If Marty O’Toole is remembered at all today, it is as one of baseball’s greatest flops–the “$22,500 Beauty” or “Lemon” the Pittsburgh Pirates paid a record price for in 1911. Truth to tell, O’Toole was well worth the price. Based on his minor league credentials, Marty could have been one of the game’s greatest pitching legends, but by the time Pittsburgh brought him to the major leagues at the age of twenty-two, pieces of his right arm were already strewn across minor league baseball diamonds from Massachusetts to Iowa. Countless pitchers have thrown out their arms long before reaching their potential, but few have done it in the meteoric style of Marty O’Toole.
Baseball reference books agree that Marty was born in Pennsylvania on November 27, 1888, but his hometown was Framingham, Massachusetts, where his family moved soon after his birth. The 1900 census confirms that Marty was born in Pennsylvania in November 1888. His three younger siblings, including a sister in December 1889, were born in Massachusetts.
Marty’s four brothers all played baseball. Patrick was an outfielder for several New England League teams in the early 1900s. Michael, six years Marty’s senior, and twice a minor league 20-game winner, won more than 100 career games while pitching in the New England and New York State leagues and the American Association. At times, both the Boston Americans and the Detroit Tigers owned his contract. The Sporting News’ obituary on Marty and his contract file card at Cooperstown confuse Michael’s minor league stops with Marty’s.
After a brief tryout with Providence in the Eastern League in the spring of 1907, Marty joined the Brockton, Massachusetts, team in the New England League. The New England League’s 1907 pitching averages in the 1908 Reach Official Baseball Guide list “M.” O’Toole at 11-14 and “J.” O’Toole at 20-11. Teammate and brother Mike, the elder O’Toole, was designated “M” in the box scores. Marty, for his middle name of James, was “J.” A 20-game winner as a rookie, Marty completed all 28 of his starts. His nineteenth birthday came two months after the season!
How does a nineteen-year-old pitcher top a 20-win season? How about with a 30-win season? Marty, still with Brockton in 1908, completed 36 of his 38 starts, pitching close to 350 innings. He fanned 266 batters, ten or more in a game eight times. His single-game high was 13, which he did three times. He finished with a 31-11 record, two wins shy of the New England League mark shared by Henry Burns (1887) and Jim McGinley (1904).
Marty joined the Cincinnati Reds after the close of the New England League season and made his major league debut on September 21. His $250-a-month contract earned him a pro-rated $141 for his 1908 major league tenure. That winter the bold youngster wrote to Garry Herrmann requesting the remaining $109 he felt he was owed. He quickly found himself back in Brockton.
In 1909 he again led the New England League with 26 wins, tossing more than 350 innings and fanning 265 batters. He completed 36 of his 37 starts, twice striking out 15 batters in a game. The Boston Red Sox purchased his contract from Brockton in late August, delivery postponed until the end of the season.
Boston owner John I. Taylor released Marty to St. Paul in the American Association early in 1910 as the windup to the deal that sent Charlie Chech, Elmer Steele, and “Gulfport Jack” Ryan to St. Paul in exchange for Ed Karger and Charley “Sea Lion” Hall. Mike Kelley, the St. Paul manager, used Marty as are reliever and spot-starter before optioning him to Sioux City in the Western League. Marty made his first Western League appearance on July 4, and from then until the end of the season, O’Toole went 19-5 with 207 strikeouts. Seven times he fanned ten or more batters in a game, including a Western League record 18 Lincoln batters on July 10–a mark that would stand, according to available evidence, until Cy Blanton fanned 20 Joplin batters in 1933. Marty’s 1910 record, St. Paul and Sioux City combined, was 22-8 with 239 strikeouts. He had yet to reach his twenty-second birthday.
If O’Toole felt he was on top of his game in 1910, in 1911 he must have felt as if he had reached the summit of baseball’s highest pitching mound. Back with St. Paul, he overwhelmed American Association batters. Reaching double-digit strikeout totals in ten games, he had single game totals of 13 (twice), 14, 15, and 17. In six consecutive complete-game wins from July 6 to July 30, he fanned ten, 17, 11, ten, 14, and 15. Despite pitching just three games after July, he won 15 games and led all American Association pitchers with 199 strikeouts. The 17-strikeout game stood as the American Association standard until 1915.
By mid-July scouts were following O’Toole like bloodhounds. The Cardinals, Cubs, Giants, Pirates, White Sox, Athletics and the Cleveland Naps were all interested. The bidding for O’Toole was fast and furious. John McGraw felt he had closed the deal for $15,000 and had a certified check made out as evidence, but the bidding had escalated by the time McGraw’s word of approval reached his agent in St. Paul. Charlie Comiskey’s offer also came in at $15,000. Roger Bresnahan, the Cardinals’ manager, offered $16,500. The Cubs raised the ante to $20,000 before Barney Dreyfuss of the Pirates closed the deal with St. Paul for $22,500.
The original check made out for O’Toole can be viewed at the Hall of Fame, but there is evidence to suggest that the price was considerably higher. Several newspaper accounts indicated that an additional $2,500 in “baseball material” was involved. Sporting Life reported in February 1913 that the Pirates had just sent outfielder Ralph Capron to St. Paul because Pittsburgh still owed on the O’Toole deal. O’Toole’s batterymate, catcher Bill Kelly, was sold to the Pirates for anywhere from $6,500 to $12,500 and a player, depending on the source. The final tally for the O’Toole-Kelly tandem may have been in excess of $35,000.
O’Toole made his Pirates debut on August 30 with a complete-game, five-hit win versus Boston in which he fanned nine. After two more quick starts Marty was 3-0 with 26 K’s and just 13 hits allowed in 27 innings. He had arrived. Unfortunately, so had his arm problems. By the middle of September, Marty was in Youngstown, Ohio, consulting with John D. “Bonesetter” Reese. Following the season he went back to Massachusetts to see an arm specialist. Sporting Life, on December 30, 1911, said that Marty was:
suffering from contracted muscles of the shoulders. Two years ago O’Toole was stricken with rheumatism, but kept on pitching while under treatment. This caused the muscles to become more strained and his arm is in a bad way. Dr. Daniels is of the opinion that the muscles will never reach their normal state.
Spring training in 1912 found O’Toole’s arm in no better shape. In early April, Pirates manager Fred Clarke reported O’Toole had a lame arm. Sporting Life reported that the entire family suffered from “rheumatism of the shoulder.” Mike O’Toole, then with St. Paul, was also having arm trouble. As early as May 1909, after complaining of a sore arm, an examination found Marty’s right humerus to be “slightly dislocated” at the shoulder.
The style of play in the Deadball Era allowed pitchers to throw more innings and go consistently deeper in their starts than pitchers in later eras, but it is fairly easy to see that O’Toole was worked incredibly hard as a young pitcher, even by the standards of his day. By age twenty-two he had already thrown more than 1,500 professional innings and completed 154 of 163 starts.
To put that in perspective for the 1907-1911 period, there was only one big-leaguer throwing 150 complete games, Big Ed Walsh with 164. Walsh was a grown man doing it in his physical prime (ages 26-31), and even then, his arm suddenly blew out shortly thereafter. And while Walsh had more complete games than O’Toole in that period, his 84 percent complete-game percentage was well behind O’Toole’s mark of 94 percent, and it would be a reasonable bet that no pitcher in 1907-1911 in all of organized baseball could match O’Toole’s twin feat of 1,500-plus innings and a 94 percent complete-game rate. That O’Toole did this at ages 18-22 would certainly make him the most abused young pitcher of that time.
O’Toole was an overhand pitcher who threw a spitball and not a knuckleball. As it was for Walsh, the spitball was O’Toole’s money pitch. In 1907 he read an illustrated newspaper account showing how Jack Chesbro held and threw his spitball. With the aid of those pictures, Marty worked several hours a day until he was able to control the pitch. Chesbro was amused when they met in the spring of 1912 and O’Toole related the story. Bill Kelly, O’Toole’s catcher, said he had never seen another spitball as fast or with as much break to it as O’Toole’s. Longtime NL umpire Cy Rigler said he “had no trouble in judging the break on the ball, it being so fast and sharp.”
There are several theories why O’Toole’s spitter was not successful in the majors. Low and Inside, an anecdotal baseball book written in 1949 by Ira L. and Allen Smith, said O’Toole loaded up his spitball by licking the ball like an ice cream cone, and that Fred Luderus of the Phillies applied liniment to the ball, causing O’Toole’s tongue to swell and driving him from the box. However, no primary source has been found claiming O’Toole “licked” the ball in that fashion. O’Toole, in six starts, had three complete-game victories against the Phillies in 1912; one, on July 9, was a shutout. Sporting Life, on July 20, 1912, did report an incident when Luderus indeed was caught applying liniment to the ball but the act was immediately spotted by the umpires, and this was the game where O’Toole shut out the Phillies. The more logical and obvious explanation is that O’Toole’s spitter broke out of the strike zone, and major league hitters had more control over chasing it than did minor-league hitters, thus accounting for his league-leading 159 walks in 1912.
In September 1911, Sporting Life printed a story in which Indianapolis manager Jimmy Burke described both O’Toole’s modus operandi and Burke’s advice for batters opposing him:
Marty’s spitter is started by moistening the side of his third finger of his pitching hand. When he lets go of the ball, one sometimes can hear the finger snap. When hurling his fast one, O’Toole goes through the same stunt of moistening his finger but he doesn’t. He merely makes a bluff. Now remember, that O’Toole mixes his spitter and his fast one and that sometimes he won’t throw a moist one in an entire inning. Of course, if you can know the fast one is coming along, you can murder the ball, so you must develop all your energy toward this one flaw in Marty’s delivery.
Due to the record price Pittsburgh paid for him, O’Toole became a media target and the instant fame was not something he was well suited for. In the fall of 1911, he was approached several times by vaudeville agents, and as a Pittsburgh mayoral candidate. Marty laughed off both suggestions, but his rookie season seemed jinxed from the start. The Pittsburgh Post reported on August 28, 1911:
This high-priced young man appears to pay little attention to the vast amount of publicity that is being heaped upon him. At the same time it must be annoying but Marty takes in the situation sensibly and philosophically, being determined not to allow the limelight to dazzle his eyes. When walking along the street with him or standing about in the hotels, one overhears many a remark referring to none other than this big sunny-haired youth. From newsboy to millionaire, O’Toole’s name has become as familiar as though he was the sole owner of the United States, and so frequently has his photograph been reproduced in the newspapers far and wide that he is instantly spotted wherever he goes.
The Pittsburgh sporting pages in the spring of 1912 printed that O’Toole was single and that all interested young ladies should mail their marriage proposals in care of manager Fred Clarke. There were more than 100 responses.
On the field, O’Toole had mixed success in 1912. He won 15 games and lost 17, holding the opposition to just 7.75 hits per nine innings–second best in the league, according to Total Baseball, for pitchers with 200 innings; and a batting average of .241, third best for pitchers with 200 innings. He lost two 1-0 games, one a 13-inning affair. On the flip side, he was knocked out of a game against St. Louis after walking five batters in the first inning. By season’s end the Pittsburgh papers were referring to him as the “Lemon,” one billboard going as far as announcing the starters for the game as “Pitchers Ames versus Lemon.” On Aug. 31, Sporting Life stated:
Fan feeling against Marty O’Toole culminated in a big demonstration. It was a distressing moment for O’Toole. The young man hardly deserved the mean flings heaped his way. His work has been most erratic during the year, but there have been numerous games wherein a little batting on the part of his pals would have helped him triumph. O’Toole’s wildness is a handicap. Bugs expect too much from Martin. They make the air ring with jeers, hisses and cat calls, ‘Take him out,’ ‘walk everybody,’ etc. until Captain Clarke, in sheer pity relieved the New Englander.
Marty was able to stifle the insults somewhat by finishing the season with three consecutive shutouts. He summed up his feelings in the October 19 issue of Sporting Life:
I guess I’ve lived down that high-priced reputation. The advertising I got through the deal that brought me to Pittsburgh was a handicap that no one but I really understand. The season has been more or less a nightmare to me, and I’m glad it’s about to end.
O’Toole’s 1913 season was a bust. In late June, Sporting Life reported that Marty’s wife, Rose Heffernan, whom he had married in Framingham the previous December, was seriously ill following surgery for appendicitis. While his wife was recovering, Marty himself underwent a similar surgical procedure on July 4. He was released from the hospital two weeks later wearing an abdominal binder. Told not to do anything strenuous, he was back on the hill for Pittsburgh on August 13. He finished the season with just six wins.
The 1914 season was no better for O’Toole. The trades section of The Baseball Encyclopedia states that O’Toole was sold to the New York Giants on August 14, but his last appearance in a Pirates uniform was August 20. John McGraw, finally able to consummate his longstanding desire for Marty, quickly saw enough after O’Toole walked six batters in two September starts in which he didn’t make it past the first inning. In October, McGraw, who took O’Toole with the stipulation that he could return him to Pittsburgh if not satisfied, exercised that option. Marty’s 1914 record was 2-9.
O’Toole’s career was on the decline. He won 14 games for Columbus in the American Association in 1915, tossing the only no-hitter of his career on July 2.
In 1916 and 1917, Marty won 15 and 19 games, respectively, for Omaha in the Western League. He spent the winter of 1917-18 working in a clothing store in Omaha, by then apparently having abandoned his wife and children. He shifted from the mound to the outfield early in 1918 when the better players marched off to war. In June, The Sporting News reported just how far he, and Bill Kelly, with whom he had been reunited, had fallen:
Think of O’Toole and Kelly, former million-dollar battery, performing in Class A ball before 500 people. When they opened up for Pittsburgh several years ago they were advertised like a circus and drew packed parks.
Because of the war the Western League suspended its season on July 7. Still several months shy of his thirtieth birthday, Marty O’Toole had thrown his last professional pitch.
Marty was sold to San Antonio in the Texas League in the spring of 1919 when the Western League banned the spitball. Marty never reported. Instead, he spent the summer managing an independent team in Omaha.
Members of the O’Toole family can still be found in Framingham, Massachusetts. A grand-nephew in Framingham, Steve Ryder, played five years of minor league baseball, hitting .346 for Eau Claire in the Northern League in 1959 before a knee injury curtailed his career. Family members report that Marty never came home again. His wife and children, when last heard of, lived in Connecticut, but the Framingham clan has long since lost contact. It’s reasonable to assume Marty spent a lot of time dealing with his inner demons. His niece, Maddy Glew, summed it up poignantly:
His life was such a waste and it could have been so different. Imagine having four fine children and never knowing them? Perhaps his pride and low self-esteem after his failing in baseball made him a truly lonely man.
According to Sporting Life, O’Toole purchased property in Oregon as early as 1912. He headed west again, as far away from his past, and the major leagues, as he could go. The Sporting News reported in December 1928 that Marty was operating a pool hall in Cosmopolis, Wash. He pitched in semipro leagues in the Grays Harbor area until age caught up with him. He later kept in touch with the game as a local umpire. He worked at various times as a salesman and for the Boeing Aircraft Co. during World War II.
His last job was as the night dispatcher for a taxi cab company in Aberdeen, Washington. Two local trash collectors, making their morning pickups February 18, 1949, found Marty O’Toole lying dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
He is buried Fern Hill Cemetery in Aberdeen, alone. Fifty years after his death, Society for American Baseball Research member Eric Sallee, with the help of the caretaker, found his gravestone covered by dirt and vegetation. It was well preserved, but clearly had not been visited for many years.
In preparing this article I relied heavily on issues of The Sporting News and Sporting Life throughout O’Toole’s baseball career. I also consulted: the Brockton Enterprise and Brockton Times for his years playing there; Craig Wright and Tom House’s book The Diamond Appraised (Simon and Schuster, 1989); Ira L. and H. Allen Smith’s Low and Inside (Doubleday, 1949). Bob Richardson helped me by digging material from the Massachusetts State Archive. Ray Nemec provided minor league data for Marty and Michael O’Toole. I used the files of Tom Shea, my own files, and material from the late Bob Kane. I also interviewed a few family members, including niece Maddy Glew.