There’s an old baseball tale that goes like this. The pitcher winds up, blazes a fastball toward home, the batter, absolutely unable to see the ball stands still, the ball hits the catcher’s mitt with a resounding “whack”, then the umpire calls it a ball. The catcher turns around and says, “It was a strike, ump. Didn’t you see it?” The ump replies, “Nope, but it sounded high.” Great story. I’ve found versions of it about a half-dozen or so pitchers. The earliest version I can find goes all the way back into the 1890s and Amos Rusie.
Rusie was born in Indiana in 1871. The family moved to Indianapolis where Rusie dropped out of school to work in a factory. The factory had a team, Rusie could pitc,h and the team played against barnstorming big league teams. Rusie successfully shut down both the Washington and Boston National League teams in 1888 and was picked up by the Indianapolis Hoosiers. He was 18, went 12-10, walked more men than he struck out, and the team finished 7th. Indianapolis folded after the season leaving Rusie without a team. The NL decided to send most of the good players, including Rusie, to the New York team. Rusie was upset at not being able to negotiate a contract with any team willing to pay him and it led to problems for his entire career. He became a star, liked New York, found a wife, and was the toast of the town, but never quite got over being sent to New York against his will.
He was brilliant as a pitcher. He was also wild. In his first three years he was 114-85 with 982 strike outs and (read this number carefully) 821 walks. He led the NL in strikeouts twice and in walks all three years. In 1893 they moved the pitching distance back to the current 60′ 6″ and a number of sources credit Rusie with the change. Batters feared both his speed and his wildness.
OK, maybe, but what is certain is that Rusie flourished at the new distance. He had 33 wins in 1893, 36 in 1894. His strikeout totals went down, but he still led the NL. His walks also went down, but he continued to lead the league in bases on balls. To be blunt, Rusie never really overcame his wildness.
His Triple Crown year was 1894. He won 36 games (losing 13) with a 2.78 ERA (ERA+ 188) and stuck out 195 men, his lowest total of strikeouts since his rookie year. He also led the league with three shutouts and (you knew this was coming) 200 walks. That makes him the only Triple Crown winner to lead his league in both strikeouts and walks. I’m not a big fan of pitching WAR (hitting WAR is OK), but his WAR for 1894 is 13.8. For the season, his team finished second, but qualified for the newly contested Temple Cup. The Giants won the Cup in four straight games.
In 1895, Rusie dropped back to 23-23 for a record but still led the NL in strikeouts. For the first time since his rookie campaign, he didn’t lead in walks. But he was also involved in one of his perennial contract disputes with the Giants. Unwilling to accept the club offer, he sat out all of 1896. The Giants, who had finished ninth in 1895, moved up to seventh in 1896. That didn’t help Rusie so he reluctantly resigned for the 1897 season.
He was good again in 1897, winning 28 games and his second ERA title. For the first time since 1892 he failed to lead the NL in strikeouts (the 1896 hold out year excepted). He had 20 wins in 1898 before hurting his shoulder attempting a pick-off. No one knew it at the time, but his career was over. He sat out 1899 and 1900 before attempting a comeback in 1901. He was traded to Cincinnati (more on that later), went 0-1 in three games striking out six final batters (and walking three). He was done.
He worked at a paper mill in Indiana after retirement, then moved to Seattle where he worked as a steamfitter. In 1921 he became superintendent at the Polo Grounds, a job he held through 1929. John McGraw did that kind of thing for old ballplayers. He went back to Seattle where the Great Depression hurt his financial interests badly. He was injured in a car accident in 1934 and retired. He lingered into 1942 when he died in Seattle, where he is buried. In 1977 the Veteran’s Committee chose him for the Hall of Fame.
Over his 10 year career Rusie won 246 games and lost 174 (.586 winning percentage). He walked 1707 men and struck out 1950. His ERA was 3.07 (ERA+129). He gave up 3389 hits and 1288 earned runs in 3779 innings. He led the NL in wins and losses once each, in shutouts and strikeouts four times each, in ERA twice, and in walks five times.
Rusie reminds me a lot of guys like Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, and Hal Newhouser. All three were great fastball pitchers who lacked control, although all, especially Ryan, managed to gain at least some control as their career progressed. Rusie was also like that, only a half century earlier. His feats were legendary. One story has it that in one game the catcher didn’t throw the ball back to Rusie. Rusie then simply wound up, faked a throw, the batter swung, and the umpire called a strike. You don’t get many stories like that.
Oh, and that trade to Cincy? Well, it seems the Reds were giving up on a young right-hander and decided to take a flier on Rusie. So for a washed up Amos Rusie, the Giants got a new pitcher named Christy Mathewson. Worked out well for New York, not so well for the Reds.