The maxim “nothing succeeds like success” is as applicable to baseball as to any other endeavor. Its truth is especially evident in the case of ballplayers who have attempted to introduce new strategies and techniques. Those who excel while doing so are hailed as embodiments of American ingenuity and earn a measure of immortality. But those who try something new and fail are often mocked for their troubles — and if the innovation subsequently proves viable, somebody else gets the credit. The career of Charles “Dory” Dean is a perfect illustration.
Dean was born in Cincinnati on November 6, 1852, one of at least three children of British immigrants James and Isabella Dean. By his late teens he was working as an engineer and, like many of his contemporaries, he must have been thrilled by the success of the hometown “Red Stockings” during their undefeated season of 1869 and strong follow-up in 1870. The club’s sudden decision to disband at the end of the season left Cincinnati without a professional ballclub, but the city continued to boast many amateur clubs that enabled young players like Dean to develop their skills.
In 1876, the first year of the National League, major league baseball finally returned to Cincinnati. Yet to many, the club seemed to be major league in name only. After a 3-2 start, the club dropped nineteen of its next twenty games.
Inexperienced club owner Josiah “Si” Keck was way over his head. Cherokee Fisher, a longtime professional pitcher, had started 23 of the team’s first 25 games, but with the club mired in last place, Keck decided to give local product Dean a chance to pitch. Dean made his major league debut on June 22 against Boston but lost that game and his next outing. Fisher then got one more start, but when that game also resulted in a defeat, Fisher was released.
This left Dean as the club’s only pitcher, making it seem to many that Keck was no longer trying to put a competitive ballclub on the field. An Enquirer reporter pointedly reminded Keck that spectators who paid to see a major league game deserved to see proven major leaguers. The article avoided blaming Dean, however, stressing: “We have no ill will toward Dean for yesterday’s results. We believe he did as well as he could. But he is a boy, and a promising amateur.” (Cincinnati Enquirer, June 29, 1876)
Dean made the next seventeen starts for the club, putting him in an awkward and disheartening position. He was an excellent athlete but at a slight 5’9″, 160 pounds, he lacked the ability to overpower major league hitters. The curve ball had just entered baseball, and Dean experimented with the pitch, but it too was not fooling National League batters.
Things hit a new low when Cincinnati arrived in Chicago for a series with the first-place White Stockings and their formidable lineup. On July 25, the home team feasted on Dean’s offerings in a 23-3 trouncing. But he was again sent out to pitch the second game of the series two days later and in desperation, he “brought out a new delivery, which consisted in facing second base with the ball in hand, and then turning quickly, letting it come in the general direction of the stand, without any idea of where it really was going to land.”
The Chicago Tribune characterized this unusual delivery as a “foolish boy’s trick” and the White Stockings might well have questioned its legality. But they had no reason to do so, as they hit Dean’s pitches at will during a 17-3 win. (Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1876)
After Dean had made seventeen straight starts for the hapless club, the last thirteen of them losses, Keck finally hired another local product named Dale Williams to pitch. Williams made nine starts with similarly dismal results, and then Dean was again handed the ball for the remainder of the season. He finished the year with a 4-26 record for a club that compiled an abysmal 9-56 mark.
Dory Dean never again appeared in the major leagues. An obituary claimed that his career was ended by an arm injury sustained while experimenting with the curveball. This is certainly possible, but it seems more likely that he simply wasn’t good enough to pitch in the major leagues. (He did, however, bat a very respectable .261 for the season, suggesting that he might have been more successful in a different position.)
But while Dean’s career was over, the novel delivery with which he had experimented did endure. By 1878, Harvard pitcher Harold Ernst was experiencing success with a similar delivery and he taught it to Johnny Ward of Providence. (New York Clipper, December 14, 1878, January 25, 1879) Ward used the “fore and aft style of delivery” during the 1878 campaign and it proved so “puzzling” to National League hitters that he compiled a 1.51 earned run average. (Milwaukee Sentinel, September 13, 1878)
This led to the introduction of a new rule on December 4, 1878, barring pitchers from completely turning their back on the batter during their delivery. Sportswriter Henry Chadwick expressed concern that this “certainly looked like an instance of special legislation” against a specific player, since there had been “but one pitcher of the League who pitched in that way.” (New York Clipper, December 28, 1878)
Ward, however, expressed less concern, telling a reporter, “it is not necessary for him to turn his back to the batsman in pitching in order to be effective. It was only a dodge of his — learned from Ernst of the Harvards — to prevent the batsman from judging the ball. He can pitch with more accuracy by facing him.” (New York Clipper, January 25, 1879)
Ward instead found a new way to make it difficult for the batter to pick up the ball: “In facing the striker he completely hides his delivery by seizing the ball in his right hand, carrying it to the small of his back, then by the aid of his left arm carries over to the right in front of his body, he fixes the ball in preparation for a curve-pitch.” (New York Clipper, April 26, 1879) And indeed the new technique seemed just as effective as the old one, as Ward remained one of the league’s top pitchers.
Over the next few years, rules-makers made frequent changes in the restrictions they placed on pitchers’ deliveries. Eventually motions in which the pitcher turned his back to home plate returned, and were used by such stars as John Clarkson and Cy Young, and more recently by Luis Tiant and Fernando Valenzuela. (See author’s A Game of Inches, 112-113, for a more detailed discussion)
Naturally when discussion of such windups has taken place, the names of aces such as these have figured prominently. But in fairness it is Dory Dean who deserves credit for first unveiling it on a major league baseball diamond. Instead all he ever got was a chiding for trying a “foolish boy’s trick.”
After the 1876 season, Dean moved on with his life. Despite the press’s habit of referring to him as a “boy,” he was already married, and he and his wife Alice welcomed a son named James on January 3, 1878. Dean found work as an electrotyper, moved briefly to Cleveland and then returned to Cincinnati. He eventually settled near Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his son worked for the Dixie Electrotype Company. According to Lee Allen, Dean was the founder of the company. (Lee Allen, 100 Years of Baseball, 40-41)
In 1898, more than twenty years after the birth of their first child, the Deans completed their family with the birth of a daughter who was named for her mother. The younger Alice was not without companions her own age, however, as she grew up with her brother’s five children living next door.
Dory Dean did not abandon sports after the end of his baseball career. He became an outstanding tennis player, and was still competing in and winning tournaments into his eighties. He was also an active swimmer into his eighties. (Greg Rhodes and John Snyder, Redleg Journal, 50; Lee Allen, 100 Years of Baseball, 40-41) After a long life, he died in Nashville on May 4, 1935, and is buried at Woodlawn Memorial Park. By all rights, his tombstone could proclaim him the pioneer of the back-to-the-batter delivery.
Lee Allen, 100 Years of Baseball; Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology; Peter Morris, A Game of Inches; Greg Rhodes and John Snyder, Redleg Journal; contemporary newspapers and sporting publications, as noted; censuses and city directories; special thanks to David Ball for insightful feedback.