The Little Steam Engine

Pud Galvin

The other day, prefatory to doing my post on Cy Young, I looked over the list of 300 game winners. Most of the modern ones are fairly well-known, as are most of the ones who pitched in the early part of the 20th Century. That’s not as true of the 19th Century pitchers. Most have fallen into obscurity. The recent book on 1884 has brought back Charles Radbourn and both Welch and Keefe pitched in New York for pennant winners. Clarkson pitched for the Cubs and Kid Nichols gets a lot of votes as the best 19th Century pitcher. So if I had to pick a 300 win pitcher and call him the most obscure, it would be James “Pud” Galvin, the winningest pitcher of the 19th Century.

Galvin was born Christmas day 1856 in St. Louis. In 1875 he began playing for the hometown Browns of the National Association (the only Major League at the time). He got into eight games as a pitcher, going 4-2, and played a handful of games in the outfield, hitting .130. The Association folded the next season and Galvin disappears from the Major Leagues until 1879. Between the two big league appearances he pitched for the International League team in Buffalo. In 1879, Buffalo joined the National League and Galvin stayed in the majors through 1892. Early on he picked up the nickname “The Little Steam Engine”, the first of a number of pitchers compared to trains. Walter Johnson (The Big Train), and Nolan Ryan (The Express) come immediately to mind.

He played for Buffalo into the 1885 season when he was sent to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in the American Association. In 1887, Pittsburgh moved to the National League and Galvin remained with them through 1889. In 1890 he jumped to the fledgling Player’s League (joining the new team in Pittsburgh), then returned to the Alleghenys when the Player’s League collapsed. He went back to St. Louis (now the Cardinals) toward the end of 1892, then retired. At retirment he was the winningest pitcher in Major League history. He died in March 1902 in Pittsburgh. The Wikipedia article on him indicates that the nickname “Pud” was an abbreviation for “Pudding”, which is what his pitches turned hitters into. I’ve been unable to track down a better explanation.

Galvin seems to be the first of the PED boys. Apparently he took an elixir that contained monkey testosterone to help him stay in shape and sharp. There are a lot of jokes to be made here about arm length and hair and such. I think I’ll simply mention the fact and let it go at that.

Galvin pitched far enough back that many of his numbers are in dispute. I’ve taken the newest baseball encyclopedia numbers for use here and recognize that when the next version comes out they may be different. For his career Galvin had 361 wins, 308 losses (for a .540 winning percentage), with 5941 innings pitched. He gave up 6352 hits, walked 744 and struck out 1799. For all that he had a 2.87 ERA in 697 games, 681 of them starts. His teams never won a pennant or a postseason series. In his career best seasons of 1883 and 1884 he won 46 games each year, leading the league in innings pitched in 1883 with 656, and threw a league leading 12 shutouts in 1884. In 1883 he tied the all time record (with Will White) for the most games pitched and started in a season with 76 games and 75 starts.

Galvin is very difficult to evaluate. For one thing, he never pitched a big league game at 60’6″. He’s one of only two 300 game winners to do that (Radbourn is the other). How he would have done at the modern distance is simply unknowable. Additionally, the ball and strike counts varied during his career. Sometimes there were four balls and three strikes, sometimes there were more. Throw in the differences in equipment and fields and you have a pitcher doing his job in conditions that are alien to us. Having said all that, there are still a few observations that can be made. He gave up more hits than innings pitched, which is never a good thing. His walks to strikeout rate is pretty good (2.4 strikeouts per walk) for the era without being great. He got a lot of wins (and losses) but pitched in an era when two pitchers was fairly normal and one single hurler could occasionally dominate a team’s statistics. Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract does not list him among his 100 greatest pitchers and the WAR statistic puts him 27th between Don Sutton and Curt Schilling (and two below his contemporary rival Radbourn).

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3 Responses to “The Little Steam Engine”

  1. Old Hoss Radbourn-Biography « DMB Historic World Series Replay Says:

    […] check out this biography of Pud Galvin,  a contemporary of […]

  2. William Miller Says:

    To me, although it is always interesting to read and to learn about guys that played ball in the distant 19th century, they are generally pretty irrelevant to me when compiling Best of All Time lists, unless their careers (as with Cy Young) straddled two eras (meaning, they pitched or played well into the 20th century.) As you say, the game was just too damn different in those days to realistically evaluate their place in baseball history. But again, they certainly deserve to be remembered as the pioneer class of baseball.
    Nice post, Bill

  3. verdun2 Says:

    Personally I like to use 1892/3 as the cutoff for rating players. That’s when the pitchers move to 60’6″ and we get a mound. Not sure it’s the best date (something can be said for changing the stolen base rule in 1897 and for banning the trick pitches in 1920) but it’s my personal favorite. I like the idea of “Pioneer Class”.
    As always thanks for reading.
    v

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