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February 7, 2003
Breaking Balls: Jack Quinn
Minding my own business while doing research the other day, I came upon one of the weirdest, coolest pitchers ever. Looking into Tom Glavine and his 242 career wins--which puts him at No. 50 all-time--I found a guy named Jack Quinn, at No. 44 with 247. I love these kinds of random findings; you could be talking to someone you know about Gaylord Perry, and he might in passing mention the last legal spitballers, Quinn being among the best of 'em.
I had no idea Quinn was so interesting. He wasn't a star, and he pitched from 1909-1933, pre-dating my baseball consciousness by about five decades.
Here's one way to look at Quinn: One of baseball's feel-good stories last year was Jesse Orosco, who at the age of 45 threw 27 respectable innings. Quinn pitched his last game at the listed age of 50 and was, quite possibly, much older--or younger, as he at times disputed his age as both high and low. In a 1930 interview, when he might have been 46, Quinn said "I'm old enough." He's the oldest man to win a game, and he's also the oldest to start or appear in a World Series game. He's the oldest batter to hit a home run.
Even while coal mining and blacksmithing, Quinn threw for money in games starting in his early teens. His professional career started when as a spectator at a Connellsville, Pennsylvania game he threw a ball back to the catcher and nailed the mitt dead center. The visiting manager for Dunbar offered Quinn $5 for a win in the next game, $2.50 for a loss. But his debut in the majors didn't come until 1909, when he was 25.
Looking at his lines I found all kinds of bizarre stuff. He threw 27 complete games in 1914, at the age of 30. Fourteen years later, at age 44, he threw 18. That's complete games--not starts--at age of 44, in a season where he threw over 200 innings. In 23 seasons, he started 444 games (72nd all-time), threw 243 complete games (90th all-time), and almost 4,000 innings (41st all-time).
That's a lot of baseball, so much that it's hard to believe. In a 1930 interview, Quinn said most pitchers didn't throw full-bore until the end of the deadball days: "With so many new balls, so many sluggers and a livelier ball to handle, you must bear down harder. Pitching is a steady strain. In the old days you could let up, except when the sluggers faced you." And pitchers relied more on trickery: "When I broke in, a successful pitcher needed a fairly wide assortment of stuff. Now pitching is more a case of putting everything you have on the ball and trusting to luck."
Quinn's longevity was also no doubt due in part to wetting the ball down. Quinn talked about how the spitter's easy on the arm, and he was lucky to be able to use it for so long. When the spitball was restricted and then banned, Quinn was one of the few allowed to continue throwing it. There were 17 pitchers allowed, and all had used the spitter as their primary pitch in 1920.
Quinn ties into some strange stories. He had his best season in the Federal League with the Baltimore Terrapins, winning the first game in the league's history. When the Federal League was partly folded into the AL and NL, Quinn ended up in the Pacific Coast League, at the time when it was the dominant West Coast baseball league and a budding rival to the majors. There he pitched for the Vernon Tigers, a team in a tiny chunk of Los Angeles, handy for the legal sale of hard liquor by the bottle, illegal in the rest of Los Angeles County (the other exception was the coastal town of Venice, where the team had played for a couple of years).
Quinn pitched until the PCL stopped play in July, 1918, because of World War I. The White Sox signed Quinn to play for them, and he went 5-1, but they missed the playoffs. Then the Yankees bought Quinn's contract from his idle PCL team, and the gloves came off, with the Yankees and Sox fighting over a 35-year old spitballer. The dispute was decided by the National Commission, a three-man team that governed baseball as the Commissioner does today (supposedly). In the end they awarded Quinn to the Yankees. Chicago owner Charles Comiskey never forgave AL President Ban Johnson for the decision, which led to a series of nasty fights a couple years later, when Comiskey wouldn't talk to Johnson about his suspicions regarding the 1919 Black Sox. When the scandal blew up, it led to the ascension of anti-gambling zealot Kennesaw Mountain Landis and eventually the formation of the power structure baseball has today.
Further, there's an argument to be made that had Quinn been a member of the infamous Black Sox, they might have been able to throw another untainted starter in the World Series and win the Series despite the fix.
Quinn's also noted as a bullpen pioneer. Used for almost all his career as a starter and sometime reliever, Philadelphia manager Connie Mack converted Quinn in 1930 to doing most of his work out of the bullpen with scattered starts, presumably for double-headers or to cover for injuries. This set a long precedent of pitchers moving to relief as they became older, leading to today's strange mix of Weaver-style young pitchers being broken in for future starting, pitchers of all ages limited in some way (repertoire, resiliency), and the fading starters of years before. Quinn continued to pitch relief for the final years of his career, effective until his last season that ended at age 50 - maybe older.
Want more? Quinn caused one of baseball's rare uses of the courtesy runner. From Retrosheet.org: "8/7/1925 (Indians at Athletics, game 1) -- In the top of the first, Pat McNulty singled to the first baseman. Jack Quinn, in covering the bag on the play, stepped on McNulty's toes and by permission of Manager Connie Mack, Luke Sewell ran for McNulty while McNulty's wounds were dressed. McNulty returned to the game and Sewell did not appear in the official record. Cliff Lee pinch hit for McNulty in the eighth inning."
"I've had a rather interesting career," Quinn one said. "All my life I've kept notes and some time I may get them together and make them public. There's a lot I can say when I get around to it. And that's some satisfaction, even if I never did make the big money."
After his wife died in 1940, Quinn started drinking heavily--an act that would eventually kill him in 1946, at the age of 63, 13 years after his last season. I wish I could read that book he never wrote.
Thanks to UrbanShocker.net, an awesome baseball history site, where I got the pointer to the Baseball Magazine story (9/1930) on Quinn; the Pottsville Republican Herald; and Retrosheet.org, which rules.
Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.