SABR

Jack McFetridge

This article was written by David Nemec.

John McFetridge has the longest gap between his first and second major league seasons of any player who debuted in the nineteenth century. Nearly thirteen full years elapsed between his initial pitching appearance with the Phillies in 1890 and his next sighting in Phils garb in an official National League game in 1903.

Born on August 25, 1869, of Scottish ancestry, McFetridge, known from childhood as Jack, perhaps to distinguish him from his father, was the eldest son of John Reed McFetridge, Sr. (1844-1903), a co-founder of Burk and McFetridge, the steam power printing, lithography and publishing establishment. The company was operated by Pennsylvania natives William M. Burk (circa 1857-1905) and McFetridge, and produced lithographic trade cards, advertisements, book illustrations, pamphlets, calendars and other printing related material in Philadelphia between 1877 and 1900. He first spurned an offer from Jimmy Williams to turn professional with Williams’s Cleveland American Association club at age 18 in 1888. McFetridge was pitching for the amateur Wynnewood club of Philadelphia at the time but later that season appears to have agreed to practice with the Philadelphia National League club. Two years later he was with the amateur Highland team of Gloucester, NJ, when Harry Wright finally convinced him to pitch an official league game for Wright’s Philadelphia Nationals. Actually, Wright probably convinced McFetridge’s father since, in the days following his superb debut against Brooklyn, The Sporting News reported: "For all practical purposes McFetridge's trial amounted to nothing, as his father has absolutely refused to permit the boy, who is a minor, to play professional ball…" Yet some two months later the six-foot and 175 pound McFetridge was no longer a minor and he continued to disdain all offers to turn pro.

McFetridge’s “trial” took place in the second game of a doubleheader at Philadelphia on Saturday June 7—the same day Sporting Life informed its readers he might indeed “try his skill against professionals” that very afternoon--and produced a 4-1 complete-game win over Dave Foutz of the pennant-bound Brooklyn Bridegrooms in which the young amateur went 3-for-4 in his own behalf. The following Saturday Sporting Life offered this depiction of the contest: “In the second game (on June 7) the Phillies put in the crack local amateur pitcher, McFetridge, of the Wynnewoods {sic}, and he made the most successful debut that ever befell a young pitcher. His speed was great, command perfect and his nerve phenomenal. The Brooklyns could do nothing with him and got but five hits in the game.” Making McFetridge’s major league intro all the more impressive was that his catcher was Jack Clements, already notorious by 1890 for his recalcitrance, which on occasion boiled over into contempt, when he was called upon to handle a novice hurler. Clements no doubt regarded the 20-year-old scion of a wealthy family as haughty in addition to undeserving of the opportunity to pitch a game for the Phils, especially since they were in hot pennant contention at the time. To add insult to Clements’s ego, on September 5 when the Phillies faced McFetridge, who by then had joined the Riverton amateur club located in southern New Jersey, in an exhibition game McFetridge trimmed the National Leaguers 8-7. He would have won with ease according to Sporting Life had he not hurt his hand in the 7th inning and been forced to “let up in his pitching,” allowing the Phils to score five runs in the final two frames. McFetridge’s catcher that day was Lou Graff, who also got into a lone nineteenth century major league game in 1890 with Syracuse of the American Association. With the exception of 1891 when he played in the Pacific Northwest League, Graff remained McFetridge’s catcher throughout most of his lengthy stay with the Rivertons.

In 1891, when Wright had severe pitching woes after his pre-1890 ace Charlie Buffinton skipped from the disbanded Philadelphia Players League club to the Boston American Association entry rather than rejoin Wright’s brood, The Sporting News claimed that the local press clamored for McFetridge to be signed, but he and Phils co-owner John I. Rogers had a major falling out. In any event, McFetridge again spent the summer months with the Riverton nine, which by then also featured his brother Tom, a second baseman, and remained with the club when it participated in indoor winter competition. Another item in The Sporting News on December 19, 1891, re-emphasized that he would never under any circumstances turn pro because his parents were wealthy and forbade him in no uncertain terms to play for pay. Meanwhile McFetridge continued to dominate the amateur ranks in the Philadelphia area while attending the University of Pennsylvania and pitching for the school’s team in the spring months. In 1893, after the February 11 edition of The Sporting News announced that “Jack McFetridge of the Rivertons has got his grip back again,” Lippincott’s Magazine, in its August issue, printed an illustration of him in a feature story on leading amateur players. Some three years later he was still considered the top amateur pitcher in the Philadelphia area and frequently hooked up in duels with the Orange Athletic Club’s ace, Huyler Westervelt. In perhaps the most memorable such battle, on Memorial Day in 1896, he was caught by Graff, who got Riverton’s only hit in a 1-0 loss to the former Giants hurler. On July 10, 1897, McFetridge, although still with the New Jersey Rivertons, hurled for the “All Philadelphia” team that topped an Australian touring team at the Phillies’ park. The following year McFetridge’s father’s company was engulfed by an embezzling scandal that forced the elder McFetridge to withdraw from the firm and go into business on his own as John R. McFetridge & Sons. The company remained in operation at least until 1945.

As late as 1901, the Phillies were still wooing McFetridge in vain, although manager Bill Shettsline did induce him to pitch an occasional exhibition game for the Phils without a contract. Finally, in 1903 McFetridge weakened in his resolve and agreed to test his mettle for an entire season against NL hitters. By then he was nearing 34, so his age may have been against him. Or it may have been that he was never really that good in the first place. But the largest stumbling block in all probability was the fact that McFetridge appears never to have had so much as a single day of minor league experience before he finally relented and joined the Phillies. He made his twentieth century professional debut in the Phils’ third game of the season in the second game of a doubleheader at Boston and lost 4-3 to the Beaneaters’ Togie Pittinger. McFetridge suffered a ruder fate in his next start eight days later when he was belted hard in a 12-7 loss to the Giants at the Polo Grounds. In his first game on the mound in his home park on May 4 he was presented with diamond link buttons by admirers and then lost 5-1 to Pittsburgh’s Deacon Phillippe.

Although McFetridge was on the Phillies’ club all season, he was given only 14 starts by manager Chief Zimmer, quite likely because he lost all but one of them, but Sporting Life attested that he was sick much of the summer, perhaps at least in part over the loss of his 59-year-old father on June 5 when McFetridge, Sr. was found dead in bed, asphyxiated by gas from a broken fixture at his Atlantic City summer cottage which had not yet been opened for the season. Only a 10-4 victory on September 19 over Cincinnati’s Rip Ragan, who was making his initial major league appearance, saved McFetridge from finishing 0-11 and setting what would then have been a new ML season record for the most losses without a win. (The mark at the time was 10, set in 1890 by Bill Stecher of the Philadelphia American Association entry.) Little more than a week later, in the second game of a twinbill at St. Louis, McFetridge was caught by Frank Roth and performed credibly in his big league finale, losing only by a 5-3 count to the Cardinals’ future Hall of Famer, Three Finger Brown. His 1-11 record nonetheless tied Washington’s Happy Townsend for the worst in the majors that season.

Also an outstanding billiards player, McFetridge continued to pitch in the semipro ranks until August 1907 when something, we will probably never know for certain, prompted him to return to pro ball with the last-place Wilmington Peaches of the Class B Tri-State League. Our surmise is that he probably knew Mike Grady, by then the player-manager of the Peaches and a fellow Philadelphian. After a successful trial against the Lancaster club on August 26, the day after he turned 37, McFetridge was “signed immediately after the game” according to Sporting Life. In the short time left before the Tri-State League season closed he posted a 2-1 ledger in three starts and was impressive enough that Grady reserved him for the 1908 campaign. That fall, however, McFetridge broke his kneecap while playing in a pickup football game with neighborhood teenagers, bringing an abrupt end to all his athletic endeavors except billiards. Less than a year later a Philadelphia writer noted in Sporting Life’s September 5 issue: “Before the accident, McFetridge was one of the finest looking men in this city, and might have posed a physical model for a sculptor. His accident, however, has made him look prematurely old, and had it not been for the musical sound of his voice as he met me, I might have passed him without recognition. It is Hamlet who says to Horatio ‘Go tell my lady that were the paint on her face an inch thick, to this she must come at last.’”

His obit in Sporting Life states that he died at his home in Glenolden, PA, on January 10, 1917, at age 47 of a heart attack brought on by acute indigestion. Remarkably, despite all the attention he received in the Philadelphia press for well over a decade, there was never any mention of which arm he favored when he pitched.

McFetridge is buried in his family’s plot in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

 

Sources

This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec's Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 2 (Bison Books, 2011).

To shape this biography I made extensive use of both Sporting Life and The Sporting News throughout McFetridge’s baseball career, 1888 through 1907. I also used the American Printer magazine for details about his father’s business doings and unfortunate demise. McFetridge’s major league record came from www.baseball-reference.com. and the key dates of his appearances in 1903 from Dave Smith’s www.retrosheet.com.

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.