This article was written by David Nemec
Born in New Albany, Indiana, on February 21, 1867, Jo Meekin was the son of James Meekin, a renowned riverboat pilot. At the time of his birth New Albany was the undisputed leader of the Falls Cities (cities that resided beside the Falls of the Ohio, the only major obstruction to river traffic between the upper Ohio River and the Gulf of Mexico) in boatbuilding and second only to Pittsburgh on the entire Ohio River. In addition to his father, he had two uncles, Charles and Martin Meekin, who were among the principal boatmen in New Albany. On the night of March 25, 1856, nearly the entire town of New Albany turned out on the local wharf or up on the Silver Hills look-out to cheer the arrival of Captain James Meekin’s Baltic. The New Albany-built boat beat the pride of Louisville, the Diana, up from New Orleans by two hours and seven minutes. Although the race’s official finish line was Portland, Indiana, James Meekin had so commanding a lead by the time he reached his home town that he swung the Baltic wide toward the New Albany bank and triumphantly tooted his horn for her many rooters. The townspeople, in turn, fired a cannon in salute.
Hence the Meekin family was well known in New Albany long before young Jo first began making his mark on the diamond in his early 20s as a catcher with the town’s highly esteemed local semipro team, the Browns. He changed to the opposite end of the points when Skinny Reasor, New Albany’s regular pitcher, was unavailable for a game against the Louisville Deppens in the spring of 1889 and showed so much speed that the catcher who replaced him was unable to hold him.
New Albany is situated just across the Ohio River from Louisville, and Meekin, like most of his Browns teammates, grew up a fan of the Falls City American Association club. By 1891 the 6-feet-1, 180-pound right-hander was spending his third consecutive season with St. Paul of the Western Association after joining the Saints in July 1889 just a few weeks after turning to pitching and was an uninspiring 4-8 when Louisville’s manager, Jack Chapman, induced him to jump his contract and cast his lot against AA hitters. Chapman’s invitation was made all the more tempting by the fact that Louisville, to the surprise of practically all, had won the American Association pennant the previous year by rising from “worst” to “first.” National League president Nick Young ordered Meekin to return to St. Paul even though the AA in 1891 had gone rogue when it suffered what it considered unfair player losses after the Players League collapsed and declared itself no longer bound by the National Agreement. Since the AA refused to recognize Young’s authority as the game’s titular head, Meekin felt—and rightly so—that he could also ignore Young’s veto by simply maintaining that he hadn’t jumped his St. Paul contract to better himself but to escape having to work under the Saints’ tyrannical manager, Bill Watkins.
It did not take Meekin long to realize his mistake in fulfilling his boyhood ambition by signing with Louisville. Little more than a year after he debuted with the Ohio River club, losing 8-2 to Cincinnati’s Willie McGill on June 13, 1891, at Louisville in front of many of his New Albany compatriots, Colonels manager Fred Pfeffer weighed his 17-26 career record and 4.19 ERA to that point and released him. By then the American Association had folded and the two major leagues had merged, making Young incontrovertibly the voice of final authority. When Meekin wanted to sign with Cincinnati, his next best choice in proximity to his home town, Young again intervened and assigned him to Washington, deep in the National League’s second division at the time, and he finished the 1892 season a composite 10-20. In 1893 his 10-15 record, mediocre as it might seem, was the best on the last-place D.C. club.
Taking notice was New York player-manager John M. Ward. After Ward told the club’s principal stockholder, Eddie Talcott, “Get me one battery like Meekin and Farrell and the Giants will be hard to beat,”1 another of the Giants’ part-owners, William B. Wheeler, arranged to send pitcher Charlie Petty, catcher Jack McMahon, and $7,500 to the Senators for Meekin and catcher Duke Farrell on February 27, 1894. Sportswriter Opie Caylor cracked that “it was $7,000 for Farrell and $500 for Meekin,” but soon other scribes were saying it was the other way around when Meekin swiftly demonstrated Washington’s ignorance by winning 33 games, leading the NL in fewest base runners allowed per nine innings (12.65), and helping to carry the Giants to their 1894 Temple Cup triumph over the pennant-winning Orioles. What’s more, he earned a humble apology from the normally obdurate Caylor when he won nine straight games between July 25 and September 1. That fall a novel was published with him as its hero that The Sporting News maintained was “not a dime novel.”2 Not only was Meekin’s biography used in the book but its title was The Mighty Meekin. Despite all that, he received a salary hike of only a few hundred dollars, bringing him to an even $3,000, and he later maintained that he never made a cent more during any season in his career.
In 1895, Meekin dropped to 16 wins and a 5.30 ERA after tearing a muscle in his forearm early in the season while trying to strike out Phillies slugger Ed Delahanty in a key situation. Soon afterward he took a brutal shellacking on June 1 from St. Louis, giving up 30 hits in a 23-2 loss after the Giants’ new owner, Andrew Freedman, requested that he pitch that day even though he had hurled a full game the previous afternoon, and he foolishly agreed to it after extracting Freedman’s promise not to let player-manager George Davis remove him from the contest regardless of the score. When Meekin was still unable to throw his curveball without terrible pain by the end of 1895, The Sporting News predicted he would be moved to first base to utilize his bat since his “arm was gone.”3 The prediction was not an idle one, for Meekin was one of the better hitting pitchers of his era, finishing his major-league career with a .243 BA and a .644 OPS, marks that even some big-league first basemen in the 1890s could not achieve. But over the winter he healed sufficiently to replace holdout Amos Rusie as the Giants’ ace the following year, going 26-14 while the rest of the staff was a weak 38-53.
Meekin fashioned his third and final 20-win season in 1897 and then slipped below .500 (16-18) the following year. When he had collected just five wins after his first 18 starts in 1899, he was sold to Boston for a reported $5,000. However, many sources believed the second-division Giants gave Meekin to Boston gratis in order to get rid of a high-priced player and help Boston in its pennant bid against Brooklyn. (The fractious Freedman was on particularly bad terms with the Brooklyn club.) There was also speculation that Boston owner Arthur Soden owned $50,000 worth of stock in the Giants and Meekin’s dispersal was yet another evil of syndicate ball. When New York writer Joe Vila said “it was common talk” Meekin had merely been loaned to beat Brooklyn out of the pennant, most other writers echoed Vila.4 Only Henry Chadwick was publicly vehement that Soden would never engage in anything so reprehensible.5
It is impossible at this late juncture to sort out which side was closer to the truth. Boston failed to overtake Brooklyn for the 1899 pennant, and even though Meekin remained with the Beaneaters, it may only have been because New York no longer wanted him back. In March 1900, Boston released him. That June, Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss signed Meekin to a conditional contract and predicted that he was “far from being a has-been and will be heard from before the snow flies,”6 but he was cut a few weeks later after being hammered for 21 runs in just 13 innings. In his ML finale, on July 8, 1900, at St. Louis, Meekin left after the fifth frame with his club trailing the Mound City entry, 13-0.
The following year he quit the game altogether after a brief sojourn with the Louisville Western Association club but returned later that season to pitch a few games for Grand Rapids of the Western Association. Seven starts and a 3-3 record with Memphis of the Southern Association in 1902 capped Meekin’s professional playing career, but he subsequently umpired briefly in the Three-I League after first working as a guard at the Indiana Reformatory.7
Meekin then served as a pipe man for the New Albany fire department until his forced retirement in 1939 after a major surgical procedure. The following year, The Sporting News ran a lengthy interview with him in which he credited his sudden ascension to being one of the top pitchers in the game to his chief catcher early in his major-league career, Duke Farrell. Meekin related that “Farrell really taught me to pitch. He spent hours studying the weaknesses of the batters. And then he’d go over them with me until we had those weak points down pat.”8 Meekin neglected to mention in the interview that Farrell had also had a hand into turning him into something of a head-hunter. According to Mark Ribowsky in his The Complete History of the Home Run, Meekin once stated that when facing a good hitter, the first two pitches should come “within an inch of his head or body.”9 In their book The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Rob Neyer and Bill James posited that “[Amos] Rusie, Cy Young, and Jouett Meekin, who all threw harder than anyone had ever seen before, forced the National League in 1893 to move the pitching mound back from fifty feet (where it had been since 1881) to sixty feet and six inches.”10 But while Meekin’s fast ball prior to his arm injury in 1895 was unquestionably swifter than that of most hurlers in his time, it is difficult to make a case that he was in the same class with Rusie and Young.
Meekin died on December 14, 1944, in New Albany, his lifelong home, of a heart attack at age 77 while hospitalized with injuries he had sustained in a fall at his house a week earlier and was buried in New Albany’s Fairview Cemetery. His bitterness over his treatment by Freedman in his last years with the Giants ran so deep that he never once returned to New York after he last pitched there with Boston on September 23, 1899, in a 5-2 loss to the Giants’ Cy Seymour.
In Meekin’s 1940 interview in The Sporting News, featured after it had earlier appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal under Clifford Robinson’s byline, he opined that the game had changed very little from the pitching standpoint, excepting that the ball was considerably livelier. “We threw everything they’re throwing today,” he said, “but we didn’t have the fancy names they have now for various deliveries. To us, they were merely inshoots, outshoots and ‘down-and-outs.’” 11
Meekin is part of a trivia question that is guaranteed to stump even the most astute nineteenth century historians. What is the only season to date in major-league history that the top two pitchers in lowest WHIP both were born in Indiana? The year is of course 1894, and Amos Rusie, Meekin’s Giants teammate that season, is the other half of the answer.
This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec’s Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900 (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, 2011) vol. 1.
In assembling this biography I made extensive use of Sporting Life, The Sporting News, Find a Grave on the Internet, and assorted box scores in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe for details of Meekin’s professional baseball career, 1889-1902, and his subsequent life. In addition, I consulted his interview of January 11, 1940, in The Sporting News, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers and Mark Ribowsky’s The Complete History of the Home Run. Meekin’s major and minor league statistics came from www.baseball-reference.com.
1 The Sporting News, January 11, 1940.
2 The Sporting News, December 8, 1894.
3 The Sporting News, September 21, 1895.
4 The Sporting News, August 26, 1899.
6 Sporting Life, June 30, 1900.
7 Sporting Life, October 4, 1902.
8 The Sporting News, January 11, 1940.
9 Mark Ribowsky, The Complete History of the Home Run (New York: Citadel Press, 2003), 27.
10 Ron Neyer and Bill James, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (New York: Touchstone, 2004), 306.
11 The Sporting News, January 11, 1940.