The Pioneers of Pitching; the Top Hurlers of the Pre-Modern Era (1876 - 1901)
With my goal of ranking pitchers across eras, this is a period of baseball I put off to the side.
All of the Prime 9 ranking programs produced by MLB network specified players to be from the modern era. Every ranking list I had seen by other sportswriters had done the same.
So I focused my research on the periods of baseball that naturally presented from the modern era.
After I determined that Cy Young belonged to the pre-modern era because of the nature of his work, I knew I would eventually need to deal with the early years of baseball.
Facing the task of ranking pitchers from the modern era, it first seemed wise to first acknowledge the careers of Cy Young and his contemporaries who pioneered the art of pitching.
In addition, fellow writers here at Bleacher Report encouraged me to research and publish a report on the pitchers from baseball’s first era. I thought it would give me a good background on understanding the modern deadball era if I knew where pitching was coming from as the 19th century became the 20th.
What I found was a world of characters and stories that beg to be known and told!
The National League got its beginning in 1876. Before that there were associations and touring teams, but very little was standardized for any single level of competition. The years that followed were formative years.
Rules were in constant flux. The pitching box was 45 feet from home plate when the league began. Pitchers were forced to throw sidearm or underhand. In 1880 or so, it was moved to 50 feet.
After the ’86 season, pitchers were finally allowed unrestricted overhand deliveries. In another change that year, pitchers were asked to throw from the back of the box, which was 55 feet.
After a very unfortunate incident in 1892, officials changed the distance between the pitching rubber and home plate to 60 feet 6 inches.
Many of the great careers I found ended close to the time of this rule change. They were too advanced in their careers to make a successful change to the new distance. Pitching had to virtually start over.
The ranks of pitching corps everywhere had been depleted. Scoring across baseball went up as the level of pitching went down. This period beginning in 1893 was an adjustment period for pitchers.
The number of games played in a season also changed throughout this period. Early on, teams played fewer games (80 or so). After 1885, I read of teams playing seasons with over 120 games.
Each team seemed to have one lead pitcher, who often started the majority of the games. They would then have a secondary starting pitcher and maybe two or three more who could pitch mop-up innings.
This produced seasons with the lead pitcher starting 60+ games (out of 80), and occasionally winning over 40 games while pitching 400–600 innings! These numbers seem unreal to a student of modern baseball. But they were a product of the developing era.
As teams played more games in a season, they added additional pitchers to their staffs. This allowed the pitching load to be shared by more than one dominant pitcher.
By the late 1880s, leading win totals started moving towards the 30–40 games range, and inning totals came down as well.
Rules were not the only thing in flux. Several teams started up, only to fold within a few years. Teams in Indianapolis and Troy and Toledo were some I came across in my research. Players were transferred to other teams.
Owners traded and sold players as much or more than they do today. If a player was sold or traded to another team, they had only three choices: accept the trade or assignment, switch to a different association, where the major league reserve clause was not in effect (the equivalent of playing in an independent minor league), or not playing at all until their contract expired.
Most of the careers I studied showed a normal length of time on one team to be 4-5 years. Five years was a long time to pitch for one team. If a pitcher was having an off year, they were often traded, sold, or let go.
Many players became dissatisfied with these regulations, and the first player’s organizations were formed. John Ward was instrumental with this, actually forming a player’s league in 1890. Many of the top pitchers left their National league teams to play in the newly formed league, which lasted but one year.
This left National League teams scrambling to fill openings on their pitching staffs. They hired a new generation of pitchers like Amos Rusie, Cy Young, and Kid Nichols to take the place of their missing pitchers.
This rankling between players and owners was a major theme of the 1890s until the American League was formed, and the modern era began in 1901.
Many of these careers began around 1880. Most lasted a decade or until the mound was moved in 1893. I found these players and their accomplishments to be the heart of the pre-modern era.
The most significant stat of the period was total number of wins. Owners put their lead pitchers out there to help the team win games. If they were not winning, the owner would likely find another pitcher!
So being a lead pitcher and keeping your job was half the battle for success, and it was the only way to amass large career win totals.
Most of the career ERAs were rather close to one another (2.40–3.00). There was some variation in ERA+, so I include that in the pitching evaluation.
Strikeout totals varied. There were seasons when pitchers totaled over 400 Ks! The leading career total for the era was Tim Keefe’s 2,564 Ks. Nobody else topped 2000 until Cy Young was already pitching into the modern era.
Most of the best pitchers wound up with 1,600–2,000 strikeouts for their career. Pitchers from earlier years often had fewer career Ks.
Because it was so prevalent to amass innings and wins each season, I looked for careers with over 3,000 innings, and to prove some level of dominance, 30 shutouts. I found 13 pitchers whose careers met these requirements and showed excellence in other categories as well.
Usually, I have presented the 10 top pitchers from each era. But these careers showed no natural cut off at the tenth ranking, the last five or so being very close.
They all seemed begging for inclusion based on career significance, quality level, and stamina displayed.
13) Charles Buffington – (1882 – 1892) - (233 – 152; ERA 2.96; ERA+ 115; 30 SHO; 3404 IP/ 3344 H; 1700K/ 856 BB; 1.234 WHIP) was a leading pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters from 1882-1886. He helped lead them to a pennant in ’83, combining with John Whitney for 62 of the team’s 63 wins that year.
His best year followed in ’84 when he pitched 587 innings, winning 48 games and striking out 417 batters! During this season he struck out 17 batters in one game, and won 13 straight games.
After an off year because of arm trouble in ’86, he was moved to the Philadelphia Quakers. He had five more excellent seasons for the Quakers before jumping to the Philadelphia Athletics of the newly formed Player’s league.
The next year he found work with the Boston Reds of the American Association, and won 29 games, the last of seven 20+ win seasons. He retired during the next season, 1892.
Buffington was known for his sinkerball.
He died from heart disease at age 46 in Fall River, Mass.
12) Tommy Bond – (1874 – 1884) - (234 – 163; 2.31 ERA; ERA+111; 42 SHO; 3628 IP/ 3765 H; 972K/ 193 BB; 1.093 WHIP) He was the first person born in Ireland to play major league baseball.
Tommy Bond was the first pitcher to win the Triple Crown: most wins, lowest ERA, and most strikeouts in one season in 1877.
In his career, he pitched 386 complete games out of 408 starts. His 42 shutouts are fourth from the period. He pitched over 400 innings six seasons, and won 40 games or more three times. His career K/BB ratio of 4.44 ranks first among pitchers throughout baseball history.
Twice his team won the National league pennant. In addition to pitching, he also played the outfield.
Bond died at age 84 in Boston. Bond was the last survivor of the National League’s first season (1876).
11) Will White – (1877-1886) – (229 – 166; 2.28 ERA; ERA+ 120; 36 SHO; 3542 IP/ 3440 H; 1041 K/ 496 BB; 1.111 WHIP) White was the first pitching star of the Cincinnati Reds (’78-’80), and the Cincinnati Redstockings of the American Association (’82–’86).
He was known for being the first player to wear glasses on the field.
He holds the record for most games started (75) and most innings pitched (680) in a season (’79). He won 40 games three times. His ERA+ of 120 and 36 career shutouts show a high quality level of pitching when he took the ball.
10) Amos Rusie – (1889 – 1901) – (246 – 174; 3.07 ERA; ERA+ 129; 30 SHO; 3778 IP/ 3389 H; 1950 K/ 1707 BB; 1.350 WHIP) He was known as the “Hoosier Thunderbolt” because of how hard he threw.
Rusie scared many a batter because of his wildness as well. He once led the league in strikeouts (341) and walks (266) the same year.
During the ’92 season he beaned future hall of famer Hughie Jennings, who laid comatose for four days before gradually recovering. This scare led league officials to change the distance to be pitched from 55’ to 60’ 6”.
Rusie began his career for the Indianapolis team in ’89. The team folded that year, and the players were transferred to the New York Giants team. He played for the Giants for the next eight seasons.
After the ’95 season he had a bitter contract dispute with Giants owner Andrew Freeman. Rusie was fined $200 for publicly thumbing his nose at his adversary. He refused to play until Freeman returned his money. Neither side gave in, and Rusie sat out the ’96 season!
Eventually, Rusie was awarded a settlement of $5,000. But not before there were protests and fans boycotting games.
Partway through the ’98 season Rusie was hit in the side of the head by a line drive. He lost part of his hearing, and sat out from playing the next two years.
In 1901 he was traded for Christy Mathewson to the Cincinnati Reds. (From the Reds point of view, this had to be one of the worst trades in history!) Rusie had nothing left, pitching only three games for his new team.
Rusie was a blazing star from ’90–’95. Then he seemed to self-destruct. He won 30 games four straight seasons and 20 games eight times.
His hard throwing ways led to plenty of strikeouts, leading the league for five straight years. His 1,950 Ks are third in baseball until Cy Young came along.
Hidden behind (or not so hidden) his strikeouts were his bases on balls. Rusie, first from this period in bases on balls (1,707), is seventh all-time, while his 3,778 innings pitched are 52nd. His WHIP of 1.350 is extremely high for a leading pitcher.
Rusie was inducted into the HOF in 1977.
9) Tony Mullane – (1881-1894) – (284-220; 3.05 ERA; ERA+118; 30 SHO; 4531 IP/ 4195 H; 1803 K/ 1408 BB; 1.237 WHIP) Mullane was born in Ireland in 1859. In 1881 he pitched his first game with the Detroit Wolverines in the National League.
An injury to his right arm led him to learn to pitch with his left. After the injury healed, he continued pitching with both arms, often in the same game.
He would face the batter and hold the ball with both hands (he didn’t wear a glove) and use either arm to throw the pitch!
In 1882 Mullane signed with the Louisville Eclipse and started 55 of the team’s 80 games, and posted a record of 30-24 with an ERA of 1.88.
This was the first of five 30-win seasons in a row for “the Count.” The following year, he pitched for the St. Louis Browns and won 35 games.
In 1884, attempting to sign with the St. Louis Maroons of the newly formed Union Association, he was threatened with banishment from the major league because of violation of the reserve clause, saying the Browns still held his rights to play.
He pulled back from his attempt, and the Browns shipped him to the expansion Toledo Blue Stockings.
He won a career-high 36 games for Toledo. When both Toledo and the Union Association folded after the ’84 season, he signed with Cincinnati, avoiding the Browns' attempt to sign him. Because of his action, the American Association suspended Mullane for one season.
This came in the middle of consecutive 30-win seasons, and probably cost Mullane a 300-win career and a place in the Hall of Fame.
For HOF voters to exclude Mullane because of his fight against the reserve clause smells of collusion.
8) Jim McCormick – (1878-1887) – (265-214; 2.43 ERA; ERA+118; 33 SHO; 4275 IP/ 4092 H; 1704 K/ 749 BB; 1.13 WHIP) was the first Scottish-born player in the major leagues. He played for the Chicago White Stockings, and helped the team to their last two pennants of the 19th century (’85, ’86).
He spent the first part of his career with the Cleveland Blues from ’79–’84. He left the Blues part way through the ’84 season. He bounced around with a Cincinnati team from the Union Association and the Providence Grays before landing in Chicago for the ’85 season.
He developed a vast friendship with Mike “King” Kelly, then on the White Stockings as well. A group of players were known to cavort after games. While this probably added to team spirit, owner Al Spalding frowned on the behavior.
Jim McCormick also co-owned a bar in Paterson, N.J. where teammates were known to frequent in the off season.
By the end of the ’86 season, and in spite of winning the pennant, Spalding and player manager Cap Anson had their fill of the off-the-field behavior, and sold or traded several players including Kelly to Boston. When Anson partly backed off of refusing to let McCormick go, Al Spalding sold him to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys the next week.
McCormick had some prodigious years for Cleveland, pitching over 500 innings five times. He won over 25 games six times.
He did a nice job keeping runners off base with his 1.13 WHIP. His career would seem to fit the profile for HOF veteran’s committee consideration.
7) James ‘Pud” Galvin – (1875-1892) – (365-310; 2.85 ERA; ERA+ 107; 57 SHO; 6003 IP/ 6405 H; 1807 K/ 745 BB; 1.19 WHIP) was baseball’s first 300-game winner. His 6,003 innings and 646 complete games are second only to Cy Young in the all-time pitching annals.
He pitched the first no-hitter on the road in ’80, and tied the record for most games started in one season in ’83 (75). He pitched 593 innings in ’79, and twice pitched over 600 innings in ’83 and’84.
At 5’8” Galvin was shorter in stature than many of his fellow hurlers. He gained the nickname of “the little steam engine” for his energy and stamina on the mound.
From ’79–’85 Galvin pitched for the Buffalo Bisons of the National League. In ’85 he was having an off year, (after pitching 656 and 636 innings the previous two years!), and was sent to Pittsburgh to finish the year.
By ’87 the Allegheny’s became a new franchise in the National league. He continued pitching with them until ’90 when the player’s league formed.
He jumped across town to play with the Burghers of the player’s league, and then was welcomed back to his old team, the newly named Pirates for the ’91 season. He retired after the ’92 season.
Galvin’s longevity is remarkable and unmatched for his era (pre-60 feet rule change). He won over 25 games in seven different seasons. He is also second in shutouts with 57, the only pitcher before Cy Young to break 50.
His 745 BB in 6,003 innings is truly remarkable, and one of the lowest ratios of BB/nine innings on record (especially for that length of career).
Galvin also had his detracting factors. As well as winning 365 games, he is second in losses with 310. He gave up 6,405 hits in his career, allowing well more than a hit per inning. His career ERA+ of 107 is not remarkable.
In his defense, he played for less successful teams, contributing to his many losses. Also, his outstanding control helped limit the number of base runners. His 1.19 WHIP is well within standards of excellence.
Although not a strikeout pitcher, his ratio of Ks/BB (2.42) is quite good for the era. The 57 shutouts also show a level of excellence that can’t be ignored.
He deserves a ranking along with the other 300-game winners of his era.
Pud Galvin may be the first professed PED user, openly remarking about using Brown-Sequard elixir, which was supposed to contain monkey testosterone.
He died poor at age 45 in Pittsburgh.
James “Pud” Galvin was inducted into the HOF in 1965.
6) Mickey Welch – (1880-1892) – (307-210; 2.71 ERA; ERA+ 114; 41 SHO; 4802 IP/ 4588 H; 1850 K/ 1297 BB; 1.225 WHIP) was the third pitcher to 300 wins, and was known as “Smiling Mickey.”
He pitched for 13 seasons, first with the Troy Trojans, and after they folded, with the New York Giants (the Giants took many of the Troy players).
Welch was very good for a long time. From his first year, he had 10 of 11 winning seasons, including nine times winning over 20 games.
Both in Troy and later in New York he teamed up with fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Tim Keefe to form one of the great all-time pitching duos.
Welch threw one of the best curveballs in the era, as well as a change of pace and a screwball.
His best year came in ’85 when he went 44-11 with 345 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.50. At one point that season he won 17 consecutive games.
Teaming with Keefe, the team went 85-27, a remarkable record. But it was two games shy of the White Stockings that year, who finished with an even better record of 87-25 behind the pitching of Jim McCormick and a young John Clarkson!
Welch still holds the record for most consecutive strikeouts to start a game: nine. (Tom Seaver struck out 10 batters consecutively in 1970.)
Welch was part of the Giants pennant winning team efforts in ’88 and ’89.
Mickey Welch was inducted into the HOF in 1973.
5) Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn – (1881-1891) – (309-195; 2.67 ERA; ERA+ 119; 4535 IP/ 4335 H; 1830 K/ 875 BB; 1.149 WHIP) was the lead pitcher for the Providence Grays from ’81–’85.
He pitched for the Boston Beaneaters from ’86-’89 and finished his career pitching both in the player’s league for the Boston Reds and the Cincinnati Reds the following year.
In 1984 he won 59 of his team’s 84 games! This is an all-time record for games won. He also struck out 441 batters that year, also a season record. His 678.2 IP are second all-time to Will White’s 680.
After some of the rule changes after ’85, Radbourn was never quite as dominant again. His seasons with the Beaneaters were just filling in the rest of his career.
He managed one good season in the player’s league in ’90 when he went 27-12. His year in Cincinnati (’91) was his last.
Radbourn is known mostly for his dominant peak, and his single outstanding year of ’85, one of the best single seasons of the era.
Radbourn ran a successful billiards parlor in Bloomington, Ill. after his retirement. Always known to be quite vain, taking great pride in his looks and attire, he lost an eye in a hunting accident. He died in 1897, refusing to let anyone see him.
Radbourn was elected to the HOF in 1939.
4) John Clarkson – (1884-1894) – (328-178; 2.81 ERA; ERA+ 134; 37 SHO; 4536 IP/ 4295 BB; 1978 K/ 1191 BB; 1.209 WHIP) was discovered by Cap Anson in Michigan in ’84.
He finished the ’84 season going 10-3 for the White Stockings. The next year he was a wonder, going 53-16, and teaming up with Jim McCormick to win the pennant. The team went 87-25 edging out the New York Giants.
From ’85–’89 he won 209 games!
Having become quite attached to his battery mate, King Kelly, he requested a trade after Kelly was sold to the Boston team for $10,000.
After the ’87 season, Anson became tired of dealing with Clarkson’s temperamental ways, and the White Stockings sold him to the Boston Beaneaters for a matching $10,000.
This was a lot of money in those days. In Boston they became known as the $20,000 battery.
Clarkson was known for being a calculating and scientific pitcher, throwing many types of curveballs. He studied hitters to find their weaknesses. His 1978 Ks were second before 1900 to Tim Keefe until Cy Young passed them pitching over into the modern era.
At the time of his retirement, he had the most wins in the National league. He was the fourth pitcher to win the Triple Crown. His team won the pennant in ’91. Clarkson was 33-19, pitching 460 innings.
A memorable incident took place in Boston. A game Clarkson was pitching was running late into dusk. But the umpire, Jack Kerins, refused to call the game.
Finding it necessary to impress upon the umpire the need to stop play, Clarkson and his catcher brought a lemon out to throw.
After pitching the lemon, and the umpire not catching the change, the catcher showed the umpire what had just been thrown, and he finally called the game!
Clarkson was also known as a good hitter. His 24 home runs are still high on the all-time list for pitchers.
As much as any pitcher, I think Clarkson and our next pitcher, Tim Keefe, embodied the spirit and nature of pitching before the turn of the century.
Clarkson ran a cigar shop in Bay City, Mich. after he retired. Tragically, in 1905 or ’06 he suffered a breakdown, and finished his days at age 47 in a mental institution in 1909.
He was inducted into the HOF in ’63.
3) Tim Keefe – (1880-1893) – (342-225; 2.62 ERA; ERA+ 127; 39 SHO; 5049 IP/ 4912 H; 2564 K/ 1233 BB; 1.12 WHIP) started his career with the Troy Trojans of the National league in 1880. He was nicknamed “Sir Timothy” for his gentlemanly manners.
His first year with Troy, he posted an ERA of 0.86. His ERA+ of 294 is a record.
The next two seasons pitching alongside Mickey Welch were sub-par for Keefe. He left after the team folded and pitched for the New York Metropolitans of the American Association until ’85 when he joined back up with Welch on the New York Giants.
On July 4 in ’84 he threw both ends of a double-header. He won both games, throwing a one-hit gem in the first game and a two-hitter in the second.
He won the Triple Crown in ’88, and was the first pitcher to have three seasons with over 300 strikeouts. His 2,564K for his career were a record when he retired.
His 342 wins, ERA+ of 127 with over 5,000 innings pitched and a sparkling WHIP of 1.12 all point to his ranking here. He is the top ranking pitcher who did not pitch over into the modern era.
He had one of the great handlebar moustaches of the era!
Keefe was involved with fighting the reserve clause. It was his friend John Ward who organized the player’s league in ’90. Keefe himself pitched on the New York team in the new league.
He was inducted into the HOF in 1964.
2) Kid Nichols – (1890-1906) – (361-208; 2.95 ERA; ERA+ 140; 48 SHO; 5056 IP/ 4912 H; 1873 K/ 1268 BB; 1.222 WHIP) began his career during the year the player’s league existed. He started for the Boston Beaneaters all the way through the 1901 season.
Nichols was known for his amazing consistency. He won 26 or more games for nine consecutive seasons to begin his career. He won over 30 games seven times.
He was the youngest pitcher to win 300 games at age 32.
He helped his team win five pennants; ’91-’93, ’97-’98.
Nichols represented the next generation of pitchers who had to deal with the change in distance of the mound to the plate. Nichols handled it with no ill effects, going on to his great career.
After the 1901 season. he bought part ownership of a team in Kansas City, a minor league team. He pitched and managed for them ’02-’03.
After two years out, he returned to the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1904, winning 21 games.
He pitched briefly in 1906 for the Phillies, ending his career.
Nichols win total, ERA+ of 140 spanning 5,000+ innings, and his 48 shutouts all speak to his ranking.
Kid Nichols was inducted into the HOF in 1949.
1) Cy Young – (1890-1911) – (511 – 316; 2.63 ERA; ERA+ 138; 76 SHO; 7,356 IP/ 7,092 H; 2,803 K/ 1,217 BB; 1.13 WHIP) broke into the major leagues with the expansion Cleveland Spiders in 1890. He quickly established himself as one of the stronger pitchers in the league, leading the league in wins in ’92 and ’95.
His warm up catcher gave him the nickname “Cyclone” because of how hard he threw. The name stuck, and Denton True used it throughout the rest of his career. Newspaper writers shortened it to "Cy.”
In ’92 he led his team to the second-half pennant, but lost the post season Temple Cup to Kid Nichols’ Boston Beaneaters. But in ’95 after winning the pennant again, the Spiders won the Cup.
He experienced some adjustment period to the new rules, seeing his ERA jump from 1.93 in ’92 to 3.36 after the rules change. His ERAs throughout the ‘90s hovered in the low threes.
There were years when he gave up many more hits than innings pitched. (’94 – 408/ 488; ’96 – 414/477; ’97 – 333/391). However, his WHIP was regularly among league leaders throughout his career.
Later in his career, he developed and relied on outstanding control rather than the impressive fastball of his youth.
When Cleveland’s owner bought the St. Louis Browns, they transferred several of the Cleveland stars to play for the newly named Perfectos.
Young pitched two years there (’99-’00), but jumped to the Boston Americans of the newly formed American league for their inaugural season in 1901.
Young stayed with the Boston team, seeing some of his greatest success over the next nine years.
His first four years in Boston were his best, winning the Triple Crown in ’01, and leading the league in innings pitched and wins the next two years.
In ’03 Young’s Boston Americans won the American League pennant, and were that league’s representative in the first World Series. Young started and lost the first game, but won his next two starts and the Americans were the first World Series champions.
On May 2, 1904 Rube Waddell and Connie Mack’s Athletics one-hit the Americans. After the game he called out Young to face him next time so he could repeat the performance. Three days later they faced off. Young pitched the first perfect game of the young American League’s history!
After Rube Waddell flied to center for the last out of the game, Young shouted at him “How do you like that that, you hayseed?!” They later would face each other in memorable matchups, with Cy showing respect for his opponent.
Cy Young holds the record for most career wins (511), most career innings (7,354.2), most games started (815), and most complete games (749). His 76 shutouts are fourth all-time.
The most amazing part of his career is his longevity. He credited this to avoiding any long warm up sessions or much work in spring training. His ability to adjust his pitching and maintain success is also admirable.
Cy Young’s roots are in the pre-modern era. He pitched from 55 feet for three years. The level of competition was sparse at best during the next few years. This is one reason his ERA+ is as high as it is.
He deserves credit for his level of performance in the modern era. His ability to adapt and succeed, coming back for excellent years in ’07 and ’08, shows what a tremendous competitor he was! I think it was very fitting he pitched in the first World Series.
He was elected to the HOF in 1937. In 1956, the year after he died, the Cy Young award was initiated, honoring the best pitcher(s) for that season.
He sits atop the list of best pitchers from the pre-modern era, looking forward to challenge all comers to meet his standards of stamina and excellence.
The pre-modern era deserves its own category for ranking, as the rules and standards were constantly evolving during these years.
Because the ranking is separate does not mean the skill level or accomplishments of the players were inferior in any way to the modern era.
These pitcher’s careers are gems worth knowing about. The modern baseball fan should understand this era and admire these pitchers, not ignore it and put its stars on a forgotten shelf!