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“Happy Jack” Chesbro’s 1904 Season

This is a great time of the year to talk about the Hall of Fame, great Yankees of the past, etc. I see the usual legends tossed around – Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jeter – you get the idea.

A name not often heard in discussions of great Yankees (well, in this case Highlanders) is Jack Chesbro.

That’s a shame, as “Happy Jack” has a story to tell.

Many recognize the “modern” era of baseball beginning with the 1901 formation of the American League to compete with the established National League. Ban Johnson’s circuit changed the game, enticing players and fans to his new league with a mix of higher salary and a more sportsmanlike brand of ball. The furious competition for players led to higher player salaries, which owners still fight over 100 years later.

Seeing it in mutual interest, the leagues came together on an operating agreement in January 1903. The two organizations would exist in peace, honoring each other’s player contracts. One of the clauses was that the American League could add a team to New York, adding to the two Senior Circuit’s entries (Giants and Superbas) already established in the city.

At the end of the 1902 season Pittsburgh Pirates ace righthanded pitcher Jack Chesbro, fresh off leading the NL with 28 wins was rumored having had jumped to the American League. Sure enough, Chesbro was assigned to the “new” New York team (later nicknamed the “Highlanders”) as a part of the agreement.

When the Highlanders took the field for the first time in Washington on April 22, 1903, Chesbro was toeing the rubber, unfortunately taking the loss in a 3-1 contest. The right-hander finished 21-15. 2.77 ERA in his first season in New York, finishing amongst league leaders in wins and innings pitched.

The Deadball era was a time of gamesmanship – and sometimes outright cheating to gain an advantage, and not a lot of rules either. It is thought by some that in 1902 the spitball – loading a baseball with saliva to create sharp movement – was “invented” by minor league outfielder George Hildebrand, who stumbled on it while getting warmed up for a game. Hildebrand was later optioned to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League, where he shared his technique with pitcher Elmer Stricklett, who immediately won eleven straight games after adding it to his arsenal. After the 1902 season, Chesbro toured the west coast as part of a barnstorming all-star team, where he took a brutal 13-1 shellacking, his own team held to only three hits by…. Elmer Stricklett. Their paths crossed again in an exhibition game before the 1903 season, in which Chesbro was a quick study as Stricklett used his spitter against the Highlanders.

Chesbro’s primary pitch through early 1904 had been the fastball. The spitter, while legal at the time, wasn’t always desired. Like the modern day knuckleball, the pitch was erratic and hard to control, which made catching it an adventure. Fielders also complained about gripping and throwing the ball when it was put into play after being loaded up.

Chesbro started the 1904 season with a 4-3 record through May 7th. It is at that point that he likely unveiled his spitter in game play, with the approval of his catcher Deacon McGwire. Immediately his fortunes changed for the better, going 5-0, 0.38 the rest of May.

The October 15th, 1904 issue of Sporting Life reported that Happy Jack went to the pitch “constantly” during the season, with an estimate of five of every six pitches he uncorked moistened up. Chesbro later reflected himself that he threw it “entirely” through his last thirty games of the year.

The Highlanders trailed in the standings most of the season, but the team clawed itself into a tie with Boston and Chicago on August 8th. Chesbro and his spitter led the charge, going was 20-3, 1.59 while leading the team to the top of the standings.

It turned out to be a historic season for the Highlander ace. Cy Young had held the AL record with 33 wins in 1901. On September 14th, Chesbro broke that mark by winning his 34th game. In September/October he almost willed his team to the pennant – going 12-4, 1.67.

Heading into the last day of the season – a double header against Boston – the Highlanders sat a game and a half out of first. The teams took a 2-2 tie into the ninth inning of the first contest, when Chesbro uncorked a wet, wild pitch, high and out of the catcher’s reach, allowing the winning run to score. The New Yorkers were done for the season. The pitch that was Chesbro’s ticket to history failed him at the end.

Chesbro’s line for 1904 was epic – 41 wins (1st in AL), 1.82 ERA (4th), 454.2 innings pitched (1st), 51 games started (1st), 48 complete games (1st). His win total hasn’t been equaled since and is the record for the modern era.

Sadly, 1904 was the closest the Highlanders would get to the AL flag. It wasn’t until they were known as the Yankees and a fella named Babe Ruth started patrolling the outfield that they finally made it to the promised land.

The 1904 season seemed to have took a toll on the Highlander hurler, as he lasted only four more seasons with a 66-67, 2.83 ERA, 98 ERA+ line. His last full season was a disappointing 14-20, 2.93 ERA in a league with an average 2.39 mark, in part translating to a poor ERA+ of 84.

Chesbro was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1946 by the “Old Timers Committee”, something akin to the Veteran’s committees of recent times. His selection isn’t without question, as there are multiple pitchers with similar career numbers not enshrined.

It seems that Chesbro slipped into the Hall of Fame on the strength of his epic 1904 season. Pun intended.

Sources: Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Bill James & Rob Neyer, Simon & Schuster, 2004 Jack Chesbro’s SABR Biography Sporting Life Magazine, October 15th 1904


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