The History of Baseball in One Day

Catfish Hunter (with Billy Martin and Brad Gulden in 1979) died 15 years ago today (via Jim Accordino).

Catfish Hunter (with Billy Martin and Brad Gulden in 1979) died 15 years ago today (via Jim Accordino).

I’d like to propose a new national holiday: Hall of Fame Day. Sept. 9 is a crucial date in every baseball season, when every win and loss takes on outsize importance as teams on the playoff bubble try to separate themselves from the pack. But it’s also a day with a connection to six iconic Hall of Famers, three who were born this day and three who died this day. You could tell a fair history of baseball by focusing just on the ninth of September. So here’s what happened.

Al Spalding

On this date in 1915, 99 years ago, Albert Goodwill Spalding died. Before founding a sporting goods empire that bears his name to this day, Spalding was the greatest pitcher of the first decade of American professional baseball. He made his debut at 20 years old as a member of the 1871 Boston Red Stockings, the franchise that later changed its name to the Braves and now plays in Atlanta as the oldest continually operating franchise in sports. (These Boston Red Stockings had previously played in Cincinnati. The current Cincinnati Reds franchise is not related, though it gets its name from the same origin.)

Despite the presence of Spalding and two other future Hall of Famers, shortstop George Wright (the first great shortstop in baseball history) and George’s brother Harry, the player-manager, Spalding’s team finished in third place in the National Association’s first season. That wrong was quickly righted, however; the team captured first place in each of the following four seasons, and Spalding’s statistics look like a misprint.

Al Spalding Statistics, 1871-1875
Year W L ERA GS IP FIP HR/9 BB/9 K/9
1871 19 10 3.36 31 257.1 3.95 0.1 1.3 0.8
1872 38 8 1.85 48 404.2 3.49 0 0.6 0.6
1873 41 14 2.99 54 496.2 3.25 0.1 0.7 0.9
1874 52 16 1.92 69 617.1 2.08 0 0.3 0.5
1875 54 5 1.59 62 570.2 2.09 0 0.3 1.2

Spalding was, in essence, the team’s only starting pitcher over the entire period, even as the number of team games steadily increased from 31 in 1871 to 71 in 1874. In 1875, the team played 82 games, and the team finally found Spalding a rotation mate, as Wright assigned 18 starts to Jack Manning. The team went 71-8, one of the best records by a professional baseball team in history. (Few historians regard the National Association as a “major league,” but an .899 winning percentage still speaks for itself.)

Frank Chance

Frank Chance was born on this day 138 years ago, in the year of the founding of the National League, a year when Al Spalding led the major leagues in wins for the sixth straight time and the first time as a Chicago Cub. Chance was destined to become an iconic Cub himself, but his legend status endures almost entirely thanks to a bit of doggerel poetry from 1910, published in the New York Evening Mail as “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.” The poem is written from the perspective of a forlorn fan, upset that his New York Giants keep losing to the juggernaut Cubs, who won pennants from 1906-1908 and in 1910, and won the World Series in ’07 and ’08. The poem refers to the Cubs’ dynamic infield of the period, shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers, and Chance at first base.

These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double—
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

(“Gonfalon” refers to a pennant, and “hit into a double” means a double play.)

Chance was the team’s player-manager, nicknamed “Peerless Leader,” and he was a pretty good deadball era hitter too, maintaining a decent average and drawing quite a few walks. His teams won an astonishing number of games, beginning with his first full year as a manager in 1906, when the Cubs won the pennant with a 116-36 record, a .763 winning percentage that is still the highest ever for a National League or American League team. Overall, he managed seven full seasons with the Cubs, and from 1906 to 1912 the team won four pennants and averaged 102 wins a year — in an era when they played only 154 games a year.

He was not known for gentlemanly play, however.
“Chance once incited a riot at the Polo Grounds after physically assaulting opposing pitcher Joe McGinnity, and on more than one occasion tossed beer bottles at fans in Brooklyn,” Gregory Ryhal wrote in his SABR biography of Chance. “For his fighting prowess (he spent several off-seasons working as a prizefighter), old-school boxing legends Jim Corbett and John L. Sullivan both called Chance ‘the greatest amateur brawler of all time.'”

Waite Hoyt and Frankie Frisch

Born on this day two years apart — 115 and 117 years ago, respectively — Waite Hoyt and Frankie Frisch had largely overlapping careers, making their debuts just a few years after Chance retired from his playing career. “Schoolboy” Hoyt signed out of high school with the New York Giants but after a couple of indifferent teenage years made his way up to the Bronx. Frisch took an opposite path, via Fordham University in the Bronx (where he got his lifelong nickname, “The Fordham Flash”). He signed with the Giants, and stayed there for a decade.

Hoyt and Frisch squared off against one another in 1921, the first true Subway Series (and the last of a best-of-nine experiment), with Frisch’s Giants winning five games to three. The Giants were the victors the following year in a four-game sweep. But in 1923, the Yankees called up a college boy of their own — a Columbia University fellow by the name of Lou Gehrig — who displaced their first baseman, Wally Pipp, and led the Yankees to their first world championship in team history. It would not be the last.

Hoyt was not the star of his Yankees teams, which after all were better known for their home run hitting than their pitching, behind the immortal Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He was no ace, just a reliable starter. He was, in retrospect, basically the Andy Pettitte of his time:

Waite Hoyt vs. Andy Pettitte
Player W L ERA GS IP ERA+ FIP WHIP H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
Waite Hoyt 237 182 3.59 425 3762.1 112 3.76 1.34 9.7 2.4 2.9 1.2
Andy Pettitte 256 153 3.85 521 3316 117 3.74 1.351 9.4 2.8 6.6 2.37

It’s worth pointing out one last thing about Hoyt, from his page at the Hall of Fame: “Waite Hoyt was nicknamed The Merry Mortician because he worked as an undertaker during the offseason.” The more you know….!

Frisch had the fortune of playing for two iconic ballclubs: John McGraw’s dangerous Giants of the early 1920s, and the Gashouse Gang Cardinals of the early 1930s. His game was built on speed, batting average, and defensive versatility. By the mid-‘20s, his relationship with McGraw had soured and after the 1926 season he and a pitcher were traded to the Cardinals for the best player in the National League: the Rajah, Rogers Hornsby.

Hornsby and Frisch both played second base and hit for average, but though Hornsby was the best hitter in the league, he was not quite as good a defender as Frisch, and he was no leader. Overall, Frisch was understood to be a cut below Hornsby; nonetheless, even though the Cardinals had won the 1926 World Series, Hornsby’s team wanted rid of him and valued the steady reliability and terrific glove of the Fordham Flash.

Frisch’s Cardinals lost the World Series to the Yankees in 1928 and to the Philadelphia Athetics in 1930. But they exacted their revenge on the A’s one year later, winning the 1931 championship, and in 1934 they won the World Series again with Frisch as player-manager.

The 1934 Gashouse Gang Cardinals have endured in memory as one of the most colorful teams ever, led by the immortal pitcher Dizzy Dean, foulmouthed shortstop Leo Durocher (who later became an iconic manager himself), sparkplug third baseman Pepper Martin, and Joe Medwick, who would win the Triple Crown in 1937 and really hated if you called him by his nickname, “Ducky” or “Ducky Wucky,” a reference to the way he walked. (He preferred to be called “Muscles.”)

Richie Ashburn

Frisch retired from playing in 1937 but remained a manager through the 1950s. In 1945, he skippered the Pittsburgh Pirates while the cross-state Philadelphia Phillies signed Richie Ashburn out of high school in Tilden, Neb. Ashburn briefly served in the military while a member of the organization, and finally made his major league debut in 1948, playing 117 games in the outfield for the sixth-place Phillies. (The team was managed by notorious racist Ben Chapman, who was played by Alan Tudyk in the film 42.)

Ashburn made an immediate splash, hitting .333, playing fine defense, and leading the majors with 32 steals, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting and 11th in the MVP vote. That was a career high in steals, but the pattern was established: great defense, high batting average, and very little power.

The Phillies are, legendarily, the losingest franchise in professional sports. But it’s hard to fathom just how bad they were before Ashburn arrived. Between their first professional season in 1883 and their 65th season in 1947, the Phillies made a grand total of one postseason appearance, losing the 1915 World Series. The team went 4,188-5,217 over that period, 1,029 games under .500, with a combined run differential of -5004.

In Ashburn’s third season, the team won the pennant for only the second time in its history, and though the Phillies got swept by the Yankees in the World Series, the team became beloved and was forever known as the Whiz Kids, due to the youth of stars like Ashburn and pitcher Robin Roberts.

But the team failed to capitalize on its success and its youth, and slipped to fifth in 1951. Though Chapman had departed, the team was far from progressive in its attitude toward black ballplayers. The 1950 Phillies were all-white. Indeed, a 2004 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that the Whiz Kids “were the last NL team to win a pennant without one black or Latino starter.” Ashburn himself believed that was a major factor. “We didn’t win after 1950, but I think there’s a reason. We were the last team to get any black ballplayers,” the article quotes him as having said late in his life. “The Giants, the Dodgers, the Braves were getting the good black ballplayers. We were still pretty good, but they were just getting better.”

Ashburn eventually became a member of the inaugural 1962 season of the New York Mets, where he had the dubious honor of being perhaps the best player on the team. He retired after that season, and went on to a career as a broadcaster, returning to the Phillies in 1963 and staying behind the microphone in Philadelphia until his death 17 years ago today, on Sept. 9, 1997.

Catfish Hunter

James Augustus Hunter made his debut just three years after Ashburn retired, pitching for the Kansas City Athletics — the A’s had moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 1955, leaving the Phillies as the only team in the city of Brotherly Love. In 1968, they decamped for Oakland, where they remain to this day.

Oakland Coliseum was a great place to pitch, then as now. It was even friendlier in the Year of the Pitcher, 1968. But Hunter didn’t particularly excel. He actually led the American League in Earned Runs Allowed that year, finishing with an ERA of 3.35 that looked superficially decent, but was belied by an 83 ERA+ that showed just how poor his results were in context.

In all, Hunter was little more than an innings-eater in his first six seasons from 1965-1970, pitching 219 innings a year of slightly below-average ball. (His ERA+ was 94, and his won-loss record was 73-78, in an era when that mattered a lot more than it does now.) The final four seasons of his career, 1976-1979 with the Yankees, were likewise indifferent.

Hunter is remembered because he was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 1971 to 1975, staff ace on an Athletics team that won three World Series in a row, 1972-1974. Hunter pitched brilliantly in the playoffs, too, appearing in 14 games in those five postseasons, going 7-2 with a 2.55 ERA overall, and 4-0 with a 2.19 ERA in seven World Series games. He then won two more championships with the Yankees in 1977 and 1978, but didn’t pitch particularly well — but then again, it was the Yankees, and they didn’t particularly need him to, thanks to the pitching of their staff ace, Ron “Gator” Guidry.

Guidry had a superior career to Hunter, and arguably just as good a nickname, but he never made it to the Hall. Hunter is one of the weaker pitchers to be elected, elected on the basis of a very short peak.

But Hunter played an important role off the field as well. After the 1974 season, he went into an arbitration hearing with the notoriously tightfisted Athletics owner Charles O. Finley, accusing Finley of breaching his contract by refusing to pay the amount he was owed. The arbitrator agreed, and declared him a free agent, so Hunter went to the highest bidder — which happened to be the Yankees, a pattern that would repeat rather often in the coming years. A year later, that same arbitrator declared Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to be unrestricted free agents, and the era of free agency in baseball officially began.

On Sept. 9, 1999, two years to the day after Richie Ashburn passed away, Catfish Hunter died at the age of 53 of complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The six men of Sept. 9 span more than a century of baseball history, from the days when teams only needed one pitcher to the breaking of the color line, from the Cubs’ last dynasty to the beginning of the Yankees’ hegemony, from the dawn of the National League to the dawn of free agency and modern baseball economics.

I don’t think that any offices are likely to let their workers out early for my proposed Hall of Fame Day. So it would be less a true holiday and more of a ceremonial Google alert and set of happy hour specials at the local bar. But it would be nice to have one day a year when there’s a ready-made excuse to talk about and study baseball history, because it’s right there on the calendar. And the holiday can only grow from here. Surely, someone else will become the next man (or woman) of Sept. 9 as soon as they make their way to the Hall of Fame.

I’ve got my money on Billy Hamilton. He was born this day in 1990.


Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.
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tz
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tz

I’ve bookmarked this for reading every 9/9. Now I’ll just have to cue up the Schoolhouse Rock song about #9 as the musical accompaniment.

dshorwich
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dshorwich

Nice article. One piece of errata: Frank Chance was known as “The Peerless Leader”, not “The Fearless Leader”.

Richie
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Richie

Not sure how notorious Ben Chapman was. Didn’t he always claim he was just bench jockeying, in whatever form he thought might work? In his Wikipedia entry, you get the slightest bit of his perspective on it in the Jackie Robinson section of it.

Dave
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Dave

Gehrig had 26 ABs in 1923 for NYY, none in the World Series. He did not lead the Yankees to anything at all in 1923.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

With so many of the players being from the South in those days, Chapman’s behavior was probably not all that much worse than most of the others. Which actually suggests just how difficult it was for Jackie Robinson.

alex
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alex

Dixie Walker tried to start a boycott on the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers before Jackie Robinson arrived. Dixie Walker along with Country Slaughter (St. Louis) were some of the well known “Southern” ballplayers.

87 Cards
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87 Cards

Sep. 9, 1965 Hall-of-Famer Sandy Koufax hurled a 14 K perfect game against the Cubs..Bob Hendley of the Cubs was the hard-luck loser; a double to Ron Fairly and a walk and solo homer to Lou Johnson–in a 1-0 game in LA in an hour and forty-three minutes of work.

cincinnatifan
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cincinnatifan

87 Cards—I believe your facts are partially incorrect. You are correct that Koufax pitched a perfect game on that date (I remember sitting on the sofa listening to the game on my transistor radio before falling asleep in the middle innings, then seeing the replay of the last out on the TV news). You are also correct that Bob Hendley was the hard-luck loser in a 1-0 game (which Hendley avenged in their next outing, this time in Wrigley, 2-1). But you are incorrect about Fairly and Johnson, and how the run scored. Fairly did not get any hits–Lou Johnson… Read more »

Greg F
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Greg F

Lou Johnson was the only baserunner in that game – once on the walk which led to the run; the other on a double, the only hit for both sides. As far as I know, I believe that is the fewest number of baserunners for both teams in a game.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I think Chapman was notorious-in the sense of being known for his actions-even back then because I seem to recall reading that Robinson himself singled him out as being especially bad. So, yes, I do think Chapman was notorious-regardless of whether what he intended was “merely” bench jockeying. Of course, calling Robinson names-however noxious-might not have been as bad as what some of the players tried to do physically to Robinson, such as spiking him and so forth and clearly not as bad as trying to organize a boycott.

87 Cards
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87 Cards

Oops…Error on me on prior comment… On my time-travel list of games, though, the Koufax/Hendley game is one I would see—both pitchers faced the minimum.

Thiago Splitchange
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Thiago Splitchange

Hendley did not face the minimum…he faced 26 batters in 8 innings.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I bet the game didn’t last three hours, like it would today. The mention of transistor radios sure brings back memories-and makes me realize how old I am.