One hundred years ago today, in a rickety little baseball park in Cleveland, one of the great careers in American sports began.
Denton True (Cy) Young, a 6-foot-2 Ohio farm boy with ax-handle shoulders, appeared in his first major league game as the starting pitcher for the National League Cleveland Spiders in beating the Chicago Colts, 8-1.
He gave up three hits, struck out five and walked two.
From the Cleveland Leader and Herald’s story: “Mr. Young is a tall, very well put-together and athletic young man of sundry summers. He doesn’t pitch the ball but rather sends lessons in geometry up to the batter with a request for solution. Mr. Young knows almost as much about curves as an engineer on a West Virginia railroad.”
One down, 510 to go. Twenty-one years later, in 1911, Young pitched his final game, at 43 . . . after having won 511 games.
If Nolan Ryan, who just won his 300th game at 43, could continue and averaged 20 wins a season through the year 2000, he would reach 500 wins, at age 53.
In 1938, when Young was 71, he visited the New York Giants’ spring training camp at Hot Springs, Ark. A newspaper editor there assigned a young reporter, apparently not a baseball fan, to interview Young.
The young reporter asked the old pitcher: “Mr. Young, did you ever pitch in the big leagues?”
A scowl clouded the old man’s face. He placed a hand on the cub reporter’s shoulder.
“Son,” he said, “I won more games in the big leagues than you will ever see!”
Cy Young’s numbers, from a career that straddled two centuries:
--Between 1891 and 1904, when he won 396 games, he averaged 28 victories per season.
--He won his 100th game late in his third full season.
--Of his 906 major league games, he completed 750, 110 more than anyone else on the all-time list. In 1901, when he was 33-10, he appeared in 43 games and completed 38. --Fifteen times he won 20 or more games in a season, and five times won 30.
--In his greatest season, 1892, he was 36-12, with a 1.93 earned-run average.
--At ages 40, 41 and 42, he posted 21-15, 21-11 and 19-15 seasons.
--His 511 victories (Young always insisted it was 512) seem more unassailable than Babe Ruth’s home run records ever did. Only one other pitcher ever won 400 games (Walter Johnson, 416). Of the 20 pitchers who have won 300, 12 won less than 330.
--And one little Cy Young number: His highest major league salary was $5,000.
Of course, turn-of-the century baseball shouldn’t be confused with today’s game. In Young’s first three big league seasons, when he won 72 games, the distance between the pitcher’s slab and home plate was 50 feet. In 1893, it was lengthened to 60 feet, 6 inches. Young admitted, in a 1940 interview, to the advantages of pitching in his era.
“I had the benefit of a larger strike zone, from the top of the shoulders to the bottom of the knees,” he said. “And I admit that some of my cut-plug tobacco sometimes got on the ball.
“But I also played on poor fields, with poor equipment, ate bad food, had bad travel conditions, sooty trains, hotels with no shower-baths, noisy rooming houses . . . some of them with bed bugs that kept you up all night.”
Cy Young’s career returns to baseball’s consciousness each time a pitcher wins his 300th game. And this time, 79 years after Young’s last season, there are some similarities between the game’s latest 300-game winner and Young.
It’s almost a baseball cliche that Nolan Ryan should will his right arm to a museum or to the Baseball Hall of Fame, because he’s been throwing hard for 22 seasons with scarcely a twinge.
Actually, better that Young’s arm should have been enshrined. There’s never been another like it.
Young pitched, like Ryan, into his 40s. And also like Ryan, Young never lost much velocity on his fastball. His problem was his stomach. It got too big.
In reviewing his career in 1940, Young indicated that if the bunt had been outlawed, he might have pitched into his 50s.
“I never had to have a trainer rub my arm the whole time I was in baseball,” he said, fifty years ago. “I quit because other teams started bunting on me and I couldn’t field my position any more. I figured when the third baseman had to start doing my work, too, it was time to quit.”
“My arm was weak and tired at times, but never sore, even though I worked usually with just two days rest and often with just one. I always credited it to my legs and my off-season conditioning.
“I ran regularly to keep my legs in shape. In the spring I’d run constantly for three weeks before I ever threw a ball. And I worked hard all winter on my farm, sunup to sundown, doing chores that were good not only for my legs but also for my arms and back.
“Swinging an ax hardens the hands and builds up the shoulders and back. I only needed a dozen pitches to warm up for a game.”
It’s true that Young’s numbers are rendered hazy today, owing to a changed game. (Can anyone imagine a manager today asking a pitcher to start both ends of an August doubleheader in, say, St. Louis?) But there can be no argument over what kind of right arm he had.
A hard thrower according to every account, Young pitched 300 innings in 16 seasons and five times pitched more than 400 innings. Last season, Bret Saberhagen led the major leagues with 262. Young was said to be a very strong man. In his prime, he was 6-2 and 210 pounds. His teammates called him “Chief.” Only later in his career did he develop a substantial paunch.
But his strength never waned. In his 80s, he enjoyed gripping a baseball with his huge, gnarled hand and challenging anyone to pry his fingers off the ball.
For a pitcher who won 511 games, he started comparatively late. He was 23 when he appeared in his first major league. Little is known of his early life, other than he was born two years after the Civil War ended, that he grew up on a farm near the little town of Gilmore, Ohio. He was called Dent Young as a boy. His middle name, True, was the last name of a Union Army captain who’d saved the life of his father in the Civil War.
His hard-working grandparents, who raised him, discouraged their grandson’s fondness for baseball. Finally, they relented in 1890, allowing him to attend a tryout with the Canton team in the Tri-State League.
On his first workout with Canton, the team’s catcher couldn’t handle his fastball. Home plate was close to the wooden grandstands and several of Young’s practice pitches crashed into the boards and broke them. As legend has it, someone commented that the bleachers looked as if they’d been hit by a cyclone.
So for a day or two, he was “Cyclone” Young, until a teammate trimmed it to “Cy.”
He was an instant sensation with Canton and at midseason was sold, for $250, to Cleveland. Young received a bonus in the transaction: a new suit.
He pitched in Cleveland until 1899, when that franchise moved to St. Louis.
By the time the 20th Century began, he’d won 286 games.
When the American League was formed in 1901, Young accepted an offer of a $600-a-year raise to jump to the Boston Red Sox. He was making $3,000, the highest salary in baseball. On Oct. 1, 1903, playing for the Boston Pilgrims, Cy Young threw the first pitch in the first World Series game. He also became the first pitcher to lose a World Series game that day. The Honus Wagner-led Pittsburgh Pirates scored four times in the first inning and beat Young, 7-3. Fifty years later, Young was asked to throw the first pitch to open the 1953 World Series at Yankee Stadium. From the pitcher’s mound, at age 86, he threw a strike to the Yankees’ catcher, Yogi Berra.
He threw three no-hitters in his career. The second one, against Philadelphia on May 5, 1904, was a perfect game.
The opposing pitcher that day in Boston was another future Hall of Famer, Rube Waddell. Decades later, Young remembered the final hitter in that game was Waddell, who popped out to left. Time of game: One hour, 23 minutes.
Young and Waddell hooked up in another masterpiece on July 4, 1905. Young, then 38, battled Waddell for 20 innings before losing, 4-2. Young didn’t walk a batter.
In 1908, when he was 41, he pitched his third no-hitter.
And in 1908, Cy Young received the original Cy Young award.
American League players chipped in to buy a loving cup, and it was presented to Young at a Boston banquet. The inscription on the cup: “From the ball players of the American League to show their appreciation of Cy Young, as a man and as a ball player. August 13, 1908.”
Young pitched for Boston through 1908, when he was sold for $12,500 to Cleveland, which by then had an American League team.
The portly Young retired in the spring of 1912, when hitters began running him ragged with bunts. He returned to his Ohio farm and worked dawn to dusk until the 1933 death of his wife, Robba.
He sold his land and moved in with friends who owned a farm in nearby Newcomerstown, explaining he could no longer live anymore in the house he’d share with his wife for 41 years. In the mid-1940s, the federal government wanted to close the post office in nearby Peoli, but kept it open for another decade, solely to handle the volume of mail Young still received. In his last years, he was immensely proud of his baseball achievements--even of those not credited to him.
Young attended a 1940 World Series game in Cincinnati, where sportswriter Grantland Rice introduced him in the press room. Rice said to his colleagues: “Gentlemen, I want you to meet Cy Young--he won 511 ball games . . . “
Interrupted Young: “Five hundred and twelve, Granny--I won one they never gave me credit for.”
In a 1945 interview, Ty Cobb discussed Young’s prowess.
“Cy had been pitching 15 years before I came to the Tigers, but he was still a great pitcher,” Cobb said. “He was a big, burly fellow and he could hide that ball better than anyone else I ever saw. He would turn his back to you in the windup and the ball would be on you. Cy had fine speed, a good curve and perfect control. He could pitch into a tin cup.”
In the autumn of his life, when the great victories had receded into the fog of all the years, Young simply faded away one afternoon in 1955, on the front porch of the Ohio farmhouse.
Cy Young was dead. Hundreds of people, including Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Tris Speaker, attended his funeral. Sadly, Young never knew baseball’s most prestigious award would be named for him the next year by baseball Commissioner Ford Frick.
He lies today next to his wife in a quiet church cemetery, at Peoli, Ohio, beneath a huge elm. On his marker, a winged baseball appears to be flying off the granite headstone, toward some unseen batter.