“Coldwater Jim” Hughey is still the last major league pitcher to lose 30 games in a season. Hughey was more than a footnote in history, more than someone who had the misfortune to pitch for a team, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, that made the 1962 Mets look like an invincible juggernaut. At the time, he was a thirty-year-old veteran of nearly a decade in professional baseball, including successful seasons at the highest levels of the minor leagues.
The Hughey family, like so many in the nineteenth century, seemed to be constantly on the move. Jim’s father James S. was born in late 1837 in rural western Ohio. The family moved back and forth between Ohio and Indiana a few times, but by the time James S. reached adulthood, they were in DeKalb County in northeastern Indiana living near the small town of Fairfield Center.
Eighteen sixty-one was a momentous year for James S. Hughey. Early in the year he married Elizabeth Furney, and soon thereafter enlisted in the Union Army. He joined the 30th Indiana Regiment in Indianapolis and was assigned to Company C. He was promoted to Sergeant in 1862, and served the standard three-year enlistment. Late in 1864, he enlisted in the 30th Michigan. He served for the rest of the war, deserting in June of 1865 just before his regiment left for Reconstruction duty in Arkansas.
The Hughey clan next settled in Wakeshma Township in southeastern Kalamazoo County, Michigan. On March 8, 1869, the Hugheys’ second son was born. He was named James for his father and Ulysses for Ulysses S. Grant, who four days earlier had been inaugurated as the country’s 18th president.
Within the next few years two more children were born, and the family relocated again, this time to Algansee Township in Branch County, Michigan. The new Hughey home was located about seven miles southeast of the town of Coldwater and about five miles north of the Indiana border.
Young Jim almost certainly began playing baseball before the move. He also developed a love for other outdoor sports such as hunting, fishing and trapping. As a teenager, Jim started to pitch for the Coldwater Athletics club. The Athletics were the area’s top team and one of the best in south central Michigan, attracting players from Detroit and opponents from as far away as Chicago. Jim led the Athletics to a regional championship in 1889 before moving on.
Hughey started his professional career in the Indiana State League. The Coldwater Courier reported: “Baseball experts say Hughey is making a great Record in the Indiana League. He has an upshoot that no other pitcher has got onto and one that puzzles all the batters.”
Statistics for that first professional season are not available, but Jim did well enough to be signed by Fond du Lac of the Wisconsin State League for the 1891 season. After an early season victory over Marinette, the Courier observed “If the Detroit Club had Hughey, they wouldn’t be at the tail end of the Northwestern League.”
In addition to gaining valuable professional experience, Hughey also earned a nickname. He was sometimes called Smiling Jim, and a July account in the Fond du Lac Daily Reporter captures the nickname’s origins: “When the hopes of the visitors would be raised by two men on bases, Hughey would smile sarcastically and strike out the batters.”
The successful season, and being in the right place at the right time, earned Jim his first major league trial. In August of 1891, the Cincinnati team of the American Association disbanded and was replaced by the Milwaukee minor league team. Milwaukee retained some of their own players and inherited others from Cincinnati. They also bought successful minor leaguers. Jim Hughey was one of the players whose contracts were purchased.
The Coldwater Courier reported on Jim’s major league debut: “In a game between the Milwaukees and Louisvilles on September 29, [Willard] Mains…. was batted for eight runs in the first two innings. Hughey was called from the bench and pitched the rest of the game; the Louisvilles making only two runs off his pitching-Hughey striking out five men.” Before season’s end, Hughey won his only start. After the 1891 campaign, the Association folded. The National League absorbed four of the AA teams, but Milwaukee was not one of them.
On February 21, 1892, Jim married Alice Bickford, a member of a neighboring family. Late in the year, the Hugheys had their only child, a son they named Earl.
Hughey spent the 1892 season with Kansas City of the Western League. By now noted for his curve ball, Hughey was the team’s ace hurler. A 2-1, 13-inning win over Columbus in May was the best performance in what turned out to be a short season. Jim led the league with 111 strikeouts in 28 games before the league folded in July.
Hughey finished the 1892 season with the Macon Central Citys of the Southern Association, and began 1893 with them as well. He pitched well enough there to earn a trial with Cap Anson’s struggling Chicago Colts (as the Cubs were then nicknamed) in 1893.
After a delay in reporting to Chicago, Hughey debuted in the National League on August 16. Ironically Louisville was again the opponent. The Chicago Tribune said he “showed himself a capable twirler.” He was hurt by the play of third baseman Jiggs Parrott, whose three errors were described by the Tribune as “of the glaring style.” Hughey made one more appearance with Chicago but was removed after allowing ten runs in the second inning. Chicago released him two days later.
In 1894, the Western League was revived under the leadership of Ban Johnson. Hughey signed with Toledo in the new circuit. He debuted with the White Stockings on May 11 and the Toledo Commercial was very impressed: “James ‘Strongarm’ Hughey pitched for the home team and after giving [Bobby] Wheelock and Rasty [Wright] their bases in the initial inning, he set to work like an eight day clock. Five stingy little singles were all that were made off his twisters.” The Commercial also commented on Hughey’s unique pitching style: “He fondles the ball before delivering it to the batter and speeds it on its way with a grunt. It not only makes the ball think a razorback is chasing it, but the batsman is likely to hear the echo as it rolls back from the grandstand, and when he turns around the umpire calls it a strike.” Hughey beat Grand Rapids 5-2 that day and won seven of his first eight decisions with Toledo.
Another Toledo newspaper, the Bee, said of a July 10 win over first place Sioux City: “That king of fast runners and active box workers… pitched one of those games you dream of but witness once in a lifetime. Uey [sic] struck out eight of the Indians and allowed but four safe hits. All were measly singles too.”
During the 1894 season, Hughey defeated future Hall Of Famer Joe McGinnity of Kansas City and lost an exhibition game to Amos Rusie of the Giants. He also played in several games against a very strong Findlay (Ohio) independent team. The Findlay Sluggers included three future major leaguers plus African American stars Bud Fowler and Grant “Home Run” Johnson.
Hughey was something of an iron man during this first season in Toledo. He compiled a 25-12 record with 135 strikeouts in 335 innings. All the work was likely responsible for a slow start the next season.
He left his first start of the 1895 season with what the Toledo Blade described as “a crick in his elbow.” He fared even worse in his second start on May 19, losing 12-5 to Indianapolis. The Blade was very critical of his effort: “He reported for duty this spring feeling as weak as the man who writes Sasperilla testimonials just before he took the first bottle of your medicine. The curves which last season rushed through the air with such velocity that they left a polished hole as bright as the inside of a gun barrel, now wobble toward the plate with the uncertain motion of a timid maiden taking her first lesson on a bicycle.”
After the slow start, Hughey gradually regained his health. Meanwhile, the team’s financial condition weakened and after a ban on Sunday baseball, the franchise was shifted to Terre Haute, Indiana. All in all, Hughey had another successful campaign, winning 21 of 36 decisions and upping his strikeout total to 150 in 317 innings. His success in the Western League led to his purchase by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were managed by Connie Mack.
Although most players would have welcomed the opportunity, Jim was ambivalent about his new assignment. Early in the 1896 season he said: “I’m not stuck on pitching ball in the Big League. When I was in the Western League I received as much salary and had an easier time of it. The newspapers do not roast the players in the Western League (the Blade excluded), though in the big league the men are subjected to severe roasts if they lose two or three games, especially the pitchers. Of course the pitcher is invariably blamed when his team loses.”
Hughey started the 1896 season in impressive fashion. The Washington Post said of a May 8 victory over the Senators: “Hughey was an interrogation point to the Senators. For seven straight innings but three hits were charged against him, and, curiously Jim McGuire was credited with these three.” Senator centerfielder Tom Brown went 0-5 and said after the game “That kid Hughey has no speed, nor can he shuffle up his delivery, but he can fool any of us with that high ball of his [changeup].”
After a 6-5 victory in ten innings over Brooklyn later that month, the Brooklyn Eagle commented: “Hughey’s curves seemed easy, but the hits came in spots and did not last long enough to bring runs.” The Chicago Tribune said of another game: “There was a strong belief that Pitcher Hughey could be hit safely and it was done.” Hughey’s curves and changeup didn’t fool most league batters for very long. Outside of a July victory over St. Louis, he wasn’t particularly effective the rest of 1896. He finished the year with a record of 6-8 in 25 games.
Early in 1897, the Washington Post said Hughey had “not shown up in encouraging style thus far.” The season would be fairly undistinguished with a couple of exceptions. In a July relief win over Chicago, strong pitching and an outstanding fielding play gave the Pirates a 7-5 win.
In early September, he was a 6-5 winner over Washington. The most memorable part of that game was when the umpire ended the contest on account of darkness. The Washington Post said the umpire “climbed into the stand and skewered his way through a path of feminine fans, several of whom belabored the cranium of the indicator-handler with parasols.” Hughey ended 1897 with a 6-10 record and a 5.06 ERA, very similar to the results he had posted in 1896.
During the off-season he was sold to St. Louis, who had finished 12th in the 12 team National League. Chris Von Der Ahe’s once proud Browns had deteriorated into a sad franchise during the 1890s. Hughey was in for a pitcher’s worst nightmare, a team with no appreciable talent either offensively or defensively. To make matters worse, the Browns home field, Sportsman’s Park, burned to the ground in April.
Nevertheless, Hughey would have his finest major league season in 1898. He had a big game against the Pirates in late April, winning 13-1, scattering eleven hits, and starting two double plays. At the plate, he had the best day of his major league career with a homer and a triple. Another highlight was a 3-1 win over Boston. Coldwater Jim gave up three hits and kept Boston from scoring after the first inning.
Still, wins were hard to come by. More common were games like a June loss to Baltimore when he tired in the eighth and allowed the Orioles to score the winning runs. In an August loss to Washington, the Post said he “served the locals on a menu of slow curves and straight balls that were peppered all over the heather, fifteen hits being the extent of the assault on Jimmy’s inviting twisters.”
Sometimes, Hughey was more lucky than good in 1898. That was especially true in a pair of games against Brooklyn. A five run St. Louis rally in the eighth and the ejection of Brooklyn pitcher “Roaring Bill” Kennedy won an August start. The Brooklyn Eagle said that Kennedy was “so exasperated” at having to constantly use new balls “that he fired a brand new Spalding over the grandstand and was ordered out of the game.” Hughey also surrendered thirteen hits to Brooklyn in a late season game but allowed just three runs. The Eagle said “Hughey by using speed retired Magoon and Daly in rapid succession on strikes.” The game was then called a ten inning 3-3 tie due to darkness. Jim finished 1898 with a 7-24 record but a respectable 3.93 ERA.
If 1898 was an unpleasant experience for Hughey, 1899 was even worse. Frank and Stanley Robison, the owners of the Cleveland Spiders, purchased the Browns during the off-season. They nicknamed their new team the Perfectos and transferred Cleveland’s best players (including future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett and Bobby Wallace) to St. Louis. Deciding a pitcher with a 7-24 record would be out of place on a team nicknamed the Perfectos, St. Louis sent Hughey to Cleveland. The Spiders compiled a 20-134 record, the worst in major league history, and Hughey as the team’s de facto ace took more punishment than most.
Hughey’s most satisfying and impressive win in 1899 was against the St. Louis portion of the Robison syndicate. On June 25, he allowed just eight hits in a 3-1 victory at St. Louis. He also beat Baltimore despite being in less than ideal physical condition. Thomas Hetrick’s Misfits quotes Hughey on that game: “I am glad they did not bunt on me as they did on the other pitchers. If they had I should have had a hard time of it, as I have a bad leg and could not have fielded bunts.” The victory improved Jim’s record to 4-14, but it was the last game he was to win in 1899.
The second half of Coldwater Jim’s nightmare season is best summed up by an embarrassing incident in an otherwise well pitched September loss at Chicago. The Chicago Tribune described the play: “The ball struck [catcher] McAllister on his bare hand and hurt him. McAllister chased the ball to the stand and threw it back, whereupon Hughey slipped and sat down in the mud. The catcher and pitcher were both mad as hornets, and McAllister walked straight to the bench and quit the game.”
Hughey finished 1899 with a 4-30 record and a 5.41 ERA. It was the last time a major league pitcher would lose thirty games in a season.
After 1899, the National League contracted from 12 to 8 teams. Cleveland was naturally one of the teams contracted out of existence. Despite the loss of one-third of major league jobs, Hughey managed to hook up with his old club in St. Louis. Alice Hughey and young Earl accompanied Jim to the Mound City.
He had good success against the league’s best team. In late May Hughey defeated the Superbas, the eventual league champs, 5-1 and on August 11, after missing a month due to an unspecified injury, bested them again by a score of 8-1. The Brooklyn Eagle said, “his curves were like so much Hebrew to the Trolley Dodgers.” Sporting Life offered an even better description of this win: “Gentle Jeems the Coldwater member of Tebeau’s pitching corps was the gentleman who had the most to do in bringing about the gladsome result. It was his first appearance on the slab in many moons, and he showed unexpectedly good form. He was there with his very fair speed and twisting benders and the easterners were completely bluffed by them throughout. Hughey was a hero in more ways than one. Besides twirling a la the greatest ever, the stocky Michigander had on his batting togs for about the first time in his career. He lined safely to right, beat out a bunt, laid down a perfect sacrifice and used his eagle eye for a base on balls. It was Hughey’s day to shine sure.”
Hughey finished 1900 with a 5-7 record in 20 appearances. In the winter of 1900-01 it was clear Jim would not return to the Cardinals. St. Louis tried to trade him to the Worcester club, for Jim Delahanty, but the deal fell through. Released by St. Louis, he returned to Coldwater and likely made overtures to Toledo of the Western Association. The Mud Hens field manager was Jim’s old teammate Bobby Gilks.
On Memorial Day, Hughey pitched a local Coldwater team to a 6-5 win over the Mud Hens at the Branch County fairgrounds ballpark. He struck out seven in seven innings and was soon signed by Toledo owner Charles Strobel. Still rounding into shape, Coldwater Jim allowed ten runs in three innings in his June 15 debut and suffered a sprained ankle in his second start later that month.
After returning to action in mid-July, Hughey won his next eight starts and finished at 11-4 with 60 strikeouts in 132 innings. The Coldwater Daily Republican said of a mid-August win, “Hughey pitched a great game for Toledo last Saturday winning by a score of 13-3. It is evident he also had his batting eye with him as he was at bat three times and made a home run, a two base hit and a single.” He finished the year with a .277 batting average.
In 1902 Jim returned to Toledo, as Charles Strobel’s Mud Hens joined the newly formed American Association. When he reported to the club in late March, Hughey commented that he hadn’t worked out in the off-season hoping to avoid arm problems he’d suffered from in 1901. The lack of conditioning likely haunted him much of the season. Early in the year he was plagued by wildness and a loss of effectiveness in the latter part of games. He was also plagued by a bad team. Toledo fell into last place early in the season and never escaped.
By June, Jim was pitching his best baseball of the season. The Blade commented on a June victory over Columbus: “Old Coldwater had benders and twisters, ins and outs, ups and downs, straight jabs and upper cuts and above all, he knew where the triangular rubber [home plate] was located. [The] Senators stood up like a lot of hayfield ball tossers and poked them into the mitts of fielders.”
By July, he seemed to be wearing down and gaining weight. The Blade said of him “Hughey is getting too fat. His grunt tank is getting very heavy.” He also seemed to be longing to return home. A major concern was the fate of his prized hunting dog, who had bitten a tormenting youngster.
Criticisms of the team, and Hughey in particular, appeared with regularity in the Blade. After an early August defeat the paper said: “As fat and saucy as ever, Jeems Hughey wandered out onto the diamond yesterday afternoon at Armory park with the avowed intention of making the downtrodden [Minneapolis] Millers look like a lot of selling platers. The Michigan marvel miscalculated somewhere. His benders were not the mysteries they were once. The misfits from St. Anthony’s Falls took a kink or two out of them in the very first inning, and from that time on Jeems began to lose flesh. By the time the game was half over the fat boy had lost so much of his corpulency that his clothes did not fit. Along toward the finish, his uniform was hanging on him in folds. Jeems had the same old grunt but somehow or other he couldn’t fool ’em.”
On September 8, 1902, Hughey was released at his own request. Despite a forgettable 9-21 record, Hughey said that he enjoyed playing for the Mud Hens, “Charles Strobel is the best man I ever worked for. He has always treated his players right, and I do not believe there is a man who ever drew a salary from him who can truthfully say he was not given a fair and square deal.”
When his longtime teammate Bobby Gilks was named manager of Shreveport in the Southern Association, Jim went to Louisiana with him. Hughey compiled a 17-14 record in 1903 and won four of his first six decisions the next year. He lost his last eight decisions and after a 19-0 loss to Atlanta was released, almost certainly at his request.
On February 14, 1907, the Hughey family escaped serious tragedy. Jim was overcome by carbon monoxide gas from a malfunctioning coal stove. A neighbor intervened and Jim, Alice and their son Earl all survived, though Alice Hughey was hospitalized for several days.
After baseball, Jim farmed and ran a small store located on the road between Fremont, Indiana, and Coldwater. The store was the early equivalent of a modern day 24-hour convenience store. After automobiles became common, he would leave a container of gasoline and another for the money as a service to late night travelers. The store was the center of the unincorporated area of Algansee Township variously known as Hugheyville and Hughey’s Corners. During the Great Depression, he commonly extended credit to area families.
Though farming and storekeeping were his vocations, hunting and trapping were his avocations. He enjoyed the pursuits year round and there was reportedly a false wall in the upstairs of their home to allow Jim and Earl to conceal furs if a game warden visited.
Jim was also proud of his baseball career and enjoyed talking about the game. Older residents of the area remember two crossed baseball bats and the name “Home Run Farm” painted onto the small barn.
Coldwater Jim Hughey died in the Coldwater Health Center on March 29, 1945, at the age of 76. Alice died two years later. The Hugheys are buried in the small Lester Cemetery just a mile south of their old home and store.
Coldwater (Michigan) Courier
Coldwater (Michigan) Republican
Coldwater (Michigan) Daily Reporter (1888-1907, 1912, 1945)
Fond Du Lac (Wisconsin) Daily Reporter (1891)
Chicago Tribune (1893, 1896-1901)
Toledo (Ohio) Blade (1894-95, 1901-02)
Toledo (Ohio) Commercial (1894)
Toledo Bee (1894)
Washington Post (1896-1900)
Brooklyn Eagle (1896-1900)
Sporting Life (1900)
The Sporting News (1903-04)
Hetrick, J. Thomas. Misfits. Pocol Press, 2001.
Interviews with Ed Butters, Herb & Janice Vance, Coldwater, Michigan.
Nemec, David. Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Major League Baseball. Donald I. Fine, 1997.
Thorn, John. Total Baseball (Seventh Edition). Total Sports, 2001.
Toledo Statistics courtesy of John Husman.
US Census data: Indiana 1860; Michigan 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930; Missouri 1900.
Wright, Marshall. The Southern Association, 1885-1961. McFarland, 2002.