Greatest Pitchers, Part II: 1871-1903

Zander FreundSenior Writer IFebruary 26, 2006

What better place to start our analysis than at the very beginning of baseball history, when the National Association became the first professional baseball league in 1871.  Few names from the first 20 years of pro ball enter many discussions regarding the greatest pitcher of all time. However, to overlook baseball's pioneers because of the simple passage of time would be unfair.  Fortunately, the detailed records that baseball has kept since its inception will allow us to actually determine which of these dinosaurs was the finest of his era.


The First Twenty Years

As you might expect, the game of baseball was very different back in 1871, and this is especially true of pitching.  Statistics like ERA, though we can calculate them now, were completely unknown and overlooked at the time.  For example, Cherokee Fisher, who led the league in ERA in 1882 and '83, played for seven different teams in his seven-year career, suggesting the journeyman was not regarded very highly by his contemporaries.  In addition, schedules were not uniform the way they are now: in 1875, the Keouk Westerns played 13 games, whereas the Hartford Dark Blues played 86. [1]
For the purposes of this analysis, one crucial difference is the number of games per season pitchers started.  While it was uncommon before 1880 for teams to play more than 80 games, it was a true rarity for star pitchers to take the mound for any less than 50 to 60 games.  In other words, the idea of a pitching rotation was non-existent, as each team essentially depended on one man to throw strikes.

Several of these warriors deserve consideration when determining the greatest slinger of this era.  Tim Keefe of the New York Giants won three ERA titles in 1880, '85 and '90, and finished his career with a record of 342-225.  Tommy Bond of the Boston Red Caps won 40 games three years in a row, and two ERA titles in '77 and '79.  Will White also had three 40-win seasons from 1879-82, and his 2.09 ERA in 1883 led the league.  Bob Caruthers, playing first for the St. Louis Browns and later for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, led the league with 40 wins in both 1885 and 1889, finishing his career with a winning percentage of .684.  John Clarkson, who led the league in wins on three occasions from 1885-1889 and finished with a career record of 328-178, also deserves mention. Last but not least is Charley Radbourn, whose 1884 season for the Providence Grays stands out as one of the eras best: 59-12, 1.38 ERA and 206 ERA+. [2]

But while all of these pitchers had a few great seasons and/or very solid careers, the truly dominant man on the mound for the first twenty years of baseball was Al Spalding of the Boston Red Stockings.  Over the first five years of professional baseball, Boston was the league's best team, winning four pennants in a row from 1872-75 (there was no postseason before 1884).  Other than hitter Ross Barnes, Spalding was Boston's star, leading the league in wins in each of baseball's first five seasons. [3]  During that time, Spalding accounted for 203 of Boston's 277 victories, or 73 percent.  The height of Spalding's dominance came in 1875, when he went 54-5 with an ERA of 1.59 (the league ERA was 2.36). In 1876, playing in his last full season for the Chicago White Stockings of the National League, Spalding led the league in wins for a sixth consecutive time.  Even today, Spalding's career winning percentage of .796 has stood the test of time as by far the highest ever. (Spud Chandler's .718 ranks second.) [4]

One argument to be made against Spalding is that he had the benefit of playing for the league's best team in each year of his career.  But, of course, he would have to be considered a large reason for those teams' success.  One might also point to the fact that he never won an ERA title.  However, it is important to consider that Spalding also threw more games than any other pitcher of his time, causing his ERA to be slightly inflated.  For instance, in both 1872 and '73, Cherokee Fisher led the league in ERA (1.80 and 1.81, respectively), while Spalding's ERAs were slightly higher (1.87 and 2.46). [5]  But when one considers that Fisher only pitched 32 games during these two seasons — compared to Spalding's 108 — the story changes drastically. It seems logical to assume that had Fisher pitched in as many games as Spalding, his ERA would have risen quite substantially.  During the peak of his career from 1871-76', Spalding pitched an average of 62.4 games per season, yet still managed to finish in the top five in ERA each and every year. [6]

No matter where you look in your Baseball Encyclopedia, there is no better pitcher during the first twenty years of professional play than Al Spalding.  A dinosaur, indeed — but one that belongs on the short list nonetheless.

Winning is everything: 1890-1903

In 1890, two prolific pitchers emerged in professional baseball: Kid Nichols and Cy Young.  Originally, Nichols played for the Boston Beaneaters of the National League, while Young played for the Cleveland Indians of the American Association. The two didn't compete against the same pool of batters until 1892, when the American Association went bankrupt, and its four top teams joined the National League. [7]

While Nichols and Young are the two most well-known pitchers of their day, Amos Rusie of the New York Giants is also deserving of mention.  Rusie led the league in wins in 1894, and ERA in both 1894 and 1896.  He won 30 games in four straight seasons from 1891-94.  Rusie was also the best strikeout pitcher of his time, leading the league on five occasions and fanning over 300 batters in three consecutive seasons from 1890-92. [8]

Ultimately, however, Rusie's career total of 242 wins is dwarfed by that of Young and Nichols, who both finished their careers with well over 300.  His 130 career ERA+ is also lower than that of either Young or Nichols, even though Rusie had the advantage of playing fewer seasons.  His peak performances are comparable to that of the two legends, but there simply aren't enough of them: Rusie only had seven winning seasons, while Nichols had 12 and Young had 17. [9]  Though surely a terrific pitcher in his day, Rusie simply can't be chosen over either Nichols or Young.

Deciding between Nichols and Young is less simple, particularly when considering each's peak value.  Though — unlike Young — Nichols never won an ERA title, each pitcher led the league in ERA+ twice during this period.  Young led the league in wins four times in his career (1892, 1901-03), while Nichols was baseball's winningest pitcher for three seasons (1896-98).  Nichols's advantage over Cy is surely the success of his team: while the Boston Beaneaters won five league titles with Nichols at the helm, Cy Young was never a champion with either the Cleveland Indians or the Boston Red Sox.  That being said, their postseason performances are comparable, with Nichols going 2-0 in his career with a 3.75 ERA and Young posting a record of 3-3 with an ERA of 3.14. [10]   

It is only upon examination of the two pitchers' career statistics that the choice becomes clearer.  Their career ERA+'s are virtually interchangeable (139 for Nichols and 138 for Young), but Young has the edge when it comes to career ERA (2.62 vs. 2.95).  However while their winning percentages are fairly close (.634 for Nichols, .618 for Young), their career win totals are vastly different: Young won an untouchable baseball-record 511 games, while Nichols only won 361. [11] 
Because the two pitchers are so comparable, the task of naming one as superior is especially difficult. In the end however, the honor goes to the man who was better for a longer period of time.  By a hair, Young beats out Nichols as the finest pitcher of the era.       



[1] Total Baseball. Seventh Edition. 2001

[2] Total Baseball. Seventh Edition. 2001

[3] Total Baseball. Seventh Edition. 2001


[5] Total Baseball. Seventh Edition. 2001

[6] Total Baseball. Seventh Edition. 2001


[8] Total Baseball. Seventh Edition. 2001

[9] Total Baseball. Seventh Edition. 2001

[10] Total Baseball. Seventh Edition. 2001

[11] Total Baseball. Seventh Edition. 2001