This article was written by Bill Nowlin
A member of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, Pete Donohue was a right-handed pitcher from Texas who won 127 games for them over a 10-year stretch, including three years of 20 or more wins in the early to mid-1920s. He led the league with 27 complete games in 1925 and wins in 1926.
By his late 20s, however, he’d lost his edge and his career sputtered out quickly with brief stints for the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians, before ending with an 0-1 season for the 1931 Boston Red Sox.
Born in Athens, Texas, on November 5, 1900, Peter Joseph Donohue was the third of the seven children of Edward Donohue, Sr. and Winifred (Carroll) Donohue. All four of his grandparents were immigrants from Ireland, though Edward was born in Indiana and Winnie in Texas, or perhaps the other way around.1 Edward was a broker in livestock, The family later took up residence in Fort Worth. Donohue won 24 out of 31 games over two years at Fort Worth’s North Side High School. The Fort Worth newspaper said he’d pitched in 1918 and 1919 for the Libby team in the City League and lost only three games. Entering Texas Christian University in the fall of 1919, he was 29-4 for the Horned Frogs with four no-hitters. One of his losses was one of the no-hitters, a 1-0 game. The Star-Telegram said he was 107-17 over the five years of school and semipro ball.2
He was described as “elongated” (he was 6-foot-2 and weighed 185 pounds) and as a “flinger de luxe” in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article describing his three-hit win over Baylor in April 1920.3 Donohue also homered in the 11-1 victory.
By the age of 20 he was pitching in the major leagues.
Donohue had been enticed out of college by a $5,000 signing bonus, the Reds impressed as they were with his time pitching for coach Kid Nance at TCU. He’d reportedly signed with Reds scout Boyd Chambers, who’d beat out five other teams, in the summer of 1920 while pitching for the Sulphur Springs team.4 A few years later, he said that he’d signed with the Reds because “they took a real interest in me. The other club representatives seemed to be only interested in my alleged pitching powers. It seemed to me that they only wanted me as a chattel to win games for them. They only wanted me as a bolt or a rod or a can to go into the old machinery. But the Cincinnati folks showed an interest in Pete Donohue. They talked to me about my health, my folks and my studies.”5
It was apparently Nance who taught him the change of pace early on, while he was still in college. Donohue was known for his changeup. In his obituary, The Sporting News said he was “generally thought to be the pitcher who perfected the changeup – he used the pitch with the same frequency that most hurlers use their fastballs.”6 Bobby Bragan was quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as saying, “He’s credited with developing the changeup. Today, of course, it’s a very familiar pitch, but prior to Donohue’s time, pitchers threw it only occasionally, if at all. He was the first one who used it regularly, as a primary pitch.”7
John McGraw reportedly promptly placed Donohue in the category of Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, and Grover Cleveland Alexander.8
After the 1921 spring semester finished, he joined the Reds , debuting on July 1, 1921, with two innings of scoreless relief. He walked the first batter he faced, Max Carey, but then picked him off. Next up was Rabbit Maranville. He singled, but he, too, was picked off first.9
His first six appearances were relief stints, his most impressive one coming in the first game of the July 18 doubleheader in Philadelphia. Rube Marquard had started the game, but was shelled immediately, giving up four runs in the bottom of the first inning. Manager Pat Moran told Donohue to take over, and Donohue took charge. He pitched 8 2/3 innings of four-hit relief, allowing just one run, and saw his teammates pile up the runs for a 9-5 win. He was 1-for-3 at the plate himself, and sacrificed successfully once, too.
When it came time for his first start, on July 29, Moran had a quick hook. Donohue faced five New York Giants batters at Cincinnati’s Redland Field and couldn’t get anyone out. Two runs scored, one earned. Just two days later, he was assigned another start and this time pitched an 11-inning complete-game 4-3 win over the same Giants. The Reds finished sixth in 1921. Donohue’s 7-6 record with a 3.35 ERA put him fourth on the team in wins behind Eppa Rixey (19-18, 2.78), Dolf Luque (17-19, 3.38), and Marquard (17-14, 3.39).
Despite a torn ligament in his pitching arm that cost him the full month of June, his 18-9 record placed him second in Reds wins in 1922, behind Rixey’s 25-13, but leading the league in winning percentage. He threw 242 innings; his 3.12 earned run average was best on a Reds team that finished in second place. Donohue had earned his way to become a mainstay on the Cincinnati staff.
What the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame dubbed the “most successful and durable staff in Reds history…the Big Three” – Rixey, Luque, and Donohue – played together for the next eight seasons as well, averaging a combined 92 starts and 45 wins per season.10 They were all 20-game winners in 1923, and each led the league in both wins and shutouts once. Nonetheless, the Reds never finished better than second (1922, 1923, and 1926) – and this was decades before there were any league playoffs.
Donahue’s first 20-win season was in 1923; he was 21-15 (3.38). Dolf Luque was an astonishing 27-8 with a 1.93 ERA. Rixey won 20 games, too. The three of them won 68 of the team’s 91 wins. Donohue drove in 11 runs, the first of four seasons the runs he drove in reached double-digits. Over the course of his career, Donohue hit for a .246 average with six home runs and 87 RBIs. It was his worst year on defense; he committed eight errors for a .908 fielding percentage, double the most errors with which he was charged in any other season. His lifetime fielding percentage was .952.
In 1924 he missed a few starts but still threw over 222 innings and compiled a 16-9 record. The next year – 1925 – he made up for a little down time. He started off the season with a shutout on Opening Day and worked a league-leading 301 innings, with 27 complete games in 38 starts; he was 21-14. When the Phillies beat him, 5-4, on August 19, they breathed a sigh of relief; from July 1921 through July 1925, Donohue had beaten the Phillies 20 times in a row. Over the stretch, he threw five shutouts and allowed a total of only 51 runs. He might have had win #21, too, but for a Cy Williams line drive that Elmer Smith charged and let get by him for a triple.
He led the league again in innings in 1926, with 285 2/3, and put together a 20-14 record, the 20 wins leading the National League. He finished strong, with three shutouts in September alone as the Reds fought to the wire. His September 4 shutout of St. Louis kept the Reds in first place, as did the September 16 shutout of the Giants. Just two days later, he was asked to start again, but was hit for three earned runs in a five-inning 5-4 loss. Cincinnati finished two games behind the Cardinals for the pennant.
Then he lost it. After working nearly 600 innings in the two prior years, he was 6-16 in 1927 with an ERA that climbed to a still-respectable 4.11, but which was more than a half-run above his worst prior mark. He pitched 190 2/3 innings, down nearly 100 from the year before. The Reds finished 75-78, in fifth place. Team ERA was 3.54 and several other pitchers had respectable years, but the erstwhile ace of the staff did not. Perhaps he had simply thrown too many innings the last two years. He lost three of his first five games, all in April and all by 2-1 scores, so that was misfortune despite very good pitching. But his 2.41 ERA at the end of April became distinctly worse, and worse than the other starters on the staff. He missed a good part of July, going a month between starts. The subpar season was ascribed to unspecified “illness.”11
After Donohue died, nephew Jim Pemberton said, “He told me he’d been spiked and nearly died of blood poisoning. They’d actually given him up, but he came back. But after that, he favored the injured leg and ruined his pitching motion.”12 From that point on, wrote Whit Canning, he “pitched another six years on grit and determination.”13 Donohue agreed to the overwork. In a 1954 interview, he told Lee Allen, “I was overworked. When Jakie May got spiked by Cliff Heathcote at first base that year , Eppa Rixey, Dolf Luque and I had to pitch out of turn the rest of the season. Rixey and Luque were stronger than I and could take it, but it was the ruination of me. One series I pitched in three consecutive games, starting and relieving.”14
He worked during the offseasons as a cotton inspector at Fort Worth.15
Donohue never again was the pitcher he had been. Indeed, he never again had a winning season. His earned run average more or less climbed every season as well. Despite his poor performance in 1927, he was a holdout before the 1928 season. It wasn’t the first time he’d proved difficult to get under contract for the approaching season. Indeed, his Hall of Fame player file has a couple of dozen pages of letters back and forth over the years on the subject of salary negotiations.
In 1928 his first start came on May 28, a 2-1 win over the Cubs, his seventh-inning single driving in the winning run. He was inconsistent during the season, and missed a full month, mostly in August, with what was called a sore back.16
Manager Jack Hendricks declared that his hopes for the team in 1929 rested almost entirely on Donohue. “If he comes through, we will win the pennant. If he wins as many games as he should win, I don’t see how we can miss. He’s the whole problem on my ballclub.”17 Red Lucas won 19 games that year for the Reds, but no other pitcher won more than 10. Donohue was 10-13 with a 5.42 ERA, a full run above the team’s ERA. The Reds finished in seventh place. There had been one incident during the season worthy of note. After the July 4 game, at Chicago’s Union Station, Hack Wilson of the Cubs hit Donohue and knocked him to the ground. It was the follow-up to a fight during the game between Wilson and the Reds’ Ray Kolp. National League President John Heydler investigated the matter and said that the evidence was inconclusive as to whether or not Donohue should have been prepared to defend himself after an apparent exchange of insults.
On February 10, 1930, Donohue married Miss Frances Meyer in Cincinnati.18 The 1930 season saw him leave Cincinnati as a ballplayer, though. It became his first to play for another team. He’d started the season 1-3 for the Reds, but on May 27, Cincinnati traded him and outfielder Ethan Allen to the New York Giants in exchange for infielder Pat Crawford. Donohue was not yet 30 and the Giants hoped he still had some good years in him. He was 7-6 for the Giants despite a 6.13 ERA in 1930, finishing the season with a combined 8-9 record. His last start had seen him get no one out while giving up three earned runs.
In 1931 he only started one game (on April 21) and lost a 5-1 decision to the Braves.. He appeared in four games for the Giants, but was released to Minneapolis on June 4. When it became known that he was just nine days short of having reached the 10-year mark in the majors, he asked for a stay of the nine days, which would entitle him to become a free agent upon his release. He was given a few more days, but then told his release (effective June 9) would be unconditional.19 The very next day, he was signed by Cleveland Indians GM Billy Evans, who said he’d probably be used in relief. He had two brief appearances for the Indians in June, his first games in the American League. On June 24, the Indians released him again, unconditionally.20
He was offered another assignment and had his first stint in the minor leagues, working for the Kansas City Blues in the Double-A American Association. He was 10-4 for Kansas City, and the Boston Red Sox thought they’d give him a try in 1932, purchasing his contract from the Blues on September 13.
Donohue started the 1932 season with the Red Sox, but he suffered an infected leg late in spring training and only appeared in four games for 12 2/3 innings. He lost his only decision. Donohue’s final major-league game was on May 6 and he was given his outright release on May 14. He spent the rest of the year in the minors, with three different clubs – first, the Jersey City Skeeters, then the Columbus Red Birds, and finally the Minneapolis Millers.
His last year in baseball was 1933; he played for the Hollywood Stars, appearing in just four games, getting hammered for 16 runs on 16 hits by Sacramento on April 8. He was released on April 26.
Donohue retired and went into the dry cleaning business with his battery mate from TCU, Rube Berry.21 They operated Berry Bros. & Donohue Inc., a dry cleaning plant, from the same location for 30 years.22
His first wife, Frances, had died in childbirth in March 1937. Pete Donohue made national news again on Christmas Eve 1938, when he and a female companion, Nell Dearmont, were both seriously injured in an automobile accident on their way to see her parents in Missouri when their car was struck head-on by a car full of sailors. Both were thought to have suffered skull fractures, but both recovered from the near-fatal accident. They married in July 1939 in Kansas City. Miss Dearmont was the supervisor of home-making education in the Fort Worth schools.
Donohue was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1964. The Reds Hall of Fame site says “In retirement, he opened Donohue Dry Cleaners in Fort Worth and golfed almost daily at the Colonial Country Club. Although he was given a lifetime pass to NL games, he never used it until presenting it at a Texas Rangers game in the 1970s. After he was told his pass was good only for National League games, he refused ever after to even listen to Rangers radio broadcasts.”23
Donohue died on February 23, 1988, in Fort Worth. His daughter Judy, two sisters, and several nieces and nephews survived him.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Donohue’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Bill Lee’s The Baseball Necrology, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 The 1900 census presents the information as stated, though the 1920 census says that both were born in Indiana and the 1930 census says that Edward was the native Texas and Winnie the Hoosier.
2 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 12, 1921: 11.
3 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 16, 1920: 76.
4 Cincinnati Post, August 5, 1921: 12.
5 Dallas Morning News, January 4, 1925: Part 2, 2. Donohue said that, at the time, he’d hoped to go on to Notre Dame for further studies.
6 The Sporting News, April 11, 1988: 45.
7 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 24, 1988.
8 Elkhart Truth, August 11, 1921: 10.
9 Elkhart Truth, August 11, 1921: 10.
11 Associated Press, Bellingham Herald, January 13, 1928: 5.
12 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 24, 1988.
14 Lee Allen, “Donohue Glows in Scrapbook of Time,” unattributed February 28, 1954 clipping found in Donohue’s Hall of Fame player file.
15 Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 11, 1928: 29.
16 Boston Herald, August 7, 1928: 17.
17 Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), March 31, 1929: 16.
18 The bride’s name was variously reported as Myers, Meyer, and Mayer.
19 Charlotte Observer, June 10, 1931: 16.
20 Boston Herald, June 25, 1931: 32.
21 The Sporting News, April 11, 1988: 45.
22 Donohue’s Hall of Fame player questionnaire.