Three Pitchers Who Bucked the Odds

 

The following is a companion piece to “Shake Hands With the D.L.”, which examines injuries to pitchers down through the years. This piece takes a closer look at three pitchers from the distant past – Babe Adams, Eppa Rixey and Dazzy Vance – who overcame serious injuries and went on to have long, interesting, productive careers. In fact, Rixey and Vance are in the Hall of Fame and many think Adams should be. 

1. Babe Adams.  He was born Charles Adams in 1882, to an Indiana farming family so dirt-poor they couldn’t feed all their children, so Charlie was sent to work and live on a farm in Missouri. There was a lot of baseball played in the area and Adams got interested in pitching as a youth; in his first organized game he was beaten pretty badly. The shortstop from the opposing team befriended Charlie and taught him how to throw a curveball, which would prove to be a turning point in his baseball life. The young Adams practiced throwing it against the side of a barn for a year, shades of Bob Feller, 35 years later. In his first pro game in 1905, Adams threw a one-hit shutout, attracting the attention of scouts and the St. Louis Cardinals promptly bought him. After one game with the Cards in 1906 didn’t go so well, they sold him back to the minor leagues and the Pittsburgh Pirates picked him up. His three starts with them in 1907 didn’t turn any heads either, so the Pirates sent him down for seasoning, which worked.

He pitched well in the minors 1907-8 and some female fans nicknamed him Babe as he was a very handsome guy. It stuck and he was the only notable Babe in baseball until Ruth came along a few years later. 1909 was a big year for him, he married in March and made the big club for good in April. The 1909 Pirates were one of the best teams ever and Adams had a great first season with them, 12-3 with an outstanding ERA of 1.11, still a record for a rookie. Despite his relative lack of experience, National League President John Heydler recommended the Pirates start Adams in the first game of the World Series against Detroit, something that wouldn’t happen these days. The Pirates agreed and Adams became the hero of the Series, winning three complete games, the third a shutout in the seventh game. Adams was able to get Ty Cobb out consistently by never throwing him a fastball.

He had some great seasons after this – 18-9 in 1910, 22-12 in 1911 and 21-10 in 1912 – settling in as the ace of a good Pittsburgh staff that also included Deacon Phillippe, Howie Camnitz and Claude Hendrix. Adams was known for his great curve, easy delivery, efficiency and outstanding control, having one of the lowest walks per nine innings rates in history. He issued just 430 walks in nearly 3,000 innings and in 1920 walked just 23 batters in 263.1 innings, almost freakish. He also had a very good fastball, but only liked to use it when really needed. His ERAs were also terrific, even when adjusted for those dead-ball times; he had four seasons under 2.00 and finished at 2.76 for his career.

On July 17, 1914 he hooked up in a marathon pitching duel with Rube Marquard of the Giants, throwing a 21-inning complete game, walking nobody. Not surprisingly, he began to have arm trouble after this (as did Marquard) and his performance dipped to 13-16 in 1914 and 14-14 in 1915. By 1916 he’d dropped out of the major leagues after going 2-9, his right arm beyond sore, essentially tired to the point of deadness. The arm started to come back in the winter of 1916-17 and Babe pitched brilliantly in the minors from 1917-18.

By 1919 he was back as a regular with the Pirates, winning 17 games two years in a row, with ERAs of 1.98 and 2.16. By 1921 he was nearing 40, but continued to pitch well as a semi-regular starter and out of the bullpen. In 1923 he was the oldest player in baseball at 41 and after this he pitched another three years, almost entirely in relief. He threw one inning in the 1925 World Series, which the Pirates also won. His career record, all with the Pirates except for the one game with St. Louis, was 194-140, pretty damn good for a guy who didn’t get rolling until 27 and battled a sore arm for three years.

Adams was well-fixed financially when he left baseball and he went into journalism, working as a sportswriter, a bit unusual or an ex-ballplayer. He went to the Pacific in WWII as a war correspondent at about the age of 60 and again in Korea as he neared 70. He died July 27, 1968 at the age of 86; all in all he led a long, eventful and interesting life. 

2. Eppa Rixey. His unique, memorable name is fitting, because Eppa Rixey was a very unusual player for his time, both on and off the field. A Philadelphia sportswriter hung the nickname “Jeptha” on him to make it even whackier; the name reflected his slow Southern drawl and easygoing charm away from the game. Most ballplayers back then were from rural or humble backgrounds – farming, manual labour or immigrant – but Rixey was from a genteel Virginia family of almost aristocratic bearing. One of his uncles was the U.S. Surgeon General, another was a congressman. His father Eppa Sr. was a successful banker and Rixey’s brother Bill went on to become a doctor. Rixey himself was something of an intellectual, eventually earning a master’s degree in chemistry. He taught high school Latin during the off-seasons and his hobby was writing poetry, being especially fond of sonnets and triolets.

This sophistication would have earned the contempt of some of his hard-bitten colleagues, but on the field Rixey was a different guy entirely, tough and competitive, with a temper. He hated to lose and would often break up clubhouse furniture and just disappear for a couple of days after a loss. It was also well-known that you could get under his skin by whistling “Marching Through Georgia”, a song Union troops sang while laying waste to the South toward the end of the Civil War. More than once, opposing players tried this during games and Rixey responded by whipping his best fastball into their dugout, sending them scattering like bowling pins. His teammate Clyde Sukeforth once asked Eppa why the song made him so mad and Eppa thought on it for a few moments and answered. “That song doesn’t make me mad. What makes me mad is that they think they’re making me mad.” 

He was a very big left-hander (6′ 5″, 210 pounds) and a standout athlete, also starring in basketball at the University of Virginia. The Philadelphia Phillies signed him and in 1912 he went straight to the major leagues after finishing his bachelor’s degree. His first two years were good for a kid (10-10 and 9-5), but his third was a disaster (2-11, 4.37.) His manager Pat Moran liked Rixey though, stuck with him and the young pitcher bounced back somewhat in 1915, 11-12, but with a good ERA of 2.39

The Phillies then were not a strong team, built mainly around two stars – slugging outfielder Gavvy Cravath, who would later become the manager – and most of all, Grover Cleveland Alexander, known as Pete, by far the best pitcher in the league at the time. They generally didn’t score much, but Alexander would win 30 or more games three straight years from 1915-17, pitching them to a pennant in 1915. Rixey benefitted from observing the master and had his breakout season in 1916, going 22-10 with an ERA of 1.85. He struggled a little in 1917 to a 16-21 record; his ERA was a very good 2.27, but he received very little run support.

After the 1917 season the Phillies did the unthinkable, selling Pete Alexander and veteran catcher Bill Killefer to the Cubs for a huge sum, essentially wrecking the team for years to come. Moran objected to the deal and eventually was fired as manager; Rixey was so enraged with all this he quit baseball altogether and enlisted to fight in WWI, serving in Europe with the Chemical Warfare Division until the war ended. To put a more recent spin on this, imagine the Tigers selling Justin Verlander and Alex Avila to the Indians and Max Scherzer getting so ticked that he went off to fight in Iraq.

Rixey missed baseball more than he’d expected and went straight back to the Phillies in 1919, attempting to return full-time to the rotation, probably too soon. The year off had left him rusty and weak and naturally enough he developed a sore arm. It was severe enough but not exactly debilitating; he could still pitch, just not very well; the soreness sapped his speed and control. He struggled through two miserable years, going 6-12, 3.97 in 1919 and 11-22, 3.48 in 1920, though with a lot more innings. He didn’t get along with manager Cravath and the Phillies were sure he was washed up, so they traded him to Cincinnati for pitcher Jimmy Ring and outfielder Greasy Neale, convinced they had fleeced the Reds.

They were wrong, Rixey’s left arm had healed and he bounced back with a good season in 1921, 19-18, 2.78. Cincinnati was a perfect fit for him, he loved the city, the team and its fans and most of all pitching again for Pat Moran, who had landed with the Reds as manager in 1919. Eppa had possibly his best season in 1922, leading the league with 25 wins (against 13 losses) and also in starts and innings pitched. The Reds in those years didn’t win any pennants, but finished second a few times, were a decent club. They had little power and didn’t score a lot of runs, but were strong in pitching – Dolf Luque, Pete Donohue, Carl Mays – to go along with Rixey. Eppa would win 20 games in 1923, 21 in 1924 and 19 in 1928, his last really good season at age 37. He pitched another five seasons after this till age 42 and was still effective, retiring after 1933.

Although he threw hard and was big, he was really a finesse pitcher. He didn’t strike out many hitters, but walked even fewer. He generally got hitters out by making them hit the ball, going deep into counts to set them up with surprising pitch selections, delivered with his herky-jerky motion. Tom Glavine is a more recent lefty with a similar mindset, though he struck out and walked more hitters. Eppa said he thought hitters were essentially dumb, that they kept expecting a fastball in 2-0 or 3-1 counts, but he never gave them one. He also surrendered very few home runs; the Reds’ home park may have had something to do with this, as Forbes Field was a very tough place to hit the ball out of. A lot of it was Rixey though; in 1921 he gave up just one home run in 301 innings, a small record that will never be approached. It’s not uncommon these days for a pitcher to give up two or three home runs in a game, if not in one inning. Rixey did give up markedly more sacrifice hits/bunts per inning than any other pitcher in history and nobody quite knows why.

Mostly he was tough, consistent, very durable, and won. He retired with 266 wins, a record for National League lefties, eventually broken by Warren Spahn. He also held the league record for most seasons pitched by a left-hander, 22, broken by Steve Carlton in 1987. Like many pitchers on teams that struggled to score runs he had a lot of losses too; his 251 are the most ever by a lefty and the ninth-highest total in baseball history. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in January, 1963, greeting the news with typically self-deprecating humour. “They’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t they?” was his comment, but he was delighted. He died exactly a month later of a heart attack, unfortunately before the induction ceremony.

3. Dazzy Vance. In having unique, odds-defying careers, the above two had nothing on Dazzy Vance, there’s never been another career remotely like his in baseball history. He was born Charles Vance in 1891, near a place called Orient, Iowa. He got the nickname Dazzy because of his dazzling fastball, which he had in his mid-teens. He grew up in a farming family in Nebraska and began pitching professionally in 1912 for the Class D York Prohibitionists of the Nebraska State League, gradually moving up the minor-league ranks, bouncing between Class A and AA with mixed success. He had frequent arm trouble and soreness, often from pitching too much, such as four games in six days during 1914. He was bought by the Pirates in 1915 and lost his major-league debut; they promptly sold him to the Yankees. Vance also lost all three of his starts with New York, failing to dazzle big-league hitters. The Yankees sent him to St. Joseph of the Western League and he continued to bounce around the minors having impressive outings followed by long bouts of arm soreness and inactivity.

He landed with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1920, aged 29 and fast running out of options. Incredibly, a fateful, friendly game of poker with teammates turned his career around. (This is entirely fitting as Vance loved fun, games, high-jinks and drinking, he was a grade-A carouser and character.) While raking in a big pot, he banged his right arm on the table in glee and broke something off. What had been chronic soreness suddenly became severe, unbearable pain. A local doctor was called in, examined the arm and said emergency surgery was needed. Nobody really knows what he did exactly, but it’s surmised he cleaned out some debris and bone chips from the elbow. At any rate, the long-shot surgery was a success – after recovering from the operation, Vance’s arm felt good for the first time in years and never again gave him serious trouble.

Now able to pitch without pain, Vance tore up the Southern League, winning 21 games in 1921, bringing his minor-league win total to 133. The Pelicans had a good young catcher named Hank DeBerry the Brooklyn Robins were interested in, so they made a move to acquire him, but were told the Pelicans wanted to include a pitcher or the deal was off. When Robins’ owner Charley Ebbets heard the pitcher in question was Vance he balked, but DeBerry interceded and told Ebbets that Vance was virtually a new pitcher, throwing just great. Reluctantly, Ebbets made the deal for $10,000 – $9,000 for DeBerry and $1,000 for Vance. Ironically, DeBerry mostly played with Brooklyn as Vance’s personal catcher.

At 31, Dazzy hit the Brooklyn rotation running the next spring and never looked back, becoming a fast-living, hard-throwing medical miracle for the rest of his career. He won 18 games in each of his first two seasons and led the National League in strikeouts, something he would do for seven straight seasons. Between 1922 and 1930, Vance would also lead the league in ERA three times, shutouts four times, complete games and victories twice. Coupled with his dazzling strikeout records, it was a run of pitching dominance surpassed only by Lefty Grove (just a few years later), Sandy Koufax and maybe a handful of others since.

His strikeout numbers are truly dizzying for that time, when hitters generally struck out far less than in more recent times. Before Vance came along, Walter Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Grover Cleveland Alexander, were similarly dominant in this regard. Johnson, generally considered the greatest pitcher ever, led the American League in strikeouts eight years in a row and twelve times in all. Alexander is not far down the list of great pitchers and led the NL in strikeouts six times; obviously the other numbers for both were also outstanding. In their primes during the teen years, these two were striking out over 200 batters a season, but by the time Vance arrived it was more common to lead the league with a total between 130 and 160. Vance struck out 200 or more three times; Lefty Grove would have a similar run of seven years in the AL starting in 1925, but topping 200 only once.

His greatest season was 1924, when he won the pitching Triple Crown at age 33 with a record of 28-6, an ERA of 2.16 and 262 strikeouts. His strikeout total was more than that of the next two competitors –  teammate Burleigh Grimes and Cincinnati’s Dolph Luque – combined. He once struck out three straight batters on nine pitches and became the first pitcher to win the NL MVP Award that year. Dazzy threw a no-hitter against Philadelphia on September 13, 1925 and in his next start took a no-hitter into the ninth before giving up a single with one out, narrowly missing becoming the first pitcher to throw consecutive no-nos. Vance was pretty much the Nolan Ryan of his day – not as long-lasting because his career started much later in life – but almost as dominant, only with better control, ERAs and winning percentage. Like Ryan, he had the great fastball and an equally deadly overhand curve which he often finished hitters off with.

These pitches were made even more devastating because of the optical effect of a tattered shirt from his New Orleans days that Vance wore under his uniform. After his high leg-kick the ball appeared out of flapping strands of fleece; hitters complained, but there was no rule against this at the time and Vance refused to give up his “good luck sweatshirt.” When with the Giants 1922-23, Casey Stengel faced Vance and said it was “the stuff he had on the ball” that made hitters swing and miss, not the shirt.

Brooklyn was not generally a good team in the ’20s; the closest they came to a pennant was in Vance’s great year of 1924 when they finished one game behind the Giants in second place; generally they finished sixth. They had good pitching in Vance, Grimes and others, but weren’t much with the bat or glove. They were colourful and funny though, taking their name (Robins) and personality from their manager Wilbert Robinson, a kindly, good-humoured, hard-drinking ex-catcher. They became known as “The Daffiness Boys” and had a clique of high-spirited, flaky carousers led by Dazzy, known as the “0-for-4 club”, including pitcher Jesse Petty, infielder Chick Fewster and above all, outfielder Babe Herman.

To give some idea of the general zaniness, they were involved in the fabled “three men on third base” incident in 1926. Dazzy was on second base and Fewster on first, when Babe Herman lashed a deep drive to the outfield. Dazzy was rounding third trying to score when he heard the third base coach call for Fewster to hold up; thinking the coach meant him, Dazzy returned to third. He was momentarily joined by Fewster and then seconds later by the stunned Herman, who had completely missed the signal to stop at second. The third baseman tagged Fewster and Herman out, but the umpire ruled that Dazzy was safe as he had arrived at the base first and was entitled to it. This led to Ring Lardner’s famous line that, “Babe Herman never tripled into a triple-play, but he once doubled into a double-play, which is the next best thing.”

Vance won 22 games in 1925 and again in 1928, also leading the NL in ERA that year. His record dipped to 14-13 in 1929, but he rebounded to a solid 17-15 in 1930, again leading in ERA in his last really good year at age 39. He pitched another five years after that and, though diminished, was still effective enough to be an above- .500 pitcher in his forties. After spending 1933-34 with St. Louis and Cincinnati he returned to Brooklyn for a final year in 1935, retiring at 44. His career record is 197-140, very similar to that of Babe Adams, except Vance accomplished his in a much shorter, concentrated career, with more dominant statistics. This explains why Vance was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955 and Adams hasn’t been, though he may well deserve to be. Dazzy Vance died in 1961, just weeks short of his 70th birthday, it’s doubtful baseball has seen anyone else quite like him.

 

 

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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