Thursday, April 14, 2016

Is the Blue Jays’ Pat Venditte the First?

This is my first post for quite some time due to my work on a second historical novel, Babe Ruth & the '27 Yankees Have the Best Summer Ever and the accompanying screenplay " '27: the Best Season Ever", but I hope followers know that they can count on me to relate modern diamond phenomena to earlier times. My latest step back into a simpler, no steroids/batting gloves/player agents era follows.

The Baltimore Orioles had gone 0-for-June and were mired in the league basement with a 6–30 record as the Louisville Eclipse pulled into town for a four-game mid-July series in 1882.

Playing second base for Louisville was a native son, "Gladiator" Pete Browning, who would retire with a .341 lifetime average. He was known for his refusal to slide, his one-legged defensive posture, and his penchant for staring into the sun to increase the power of his eyes. Early in the 1884 season Browning broke his barrel-shaped bat. He was approached by a young apprentice wood-maker named John “Bud” Hillerich who offered to custom-make him a new one. When Browning led the majors with a .402 average in ’87 the shop was inundated with orders from other players for the bats that came to be known as Louisville Sluggers.

The fans at Newington Park that Tuesday afternoon would witness a rare sight. The Eclipse’s dashing young pitcher, Tony Mullane, who was en route to the first of five consecutive 30-victory seasons, gave up seven runs in the first two innings. But the cranks would see something much more startling than that.

Mullane was well-known for his intimidation tactics. When Jack Leary once dared to hit a home run off Mullane he was sent a painful message. The next time Leary batted, Mullane's first pitch struck him in the hand, "mashing two fingers and disabling him so that he will not be able to play for a month," the Louisville Commercial reported. Leary swore that Mullane had thrown the ball at him so as to disable him.

Eleven days later Mullane slammed Joe Gerhardt with a fast pitch (the term 'fastball' was not yet in use) in the ribs. "It sounded like a drum, and poor Joe staggered and fell, stretched out unconscious with pain," the Missouri Republican told its readers. "The poor fellow uttered a groan, and stiffened out like a dead man." A Louisville reporter had no doubt as to Mullane's evil intent. "It is a well-known fact that Mullane has a desire to cripple any man who can bat him." After he hit Long John Reilly in the head, leaving a bump the size of a walnut, the Cincinnati Enquirer warned that "one of these days he will get his neck broken."

The 23-year-old Irish-born Mullane, who was nicknamed the Apollo of the Box for his ability to draw big crowds on Ladies Days, had injured his right arm in a distance-throwing contest a few years earlier and had taught himself to throw left-handed.

Mullane was not used to being bullied this way, certainly not by the likes of the lowly Baltimores. The right-hander got so frustrated that he did something no one had ever seen in a big-league game before. He switched pitching hands.

“Mullane, of the Eclipse club, changed hands in the fourth inning and pitched with his left,” the Baltimore Sun reported, "retiring the Baltimores in good style. Mullane’s ambidextrous turn lit a little fire for the Eclipse, who scored four runs in the fifth by heavy batting, aided by wild throwing.”

Mullane mostly kept Baltimore off balance, switching back and forth, throwing right-handed to left-handed hitters and lefty to righties. Less than two months later, on September 11, Mullane pitched a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first of its kind in the American Association. Two years later, Mullane would complete 65 of his 67 starts for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association and lead the league with seven shutouts and 67 wild pitches.

But Mullane is still remembered most for switching hands in a game he lost. He was not the last to pitch with both hands, nor was that game in Baltimore the last time he tried. He did it twice more: on July 5, 1892,and again on July 14, 1893, throwing left-handed in the final inning of a 10–2 loss to the Chicago Colts.

He wasn’t even the last Louisville pitcher to do it. On May 9, 1888, Elton “Icebox” Chamberlain, a right-hander, threw shutout ball with his left hand over the final two innings of an 18–6 win over the Kansas City Cowboys. Two years after Mullane did it, on June 16, 1884, right-handed Larry Corcoran, pitching for the Chicago White Stockings, became the first ambidextrous hurler in the National League, alternating arms in a 20–9 loss to the Buffalo Bisons.

Speaking of cowboys and bisons, during a game the next spring a band of Indians watched over a small herd of buffalo that grazed in centerfield at the Cowboys’ ballpark. (No, they were not looking for the bullpen, wise guys. They were no bullpens in those days.)