You Should Know Oyster Joe

Oyster Joe Martina played with and against some of baseball’s all-time greats. (via Library of Congress)

The 1924 World Series offers any number of talking points for baseball historians. It matched the mighty New York Giants–winners of nine pennants since 1901 and four in a row from 1921-1924–against the lowly Washington Senators, making their first World Series appearance. The 1924 Giants had led the NL in hitting (.300), homers (95) and, most importantly, runs (857). Thanks to spacious Griffith Stadium, the Senators led the league in triples (88)…and that was about it. That same spaciousness kept their home run count to a mere 22. Pitching was the team’s strong point, the team ERA of 3.34 leading the league, with defense getting an honorable mention (only the Yankees committed fewer errors). So the Senators may have lacked the firepower and glamour of the Giants, but they were hardly pushovers.

The 1924 Fall Classic featured a host of players who would later be inducted into the Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson, Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, and player/manager Bucky Harris for the Senators; Frankie Frisch, Travis Jackson, High Pockets Kelly, Freddie Lindstrom, Ross Youngs, Hack Wilson, Billy Southworth, Bill Terry, and manager John McGraw for the Giants. The aging Johnson finally getting a shot at World Series glory made for a great sidebar. As it turned out, Johnson lost the two games he started but won Game Seven in relief – thanks to two bad-hop ground balls over third baseman Freddie Lindstrom’s head.

With all that drama and star power, it’s easy to see how some worthwhile stories could get lost in the meta-narrative. Such was the case of Oyster Joe Martina. You’ve probably never heard of him, which is a shame. In its own way, his career was as remarkable as those of the future Hall enshrinees he played with and against.

John Joseph Martina was born on July 8, 1889, in New Orleans (his nickname resulted from one of his hometown’s favorite foodstuffs). A right-handed pitcher who stood six feet tall and weighed 183 pounds, he began his career at age 20 with the Savannah Indians of the Class C South Atlantic League, popularly known as the Sally League. He had a decent debut, good enough to get him promoted to Class A New Orleans of the Southern Association. He was probably glad to ply his trade in his hometown. But the results did not warrant remaining, and Martina dropped all the way down to the Class D Yazoo City Zoos of the Cotton States League. If he was discouraged by the demotion, he didn’t show it when he took the mound, as he went 21-16 for the Zoos, prompting a promotion to the Class B Beaumont Oilers of the Texas League in 1912.

Finding a home in petroleum-rich Beaumont, he won 62 games from 1912 to 1915. Unfortunately, he lost 73. But he averaged 309 innings pitched per season, a figure he’d approach the next several seasons with various minor league teams, eventually winding up with his hometown team, the New Orleans Pelicans. His 1921 season was so-so (13-16, 3.13 in 213 innings) but it was good enough to get him invited back. He responded by winning 43 games the next two seasons. Altogether he had won 247 games in the minors through 1923. Even so, Martina was likely surprised to find that the Washington Senators had been paying attention.

The Senators had finished the 1923 season in fourth place with a 75-78 record. Only twice in their 23-year history had they won 90 or more games and finished as high as second place. But for the most part, they languished in the second division. There was no reason to expect anything more from them in 1924, especially when 27-year-old infielder Bucky Harris was named player-manager. The “boy-wonder” was likely to turn out to be the latest of owner Calvin Griffith’s one-year wonders.

Griffith had managed the team himself from 1912 to 1920 before standing down to devote all his time to front office responsibilities. During the next three seasons, Griffith went through three managers (George McBride, Clyde Milan, and Donie Bush). Aside from the fact that Harris was younger than his predecessors and still playing regularly, there was no reason to assume he would last any longer than they had. On the other hand, the Senators were a low-budget operation and employing Harris as a player/manager was certainly cheaper than employing both a second baseman and a manager. Barring a total team meltdown, that dual role might have kept Harris around for more than one season.

Exactly how Martina came to Griffith’s attention would be difficult to research after 95 years, but it is likely that Griffith’s friend Joe Engel played a part. Today Engel is remembered as a minor-league version of Bill Veeck. As a longtime owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts–a vintage 1930 ballpark in that city still bears his name–his reputation as a promoter is largely associated with that franchise. But he had grown up in D.C. and served as a batboy and mascot for the Senators as a boy. Later he became a pitcher, mostly for the Senators, but also for the Reds and Indians. After 1920 he took up scouting and scoured the bushes for Griffith. Surely, he would have been aware of Joe Martina, who had helped pitch the Pelicans to a Southern Association pennant in 1923. Indeed, Engel turned up some players who would play key roles for the 1924 Senators (Harris, Firpo Marberry, and Ossie Bluege) and go on to long, distinguished major league careers.

At any rate, at the age of 34, Joe Martina found a roster spot on the Washington Senators and remained with them all season. The results were nothing to write home about. As a starter and reliever, he finished the season 6-8 with a 4.67 ERA over 125.1 innings. He was no liability on offense, however, as he hit .326 (14 for 43). Interestingly, he also played five innings at shortstop.

Martina’s experience in the World Series was limited to the seventh inning of Game Three, played at the Polo Grounds on Monday, October 6. Manager Harris had surprised everyone by starting Marberry, baseball’s first relief specialist (he was retroactively credited with 15 saves for 1924), who had saved Game Two the day before in Washington.

With the Senators behind 5-2 after six innings, the game was hardly a lost cause and it was up to Martina to make sure it didn’t become one. He replaced Allen Russell, who left in favor of a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh, and did his job, retiring three future Hall of Fame members in a row: High Pockets Kelly was called out on strikes, Bill Terry fouled out to the catcher, and Hack Wilson flied to left. Martina did not appear in the remaining four games of the Series. As it turned out, his one inning in Game Three was his last major league appearance.

One would think that being a veteran player on a championship team would be an ideal time to retire. Though Martina was not invited back to the Senators, the New Orleans Pelicans were more than happy to welcome him home. So he returned to the Big Easy in 1925 and won 23 games for the Pels. He won 19 in 1926 and 23 in 1927. After that, the victories fell off. But he was 38 years old, after all.

After a down year with Dallas of the Texas League in 1929, Martina still couldn’t take the hint. He was willing to take a drop in class so down he went to Class D ball. And there he stayed, aside from one game in A ball in 1931. Most of that season he pitched for (and managed) the Baton Rouge Standards of the Cotton States League. It was not too far from his hometown–just 80 miles–which made it a fairly attractive gig, but perhaps age was finally catching up to him. Either that or the Depression.

After that 1931 season, at age 41, Martina gave up toeing the rubber. It probably wasn’t headline news. Yet when he retired, his minor league record was 322-254 in 4,924 innings pitched. (This won-lost record comes from Baseball Reference; other sources cite his career record as 349-277.)

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Whether he won 322 games, 349 games, or some number in between, how did he do it? Larry Gilbert, also a New Orleans native, who managed Martina with the Pelicans in 1923, and 1925-1928, called him “The greatest pitcher I had in my 25 years as a manager,” citing his durability (“one of the best conditioned athletes I’ve ever known”) as his greatest asset. “I never remember ‘Oyster Joe’ having a sore arm. He was always ready – to start or relieve.”

Thanks to said readiness, Oyster Joe is second all-time in minor league victories (surpassed only by Bill Thomas, who pitched from 1924 to 1952, garnered 383 victories, and never made the major leagues). Also, he is second all-time in minor league strikeouts with 2,770 (admittedly a distant second behind the legendary George Brunet, who pitched in pro ball through age 54, racking up 3,175 minor league strikeouts in addition to 921 in the majors).

Since Martina won 158 games in the Texas League, he was inducted into that league’s Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the enshrinement did not occur till 2005, 76 years after he threw his last pitch in the Texas League, and 43 years after he drew his last breath. By rights, his name should appear on the Wall of Honor in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, but so far no dice.

In minor league ball, an outstanding career, no matter how lengthy, does not immunize a player against memory hole syndrome. In other professional sports, it is impossible to carve out a lengthy career unless you are playing with the big boys. Of course, no other sport has so extensive a web of minor leagues. In baseball, if you’re willing to put up with the hardships of minor league life, you can carve out a long career somewhere so long as you keep producing. Such a man was Oyster Joe, who came early to professional baseball and stayed late.

In a sense, he went full circle, starting out with bush league teams and returning to same a few years after hurling for a World Series champion. He was born in New Orleans, died there on March 22, 1962, and was buried there at Greenwood Cemetery. As one anonymous epitaph stated, “He managed to outlive the team and the league [the Pelicans folded in 1959, the Southern Association in 1961] he helped make famous.”

Perhaps the nickname of Oyster Joe provides a clue to his longevity. Legend has it that oysters are an aphrodisiac. That assertion is subject to dispute, but nutritionists agree that oysters are an excellent source of protein, B12, iron, zinc, copper, and selenium.

Nutrition aside, there was a lot of grit in Oyster Joe, and it produced one pearl of a career. In an era when Tommy John surgery has become the orthopedic equivalent of the common cold, one can only marvel at the stamina of John Joseph Martina.

References & Resources

Baseballalmanac.com

Baseballreference.com

Contois, John. “Bucky Harris.” SABR.org.

Corbett, Warren. “Joe Engel.” SABR.org.

Dilberto, Buddy. “Iron-Armed Joe Martina, Pel Ace of 20’s, Is Dead.” New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 23, 1962.

Enders, Eric. 1903-2003: 100 Years of the World Series. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Leventhal, Josh. The World Series; an Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Fall Classic. New York, Black Dog & Leventhal, 2004.

Retrosheet.org

Wikipedia.com


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.

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Pepper Martinjarhead659free-range turducken Recent comment authors
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Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin

The 1924 Washington Senators are also notable for another reason: They feature in the only possible chain where you can go 5 degrees of separation from 19th century baseball to today, with players who were teammates with each other. This comes about from Nick Altrock, a generally unremarkable pitcher who is noteworthy for being the last active player who played in the 1800’s. Altrock debuted for the 1898 Louisville Colonels, and hung on into his 40’s. He last appeared for the 1924 Senators, throwing 2 innings as a 47-year-old. Also on those 1924 Senators was Ossie Bluege, mentioned above. Bluege’s… Read more »

free-range turducken
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free-range turducken

Having 8 future Hall of Famers playing on the same team is probably a record. Having 7 undeserving future Hall of Famers playing on the same team is an unbreakable record.

Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin

1930-1933 Yankees had 8 Hall of Famers. In 1933:
Ruth
Gehrig
Lazerri
Sewell
Combs
Ruffing
Gomez
Pennock

Frisch is a deserving Hall of Famer, and you can make decent arguments for Terry and Wilson.

jarhead659
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jarhead659

Enjoyed the article, Frank. Thanks for taking the time to write it.