SABR

Denny Driscoll

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

As an itinerant left-handed pitcher in the 1870s and 1880s, John Driscoll pitched for numerous independent professional teams as well as three major league teams. He appeared as a pitcher in 83 major league games over four seasons in the early 1880s, recording a lifetime winning percentage of .494 with 38 victories and 39 defeats. He also appeared as an outfielder in 20 games, and in one game as a third baseman, though he compiled a weak .167 lifetime batting average. His baseball career came to a premature end when the 30-year-old Driscoll died in 1886.

John F. Driscoll was born on November 19, 1855 in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of Irish immigrants Daniel and Johanna Driscoll. Living in a city formed by the textile industry, Driscoll’s father worked as a laborer while his mother worked as a mill hand, according to the 1860 and 1870 U.S. census records. John was still in school at the age of 14 (as was his younger sister Lizzie, then 12), unlike many of his peers who went to work in the textile mills in their early teens after only a rudimentary education.

His desire to play baseball was probably elevated several notches in June of 1870 when the famous Cincinnati Red Stockings, an all-professional team, played the local Clipper ball club of Lowell, a wholly amateur aggregation, as part of its nationwide tour. Although Cincinnati vanquished the Clipper club 32–5, the Lowell Courier remarked in its June 9, 1870, edition, “The match will doubtless have an influence toward increasing the interest in base ball in this city.” Driscoll no doubt thought being paid to play baseball was vastly preferable to working in the local mills, and strived to elevate his baseball skills.

By 1875, Driscoll was playing for the Bartlett ball club in Lowell, a team of local players overshadowed talent-wise by the fully professional Lowell Base Ball Club, which was stocked with players from outside the Lowell area. In 1876, Driscoll joined the Red Stockings club of Nashua, New Hampshire, where he began to form the habit of “revolving,” the nineteenth century term for jumping from one team to another to take advantage of more favorable terms or better pay. On August 11, 1876, Driscoll pitched for the Red Stockings Juniors in a 6-1 victory over the Our Boys club of Boston. Three days later, on August 14, the Boston Globe reported, “John Driscoll, late pitcher of the Red Stockings of Nashua N.H., will heretofore play with the Our Boys Base Ball Club of Boston.” Driscoll pitched the remainder of 1876 and all of 1877 with Our Boys.

During 1878 and 1879, Driscoll played for various independent professional teams, including ones in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Albany, New York. At this time, he met Jim Mutrie, who managed ball clubs in the Massachusetts cities of New Bedford and Worcester, but had grander ambitions. For the 1880 season, Mutrie recruited Driscoll to play outfield for a ball club to be based in Newark, New Jersey, and also to be the “change pitcher,” the nineteenth century term for a relief or substitute pitcher. In those days of underhand pitching, a team’s pitcher was expected to perform in nearly every game with only occasional absences from the pitcher’s box. When financial arrangements for the Newark team fell through, Mutrie took over a team in Brockton, Massachusetts, and brought Driscoll with him, where he got plenty of action as a pitcher.

In a June 12, 1880, exhibition game between Brockton and the Buffalo team of the National League, the Brockton Enterprise reported that “Driscoll played splendidly and was finely supported” in Brockton’s 5-4 victory. Buffalo evidently agreed with that assessment and signed Driscoll to back up Buffalo pitcher Pud Galvin as well as play a little outfield.

Driscoll made his major league debut three weeks later, on July 1, as an outfielder for Buffalo in its 4-0 loss to Troy. “Driscoll made his debut in centre and did not get a chance to pitch,” the Boston Globe reported on the local player’s first National League game. Driscoll started just four games as pitcher for Buffalo, resulting in a 1-3 record. He also played 14 games in the outfield, twice coming in to pitch in the later innings, but batted poorly, getting just 10 hits in 65 at bats, for a .154 average.

All four pitching starts came during July. In his first National League start, on July 13, Driscoll notched a victory in Buffalo’s 10-7 win over Cincinnati. When Buffalo played a series in Boston the next week, Driscoll got the opportunity to pitch in three games, presumably to attract more spectators to the game by having a Massachusetts native pitch. Driscoll started two games, on July 23 and 24, suffering losses in both. In the July 23 pitcher’s duel, “Bond and Driscoll did themselves credit between the pitcher’s points” in the 4-2 Boston victory, the Boston Globe reported. The next day, though, Boston pounded Driscoll for a 14-1 victory. Driscoll also pitched four innings in relief of Galvin on July 22, when the two players exchanged positions, with Driscoll moving into the pitcher’s box from center field. Driscoll’s fourth start in 1880 was on July 30 against Troy, when Buffalo lost, 7-6. Buffalo released Driscoll sometime in August.

In 1881, Mutrie found the financial backing he needed for a team in the New York area, from John Day, and formed the Metropolitan ball club. Driscoll returned to play for Mutrie with the Metropolitans, but in early exhibition games with National League clubs, Driscoll had little success. He apparently had trouble adapting to the rule change in 1881 that moved the front line of the pitcher’s box five feet farther from home plate, to 50 feet from 45 feet. In an April 26 game at the Polo Grounds against Providence, the New York Clipper reported, “The Mets had Driscoll as pitcher, whom the Providence team had punished easily in their game with the Boston picked nine and the result was that the visitors won.” Two days later, on April 28, Driscoll suffered another drubbing as “the Bostons punished Driscoll for eleven base hits and five earned runs in five innings.”

Driscoll found a baseball home in 1881 playing for Billy Barnie’s Atlantic club in Brooklyn, New York, where he pitched several games and played the outfield in others. On occasion, Driscoll was loaned to the Metropolitans, such as for the May 18 game with the Washington Nationals. “The Metropolitans found it necessary to avail themselves of the courtesy of Manager Barnie, who loaned them the services of his change-pitcher and catcher, Driscoll and Hayes,” the Clipper reported. Driscoll seemed to finally adapt to the longer pitching distance, as the Metropolitans defeated the Nationals, 7-2. He also pitched a June 1 game for the Metropolitans.

In mid-July, Driscoll hopped from the Atlantic club in Brooklyn to the Athletic club of Philadelphia. The Brooklyn Eagle reported on July 18, “On the way from Philadelphia to Albany last week, Athletics manager Philips engaged Driscoll of the Atlantics.”

After being pounded in the Albany game on July 12, Driscoll faced Mutrie’s Metropolitan club on July 19 at the Polo Grounds. The Athletics lost, 8-2, as Metropolitan scored four runs in the first three innings off Driscoll. The New York Times reported that in the second inning “the Metropolitans scored their first run [when] Roseman secured his base by an error on the part of Battin, stole second, and reached the home plate by a wild pitch.”

The Athletics, with Bill Sharsig managing the team, played several National League teams on a western trip during September. The September 10 game that Driscoll pitched against Detroit at Union Park in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, may have been fateful for Driscoll, even though Detroit defeated the Athletics, 6-2. Driscoll could well have made an impression on baseball officials in Allegheny, at the time the nation’s 25th largest city (the city was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907), which in 1882 became a charter franchise in the American Association, which competed head-to-head with the National League. Driscoll’s performance in the September 10 defeat could have been excused in light of a curious note in the New York Clipper on September 24 that stated, “John Driscoll, the change-pitcher of the Athletics, has been ‘under the weather’ the past week and unable to do duty for his club.” Whether the phrase “under the weather” meant sick, drunk, or another condition is unclear.

In the inaugural American Association season in 1882, Allegheny had trouble holding onto pitchers, as the club fined, suspended, and then eventually released several pitchers for rules infractions. Harry Salisbury became the primary pitcher, with Harry Arundel the number two man. Arundel was let go in July, and after the club tried out other pitchers, the Boston Globe reported on July 23 that the “Allegheny Club have released Morton and engaged Driscoll as a change pitcher.” Driscoll may have been helped by his connections to managers of top independent teams such as Mutrie, Barnie, and Sharsig, all of whom would be managing teams in the American Association by 1886.

Driscoll alternated with Salisbury during the second half of the 1882 season, starting 23 games to compile a respectable 13-9 record for the fourth-place Allegheny team. Retrospective analysis of pitching records for the 1882 season reveals that Driscoll pitched much better for Allegheny than his won-loss record would indicate. On an overall basis, as measured by the Total Pitcher Index, Driscoll was the third best pitcher in the American Association in 1882 (a 2.5 rating), on the strength of having had the lowest earned run average (1.21 runs per game), second lowest walks per game (0.54) and third lowest hits per game (7.25).

Financially, Driscoll felt comfortable getting married after the 1882 season, as he wed Mary Casey on November 29 in Lowell. On the marriage certificate, Driscoll listed his occupation as “ball player.” The Casey family lived in Westford, about ten miles west of Lowell, where Mary’s father, Daniel Casey, once made a living as a stone cutter in the granite quarry located there. By 1880, Driscoll’s future father-in-law was disabled and couldn’t work, so 18-year-old Mary and four younger siblings needed to toil in the local worsted mill to support the family, according to 1880 U.S. census records. Since Driscoll’s parents were both dead by the time of his marriage, his baseball earnings probably helped to support the Casey family as well, especially after Daniel Casey died in 1883.

Driscoll had his longest stretch of major league playing time in 1883 with Allegheny, when he appeared in 41 games and produced an 18-21 record for the next-to-last-place team. He was the team’s primary pitcher at the beginning of the season, but things didn’t start auspiciously for Driscoll. On May 1, he lost the opening game of the season, 4-0, to the Athletic club of Philadelphia when, as Sporting Life reported, “the Athletics hit Driscoll freely.” The next day the Athletics “started right off in the first inning by banging Driscoll all over the field” and tabbed him with a second loss in an 8-1 victory over Allegheny. Injuries sidelined Driscoll during midseason; the July 15 edition of Sporting Life indicated that he had a broken thumb. By the end of August, Driscoll was back pitching regularly, but he didn’t return to Allegheny for the 1884 season.

Driscoll latched on as a pitcher with Louisville of the American Association for 1884, but pitched only sporadically during May and early June. Guy Hecker was a workhorse pitcher for Louisville, winning 52 games that season. Driscoll pitched in 13 games and compiled a 6-6 record. He was clearly on a downhill slide when he made one final appearance at the Polo Grounds against the Metropolitan club on June 10. “Driscoll, the visiting pitcher, played poorly,” The New York Times reported. “He gave three men bases by hitting them with the ball, and was at fault for 5 of the 8 runs credited the home team.” Driscoll made his final two major league appearances at the end of June in the Louisville series with last-place Washington. On June 26, he pitched in a 12-2 victory, yielding just five hits, but on June 28 “Driscoll was knocked out in two innings and Reccius was substituted.”

Since 1884 was the first year of overhand pitching in the major leagues, Driscoll apparently was unable to successfully make the transition from underhand delivery. With 28 teams vying for a championship in three major leagues in 1884, Driscoll should otherwise have been able to catch on with another team looking for a capable pitcher.

Driscoll’s lesser success as a pitcher during baseball’s initial overhand delivery period may indicate that he was a crafty pitcher who lacked power during the game’s underhand delivery phase. In his early years, Driscoll may have pushed the boundaries of pitching legality to gain an edge, through arm motions and foot patterns that broached pitching restrictions of the day. His craftiness also probably helped him evade detection by Allegheny club officials of rules infractions during the 1882 and 1883 seasons, which had caused such consternation with so many other pitchers for the Allegheny club.

By the spring of 1885, John and Mary Driscoll were living in Westford and had two children to care for, John William, born on September 17, 1883, and Lizzie Driscoll, born on April 21, 1885. On Lizzie’s birth certificate, Driscoll listed his occupation as “ball player,” so he seemed determined to succeed as an overhand pitcher, or at least determined to escape working in the textile mill in Westford where he apparently was employed in the fall of 1883, when on his son’s birth certificate he reported his occupation as “machinist.”

Driscoll’s baseball career faded in 1885, when he played short periods with several baseball teams below the major league level. Driscoll was not the player of the same last name who in 1885 appeared in seven games at second base for Buffalo of the National League, as mistakenly recorded in pre-2000 editions of baseball encyclopedias. That 1885 player was Denny Driscoll, who died in 1901 in Providence, Rhode Island. Unfortunately, many present-day encyclopedias and reference sources continue to erroneously refer to John Driscoll as Denny Driscoll.

Driscoll died of consumption in Lowell on July 11, 1886. The disease, known today as tuberculosis, claimed numerous lives in Lowell during that time, including both of Driscoll’s parents, his father in 1874 and his mother in 1878. A brief obituary about Driscoll in the Lowell Courier noted, “He was well known as a base ball player, serving as pitcher for the old Bartlett nine several years ago, and more recently with clubs in Louisville and other parts of the southwest.”


Sources

Boston Globe, 1876-1877, 1880-1882

Brockton Enterprise, 1880

Brooklyn Eagle, 1881

Howard files, archive of 19th century minor league players maintained by SABR member Reed Howard

Lowell Courier, 1875-1876 and July 12, 1886, obituary

Massachusetts State Archives, vital statistics

New York Clipper, 1881-1882

The New York Times, 1881

Shea files, archive of New England players established by Tom Shea and maintained by SABR member Dick Thompson

Sporting Life, 1883-1884


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