Big Whitworth

Richard Whitworth about 1916

Baseball is full of pitchers with short careers. Some are short because the guy wasn’t very good. Others are short, but have very intense periods of greatness. Hall of Fame pitchers like Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax fall into this category. For a handful of years they were truly outstanding then something went wrong. In Dean’s case it was an injury, in Koufax’s it was arthritis. Negro League baseball was no different from its Major League counterpart. One of the more prominent Negro League pitchers with a short, spectacular career that ended much too early was “Big” Richard Whitworth.

Born in St. Louis in 1895, Richard “Dick” Whitworth topped out at 6.5″ and 215 pounds, gaining him the nickname of “Big”. A right-handed pitcher he got to the Negro Leagues in 1914 with the Union Giants, one of the top teams in Chicago. He was famous for his fastball and almost, immediately drew the attention of Rube Foster of the American Giants, another major black team in Chicago. In either 1915 or 1916 Whitworth moved over to the American Giants (sources differ) and became, along with Frank Wickware, one of the team aces. For the rest of the teens he joined Wickware to dominate black baseball in the Midwest.

He was a strikeout pitcher who is one of several hurlers who are given credit as the predominant strikeout artist of the era. If his “stuff” was overpowering, and it seems to have been, he could also be wild, racking up a lot of walks to go with the strikeouts. But he was good enough that Rube Foster let Wickware head to the Detroit Stars while holding on to Whitworth. With Wickware gone, Whitworth understood his value was unmatched on the mound. He held out for a raise in 1919 and seems to have gotten at least a small one.

In 1920 he moved to Hilldale (a team that played in Philadelphia), where he helped found the Eastern Colored League. He remained there through 1921, then, his skills eroding, moved back to Chicago, where he had a couple more good, certainly not great seasons. He was through after 1925.

For Dean the problem was an injury, for Koufax, arthritis. For “Big” Whitworth it was a fondness for the bottle. From early in his career he was known to drink heavily. By the early 1920’s it was effecting his game. He was infamous for stepping under the stands before a game to take a few drinks before heading to the mound. There were rumors he drank between innings, but that was never substantiated (as far as I can tell).

He returned to St. Louis after his career was over and died in 1966.

As usual the question of how good was he cannot be adequately answered. His Seamheads numbers read 72 wins, 35 losses, a 2.56 ERA (133 ERA+), 461 strikeouts, 346 walks, and 249 earned runs given up in 877 innings pitched over 136 games. All that gives him 10.5 WAR.

As with the other Negro Leaguers I’ve looked at this month (Wickware and Barber) Whitworth had a drinking problem. Considering the problems facing black Americans in the 19-teens and early 1920s it’s frankly not surprising. What is a little surprising is how easy they were able to get booze after the Prohibition Amendment was passed. It seems that widespread ignoring of the amendment occurred in both the black and white communities. For a long time liquor was the drug of choice in baseball (both the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues) because a lot of good players like the three I’ve featured this month (and others like Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson in the Major Leagues) lost a lot of time to “demon rum.”



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5 Responses to “Big Whitworth”

  1. glenrussellslater Says:

    V, about what you were speaking of with Koufax and Dizzy Dean, pitchers who put together UNBELIEVABLE years before succumbing to an injury, in Dean’s case, or arthritis, in Koufax’s case. I think that Dwight Gooden and fits in that category. During Gooden’s rookie and sophomore years in 1984 and 1985, he was unstoppable, and I mean UNSTOPPABLE. He was a phenomenon during those two years before he burned out. There has never been pitchers who did so well in such a short amount of time, except for maybe Koufax, Dean, and Herb Score. Gooden, at his peak, was a better Mets pitcher than Tom Seaver. And I have lived long enough to have seen both Seaver and Gooden at their peaks. Of course, as we know, Doc succumbed to drug abuse, not to mention awful advice from pitching coach Mel Stottlemeyer. Could he be a candidate for the Hall of Fame based on that? What’s your opinion? I believe he should. What’s YOUR opinion on this, V?


    • glenrussellslater Says:

      Sorry. I didn’t mean to ask you “What’s YOUR opinion twice. I wasn’t being pushy, just careless!

    • verdun2 Says:

      Not quite sure how to answer this. Gooden had a couple of great seasons, then ended up with a lot of wins and other stats, but somehow he just never seemed to be as good as I thought he should be. Maybe that’s because the great years were early and much of his stat line is hanging around time. He is, at best a borderline candidate to me. Feel free to disagree. I admit that sometimes I disagree with that assessment. He’s just difficult to sort through.

      • glenrussellslater Says:

        Yeah, I don’t really know WHAT to think in terms of Gooden, either. It’s a tough one.

  2. Steve Myers Says:

    in this case and so many others, the “demon rum” as you say was performance un-enhancing. Great research and great write up as always.

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