Fred Toney is best remembered as the victor of perhaps the greatest pitchers' duel in major-league history, a 1917 game in which he and Jim Vaughn both pitched no-hitters over the first nine innings. What is often forgotten is that Toney also was one of the National League's best pitchers from 1915 to 1921. Despite pitching with a lack of run support for several of those seasons, the 6'1", 195 lb. right-handed fastball pitcher reached the 20-win plateau twice. Though he lacked a formal education, Toney more than made up for it with exceptional strength. He often amazed his teammates by taking two 50-lb. weights, one in each hand, and holding them out at arm's length from his body.
Fred Alexandra Toney was born on December 11, 1888, just outside Nashville in rural Davidson County, Tennessee, where he lived for the rest of his life. He started his minor-league career in 1908 with Winchester, Kentucky, of the Class-D Blue Grass League. Winchester discovered Toney while pitching for an independent team in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but that team had disbanded and Fred had gone home before Winchester could offer him a contract. At first the big right-hander resisted the professional team's overtures, stating that he didn't want to pitch under the kind of pressure found in organized ball. At the urging of his friend "Greasy" Hanly, however, Toney signed a contract for $60 per month, with the stipulation that Hanly also receive a contract so he wouldn't be alone.
All the effort to sign him proved worthwhile, as reporters soon compared the young fireballer to Walter Johnson. On May 10, 1909, Toney pitched a 17-inning no-hitter against Lexington, striking out 19 batters and giving up only one or two walks (a Lexington player claimed to have walked twice, and the box score adds up correctly only with the addition of the second walk). Newspaper stories report that the entire town came to a standstill after the game was 0-0 after nine innings, and a great outpouring of emotion burst from the crowd when Winchester finally pushed a run across in the bottom of the 17th inning.
The Chicago Cubs purchased Toney from Winchester for $1,000 in August 1910even though Toney had tried to look bad in the presence of the Chicago scout. Preferring to pitch for a minor-league team in the South, the 22-year-old Tennessee native didn't report to the Cubs until 1911. Even then he didn't seem to be giving his all. Over the next two-and-a-half seasons Toney bounced back and forth between Chicago and Louisville of the American Association, compiling a combined 4-5 record in only 11 starts and 23 relief appearances in the NL. On July 1, 1913, the Cubs finally gave up on him and sold him outright to Louisville, where he remained through the end of the 1914 season.
After the Brooklyn Robins drafted him in the winter of 1914, Toney said that he "would rather play with the Feds for cigarette money than the salary the Brooklyn club is offering." Following a false report that he had signed with the Federal League's Pittsburgh Stogies, Brooklyn placed him on waivers and the Cincinnati Reds claimed him on February 22, 1915. That season Toney became one of the best pitchers in the National League. He went 17-9 and placed second in the NL in winning percentage and ERA (1.58). Toney's record would have been even better if he had pitched for a better team; the Reds finished in seventh place in 1915 and ranked last in the NL in runs scored. Pitching a team-high 300 innings in 1916, Toney posted a 2.28 ERA but continued to be plagued by lack of run support, compiling a 14-17 record. In August of that year he stated that he could be a 25-game winner if the Reds would give him the four runs per game he felt he deserved, instead of the 2.5 runs he thought he was receiving.
Those first two seasons in Cincinnati were just a prelude for 1917, the finest season of Toney's career. He went 24-16 with a 2.20 ERA in 339.2 innings, placing second in the NL behind Pete Alexander in wins and innings pitched. On July 1, 1917, Toney pitched a pair of three-hitters, winning both ends of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but his best performance of the season came on May 2 against the Chicago Cubs. A crowd of only 3,500 attended that day's match-up between Toney and Jim "Hippo" Vaughn, and through the first nine innings neither pitcher allowed a hit. (Only Cy Williams had reached base off Toney, drawing walks in his first two trips to the plate.) Vaughn finally unraveled in the 10th inning. Larry Kopf singled, went to third on an error, and scored on a poorly played grounder hit by Jim Thorpe. Toney set down the Cubs in order in the bottom half, giving him the win and a 10-inning no-hitter.
Fred Toney's life took a dramatic downturn after the 1917 season. First a United States Marshal arrested him for attempting to avoid the draft. It was alleged that Toney had falsely claimed his wife, child, and parents as dependants even though he hadn't lived with his wife for the three years prior to signing his draft statement. During his trial, which ended in a hung jury, it came out that Toney was traveling with a young woman who was not his wife. In April 1918 he was arrested again, this time for violating the Mann Act, which prevented the transportation of minors across state lines for sexual purposes.
The Cincinnati fans were merciless to Toney at the start of the 1918 season. His pitching suffered, and his record stood at 6-10 when the Reds sold him to the New York Giants on July 25. After his move to the bigger city, he rebounded to go 6-2 with a 1.69 ERA for the rest of the season. Reporting to the Giants in May 1919 after pleading guilty to the Mann Act charge and spending time in prison, Toney posted a 13-6 record with the NL's fourth-best ERA (1.84). He also proved his honesty by turning down teammate Heinie Zimmerman's offer to throw a game, reporting the bribe to John McGraw after the first inning. Zimmerman was suspended from the Giants and eventually banned from baseball. Toney pitched well for two more seasons in New York, going 21-11 in 1920 (when he was one of three 20-game winners on the Giants staff) and 18-11 in 1921. In the latter year he played in his only World Series, failing to last more than three innings in either of his two starts against the Yankees.
Toney's dismal performance in the 1921 World Series signaled the beginning of his downfall as a pitcher. In 1922 he started the season 5-6 with a 4.17 ERA when the Giants sent him, Larry Benton, and $100,000 to the Boston Braves for Hugh McQuillan on July 30. On hearing the news, Fred took a train to Nashville where he announced his retirement. "I have $50,000 and don't have to play baseball with the Braves," he said. That October the St. Louis Cardinals claimed Toney on waivers and he decided to report in 1923. The veteran pitcher quit baseball again in the second inning of a game on June 23, 1923, after an altercation with Cardinals shortstop Specs Toporcer, but returned to finish the season 11-12 with a 3.84 ERA. At spring training the following year Toney injured the middle finger of his pitching hand while attempting to bunt. He was unable to grip the ball properly and the Cardinals released him. Fred went home to Nashville and pitched for the local Southern Association club through 1925.
After his retirement from baseball, Fred Toney farmed and operated a soft drink and sandwich stand that was decorated with memorabilia from his career in professional baseball. During World War II he served as a security guard at an aircraft plant near Nashville. After the war Toney worked as a court officer for the Davidson County Sheriff's Office. He held that job until his death at age 64 on March 11, 1953, due to heart disease and hypertension.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2004).
For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.