This article was written by Bill Nowlin
When Johnny Wittig was two years old, his father, Karl, renounced his allegiance to German emperor Wilhelm II. A native of Munich, he had come to the United States, arriving in Baltimore on December 21, 1912, with his wife, Francesca “Fannie” (Wimmer). Their first-born was John Carl Wittig, born in Baltimore on June 16, 1914. They later added another son, Carl, and two daughters, Matilda and Maria. Karl Wittig found work as a butcher for a packing company.
John Wittig grew to become an even 6 feet tall and 180 pounds. For 15 years, he was a right-handed pitcher in organized baseball. His time in the majors saw him spend at least parts of four seasons with the New York Giants, with a couple of years in Jersey City in between, and then, after a five-year hiatus, a final return to the big leagues for two innings with the Boston Red Sox.
He had attended public school #228 in Baltimore and two years at the city’s Patterson Park High School, but left school at 16 to begin working as a butcher himself.1 His pro baseball career grew out of playing baseball in his spare time. It was baseball that, at least in part, had lured him from school when he was offered a position with a coal company’s semipro team. He was spotted playing Baltimore sandlot baseball in 1934, in particular pitching a “victory over the crack Baltimore police team.”2 In the parlance of the day and in the words of the Baltimore Sun, he “caught the eye of Oriole ivory-hunters.”3 He was signed by the Baltimore Orioles, not by a major-league team.
In 1935 the Orioles placed him with the Class-C Middle Atlantic League Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Johnnies. He pitched 169 innings in 31 games, and achieved a 9-7 won/loss record with a 3.89 earned run average. In 1936 he had a similar workload but his ERA was an unimpressive 6.53 (it didn’t help that he was left in for the full game in a 13-2 loss to Akron on August 1) and he was 8-14.
Wittig started the 1937 season with Portsmouth, Virginia, in the Class-B Piedmont League, but after seven appearances with an 11.25 ERA was dropped down to Class D with the Dover (Delaware) Orioles in the Eastern Shore League. He got a lot of work – 198 innings – and had one game where he struck out 16. He also threw 21 innings for Baltimore.
Before the 1938 season began, Wittig took part in an experiment. Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, said he would arrange a test using a home-run-hitting machine for the federal Bureau of Standards to try to determine what difference there might be between “the so-called National League dead ball and the so-called American League rabbit ball.” In Baltimore, Wittig had pitched both balls to sluggers Jimmie Foxx, Chuck Klein, and Charlie Keller. They “knocked both balls over the fence with deadly regularity.”4 Elite batters didn’t have a problem, but there was a difference for a pitcher, Wittig said. “The raised stitches on the dead ball will give the pitcher a better chance to curve the ball.”5 Because he was from Baltimore, the Orioles kept him busy over the wintertime representing the team at luncheons, church socials, and various Boys Club activities.6
He started 1938 with Baltimore and was 10-9 (5.29) when he was dealt to the New York Giants. Oddly, it was reported that “both the Giants and the Pirates hold options on Pitcher Johnny Wittig of Baltimore, but [Giants manager Bill] Terry has first choice.”7
The Giants were scouting both infielder Bill Cissell and Wittig. They purchased Wittig on August 3 in a straight cash transaction, reported in a number of newspapers as around $25,000, and put him into a ballgame the very next day. The Giants were losing to the Cubs, 6-0, after eight innings. Wittig pitched the ninth, issuing one walk but retiring the other three batters. It was the first major-league game he’d ever seen, and he was in it. He was purchased on a provisional basis, but made good.
He worked two innings in Boston against the Bees on the 10th, allowing four hits and one run. By the end of August, he’d worked 10 2/3 innings in relief and had a 1.69 earned run average to show for it, and won in his last outing of the month with three innings of hitless relief in front of what was said to have been the largest crowd to date at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. This was after having come on with the bases loaded and nobody out.
September was another story. He was made a starter. He got his first start on September 3 in Brooklyn, and lost a close 5-4 eight-inning complete game. He won a 6-3 game at the Polo Grounds over visiting Boston but didn’t last longer than the fourth inning in his final four starts of the season. Wittig finished 2-3 with a 4.81 ERA.
During spring training 1939, there was reported some good news and some news not so good. A New York Times headline in early March read, “Wittig’s Pitching Earns Praise Of Giants Players and Coaches.”8 But there was also concern expressed that Wittig wasn’t deceptive enough with his delivery. The AP wrote, “Wittig has plenty of ‘stuff’ and has no difficulty finding the center of the plate, but he does it too often and shows by his actions what he’s going to throw.”9 As Giants manager Bill Terry put it, “Wittig is too true to his delivery…He can’t conceal from the batter what is coming up to the plate, at least not with enough success to produce the desired dividends.”10
He started the 1939 season with the Giants, appearing in three games of relief over the first three weeks, but had an ERA of 11.12. Most of the season was spent back in Jersey City, where he was sent on May 11. He was 8-7 with a 4.02 ERA. The team finished first in the International League. Wittig pitched a 16-inning 3-2 loss to Newark in the playoffs (two of the runs against him coming early on, due to an error by Al Glossop.) After Newark prevailed in the playoffs, Wittig was called up to join the Giants. He had two reasonably good starts at the end of September, with seven earned runs in 11 innings, but lost both games.
The 1940 season was spent exclusively with Jersey City. He had a 3.02 ERA, with a 9-6 record, one of the wins coming on May 22 when he singled home the winning run in the bottom of the 14th to beat the Syracuse Chiefs. He’d dug himself into a deep hole, loading the bases in the top of the 12th, before striking out the next three. Wittig seriously injured his arm on July 13 and didn’t post the innings he had the year before. After the season was over, he married Elsie-Hedwig Gneiting in October.
In 1941, Wittig spent the full year with the New York team. He worked in 25 games, nine of them starts (mostly in May and June), and was 3-5 (5.59). He was back with Jersey City for all of 1942, early in the season losing both games of a doubleheader in Newark on May 18 (driven from the mound before recording an out in the first game, and then losing the second game in relief despite only giving up one hit in 2 2/3 innings]. Later in the year (which saw him wind up 11-10, 3.45), he threw a “no-hitter” in the playoffs against Syracuse (“no-hitter” is placed in quotation marks because even though he was credited in league records with a 10 1/3 inning no-hitter, he did give up a hit in the 11th and lost the game in the 13th, 1-0, after giving up two more hits). Syracuse swept the playoffs in four games.
Wittig had an operation for bone spurs in November, reportedly fully successful. Heading into 1943, sportswriter Joe King pretty much summed up the assessment many had of Wittig at the time. He wrote that Wittig was someone who “should be a major league twirler, but who has always just missed.”11
Continuing the back-and-forth pattern he’d seemed to be setting, it was the New York Giants (and not the Jersey City Giants) for all of 1943. He had his best year in the big leagues, pitching to a 4.23 earned run average in 40 games, but this was a year that New York finished in last place in the National League. Wittig was 5-15. It was what the Times dubbed “a rather indifferent season.”12 The team only had one pitcher with a winning record, Ace Adams (11-7). One writer suggested Wittig’s problem had been that he had focused so much on control; he’d been trying so hard not to walk batters that he’d been throwing too many pitches right over the plate.13
He was out of baseball in 1944 and 1945. He was classified 1-A in the draft, and he went on the voluntarily retired list and took a shipyard job as an electrician in Baltimore where he worked for the rest of World War II.14 He did play some amateur ball while out of the game. He was reinstated in January 1946 and was waived to Cincinnati on February 28 for the purchase price of $7,500. That was a mistake. Warren Giles‘s mistake.
The Cincinnati GM was driving to Tampa for spring training, stopped for lunch, and called back to the office to see if anything was up. “The Giants have asked waivers on Witek,” he was told, and he thought the reference was to infielder Mickey Witek. “Claim him,” Giles told his secretary. When he found out later that he’d obtained Wittig, the one who’d actually been placed on waivers, he was too embarrassed to admit it and so told manager Bill McKechnie to keep him. McKechnie didn’t use him, and Wittig was released outright to Syracuse on May 9, 1946.
Wittig wasn’t happy. “Why did you claim me if you didn’t want to use me?” he asked. Giles dissembled. “Well, it was just one of those things. You know how it is. That’s the way it is in baseball. You think a player can help you and when you get him, you find out he can’t.” Wittig wasn’t buying that line, and he pressed for a better answer. He got it: “You’ve put me in a spot where I can do nothing else except to tell you the truth. We really didn’t want you, John. It was a mistake on my part. I thought I was claiming Mickey Witek.” Wittig was said to have “looked at the red-faced baseball man in silence for a moment and then said, softly, ‘I wish I hadn’t asked you, Mr. Giles.’”15
Was he dispirited or was he just a little rusty? Wittig was 1-7 for Syracuse, but his ERA was actually 4.31, somewhat better than his career average.
In 1947, 1948, and 1949 Wittig played in the International League for the Baltimore Orioles. They were workmanlike years – a 4.71 ERA in ’47 and 4.81 in ’48, with eight wins each season and 12 and 16 losses respectively. He was working as the third-base coach for Baltimore when the Boston Red Sox acquired him after Boo Ferriss went on the 60-day disabled list with an ailing arm. Some of the other Red Sox were surprised to learn that a Triple-A third base coach had been brought in to replace Ferriss. All he’d been pitching was batting practice. He was brought in on a conditional deal. Wittig was surprised, too. “You can imagine how surprised I was last night when I was told that I was to report to the Red Sox immediately. It came like a bolt out of the blue.”16
It was his first time in the major leagues since 1943. It didn’t last long. Though he was on the team from June 20 to July 13, the only day he worked was on June 22. The Tigers were visiting at Fenway Park. After seven innings, the Tigers were leading, 11-4. It was mop-up time. Manager Joe McCarthy asked Wittig to pitch the eighth and ninth. He got through the eighth with just a base on balls. In the ninth, another walk, a double, and then a Vic Wertz single gave the Tigers two more runs. He stuck around until he was turned back to Baltimore on July 13. Once there, the Orioles used him and he appeared in 31 games for Baltimore, all in relief save for one start. He was 4-1 (4.17).
Wittig began the season with Baltimore in 1950, pitching in Havana at one point, but was sold to the Rochester Red Wings (also in the International League) in May. The move regenerated him, in a sense, and he won his first five decisions with Rochester. The Red Wings won the I.L. pennant, but lost in the playoffs to Baltimore.
In 1951, his last year in professional baseball, he also played for Rochester. He underwent an appendectomy in Buffalo at the end of May, but that year’s stats show him appearing in 19 games, and a final record of 4-2, with a 2.84 ERA, the lowest of his career. He was on the Rochester club during spring training 1952, but had applied for retirement in 1952 so he could run a filling station.
Wittig had used some of his earnings to acquire a 12-pump Shell gas station and became an owner/operator of his own service station in suburban Baltimore, living in Lansdowne, Maryland.17 Asked to look back on his career in 1964, he wrote, “I know of nothing I would rather do, than play ball again.”18
He died on February 24, 1999, in Nassawadox, Virginia, and is buried in Sykesville, Maryland.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Wittig’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 He was listed as a butcher in the 1930 census.
2 Typewritten notes on a piece of paper found in Wittig’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
3 Randall Cassell, “John Carl Wittig,” Baltimore Sun, May 26, 1938.
4 Associated Press, “‘Dead’ and ‘Live’ Baseballs To Be Tested By Federal Bureau,” Dallas Morning News, January 13, 1938: II, 3.
5 Associated Press, “‘Dead’ Ball ‘Wooshes’ When Slugged,” San Diego Union, January 11, 1938: 11.
6 Will Wedge, “Giants In Experimental Stage,” unidentified and undated newspaper clipping in Wittig’s Hall of Fame player file.
7 Sam Otis, “It’s New To Most Of You,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 2, 1938: 15.
8 John Drebinger, “Wittig’s Pitching Earns Praise Of Giants Players and Coaches,” New York Times, March 10, 1939: 27.
9 Associated Press, “Wittig Needs Deception To Pitch for Giants,” Evening Star (Washington DC), April 5, 1939: 35.
10 James P. Dawson, “Wittig Is Working On New Delivery,” New York Times, April 5, 1939.
11 Joe King, “Mungo’s Comeback Effort Has Full Backing of Ott,” undated New York World-Telegram clipping in Wittig’s Hall of Fame player file.
12 John Drebinger, “Zabala Remains Among Holdouts; Giants Sell John Wittig to Reds,” New York Times, March 1, 1946: 24.
13 Lester Rice, “Wittig’s Caution Foils Early Hartnett Boast,” unidentified August 24, 1943 newspaper clipping in Wittig’s player file.
14 Joe King, “Jersey Sirocco Drives Giants To Quarters,” New York World-Telegram, April 6, 1944.
15 Bob Broeg, “A 50-Year Exec Now Just A Fan,” The Sporting News, January 24, 1970: 36.
16 Bill Liston, “Sox Hire Coach As Twirler,” Boston Traveler, June 21, 1949.
17 The Sporting News, February 27, 1952: 31. See also Wittig’s 1984 player questionnaire for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
18 Player questionnaire for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.