The Iron Man

Joe McGinnity

Baseball has, over the years, produced some strange stats. Few are more strange than those of Joe McGinnity. He plays exactly ten years, averages 25 wins a season as a pitcher, then disappears from Major League rosters forever. I decided to find out what happened.

Joseph McGinty (the name change occurred after he reached adulthood) was born in 1871 in Rock Island, Illinois (home of the rail line made famous by the “Leadbelly” song). He tried minor league ball with little success, but did find a wife. His offseason job in 1893 and 1894 was in the Union Iron Foundry in McAlester, Oklahoma Territory (now state). He hit it off with the owners daughter and they married in 1893 (Is that a fringe benefit?). The work in the foundry earned him his nickname “Iron Man” McGinnity.

His baseball career floundering, he ran a saloon (also serving as the bouncer) and continued to pitch in semi-pro ball. During the sojourn in the semi-pros he discovered a new pitch. The pitch was a curve delivered with a submarine motion. It was difficult to hit and relatively easy on the arm. In 1898 he was back in professional ball, doing well enough to make the National League with the Baltimore Orioles (not the current team). He was an instant hit leading the league in wins and coming in second in ERA. He was also 29.

The owner of the Orioles also owned the Brooklyn team. Syndicate baseball was common in the era and the owner moved McGinnity to the stronger team, the Superbas (they didn’t become the Dodgers until much later). McGinnity again led the National League in wins and this time added innings pitched to his black ink stats. The Superbas won the pennant, but were challenged by second place Pittsburgh to a post season set of games called the “Chronicle-Telegraph Games” (named for a Pittsburgh newspaper which put up a fancy cup). Brooklyn won three games to one with McGinnity pitching two complete games and giving up no earned runs.

In 1901, the American League arrived. McGinnity joined the new AL team in Baltimore, also called the Orioles, but, again, not the same team as exists today. He won 26 games for the fledgling team, despite a 12 day suspension for spitting on an umpire (Joe McGinnity, meet Roberto Alomar). In 1902 he began the year with Baltimore but joined the exodus of players to New York and the NL, when his manager, John McGraw, jumped to the Giants as a result on a dispute with AL president Ban Johnson.

He spent the remaining years of his Major League career with the Giants, picking up 31 wins and pitching 434 innings in ’03. The latter is the NL record for the 20th Century. In August of 1903 he became famous for pitching both ends of a double-header three different times. He won all six games. He was already known as “Iron Man”, but now the nickname became synonymous with the double-header feat. In 1904 he was 35-8, winning 14 consecutive games, leading the league in wins, innings, shutouts, ERA, and saves. In 1905, he was down to 21 wins, but the Giants won the World Series. He took a loss in game two and won game four (of five) giving up no earned runs in either game (the loss came on errors). In 1906 he won 27 games, but was suspended for ten days, this time for fighting on the diamond.

By 1907, he was on the downslide. He pitched much less than before and began spending a lot of time in the coach’s box. By 1908 he was through, although he was famously involved in the “Merkle Game” (He’s supposed to have thrown the ball into the stands to keep the Cubs from making Fred Merkle out at second.). The Giants released him in February 1909. He was 39. He may have been through at the Major League level, but he wasn’t through with baseball. He went back to the minors, which were in his day not tied to the big league clubs in a farm system. He pitched until 1925 racking up 400 more wins, including a 30 win season, five 20 win seasons, and twice more winning both ends of a double-header. In the modern world of farm teams whose only job is to get minor leaguers to the big leagues, McGinnity’s post-1908 minor league career is unthinkable.

After retiring he coached a little with the Brooklyn team and assisted Williams College with its baseball program. He died in 1929 and was buried in McAlester, Oklahoma. He made the Hall of Fame in 1946.

For his Major League career McGinnity went 246-142 (or 25-14 per year) for his ten year career with an ERA of 2.66. In five of the ten years he led the NL in wins. He also led the league in ERA, shutouts, and winning percentage once each and led in innings pitched four times. His ERA+ is 1.21 and his WHIP is 1.188. What you get with McGinnity is an innings eater with a lot of wins. It’s fashionable to downplay “wins” as a major pitching statistic today, and that’s certainly fair in the modern era. After all, a starter goes six innings, turns the game over to any number of seventh inning stoppers, who turn it over to the set up man in the eighth, who finally gives the ball to the closer in the ninth. It’s hard to really consider the six inning starter much of a winning pitcher. Additionally, fielders have massive gloves and the field is manicured. That’s very different from McGinnity’s day. He started 381 games and finished 314 (82%) and had fielders with little gloves and terrible playing surfaces behind him. To me a win in 1905 is pretty meaningful, particularly versus the modern version. So, I’m more impressed with the 25 wins a year than I would be if McGinnity put them up today.

I began my search for McGinnity by wondering why he had such a short career. I think there are two reasons. First, he was 29 when he got to the Majors and 39 was usually the end of the baseball line in the first decade of the 20th Century. Second, with all those innings, I imagine that even a submarine delivery had to put a lot of strain on that arm of his. Although his subsequent minor league stats might belie that assertion.

While researching this post I ran across information that McGinnity’s home in McAlester, Oklahoma is still standing. Here’s a picture of it:

McGinnity home, McAlister, OK

 It’s in poor repair, but the article indicates that they are trying to restore it (as evidenced by the equipment to the left in the picture) to its original splendor. There’s some question as to whether McGinnity bought it or if it belonged to his wife’s family and she inherited it on the death of her parents. Considering the size and evident expense of the home and considering baseball salaries in 1905, I lean toward the latter theory. Either way, McGinnity actually lived in it. There is no information I could find about what memorabilia, if any, they have.

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2 Responses to “The Iron Man”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I love how you take an old-time ballplayer, tell us about his career, then take it one step further with an odd, interesting piece of history. And this time, we even get a pic!
    In defense of modern pitchers, though, they have to face talent that comes from all over the world, not to mention African-American players. And most of these batters tend to be bigger, stronger and more athletic than ballplayers of a hundred years ago.
    But I do agree that a win back then is worth more than a win is today.
    Nice post, Bill

  2. keithosaunders Says:

    Enjoyed that post and hearing about the Superbas! That’s always been one of my favorite names. Of course we now know, thanks to modern technlogy, that it is physically impossibe for any pitcher to throw effectively after 100 pitches. Thank god we know that!

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