SABR

Larry Hesterfer

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

In any competition for most eventful one-game major-league career, that of turn-of-the-century left-handed pitcher Larry Hesterfer must be adjudged a serious contender. Plucked from a nearby semipro team by the pitching-deprived New York Giants, Hesterfer hurled a darkness-shortened complete game in the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 5, 1901. Although it was an official contest, the 15-7 victory posted by the National League-leading Pirates had elements of farce. Umpire Frank Dwyer left the grounds at the conclusion of the first game, leaving Hesterfer’s debut to be called by players on the rival sides. The pummeling that the inexperienced Hesterfer received from the Pirates – 15 runs scored in the first four innings – was abetted by the ineptitude of an apparently disinterested Giants defense. Seven errors and a passed ball compelled a wire-service observer to write that the “local nine looked more like schoolboys than professionals.”i Hesterfer himself, however, produced the play that preserves the game in memory. Coming to the plate with the bases loaded in the second inning, he hit into a triple play, thus immortalizing himself as the only player in baseball history to generate three outs with his very first major-league at-bat.

Only 23 years old at the time of this debacle, Hesterfer would mature into a first-rate minor-league pitcher. A 23-16 mark pitching for the Newark Sailors of the Eastern League in 1904 and creditable exhibition-game work against major-league opposition seemed to warrant a second chance for Hesterfer in the big show. But he would never get it, small stature (5-feet-8, 145 pounds) and erratic control being the nemeses of his promotion. Disappointment in this situation led to bitterness, and Hesterfer became a disciplinary problem later in his career. Still, his love of the game was evident. Suspended by Organized Baseball for refusal to report to the Eastern League Rochester Bronchos in August 1908, Larry Hesterfer pitched outlaw and semipro baseball in and around his hometown of Bloomfield, New Jersey, until 1924.

Lawrence Hesterfer was born in Newark on June 8, 1878, the youngest of the three children surviving to adulthood born to German Catholic immigrant Joseph Hesterfer (1844-1910) and his New Jersey-native wife, the former Margaret Keck (1849-1915).ii Around 1889 Joe Hesterfer, a carpenter and sandlot baseball player, moved the family to the adjoining town of Bloomfield, the place where son Larry would reside for the remainder of his life. Leaving school after the sixth grade, Larry followed his father into the building trades, first working as a screw maker and later as a lather. He began his baseball career in 1896, joining older brother Jack and brother-in-law Lou Thornall on the Watsessings, a Bloomfield amateur club.iii Originally an outfielder, Larry made his initial mound appearance in relief of his brother. According to local lore, Jack was being hit hard and “some of the younger Watsessing crowd set up the chant, ‘Put the kid in.’ The kid, Larry Hesterfer, went in and the visiting team hardly got a foul from then on.”iv A pitching career had been born.

Contemporaries later recalled that Hesterfer threw hard with a deceptive delivery, and that his ball had “just a little bend and dip on the end” that befuddled opposing batsmen.v For the next several summers, Larry played for Watsessing and other local nines. A workhorse despite his small frame, Hesterfer often pitched on Saturday for Watsessing and for the semipro Orange Valleys on Sunday. He made his debut in professional ball late in the 1899 season, pitching three innings of scoreless relief for the Newark Colts of the Atlantic League. He then returned to the semipro ranks, pitching for local various teams, including the Orange Valleys and a club from Hoboken.vi

The circumstances of Hesterfer’s engagement by the Giants late in the 1901 season are unknown to the writer, but New York’s need for pitching was manifest. Nearing the end of the tumultuous reign of team owner Andrew Freedman, the Giants were a dispirited club battling the Cincinnati Reds for possession of the National League cellar. Apart from Christy Mathewson (20-17) and Dummy Taylor (18-27), the pitching corps was threadbare, with Bill Phyle (7-10) being the only other Giants pitcher trusted to hurl more than 100 innings that season. Over the course of the 1901 season, New York tried out 13 other pitchers who would not contribute a single victory to the Giants’ cause. Entering September, the pitching situation was in especial crisis with an overworked Mathewson sidelined with a lame shoulder and consecutive doubleheaders with league-leading Pittsburgh on tap for September 4-5. Those games began with the Pirates taking the first game of the September 4 twin bill, 12-6, with Pittsburgh ace Jesse Tannehill besting Taylor. For the nightcap, the Giants pressed outfielder Charlie Hickman into service but he was driven from the mound early in a 10-3 Pirates victory. The following day, Pittsburgh shellacked the Giants 15-1 in the opener, a washed-up Al Maul (0-3, 11.37 ERA) going the distance for pitching-less New York. Thus, the stage was set for the major-league debut of sandlotter Larry Hesterfer in Game Two, the contest being the makeup of an earlier game postponed in Pittsburgh.

For reasons unclear, umpire Frank Dwyer, the lone NL arbiter assigned to the Pittsburgh-New York series, did not take the field for the second game. Instead, the game was called by fill-ins supplied by the two clubs: Christy Mathewson from the Giants and Jesse Tannehill from the Pirates. After Pittsburgh right-hander Ed Poole had held the Giants (batting first as the designated visitors) scoreless, the Pirates pounced on Hesterfer and had a quick 3-0 lead by the end of the first frame. In the top of the second, the Giants mounted a counterattack, filling the bases with Frank Murphy, John Ganzel, and Broadway Aleck Smith and bringing their novice pitcher to the plate with no outs. The baserunners were off at the crack of the bat as Hesterfer, a righty batter, lined a shot up the middle. Seemingly headed for center field, the drive was one-handed on the fly by Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner ranging to his left (Out 1), who stepped on second to double Ganzel (Out 2), and then tossed to first baseman Kitty Bransfield to retire Smith off-base (Out 3).Thus, with just one swing of the bat, Larry Hesterfer became a major-league record holder, the only player, before or since, ever to hit into a triple play in his very first big-league at-bat.

From there things went rapidly downhill for Hesterfer. In the bottom of the second, Pittsburgh tacked on four more runs as Hesterfer, a groundball pitcher, was backed by a Giants infield “that did not seem able to play ball at all.”vii Paced by third baseman Sammy Strang (three errors), at least one error was charged to every member of the New York inner defense, including catcher Smith, who contributed a passed ball as well. At least ten of the 15 Pirates runs were unearned.viii Still, the Pirates hit Hesterfer hard, with seven of their 15 safeties going for extra bases. With Pittsburgh ahead 15-3 after four innings, Hesterfer managed to hold the Pirates scoreless in their final two at-bats. A midgame Giants rally had closed the score to a less embarrassing 15-7 before darkness brought the proceedings to an end in the bottom of the seventh. Despite the lopsided outcome, Hesterfer received a dispensation from game observers who did not think it fair “to gauge his efforts by the score.”ix Apparently Giants field skipper George Davis felt the same way and planned to give Hesterfer another start. But Hesterfer had not yet been compensated for his debut outing and “refused to play without [first] getting paid.” x And on that basis, the 1901 season – and the major league career -- of Larry Hesterfer came to an end.

Hesterfer got a fresh start in 1902, signing with the Newark Sailors, a new entry in the Eastern League, a Class A minor league only one rung below the majors. Pitching for a woeful last-place (39-98) team, Hesterfer went 6-13 in 24 appearances. His record notwithstanding, Hesterfer acquired admirers that season, including the local correspondent for Sporting Life, who praised the pitcher’s “clever work when the wretched support accorded [him] is considered.xi That regard for Hesterfer did not stand alone. “With another year’s experience in the Eastern League, Larry Hesterfer, the Newark southpaw, will be ripe for major league plucking,” another Sporting Life correspondent opined.xii The undersized lefty vindicated his boosters with a breakout 1903 campaign, going 17-12, with three shutouts for a much improved (74-63) Newark club.xiii That performance included a 36-nning stretch in late May-early June during which Hesterfer allowed only two runs in posting victories over Buffalo, Toronto, Jersey City, and Baltimore. As the season progressed, Sporting Life declared that Hesterfer “deserves promotion to a higher league,” noting that despite his slight build, the pitcher “has pluck, and pluck wins out nine times out of ten.”xiv

The recommendation of the baseball weekly went unheeded and Hesterfer returned to Newark the following season. Both the left-hander and his team posted improved records in 1904, the 77-59 Sailors gaining a first-division Eastern League berth while Hesterfer notched career highs in wins (23) and strikeouts (148). The only disquieting note was the periodic loss of control that produced 105 walks. Hesterfer finished the 1904 season strong. On September 4 he won both ends of a doubleheader against Jersey City, the first of three times that he would accomplish that hurling endurance feat. A month later he closed the season with a one-hit, 5-0 shutout win in Rochester. Larry then spent the offseason at home in Bloomfield, selling vegetables and waiting for the major-league summons that never came.

Returning to Newark for a fourth Eastern League campaign in 1905, Hesterfer got off to a brilliant start, pitching a one-hit shutout against the National League Boston Beaneaters in an April 15 exhibition game. Only a scratch ninth-inning single spared the big leaguers the ignominy of being no-hit by the “clever southpaw artist.”xv Ten days later, Hesterfer posted a 4-3 exhibition-game victory over his erstwhile major-league club, the New York Giants. Continued strong work during the EL season prompted Sporting Life to report that “several major league clubs have their eye on pitcher Hesterfer of the Newark club.”xvi But much to Hesterfer’s disappointment, promotion still did not come. The attitude of many major-league front offices was reflected in published comments made by Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss. When Pittsburgh sportswriter A.R. Cratty recommended the acquisition of Hesterfer, Dreyfuss replied, “Wouldn’t have him. Too small. He may work well for you one day but the next day is liable to give up 15 walks.”xvii

Despite that putdown, Hesterfer persevered. By the 1905 season’s end, his record stood at 19-17 in a yeoman 305 innings pitched for a 69-62 Newark club that slipped to fifth place. The highlight of Hesterfer’s year, however, occurred away from the diamond. On September 20, 1905, Larry tied the knot with Teresa Higgins at Sacred Heart Church in Bloomfield. In time the couple would have five children: Leroy (born 1906), Raymond (1909), Arthur (1912), Frank (1915), and Rita (1921). Undrafted by a major-league team during the offseason, Hesterfer again returned to the Sailors, being generally considered “Newark’s premier pitcher.”xviii But whether caused by career disappointment or by assumption of the responsibilities of marriage, Larry Hesterfer returned to the Sailors a changed man and the 1906 season would be a trying one.

No hint of coming trouble was detected in the early going. Hesterfer got off smartly and by early July his record was a sparkling 11-4. But relations between the lefty and shortstop/field captain Frank Gatins had deteriorated. As Hesterfer recalled years later, he took umbrage at being removed by Gatins during a game in which he thought he was pitching well. As a result “Larry went to the showers and [then] straight home” to Bloomfield.xix His refusal to return resulted in suspension and, ultimately, compelled Newark to sell Hesterfer to an EL rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs. But Hesterfer declined to report to Toronto unless he received “a piece of the purchase money.”xx In the meantime, Larry pitched for independent clubs near home.xxi Eventually Hesterfer reconsidered his position and joined Toronto. But there is no record of his actually pitching for the last-place Maple Leafs during the 1906 season.

In 1907 player-manager Joe Kelley guided Toronto to a worst-to-first-place finish in the Eastern League. Going 16-11, Hesterfer served as the Maple Leafs’ number-two starter behind ace Jim McGinley (22-10). He then chipped in a Game Three victory over American Association champion Columbus in postseason play, as Toronto captured the Little World Series in five games. But from there, Hesterfer’s professional career went into rapid decline. During the offseason, Toronto traded the lefty and infielder Bill Keister to Buffalo in a curious intra-Eastern League deal for outfielder Jake Gettman, a one-time major leaguer whom the Buffalo club had fined and then suspended in 1907 for indifferent play. No statistics for Hesterfer’s tenure in Buffalo survive but Sporting Life described him as a “utility pitcher” during his stay with the Bisons.xxii In August 1908 Buffalo traded Hesterfer to another EL club, the last-place Rochester Bronchos. But Hesterfer refused to report, going home to Bloomfield instead. There, he spent the remainder of the year pitching for Watsessing and other local nines.

Rochester suspended the rebellious Hesterfer and thereafter kept his name on the club’s reserved list through the 1910 season. This made it difficult for Hesterfer’s local teams to obtain engagements with clubs in Organized Baseball, such clubs being bound to respect the action taken by Rochester. Thus, the Orange Valleys, Watsessing, and the other local nines that put Hesterfer in uniform could get games only against fellow independents, colored teams, and outlaw clubs. But Larry Hesterfer remained a hometown attraction and he continued pitching on-and-off with various Bloomfield-area teams until he was in his mid-40s. Strangely, Hesterfer took no interest in baseball unless he himself or sons Raymond or Frank, both decent semipro pitchers, were playing. In a late-life interview, Larry revealed that he had not “seen a game in years. The game never meant much to me unless I was playing. I’ve never been to the present Newark ball park.”xxiii Still, he fondly recalled that he had started pitching as a 16-year old. “I wish I had it to do over again,” the then 60-year-old Hesterfer added wistfully.

From 1916 on, Hesterfer had worked at the Thomas Oakes Woolen Mill, a venerable Bloomfield clothing plant that had once supplied Civil War tunics to the Union Army. He, Teresa, and the children resided in a single-family house within walking distance of his job site. On September 22, 1943, Larry Hesterfer died at home in Bloomfieldxxiv after a two-year battle with an undisclosed illness. He was 65. Following a Funeral Mass at Sacred Heart Church, he was interred in the Hesterfer family plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Bloomfield. He was survived by his wife, five children, and sister Annie Hesterfer Thornall.

Shortly after Larry Hesterfer’s death, veteran Newark Evening News sportswriter Willie Ratner remembered him as “one of the most popular players ever to wear a Newark uniform,” adding, Hesterfer’s name will remain in the memory of old-time Newark ball fans … as long as the fans of that era live.”xxv Those with first-hand memories of Larry Hesterfer’s playing days are now long dead. But Hesterfer himself ensured that he would retain at least a small place in the collective memory of the game – for until his improbable feat of September 5, 1901, is duplicated, Larry Hesterfer will remain the only player in history to hit into a triple play in his very first major-league at-bat.

 

Notes

i As published in the Chicago Tribune, September 6, 1901, and elsewhere.

ii The biographical details of this profile have been drawn from the Larry Hesterfer file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; US Census data, and certain of the sources cited below, particularly Thumbing the Pages of Baseball History in Bloomfield, a 1939 pamphlet collection of columns by Samuel C. Pierson, a sportswriter for the Independent Press of Bloomfield. According to Census reports, Margaret Hesterfer gave birth to nine children, but only Anna Margaret (Annie, 1874-1952), John William (Jack, 1876-1923), and Lawrence (Larry, 1878-1943) survived childhood.

iii Watsessing is the name of an older section of Bloomfield that has historically served as a home base for town athletic teams.

iv Pierson, Thumbing the Pages of Baseball History in Bloomfield. The pamphlet is preserved at the Bloomfield Public Library.

v Pierson, 23.

vi As established by a West New York 7, Hoboken 3 line score with batteries, published in the New York Times, July 15, 1901.

vii In the opinion of the New York Times, September 6, 1901.

viii Baseball-reference.com lists five of the runs surrendered by Hesterfer as earned, leaving him a 7.50 ERA for six innings pitched. The New York Times’s account of the game, however, maintained that only three of the 15 Pirates runs scored off Hesterfer were earned.

ix Chicago Tribune and New York Times, September 6, 1901. Hesterfer's one-game lifetime batting line was 0-for-2, with a walk.

x According to grandson Lawrence J. Hesterfer in a letter to Hall of Fame Registrar Peter Clark, dated June 11, 1991, now preserved in the Larry Hesterfer file at the Giamatti Research Center.

xi Sporting Life, November 1, 1902.

xii Sporting Life, October 4, 1902.

xiii Baseball-reference has no statistics for Hesterfer’s 1903 and 1904 seasons in Newark. The numbers presented herein come from Bloomfield sportswriter Pierson [Thumbing the Pages of Baseball History in Bloomfield, 24], as supplied to him by Ernest Lanigan, then secretary of the International League, the successor of the early incarnation of the Eastern League that Hesterfer played in.

xiv Sporting Life, August 3, 1903.

xv The description of correspondent James F. Grealey in The Sporting News, April 22, 1905.

xvi Sporting Life, July 22, 1905.

xvii Sporting Life, July 22, 1905.

xviii In the estimation of the New York Times, April 13, 1906.

xix Pierson, 24.

xx Sporting Life, August 11, 1906.

xxi As reported in the San Jose (California) Evening News, August 6, 1906.

xxii Sporting Life, August 8, 1908.

xxiii Kenneth Fiester, “Larry Hesterfer Never Sees A Ball Game,” Newark Sunday Call, May 7, 1939. The “present Newark ball park” was Ruppert Stadium, built in 1926.

xxiv A number of baseball authorities, including Baseball-reference and Total Baseball, indicate that Hesterfer died in nearby Cedar Grove, New Jersey. This is incorrect. Hesterfer died at his home at 10 Sycamore Street, Bloomfield. See the Hesterfer obituaries/death notices published in the Newark Evening News, September 24, 1943, and the Newark Sunday Call, September 26, 1943.

xxv Newark Evening News, September 30, 1943.

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