This article was written by Phil Williams
A smallish spitballer, right-hander Jimmy Dygert joined the Philadelphia Athletics in September 1905. Two years later, his career season almost enabled Philadelphia to overtake Detroit in the heated 1907 American League pennant race. From there, Dygert’s wildness undercut his prospects. When the Athletics claimed their first world championship in 1910, Dygert was an afterthought, his major league career in its final season.
James Henry Dygert Jr. was born on July 5, 1884, in Utica, New York. His parents, James Sr. and Mary, were native New Yorkers, and he was the youngest of their five children. James Sr. was a restauranteur, and Dygert’s was a popular gathering spot for Utica baseball fans after games.
The younger Dygert was pitching amateur ball for the Utica Sunset League as early as 1900.1 On June 16, 1903, he made a hometown professional debut, pitching five innings of three-hit ball for the Utica Pent-Ups of the Class B New York State League, in a rain-shortened 1-1 tie versus the Troy Trojans.2 Dygert experienced control problems over the course of the summer, and was farmed downstate to the Poughkeepsie Colts of the Class D Hudson State League.3
Back with Poughkeepsie in 1904, Dygert sparkled as the staff ace, and the Colts took the pennant.4 John McGraw’s Giants and Clark Griffith’s Highlanders also competed for pennants that season. Both clubs took notice of the developments in Poughkeepsie, and at different junctures McGraw and Griffith each believed he had the inside track on landing Dygert. But through the machinations of an upstate bird dog, Syracuse’s George Geer, Connie Mack out-foxed his competition and bought Dygert.5 Mack then assigned his recruit to another friend, Charlie Frank, manager of the Class A Southern Association New Orleans Pelicans, for another season of development.
During 1905 spring training, Dygert pitched effectively against several major league teams when they visited New Orleans. Most notably, on April 9, he out-dueled Cy Young and defeated the Boston Red Sox, 6-4. This set the tone for another outstanding season, as Dygert went 18-4. The Pelicans, despite playing on the road throughout most of the summer due to a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans, captured the pennant.
After the Pelicans’ season concluded, Mack called Dygert up. The Athletics were in the thick of a pennant race, but beyond Eddie Plank and Rube Waddell, their starting pitching was uneven. Starting against Boston on September 8, Waddell struggled, and Dygert was brought in after two innings. Philadelphia rallied against Cy Young, and won 5-3. In picking up the victory in his major league debut, Dygert pitched seven sharp innings and was a “nerveless wonder” fielding his position.6
On the train back to Philadelphia that evening, Waddell developed arm trouble reportedly from roughhousing and then overnight exposure to an open window.7 In his place, Dygert made several starts in the next two weeks. But he did not perform well in the additional action and finished the season with a 1-4 record (and an ERA+ of 62). The Athletics won the pennant. Dygert was not included on the eligibility list for the World Series, which the Giants took in five games.
Dygert was the Athletics’ first full-time spitballer. It isn’t clear if he was pitching spitters in Poughkeepsie. But he was consistently identified as throwing them in New Orleans.8 Dygert had an “overhand delivery” and, when throwing a spitball, “used exactly the same motion as when throwing his curve or fastball.”9 It is uncertain how Dygert wetted the ball. Perhaps he went to his mouth sometimes with intent and sometimes with deception, or perhaps he concealed certain substances on his glove or uniform.
According to an informal, post-game “fanning bee” between Cleveland and Detroit players in 1908, Dygert “could do more with the ‘spit’ ball than any other twirler in the American League.” In particular, Dygert’s spitball “had a far better break to it” than Ed Walsh’s. But the players felt “Dygert lacks the control” that Walsh possessed, and therefore the honor of the best AL spitter belonged to the White Sox ace.10
Besides his spitball, Dygert was best known for his smallish size. During his playing days, he was listed as 5-foot-8.11 Near the end of Dygert’s career, Alfred Spink claimed he weighed only 115 pounds.12 But photographic evidence, and references to his broad shoulders, stockiness, and “well-knit muscular body” suggest otherwise.13 Contemporary listings of his weight at 160 pounds seem more accurate.14
Mack reportedly stated in February 1906 that, but for Waddell’s unreliability, he would prefer Dygert return to New Orleans for another season of development.15 In late April, possibly to engineer such a move—or to gauge demand towards a possible trade, Mack waived Dygert.16 Brooklyn claimed him. Mack pulled him back. Soon a season-long rash of injuries to the staff was underway. At various junctures, Andy Coakley was weakened by the grippe, Chief Bender and Waddell suffered thumb injuries, and Plank’s pitching shoulder became sore.17
Consequently, from mid-May onwards, Dygert was part of the starting rotation. His performance was serviceable for a fourth-place Athletics team that finished 78-67: an 11-13 record (with an ERA+ of 101) across 25 starts and 213 2/3 innings. Dygert struggled with control, finishing among the AL leaders in walks, hit batters, and wild pitches. In the second game of a September 15 doubleheader against the Red Sox, Boston catcher Bob Peterson crowded the plate, looking for a dropping spitter from Dygert. An inside fastball instead found Peterson’s temple, ending his season.18
In 1907 Dygert again began the season as an irregular, starting only three of the Athletics’ first 34 games. But Bender and Jack Coombs battled arm injuries, and Waddell’s efforts were increasingly lackadaisical. Dygert again joined the regular rotation in mid-May.
By September 1, the Athletics were a game behind the Tigers, with the White Sox and Naps also in the race. Over the next two weeks, across five starts (four completed) and two relief appearances, “little Jimmy” went 5-1.19 “Dygert is almost unhittable and growing better all the time,” an admiring correspondent noted.20 By September 15, Philadelphia led Detroit and Chicago by three games.
Then, as Mack’s biographer Norman Macht notes, “the most calamitous week in the Athletics’ seven-year history fell upon them.”21 Several regulars were run down by injuries. Rain washed away three games (not to be made up). Of the four that were played, Philadelphia won only one. The Athletics then split the first two games of a series against the White Sox. By September 25, they had fallen a half-game behind Detroit.
Throughout this 11-day stretch, Dygert did not pitch. Instead Mack tried to re-establish the sore-armed Coombs into the rotation, and leaned yet again on Waddell. But Coombs could not survive the first inning of his start against the Highlanders, and Waddell lost his starts against the Browns and White Sox. The workhorse Plank started the other three games in this stretch, winning two of them. Finally, Mack gave Dygert the ball for the series finale against the White Sox on September 26. Dygert two-hit Chicago in a 3-1 complete-game victory. The Athletics remained a half-game off the Tigers’ pace.
Detroit then arrived in Philadelphia for a critical three-game series. The Athletics, with Plank pitching, lost the opener, 5-4, on September 27. After a rainy Saturday and a baseball-free Sunday, the series would conclude with a doubleheader on Monday, September 30. Mack planned to start Dygert and Plank.
Initially, Dygert had pitched well against the Tigers, winning his two starts against Detroit in 1906. After this early success, however, he had won only one of his next five starts against the Tigers. The last of these efforts, on July 19, 1907, had been a disaster. Dygert walked the bases full with one out in the second inning, yielded a single to pitcher Bill Donovan, walked Davy Jones, and then was yanked by Mack.22
This unfortunate history repeated itself on September 30. The Athletics jumped out to a 3-0 lead after the first inning. Then Dygert became unglued in the second, committing two throwing errors, yielding a run, and leaving the bases full when Mack removed him with one out. Waddell came in and escaped the inning without further damage. But the Athletics eventually squandered a 7-1 lead, and the game lasted for 17 innings, before being called due to darkness as a 9-9 tie.23 The third game of the series did not take place, and the Tigers left with a 1.5 game lead.
Dygert pitched three complete-game shutouts over the next four days. But Plank lost his two starts in the same span. Detroit won four straight and the pennant. Dygert had produced a career year in 1907, going 21-8 (with an ERA+ of 111) over 28 starts and 261 2/3 innings. He achieved career-lows in both hits-per-inning (a league-best 6.9) and walks-per-inning (2.9).
Years later, in a 1943 interview, Mack stated his worst mistake as a manager was not pulling Dygert after he faded in games during the 1907 season: “I had a pitcher named Jimmy Dygert who could beat anyone for seven innings, then he was finished. If I had found this out in time I could have won the pennant. I didn’t realize it until after the season.”24 But of Dygert’s seven starts that resulted in Philadelphia losses in 1907, only one game was lost after seven innings. In the first game of a doubleheader in St. Louis on August 25, Dygert threw eight shutout innings before allowing Browns to reach first and second with one out in the ninth. Mack brought in Bender, who walked a batter, then “made a fearfully wild pitch” that brought in the winnings runs in a 2-1 loss.25 With hindsight, Mack’s mistake with Dygert in 1907 was not overuse but underuse, especially during the fateful 11-day mid-September stretch.
Dygert’s 1908 season began with promise. Unlike the previous two campaigns, he was in the starting rotation from the onset. On May 16 Dygert four-hit the Browns over ten innings in a thrilling 1-0 Philadelphia victory, which raised the Athletics’ record to 16-10, and his to 4-1. Over the next five weeks, however, the team went 8-20 and fell out of the pennant race. Dygert was wild and winless over this span, and a frustrated Mack yanked him from games with little hesitation. By July, Dygert returned to form, then lapsed again. Over the final month of the season, he only pitched in relief. Philadelphia landed in sixth place with a 68-85 record. Dygert finished with an 11-15 mark, an ERA+ of 89, and issued a league-worst 97 walks. He made 28 starts and pitched 238 2/3 innings.
That offseason, Mack offered Dygert to the Browns in exchange for catcher Tubby Spencer.26 But St. Louis soon dealt Spencer to Boston, and Mack addressed his catching needs by purchasing Ira Thomas from Detroit. In 1909 Dygert started only 13 times, primarily against second-division teams. Mostly he pitched in relief, and with some effectiveness, finishing the season with a 9-5 mark (and an ERA+ of 100) across 32 games and 137 1/3 innings. The Athletics rebounded to challenge again for the pennant, finishing 3.5 games behind the Tigers with a 95-58 record.
In February 1910, for the third straight year, Dygert signed a one-year contract for $2400. Then, for the third straight season, he drifted further away from a meaningful role. His season debut came on May 19, mopping up in a 14-2 loss to Detroit. His first start came in the first game of a Fourth of July doubleheader versus the Highlanders. Only on September 13, when the Athletics had essentially clinched the pennant and with Bender needing rest, did Mack place him into the regular rotation. Dygert finished 1910 with a 4-4 record and an ERA+ of 94, over 19 games and 99 1/3 innings.
As a tune-up for their World Series date with the Cubs, Mack arranged a handful of early-October matches against American League all-stars. In the fourth of these games, on October 14, Dygert relieved Cy Morgan in the sixth inning.27 It was his final appearance on the mound for Philadelphia. Dygert was in uniform for Philadelphia’s World Series triumph over Chicago but saw no action. On March 1, 1911, Mack dealt him to Jack Dunn’s Baltimore Orioles of the Class A Eastern League. Dunn had managed the Orioles for several seasons before purchasing the franchise in 1909 with the alleged financial assistance of his close friend, Connie Mack.28
Mack had purchased Lefty Russell from Baltimore in July 1910 for a stunning $12,000, with a belief that Dunn might receive some of that payment in the form of players.29 A month later, Mack waived Dygert, with the anticipation that he would form part of this payment. But Cleveland refused to waive on him, and he remained in Philadelphia.29 When Dygert did pass through waivers six months later, it seemed a “queer move” to some that bottom-feeding teams like St. Louis and Washington had let him “get out of the league.”30
The pitcher was likewise perplexed that he was no longer in the American League. After his Pelicans season concluded in 1905, Dygert had wed New Orleans native Hazel Mozier and settled in that city. When the news of the Baltimore deal reached him in Louisiana, Dygert initially balked, until reassured by Dunn that he would suffer no cut in salary.31
Dygert responded with a 25-15 campaign, helping to propel the Orioles forward in a heated pennant race. Cleveland and Detroit took notice, and expressed interest in bringing him back to the majors.32 But warming up before a key doubleheader against Rochester on August 26, Dygert injured his shoulder.
He was never the same. Dygert’s 1912 season began in Baltimore. Released by the Orioles, he pitched briefly for Providence of the AA International League, before returning to New Orleans to twirl again for the Pelicans. In 1913 Dygert likewise bounced through a trio of teams: Toledo, Chattanooga, and Beaumont.
With his professional career behind him, Dygert worked as an engineer in the building trades, then as a repair foreman. He remarried at some point in the 1920s, to another New Orleans native, Clara Castaing. On February 7, 1936, Jimmy Dygert died from pneumonia. Both Hazel and Clara survived him, along with three children from his second marriage: James Jr., Joyce, and Justina. Dygert was buried in New Orleans’ Greenwood Cemetery.
The author appreciates the insights of fellow SABR member Norman Macht towards Connie Mack’s acquisition of Dygert. In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Dygert’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the following sites:
1 For examples of Dygert’s amateur beginnings, see Utica (New York) Herald-Dispatch, July 17, 1900, 8; Utica (New York) Herald-Dispatch, June 7, 1902, 8; “Dygert a Star,” Amsterdam (New York) Evening Recorder, June 1, 1903, 2.
2 Sporting Life, June 27, 1903, 16.
3 “Uticas Beaten by Tailenders,” Utica (New York) Herald-Dispatch, July 10, 1903, 3; Utica (New York) Herald-Dispatch, August 15, 1903, 3; Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle, August 15, 1903, 7.
4 By some lore, Dygert won 35 games for the 70-47 Colts in 1904 [see “J.H. Dygert, Ex-Big League Pitcher, Dead,” Utica (New York) Observer-Dispatch, February 8, 1936, 5]. Even if this total seems exaggerated, contemporary reporting does demonstrate he was the staff ace.
5 “From the Bleachers’,” Boston Herald, August 21, 1904, 17; “Great Activity Is Indicated,” (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer, February 9, 1905, 8.
6 “Boston Again Defeated by the Athletics,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 9, 1905, 1.
7 Norman Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 347-349.
8 For the first mention of Dygert’s spit ball found by the author, see “Guese Not Great as He Used to Be,” (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, April 30, 1905, 14.
9 Billy Evans, “Spitball Pitching Slowly Dying Out,” (Washington, DC) Evening Star, February 6, 1910, 58; Billy Evans, “’Spitball’ Twirlers Now Seem To Be On The Decline,” (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer, January 5, 1908, 16.
11 Dygert is listed as “five feet, eight and one-half inches” in “Intimate Dope on Clever Men Who Earned American’s Honors,” The Sporting News, October 20, 1910, 3. When he arrived in Baltimore the next year, a local correspondent stated he “does not stand more than five feet eight inches in height”—see “Anxious to Play With the Birds,” The (Baltimore) Sun, March 15, 1911, 14. Perhaps the best accounting for his height is a team photo of the Athletics after he arrived in 1905, where he stands in the back row, in front of a fence, providing a point of reference to other teammates. See “Athletic League Champions, 1905,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1905, 10.
12 Bill James references Alfred Spink’s 115-pound accounting in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001), 76.
13 H.P. Edwards, “April Fooled the Spectators,” (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer, April 2, 1905, 26; “Gossip Gleaned in Cleveland Training Camp,” (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer, March 31, 1907, 1C; “Anxious to Play With the Birds.”
14 Two accounts at 160: Sporting Life, October 15, 1910, 9; “Intimate Dope on Clever Men Who Earned American’s Honors.” In “Anxious to Play With the Birds” the reporter notes “He has knocked off considerable weight during the winter and now tips the scales at only 173 pounds, whereas when the 1910 season closed he weighed more than 190 pounds.”
15 “Admidst Cheers, Pennant is Awarded,” New Orleans Item, February 24, 1906, 6.
16 “Ritter Likely To Go; Donovan Wants Dygert,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 1, 1906, 6.
17 Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years, 365-375.
18 “Athletics Get Away With Two,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 16, 1906, 13.
19 His five victories: September 3 versus Washington, September 6 versus New York, September 12 versus Boston, and both games of a September 14 double-header versus Boston. His sole loss: September 10 versus Boston.
21 Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years, 394.
22 Dygert’s starts versus Detroit preceding the September 30, 1907 showdown: June 15, 1906, July 16, 1906, July 31, 1906, August 23, 1906, July 5, 1907, July 19, 1907. For details of the July 19 affair, see Joe S. Jackson, “Tiges Back in Third Place,” Detroit Free Press, July 20, 1907, 6.
23 For details of the September 30 game, see Joe S. Jackson, “Mad, Record Crowd Sees Tiges Pull a Hopeless Game Into a 17-Inning Tie,” Detroit Free Press, October 1, 1907, 1.
24 Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years, 400-401.
25 “Athletics Win But One Game,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 26, 1907, 10.
26 Francis C. Richter, “Philadelphia Points,” Sporting Life, October 31, 1908, 5.
27 Francis C. Richter, “The Practice Games,” Sporting Life, October 22, 1910, 3.
29 “Dunn Loses Dygert,” The (Baltimore) Sun, August 23, 1910, 10.
30 “Greatest Assets of a Southpaw Flinger Are Speed and Control,” (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer, March 12, 1911.
31 Francis C. Richter, “Quaker Quips,” Sporting Life, March 11, 1911, 8; “Dunn Writes Dygert,” The (Baltimore) Sun, March 5, 1911, 10.
32 “Sox after Charlie Schmidt,” Washington Post, August 30, 1911, 8.