By the time he was 21 years old, George Rettger had established himself as a skilled pitcher at the semipro level in his native Cleveland, Ohio. He yearned for a professional career and earned his first pro experience with Akron in the Ohio State League in 1889. The league was formed in August and featured teams in Akron, Newark, Tiffin, and Youngstown. It collapsed after just a month, forcing the Akron club to play an independent schedule. That plan was foiled by poor weather and the team disbanded.
Rettger made it to the majors for 21 games in 1891 and 1892. Wildness cost him any further chance at the top level, but he became a workhorse in the minor leagues for the remainder of the century.
George Edward Rettger was born July 29, 1868 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the fourth of six children born to John and Madeline Rettger. His parents were both of German descent. His father was a skilled laborer who passed his talent and knowledge onto George who became a machinist. George, and his brothers John and William, followed in their father’s trade.
Rettger attended Immaculate Conception School though the eighth grade. He grew to be 5’11” tall and weighed 175 pounds and was a right-hander all the way. He learned his baseball on the Cleveland sandlots and was playing with top level amateur teams like the Rocks and Old Leaguers by the age of 21.
Rettger returned to the Cleveland leagues the following spring hoping that a second chance at professional ball would materialize. That second chance came in mid-June 1890 when Meadville, Pennsylvania in the New York-Pennsylvania League approached him. He arrived just in time to play left field and contribute two hits in the team’s first win of the season—they had lost their first 16 games.1 Available box scores show him pitching six games for Meadville with a 1-4 record. When the team signed Nig Cuppy in late July, Rettger left the rotation and played the outfield.
Two leagues in two summers and Rettger had pitched fewer than a dozen games with unimpressive results. Fortunately, a third chance came in 1891 with the Evansville, Indiana Hoosiers of the Northwestern League. The Hoosiers were managed by Andy Sommers, a Cleveland native, who had played for Cleveland’s National League entry in 1890. Rettger was one of four Cleveland players Sommers brought with him to Evansville.2 The Northwestern was an eight-team circuit with teams in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.
This time Rettger seized the opportunity and quickly became the ace of the staff. From local box scores he appears to have been a 20-game winner and closed out the season with eight consecutive victories. The Hoosiers were the class of the league and were one of just three franchises left playing when the league dissolved in early August.
Sommers convinced Rettger to join him with the Minneapolis Millers in the Western League. The Millers disbanded soon after the arrival of the pair. Rettger made a relief appearance and tossed an eight-inning complete game victory before the demise.
Rettger maintained his focus despite the drama that was created by faltering leagues/teams. He made quite an impression with his performance that summer. A Buffalo writer paid him a compliment by saying, “Though comparatively young in both age and experience he is equal to the best northern lake ice in frigidity. Nothing can disturb him while in the box.”3Rettger was not an overpowering thrower. He relied on location and a pair of curves—one that would sweep across the plate and one with a drop. He was praised for his fielding skills and his knowledge of the game when it came to cutoffs and base coverage.4 A Sporting Life scribe added that he had a “well-disguised change of pace … above all, he does not drink.”5
The St. Louis Browns of the American Association needed pitching and manager Charles Comiskey signed Rettger shortly after Minneapolis folded. Teammate and catcher Dell Darling accompanied him to St. Louis. Rettger and Darling formed the battery on August 13 when the Browns defeated Washington, 11-5. Rettger followed that win with an impressive shutout of Cincinnati, 8-0.
Rettger (now 23) joined Jack Stivetts (four months older than George) and Willie McGill (age 17) in a three-man rotation the final five weeks of the season. Sportswriters raved about George’s performance claiming he, “won 11 out of the 14 games in which he pitched …”6 Those numbers were often repeated in the press but were a bit exaggerated. Baseball Reference credits him with a 7-3 record. In 12 starts he had one bad outing. It came on September 10 against first-place Boston. Rettger was unable to fool the hitters with his curves and walked five as well as hitting a batter in an 11-3 loss.
Comiskey was forced to use Rettger in the outfield one game. It was something of a desperation move because he had not shown much hitting skill to that point of his career. He batted only .071 for St. Louis but did launch a home run against Kid Carsey and the Senators in his last game of the year (September 22.)
Rettger’s performance with the Browns established his credentials. The Association was rumored to be in trouble and Rettger had already seen three teams disband. Despite a contract offer from St. Louis, he opted to sign with the hometown Cleveland Spiders for 1892.7 Rettger’s hunch about the Association’s viability proved to be correct. It ceased operation with the St. Louis franchise being absorbed into the National League.
The Spiders were managed by Patsy Tebeau who welcomed Rettger and, coincidently, Cuppy to join staff ace Cy Young. The team trained in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Rettger saw action in exhibition games, twice getting roughed up by the Cap Anson’s Chicago team. When the team returned to Cleveland, he was suffering with a sore arm and was sent home to rest. He worked back into shape by pitching with the semipro Lakeshores before returning to the Spiders’ roster.
Rettger’s first start came on June 3 against Washington but he took a 9-4 loss. For George to be successful he had to have pinpoint control. He did not have the speed to overwhelm a batter and if the curves were missing, he became an easy target. The Giants proved that when they hung a 9-6 loss on him in a June 14 game where he walked six.
Rettger picked up a win over St. Louis on June 16, then dropped a close game to Washington before an especially dismal start against Brooklyn. The local sportswriters had seen enough noting he, “as usual was rankly wild.”8 A week later he was released and joined Comiskey with the Cincinnati Reds.
Comiskey started Rettger against Baltimore on July 17. He emerged with a 16-5 win but issued 10 walks. Between Cleveland and Cincinnati, he had now registered 41 walks in 47 innings. Cincinnati gave him his release and he returned to the Cleveland-area leagues.
Rettger’s minor-league journey started with the 1893 Atlanta Windjammers in the Class B Southern Association. His 23 wins (23-8) tied for the league lead. His impressive winning percentage (.742) was second to teammate George Darby’s.773 (17-5) on Atlanta but only sixth in the league for pitchers with 10 or more wins. He also produced gaudy batting statistics for a pitcher as he hit .292 and slammed six home runs in 106 at-bats.
Rettger opened the 1894 season with the Toledo White Stockings of the Western League. Toledo was managed by Denny Long and for whatever reasons the two did not get along. Long became especially critical of Rettger’s work in July. The White Stockings were entertaining the Milwaukee Brewers in late July. After Rettger dropped a hard-fought game to the Brewers, 4-3, he was released and quickly signed by Milwaukee.9 George left Toledo with a 7-9 record.
Rettger’s first start for Milwaukee manager Charlie Cushman was far from encouraging as he tied Grand Rapids, 9-9. His performances with Milwaukee were inconsistent, and he was battered heavily by the league’s hitters. From August 21 through 29 he lost games by the scores of 18-3, 14-6, and 14-4. Despite the tough outings, he posted a 12-11 mark with the Brewers and became a fan favorite.
The following year Larry Twitchell took over as manager of the Brewers. He went with a three-man rotation and Rettger threw 341 innings, leading the team with 21 wins. The other starters—Ben Stephens and Kirtley Baker—added 19 and 14 wins respectively. The trio occasionally saw duty in the field and as a group they batted .252 (128-for-508) and added 30 extra-base hits.
Following the season, Rettger joined Twitchell with San Jose in the California winter leagues, where George pitched and played outfield. Stephens had finished the 1895 season in poor health and would not play ball again, so in 1896 Fred Barnes joined Baker and Rettger in the rotation. When Baker was dropped, Cowboy Jones took his place.
Rettger opened the campaign with three victories but his record hovered near .500 the entire season. A six-game winning streak in June and July was offset by four-game losing streaks in August and again in September. He threw over 40 complete games but did not record a shutout; twice he surrendered just a single run.10 The Brewers (aka Creams) occupied fifth place nearly the entire summer.
Rettger’s winning streak was wrapped around a family tragedy. His brother William worked for the Brown Hoisting and Conveying Company on the docks in Cleveland. In late May, the company had issued an edict that all employees had to reapply for employment.11 The goal was to break the power of a newly-formed union.
This move created a lockout situation that led to a lengthy and combative standoff. William joined the workers who were protesting the company’s actions. Brown Co. hired non-union men to replace the locked-out workers. On July 3 a near riot broke out at the business when a non-union worker was attacked and knocked from his bicycle as he left work. He pulled a pistol and fired at his assailants. In his haste he missed his attackers and instead hit William Rettger who was some distance away. Rettger died almost instantly.12
George Rettger usually pitched every two or three days depending upon travel. He missed at least three starts when he went home for the funeral.13 Newspapers sensationalized the events and suggested that labor leader Eugene Debs would attend the funeral. He did not.14 One Ohio paper claimed that 100,000 would line the procession route.15The real figures were closer to 10,000. George returned to his teammates and defeated Indianapolis, 10-1, on July 14.
Statistics released by the Western League do not show won/loss records. They do list Rettger with facing 1,642 batters in 49 games. Both figures were second to Bill Hutchison of Minneapolis. They also show that Rettger was an easy mark for batters as he surrendered a league-leading 512 hits for a .312 average. He was credited with a 3.44 ERA which placed him 33rd in the circuit. By contrast Hutchison had a 2.47 and was ninth.16
Rettger saved his best performance for a week after the season. He wed Catherine (Kitty) Jenkins on September 30 in Milwaukee. He moved from Cleveland and took up residence in Milwaukee with his bride. As he had in Cleveland, he found work as a machinist in the offseason.
The couple would live in Wisconsin for 10-12 years. Both their daughters, Magdalene and Cecilia, were born in the state. The family would move back to Cleveland by 1910 where the girls completed their education. Later the family moved from their home on the eastside to a residence in Lakewood, Ohio, which is a western suburb of Cleveland.
Rettger got off to a slow start in 1897. His Brewers’ manager was now Connie Mack who tried to nurture him as he slowly worked into shape. By the time Rettger was back in top form, Mack had assembled a five-man staff and no longer needed Rettger. He decided to release Rettger to “Columbus for the balance of the season.”17
The switch to Columbus worked well for both the Senators (aka Buckeyes) and Rettger. He joined a pitching staff with hard-living Pete Daniels (who lasted half the season before a salary dispute), Harry Keener, and the unpredictable Bumpus Jones. Rettger led the staff with a 21-8 record in 260 innings. He exhibited the finest control of his career as he only allowed 49 walks and unleashed just three wild pitches. His ERA of 2.52 was the best he had posted thus far in his career, but it was well below the top 10 in the league. Jones was credited with a 1.76 and was only fifth amongst pitchers over 100 innings. The Senators finished in second place behind Indianapolis.
The Detroit Free Press sponsored a postseason series between the Senators and Indians. A youngster named Roy Evanshad joined Columbus late in the season and posted a 6-0 record. Manager Tom Loftus choose to go with the hot hand and used Evans instead of Rettger in the five-game series, which Indianapolis won.
Rettger returned to Milwaukee in 1898 and turned in his best season since Atlanta. He paired up with fellow Ohioan Jack Taylor to win a combined 52 games in over 700 innings. Milwaukee (82-57) finished third in a spirited race behind Indianapolis (84-50) and the champion Kansas City Blues (88-51).
Milwaukee fell off the pace in 1899 finishing in sixth place. Mack was disillusioned with the performance and announced that he would clean house. His plan was to retain Rettger who had gone 14-12 and possibly Bill Reidy who had won 17 (with 18 losses). He ended up keeping right fielder Irv Waldron also. The Brewers moved into the American league in 1900. In addition to Reidy and Rettger, Mack signed Pete Dowling, Rube Waddell, and Tully Sparks for the pitching corps. Offensively he added first baseman John Anderson and infielder David Fultz. Milwaukee finished second, four games behind Chicago, with a 79-58 mark.
Rettger posted just a 7-11 record for the team. In August he was pressed into service in the outfield and even at second base. His .207 batting average did not strike fear into opposing pitchers. Milwaukee joined the major leagues the next season as a founding member of the American League.
Rettger finished out his professional career with the Kansas City Blues and Denver Grizzlies in the Western League in 1901. He opened the year with the Blues and was dropped in early June despite a winning record. Denver picked him up for about three weeks, letting him go June 29 after a 6-1 loss to Minneapolis. Newspaper accounts suggest he had a 5-4 record on the season.18
George worked as a machinist in Milwaukee and played in the Brewers League on the Schlitz team. He had given up baseball by the time the family moved to the Cleveland area. His health began to fail, leading to the removal of a kidney. Complications set in and he died on June 5, 1921 from pulmonary tuberculosis.19 He was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland. Calvary is also the final resting place of fellow Cleveland-born ball players Ed Delahanty and Bill Wambsganss.
Thanks to Dennis Pajot for help with Milwaukee statistics not available on Baseball Reference. Rettger has some blanks on his Baseball Reference page. Using newspapers from Meadville, Evansville, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and the Sporting News, approximate won/loss totals were tabulated.
The biography was edited by William Lamb and Joel Barnhart. It was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
11 Executive Documents, Annual Reports for 1896. https://books.google.com/books?id=lfpBAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA1033&lpg=PA1033&dq=Brown+Hoisting+and+Conveying+Company+Lockout+1896&source=bl&ots=4KojNKLYAw&sig=ACfU3U1oAAznhkUSgs4tGkTcApHsKMhVOw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi27-m4r9 Last accessed February 18, 2020. Company order appears on page 1033.