul Red Caps at Indianapolis Blues

1877 scorecard, St. Paul Red Caps at Indianapolis Blues

After the game-fixing scandal involving four members of the Louisville club in 1877, the NL was reduced to four clubs (St. Louis dropped out in addition to Louisvile, as they had intended to field a club headed by Louisville conspirator Jim Devlin). So Indianapolis and Milwaukee were hurriedly admitted into the National League for 1878, maintaining its roster at six clubs.

Let Al Spink, founder of The Sporting News, pick up the story:

At the commencement of the 1878 year the directors of the Indianapolis non-league team, thinking they had a bonanza in Nolan, christened him “The Only Nolan,” joined the National League and set out to win the pennant of that organization. The attempt, however, was a wonderful failure, the club not only failing to win the league flag, but to make good for its directors. At a meeting of the club directors at the close of the 1878 season they found to their dismay that the playing year had closed with the club some $2,500 in debt and no money in the treasury to pay the salaries still due the players. Just before this meeting was held a club for the following season, 1879, had been talked of, and Clapp, McCormick, Warner and McKelvey had signed to play in it, but the sorrowful discovery made knocked this programme into a “cocked hat,” and the players who had signed were released…. In this Fall of 1878 soon after the discovery of the shortage this special dispatch was sent out from Indianapolis: “The Homeless Nine membership are still hanging about town awaiting payment by the stockholders in the busted baseball organization. The individual indebtedness to the players will average $250, on which $50 each has been paid. It is the understanding that will have to content, as they will get no more. The total indebtedness is said to exceed $5,000. Warner and Schaffer are threatening to place their claims in an attorney’s hands, and the rest will probably join them…. Not even a semiprofessional club will be maintained in this city next year, from the present outlook.” … The people of Indianapolis were so disappointed at the work of the team that had represented them so splendidly the year before that they repudiated it and wearing uniforms like that previously worn by the members of the St. Louis League team the nine went barn storming through the country and wherever they went they were called the … Homeless Browns.”

Knickerbocker of San Francisco 1880; Nolan second row at right (#10)

Knickerbocker of San Francisco 1880; Nolan second row at right (#10)

Nolan played the next two seasons in San Francisco–in 1879 with the Knickerbocker club, in 1880 with the Unions and then the Bay Citys. He resurfaced in the majors with Cleveland in 1881, where he went 8-14. One of ten players blacklisted by the league on September 29 for “confirmed dissipation and general insubordination,” he returned after a year’s suspension for a partial season in 1883 with Pittsburgh of the American Association, for whom he posted a record of 0-7. In this year a burlesque called “Thoughts about Potters” circulated in newspapers across the nation, featuring the quip that a potter “is a base ball star, and makes a better pitcher than the ‘only Nolan.'”

Thoughts about Pottery, Daily Alta

Thoughts about Pottery, Daily Alta

In 1884 he was 18-5 with Wilmington of the Eastern League when that club joined the Union Association. In the UA Wilmington went 2-16, with Nolan accounting for one of its victories. The next year he returned to the NL with Philadelphia, where his major league career ended after seven games. He pitched a few games for Savannah and Jersey City in 1886, but then he was done.

Nolan became a policeman in his home town of Paterson, New Jersey. He rose in the ranks, becoming a sergeant. On May 18, 1913, at the age of 55, he died suddenly from illness brought on by strenuous activity during the famous Paterson Silk Strike.


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