Prior latest in most-anticipated debuts
Mark Prior is the latest pitcher to join the list of most-hyped debuts. Rob Neyer has the stories.
On the eve of Mark Prior's first major-league start, let's take a look at a few other starting pitchers who received a great deal of attention as they prepared to throw their first pitch in the major leagues ...
September 25, 1908: Rube Marquard
The Hype: Marquard probably wasn't the first ballyhooed minor-league pitcher, but he must have been the most ballyhooed minor-league pitcher, at least to that point. In 1907, his first season as a professional pitcher, Marquard won 23 games in the Central League. In 1908 with Indianapolis, he dominated the American Association. On June 30 he tossed a three-hit shutout, after which the owner of the Indianapolis club essentially conducted an auction of Marquard's contract, with no fewer than 10 major-league clubs involved. After a long evening, the New York Giants came out on top with an $11,000 bid. That doesn't sound like a lot of money today, but in 1908 it was more money than any team had ever spent on a baseball player.
The Giants agreed to let Marquard finish the American Association season before reporting, and he went out in style, tossing a no-hitter in one of his last starts for Indianapolis. Once he finally joined the Giants on September 16, there was endless speculation about how long Giants manager John McGraw would wait before letting Marquard pitch (it would be nine days, though McGraw twice used his phenom as a decoy).
The Game: As if the pressure of being tagged "the $11,000 beauty" wasn't enough, when Marquard finally made his debut, it was in the crucible of the most famous pennant race in National League history. On September 23, the Giants and the Cubs played a game that ended in a 1-1 tie after Giants first baseman Fred Merkle failed to touch second base after what everyone (except the Cubs) considered a game-winning hit. And just two days later, with the Giants and Cubs still neck and neck heading to the wire, Marquard was assigned the start in the first game of a doubleheader against the Reds.
William Kirk of the New York American wrote of Marquard's performance,
He did not know what to do with his hands, and he wasn't quite sure what to do with the ball. First he tucked it under his right armpit, then he slammed it into his glove, then he spat on it, then he made a wild pitch with it, and then he aimed it over the groove, only to see it soaring safe into the outfielder. [Giants catcher] Roger Bresnahan tried his derndest to hold up the young pitcher, and stopped more than one apparently wild pitch, but the kid was not quite ready for the ordeal, and after he had been clouted grievously, and had shown unmistakable signs of unsteadiness, he left the mound.
Rube didn't pitch that poorly. He did give up five runs in five innings, but only two of them were earned. As it happened, even two runs was too many, as the Giants could muster but a single run against Cincinnati starter Bob Spade. New York lost the second game, too, dropping them into a virtual first-place tie with the Cubs. (A few weeks later, the Cubs clinched the pennant when the two teams replayed the so-called "Merkle Game." Marquard's first start was also his last appearance of the season.)
The Career: Marquard pitched fairly well for the Giants in 1909, posting a 2.60 ERA that almost exactly equaled the league average. But he went just 5-13, prompting writers to rename him "the $11,000 lemon." And things got worse in 1910, as Marquard's control deteriorated to the point where manager John McGraw rarely trusted him to pitch at all. Under the tutelage of Christy Mathewson and coach Wilbert Robinson, though, Marquard found his control in 1911, going 24-7 with 237 strikeouts, tops in the National League. In 1912, he won 26 games and was for a time the most famous pitcher in the game, as he won his first 19 decisions of the season to set a new record.
Marquard enjoyed a few more solid seasons, but was never the same after 1912. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971, and is perhaps the worst pitcher to be so honored.
April 14, 1925: Lefty Grove
The Hype: Robert Moses Grove was good enough to pitch in the major leagues long before 1925. But baseball was different then; if the operator of a minor-league team didn't want to give up one of his players, he didn't necessarily have to. And Baltimore Orioles owner Jack Dunn didn't want to give up Lefty Grove, the best pitcher in the International League. So Grove won 25 games for the Orioles in 1921, 18 in 1922, 27 in 1923, and 26 in 1924. Finally, after the '24 season, Dunn relented.
On November 20, the Philadelphia Evening Ledger reported that both the Cubs and Dodgers had offered Dunn $100,000 for the rights to Grove's contract. Dunn had a personal relationship with Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack, however, and Mack offered $100,000 -- to be paid in 10 annual installments -- plus $600. It was the largest amount of money ever paid for a minor-league player, and just as Marquard had quickly become known as "the $11,000 beauty," so Lefty Grove became known as "the $100,000 beauty."
The Game: Befitting his status (and his cost), Grove drew the Opening Day assignment for the Athletics, at home against the Red Sox. And while the Athletics won their opener, it wasn't thanks to Grove, who gave up five runs before getting lifted in the fourth inning.
The Career: Grove continued to struggle in 1925, leading some writers to label him "the $100,600 lemon." He did lead the American League with 116 strikeouts, but he also walked 131 batters and posted a 4.75 ERA. It wasn't until 1926 that Lefty Grove became the best pitcher in the game, pacing the league with 194 strikeouts and a 2.51 ERA. Grove wound up winning exactly 300 games in the major leagues, and in 1947 he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
August 3, 1948: Satchel Paige
The Hype: Starring for a few years in the International League, as Lefty Grove did, is one thing. LeRoy "Satchel" Paige starred for the better part of two decades in various Negro Leagues. And by the time he finally got his shot in 1948, nearly every baseball fan in America had been hearing about Paige for years.
He was the most famous black baseball player, or at least he was until 1947, when Jackie Robinson started making headlines. So why did Paige have to wait until 1948? Well, there was the little matter of his birthday. Nobody seemed to know what it was. Officially, Paige was born on September 22, 1908, but most everybody believed that he was closer to 49 than 39.
In The Sporting News, publisher J.G. Taylor Spink wrote,
To bring in a pitching "rookie" of Paige's age casts a reflection on the entire scheme of operation in the major leagues. To sign a hurler at Paige's age is to demean the standards of baseball in the big circuits. Further complicating the situation is the suspicion that if Satchel were white, he would not have drawn a second thought from Veeck.
To be sure, Cleveland Indians president Bill Veeck was baseball's all-time master of publicity. But the Indians were in the middle of a pennant race, and Veeck was trying to win. He simply believed that Paige could help the Indians win, and as it turned out, he was right. Paige debuted on July 9, and pitched effectively in eight relief outings prior to his first start.
The Game: Fans had been flocking to ballparks in hopes that Paige might pitch in relief, so when the Indians announced that he would finally start a game, it was a sensation. Cleveland's Municipal Stadium was jammed with 72,434 paying customers, bringing great joy to Veeck's heart and setting a major-league attendance record for a night game (and thanks in part to Paige, the Indians would go on to set an all-time season attendance record).
As Paige later remembered, "For a few minutes out there, it looked like I was going to let all those people down. I got one out in the first inning, but then my control left me flat. I walked two batters and Ed Stewart slammed a triple off me and gave Washington a two to nothing lead before we'd even got to bat."
But Satchel would allow just one more run in his seven innings, and reliever Specs Klieman pitched the eighth and ninth to preserve the Indians' 5-3 lead and Paige's victory. Even better, that win pulled the Indians into a four-way first-place tie with the Athletics, Red Sox and Yankees.
The Career: Paige continued to pitch well in 1948, finishing the season with six wins, one loss, and a 2.48 ERA. He started only seven games, but pitched shutouts in two of them. And every one of Paige's six wins mattered, as the Indians finished the schedule tied with the Red Sox for first place. Cleveland took the one-game playoff, then beat the Boston Braves in the World Series (Paige pitched briefly but effectively in Game 5, an Indians loss). He pitched well for the Indians in 1949, and later spent three season with the St. Louis Browns (who by then were run by Bill Veeck). In 1971, Paige became the first player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues.
June 16, 1961: Lew Krausse Jr.
The Hype: Charles O. Finley owned the Kansas City Athletics, and there were few things Finley loved more than publicity. In early June, a young man named Lew Krausse Jr. graduated from high school in Chester, Pennsylvania. A few days later, Finley inked Krausse, whose father was an Athletics scout, to a professional contract that included a record $125,000 signing bonus. Finley wanted to get his money's worth, so he brought Krausse straight to the major leagues.
The Game: The crowd included 25,869 fans, a huge number compared to the Athletics' average of 8,328 in the rest of their home games that season. And all those fans got exactly what they paid for, as Krausse tossed a three-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Angels.
(Interesting historical note: nearly 30 years earlier, Lew Sr. had pitched a shutout for the then-Philadelphia Athletics in the last appearance of his brief major-league career.)
The Career: In his very next start, Krausse opened with six scoreless innings against the Red Sox, but wound up taking a 4-3 loss. He spent most of the next three seasons in the minors before finally arriving in the majors for good in 1966. That would be Krausse's best season, as he went 14-9 with a 2.99 ERA for a lousy club. Krausse later pitched for the Brewers, Red Sox, Cardinals (one game), and finally the Braves, for whom he finished his major-league career in 1974.
June 27, 1973: David Clyde
The Hype: Thanks to their 54-100 record in 1972, the Texas Rangers owned the first pick in the 1973 amateur draft. On June 7, the Rangers used that precious pick to select David Clyde, an eighteen-year-old left-hander who went 18-0 with five no-hitters in his senior season for a suburban Houston high school. The Brewers had the third pick, and selected Robin Yount; the Padres had the fourth pick, and selected Dave Winfield.
Bob Short wasn't your typical owner. The ballclub was horrible -- the Rangers would eventually lose 105 games in 1973 -- and Short was as desperate as desperate gets to somehow get people into the ballpark. And what better way than bringing his 18-year-old phenom straight the major leagues?
The Game: Clyde had requested uniform No. 32 because that's what Sandy Koufax had worn with the Dodgers, and just before the game he received a telegram that read, "Go get 'em Number 32." It was from Koufax, and in the first inning Clyde made at least some of the nearly 37,000 fans in the ballpark believe that he might actually become the next Koufax.
Clyde walked the first two hitters he faced ... and then struck out the next three. He wound up pitching five innings, allowing two runs on one hit and seven walks, with eight strikeouts. Clyde left the game with the Rangers leading 4-2, and reliever Bill Gogolewski pitched four strong innings to preserve the game.
The Career: The original plan was for Clyde to start two games for the Rangers, then head back to the minors for the seasoning that every 18-year-old baseball player needs. In fact, Short supposedly claimed that Clyde agreed to sign his contract with the Rangers only if he was allowed to start a couple of games for the big club before being sent down. But he pitched well in his first start, and then he pitched well in his second start (more than 30,000 Texans showed up for that one, too), leading Rangers manager Whitey Herzog to say, "In two starts the kid has shown that he's not just some two-headed calf we're putting out there as a drawing card. I don't see any reason now why we can't count on him to give us six good innings."
Clyde spent the rest of the season in the rotation, but won only three more times after his auspicious debut. He pitched a little better in 1974, but suffered from poor luck and went just 3-9 in 28 games. Clyde spent most of the next three seasons in the minors, resurfacing in the majors with Cleveland in 1978. He pitched his last big-league game in 1979, and finished his career with 18 wins and 33 losses.
July 4, 1973: Eddie Bane
The Hype: In three years at Arizona State, 5-foot-9 left-hander Eddie Bane went 41-4, and one of those 41 wins was a perfect game with 19 strikeouts against Cal State Northridge on March 2, 1973. That summer, the Twins used the 11th pick in the June draft to select Bane. And so with the debut of David Clyde fresh in Twins owner Calvin Griffith's mind ...
The Game: In front of more than 45,000 (the largest regular-season crowd in Twins history at that point), Bane pitched even better than Clyde had. Pulled after seven innings, Bane allowed the Royals just one run on three hits and three walks. Unfortunately, he also left without a chance to win, trailing 1-0. The Twins did rally for three in the bottom of the eighth, taking Bane off the hook, but wound up losing anyway after Kansas City scored four in the ninth.
The Career: Bane pitched in 23 games (six starts) in 1973, but wound up just 0-5 with a 4.92 ERA. He spent all of 1974 and most of 1975 in the minor leagues, but returned in September of '75 and showed great promise, going 3-1 with a 2.86 ERA in four starts. He struggled in 1976, though (4-7, 5.11), and in May 1977, the general manager of Bane's minor-league team publicly questioned the pitcher's dedication to the game. He went 9-8 with a 4.14 ERA for Tacoma that season, and never made it back to the majors.
April 8, 1989: Jim Abbott
The Hype: Jim Abbott was a fine pitcher and he made the rare leap straight from college to the major leagues (with a stint in the Olympics in between). But it wasn't the performance of Abbott, the ninth pick in the June 1988 draft, that made him a national story. Jim Abbott was born without a right hand, and no one alive had ever seen a major-league pitcher with just one hand.
The Game: In the Angels' fifth game of the season, Abbott started against the Mariners in Anaheim, and everybody was watching, including a crowd of 50,000. The Angels passed out more than 150 media credentials, and among the visitors were four TV crews from Japan. Abbott's first game was far from his best, though. The M's scored on a pair of RBI groundouts in the first inning, and they tallied four more (only one earned) in the fifth, sending Abbott to the showers. Meanwhile, Mark Langston wound up tossing a six-hit shutout for Seattle.
The Career: After going 12-12 in 1989, Abbott pitched poorly in 1990 (10-14, 4.51). He rebounded in 1991 and '92, posting a 2.83 ERA over those two seasons. Abbott would, unfortunately, never pitch nearly so well again. After a couple of so-so years with the Yankees, he pitched decently for both the White Sox and Angels in 1995. And then came 1996, one of the worst seasons anybody could remember. Abbott finished the season with two wins, 18 losses and a 7.48 ERA, the highest ERA ever for an American League pitcher with at least 140 innings. Abbott didn't pitch at all in 1997 (can you blame him?), but made it back to the majors with the White Sox in 1998. He pitched for the Brewers in 1999 but struggled, and finished his career with 87 wins, 108 losses, and a 4.25 ERA in the major leagues.
June 3, 1998: Orlando Hernandez
The Hype: The star pitcher for Cuba's national team, "El Duque" was dropped from the team in 1996 because authorities suspected him of planning to defect, as his half-brother Livan had. And in December 1997, Orlando did indeed defect, either in a small raft (as he claimed) or on a motorized launch (as many others have said). Establishing residency in Costa Rica, Hernandez soon declared himself a free agent, and began fielding offers. The Yankees were high bidders -- please, don't look so surprised -- and signed El Duque to a four-year contract.
Hernandez made a couple of cursory starts in the Florida State League (1-0, 1.00 ERA), then skipped ahead to Triple-A Columbus and went 6-0 in seven starts that included 59 strikeouts in 42 innings. And then, with David Cone suffering a minor ailment, El Duque got The Call ...
The Game: ... and El Duque didn't disappoint, pitching seven innings and allowing just one earned run as the Yankees beat the Devil Rays 7-1 at Yankee Stadium.
The Career: Hernandez hasn't pitched that well in the regular season, but of course he's made up for that in October. He's pitched in 14 postseason games, and racked up an amazing 9-2 record with an also-amazing 2.48 ERA.
Sources for this article included Larry D. Mansch's Rube Marquard: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hall of Famer (McFarland & Co., 1998), Jim Kaplan's Lefty Grove: American Original (Society for American Baseball Research, 2000), LeRoy (Satchel) Paige's Maybe I'll Pitch Forever (Curtis Publishing Co., 1961), Bill Veeck's and Ed Linn's Veeck as in Wreck (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1962), and Mike Shropshire's Seasons in Hell (Donald I. Fine Books, 1996). The author is grateful to Retrosheet's Dave Smith for his great assistance.