SABR

Amos Rusie

This article was written by Ralph Berger.

Oliver Perry Caylor, the noted sportswriter for the New York Herald, wrote, "[T]he Giants without Amos Rusie would be like Hamlet without the Melancholy Dane." Caylor hyperbolized a bit, but it's difficult to overstate the importance of the man largely responsible for the rule change in 1893 that gave us baseball in the form we know it. Rusie's blinding fastball so terrified batters standing just fifty feet from the mound that League-Association officials moved the pitcher's box back to sixty feet six inches, where it has stayed ever since. In addition, he won 245 games in what was really a nine-year career and was at the center of some labor disputes that foreshadowed the dramatic changes of the 1970s and beyond. Ironically, so historically important a player is little more than a name today.

The son of mason and plasterer William Asbury Rusie and the former Mary Donovan, Amos Wilson Rusie was born May 30, 1871, in Mooresville, Indiana, then a small town of about two thousand people situated roughly ten miles southwest of Indianapolis. The Rusies lived in Mooresville in the Donovan home, a two-story frame house at the corner of East Main and Franklin Streets. While Amos was still young, the family moved to Indianapolis, where his ability to throw a ball at terrific speed was first noticed by the scouts.

Rusie's career as a pitcher came about serendipitously. He had quit school to work in a factory. While playing the outfield on a semi-pro team in Indianapolis, he replaced the pitcher. One look at his fastball and his pitching days had begun. When he shut out both Boston and Washington of the National League while pitching for an Indianapolis team called the "Sturm Avenue Never Sweats," he was released from factory work into the world of big league baseball.

The Indianapolis team of the National League signed the eighteen-year-old Rusie. His fastball was awesome, but he was wild, walking 116 batters and giving up 246 hits in 225 innings.

Baseball in 1890 was in turmoil, as an owners' plan to rank players and pay them accordingly backfired. The players organized the Players League in protest. Many National League and American Association stars jumped to the new league. The New York Giants, the National League Champs in 1888 and 1889, lost many stars to the Players League.

The Indianapolis team of the National League folded after the 1889 season. Seeing the importance of a strong New York franchise, the National League transferred several of the best Indianapolis players, including Rusie, to New York. Fans of the day were openly angered by the constant squabbling between the Players League and the National League and by the players jumping from team to team. For all three leagues-the National, the American Association and the Players League-it was disastrous. They all lost money, the Players League and the American Association collapsed, and the National League barely survived.

Enter Amos Wilson Rusie. His record in 1890 was only 29-34, but he thrilled the fans with 341 strikeouts and frustrated them with an all-time record 289 walks. The walks erased Mark Baldwin's one-year-old record of 274. Indeed, walks were Rusie's bugaboo throughout his career. With 267 in 1892 and 262 in 1891, he ranks third and fourth on the list of free passes given up in a season. He also comes in tenth with 218 in 1893 and twenty-fourth with 200 in 1894. The walks didn't hurt him as much as one might expect; he had his best overall year in 1894, going 36-13 with a 2.78 ERA and had decent ERAs the other years to go with win totals of 31 and 33 (twice).

New York took to Rusie, who was only nineteen when he arrived and quite the callow youth. The fans dubbed him "The Hoosier Thunderbolt." His name was used in a Weber and Field's vaudeville act. A drink was named after him, and a paperback book, Secrets of Amos Rusie, The World's Greatest Pitcher, How He Obtained His Incredible Speed on Balls, sold for a quarter a copy. Lillian Russell, the reigning goddess of the time, asked to meet him. New York was a wonderful town.

Rusie settled down long enough to marry May Smith in the Delaware County Clerk's Office in Muncie on November 8, 1890.

In 1891, he led the league again in strikeouts with 337, and his record improved to 33-20. On July 31, 1891, he no-hit the Brooklyn team 6-0 and had six shutouts for the year. As wild as he was fast, he walked more than 260 batters each of his first three years. Rusie's wildness with his terrific fastball terrorized hitters. His fastball didn't make his life easy, though, as Rusie noted years later: "It took a lot of pitchin' to strike a man out in those days. The foul strike rule hadn't come in. A guy had to miss three of 'em clean before he was out."

A large man for those days at 6'1" and 200 pounds, Rusie threw so hard that catcher Dick Buckley said he put a sheet of lead wrapped in a handkerchief and a sponge in his mitt when he caught Rusie. More testimony about his fastball came from Cubs outfielder Jimmy Ryan: "Words fail really to describe the speed with which Rusie sent the ball. He was a man of great height, great width, prodigious muscular strength and the ability to put every ounce of his weight and sinew on every pitch. The distance was shorter then, Rusie had the whole box to move around in, instead of being chained to a slab; and the giant simply drove the ball at you with the force of a cannon. It was like a white streak tearing past you." Indeed, Rusie's fastball was so hot that many fans claimed that he did not always throw the ball but merely went through the motions.

Rusie occasionally found himself in bizarre situations. One day he accidentally beaned Baltimore shortstop Hughie Jennings. Jennings somehow finished the final six innings of the game, then fell unconscious for four days. When Jennings returned to the lineup a few days later, the batter following him, almost as an act of retribution, smashed a pitch off Rusie's ear causing permanent hearing damage. In another game Rusie refused to bat when his turn came, and only twenty-six outs were recorded in the box score. The paper that carried the box score gave only a cryptic footnote in trying to explain twenty-six outs.

Financial woes still dogged the Giants. Trying to save one month's salary, they released Rusie near the end of the 1892 season. The Giants planned to sign him later and thought they had an agreement with other clubs not to pick Rusie up. However, the Cubs signed Rusie for $6,500 and a bonus of $2,000. New York had to pay more than they bargained for to buy back Rusie.

Seeking to recover what they had to pay to regain Rusie, the Giants set the stage for animosity between Rusie and the club by trying to count the bonus against his salary. More problems arose between Rusie and Andrew Freedman, a Tammany Hall politico who bought the Giants. Freedman, a man with a vile temper, became the most detested owner in the league. In his first year as owner, he went through three managers. The third, a friend of Freedman's with no baseball background, was an actor. The team fared poorly and dropped from second place to ninth.

In order to save money, Freedman accused Rusie of offenses that Rusie denied. Freedman fined Rusie for these alleged offenses and refused to rescind the fines after the season ended. To make matters worse, Freedman offered a contract to Rusie for only $2,500 for the next season. Rusie held out the entire year and sued Freedman for $5,000. The controversy caused such a commotion in New York that some Wall Street brokers hung a large sign in a Manhattan store window urging fans to boycott the Giants' games, and police were called to break up a vociferous crowd that had surrounded the sign to show their approval.

Holding out was nothing new to Rusie, who would hold out because he hated spring training. Rusie always placed a high value on his talent, and if a contract did not suit him, he could be very stubborn. This time, however, Rusie had a solid case against Freedman and had John Montgomery Ward represent him in an appeal to the other club owners. Ward's appeal failed. The press, eager to know what was happening, dogged Rusie, who was silent on the matter. Not one to live like a monk, Rusie disliked the press because he felt they portrayed him as a carouser.

Players in Rusie's day were essentially indentured servants, having no control over their working conditions and little over their wages. Ward wanted to alleviate the players' working conditions, and Rusie's problems with Freedman were cases in point. When Rusie threatened to sue, Freedman refused to back down. However, the other owners feared that allowing the case to go to trial could expose their nefarious practices, especially the reserve clause and the ten-day clause. Accordingly, they paid Rusie what he demanded and avoided what could have been a test case for the reserve clause and the ten-day clause. It wasn't until the 1970s that baseball was finally forced by the courts to withdraw those clauses, beginning a new economic era for the game.

Extending the pitching distance to sixty feet six inches for the 1893 season did not hurt Rusie. In fact, it made his curveball more effective. He won 33, 36, and 23 games the next three years and led the league in shutouts each year. The greater distance brought his strikeouts down to about 200 each year, but he still led the league.

Rusie followed up his fine pitching by holding out for the entire 1896 season.

Returning to the Giants in 1897, Rusie won 48 games over the next two years. Late in 1898, as he was attempting a pick-off throw, something popped in his shoulder. His arm was useless. Only twenty-seven years old, he stayed out of baseball for two years and rested his arm.

In 1900, a young Christy Mathewson had been sent back to Norfolk after a disappointing debut with the Giants. Cincinnati drafted Mathewson off the Norfolk roster, then traded Mathewson for the once invincible Rusie. The trade turned out to be a one-sided deal with Cincinnati getting the worst of it. Rusie gave it a try with Cincinnati, and the fans gave him a big welcome, but he was knocked out of the box in his first two games and quit. His arm was gone, and his heavy drinking did not alleviate the situation. Rusie retired after ten years in the majors with a record of 245-174, with 1,934 strikeouts and 1,704 walks (not surprisingly, seventh on the all-time list). Of 427 starts, he completed 392.

Returning to Indiana, he worked in a paper and pulp mill in Muncie and did freshwater pearling in Vincennes. From 1911 to 1921, he was a steamfitter in Seattle. In 1921, John McGraw gave him a job as superintendent of the Polo Grounds. He held that position until 1929, when he returned to Seattle. Rusie's troubles accumulated. He worked in a paper mill that soon shut down. He bought a chicken farm in Auburn, Washington, that failed due to the Great Depression, and was injured in an automobile accident in July 1934, leaving him with a brain concussion and several broken ribs.

Rusie lived in retirement in Auburn, Washington, until his death on December 6, 1942, at age 71. His wife had died two months earlier. A daughter, Mrs. C.E. Spaulding of Seattle, and his brother John of Indianapolis survived him. He was buried in Acacia Cemetery in Seattle.

Having taken New York by storm, Rusie died in obscurity. Rick Johnson brought his name back to the forefront in an article in the Indianapolis Star Magazine on October 31, 1973. Spurred on in large part by Johnson's article, the House of the Indiana State Legislature introduced a bill on November 12, 1973, honoring him.

In 1977 the Veterans Committee elected Amos Rusie to the Hall of Fame. It was a fitting tribute to not only a winning pitcher but a man who was at the center of a labor dispute that foreshadowed the free-agency era of the 1970s and whose prowess forced the rule change that gave us baseball as we now know it.

Sources

Amos Rusie File at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library in Cooperstown, New York.

Berkow, Ira, and Phyllis W. Smith. Baseball. Chicago: Ira R. Dee, 2000.

Congressional Record House. Indianapolis, Indiana. November 12, 1973.

James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: The Free Press, 2001.

Koppett, Leonard. Koppett's Concise History of Major League Baseball. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Light, Jonathan Fraser. The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1997.

Merrell, David B. "Rusie, Amos Wilson 'The Hoosier Thunderbolt.'" David L. Porter, ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball. Rev. ed. Vol. 3. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Mooresville Times, December 10, 1942.

Nemec, David. The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball. New York: David Fine Books, 1997.

New York Times. Obituary, December 7, 1942.

Okrent, Daniel, and Steve Wulf, eds. Baseball Anecdotes. New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Pietrusza, David, Matthew Silverman, and Michael Gershman, eds. Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia. Kingston, New York: Total Sports Illustrated, 2000.

Puff, Richard. "Amos Wilson Rusie." Ivor-Campbell, Frederick, Robert L. Tiemann, and Mark Rucker, eds. Baseball's First Stars. Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1996.

Thorn, John, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman, eds. Total Baseball. 7th ed. Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, 2001.

White, G. Edward. Creating the National Pastime. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

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.