“The ball must be pitched, not jerked or thrown to the bat; and whenever the pitcher draws back his hand, or moves with the apparent purpose or pretension to deliver the ball, he shall so deliver it, and he must have neither foot in advance of the line at the time of delivering the ball; and if he fails in either of these particulars, then it shall be declared a baulk.”
That was section 6 of the rules of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1860. Section 5 included the line, “The pitcher must deliver the ball as near as possible over the center of the home base and for the striker.” The game in 1860 would hardly be recognizable for us today.
In fact, baseball’s historian, John Thorn, says that the pitcher and batter were something akin to allies, helping to put the ball in play for the fielders to show their stuff. Things really began to change when Jim Creighton entered the game in 1858. He used spin on the ball. And he got paid to do it! The game was changing. Pitchers, at least the best of them, would no longer bu just initiators of play, but defensive weapons.
Sometimes in life you decide to do something because it seems a good idea at the time. And then you get into it. Well, near the beginning of the project, a couple of readers asked that I investigate pitchers of the 1860s, which I thought was a royal idea at the time, but the research has proven problematic for someone like me. If I’m going to say something, I like to know what I’m talking about. I can say with a great deal of confidence, for example, that Rick Reuschel is criminally underrated and belongs in the Hall of Fame. I have little such confidence in this post.
I’m generally going to be guessing as to greatness and rankings today, though I think I did my due diligence. I consulted John Thorn and Bill James (who doesn’t say a lot on the subject). I also used data from Marshall D. Wright’s The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 quite extensively. In fact, that’s where I began this project. Wright’s book provides the most comprehensive statistical accounting of the early days of baseball (er, base ball) that I know. However, since most pitchers weren’t as important as other players, only offensive statistics are listed until 1870. Wright does, thankfully, share positions. So I started this project by building a spreadsheet of all players he identified as pitchers from 1857-1870. To make my work easier, if Wright’s work didn’t uncover a first name, I didn’t include the player. It’s hard to believe the name of one of the best pitchers of the decade hasn’t been revealed in 150 years of research, right? This tactic saved considerable time, likely at the expense of nothing.
When I completed my tour through Wright’s work, I was looking at was 206 player seasons. Since there’s no shot someone who pitched only one season is among the top-10, the next thing I did was delete those seasons. That got me to 167 player seasons from 47 pitchers. So I eliminated all of those pitchers with data in just two campaigns, which allowed me to work with a very manageable 26 hurlers. Then I felt my way through as best as I was able. Did I miss someone? Quite possibly. Still, I think my list is generally good, though clearly imperfect.
Missing the Cut (or include them if you like)
Charley Bearman: He pitched for four teams in the years right before the NA, and perhaps he was a bit of a carouser.
Candy Cummings: Cummings may or may not have invented the curve ball after years of experimentation, which is said to have been borne out of seeing the motion of clam shells thrown into the ocean. If I had to make a call, I’d say that Jim Creighton was the first to throw a curve, but Cummings is notable nonetheless. He had more of a career in the NA than the NABBP. Otherwise he may have made the list.
Ed Leech: It’s possible he was the pitcher in the second game between nine white and nine black players when his Olympic team of Washington faced the Alert club from the same city. Leech and the Olympics won 56 to 3.
Ed Pinkham: Getting into games with teams from Brooklyn, Greenpoint, and Chicago, Pinkham was like a lot of early pitchers. He converted to the NA, but just for a bit – just three outings on the mound. Trivially, he did lead the 1871 National Association in walks drawn.
Tom Pratt: A part-time pitcher with several teams, Pratt is one of only three players to bat six times in his only major league game. I think.
Al Spalding: He led the NA in wins in every season of the league’s existence, including its inaugural 1871 campaign when he was just 20. And he had a bit of a career before that too, pitching at age 16 for Rockford in 1867.
Dick Thorn: I don’t claim to know much about Thorn, but he did have nine seasons when Wright listed him as a pitcher in the NABBP.
Charley Walker: The hyperlink suggests there’s not a ton of information out there about Walker. He was said to be a talented hurler for the 1864-1868 Brooklyn Active, so talented that his delivery was questioned. It was also said that he essentially stalled during games, refusing to throw pitches where batters asked for them. And maybe he was the first baseball player to wear knickerbockers.
The Best Pitchers of the 1860s (possibly)
#10 Harry Wright: I list Wright here for a couple of reasons. First, he seemed to follow the rules on the mound, using techniques he learned while playing cricket, and largely throwing a slower ball than those considered the best in the era. The second is that he basically invented relief pitching, coming into games to give hard-throwing Asa Brainard a break and to mess with the timing of opposing hitters.
#9 Levi Meyerle: John Shiffert’s Base Ball in Philadelphia: A History of the Early Game, 1831-1900 highlights Meyerle’s great hitting. However, the guy who led the NA in homers and batting average in the league’s first season started his baseball career as a pitcher at age 17 for the Geary club in 1867. He would continue to pitch for a few years but reached the height of his fame in the NA playing pretty much everywhere and pitching only three times.
#8 Cherokee Fisher: Another cross-over to the NA, Fisher was actually a full-time pitcher, giving up the first home run in National Association history to Ross Barnes. He jumped from team to team throughout his career, possibly because of his excessive drinking.
#7 Charlie Pabor: When you tell all of your friends about this post, I ask that you not cite it as the gospel. Pabor doesn’t have a page at the SABR Bio Project, and his Wikipedia page calls him a left fielder and manager, ignoring his time in the NABBP. Marshall Wright lists him as the main pitcher for the Union of Morrisania from 1866-1868, a team that went 83-17, as well as a less successful 1870 squad.
#6 Al Martin: It appears Al Martin did a lot of pitching. I think. He spent two years first with the Empire of New York, then with the Mutual of New York, and finally the Brooklyn Eckfords from 1864-1869. Perhaps this is a good time to note that teams of the 1860s were usually called the ____ of ____, like the Padres of San Diego rather than the San Diego Padres. My brain reads team names as we do today, even if that’s not proper for the era. Of course, the Cincinnati Cincinnatis and the Philadelphia West Philadelphias are sort of odd no matter how you say them. Anyway, Martin’s 1866 Mutual club was excellent. So was the team in 1867, though I don’t think he was a full-time pitcher that year. The Eckford teams were also outstanding, with Martin seemingly doing most of the pitching.
#5 Jim Creighton: Using a throw with a snap of the wrist, rather than a pitch in alignment with the wishes of batter, as per the rules of the day, Creighton was the best pitcher in the land in for a few seasons, starting in 1858. Depending on your perspective on his pitching motion, he may have been baseball’s first innovator or first cheater. To be fair though, his wrist movement was examined, but nobody ever stopped him during his time with the Star and Excelsiors of Brooklyn from 1859-1862. Tragically, baseball’s likely first professional and possibly first superstar died when he was just 21, the result of a ruptured inguinal hernia incurred on a swing of the bat in an October 14, 1862 game against the Union of Morrisania. Had he not met such an untimely demise, he would rank higher on this list, and he might even be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
#4 Rynie Wolters: Wolters was either the first major leaguer born in the Netherlands or about the 100th born in New Jersey. Even facts as simple as those are in conflict in my readings. He got his start with the decent Irvington club of Irvington, NJ in 1866 and 1867 before moving to the excellent 1868-1870 New York Mutuals, a team that went 135-43-3 over the three seasons he was there. It could be said that he pitched for the best or second best team in the game in the final year before the organization of the NA. His obituary says that he may have pitched baseball’s first shutout in 1870, but I don’t know that I believe that. He did have one on 1871 to tie for the National Association lead though. That’s something.
#3 Dick McBride: Like many others, McBride took his first turn in a NABBP mound when he was just a teen, starting his career off at 16 with the 1863 Philadelphia Athletics. In his first stint in Philadelphia, which lasted three years, his teams went 30-9. He made stops for a year with the New York Eckfords and another with the New York Empires in 1866 and 1867. And then he went back to Philly, pitching for teams that went 224-27-1 over the final five seasons of the league. When the NA got started, he remained in Philadelphia and led the circuit with a .783 winning percentage for the A’s. He led the NA in ERA and ERA+ in 1874, and even managed to hang on for the first season of the NL in 1876.
#2 George Zettlein: Aside from Creighton, Zettlein is the first pitcher on this list who I am convinced was great at his craft. He was said to be able to throw the ball 80 miles per hour, and when we’re looking at only 45 feet away from the plate, that’s about the equivalent of someone throwing 100 mph today. He started his NABBP career for the mediocre Eckford club of Brooklyn in 1865. He must have shown something though, as the 17-3 Brooklyn Atlantics gobbled him up the next season to share mound duties with Tom Pratt. For the next two years, he was really the only pitcher for an Atlantics club that went 66-12-1. In his final two seasons, sharing a bit more of the mound duty, Brooklyn went 81-23-2. When the NABBP folded and the NA sprung up in 1871, Zettlein didn’t miss a beat, leading the circuit in ERA and ERA+ for the Chicago White Stockings.
#1 Asa Brainard: If you are looking for an ace, this is the guy. Literally. The term “ace” came from his nickname, “Acey”, which first appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1864. Brainard may have been the game’s first Doug DeCinces or Didi Gregorius, the guy who replaced “the guy.” Indeed, had pretty big shoes to fill as the man who followed Jim Creighton on the mound for the Excelsiors of Brooklyn. Brainard threw harder than almost anyone, threw a mean curveball, and as a natural second baseman was an excellent defensive moundsman. From the time of Creighton’s death in 1862 through the 1866 season, Brainard was the main pitcher for the Excelsiors. From there, he spent some time with the Knickerbocker club of New York and the National club of Washington before the money started to flow in Cincinnati. Brainard pitched for all of Harry Wright’s great teams, including the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 for which he was the main pitcher.
Well friends, that’s the series. Thanks for reading!