Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Closer Look: Joe McGinnity's Enduring Brilliance

Few Hall of Fame pitchers are as forgotten today as Joe McGinnity, nicknamed “Iron Man” because he worked during the off-season in a foundry but whose pitching exploits branded him as the endurance king of baseball. His career was so remarkable that it’s hard to know where to begin, but try this: he earned his Hall of Fame credentials in only 10 years in the major leagues, then nearly matched those statistics in a minor league career that lasted until he was 54 years old.

Born in 1871, Joseph Jerome McGinnity spent two unsuccessful years in the minors before getting married and quitting in 1894 to run a saloon. During the next three years, he worked and pitched sandlot ball, perfecting a slow, underhand delivery of a variety of curves (he dubbed his favorite curve “Old Sal”) with which he befuddled hitters for nearly three decades. In 1898, he returned to professional ball, and reached the major leagues in 1899 with Baltimore, leading the National League with 49 games and 28 wins. At age 27, his whirlwind run through the majors had begun.

During his first eight years in the majors, McGinnity averaged 370 innings pitched and 27 victories per season, completing 87% of his starts. His career peaked in 1903-04, when he won a combined 66 games, a total surpassed only by Walter Johnson (68 in 1912-13) since 1900. He gained national attention in 1903 by pitching and winning both games of a doubleheader three times – in one month! That amazing stretch began on August 1 with 4-1 and 5-2 wins over Boston, continued on August 8 when he defeated Brooklyn by scores of 6-1 and 4-3, and concluded on August 31 against Philadelphia, 4-1 and 9-2.

McGinnity, who had teamed with Christy Mathewson since 1902 to form the unsurpassed one-two punch on John McGraw’s New York Giants, slowed down a bit in 1907 when he failed to win 20 games for the first time in the majors, going 18-18. In 1908 he pitched a mere 186 innings and won only 11 games, prompting McGraw to decide he was washed up. McGraw released him before the 1909 season, whereupon McGinnity bought a partial interest in the Newark team of the International League, launching the second amazing phase of his unique career.

McGraw may have thought there was nothing useful left in McGinnity’s arm, but the “Iron Man” proved otherwise. In 1909-10, he won 59 games for Newark, topping 400 innings pitched in both seasons. He moved to Tacoma in 1913, pitching 436 innings and winning 22 games. He won 20 or more games six times in the minors between 1909-16, and in 1917, pitching for Butte in the Northwestern League, he once again pitched and won both games of a doubleheader, defeating Vancouver 3-1 and 6-2. He was 45 years old at the time.

Wherever he went in the minors, McGinnity owned a piece of the team and did the managing, so he was able to pitch whenever he felt the urge. He felt the urge often. After sitting out the seasons of 1919-21, he came back again to run the Dubuque team in the Mississippi Valley League, where he pitched 206 innings in 1923 at age 51. When he finally called it a career after six wins for Dubuque in 1925, he had totaled 235 wins in the minors in addition to his 246 in the majors.

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In the strike-shortened seasons of 1994-95, Greg Maddux had the two most dominating years of his career. If you combine his statistics for those two seasons, here’s what you get: 53 games started, 412 innings pitched, 297 hits allowed, a 35-8 record, and an ERA of 1.60. Joe McGinnity matched those numbers in one season, 1904: 51 games (44 starts), 408 innings pitched, 307 hits allowed, a 35-8 record, and an ERA of 1.61. Let’s take a closer look at how McGinnity excelled for the pennant-winning Giants of 1904.

He won 12 of his first 14 starts, and the other two were extra-inning tie games. In one of those, he pitched 15 innings of one-run ball. In the other, he escaped a 1-0 defeat when the Giants, hitless through eight innings, rallied in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extra innings.

He also won two games in relief early in the season, running his record to 14-0 before losing on June 11 to Bob Wicker of the Cubs. Wicker held the Giants hitless through nine innings and gave them only one hit, outlasting McGinnity in a 12-inning, 1-0 duel.

In mid-May, he pitched three straight shutouts on the road in eight days, beating the Reds, Pirates, and Cubs, part of a streak of 31 consecutive shutout innings.

His tricky delivery resulted in a lot of ground balls and weak tappers. He had 10 assists in the 15-inning game, and I found 9-inning games he started in which the Giants recorded 20 assists (once), 19 (once), 18 (twice), 17 (four times), 16 (once), and 15 (eight times). In those extra-inning tie games, which went 15 and 12 innings, the Giants had 27 and 25 assists, respectively.

On July 9, he pitched in relief in both games of a doubleheader, winning the opener to raise his record to 20-2, and protecting a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth in the nightcap.

Starting on July 10, he “slumped” for the next month, splitting six decisions and getting no decision in two other starts. But he caught fire again as of August 12, winning 12 of his next 13 starts, all complete games.

Facing Pittsburg on August 18, he was struck by a line drive in the first inning. The ball “rebounded from McGinnity’s hands to his body,” said the New York Times, “and after throwing the runner out at first, the ‘Iron Man’ dropped to the ground.” After recovering, he held the Pirates to five hits, winning 6-0.

Five days later at Pittsburg, McGinnity and Pirates outfielder “Moose” McCormick crashed into each other on a play at first base. The newspaper account said that “for a moment it seemed that McGinnity was badly hurt, for he lay still and quiet. He was lifted and walked about, finally going back into the box loudly cheered.” But he lost 5-3 to Deacon Phillippe, the only defeat he suffered in a seven-week stretch.

Two days after the collision, he was back on the mound at Chicago. He dueled Jake Weimer into extra innings before the Giants won 4-1 in the tenth.

On August 28, he pitched a gem at St. Louis, a 5-0 five-hitter in which he stroked a triple and a single. This was his eighth shutout of the season; he led the National League that year with nine.

After two days of rest, he started his fourth game in nine days on the 31st at Cincinnati, facing their ace, Jack Harper (23-8 that season). This battle lasted 11 innings before the Giants prevailed 3-2.

Well-rested for a change and back home at the Polo Grounds, he beat Boston on September 6 for his 30th victory of the season, despite blowing an early 7-1 lead. It took a run in the tenth inning to give him the 8-7 decision.

He pitched the pennant-clinching game on September 22, beating Cincinnati to raise his record to 34-6.

In his next start, he stretched his winning streak to nine games. Pitching the second game of a doubleheader against the Pirates, he allowed only a sixth-inning single by Jack Gilbert, winning 1-0 on a one-hitter when the game was called after seven innings because of darkness.

McGinnity lost his final two starts of the season, dropping his final record to 35-8. The Giants, who won the National League pennant by 13 games over the runner-up Cubs, refused to participate in the proposed World Series because the owner, John T. Brush, and McGraw harbored deep resentment of the American League. Thus McGinnity was deprived of a chance to shine on the national baseball scene. That opportunity arrived in 1905, when the Giants repeated their NL title and consented to face the AL-champion Philadelphia Athletics in the second modern World Series. McGinnity, who won 22 games during the 1905 season, was upstaged in the Series by Mathewson, who tossed three shutouts in a six-day period. McGinnity lost Game 2 to Charles “Chief” Bender, 3-2, but enjoyed his most glorious moment in the spotlight in Game 4 by defeating fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Plank in a 1-0 thriller.

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