This article was written by Charles F. Faber
Born into poverty, raised by a single mother, and dead of cholera at age 33, Harry McCormick led a short but eventful life. Some of his accomplishments will endure in baseball lore forever. Baseball historian Lloyd Johnson wrote, “Rarely would a star shine so brightly and burn out so quickly.”1
Patrick Henry McCormick was born in Syracuse, New York, on October 25, 1855, the son of Irish immigrants. His mother, Julia, told census takers that she was born in Ireland in April 1833 and came to the United States in 1850. By the 1860 census, the lad’s father was no longer with the family and no information about him can be found. Julia supported her four children by working as a washerwoman. Patrick, age 5, was the only boy. He had two older sisters, Alice. 8, Mary, 7, and one younger sister, Theresa, 2. In 1870 Julia was taking in washing and ironing for a living. Alice and Mary were working in shoe factories; Patrick, who was now being called Henry, was working in a steel mill; and Theresa was attending school. Harry has long been used as a nickname for Henry, so it is not surprising that somewhere along the line Patrick Henry McCormick became Harry McCormick.
As a teenager Harry pitched for the Geddes Plaid Stockings, a semi-professional club sponsored by the Geddes Street Car Line in suburban Syracuse. In 1875 the Syracuse Stars, the strongest semipro club in the area, signed Harry. The Stars played a rigorous schedule, seeking out tournaments in which they could be tested against other powerful clubs. In one such tournament in Watertown, New York, the Stars faced the Live Oaks of Lynn, Massachusetts, and their spectacular pitcher, Will White, who featured what was called at the time a “curved pitch.” The youngster asked White to teach him the pitch, and the master obliged. Probably neither pitcher imagined that they would some day be teammates on a championship major league club.
That winter Harry McCormick roomed with Mike Dorgan, who had been White’s battery mate at Lynn. Lloyd Johnson wrote that the young men “strung a simulated strike zone across their loft apartment so Harry could work on his curve.”2 The work paid off. The Stars turned professional in 1876 and made full-fledged professionals out of both McCormick and Dorgan. Independent of any league affiliation, the Stars were able to secure games against some of the nation’s strongest teams and actually defeated National League powerhouses Boston and Chicago. McCormick compiled a 33-10-1 record and completed every one of his 44 starts.
During 1876 McCormick began showing some of the traits for which he became known: an arrogant and fearless manner and almost flawless control. It was said that he had such control that he could wave outfielders to particular spots in the field and then make batters hit the ball straight to them.3 In 1877 Dorgan departed for St. Louis, but McCormick remained with Syracuse, now a member of the League Alliance. He had an incredible year, pitching 99 complete games in his 100 starts, winning 59 and losing 39, with two ties. He pitched an amazing 898 innings. Pitching from 45 feet, as the 1877 rules required, put much less stress on the pitcher’s arm than the present distance imposes, so he was able to put up numbers that would be impossible today.
In 1878 the Stars joined the International Association and played a schedule that led to decisions in only 36 games. McCormick pitched every game for Syracuse and compiled a 26-10 record. In 1879 the Stars moved up to the National League. McCormick made his major league debut on May 1 at the age of 23. The 5’9”, 155 pound, righthander would be considered undersized for a pitcher in today’s world, but his size was typical for the times. On July 26, 1879, McCormick became the first National League pitcher to win a 1-0 game with his own home run. His smash off a Boston pitcher went over the left field fence at Syracuse’s Newell Park and into the record books. 4
During the summer of 1879 McCormick married a young Syracuse woman named Mary. In a double wedding ceremony that was dubbed Syracuse’s social affair of the year, his teammate Mike Dorgan (who had returned to the Stars from St. Louis) married Mary’s sister Jennie.5
Syracuse did not fare well in the majors, barely surviving the season with a record of 22-48-1. McCormick’s statistics were influenced by the mediocre performance of his club. He won 18 games while losing 33. His 33 losses, 54 games started, 457 innings pitched, 517 hits allowed, and five shutouts were all among the highest numbers recorded by a rookie pitcher before the pitching distance changed in1893.6
When the Stars folded, McCormick was out of professional baseball for nearly two years. He pitched one game for Albany of the National Association in 1880. McCormick was identified as a farm laborer in the 1880 census, living with his wife Mary and baby daughter Margaret on a farm near Albany. During the winter of 1880-81 he worked at a hotel in Cincinnati and may have played some semipro baseball in the Queen City. In 1881 McCormick and some of his former Stars teammates played for the Worcester Ruby Legs in the National League. He appeared in only nine games, but he was back in the majors again.
When the American Association was organized as a major league in 1882, McCormick joined the Cincinnati Red Stockings (Reds) and helped them win the pennant in the first year of the Beer and Whiskey League. As the team’s number two starter behind the great Will White, he won 14 games and posted a sparkling 1.52 earned run average.
McCormick did not play in the famous game of July 21,1882. (Will White was scheduled to pitch for Cincinnati that day.) Nevertheless, McCormick made an important contribution to the game. The Reds had just completed a series in St. Louis and were scheduled to start a series in Columbus that afternoon. Habitually late, third baseman Hick Carpenter had missed the train out of St. Louis. He wired manager Pop Snyder that he would arrive at the Columbus train station at four o’clock, the exact time the game was scheduled to begin. According to the rules of baseball in 1882, Carpenter could not play unless he was in the starting lineup. Shortstop Chick Fulmer solved the problem by feigning a sickness, causing the start of the game to be delayed. Meanwhile, Snyder ordered McCormick to grab a horse and carriage and “drive like hell” to the Columbus depot with Carpenter’s uniform. On the way back Carpenter changed into his uniform. As Columbus manager Horace Phillips was apologizing to the crowd about the delay due to Fulmer’s illness, McCormick’s carriage came tearing into the grounds at full speed, with Carpenter in full uniform. Fulmer’s serious illness suddenly went away. The Reds were at full strength to play the game.7
During the 1882 postseason the American Association champion Reds played two exhibition games against the National League champion Chicago White Stockings. These matches have sometimes been cited as the first World Series games, but they were not for the world’s championship. They were merely exhibition games. However, they assumed some importance as a matchup of the champions of the two major leagues. McCormick did not appear in either game, as Cincinnati ace Will White hurled a complete game in each contest, winning the first on a shutout and losing the second.
In the summer of 1883 McCormick was involved in a late-night brawl at a Cincinnati saloon. Three members of the Pittsburgh Allegheny club were engaged in some slugging and kicking. McCormick and teammate Mike Mansell were also involved, although the Cincinnati Enquirer insisted that the Reds players “did not participate in the disgraceful affair except in their efforts to pull the ruffians off of their prostrate victim.”8 McCormick was arrested, not for fighting, but for firing a Jackson cracker in the street in front of the saloon.9 According to Pittsburgh manager Ormond Butler, the Enquirer had the story all wrong. The skipper said that McCormick had a revolver with him and fired a shot from it.10
In 1883 McCormick slipped to an 8-6 record with a 2.87 earned run average. He still finished nearly everything he started, though, hurling 14 complete games in 15 starts. But his major league career ended at the age of 27 on September 20, 1883.
Out of the majors, McCormick returned to the minor leagues in 1884. He appeared in three games for the Minneapolis Millers of the Northwestern League, then accepted a $100 advance from Trenton to pitch for the Eastern League Trentonians. He won his first game, but committed three errors in three innings in his second game, borrowed $10 from a teammate and left the club.11 Trenton suspended him.
In 1885 McCormick paid $100 to be reinstated from the suspension list. In baseball’s good graces again, he returned to his hometown and tried out with the Syracuse Stars. He didn’t make the grade. During spring training he was cut from the squad due to wildness and inconsistency in the box.12 Apparently, he no longer had the pinpoint control for which he had been famous.
Out of baseball for good, McCormick became a tender on the Erie Canal, but he soon became ill. Patrick Henry McCormick died of cholera in Syracuse on August 8, 1889, at the age of 33. In his obituary the Syracuse Courier reminisced about his earlier days: “McCormick was a physical model…in the prime of youth and health. As straight as an arrow, as lithe as a deer, as cool as an iceberg, he was fitted by nature for athletic exertion, and besides, dogged in temperament, was especially suited to the exciting field of baseball.”13
1 Lloyd Johnson, “Patrick Henry McCormick (Harry),” Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tiemann, and Mark Rucker, eds., Baseball’s First Stars (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1996), 103.
5 W. Lloyd Johnson, “Farewell to Old-style Ball,” in Bill Felber, ed. Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century (Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2013), 112.
7 Edward Achrorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), 133.
8 Cincinnati Enquirer, June 25, 1883. Cited by Achorn, op.cit., 143.
9 According to the Dictionary of Regional American English a Jackson cracker is a type of firecracker.
10 Achorn, op. cit., 143.
11# Johnson, op. cit.
13 Syracuse Courier, cited by Johnson, ibid.