Mike Prendergast

This article was written by Chris Rainey

Mike Prendergast (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)Pitcher Mike Prendergast toiled over 600 innings in back-to-back seasons with Peoria in the Illinois-Iowa-Indiana League. He followed that up with a 180-game major-league career. His work ethic earned him the nickname “Iron Mike,” but he would likely be long forgotten had he not been included in the Chicago Cubs-Philadelphia Phillies trade that sent Pete Alexander to the Cubs in 1917. In 1920 while Prendergast faced teams like Nash Motors from Kenosha, Wisconsin, or the Massillon, Ohio, Agathons; Alexander was winning 27 games with the Cubs and leading the league in ERA.

Prendergast’s parents were Jeremiah and Catherine Louise (Corcoran) Prendergast. They were Irish immigrants who met and married after they came to the United States. They settled in Bureau County, in north central Illinois, where Jeremiah farmed along with his brother. Catherine gave birth to eight children, seven of whom survived infancy. Michael, the fifth child, was born on December 15, 1888. He attended school in Arlington, his hometown, before being sent to St. Bede’s Academy in Peru, Illinois. St. Bede serves as a college preparatory school nowadays but was also a college during Prendergast’s time. It is unclear if he attended for two years or three.

Despite a population of under 200, Arlington’s town baseball teams played extensively when Prendergast was growing up. The neighboring towns like LaSalle, Mendota, Peru, Princeton, and Walnut provided the competition. They even hosted the touring Nebraska Indians, but no box scores survive to show whether Prendergast played or not. Prendergast learned his baseball along with his older brother John, who was a catcher, and younger brother Jeremiah, also a pitcher. When Prendergast signed with the Galesburg Boosters in the Class-D Illinois-Missouri League, the county paper proclaimed that he was an “expert baseball pitcher and all-around athlete.”1

Prendergast started his professional career with Galesburg in 1909 but was released and joined the Pekin Celestials in the same league. The next season found him with the Bloomington Bloomers in the Class-B Illinois-Iowa-Indiana League. His best performance came on September 1 when he tossed a two-hit shutout against Danville, winning 6-0. He posted a 2-7 record for Bloomington.

Prendergast signed to play for Bloomington again in 1911, but the franchise was shifted to Quincy, Illinois. Prendergast was one of three Bloomers who were retained by the Infants. He got off to a good start but slumped and was released on July 18. He was picked up by the Peoria Distillers, who were in the race with Quincy and Decatur. He helped Peoria clinch the pennant by four games. His overall record in the league was 15-16.

Prendergast became the workhorse for Peoria the next two seasons. Standing 5-feet-9 and weighing 165 pounds, he was not an imposing figure on the mound. He made up for that by hiding his right hand from the batter, curling it behind his back during delivery. He had good control but did not have the overpowering pitch that would have made him a strikeout pitcher.

Peoria finished next to last and last in Prendergast’s two full seasons. He led the team in wins, losses, and innings pitched each season. Future Chicago outfielder Max Flack helped pace the offense those seasons. Prendergast was drafted by Milwaukee of the American Association for the 1914 season but accepted an invitation from the Chicago Whales (aka ChiFeds) in the Federal League.

Chicago held spring training in Shreveport, Louisiana. Prendergast got the starting assignment for a March 17 exhibition vs. Centenary College. He surrendered four hits and two runs in his five innings. Many of the players wore green ties to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.2 The Whales made their way north by playing a series of intrasquad games. The final one was at Princeton, Illinois, near Prendergast’s and catcher Art Wilson’s homes. Prendergast pitched for the regulars.

The regular season opened in Kansas City on April 16. Prendergast saw action the next day when he was sent to the hill in the ninth. He took the 4-3 loss when he uncorked a wild pitch in the 13th inning. Manager Joe Tinker gave him his first start on April 26 against Kansas City at home. The Packers treated him rudely by smacking four hits and scoring three runs in his two innings. They won easily, 12-4.

Prendergast redeemed himself on May 4 by throwing six scoreless innings in a start vs. Buffalo. Doc Watson closed out the 4-0 win. Prendergast was pulled from his next start with a lame arm and pitched only two innings in June. When he regained his strength, he was a spot starter and reliever. Claude Hendrix was having a stellar season and finished 29-10 for the second-place squad. Prendergast tossed a shutout against the Brooklyn Tip-Tops on July 25. He closed out the year with a 5-9 record; three of the wins came against Brooklyn.

Prendergast returned to the Whales in 1915. Veterans Mordecai Brown and George McConnell joined the pitching staff. Hendrix was a workhorse but did not come close to his 1914 performance. The two vets and Prendergast took up the slack and helped the Whales to the Federal League pennant. McConnell won 25 and Brown added 17.

Prendergast made 30 starts in a five-man rotation and won 14 games. He credited Brown with teaching him how to be a pitcher. He started the season in prime form by beating Pittsburgh 4-3 in his first start. He closed out a superb May with shutouts against Baltimore (2-0) and Kansas City (1-0). He was 5-0 with a 2.73 ERA at the end of the month.

After his brilliant start, Prendergast struggled in June, dropping five decisions. He closed out the month with a 6-5 record and an ERA of 3.17. He regained his command and finished the season with a 14-12 record and a 2.48 ERA. The Federal League was shuttered and the players were put into an odd state of limbo awaiting decisions about their fate as “outlaws” in the baseball world. Prendergast awaited the outcome on the farm in Arlington.

In Chicago the Cubs and the Whales “merged” as the Cubs. Tinker became manager, replacing Roger Bresnahan and games were played at Weeghman Park. Hendrix, McConnell, Flack, Brown, and Prendergast all became Cubs. Prendergast worked 152 innings, 100 innings less than in 1915, and posted a 6-11 mark. He made 10 starts and threw shutouts in two of them. His ERA dropped to 2.31, good for second on the team behind Hippo Vaughn. Prendergast’s WHIP of .987 was only slightly higher than Pete Alexander’s league-leading mark of .959.

In November Prendergast married Grace Kerwin. She would accompany him on his baseball journeys for the next 10 seasons. Over the winter the Baseball Players Fraternity and baseball owners wrangled about salary. The owners were looking to drop wages that were “artificially inflated” by competition with the Federal League. Prendergast was an early signee with Chicago and was expelled from the Fraternity because of it.3

The Cubs opened the 1917 season with three wins but on April 15 they watched as first baseman Vic Saier was carried from the field after breaking a leg sliding into home plate. Prendergast closed out the game for Chicago, tossing three scoreless innings in the 5-3 loss. He was used as a long reliever for much of the season, getting only eight starts. His record was 3-6 and his ERA and WHIP both jumped. In the offseason, the Cubs sent him, catcher Pickles Dillhoefer, and $55,000 to Philadelphia for Pete Alexander and catcher Bill Killefer.

Manager Pat Moran of the Phillies taught Prendergast how to throw a screwball and inserted him into the starting rotation. Prendergast responded with the same workhorse ethic that made him a favorite back in the Three-I League. He made 30 starts and tossed 20 complete games (sixth in the league) while working 252⅓ innings (also sixth in the league.) In a season shortened because of World War I, his 13 wins placed him in the top 10 for victories.

The Phillies trained in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1919. Reports were that Prendergast was rounding into good form, but in the final intrasquad game he was hit unmercifully by the regulars. The performance was not an anomaly; when he started the fourth game of the season, Brooklyn hammered him for seven hits and five runs in two innings. He made four long relief appearances before he was released to Indianapolis in mid-June.

Prendergast refused to report to Indianapolis. He chose to enter independent ball and joined the Fairbanks-Morse Fairies from Beloit, Wisconsin. They played in the Industrial League, which stretched from Wisconsin to Ohio. Pay for the team was probably comparable to minor-league salaries. In December the Phillies sold his contract to Salt Lake City of the Pacific Coast League.

The money in Wisconsin was good and Prendergast opted to stay in the independent ranks, which meant major-league baseball would place him on the ineligible list. He played for Beloit but also picked up extra money pitching for Manitowoc and Menasha. In 1921 he tried to play for both Beloit and the Joliet Standards. He found himself having to pitch without much rest, leading to lopsided results like 21-3 and 15-0. Both teams dropped him.

Prendergast caught on with Sangamos Electric from Springfield, Illinois. They were managed by former major leaguer George Perring. He won nine games in 11 starts and tossed a no-hitter. In 1922 Prendergast found employment with the Freeport (Illinois) Pretzels. Here he teamed with a young local star named Emil Yde. Partway through the season, Prendergast was named manager. He brought in brother Jeremiah (Jerry) and used him as a pitcher-utilityman.

The Des Moines Boosters in the Class-A Western Association wanted Prendergast for the 1923 season. With their assistance on paperwork, he was able to be reinstated. He started the season in good condition and pitched well. By June the batters were catching up to him and he was pounded in three consecutive outings. The Boosters released him on June 27 with a record of 6-7.4 The Omaha Buffaloes, also of the Western League, signed him. He started on July 1 against Des Moines and allowed five runs in two innings. He closed out the season with a 7-10 record.

Over the winter, Prendergast interviewed for the manager’s job with the Marshalltown Ansons. He lost out to Frank Boyle and returned to Omaha for the 1924 season. The Buffaloes (a/k/a Burch Rods) were led by pitcher Bill Bailey and the bats of Nick Cullop and Fresco Thompson. They won 103 games to capture the flag in a tight race with Denver. Prendergast was used mainly as a coach, making three appearances before drawing his release on May 23.5 He was given credit for helping develop pitcher Lou Koupal into a 20-game winner.6

Prendergast left Omaha for Hamburg, Iowa, where he became pitcher-manager of the local semipro team. He was recruited by the Diamond Market team from Denver to hurl in the Denver Post’s annual tournament. He was in fine form and won his first three games. His only loss came to Greeley, Colorado, in the finals.

Prendergast was hired to manage the Texarkana Twins in the Class-D East Texas League for 1925. He was shelled in his first outing by the team from Paris, Texas, and realized his arm was not up for the challenge. He submitted his resignation on April 28. He and Grace stayed in Texas for a while. Their stay was extended when Grace was injured in an airplane crash. She was on a pleasure flight accompanying the wife of the local sheriff when the plane went down. Grace suffered a broken arm and leg.

The couple returned to Omaha when Grace was well enough to travel. They would remain there for the rest of their lives. Michael Jr. was born in 1928. After being a salesman and factory worker, Prendergast became a truck driver for the Falstaff Brewing Company. He was involved with baseball for many years as a manager and pitcher in the Omaha Metropolitan League.

In the mid-1930s Prendergast he turned his attention to youth instruction. He appeared at clinics and baseball schools around the Omaha area. His son developed into an outfielder-pitcher and played American Legion baseball. The proud father hoped his son would develop into a major leaguer but opined that the most important achievement in life would be “to become a good citizen and enjoy his work.”7 The younger Prendergast made his father proud by becoming a paratrooper during the Korean War.

Prendergast retired from Falstaff in 1955. He told reporters that he would travel, make decoys for duck hunting, and attend the Omaha Triple-A games.8 Mike succumbed to pneumonia on November 18, 1967. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Omaha.

Notes

1 “Wayside Notes,” Bureau County Tribune (Princeton, Illinois), June 4, 1909: 11.

2 Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1914: 13.

3 “Sport Summary of the Day,” Daily Register-Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), January 30, 1917: 8.

4 “Western League Pitchers Record,” Des Moines Register, June 24, 1923: 24.

5 “New Fielder Will Join Rods at Booster’s Lot,” Omaha World-Herald, May 24, 1924: 22.

6 “Former Nebraska Leaguer Leading Barney’s Hurlers,” Omaha World-Herald, July 31, 1924: 12.

7 “Little Mike Chip Off the Block?” Omaha World-Herald, June 16, 1944: 21.

8 “Prendergast Looks Back,” Omaha World-Herald, June 26, 1955: 31.

Full Name

Michael Thomas Prendergast

Born

December 15, 1888 at Arlington, IL (USA)

Died

November 18, 1967 at Omaha, NE (USA)

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