Ed Walsh in 1911. (Library of Congress)
Last week, we looked at the career of Hall of Famer Ray Schalk, who earned a reputation for being able to handle the spitball. This week, we'll take a look at one of the guys he caught, who also happens to be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Why Ed Walsh?
Ed Walsh is the rarest of things for the White Sox -- a major-league record holder. His 464 innings in 1908 is the most thrown by any pitcher since the American League formed, and his 1.82 ERA is the lowest in baseball history. Plus, it's pretty much a lead-pipe lock that he'll be the last 40-game winner.
But he also made a huge impact in how the White Sox franchise developed. His durability allowed Charles Comiskey (and his managers) to get the most out of his starters, and the White Sox were run that way for the next 15 years. But more importantly, Walsh had a say in the design of Comiskey Park, and supposedly requested the generous outfield dimensions that would make true South Side power hitters few and far between for the entire history of the stadium.
Miner or myth?
Stories loved to talk about how Ed Walsh wasn't just the son of a coal-mining family, but he worked in the mines themselves, whether it was Courant Magazine...
When he was only 12, he was at work picking slate in the Plains' mines for the Lackawanna Coal Co. He received 75 cents a day for picking slate and $1.25 a day for driving the mule-drawn coal carts in the mines.
Or the AP...
From coal miner to one of the greatest pitchers baseball ever knew was the triumphant path trod by Edward Armstrong (Big Ed) Walsh.
The miners had a baseball team an important game to play, but no pitcher. "Big Ed" volunteered,was accepted, and his meteoric career in baseball was born.
But after reading tales of his hardscrabble upbringing, I came across this:
Frequently alluded to as graduate of coal mines, [Walsh] had merely casual connection with that industry.
So you could say that Walsh was at high risk for black lung, or he was a ringer. Take your pick. Anyway, after playing for Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania and Meriden in Connecticut, he moved to Newark and the Eastern League, where he caught the attention of George Stallings. Stallings first recommended Walsh to the Cleveland Indians, but they passed on him, giving the White Sox the opportunity to sign Walsh for $750.
Walsh was a big guy for his time -- 6'1" and 200 lbs. -- which earned him the nickname "Big Ed." He was armed with a similarly big fastball, but it was his spitball that changed his career. Fielder Jones recruited Elmer Stricklett, a veteran spitballer and one of the pitch's earliest adopters, to teach him the pitch.
In short time, the student became the master. Sam Crawford said about Walsh:
"He threw a spitball. I think that ball disintegrated on the way to the plate and the catcher put it back together again. I swear, when it went past the plate it was just the spit went by."
In 1933, Charles Comiskey said:
"They speak of him merely as a spitball pitcher. Isn't it something to be able to do wonders with a wet ball? I've seen all the great ones, Walsh is the greatest. He has a lifetime job with me. I can never repay him for what he as done for me and the Sox."
Not that Comiskey particularly tried. Walsh said Comiskey didn't pay him much better than what he received at Newark, and when Comiskey gave him a $3,000 bonus for winning 40 games, Comiskey made sure to have a writer witness it.
When arm problems started dragging down Walsh, some pointed to the heavy use of the spitball as the reason. I'm guessing it had more to do with that 40-win season.
Walsh is best known for his performance in 1908. He went 40-15 with a 1.42 ERA over 464 innings. He appeared in a record-high 66 games, starting 49 and completing 42, including 11 shutouts. It was his second season past the 400-inning barrier.
Walsh didn't just lead the league with 464 innings pitched -- he threw 139 innings more than the runner-up, Cleveland's Addie Joss.
Peers took notice of Walsh's ability to pitch often and pitch well, like Johnny Evers:
If Ed Walsh was not the greatest pitcher who ever lived, he was certainly the most valuable in his prime. He could pitch as well as anyone. But he had tremendous added value because his great strength allowed him to pitch out of turn and save a whole raft of games for other pitchers.
And Ty Cobb:
Last year, Detroit finished sixth. If I could have Walsh as a regular on my staff, we would have won the pennant. -- Baseball Magazine, 1922
Of course, Walsh's work in 1908 might have made Cobb a permanent fan, especially when he struck out Nap Lajoie in a late September game to beat the Indians. The Tigers ended up winning the division by a half-game, and Walsh shared his strategy against Lajoie:
Catcher Billy Sullivan signalled me for a spitter. But I knew a spitter was just what Lajoie wanted and expected. So I crossed Billy by shooting a fast ball, right through the middle of the plate and waist high. Lajoie was so dumbfounded he didn't even take the bat off his shoulder and Umpire "Silk" O'Laughlin called him out on strikes.
Walsh threw a no-hitter against Boston in 1909, although Tris Speaker was knocked out of the game early on after colliding with Olaf Henriksen. He was better known for this game on Oct. 2, 1908, when he struck out 15 Indians while allowing just one unearned run against Cleveland, but took the loss because Joss threw a perfect game.
This doesn't quite fall under "highlights," but Walsh said his head took a beating on three separate occasions -- once when he tried leaping over a catcher to score a run, another with a collision at home, and another a beanball. He described the last one in a Baseball Magazine article in 1918, and I'm pretty sure he didn't write this:
But it wasn't over the plate... it came straight for my old knowledge box at the speed of a bullet. They say that a bird is hypnotized by the eye of a serpent. I don't know how that may be, but I was sure hypnotized by that ball all right. I tried to get out of the way, but I couldn't to save my salary. The most I could try to do was turn my head trying to take that ball where the bone was the thickest. There was a crazy that sounded like the explosion of a howitzer shell, a shower of sparks and rockets, and then the curtain rung down.
Walsh made the rare move of trying his hand at umpiring after his playing days ended, working for half a season in the American League. It didn't pan out, because Walsh was "too much of a ballplayer." He wanted every pitch to be a strike, and one article recounted this scene:
Partner Billy Evans once found him hitting fungoes to a team's outfielders before the game. "Ed, you mustn't do that anymore. The boss wouldn't like it."
"Why not?" Ed asked. "The guy the had hitting to them was lousy, so I just said: 'Here, give me that stick. I'll show you how it should be done.'"
The Great Depression hit Walsh hard, as he bounced from job to job, but was apparently never able to build up much of a savings base. One of his jobs was with the Meriden water department that allowed him to draw a $50 pension. That was the only income Walsh said he had when he was battling cancer late in his life.
Previously in this series: