This article was written by John Bennett
Some players have a lifetime, while others earn only a brief moment in the spotlight. For Harry Joseph Hulihan, the record falls somewhere in between. His own time for baseball glory came and went in a short burst. Yet he also played a crucial role in determining the last world championship for a Hall of Fame manager, and helped pioneer a surgical technique that has saved the careers of other players who followed him.
Harry’s hometown, Center Rutland, Vermont, in name remains a paradox. It lies actually several miles from the real heart of Rutland Town, the second largest city in the state. Much of its population consists of a few tightly knit extended families, clustered in neighborhoods tucked in the valleys near large marble quarries. A waterfall thunders over the edge of Otter Creek. Local youths are warned to stay away from the waterside, due to an alleged fatality at the falls sometime during the nineteenth century. At the time of Harry Hulihan’s birth, on April 18, 1899, the town was settled largely by immigrant families from Italy and Ireland.
Hulihan took quickly to sports as a youth. He played football for Rutland High School and admitted to liking basketball “as a hobby.” On the baseball diamond he made his greatest impression. Aside from starring for his high school nine, Hulihan captained the local sandlot team, St. Peter’s Athletic Association. As the staff’s ace lefthander, Hulihan earned a reputation as Vermont’s top schoolboy hurler. He threw at least two documented no-hitters (against teams from Plattsburgh, New York, and Saranac Lake, New York), and may have pitched several others. In any case, his hurling exploits caught the attention of manager Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics.
A’s scout Ira Thomas, a resident of nearby Ballston Spa, New York, alerted Mack to Hulihan’s talents. Mack sent Thomas to sign the young pitcher in the spring of 1919, after Hulihan had completed his military service. Thomas was impressed with the speed of the lefthander, who was now striking out 17 to 19 batters a game for St. Peter’s. After a brief tryout with the A’s, Mack decided against signing Hulihan, feeling he was too raw and inexperienced. Somewhat discouraged, Harry enrolled at Middlebury College in Vermont in the fall of 1919.
Middlebury had already seen one great pitching talent, Ray Fisher, pass through its gates a decade earlier. Hulihan shattered Fisher’s mound records and became one of the school’s greatest athletes. Harry starred for both the football and basketball squads, and even found time to be elected class president in his sophomore year. According to his yearbook, “Ike” Hulihan was remembered for his soft voice and persuasive charm.
A member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, he became popular on campus. Academics never got in the way of his athletic career, and Ike was known for his coolness under fire in any situation, be it in the classroom or the women’s dormitory.
Hulihan pitched three stellar seasons for the Middlebury ball club. His most famous exploit came against Fordham, when he struck out 24 batters in a 12-inning victory. Professional scouts became frequent spectators whenever Ike took the mound. In the summers, Hulihan pitched anonymously for a semipro team in Hartford, Connecticut. It was there that he was spotted by John McGraw, the manager of the New York Giants.
The Giants had been rebuilt into a championship ball club by 1921. As part of a program to keep the Giants strong, McGraw sought to sign the nation’s leading college talent. After badgering Hulihan for two years, McGraw persuaded him to leave Middlebury after the 1922 season. Harry agreed to leave college early on the condition that he would not have to go to the minors that season. For nearly two months, Hulihan cooled his heels on the end of the Giants’ bench, picking up baseball acumen at the hands of the legendary manager, whom the rookie recalled years later as “a real toughie.”
At the end of July McGraw was faced with a crucial situation. The Giants were embroiled in a tense pennant race, and the team lost the services of ace pitcher Phil Douglas. Foolishly, Douglas had written a letter suggesting he would take money to throw ball games, earning him only the grand prize of a lifetime ban from Baseball Comissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. With a huge hole in his rotation, McGraw turned to the league patsy, the cellar dwelling Boston Braves.
A shrewd peddler of baseball horseflesh, McGraw loved to unload players who were either too young or past their prime. The Braves presented an easy target, and the team was struggling just as much at the box office. Hard pressed for cash and prospects, the Bostonians coughed up the pitcher McGraw felt he needed, right hander Hugh McQuillan. In return, the Giants parted with veteran pitcher Fred Toney, a cashier’s check for $100,000, and rookie Harry Hulihan. Toney refused to report, so the Giants substituted another young pitcher, Larry Benton.
Part of McGraw’s rationale in the deal may have been to get Hulihan some seasoning elsewhere, and then try to get him back later. In the event, he returned McQuillan to the Braves in 1927 for the same Larry Benton, who won 25 games for him the next year. Hulihan protested the deal at first, although McGraw reminded him that he had only agreed to not send him to the minors.
The 1922 Boston Braves were barely a cut above that level, however. The club had won the World Series in the “miracle season” of 1914, but by the early 1920’s had crashed and burned to the the league basement. Only two players, Dick Rudolph and Hank Gowdy, remained from that championship squad, and both were injured in 1922. The team’s best player, Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Marquard, was long past his prime. Still, the local press brimmed with confidence after the July 30 trade. Hulihan was heralded as the Giants’ top prospect, and the transaction was compared favorably to the concurrent dismemberment of the crosstown Red Sox by the New York Yankees. For better or worse, the rookie lefthander (with the new nickname of “Happy”) was put in the starting rotation for the last two months of the season.
On August 22, Hulihan made his first start, against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The results were less than spectacular; 7 hits, two walks, and two hit batsmen in 3 1/3 innings of a 9-4 loss. His next start, on August 26, was an improvement. Locked in a battle with Cincinnati ace Eppa Rixey, Hulihan was ultimately undone by his lack of control (he walked seven in six innings) and lost, 5-3. His home debut, on September 1, was more of a success. Despite walking eight, Harry went the route in an easy 10-1 victory.
Hulihan had one solid outing in relief before being handled roughly in two more starts. In the first of these, he faced St. Louis slugger Rogers Hornsby. A half century later, Hulihan remembered Hornsby as being the toughest hitter he ever faced. “You had to pitch outside, because he would snap it back at you if you put it anywhere else. It was pretty hard to pitch to him, I guess.”
On September 30, the Braves came to the Polo Grounds to finish the season against the pennant winning Giants. The acquisition of McQuillan had proved decisive, and the former Boston pitcher went on to play a key role in the World Series victory over the Yankees. But that day, Hulihan earned a measure of revenge that day. Taking the mound against the Giants’ substitutes, he threw his best game of the season, a 5-1 complete game in which he did not walk a single batter. For the season, Harry had done reasonably well for a last-place ball club. His record stood at 2-3 with a respectable 3.15 earned run average, not bad considering that the Braves lost 100 games that season. Unfortunately, he had thrown his last pitch in a big league game.
Hopes remained high for the 1923 season, as Hulihan was featured prominently in the Braves’ plans. However, in spring training something snapped in his pitching arm. At first, the injury was not taken too seriously, but the pain became too intense for Hulihan to perform such simple actions as combing his hair. In desperation, the young left hander decided on corrective surgery, a radical step in a period in which sore arms were treated with icewater and burning liniment.
A surgeon grafted a tendon from Hulihan’s thigh into his left shoulder. The operation succeeded in ending the pain in his throwing arm, but Harry could no longer throw with any velocity. Today, tendon graft surgery, popularly known as Tommy John surgery, after the major league pitcher whose career it resurrected, has successfully extended the careers of many ballplayers. For Hulihan, solace would come only as a medical pioneer. Attempted comebacks in semipro leagues in New York and Connecticut failed. As a last resort, he contacted McGraw to try out for the Giants, but failed to make the grade.
Luckily, Hulihan’s studies had provided him with the necessary skills to survive outside of baseball. He returned to get his degree at Middlebury in 1924, and sold real estate in Florida for a time. In 1926, he began a long and successful career as a salesman for Aetna Life Insurance in New York City. He married the former Dorothy Hightower in 1936, and raised two children. He followed sports closely as a member of the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City, and returned to spend summers with his family in Rutland.
Hometown roots remained strong, and Hulihan returned with his wife to Center Rutland to live out his retirement years. Neighbors remembered Hulihan as a quiet man who preferred to stay in the background. Often he could be seen resting calmly on his porch, watching traffic whiz by on Route 4. Pickup games were commonly played on a ball field near his home, yet few knew or remembered anything about his days as a professional ballplayer.
In 1977, Harry Hulihan had one last day in the sun. Alert staffers from the local newspaper noted that a former major leaguer lived locally. Harry was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the opening of the local American Legion season at his old haunt, St. Peter’s Field. Hulihan waxed nostalgic that day about his brief career, regaling bystanders with tales about tobacco spewing veterans. A fan of contemporary baseball, he did not begrudge current players their higher salaries. As Harry put it, you could “buy more then than you could today, what with all the taxes now.” Although he regretted the injury that prematurely ended his career, he held no bitterness. “At least I was up in the majors and got to win a few games,” he said. A lot of other guys have tried out and never made it that far.” Clearly, he had enjoyed the chance he had to make it in the big leagues, and took great pride in his accomplishments.
In July 1980 Hulihan’s wife passed away, and he succumbed to a short illness on September 11. The couple are buried in a well landscaped wooded cemetery a short distance from his home. The annals of baseball history are filled with the stories of sore armed pitchers who failed to make good. Because of his inclusion in a critical trade, and due to the experimental surgery he underwent, Harry Hulihan’s saga remains noteworthy. Like many of players, his career was not great, but he crossed paths with greatness.
The material for this biography was gathered from the following sources: Harry Hulihan’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Research Library; clippings and yearbooks from Middlebury College, 1920-1921, as well as additional research done courtesy of their great alumni office staff; Dick Thompson’s clipping file on Harry Hulihan; newspaper articles from the New York Times and Boston Globe in July-September 1922, focusing on Hulihan’s brief stint in the Braves rotation, and the lowdown on the big trade with the Giants; an interview with my aunt, Mary Densmore, who was a neighbor of Harry Hulihan in his later years; a long interview from the Rutland Herald with Harry Hulihan in May, 1977, graciously lent to me by SABR member and collector extraordinaire Roger Harris; obituaries for Dorothy Hightower Hulihan and Harry Hulihan in the Rutland Herald, 1980.