On Thursday, May 6, 1915, Boston Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth hit the first of his 714 career home runs in the third inning off the Yankees' Jack Warhop at the Polo Grounds in New York. In the ninth inning, with the score tied 3-3, a young right-handed spitballer named Cy Pieh replaced Warhop and held the Red Sox scoreless over the next five innings, allowing only two hits and striking out six. In the bottom of the 13th, the Yankees pushed across a run, giving Pieh his first victory of the season, and sending Ruth, who pitched a complete game, to his first loss.
Edwin John Otto Pieh1 was born September 29, 1886, in Waunakee, Wisconsin, a small town near Madison in the south-central part of the state. His parents were Andreas (called Andrew) Pieh, who was born in Germany, and Barbara Billing, a Wisconsin native. The couple had five children. Edwin had an older brother Rudolph, and three younger siblings, Lillian, Henry, and George.
Andreas had a prior marriage. He married Dorthea Schneider in 1870 and they had two children. Their oldest son, August, was born in 1875 and the youngest child, along with Dorthea, died during childbirth. August, Edwin’s older half-brother, continued to live with his father and step-mother. In 1891, when Edwin was 5 years old, Andreas moved his family to the small town of Lisbon in southeast North Dakota, and the next year to the neighboring town of Enderlin where he worked as a butcher.
While growing up, Edwin used his middle name and was usually called “Johnny.” While in his teens he began pitching for a local semi-pro team, and was such a good ball player that people would travel great distances just to watch him pitch. Once it was said he pitched three games in one day for the local town team during a celebration in Enderlin.2
Pieh had a crazy “corkscrew” delivery that kept batters off balance. A baseball writer said “his pitching movements somewhat resemble the tango.’3 Ty Cobb once said that the reason he struck out against Pieh was that he had such a crazy delivery that it “threw him off his stride.”4 Because the ball appeared to come out of a cyclone, he soon was given the nickname “Cy.”
According to Baseball-Refrence.com, Pieh’s first season is Organized Baseball was in 1910 with the Lethbridge (Alberta) Miners in the Class D Western Canada League. Actually, Pieh started his professional career the previous year, 1909, in Lethbridge but no statistics were published for that season. The local paper described Pieh as “… a young and energetic spitball artist” and said “he’s burning the air with his speed already.”5
Pieh remained in the Western Canadian League in 1911, starting the season with the Edmonton Eskimos, and finishing the year with the Brandon (Manitoba) Angels after being traded in August. By this time Pieh began to attract the attention of major leagues scouts. That July, the Cincinnati organization made an offer to Edmonton for Pieh and his local hometown newspaper, the Lisbon (ND) Gazette, reported he had signed with the Reds. Edmonton manager Deacon White (a different Deacon White than the Hall of Famer) had an agreement in principal with Cincinnati manger Clark Griffith for “five hundred down and same in thirty days.”
While Edmonton was playing a series in Moose Jaw in mid-July, White telegraphed Griffith, indicating he had secured another pitcher to take Pieh’s place on the team and to finalize Pieh’s transportation arrangements. His wire requested that Griffith respond immediately as the Edmonton club was due to return home the following day, some 600 miles by rail to the west. White didn’t hear from Griffith in time, and the deal fell through. Instead of joining Cincinnati, Pieh accompanied his teammates back to Edmonton and finished the season in Canada.
In 1912, Pieh advanced to the Class C Wisconsin-Illinois League playing first for the Wausau (Wisconsin) Lumberjacks, and later for the Aurora (Illinois) Blues. No pitching statistics were published, but according to league newspapers he had a record of 10 wins and 15 losses in 32 games combined with both teams. He remained on the radar of major league scouts with representatives from Brooklyn and St. Louis in the National League coming to Aurora to see him pitch. But in that particular game he had one of his “temperamental attacks” and the scouts “left disappointed.”
He moved up to the Dayton (Ohio) Veterans in the Class B Central League in 1913 and was regarded as the best pitcher in the league with a 19-10 record. Pieh finally got his shot at the major leagues when the New York Americans (Yankees) purchased his contract from Dayton for $1,500 on August 11. The sporting editor of the Dayton Evening Herald cautioned that Pieh “likes to kid everybody all the time instead of paying full attention to the game.” But he was of the opinion that Pieh would make good in the big leagues “if he decides to take his work seriously.”
Throughout his career Pieh was at different times described as “a nut,” “odd,” and “eccentric,” drawing a comparison to a contemporary pitcher, Rube Waddell. One of his managers in New York, “Wild Bill” Donovan, said “no pitcher in the game ever had more natural stuff than Pieh … all he needed was knowledge of how to use it.6 Another scribe once said “It is said that Mr. Pieh possesses real human knowledge, but his main object in life is to keep this fact a secret.”7
After his season in Dayton ended, Pieh joined the Yankees and made his major league debut on September 6. He got into only four games with New York, pitching in 10 1/3 innings and picking up a win. The highlight of his first season in the major leagues was when he hit a bases-clearing double in the ninth inning on the last day of the season against the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics. The hit propelled the Yankees to a 10-8 win and they were able to escape last place.
A bout of tonsillitis slowed him during spring training in 1914, and he claimed he got his first major-league start that season as the result of a poker game with his manager Frank Chance. The two were involved in a game on a train trip early in the season when Cy bluffed with a weak hand. Chance called his bluff and won the pot. Chance said “If you’d show as much nerve on the ball field as you do in a poker game, you might amount to something.” Pieh replied, “How can I show any nerve on the lot when you won’t let me pitch?’ Chance replied, “All right, I’ll give you a chance. You pitch tomorrow.”8 Pieh started the next day against Philadelphia and pitched well, losing the game 1-0.
He was kept on the team all through 1914, but saw limited action. Overall, Pieh pitched in just 18 games with four starts. In 62 1/3 innings he compiled a 5.05 earned-run average, but his season ERA increased by nearly one run per game when he was shelled for ten runs in eight innings (his only complete game of the season) in the Yankee’s season finale against Philadelphia at Shibe Park on October 7.
After the season, American League umpire Billy Evans told of the time he became irritated at the brash “recruit” arguing ball and strike calls. One day Evans said to Pieh, “Well, I won’t be bothered with you after the Fourth of July,” implying the rookie wouldn’t last the season. When Pieh managed to hang around beyond Independence Day, on July 5 he sent a postcard to Evans saying “Note the date and the fact that I am still in the league. What are you going to do about it?” signed, “Cy Pieh, your friend.”9
Pieh began the 1915 season “train weary.” He remained in New York during the off-season but in February he was notified that his mother in North Dakota had taken ill. Soon after he arrived back home she died, and then after the funeral Pieh was back on the train to the Yankees spring training base in Savannah, Georgia. Mrs. Pieh’s funeral notice in the local newspaper said that her husband Andreas, Cy’s father, has passed away six years earlier.
He was used sparingly by New York in 1915, appearing in just 21 games, eight of them starts. He had a record of 4 wins and 5 losses with a very good 2.87 ERA in 94 innings. He had a few rough outings, but showed great promise as well. In addition to his early season duel with Ruth, Pieh shut out the Washington Senators 1-0 on two hits on July 2 and on September 21 blanked the St. Louis Browns 3-0 on three hits. On September 3 he went toe to toe with the Senator’s Walter Johnson, losing 2-0. Pieh was one of only three pitchers not released by the Yankees after the close of the season.
Pieh had a sharp breaking curve and a fast ball with a “pretty hop,” but his best pitch was the spitball. Like many spitball pitchers, when he could control the pitch, he was almost unhittable. But when he could not, wildness limited his effectiveness resulting in his manager’s reluctance to use him on a regular basis. In 1914, Sporting Life reported that he and his Yankee teammates were now practicing the emery ball, saying “… and Pieh [is] now said to have become very proficient in its manipulation.”10 The same article predicted that spitball pitchers such as Pieh would naturally have success with this pitch as well.
He expected to be one of the core pitchers for the Yankees in 1916. However, when spring training started, he could not control his spitball. The deciding factor was a 12-0 loss to the Yannigans (second teamers) in mid-March and soon thereafter he was sent to Newark of the International League. Still the property of New York, it was rumored he would be returned to the Yankees in July, but instead was sent to Columbus in the American Association where he finished the season.
The next three years, Pieh continued his downward spiral. He went to spring training with the Yankees in 1917 but in March New York sent him to Mobile in the Southern Association. In mid-May the Mobile team disbanded and, after a 3-5 record in 10 games, he was sent to San Antonio of the Texas League. He spent two weeks in Texas and appeared in one game. On May 31 Pieh “upon whom the Yankees have a string”11was moved to Scranton (Pennsylvania) in the Class B New York State League. On July 16, 1917, Pieh was released by Scranton. At the end of 1917, Pieh was among a group of Yankee pitchers who “will be found with their minor league club next season” and “have been tried and found wanting in the American League.”12
Cy looked on the demotion to the minor leagues as a chance to reinvent himself, with the hope that he would return to the majors better than ever. His theory was that he needed to “learn how to unbend some of his curves”, and that speed and control were more important than breaking pitches, including, presumably, his famous spitball. Pieh said, “It’s the old control, with plenty of smoke that gets the big league dough.”13 Whether Cy’s transformation was successful or not is unknown, but at the age of 28, his major-league career was over.
He was out of baseball in 1918. It was assumed he was in the armed services, but no records could be found to substantiate that. Cy returned to Organized Ball in 1919, starting the season with Newark in the International League, moving on to Lewiston (Maine) in the New England League, and spending the rest of the season playing in Canada, with Kitchener and London, Ontario, in the Michigan-Ontario League. By 1920, Pieh was unable to catch on with any team in Organized Baseball and eventually began playing in the semi-pro textile leagues in Virginia and North Carolina. About this time he also started to umpire on a regular basis.
By the late 1920s Pieh retired from baseball and returned to the meat cutting trade he learned from his father back in North Dakota. He ran a meat market, and later a sandwich shop, in Fort Myers, Florida, and spent his spare time hunting and fishing. Pieh was a regular visitor at spring training sites in Florida, catching up with old baseball friends. He spent the last four years of his life as a house officer for the George Washington Hotel in Jacksonville.
If Cy’s baseball career was somewhat unusual, his personal life was even more so. In 1914 he married Elizabeth A. Capper. When he returned to North Dakota for his mother’s funeral in 1915, the local newspaper said he was accompanied by Mrs. Pieh, and his World War I draft card from 1917 listed him as being married, and his mother-in-law and father in–law as dependents, so apparently they were still married.
Before that, during the 1910-1911 off-season, he wrote a letter to the sporting editor of the Lethbridge Daily Herald, informing him that he had plans to be married before the next season, implying he may have had an earlier marriage than that to Miss Capper. No information could be found as to if this marriage took place or how long these two marriages lasted.
In 1930 it was reported he had married a woman named Myrtle McLeon, although no record of this marriage, or any subsequent divorce, was found.14 The 1935 Florida State Census lists Cy as single, and living alone in Bradenton. Pieh walked down the aisle for the last time in September 1938 when he married Maude Alma Romig. By 1940 they had moved to Jacksonville and, according to the US Census, an 8-year-old girl named Elaine R. Pieh was living with him and Maude. It was assumed she was Maude’s daughter from a previous relationship and that Cy had adopted her. This marriage lasted four years; the couple divorced in 1942.
The best information available indicates Pieh had at least two, and possibly as many as four, marriages. No record could be found of him having fathered any children. Relatives contacted could provide no additional details.
Pieh died of a heart attack in Jacksonville on September 13, 1945 at the age of 58.15 After a memorial service in Jacksonville, his body was returned to North Dakota where he was buried in a plot next to his mother and older brother in the Enderlin Community Cemetery.
Curt Eriksmoen, “Spitball pitcher form N. D. lost his control,” Bismarck (ND) Tribune, April 17, 2011
Email and phone correspondence with a relative, John Pieh
Pieh’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY
1 Contemporary reports indicated his name was pronounced “PIE”, but according to family historians, alternative pronunciations are “PEA” and “PAY”.
2 1891-1966 Enderlin Diamond Jubilee Book
3 Washington (DC) Evening Star, September 13, 1914
4 San Antonio Light, January 10, 1916
5 Lethbridge (Alberta) Daily Herald, April 14, 1910
6 Duluth (MN) News Tribune, March 25, 1917
7 New Orleans States, February 18, 1917
8 Seattle Daily Times, May 19, 1915
9 Rockford (IL) Morning Star, March 28, 1916
10 Sporting Life, September 26, 1914
11 Harrisburg (PA) Patriot, May 31, 1917
12 Charleston (SC) Evening Post, September 14, 1917
13 “Cy Pieh Expounds New Hurling Idea”, Duluth (MN) News Tribune, March 25, 1917
14 Canton (OH) Repository, March 12, 1930
15 Most sources list Pieh’s date of death as September 12, 1945. According to a certified copy of his death certificate, he died on September 13.