Fred Fitzsimmons' Fat ERA Still Left Room for the Shutout Crown

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Fred Fitzsimmons' Fat ERA Still Left Room for the Shutout Crown
Associated Press
"Fat Freddie" Fitzsimmons was more of a "Pudge" for much of his career.

Despite playing his entire 19-year career in the metropolitan New York area, Fred Fitzsimmons was never a household name outside of Manhattan or Brooklyn. Always the second or third man in the rotation, he gave little respite to lineups already weary from facing the likes of Carl Hubbell, Larry Benton, Hal Schumacher, "Hot Potato" Hamlin and Hugh Casey.

Not blessed with a blazing fastball (he never struck out more than 78 batters in a season), Fitzsimmons used breaking balls, guile and a fiery spirit to fashion a 217-146 lifetime record. His contagious mettle made him a favorite of win-at-all-costs skippers such as John McGraw and Leo Durocher.

Known as “Fat Freddie” (although he appeared no more than pudgy early in his career), Fitzsimmons’ unflattering moniker was deceiving. Among the best fielding pitchers of his day, he led the Senior Circuit four times in putouts, once in assists and twice in fielding percentage. Frequently accepting more chances than any other National League hurler, Fitzsimmons was far from an immobile butterball on the mound.

Fitzsimmons twice led the NL in winning percentage, and except for an 11-11 effort in 1932, Fitzsimmons’ rate of victory for the first 10 seasons of his career never fell below .563. He pitched in three World Series, although he could not carry over his regular-season success, going 0-3 in the Fall Classic.

In 1935, Fitzsimmons posted one of the all-time hot-and-cold seasons. Coming off an 18-14 campaign in which he hurled a career-high 263.1 innings and twirled an ERA of 3.04, fifth-best in the NL, the ever-dependable Fitzsimmons logged a mere 94 innings (the first time since his rookie year of 1925 that the Giants’ workhorse failed to take the mound for at least 219 innings). Beset by arm woes, Fitzsimmons struggled to a 4-8 season, with an ERA nearly a run higher than in the previous year.

Yet with only four victories, Fitzsimmons tied for the National League lead in shutouts—all four wins coming by complete-game blanking. In his remaining 58 innings on the mound, however, Fitzsimmons surrendered 42 earned runs, yielding an ERA of 6.52.  

As might be expected of a 4-8 season, Fitzsimmons did not race out of the gate. Starting the Giants’ second game of the 1935 campaign, the right-hander promptly gave a portent of troubles to come, yielding four runs in the bottom of the first to the Philadelphia Phillies and Baker Bowl’s 281-foot right-field line. Two more Phils runs in the bottom of the third ended Fred’s day, as Philadelphia went on to bludgeon New York, 18-7. (This win improved Philly’s record to 2-1—literally, the Phils’ high point of the season, as they didn’t taste victory again until May 8 and never again got anywhere near .500.)

Four days later, making his first start in front of a home crowd, Fitzsimmons pitched decently, although he again served up a pair of home runs, giving him four gopher balls in just nine innings of work. Going six frames, Freddie yielded three earned runs to Babe Ruth and the Boston Braves in a no-decision (New York won in 11 innings).

Fitzsimmons still didn’t have his stuff a week later, lasting only 2.1 innings against archenemy Brooklyn. Ceding five runs (four of them earned) in the bottom of the third sent Fred to the showers. April ended with Fitzsimmons 0-2 and lugging a ghastly 10.32 ERA.

Already replaced as the third man in the rotation by Roy Parmelee, Fitzsimmons became a spot starter when Clydell “Slick” Castleman was brought up from the Montreal Royals in late April and installed in New York’s rotation. Taking a regular turn on the mound for the rest of the season, except for a three-week absence in July, Castleman’s surprising 15 victories helped keep the Giants in first place for much of the slate.

Ten days rest did wonders for Fitzsimmons, however. In the second game of a doubleheader against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates, he allowed three innocuous singles while whitewashing the hard-hitting Bucs for his first victory of the season. Freddie also collected two hits for the second time, raising his batting average on the young season to .571.

Long rest agreed with Fitzsimmons, as evidenced by his next start a week later at Crosley Field. Ival Goodman tripled, but that was as close as Cincinnati got to scoring. Fitzsimmons blanked the Reds on four hits, hoisting New York’s first-place record to 16-7 while evening his own at 2-2.

He relapsed in his fifth start, allowing five hits and walking three in only three innings as he got a no-decision in a 6-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs.

A week later, Fitzsimmons exacted revenge on the Daffy Dodgers, tossing his third shutout of May on a two-hitter. Only right fielder Buzz Boyle was able to solve Fred, picking up a pair of singles. Whereas April had showered disaster on Fitzsimmons, May brought him 3-0, on a 0.90 ERA.

Unfortunately, 1935 went downhill for Fred as soon as the calendar flipped June. Back in the right-hander’s hell of Baker Bowl, Philadelphia—as it had done back on April 19—jumped all over Fitzsimmons and scored four runs in the bottom of the first, Dolph Camilli once again belting a two-run homer. Fred didn’t survive the opening frame, pulled with only two outs, for his briefest outing of the season.

After a loss to Cincinnati on June 11 in which he lasted only five innings, Fitzsimmons enjoyed his last hurrah of the still-young season, shutting down the eventual pennant winners from Chicago, 8-0. Freddie scattered 11 hits and did not walk a batter—but with only two strikeouts, it’s clear that the vast majority of batters that he faced in 1935 were putting the ball in play (Fitzsimmons whiffed but 23 the entire season).

Ineffective in a relief stint against the Cubs two days later, Fitzsimmons pitched decently at Ebbets Field on June 29, allowing six hits and two earned runs in five innings during a game lost by Carl Hubbell in relief (Freddie doubled home a run in his own cause).

He fared worse against Brooklyn five days later, plastered for five runs on 11 hits in only four innings.

Something clearly ailed Fitzsimmons' usually reliable arm. Undergoing elbow surgery in July, he did not take the mound for another seven weeks—following a “miraculous” recovery in the eyes of his doctors. Mopping up the final five innings on August 26, with New York already down to Pittsburgh, 9-2, Fred yielded only one run. Meanwhile, New York, occupier of first place since May 1, had relinquished the top spot to the defending-champion Gas House Gang from St. Louis two days prior to Fitzsimmons’ return. And before Fitzsimmons would again see action, Chicago, too, had slid past the Giants, suddenly leaving New York in third place.

Ambushed by Cincinnati on September 7, Fitzsimmons spotted the Reds before the end of the second inning all the runs they’d need to win.

Two weeks passed before Fitzsimmons again took the mound, once again giving up one run in a five-inning mop-up after New York had been clubbed early on.

With New York having faded from the pennant race during Fitzsimmons’ two-week layoff, he took a pair of hard-luck, complete-game losses to finish his season: a 1-0 whitewash in Brooklyn and, in perhaps the ultimate slap in the face to any pitcher, a 3-0 goose egg on Closing Day to what was now the worst team in National League history, the 115-loss Boston Braves, who, incidentally, had beaten the Giants on Opening Day as well. (Fortunately, New York’s humiliation at the hands of the lowly Braves lasted a mere one hour and one minute, showing just how quickly games were played before the days of television advertising.)    

Fitzsimmons’ struggles were indicative of New York’s Achilles' heel. The staff ERA bloated by nearly a run and a half in July, giving up a huge amount of hits compared to the spring and remaining generous the rest of the way. Abetted by cooling Giants’ bats in August and September, New York’s early lead in the pennant race melted as it mustered only .500 ball across the final three months.

Tied for the shutout title with ERA champion Cy Blanton, Brooklyn’s Van Lingle Mungo, Chicago’s Larry French and Pittsburgh’s Jim Weaver, Fitzsimmons, at 4-8, became one of the unlikeliest of league leaders. Not even 28-game winner Dizzy Dean could boast as many shutouts as Fred, even though Fitzsimmons’ hefty 4.02 ERA would have placed him 41st in the league had he pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA crown.

Fitzsimmons rebounded to cobble a 10-7 record that helped New York to the 1936 pennant, but except for a fabulous 16-2 season for Brooklyn in 1940 that earned him a fifth-place nod in the MVP vote as a 39-year-old, his days as a top-echelon starter were behind him. Traded to the Dodgers in June 1937, Fred made up for missing a return trip with New York to the World Series that season by helping Brooklyn to the Fall Classic four years later, going 6-1 on a sterling 2.07 ERA.

Released by the Dodgers in late July 1943, Fitzsimmons immediately became Philadelphia’s manager, where he toiled unsuccessfully until being fired in mid-1945. Freddie then coached for many years, including back with his beloved Giants.

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