The First Great Reliever

Firpo Marberry

This is the story of Firpo Marberry. He wasn’t the first reliever. As far back as the National Association (1871-75) pitchers failed to complete games and relievers were employed. But as a rule relievers weren’t specialists, they didn’t make careers coming out of the bullpen. Some, like Carl Mays or Dave Danforth, had a year or so in relief then went on to be a starter, while others were older guys just hanging on. But Marberry came to the Major Leagues as a reliever and was so good at it he set records.

Fred Marberry was from Texas. After a couple of years in the minors, he got to the big leagues in late 1923 with the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins). In some ways it was a perfect place to create a relief specialist. The Senators’ main pitcher, Walter Johnson, was aging (35). Number two pitcher, George Mogridge, was only a year younger (remember this is 1923 when careers are generally shorter) and most of the rest of the staff was pretty mediocre with high ERA’s, poor walk to strikeout ratios, and all four guys who started more than 30 games gave up more hits than they had innings pitched (including Johnson). So there was going to be a lot of relief work available. Additionally, owner Clark Griffith was a former Major League pitcher and manager who had used himself as a reliever in the latter part of his career. He knew the value of a good bullpen man, and in Marberry he found one.

In his rookie season, Marberry went 4-0 with a 2.80 ERA in 11 games, (seven in relief). The Senators finished fourth. The next season they won the American League pennant. Now let’s not be hasty and award Marberry primacy of place as the reason. The team made a change of manager (Bucky Harris replaced Donie Bush), Johnson turned his career around and had a terrific year (23-7 and led the league in ERA, shutouts, strikeouts–just your basic Walter Johnson year), Mogridge and Tom Zachery had good years on the mound. Six of the eight regulars improved their batting averages while four improved their slugging percentage. And then there was Marberry. He pitched in 60 games, starting only 14 (and completing six of them). He went only 11-12, but put up a 3.09 ERA (good for the period), and saved a record 15 games (he didn’t know that). The Senators won the series in seven games with Marberry taking a loss, picking up two saves, and posting a series low ERA of 1.13. The next year he pitched 55 games, all in relief, again posting 15 saves. Again the Senators headed to the World Series, this time dropping the series in seven games. Marberry had one save and a zip ERA.

The Senators fell back after 1925, no body was going to keep up with the Murder’s Row Yankees, but Marberry kept on. He got 22 saves in 1926, a new record that lasted until 1949, 11 in 1928, and 13 in 1932 (for teams that finished fourth, fourth, and third). Along the way he started a handful of games, topping out at 25 in 1931, the first year he’d started more than he relieved. After 1932 he was traded to Detroit.

So what have you got at this point? Marberry pitched 465 games with Washington, starting 138.  His record was 117-69 (a winning pecentage of .629) with an ERA in the threes and 96 saves.

Detroit tried to make him a starter. It worked. He was 16-11 and 15-5 in his first two years as a Tiger. He started 51 of 75 games and had a total of five saves. His ERA was decent in 1933, but rocketed above four in 1934. Detroit got to the World Series in 1934, losing to Dizzy Dean and the Gas House Gang Cardinals in seven. Marberry pitched twice, both in mop up relief roles registering a terrible ERA and having no decisions. The 1934 season was his last good one. He pitched only five games in 1935 (when he was 36), developing unspecified arm trouble. Released by Detroit, he spent the season umpiring in the American League, refusing to arbitrate games involving his old Senators team (but apparently agreeing to ump Tigers games). His last season was 1936. He pitched a third of an inning for the Giants before being sent back to Washington for a five game close out of his big league career. He returned to the minor leagues and played until 1941. He retired in his home state of  Texas and died in 1976.

For his career, Marberry was 148-88 (.627 winning percentage-a top forty number among pitchers wth 100 wins), with 101 saves, an ERA of 2.63, 822 strikeouts and 686 walks in 2067 innings. The save total was a record when he retired. By 1946, it would fall to third all-time (Jack Russell and Johnny Murphy) remaining there  until the 1970’s explosion of relief pitching. They invented the save statistic in the 1960’s, while Marberry was still alive. I have no idea if he knew he had 101 and was third ever.

As an aside, the nickname “Firpo” comes from a resemblence to the heavyweight boxer of the era Luis Firpo. Marberry didn’t like the nickname. It stuck anyway.

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2 Responses to “The First Great Reliever”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I always loved the part about how, in the old days, a player would retire and instantly become an umpire. This might help explain why it was not unusual in those days for an ump to be attacked by a player.

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Hadn’t thought of it quite that way. Love that he would ump games involving one of his former teams but not the other.
    v

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