SABR

Otto Hess

This article was written by Gary Hess.

Otto Hess was a “one year wonder” pitching for Cleveland in 1906 whose late-career comeback culminated in a supporting role on the 1914 Miracle Braves. A 6-foot-1,170-pound left-handed pitcher, Hess was born in Berne, Switzerland, on October 10, 1878 – the only Swiss-born major leaguer to date – and emigrated with his parents to the United States in 1888.1 He enlisted in the US Army at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and was stationed in the Philippines from 1898 to 1900. 2

Hess’s baseball career before he signed with Cleveland in the summer of 1902 is unclear. Newspaper references to his pitching with Columbus in 1901 are not substantiated, and it appears that he was not discharged from the Army until February 1902. In any event, he made his major-league debut with the Cleveland Broncos on August 3, 1902, pitching two innings. Two days later he gained his first major-league victory, “wobbling” to a complete-game, ten-inning 7-6 win over Washington at Cleveland’s League Park. The Senators tested Hess by laying down 14 bunts. He booted three for errors, four others were legged out for hits, and seven were sacrifices. Hess pitched in five more games, three as a starter, finishing with a 2-4 record, a 5.98 earned-run average, and a 2.061 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched). Seasoning was called for and Cleveland sent him to Kansas City of the Western League for the 1903 season, where he benefited from having future Hall of Fame pitcher Charles “Kid” Nichols as his manager.3

Hess returned to Cleveland, rechristened the Naps, in 1904. In his first full season in the major leagues, he was regarded as a young pitcher of considerable promise. Pitching 151⅓ innings in 21 games for the fourth-place club, he finished with an 8-7 record and a 1.67 ERA. He completed 15 of the 16 games he started, including four shutouts. Early in his career Hess acquired a reputation for suddenly losing his stuff. “Though he was said to be unhittable at times,” wrote Russell Schneider, “Hess also had a reputation for being erratic from one inning to the next. …”4 One example occurred at New York on July 14, 1904, when he gave up ten runs in one inning in a 21-3 loss to the Highlanders. At Kansas City Hess had gained a reputation as a hitter with some power, which led Naps manager Bill Armour to have him play 12 games in the outfield. This experiment, however, was disappointing, as Hess batted just .120 for the season.5

With Napoleon Lajoie taking over as player-manager in 1905, Cleveland battled for first place until late July, when the team was four games ahead, but injuries precipitated a late-season collapse that led to a fifth-place finish, 19 games behind the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics. Hess’s season paralleled that of the team. Starting 25 games, he won 10 and lost 15 with a 3.16 ERA, which was well above the league ERA of 2.65. Nonetheless, he pitched four shutouts, all in the early months of the season, including a two-hit, 2-0 win over the Tigers in Detroit on April 27 and a ten-inning, 1-0 win over New York at League Park on May 26, with his single driving in the game’s only run. Despite Hess’s disappointing hitting the previous season, Lajoie expanded his double-duty role as an outfielder. Hess responded with his best season at the bat. Playing 27 games in left field, he had 44 hits in 175 at-bats for a .251 average. He hit two home runs, just two fewer than the team’s co-leaders, Terry Turner and Elmer Flick.6

The following season – 1906 – was the high point of Hess’s career. It was also Cleveland’s most successful season to that point with an 89-64 record, but despite leading the league in runs scored, base hits, batting average, slugging average, earned run average, and fielding average, the Naps finished in third place, five games behind pennant-winning Chicago and two behind New York. Midseason injuries to three key players, including ace pitcher Addie Joss, ruined the Naps’ pennant prospects, as the team, which had been battling for first place, fell off the pace with an 11-14 record in August.

Hess, the only southpaw on the eight-man staff, was its workhorse, pitching in 43 games (third in the American League) and a total of 333 innings (second in the league). The season began auspiciously. Lajoie had Hess start the season opener at St. Louis and he came through with a three-hit 3-1 victory.

After the injury to Joss, Lajoie relied more heavily on Hess, who started seven of the team’s 26 games in August. Showing signs of being overworked (he also played six games in the outfield during the season), Hess won only two while losing five of those August starts. One of the victories was a two-hit 4-1 win in Philadelphia. The Naps, bolstered by the return of Joss, made a valiant but ultimately futile comeback in September with Hess pitching some of his strongest games. When the White Sox came to Cleveland for a big series in early September, the Naps swept a Labor Day doubleheader with Hess, in relief, winning the opener, 10-3. That was a personal milestone: Hess’s first victory over Chicago in 12 starts against the White Sox over four seasons.

Three weeks later, on September 25, Hess pitched was at his best, a one-hit 5-0 shutout of the Athletics at League Park; he carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning when a pop fly by the opposing pitcher, Jack Coombs, fell between two fielders for the Athletics’ only hit of the afternoon. And finally, on October 3, Hess gained his 20th victory, a 4-3 win over Detroit at League Park. That victory gave the Naps a trio of 20-game winners, Joss and Bob “Dusty” Rhoads having already attained that milestone. 7

Hess finished with a 20-17 record including seven shutouts (fourth most in the American League) and a league-leading three saves. He was also among league leaders with 36 games started (fourth), 33 complete games (third), 167 strikeouts (fourth), and a 1.83 ERA (sixth). He also led the league in hit batsmen with 24. The website thisgreatgame.com ranks Hess as the league’s second “most productive” pitcher of 1906 (Al Orth of New York was first), with Rhoads and Joss third and fourth respectively.8

Hess’s “breakthrough” season was widely praised. One sportswriter saw an end to the days when he was “as erratic as effective and often negated in one inning the efforts of an afternoon.”9 Grantland Rice wrote of Hess’s transformation from being “erratic and wilder than an amateur automobilist” to a pitcher who had “with a world of speed and a curve that fairly cracked off at right angles … set in about the middle of the race, mowing his rivals down game after game … [winning] about four-fifths of his battles.” 10 Lajoie spoke glowingly: “I don’t believe there’s a pitcher in either league who has greater natural ability. I’ve figured all along that the time would come when he would be a world beater. … [He has] terrific speed … the sharpest break to his curveball I’ve seen anywhere, and now that he has settled down and has picked up fine control, I can’t see how anybody can beat him often. I’d rather bat against any other pitcher I know than this fellow. It has taken him quite a while to come around just right, but I believe he’s there right now.”11

But Hess had reached his peak and the next two seasons brought only disappointment culminating in his return to the minor leagues.

In 1907 a leg injury sidelined Hess through much of the season. He pitched in only 17 games, finishing with a 6-6 record and a 2.89 ERA. Many anticipated a comeback in 1908 but, bothered by a sore arm, he pitched a total of only seven innings in four games, all in relief, before being sent to Columbus of the American Association, where he managed to win nine games and lose four.12

The modest success at Columbus marked the beginning of a comeback that would eventually earn Hess another three years in the major leagues. New Orleans of the Class A Southern Association acquired his contract from Cleveland and over the next three seasons – 1909 to 1911 – Hess was one of the league’s best pitchers, posting records of 18-12, 25-9, and 23-8 and leading the league in wins and winning percentage the last two of those years as the Pelicans captured successive pennants.

At the end of the 1911 season, the Boston Rustlers, soon to be rechristened the Braves, acquired Hess. He joined a “practically unknown” staff,13 but one sportswriter gave Hess little chance to succeed even surrounded by mediocrity: “The once Cleveland southpaw seems destined for a minor league berth again, thus proving that once a pitcher over 24 years of age leaves the ‘big show’ it is almost a waste of time trying to get him back.”14 Hess, in fact, became a mainstay, along with Hub Perdue and Lefty Tyler, of the staff, albeit on the National League’s worst team, which finished with a 52-101 record. Aside from a one-hitter against Chicago in May, Hess struggled through the first months of the season. Capping his frustration was a 19-inning, 7-6 loss at home to Pittsburgh on July 31. Hess, who went the distance against three Pirates pitchers, yielded three runs in the 19th inning, the final run being driven home by the 38-year-old Honus Wagner. By late August Hess had a 4-17 record, which made that springtime prediction of his comeback being a “waste of time” seem prescient. Then Hess suddenly became the pitcher who had shown such promise a decade earlier. He concluded the year with eight straight wins, capped by a 14-2 victory over Philadelphia. The comeback was “a great record for this veteran on a tail-end team.”15

Hess finished with a 12-17 record and a 3.76 ERA. He was among the National League leaders in games started – 31 (14th), innings pitched – 254 (16th), complete games – 21 (11th). Overall, Hess’s record, considering his dreadfully slow start and the Braves’ dismal record, was remarkable and assured his return in 1913.

George Stallings, who replaced Johnny Kling as Boston’s manager, set about rebuilding the Braves into a contender. The housecleaning over the next two seasons meant that by 1914 Hess was among only five members of the woeful 1912 team who were still on the roster. In 1913 the Braves moved up to fifth place with a 69-82 record. Hess, however, pitched less effectively. He remained among the team’s top four pitchers in games (29), games started (27), complete games (19), and innings pitched (218), but he again lost 17 games while winning only 7. With Bill James and Dick Rudolph joining Lefty Tyler as a trio of talented young starters, Hess’s days as a regular starter were ending.

On the Miracle Braves of 1914, Hess played a secondary role. Yet he did not deserve the disparaging remark of Harold Kaese, who in his history of the Braves in Boston wrote: “The Braves of 1914 had other pitchers besides Rudolph, Tyler, and James, believe it or not, but none of them was very conspicuous.” The second-line pitchers won just 25 games, while Rudolph, Tyler and James won 69, “which explains why they were so well remembered while the others are forgotten.”16 Although once again losing more games than he won (5-6), Hess was effective. He pitched in 14 games for a total of 89 innings, starting 11 and completing 7. His two most noteworthy victories came over Chicago. On May 22 he shut out the Cubs, 2-0, to give the Braves their first back-to-back wins of the season. By the time the Miracle had unfolded, Hess pitched the second game of a September 26 doubleheader, which was played at Fenway Park, winning 12-2, for a sweep that increased the Braves’ lead to 8½ games. Not a bad performance, overall, for the 35-year-old veteran, who was described by Stallings at season’s end as “our old reliable Otto Hess.”17

Yet Hess’s major-league days were numbered. He pitched sparingly (four games and 14 innings) in the first few months of the 1915 season before the Braves released him on June 14. The day before, in his final big-league game, he had pitched five scoreless innings of relief as the Braves lost at Chicago. A newspaper account of his career aptly summed up his comeback with the Braves as a “pretty good record.”18 He concluded his major-league record with 70 wins and 90 losses and an ERA of 2.98.

Military service framed Hess’s baseball career. By the time it was ending – pitching stints with Vernon of the Pacific Coast League in 1916 and Atlanta of the Southern Association in 1917 – the United States was again at war. And as in 1898, Hess enlisted in the Army. He is one of five major-league players who served in both the Spanish-American War and World War I.19

Hess contracted tuberculosis while in France during World War I and eventually succumbed to the disease, dying at the US Veterans’ Hospital in Tucson, Arizona, on February 25, 1926. He was buried in Fairview Park Cemetery in Fairview Park, Ohio. He was survived by his second wife, Irene G. Sweet of Cleveland, whom he had married in 1923; his first wife, Grace Fusbaugh, also of Cleveland and whom he married in 1908, died in 1914. 20

 

This biography is included in "The Miracle Braves of 1914: Boston's Original Worst-to-First World Series Champions" (SABR, 2014), edited by Bill Nowlin.

 

Sources

Most of the statistics are derived from Baseball-Reference.com.

1 Some sources list November 13, 1878 as Hess’s birthdate, but October 10, 1878, is the date indicated on his death certificate in 1926 and most other sources, including Retrosheet. His year of birth is also occasionally indicated to be 1879 or 1880.

2 Ancestry.com/U.S. Federal Census 1900; Ancestry.com/U.S. Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914; Ancestry.com/New York Passenger Lists 1820-1957.

3 John Snyder, Indians Journal; Year by Year and Day by Day with the Cleveland Indians Since 1901 (Cincinnati: Clerisy Press, 2008), 36; Ancestry.com/U.S. Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914. Unidentified news clippings of July 1914 and August 1917 (Baseball Hall of Fame/Hess Clippings) make references to Hess pitching minor-league baseball at Columbus in 1901 and “returning to the minors” in 1903; Baseball-Reference.com/Hess does not credit him with minor-league experience before 1903. Nor does it list him on the 1901 Columbus Senators roster.

4 Russell Schneider, The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 170.

5 Snyder, Indians Journal, 43; Schneider, Indians Encyclopedia, 169-70.

6 Snyder, Indians Journal, 46-48.

7 Rod Caborn and Dave Larson, “1906 Cleveland Naps, Deadball Era Underachiever,” Baseball Research Journal, 41: 1 (Spring 2012), 78-85; Snyder, Indians Journal, 49-52; http//www.BaseballLibrary.com.

8 thisgreatgame.com/1906.

9 Unidentified newspaper, December 15, 1906, Baseball Hall of Fame/Hess Clippings.

10 Rice, “Cleveland Chat,” Sporting Life, January 12, 1907, 9.

11 Lajoie, quoted in Rice, “Cleveland Chat,” Sporting Life, January 12, 1907, 9.

12 Schneider, Indians Encyclopedia, 16-17; David S. Neft & Richard M. Cohen, The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball (rev. ed., New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1981), 37, 40.

13 “Diamond Dots and Dashes,” Baseball Magazine, September 1911, 45.

14 “Minor League Section,” Baseball Magazine, July 1912, 63.

15 Sporting Life, October 12, 1912, 3; Harold Kaese, The Boston Braves 1871-1953 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004), 131, 141; BaseballLibrary.com/Otto Hess.

16 Kaese, Boston Braves, 151.

17 Sporting Life, November 14, 1914, 6; BaseballLibrary.com.

18 Unidentified newspaper clipping, 1915, Baseball Hall of Fame/Hess Clippings.

19 Baseball-reference.com/Spanish-American War Veterans, World War I veterans. The others whose names appear on both lists are Ben Caffyn, Joe Doyle, John Grimes, and Gabby Street.

20 Arizona State Board of Health: Death Certificate/Otto Hess; Sporting Life, October 31, 1908, 9; Ancestry.com/Cuyahoga County Marriage Records and Indexes, 1810-1973; Ancestry.com/1910 U.S. Federal Census; Sporting Life, January 17, 1914, 16.

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