SABR

Oscar Fuhr

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

A southpaw off a Missouri farm, Oscar Fuhr pitched big-league ball for parts of three seasons in the majors, 1921 with the Chicago Cubs and 1924-25 with the Boston Red Sox. The Cubs finished seventh and his Red Sox teams finished seventh and eighth. Fuhr was 0-0 with Chicago and 3-12 with Boston.

Oscar Lawrence Fuhr was born in Defiance, Missouri, on August 22, 1893, to George and Mary Fuhr, first-generation Missouri natives of German heritage. The family farmed in Femme Osage, Missouri, and Oscar was the middle of five children, Hilda and Olinda being older siblings and Edwin and Verna being younger. He grew to be of considerable stature for the day – baseball records show him as 6 feet tall and with a playing weight of 176 pounds. He went to the Walnut Grove elementary school in Defiance and to high school in St. Charles, Missouri. He turned to baseball and his professional career began in 1917 with the Marshalltown (Iowa) Ansons, a Class D Central Association team that finished first in the league but for which we have no records.

The Marshalltown team with the unusual moniker was named after Adrian “Cap” Anson, who had led the team for many years before turning pro. Another Marshalltown alumnus was Billy Sunday, who played eight major-league seasons before becoming America’s leading evangelist of the day.

The first record we have of how Fuhr performed was from later that same year, 1917, when he pitched in the Class B Three-I League for the Hannibal Mules. He was 6-7 with a 2.29 earned-run average in 14 games (110 innings). Three years of baseball in Omaha built a good foundation for Fuhr’s developing career – from 1918 through 1920, he was 2-3, 8-16, and finally 20-17 for the Omaha Rourkes, playing in Rourke Park, a team named after its founder, President Bill Rourke. It played in the Class A Western League. The 1918 season was cut short; it ended on July 7 in order to support the war effort in the First World War. Fuhr himself served in a field artillery unit in 1918.[1]

The Cubs purchased Fuhr’s contract from Rourke in August 1920. Perhaps they had read in The Sporting News that Fuhr had “all the earmarks of developing into another Grover Cleveland Alexander.”[2] He trained with the Cubs on Catalina Island in the spring of 1921, and was described as possessing “a rather slow delivery, but a corking good fast ball when he lets it out, and a very deceptive curve.”[3]

When we say Fuhr pitched for part of the 1921 season for Chicago, it was a pretty short part of the season: four innings. He had made the team in spring training, but his only appearance came on April 19, the fourth game of the season. Starting for the Cubs was Speed Martin; it was his fifth year in the majors, but not the best start. He allowed four runs to the Pirates in the top of the third and another in the top of the fifth. Speed departed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth and Fuhr came in, handed a 5-0 deficit and asked to close out the game. His first three innings were good, with two hits and no runs. In the top of the ninth, though, things fell apart. He retired the first two runners on grounders to third base, but then came the deluge: nine runs on nine hits, an error ,and a wild pitch. The onslaught ended only when catcher Carson Bigbee picked off a runner at first base. Pittsburgh prevailed, 14-2. And Fuhr went back to the minors for another three years, purchased by Kansas City on May 10.

First stop: Kansas City, where Fuhr suffered a distressing 5-14 season with a discouraging 6.23 ERA in the American Association. Still under control of the Cubs, he trained with them in the early spring but soon was dropped a level to Single-A with the Southern Association’s Mobile Bears, and two very successful seasons, 1922 and 1923, putting up records of 22-14 and 23-14 (with 3.31 and 2.36 ERAs, respectively.) In 1922 Fuhr got the win in the final and deciding game of the Dixie Series, throwing a four-hitter to stifle Fort Worth of the Texas League, 2-1. It was his third win in the Dixie Series. A later postseason series against Tulsa saw Fuhr win the only one of five games that Mobile won.

At the end of the 1923 season, the Boston Red Sox signed three players from Mobile in mid-September – Denny Williams, Johnny Heving, and “Lefty” Fuhr. Some had high hopes for him, and he kept himself sharp playing winter ball in Cuba. He was 5-7 in 18 games for Almendares; his nine complete games led the league. Throwing 7 2/3 innings of no-hit ball in spring training against Fort Worth only helped raise hopes. Manager Lee Fohl, though, wasn’t overly optimistic: “He is coming along pretty well. I don’t expect that he will be a world beater,” the manager said. “If I can get a good break out of him I will be satisfied.”[4]

Fuhr didn’t seem to start off 1924 much better than when he’d finished with the Cubs. He threw two innings on April 23 at Yankee Stadium and gave up four earned runs. After three relief outings, he got his first start on May 6 at Fenway Park against Washington and threw a complete-game 14-4 win, only three of the runs being earned. He started five more games in May, then went back to the bullpen for June, and started four more games in July. On August 17 the Red Sox traded him to San Antonio for right-hander Clarence Winters – but they kept a string on him. His time with the Red Sox in 1924 saw him 3-6, with a 5.94 ERA. With the Bears, he was 5-2 (3.13) in 42 innings.

After a double operation in the offseason to remove Fuhr’s gall bladder and appendix, there was the possibility that he’d revive his career, and the Red Sox brought him back again in 1925. Many felt he really had the stuff to become a great left-hander, but some players just try too hard and that might have bedeviled Fuhr.[5] He played out the full season, but suffered an 0-6 record (6.60 earned run average). This was a last-place Red Sox team that won only 47 games and lost 105. Ted Wingfield was the top pitcher with 12 wins (he lost 19). The Red Sox thought they could do better than bring Fuhr back for a third season. Accompanied again by Denny Williams, Fuhr was sent to Mobile in January 1926 for pitchers Tony Welzer and Hal Wiltse. The Red Sox didn’t improve, though. They got marginally worse (46-107). Fuhr, though, had finished his days in the major leagues. His career record was 3-12 with an overall 6.35 ERA. Remarkably, in 175 2/3 innings, he intentionally walked 22 batters.

A post-mortem of sorts ran in the Boston Globe: “Fuhr was a mystery. Apparently he had all kinds of stuff, and when sent into a game that was already lost he looked like a million dollars, but when started in a game where he had responsibilities, he petered out quickly under the strain. Frequently Quinn had requested waivers on him, but never could get them from all the other clubs.” [6] Quinn was Bob Quinn, the Red Sox’ owner.

It was back to the Mobile Bears again, for the first of five consecutive seasons in the Southern Association. Fuhr won 12 games but lost 16 (4.55 ERA) in 1926. In 1927 and 1928 he worked for Nashville (17-13 and 16-18) and in 1929 and 1930, he pitched for the Pelicans in New Orleans (18-14 and 17-10).

The year Fuhr turned 37 he went to work for the Dallas Steers in the Texas League and again had a two-year tenure, recording an 8-11 record in 1931 and, at the age of 38, a 21-7 mark in 1932 (with a 2.79 ERA), a season that approached 1923 as one of his best. Fuhr’s career petered out in 1933 and 1934; he started with Dallas in ’33 and then moved to Houston for a combined 2-4 season, and wound up with Toronto (2-2, in just 38 innings). One of the more amusing things he experienced happened to him in his final year. As he wrote to a fan in 1967, “I pitched the opener for Toronto at Albany in 1934 and the game was halted in the seventh while dogs chased a rabbit across the field in a snowstorm.” That sort of thing doesn’t happen every day.[7]

Fuhr was 40 now, and he hung up his spikes.

Oscar Fuhr married Mildred L. Oldfield in November 1919. The couple had two children, John and Susan, and lived for much of his career in St. Louis, but relocated to Dallas at some point – likely around the time he played there in the early 1930s. After baseball, he apparently worked for a while as a pumper for an oil company, working in the production department of Standard Oil (now Exxon) from 1934 to 1958. After retiring from that work, for the next 10 years he worked as a school patrolman for the Dallas Police Department. The job was what it sounded like. He wrote, “At present I am with Dallas Police Dept and take about 300 school kids across a dangerous intersection. Thanks for remembering me and may all your hits be home runs.” Asked what he felt were his greatest accomplishments in the game, he wrote, “I think my greatest accomplishment was to win three games in the 1922 Dixie Series for Mobile against Ft. Worth. In 1924 with the Red Sox I pitched a Sunday game against Detroit. In the last of the ninth with men on second & third, two out and the score 4-3 in our favor, I intentionally passed Fred Haney filling the bases to pitch to Ty Cobb. He popped up to third base.”[8]

Fuhr died in Dallas on March 27, 1975. As he looked back on his career, he entered an uncharacteristic response on the player questionnaire he completed for the Hall of Fame. Every player was asked one question at the conclusion of the form: “If you had it all to do over, would you play professional baseball? Almost universally, players answered in the positive. Fuhr wrote one word: “No.”

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed the online SABR Encyclopedia, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com; Bill Lee’s The Baseball Necrology; and the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.




[1] Fuhr’s player questionnaire at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

[2] The Sporting News, August 12, 1920.

[3] The Sporting News, March 3, 1921.

[4] The Sporting News, March 27, 1924.

[5] See, for instance, Burt Whitman writing in the December 4, 1924 Sporting News.

[6] Boston Globe, January 26, 1926.

[7] Handwritten letter to “Roy” dated August 11, 1967, and offered in auction by Gallery of History in 2005. 

[8] Handwritten letter to “Roy.”

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.